Written by: James Vanderbilt & Guy Busick (screenplay), Kevin Williamson (characters)
Directed by: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett
Starring: [Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, and David Arquette
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Note: vague spoilers follow! I don't explicitly reveal the killer's identity or certain other plot developments, but it's still probably best to read this after seeing the movie.
"You might actually be the most derivative one of all. I mean, Christ, the same house?"
When Scream carved through the horror genre in 1996, it did so with a hip, smart-ass charm: here was a new kid on the block surveying a stale landscape and calling its shot before slashing its way to glory. It arrived at just the right moment, when the horror genre was in need of rejuvenating, sure, but it was that cool confidence that sealed the deal. Here was a movie that was out to upend the whole show, its tongue planted firmly in cheek as it skewered genre conventions. But what happens when that plucky upstart becomes part of the hallowed canon? What happens when the film series that pokes and prods the conventions becomes more beholden to its own expectations? In short, how can Scream—a film defined by its irreverent, youthful verve—even exist now that it’s part of the old guard it once needled?
That’s the stage for 2022’s Scream, the latest “requel” (to use the film’s own parlance) that aims to revive a dormant franchise without outright restarting or remaking it. No, remakes and reboots were the milieu of Scream 4, and it’s fitting that it’s taken a decade for the landscape to shift and conjure this franchise out of the mist to once again act as a Greek chorus for the genre. Scream does so with more baggage attached than most of its contemporaries: not only does it have to account for its own cultural ascent, but it has to do it without Wes Craven at the helm. Ironically, it takes the same swagger the late great director brought to the original Scream to even think about continuing a series that could have easily died with him.
But it turns out that franchise newcomers Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett (along with new screenwriters James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick) cleverly address all of these concerns by intertwining them. They’ve channeled Craven’s crucial self-awareness and put Scream itself on the chopping block this time. I think that was always the subtle genius of the original film: not to at all diminish Kevin Williamson’s brilliant script, but Craven’s status as a genre legend brought a wry, knowing dimension to the carnage. Scream might have started with the musings of a wunderkind screenwriter pranking a genre, but it was honed by a director who knew the prank was on him but still wanted in on it anyway. The thing about Scream is that it was always part satire, part love letter, and there’s a reason it succumbs to most of the conventions it mocks: at the end of the day, Craven knew that even the horror movie that carved up other horror movies had to still be an effective one in its own right. It has just as much fun as its own expense because Craven was never one to approach horror from the position of a stodgy gatekeeper.
So it only stands to reason that this new incarnation of Scream would have its knives out and directly pointed at itself as it probes the franchise’s enshrinement in the horror canon. Maybe its cuts don’t feel quite as fresh or revelatory as its predecessor, but, then again, that might be as inevitable as the existence of this sequel. In many ways, this Scream is tasked with specifically toying with an audience that’s sharper than than the one the original film blindsided. This Greek Chorus is now preaching to a choir whose expectations must be accounted for, leading us all to a natural endgame for the franchise: a Scream movie that’s both for Scream fans and about them all at once as it finds a way to justify its existence beyond dutiful nostalgia.
It begins, of course, with a phone call: young Woodsboro resident Tara Carpenter (Jenna Ortegea) is home alone when her landline begins to ring. She assumes it’s a prank before deciding it’s her mother’s boyfriend on the other end. But when the voice grows more menacing and begins grilling her about horror movies, it’s clear that this is the latest attempt to conjure the ghosts of the town’s sordid, violent past. However, this time, the trivia isn’t about the classics that doomed Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) in the original film: instead, it’s about Stab, which is to say, it’s really about Scream itself. If that iconic opening scene announced that Scream was out to upend the rest of the genre 25 years ago, then this one makes it clear that this Scream is out to subvert itself.
