Perhaps the most enduring innovation from Wes Craven’s original Scream (1996) is its acknowledgement of its existence within the continuum of horror movies, both the classics to the schlock that preceded it.
For at least two decades prior, in every monocellular slasher that oozed red paint in every midnight-movie ghetto and fading VHS tape, the teenage automatons passing for characters heedlessly threw themselves at death’s door, entering every spooky basement or abandoned shed to satisfy spectators’ collective Schadenfreude. They were utterly unaware of the clichés, forecast by even a cursory look at a Friday the 13th or Halloween film, that awaited them.
But in Scream, the characters actually lived in the real world. They’d seen the movies, catalogued the familiar tropes and, armed with this knowledge, could at least potentially outsmart their opponents. In 2022, with so much of our media delivered with winking detachment, it’s easy to forget how novel Craven’s ideas were some 25 years ago.
The new Scream, the fifth in the franchise and the only entry not to be directed by the late Craven, takes the master’s ideas to their gnomic endpoint, with a navel-gazing self-awareness that can border on the insufferable. Written by James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick and directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, it’s essentially a fan fiction about fan fiction.
We’re back in the quiet, upper-middle-class suburb of Woodsboro a quarter-century after the killing spree of the first Scream, where a new Ghostface — or Ghostfaces? — have surfaced (voiced once again by the inimitable Roger L. Jackson), replaying their ancestors’ greatest hits. They’ve seen all the Stab movies — the Scream franchise’s cheeky film-within-a-film adaptation of the events of Scream — and, upset with the socially conscious tonal shift of Stab 8, seeks to make a new version that returns the series to its roots — making a Stab 8 that’s more like Stab 1, or a live-action “requel,” as the movie’s resident film expert, played by Jasmin Savoy Brown, puts it: a portmanteau of remake and sequel.
This doubling allows Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett the freedom to essentially Xerox the original Scream for the 21st century, updated for smart-home security systems and cloned cellphones but laden with nostalgic details and hidden Easter eggs for Scream-franchise experts. In the opening scene, a vulnerable girl (Jenna Ortega), alone in her kitchen, receives terrifying phone calls and life-or-death trivia questions, this time about the Stab films, from Ghostface.
Songs used iconically in the original film, like Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ “Red Right Hand,” grace the soundtrack again; entire scenes from the maiden movie feel reconstructed for giddy fanboy delight. Even the creators of this Scream would be hard-pressed to deny that their own self-referential “requel” is made solely and entirely for the franchise’s most hardcore devotees.
Their approach will have its appeal for this relatively slim cohort of the vast moviegoing public, particularly the cameos and supporting roles of the self-described “legacy characters.” David Arquette, reprising his role as a now washed-up shell of Sheriff Dewey Riley, seems to be enjoying every minute as both comic relief and shell-shocked sage of Woodsboro.
But the thing about a post-postmodern pastiche like this is that it eschews any semblance of originality for the lazy comfort of irony. For all its meta elements, the original Scream was also an effective example of straight horror, offering flesh-and-blood characters whose survival mattered. In this Scream, everything is a put-on; for all the nearly dozen or so people introduced in the movie, none are characters so much as constructs. There is not an authentic conversation to be had among these disposable teens, with dialogue often teetering, methinks not always self-consciously, on a soap-operatic border.
And because we care so little about these hyper-film-educated cardboard cutouts, they end up becoming, like the piled-up bodies in so many of the slashers the first Scream re-invented, just more grist for the mill.
SCREAM. Directors: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett; Cast: Melissa Barrera, Jenna Ortega, Kyle Gallner, Mason Gooding, Mikey Madison, Dylan Minnette, Marley Shelton, Jasmin Savoy-Brown, Courteney Cox, David Arquette, Neve Campbell. Distributor: Paramount; Rated R; Now playing at most area theaters