In long-running horror franchises, the villain always comes back. Famed slashers such as Michael Myers of Halloween, Freddy Krueger of A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Jason Voorhees of Friday the 13th are famed for their immortality—no matter how many times they meet their demise on-screen or a “final chapter” is proclaimed in their saga, they eventually return for more. The Scream series functions a little differently. Yes, a masked killer nicknamed Ghostface is constantly on the prowl, subjecting teens to creepy phone calls and stabbing them with a hunting knife. But in every film, Ghostface is someone different, many times a pair of people, linked by a pathological love of scary movies.
When the original Scream, directed by Wes Craven and written by Kevin Williamson, debuted in 1996, its self-awareness was radical. In the opening scene, the killer torments the victim Casey (played by Drew Barrymore) with a quiz about horror films; from that moment on, the film makes clear that Ghostface is a construct designed by twisted fans following the formulas of their favorite fictional slashers. Craven made three more Screams before he died in 2015, each acknowledging the “rules” of horror sequels. Now 2022 brings a different kind of follow-up. This Scream functions as a “legacy sequel,” bringing back the hallowed cast members of the original entry while introducing a new set of youngsters to torment.
Even with Craven gone, the time feels right for another installment that skewers what’s become a stale Hollywood prescription—rehashed plots that try to appeal to die-hard fans while bringing in a fresh audience. This franchise, by contrast, can submit to obvious tropes while its characters roll their eyes at them; you can always count on a scene in which a character smashes through the fourth wall with a knowing monologue about the predictability of horror films. However, the latest film, directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett (Ready or Not), takes aim at not just the genre it’s working in but Hollywood culture at large, wherein studios rely on familiar names instead of the barest bit of originality.
Because everything old must be new again, this film is simply called Scream, not Scream 5, and the three biggest characters from the prior editions return. Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), the usual main target for Ghostface’s villainy, is now a flinty, gun-owning mom; Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), an ambulance-chasing TV journalist, has become a morning-show host; and Dewey Riley (David Arquette), the town sheriff, has fallen on hard times. But they’re supporting players to a host of emerging talent; Melissa Barrera stars as Sam Carpenter, a 20-something who is caught in Ghostface’s crosshairs, along with her boyfriend, Richie (Jack Quaid); sister, Tara (Jenna Ortega); and a bunch of other sarcastic friends.
Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett direct each murderous set piece with visceral efficiency. The kills are the trademark mix of ratcheting tension and nasty stab wounds. The effective opening sequence mirrors the original Scream: Tara talks on the phone with the killer as he quizzes her about scary movies. This time, though, she scoffs at questions about horror fogies such as Freddy and Jason; she’s into “elevated horror,” she says, like The Babadook or It Follows. That shift in the genre is what Scream now wants to mock—after all these years, are audiences still going to fear the familiar specter of a guy in a mask with a knife?
I say yes: As a jolting piece of entertainment, Scream absolutely succeeds. It can’t reach the terrifying heights of Craven’s original, but none of the sequels could; each one always leaned a little more on meta-humor as the series went along. That type of self-skewering, à la the latest Matrix sequel, is far more familiar in Hollywood now than it was in 1996. This film, however, takes that tactic one step further, jabbing not only at legacy sequels but also at the intense fandoms that inspire them. Befitting their postmodern outlook, the Scream movies have a fictional horror-film series within them titled Stab, and viewers learn that the Stab sequels have apparently gone off the rails, as the newest entry (which was “directed by the Knives Out guy”) angers enthusiasts by upending established rubrics.
That jokey wink is directed at Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which prompted backlash from some of that franchise’s ardent devotees. In the fifth Scream, the killer is motivated to bring things back to basics and reeducate the next generation about classic scares of yore. Given the franchise’s DNA, it is naturally a movie where horror canon itself is the villain; even if the person in the mask has changed once again, the real adversary is film fans’ unwillingness to let go of the past.