So it follows that this opening scene doesn’t end with a death. Instead, Tara is left severely wounded and confined to a hospital bed, where the latest killer’s true purpose is revealed: she’s bait, meant to draw her estranged sister Sam (Melissa Barrera) back home to reckon with the horrible family secret that drove her away in the first place. Apparently, someone else has also discovered it and has targeted anyone related to the victims and survivors of the previous Woodsboro massacres. Now, a new generation will have to navigate the rules to surviving a horror movie, specifically a Stab movie, a distinction made by a returning Dewey Riley (David Arquette), further underscoring that Scream now casts a long shadow over itself. When ultimate final girl Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) and Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) return, the shadows only lengthen as everyone finds themselves inevitably drawn back into the entire saga’s legacy—including the audience, who must confront exactly what a Scream movie is supposed to be.
When Dewey—now grizzled, drunk, and living alone in a trailer part—calls Sidney to inform her of the latest round of attacks, he insists that “this one feels different," an ominous intonation that introduces the “anything goes” edge to this sequel. It’s directed to us, the audience, letting us know that this Scream might not play by its own rules, even as Dewey dutifully recites them during his first scene. This one might kill its own darlings, so to speak. However, the question of just how different this one will—or even can—be also soon comes into focus when this generation’s film nerd Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown)—niece to the late Randy Meeks, natch—updates us on the current film landscape.
If the new killer is abiding by current trends, then they’re staging a “requel,” a follow-up that’s both a sequel and a passing of the torch, as a new generation takes center stage with the guidance of their iconic predecessors. It perhaps boldly steps in a new, unexpected direction but can never stray too far from familiar territory, raising the existential question of this new Scream itself: what, exactly, must this type of sequel do to appease fans who don’t want something that’s either too different (see: Scream 3) or too familiar (see: Scream 4, arguably an early harbinger of “requels" in its own right). Within the context of the movie itself, the requel “rules” provide a blueprint for the characters’ survival; however, there’s also the question of whether or not Scream itself can survive the requel era as it seeks to appeal to new and old fans alike. It’s that conundrum again: how does a rule-breaker confront an era where the rules have become even more pronounced?
Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett have a familiar, if not predictable solution: split the difference. There are moments where this Scream does feels fresh, if not downright dangerous: the violence is more sadistic and explicit than ever, with one gore gag in particular providing the sort of cruel imagery that would have never slipped by the MPAA 25 years ago (I can’t help how amused Craven may have been to recall that a few frames of spilled guts were enough to earn an NC-17 rating back then). The script gleefully twists the knife, dispatching returning and new characters with an impish glee that recalls the spirit of the earlier films. Ghastly, jarring visions of the dead propel the narrative and unravel Sam’s secret connection to the past, and they feel more in line with Shocker than they do Scream. This is also an unrepentantly modern take: while there are obligatory call-backs and nods to previous films, this cast feels very 2020s, their dialogue resembling an average Twitter feed more than Williamson’s affected dialogue. Scream refused to assume the skin of an 80s slasher, and this one simply doesn’t xerox the original Scream aesthetic.
To a point, anyway, because that’s the thing: just as the original Scream had to still be an effective horror movie, this one still has to be an effective Scream movie. Certain expectations linger, even in the context of a sequel that updates the series for a new generation. Certain plot beats—like that opening sequence—must be in place, even if they deviate ever so slightly. Certain characters must return, even if there’s a nagging feeling that both Sidney and Gale’s returns are more ceremonial than ever. Certain winks and nods must be made, even if they’re almost exclusively directed right to the franchise itself now, creating an ouroboros of homage. There are certain rules to making a Scream movie, even if that seems antithetical to the original mission statement.
But what Scream cleverly remembers is that this franchise was always more of a rule-bender than an outright rule-breaker. Craven and company frequently had their cake and ate it too: they let Sidney shit-talk horror movies, pointing out how insulting it was to see girls running up the stairs instead of out the door, only to have her reprise that very fate in the climax. So it follows that a Scream movie that’s aware of the trite conventions of the “requel” would still capitulate to them by falling prey to certain story beats and indulging nostalgia. To its credit, it especially hits the right notes with the latter, as it rightfully recognizes that Dewey has always been the heart and soul of the series. Arquette responds with a wonderful, grizzled performance that still has faint echoes of the kooky, offbeat presence he’s always provided—and you know, deep in your bones, that it’s in the service of eventually breaking your heart.
