SCREAM (Matthew Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett). 114 minutes
The new Scream wants very much to be the Force Awakens of the 90s slasher franchise, setting out new stakes while still functioning as a greatest hits of the original property. This is a handy way of describing what sort of sequel it is, and it’s also the movie’s mission statement, spelled out for us by one of the hyperarticulate teenage movie fans on whom Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven built their church back in 1996.
This character is named Mindy, and she’s played by Jasmin Savoy Brown (who many will recognize as the young Taissa in Yellowjackets), and she explains the current wave of knife murders by a killer in a ghost-faced mask as a “requel” – a combination of reboot and prequel, designed to relaunch a dormant property for a new generation of ticketbuyers without alienating the fans who’ve formed a ferocious attachment to the original and just want to see more of the thing they liked.
You can add new characters, she explains, as long as they’re connected in some way to the legacy characters everyone loves. Mindy herself is the niece of Randy Meeks, the video-store nerd whose expertise in navigating the rules of the slasher genre helped immensely in the first movie—even as it made him a suspect. That was the genius of the original Scream: Craven and Williamson laid the form of the slasher movie over the structure of a classic whodunit, and exploited it brilliantly. Even the golden rule of “Never split up” is fraught with danger: what if the person you’re sticking with is secretly the killer, waiting for a chance to get you alone?
The problem is, by following the surviving characters over the successive sequels, the Scream franchise started to show its limitations. Scream 2 is terrific, shifting the metacommentary to how difficult it is to make a satisfying sequel to a singular work while also reframing Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott as Ripley in Aliens, a traumatized survivor who can’t understand why no one else sees the clear menace she’s desperate to escape. The third and fourth films struggled to find reasons for the new carnage, with Sidney and her fellow survivors Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) and Dewey Hicks (David Arquette) forced to exchange wary glances and walk down dark halls over and over again.
It’s not a spoiler to say all three of those characters return to Woodsboro for this new Scream —which is technically Scream 5, but I guess we don’t do numbers any more—but that’s as far as I’ll go in discussing the specifics of the plot.
The new film focuses on two sisters, Tara (Jenna Ortega) and Sam (Melissa Barrera), caught in the middle of the new wave of ghostface murders. Tara’s friend group, which includes her best friend Amber (Mikey Madison), resident skeptic Wes (Dylan Minnette), the aforementioned Mindy and hertwin brother Chad (Mason Gooding) as well as Chad’s girlfriend Liv (Sonia Ammar), are all suspects – as are Sam and her boyfriend Richie (Jack Quaid), while we’re at it. And as the bodies pile up, the connections to the original Woodsboro murders start to emerge.
Still reading? You must really like scary movies. So do directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett; also known as Radio Silence, they’ve established their genre chops with segments of V/H/S and Southbound and the sprightly knives-out horror comedy Ready Or Not. They pick up Craven’s baton nicely, orchestrating suspense sequences that are both playful and unnerving and also remembering that the most effective thing about the original movie was Williamson’s unexpected appreciation of human frailty: his murderers make mistakes and get knocked down as often as their would-be victims.
But Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett also recapture the original’s refusal to downplay the cruelty of the slasher concept: these clever, charming kids are being tortured and murdered by unknown assailants, and their suffering isn’t something we’re meant to enjoy. (I always wondered whether Craven was on some level trying to make up for creating Freddy Krueger a decade earlier, and watching teenagers decide that an undead murderer of children was a cool guy to hang around with.)
Thus, the new Scream gives us a bunch of engaging new characters to puzzle out the mystery and mourn when they’re dispatched, with In The Heights’ Barrera and You’s Ortega standing out among a pretty strong cast. The old guard shows up and does their thing, with Cox and Arquette’s onscreen reunion as Gale and Dewey carrying a bittersweet tenderness after the actors’ real-life marriage and divorce. It gives the fans what they want.
It’s easily the most enjoyable Scream movie since the second one, even as it still suffers from the diminishing returns Randy warned us about in that very movie: when you insist on restaging the same story in the same place with different characters, there’s not a lot of room for innovation. And while the third-act reveal and lengthy explanation of motive is baked into this franchise, once again the more we learn about the plan the less satisfying it is.
The last 15 minutes of this Scream are almost identical to the last 15 minutes of every Scream, and while that’s almost certainly the point – give the people what they want, right? – I thought the whole point of this franchise was its willingness to play with expectations. But I guess the rules are different when you’re dealing with a legacy property.