‘Scream’ Starts On A Tightrope And Never Falls Off
3:45 PM EST on February 2, 2022
Of all of the horror movie franchises to wheeze past their initial expiration dates, Scream should be the easiest one to keep alive. Dating back to its initial outing in 1996, the franchise has always trafficked in horror movie clichés, both acknowledging them and, less frequently, subverting them. The original revived the slasher series by making fun of the Halloween and Friday the 13th series, while also introducing the world to Ghostface, a villain who at this point is just as iconic as Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees.
Scream 2 was a good facsimile of its predecessor, though it was more of the same. The franchise went off the rails after that, with Scream 3 bowing to Columbine-related outside pressure, dropping a lot of the violence in favor of poor comedy and even more meta-commentary. Originally planned to be the series finale, Scream 3 left a sour taste in the mouth of anyone blown away by the original, and it took 11 years to bring the franchise back. Scream 4 was ... fine, if boring; it had lost the kinetic energy from the early days, and instead felt very much like a cash grab.
I'm happy to report, though, that the latest installment of Scream finally understands how to both honor its origins and bring about something new. Though the filmmakers missed a golden opportunity to title the movie 5cream, they brought with them understanding of what makes a Scream movie essential. This is a franchise that has always tried to balance its meta-humor with a sense of helplessness and dread, and the latest installment finds that balance through some deft maneuvering.
The most important addition to the franchise is Jasmin Savoy Brown's Mindy, who is a direct descendent of the original's Randy Meeks (played by Jamie Kennedy in the original and in the first sequel), both literally and spiritually. Mindy is Randy's niece, and she has inherited her uncle's sense of knowing that she is in a horror movie. It helps that Brown is one of our more charismatic young actresses, something she hinted at in The Leftovers and something she has fully inhabited in Yellowjackets. She operates as the same source of meta-commentary that Randy was in the first movie, but does so in a world where Reddit and Rotten Tomatoes are the key markers of movie criticism driving studio decisions.
If there is a mission statement for the new movie, it comes from Brown. There's a perfect scene midway through where she breaks down internet fandom and its toxic effect on movies in the 21st century, including a thinly veiled shot at the reaction to Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi (Johnson was supposed to cameo, but instead he gets a shout-out as "the director of Knives Out!" who directed the in-universe movie Stab 8). Brown could not be winking at the audience harder, but it allows for Scream to understand the context of its own creation: No one is happy online when a beloved franchise gets rebooted as anything but a direct nod to what came before. Luckily for Scream, that scene does not fall apart under the weight of its own cleverness, thanks to how hard it leans into the horror and gore in its aftermath.
There's no other way to put it: Motherfuckers get annihilated in this movie. The directors, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, and screenwriters, James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, do not shy away from using their knowledge of horror movies to create some violent sequences. There's a particularly memorable kill of a minor character, in which Ghostface stabs him in the mouth and through the cheek, that made even this veteran of the Gore Wars cringe. Ghostface is, to me, the best slasher villain because his kills are never particularly intricate. He uses a knife, and he uses it like the teenagers hiding behind the mask would: sloppily, chaotically, and with personal fervor. It's never just one stab that does the victims in, but a series of visceral attacks.
Scream is also unafraid to spit in the face of the past. The core surviving trio from the original all show up here, and while Neve Campbell and Courteney Cox have lots to do, it's really professional wrestler David Arquette who steals the show. The writers have made his Dewey Riley a failure, left by Cox's Gale Weathers, forced out of retirement, and living on the outskirts of town in shame. Arquette has a gentle weariness that plays nicely with his character's innate doofiness, and his big heroic moment backfires because of the weight that the movie has put on his history as the sheriff of this beleaguered town. It rocks, and is easily the best part of the movie.
Perhaps most impressively, the reveal—there's always a reveal when you have a masked killer—lands beautifully, even if you saw it coming early on, as my friend did within the first 10 minutes. I don't want to spoil it, but the identity of the killers, plural, fits both within the clues the movie has given and the context of its creation, as well as the aforementioned scene about internet fandom. The final act, taking place in the same house that was the setting for the original's climax, balances tension, humor, and homage on a knife's edge.
When the credits rolled—with a tribute to Wes Craven, the series' original director who passed away in 2015—Scream left me with two simultaneous thoughts. First, that it is a satisfying movie on its own merit, a slasher movie that is both funny and horrifying. Second, and most important for the fifth installment of a franchise that probably could have ended after two movies, it leaves the door open for more movies.
That's a scary thought, because even the best reboots can still flop when they keep trying; see the difference in quality between 2018's Halloween and 2021's Halloween Kills for a recent example. But Bettinelli-Olpin, Gillett, Vanderbilt, and Busick are worthy custodians of this oftentimes ridiculous franchise, because they didn't shy away from what makes a Scream movie sing. At the very least, this entry is a rarity: a movie that didn't need to exist, but managed to justify itself as an essential piece of the franchise.