Reprising her role as Gale Weathers, Courtney Cox masters the look of terror as much as her surgically altered face will allow.[/media-credit]

“Don’t fuck with the original,” swears Neve Campbell as Sidney Prescott, Wes Craven’s not-so-distressed damsel in the latest installment of his hit slasher franchise, “Scream.”

Craven (“My Soul to Take”), known for the ultra-self-allusiveness of his horror flicks, takes his trademark to the brink of absurdity – with perhaps a toe or three over the line – and halfway back again.

Beginning with a movie within a movie within a movie montage, “Scream 4″ reminds us just how unnecessary the scary movie franchise is. With all its own cerebral-to-the-point-of-ridiculous dialogic deconstructions of the genre, it puts even its predecessors to shame.

“Meta” is the name of the game, and it’s played to the teeth.

Campbell (“Agent Crush”), the “Scream” series poster girl, returns as a somewhat harder, stronger and more fisticuff-savvy version of her horror-stricken, and younger, Sidney Prescott.

Alongside Campbell, “Scream 4″ sees the essential return of Courteney Cox (“Bedtime Stories”) as desperate reporter-turned-bookwriter, Gale Riley nee Weathers and David Arquette (“The Land of the Astronauts”) as bumbling deputy turned bumbling sheriff, Dewey Riley. The on and offscreen couple had no trouble conveying the high-strung bitterness of their relationship, and it comes as no surprise that, as of the film’s release, Cox and Arquette have separated.

The rest of the supporting/suspect cast features cameos (in the spirit of the “Scream” within a “Scream” film series) from Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell, as well as larger supporting roles by Hayden Panettiere, Emma Roberts and Rory Culkin.

The film follows Sidney as she returns home to Woodsborough, the small-town setting of the first “Scream” movie, for the first time since the events of that initial film. Just as she has apparently reached some level of peace and found the courage to return to Woodsborough on the last stop of a bestselling book tour, Ghostface strikes again.

This time, the film swears coyly to itself and its viewers, everything will be different. New rules. The unexpected is expected. The expected is expected. At least one of your guesses will be correct.

Everything is (not) what it seems.

As proclaimed by certain members of the vast supporting/suspect cast, this installment of the unreal horror that surrounds one woman’s life is not merely a follow-up to the previous films, but rather a kind of remake.

This film’s version of the perennial film-geek, in-movie commentary (portrayed by Erik Knudson and Rory Culkin) keeps the viewer informed – and at times annoyed – of just how cluttered in self-reference the series has always been. In “Scream 2,” the movie’s killer, played by Timothy Olyphant, called his own actions as “life imitating art imitating life.” In “Scream 4,” we are shown something that seems more like an infinity shot of art imitating art imitating itself.

It is through these ceaseless convolutions that the film both pokes fun at and attempts to critic-proof itself. The success of this attempt is yet to be determined.

While at times didactic and obnoxious in its attempt to both realize and subvert the post-modern metafictional grain that seems to define so much of contemporary narrative art, “Scream 4″ delivers a surprising level of entertainment with a neat little bow as long as you don’t take it too seriously. At all.

2.5 out of 5 stars