To that end, this is arguably the most predictable Scream yet. Anyone familiar with the structure of these sequels can set their watch to certain developments, not to mention unravel the killer’s identity. Maybe that feels a little anticlimactic or disappointing: after all, isn’t a Scream movie meant to startle, surprise, and blindside its audience? What does it mean that this one doesn’t exactly do that? You could consider it a failure on its part, sure—maybe what we’re seeing here is that Scream is running on fumes, unable to recapture its former glory. But what if the film itself acknowledges this? What if this Scream is an admission that the very nature of this kind of sequel dictates a certain familiarity and lack of surprise because, deep down, that’s what fans really want?
By the time it reaches its conclusion and untangles the motivations driving this latest killing spree, Scream points an accusatory knife towards its audience, a rhetorical question dangling in the air: “just what, exactly, do you want?” Throughout the film, there’s a running gag involving the in-universe’s reaction to the increasingly ludicrous Stab franchise, particularly a much-maligned 8th entry that was directed by “the Knives Out guy,” an obvious reference to the toxic discourse surrounding the Star Wars sequel trilogy. Much like the vocal segment of that fanbase that recoiled at being challenged by an entry that didn’t pander to their nostalgic whims, Stab fans lashed out at the franchise’s highfalutin eighth movie, particularly its turn towards “elevated horror.” It’s just a slasher movie franchise, they argue—why does it need to be anything more?
All of this coalesces in Scream’s climax, where it becomes obvious that this latest round of carnage is meant to be a course correction that will hopefully get the Stab movies back on track. The climax here retraces the original’s steps, its mayhem unfolding in the very same—and now iconic—house where Sidney and company’s story both ended and started all at once 25 years ago. This inexorable pull back to the familiar—at the behest of someone who has taken their love of Stab movies one step too far—seems to be an indictment of those fans who only want their beloved franchises to be in lockstep with their desires. That a Scream movie falls prey to this fate seems to suggest that even it—the franchise with a heightened awareness of conventions and expectations—can’t escape its own shadow. At a certain point, even it becomes a genre monolith, affixed into place and resistant to deviation.
After all, is it a coincidence that Scream 3, its wildest, most unhinged entry, often found at the bottom of most fans’ rankings? Scream 2022 seems to acquiesce to this line of thinking, going so far as to point out how difficult it is to make a Stab sequel without an iconic killer to constantly resurrect, so the only recourse is to keep looking to the original lore, no matter how strained the connection may be. It’s striking that the previous film’s climactic, triumphant line—"don’t fuck with the originals!”—has become the mantra of the villains here, forcing the audience to confront their own complicity in nostalgia-gazing and resistance to change. Even this film’s most “shocking” and dramatic moment comes with annotations explaining itself, almost as if it recognizes that fans can accept a shake-up within certain boundaries. It seems to be another admission that a fifth entry to a long-running franchise can no longer be truly shocking or innovative.
But, again, this is just what Scream does, right? It points out clichés and conventions, only to cleverly embrace them anyway. This sequel is no different: everyone involved knows that we know the deal and wonders if we still can’t have a little fun along the way. And it turns out, we can, if only because what has always worked for Scream still works: the sharp characterization, witty dialogue, clever direction, and vicious violence remain intact. The new group of kids are a fun bunch and the filmmakers trust them to carry the picture in a way their counterparts in the previous movie weren’t—where that film still forefronted the original trio, this one firmly etches them into supporting roles (along with Marley Shelton delightfully reprising her role as Hicks), allowing the newcomers to leave their mark on the franchise.
