The spirit of Wes Craven lives on in the fifth installment of horror’s smartest slasher franchise.
Say what you will about the Scream movies – while they’re almost as absurd as the movies they’re satirizing, they’re also each trying to say something. While the first movie was about slasher movies in general, Scream 2 explored the nature (and necessity) of sequels, while Scream 3 attempted (to less than successful results) a pre-#MeToo spotlight on sexual harassment, and, as an answer to the rise of Facebook and Twitter, Scream 4 focused on social media culture. Wes Craven set out to not just entertain and scare audiences, but to get them to think about what they were watching, exactly, and why.
Now we have the long-awaited fifth movie in the series, just called Scream, which sets its sights on horror fandom. In a time when filmmakers seem to be going to embarrassing lengths to appeal to “real” fans (see Ghostbusters: Afterlife, or rather, don’t), it’s a daring move to say it out loud that many fans are impossible to please, demanding that film franchises try something new while somehow also not diverting from the original formula at the same time. This aggressive “dance, monkey, we’re paying your salary” attitude has made it difficult to enjoy Star Wars, comic book movies, and particularly horror movies. Like The Matrix: Resurrections, Scream pushes back, and it’s a pleasure to see.
The first indicator that Scream 2022 isn’t a movie that’s seeking to ingratiate itself to its fans is that it’s not a “we’re getting the old band back together” plot. It takes almost a half hour before anyone from the original trio (namely Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, and David Arquette) appears on screen, and when they do they’re supporting characters at best. There’s a new protagonist in Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera), who’s long since escaped Woodsboro to try to put a troubled past behind her. Sam is forced to return to her hometown, however, when her younger sister, Tara (Jenna Ortega), is attacked by a familiar face. Ghostface, who exists in a weird place between actual real-life boogeyman and pop culture icon, is back, once again wreaking bloody havoc, and very deliberate in the choice of victims.
Accompanied by her boyfriend, Richie (Jack Quaid), the rare flower who’s unfamiliar both with the murders that took place in Woodsboro years prior, and the books and slasher movie franchises they inspired, Sam rolls into town determined to protect Tara, even though they haven’t seen each other in years. Her arrival is met with a chilly reception, not just by Scream 4 alumnus Judy Hicks (Marley Shelton), now promoted to sheriff after Dewey Riley (David Arquette) was forced to retire, but Tara’s friends, some of whom have connections to characters from the original, all of whom are well-versed in Scream/Stab lore, and thus have both reasonable and very silly reasons to consider each other suspicious.
Meanwhile, the usually reliable Dewey is now living in a trailer and appearing to do little more with his days than watch love of his life Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) host a TV news show. After taking enough beatings to put Wolverine to shame, Dewey is done being a hero, and who can blame him? Even he seems baffled as to why he elected to stay in Woodsboro when all he’s encountered there is violence and death, and yet even without his badge, it seems to be where he’s destined to remain, as a battered symbol of what the town has endured.
Dewey does eventually come around to the idea of trying to save the day once more but not before warning original heroine Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), who seems to be thriving in spite of her brutal past, not to come to Woodsboro. It’s mostly Sam’s show now, though, as she faces an inevitable showdown with Ghostface, while possessing the same kind of pluck and toughness as her predecessors.
Taking over for Wes Craven here are Matt Bettinelli-Olipin and Tyler Gillett, who helmed the surprise hit Ready or Not, and who prove themselves worthy heirs to the throne. While the script, written by James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, occasionally gets a little too far up its own butt in references and meta humor (though the loving tributes to long-dead characters are a nice, sweet touch), Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett clearly have a deft hand at directing both gory action, and suspense. One scene, a series of fake-outs immediately after the audience has already been faked out, is so drawn out that it becomes comical. It’d be annoying if it wasn’t so tense and well-done.
While it’s certainly nice to see some familiar faces (and Arquette is doing some truly excellent work here, particularly in his emotionally charged scenes with real-life ex-wife Cox), the new blood (no pun intended) is pulling much of the weight of the film. Jack Quaid as comic relief Richie, and Jasmin Savoy Brown as Mindy, the quirky niece of original horror fanboy Randy from Scream 1 and 2, are standouts, but the heart of the movie lies with Melissa Barrera and Jenna Ortega. Though the series has never suffered from a lack of characters who feel like real, lived-in people, Barrera and Ortega not only shine as individuals, but their familial relationship feels authentic, with all the complications that come with it. They didn’t have to treat the material like it was a serious drama, but they did, and Scream is better for it.
What makes it hard to review the Scream movies as a whole (and why perhaps we should just sit back, relax and enjoy them) is that it’s impossible to tell when the choice to rely on slasher movie tropes is deliberate or not. Is a cliche still a cliche when an in-movie character points out that it’s a cliche? That sort of “We all know this is very silly, and you’re silly for watching these things” self-awareness has in and of itself become a horror trope, and one that only works in very small, restrained amounts. Scream did it first, however, and without the distaste some filmmakers have for the genre. Craven clearly loved these kinds of movies (and not just because he made a fortune off of them), and so too do Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett.
Scream 2022 even ponders whether or not the time for slasher movies is drawing to a close for good. Yes, there are a few outliers, like Happy Death Day and the Halloween reboot (which also tries for some Scream meta humor, but poorly), but in the age of elevated horror, when audiences seem to want more from a horror movie than just half-naked young women standing around waiting to be axed to death, is it possible that the need for new movies in this genre is no longer there, especially when we have access to the golden days originals at our fingertips? Maybe so.
Some viewers aren’t going to like being called out as the kind of entitled fans who have made enjoying (let alone making) horror a joyless chore. Undoubtedly by this time next week there will be dozens of YouTube videos of men yelling about how they’ve been “betrayed,” and that Wes Craven must surely be rolling in his grave over what’s been done to his franchise. If you believe that, then you’ve never understood Wes Craven, and you’ve definitely never understood Scream.
Scream opens in theaters on Friday, January 14th.