The new installment of Scream —the fifth in the self-aware slasher series, and the first without the directorial talents of the late Wes Craven—is in perfect spiritual alignment with its predecessors. From its title alone, which it shares with the 1996 original, it both confronts and partakes in the recent glut of legacy-sequel IP revivals (or as the characters here call them, “re-quels”) which bring back beloved characters to help pass on the torch: Star Wars, Ghostbusters, Blade Runner, and so on.
SCREAM ★★★ (3/4 stars)
This “pre-boot” (another term thrown around by the characters) opens, as these things usually do, with a creepy phone call made to a young girl, home alone in the town of Woodsboro. The victim is Tara (Jenna Ortega), and her conversation about scary movies telegraphs the film’s self-reflexive approach to horror. She prefers the new wave of “prestige” horror from boutique distributors like A24. However, the voice on the phone—a returning Roger L. Jackson, who adds an unexpected twist—is a classicist who prefers the jump scares of Stab, the in-world retelling of the events of Scream.
And boy, does this movie luxuriate in those reliable cheap thrills.
The opening sequence, though it toys with franchise expectations, delivers on the gnarly, blood-soaked violence that has become less common in modern Hollywood horror, setting the stage for a film that is boldly, often ludicrously, self-assured in its visual craftsmanship. The sheer amount of fun that directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett appear to have had while staging each scene makes clear they know exactly what people want from this sort of experience. Even production design (headed by Chad Keith) is aimed at giddy anticipation. You’d be forgiven for mistaking a hanging coat or a fleeting shadow for a killer in a Ghostface mask, waiting to pounce. One scene in particular, where a character goes through the mundane motions of setting a dining table, ratchets up the tension in absurd fashion, with a playful eye towards editing, framing, blocking and negative space. The directors and cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz turn the tiniest of camera movements into opportunities for something startling. It’s deliriously amusing.
Unfortunately, little in the story matches up to this airtight visual assembly. The series newcomers each bring a unique energy to their roles, but there are so many of them that both the old and new characters are left in an unsatisfying dramatic limbo, where even their sorrows and confessions serve a plot function first and foremost. Good-natured cop Dewey Riley (David Arquette) returns as a grizzled, reluctant Jedi master of sorts, a delightful turn, but a truncated one that only serves to inform the new set of teenagers (and thus, the audience) of the series’ existing rules. Opportunistic journalist/Dewy’s romantic foil Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) and original series lead/target Sidney Prescot (Neve Campbell) don’t even get to do that much. Sidney is a mother now, but the film fails to mine this for its clear dramatic potential, given that the events of the entire series can be traced back to the murder of her own mother. In a story where Sidney plays a guiding, parental hand, that’s nothing if not a missed opportunity.
The newcomers are made up mostly of first-victim Tara’s high school friends. There’s her winkingly-named ex-boyfriend Wes (Dylan Minnette), who’s thoroughly prepared for violence to the point of paranoia—how can you not be, in a town like Woodsboro?—and who the film immediately reveals has a connection to one of the prior chapters of this story. There are twins Chad (Mason Gooding) and Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown), who have a chill disposition that you wish the film had more time to focus on. (Mindy is also the equivalent of the original’s Randy Meeks: a walking, talking horror encyclopedia who brings all the rules and self-reflexivity to the fore, until the film begins to loop back on the series like a mise en abyme.) Then there’s Tara’s moody best friend Amber (Mikey Madison) and Liv (Sonia Ben Ammar), Chad’s girlfriend.
The biggest new role, however, is that of Tara’s sister Sam (Melissa Barrera), a girl with an intriguing secret that loops back to the original film. She returns to Woodsboro after the attack on Tara, alongside her boyfriend Richie (Jack Quaid), an audience stand-in who’s unfamiliar with the Stab movies, so he helpfully needs to be refreshed on prior events. The film’s self-awareness extends to the fact that so many modern sequels and cinematic universes require homework in order to keep up with their ever-deepening lore and connections to prior films, even at the cost of something challenging or novel—a fan desire on which Scream satirically doubles down, and then some. . If this sounds like a tongue-in-cheek dramatization of existing hostility towards a specific franchise or filmmaker, then strap in. It gets very explicit very fast, and the film keeps stabbing in that direction.
As its title suggests, the new Scream is a replica, but not a thoughtless one. When so many big movies today are about other movies—something the original Scream did 25 years ago—it’s a relief that this new Scream doesn’t just ape the reboot industrial complex, but takes a small step outside it and examines the bigger picture. Its story ropes in some of the wider cultural factors that make its “the same, but bigger and more!” approach—the very approach taken by Scream 4—unfortunately relevant a full decade later. The first Scream was as much about horror movies as it was about the dynamic between real-world and on-screen violence. This new film is built upon an equally volatile conversation concerning the ways in which movies now manifest in an always-online reality, and the way they become folded into personal identity. The dialogue that brings this commentary to the fore is clunky and overt—though no more than series’ previous moustache-twirling monologues—but the form it takes in the story is also a hoot.
The film not only comments on the desire to keep returning to established ideas, but it embodies this desire in a few cheeky ways, including a number of visual references to early slasher films, and even compositions by Brian Tyler that evoke Bernard Hermman’s work on Psycho. It’s hardly subtle about its influences—what franchise films are, these days?—but at the very least, its history extends beyond its own immediate predecessors.
Perhaps that’s a low bar, and perhaps it’s hypocritical of the film to lambast these desires while readily satiating them. However, Scream 2022 ultimately has a leg-up on recent, conveyor-belt produced franchise blockbusters because of its genuine care for artistry. It’s fun, not in a way a computer or a boardroom might interpret fun—pixels taking the shape of something familiar, regurgitated across the screen—but rather, in an unabashed way, where it winks at the audience without apologizing for its gimmick, without being insincere or self-deprecating, and without sacrificing what makes popcorn horror movies such a reliable collective ritual. The larger question of what happened in the past will always be on the series’ lips—both the story’s past, and the past of American horror—but the moment-to-moment question that makes each shot, each cut and each scare so exciting is just as vital to this film: what happens next?
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.