Maybe their dialogue isn’t an exact echo of William’s affected writing from two decades ago, but it’s still colorful and full of personality. Like their predecessors, these kids aren’t simply victims waiting to be added to the body count, with Barrera and Ortega both providing the kind of fierce presence we’ve come to expect from this franchise’s women. Savoy Brown and her on-screen brother Mason Gooding provide stand-out performances in supporting roles, and it’s even nice to see Kyle Gallner—once a consistent genre presence about a decade ago—make an offbeat appearance that has me thinking he could be a great character actor going forward. And of course it’s nice to see Campbell and Cox slip so effortlessly back into their iconic roles, and that’s exactly how they’re treated here: as icons being dutifully brought in because you can’t have a Scream sequel without them—even though the story here makes it clear that you very much could. But the fans, god bless them, they’re clamoring for more—so here they are.
It’s a weird thing to admit that these two icons are among the least interesting things about a new Scream movie, but it adequate compensates for this with snappy pacing and clever sequences that lean into the franchise’s playfulness. One of the best finds Ghostface lurking inside of an oblivious kid’s house, and the blocking and Tyler Bates’s score masterfully toy with the audience, who knows the killer will surely be waiting behind some door or another. The sequence takes several twists and turns before reaching its inevitable punctuation mark, reminding us that this has also been an essential component of Scream: that sort of primal, in-the-moment fun that deploys slasher movie violence the same way haunted house movies deploy jump scares.
It seems significant that this scene even opens as an overt reference to Psycho, reminding us of the perverse playfulness Hitchcock wove into the fabric of this genre before Craven put his own spin on it 35 years later. Here we are, two more decades later, being repurposed in a sequel that later restages an iconic bit from its predecessor, where a character watches a horror movie and pleads with its would-be victim to turn around and realize that the killer is right behind them—completely unaware that there’s actually killer lurking right behind them, too. Only, this time, the movie isn’t Halloween but rather Stab, which is again to say it’s really Scream itself, here embracing its own iconic status and recognizing its own role in imposing its own set of rules and expectations on the genre. I suppose this is what it looks like when a snake eats its own tail, then regurgitates, but the way you lose yourself in this moment also best exemplifies the conundrum of this new Scream: yes, slavish devotion to the past is toxic, but admit it—you kind of like it. We all go a little mad with nostalgia, sometimes.
I’m not sure exactly where this Scream falls in the franchise—as we all know, time will continue to tell a different story as I revisit it in the coming years. What I do know right now is that it’s earned its place in the very conversation, something I was skeptical about given Craven’s death and Williamson only serving in an advisory role. It didn’t seem like we especially needed another Scream sequel, but, as the film itself reminds me, who am I to make that call? While much of Scream’s commentary is self-reflexive, it poses questions about our relationship with all of our beloved artwork and what obligations it has to us, if any. Its musings about fan recoiling from a maligned Stab movie could easily apply to the reactions many of us had to the Halloween remake—in fact, I’m shocked they didn’t insist that Rob Zombie actually directed Stab 8. Maybe that would have been too obvious. The sudden, strange re-appearance of a classic character and the way this film repurposes them also forces us to confront our relationship to the iconic villains in other slasher franchises: it seems ghastly that one of the franchise’s psychos could reappear as a ghostly mentor figure, and yet we’re all going to be the first in line to see The Shape’s next exploits in Halloween Ends.
Suffice it to say, there’s a lot going on in Scream, and, while I have certain nitpicks (like the way the specter of Billy Loomis lingers more than Stu Macher’s, despite an opening scene that suggests it should be otherwise), I can’t help but consider it miraculous. This is a movie that had the deck stacked against it, then had the gall to take a few stabs at itself. But like a plucky final girl, it doggedly survives, making a case for itself so convincing that its closing dedication to Craven feels completely earned and not just empty pandering. After all, he once crafted his own sequel to an iconic franchise that probed the very nature of its existence, ultimately deciding that the world needs horror to fulfill some primal longing. It only makes sense that a Scream sequel would finally do the same, even if it’s not plunging into the same philosophical and Jungian wellspring. Instead, this one simply suggests that Scream deserves to forever haunt the horror landscape and take a stab at it because it’s become the genre’s twisted, funhouse mirror, and, sometimes, it’s just nice to get lost in the funhouse.
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