There are roughly two ways of looking at 2022’s Scream, the fourth sequel in the self-referential horror franchise that began in 1996 and seemingly ended in 2011, a few years before the series’ director, Wes Craven, passed away. One is that this is as close to the best possible version of a Scream movie that could’ve be stitched together out of the tattered mythology, a multi-generational cast and audience, and a metafictional house of mirrors that’s reflected back on itself for over two decades now. The other is that this Scream, like so many other sequels or reboots or “requels,” to use the film’s terminology, has thoroughly exhausted itself. It’s become yet another body that the zombified industry has bitten in the neck, and now must roam the earth. And many of us will not know the difference because we’ve been trained to forget what a flesh-and-blood being actually looks like.
Sorry for that kinda-sorta rant, but so much of that applies to so many other, much less skillfully made and entertaining movies than this new Scream, but then, here’s a franchise that has thrived on meta-commentary, and now it’s opened up discussion on the sins of contemporary Hollywood. The film itself allows few moments to pass without its own commentary, starting with a title that may seem confusing for those who assume they’re seeing a reboot but are actually seeing a sequel that’s too embarrassed to be one. Hence the film continually tackling the “requel,” and the myriad other ways that screenwriters James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, along with directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, frame reheated seconds as a new meal.
The opening of this Scream is much like the opening of 1996’s Scream. Teenage girl left alone in the house. Phone call from chatty psychopath, who wants to play a game of horror movie trivia with someone else’s life on the line. Then stab-stab-stab. The alterations here are mostly clever updates for a 2021 world: The interplay between smart phones and landlines, discussion about “elevated horror” films like The Babadook and Hereditary, the shared knowledge of long-ago Scream-like sequels (called “Stab” in the franchise’s movies-within-the-movies world) that skipped a generation of high-schoolers, unless their parents let them watch them when they were ten. When it’s time for the violence, Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett honor the original with a visceral bludgeoning that would make Craven proud. The only small wrinkle [an extremely mild spoiler ahead] is that the victim doesn’t die from her array of stab wounds. The young, homage-surnamed survivor is Tara Carpenter (Jenny Ortega), a resident of Woodsboro, the cursed town that’s been plagued by various iterations of the Ghostface killer over the years. News of the attack brings Tara’s older sister Samantha (Melissa Barrera) back to town after she left suddenly and inexplicably five years earlier. The reason for her disappearance makes her a suspect, along with her boyfriend Richie (Jack Quaid), who tags along, not to mention her entire friend group from school, with its expected assortment of various archetypes. Place your bets on whodunit.
But don’t actually place them yet, however, because maybe some of franchise favorites have gone bad after all these years. As news of another Ghostface circulates, the semi-retired deputy Dewey Riley (David Arquette) emerges from his double-wide trailer-home like a hungover groundhog, and the two stars of the series, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) and Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), leave the big city to return to the scene of their many past traumas. They’re very much treated like Jamie Lee Curtis in the revamped Halloween films, Final Girls who can never retire from the job. And while they aren’t always given a lot to do, Sidney and Gale do at least share a wry sense of humor about it all.
Unlike the other recent decade-late meta-sequel, The Matrix Resurrections, Scream here seems overjoyed to be playing in an established IP sandbox. But the weight of legacy still holds the movie down. In its strained effort to combine established players with new ones, this Scream’s structure nearly collapses on itself, building momentum and then squandering it for a visit with another old pal. This is most obvious with a pivot midway through the film that brings all of the many characters to the same familiar location. It’s a device that lands with a loud, clanging thud. But like the many better-than-average renditions of exhausted franchises, the main takeaway from Scream is the wish that its directors were making an original film, rather than recycling an old one to the best of their considerable abilities. What many forget about Craven’s original Scream is that the meta elements were part of its subversive theme, a bleakly satirical effort to contrast the gruesome horror visited on Sidney with the utter detachment of her peers, who process actual death as they would deaths on screen; to try and make a scary movie that could mock itself and still thrill. Craven lost track of the theme as his own sequels spun out, and this Scream doesn’t fully find it, either, as it busies itself with reshuffling the deck for Generation Z. There may be more than one way to skin a cat, but the number is well under five. Swerving back-and-forth between moments of fidgety, metatextual intelligence and stumbling through its mythology, Scream in the end has its daring qualities but they often seem few and far between.
Scream is playing in Theaters nationwide