Scream is a franchise that is synonymous with the forefront of horror. The deeply meta genre mainstay is the brainchild of Wes Craven, each of the four movies critiquing the state of the genre and providing genuine scares at the same time. Sadly, Craven passed away in 2015, leaving a huge void in the horror landscape. Scream as a franchise was also laid to rest. Until, that is, when Paramount Pictures decided it was time to revive the franchise with Ready or Not filmmakers Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett. The resulting fifth film, simply titled Scream, clumsily drops the torch passed to it.
It doesn’t start off that way, strangely. The opening sequence sets an electric tone. Teenager Tara Carpenter (Jenna Ortega) receives a phone call. You know who’s on the other line, the classic killer themselves: Ghostface. What follows is your classic Scream opening, but done with such gusto, such verve, that it nearly justifies the whole enterprise. For a moment, it seemed like Scream was back.
Really a lot of the first act gets it right. The new cast rocks, filled to the brim with young talent like Mikey Madison (Once Upon A Time in Hollywood…), Mason Gooding, Dylan Minnette (Don’t Breathe 2), and Jasmin Savoy Brown. Melissa Barrera and Jack Quaid make for great leads at the central couple caught in the resurgence of Ghostface. There’s so much that works in this first act. A genuinely fresh mystery that painstakingly avoids the plot beats of the previous film opens up new territory. Many of our new cast have connections to the past in unexpected ways. Barrera’s character specifically has a strong connection to the past that veers the series into genuinely fresh territory that leads to the best payoff of the film.
Outside of the performances, there’s a lot to love about much of Scream. The gore is there. It’s beautifully shot by Brett Jutkiewicz. Brian Tyler does a great job of emulating the score of Marco Beltrami. And, like any good horror-comedy, there are some wonderfully idiosyncratic moments, including one that makes superb use of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ “Red Right Hand”. Not all good things can last, though, and Scream enters a nosedive pretty quick. You see, like the first film, this new Scream has two killers: screenwriters James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick.
The bread-and-butter of this franchise – its meta commentary – is where Scream fails spectacularly. Early on, it expresses a desire to lampoon the legacy sequel, or “requel”- a franchise continuation that essentially serves as a remake and a sequel at the same time. Not a bad target, yet Scream lampoons it by… indulging in exactly what it’s allegedly making fun of. That’s right: Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox), Dewey Riley (David Arquette), and Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) are back. How do they contribute to the story? By reminding us how much we missed them, of course!
I kept on expecting there to be some big twist with these legacy characters. The movie pays so much lip service to the idea of requels that I was expecting a big turn, or some kind of subversion. And it just. Never. Comes. Arquette at least gets some kind of development as Dewey. Gale Weathers and Sidney Prescott, though? They might as well be props to remind us of how much we loved the original films.
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The cynical requel business doesn’t end there. The inclusion of legacy characters, grating as it is, could’ve been excusable if the rest of the story struck out on its own. You know where this is going: Scream devolves into a nearly beat-for-beat imitation of the original film. The dialogue being slightly tweaked can’t hide the fact that this is built on old bones. And it doesn’t have anything to say about it!
What Scream in its final act does try to take on is “toxic fandom”. A worthy, bold topic to handle. And yet, Scream fumbles it once again. It’s so vague and nebulous that it’s used as a shield for any and all criticism that anyone has for the film. I’m tempted to give it points for attempting to broach that subject. What smothers that temptation is the knowledge that the movie’s lack of clarity as to what it’s even criticizing will only make online discourse over such subjects worse.
Scream brings things to an end in a bombastic way designed to be crowd-pleasing. Surely there will be some hooting and hollering in the opening night theaters. I envy those who find a lot to love in this new iteration of Scream. The potential is there, certainly. Only Scream is content to dull what was once sharp, leaning so hard on goodwill that it loses the cutting edge that made the series worthwhile in the first place.
These past few months have featured several meditations on nostalgia. Spider-Man: No Way Home went for earnest celebration, Ghostbusters: Afterlife provided a touching pass of the torch, and The Matrix Resurrections was on a mission to upend the entire studio blockbuster industrial complex. Scream merely says “this is how movies are now, accept your slop”. A great icon once said, “what’s your favorite scary movie?”. Not this one. – James Preston Poole
Scream is in theaters on January 14, 2022.