The good news is they didn’t fuck it up. The new fifth movie in the Scream franchise, simply titled Scream (and not to be confused with the 1996 original or 2011's Scream 4, whose title was styled as Scre4m), is the first not to be directed by horror master Wes Craven, who died in 2015. This time, directorial duties are filled by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett (who together helmed the 2019 horror comedy and sleeper hit Ready or Not), and they, along with writers James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, do a fine job of cranking out another worthy sequel more than 25 years after the original made ribbons out of its horror audience’s expectations.
Sorry, I wrote “sequel,” but this Scream is actually a requel, which as one of its horror scholar characters explains is not quite a reboot, and not quite a sequel. “You’ve gotta build something new—but not too new or the internet goes fucking nuts,” says smarty pants teen Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown). “It’s gotta be part of an ongoing storyline even if the story shouldn’t have been ongoing in the first place. New main characters, yes, but supported by and related to legacy characters. Not quite a reboot, not quite a sequel, like the new Halloween, Saw, Terminator, Jurassic Park, Ghostbusters, fuck, even Star Wars, it always, always goes back to the original.” She’s commenting on a new pattern of killings in the perennially beleaguered town of Woodsboro as well as the very movie at hand, naturally. The first real rule of a Scream movie? Its series of developments, no matter how horrific, must fascinate its analytically minded characters.
Requels are just one of the horror genre’s conventions to emerge in the years since the last Scream movie that are up for skewering this time around. So-called “elevated horror” gets a few nods, most notably when Tara (Disney alum Jenna Ortega) receives the signature opening-scene phone call from a psychopath quizzing her on the genre while threatening the life of her friend should she get a wrong answer. Tara announces herself as a fan of elevated horror—a designation used alongside “prestige horror” to describe the arty and thoughtful horror flicks released by the likes of A24 and Neon. Tara says her favorite scary movie is The Babadook and, as the conversation intensifies, she implores her potential murderer to, “Ask me about It Follows, ask me about Hereditary, ask me about The Witch.” That’s cute! Those movies definitely exist! However, I take issue with the very notion of “elevated” or “prestige horror” as a genre classification, as I think it comes way more from audience interpretation than it does creator intent, as directors like Ari Aster aren’t necessarily trying to elevate a genre or pass judgment on what came before it—they’re just trying to make good movies, a goal they have in common with many filmmakers whose movies turn out to be less than good. One could easily make the argument that for all its ingenuity (including introducing the found-footage format), Ruggero Deodato’s depraved 1980 grindhouse splatterfest Cannibal Holocaust was itself “elevated horror,” despite going about as low as a movie could possibly go. Very few horror movies, in fact, are conversant with the genre enough to be consciously elevated...besides the Scream movies, that is.
The movie-franchise-within-a-movie-franchise Stab features prominently as a proxy for discussing the Scream movies (Stab often offers Scream characters verbatim depictions of the events we’ve seen in Scream). Vloggers rip apart the most recent Stab—the eighth in the series—for, among things, being called just Stab. Rather rich for a movie called Scream that’s actually the fourth sequel to Scream, wouldn’t you say? This endlessly coiling self-reference hits an absurd peak in a Scream scene, in which one character watches a scene in the original Stab, in which a character watches Halloween while shouting at Jamie Lee Curtis to turn around because the killer is behind her. Meanwhile, the killer in his movie is behind him. Meanwhile, the killer in Scream is behind the character who’s watching the character in Stab watch the character in Halloween. An extremely exhausting trick. A few more Scream movies and they’ll have enough material to make a cinematic infinity mirror.
The franchise is essentially a self-perpetuating machine at this point, which makes its new entries fun for those already on board but likely daunting to those who are not. When Scream was released in the mid-‘90s, it had its finger on the pulse, as pop cultural literacy was taken seriously enough to warrant a conversation within pop culture that nonetheless wasn’t happening very often. What a simple stroke of genius. Of course the kids in horror movies would understand what it is to be kids in horror movies, having been raised on the genre in the age of the VCR. Yet with every following chapter, the movies lost some of their cultural incisiveness and became less about a broad critique and more about discussing Scream. By now, what Scream is actually feeling is its own heartbeat. This is never more clear than when veteran character Dewey Riley (David Arquette) explains to the new crop of terrorized kids the rules of surviving a Stab movie (1. Never trust the love interest; 2. The killer’s motive is always connected to something in the past; 3. The first victim always has a friend group that the killer is part of.) It’s clever, but more than that: self-serving.
Scream’s slick minutiae, as opposed to its plot, is what this movie has going for it. What’s Scream about? It’s about someone in a Ghostface mask taking their love of scary movies too far—just like Scream. New kids, same tricks, with the addition of some glorified cameos from vets like the aforementioned Arquette, as well as Neve Campbell and Courteney Cox. The veterans are as good as ever, but their characters would feel lived-in at this point if they spent their screen time asleep. This movie is less invested in cultivating their characters’ arcs than it is trotting them out to make this a proper Scream movie.
It all makes for a fun-enough experience that isn’t exactly essential viewing. As covid rates continue to skyrocket, one must choose their enclosed public venues wisely, and however unfortunately, Scream is a theatrical-only release. I’d be a total hypocrite if I told you to avoid seeing this in a theater since that’s where I went for the screening, but I’d be irresponsible if I said that this Scream is essential viewing. It is to the contrary, seemingly by design.