Back in 1996 Scream delivered a cutting parody of silly slasher movies via an excellent slasher movie. The teenaged victims were all savvy to pop culture, representing some of the first characters in the genre to use their meta-knowledge to avoid dying as stupidly as their forbears. Our final girl, Sidney Prescott, called it like it is by pointing out that most scary movies are defined by “some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the door.”
Later in the movie, Sidney is forced to do exactly that when she finds a murderer waiting for her at the front door. Seems our masked killer is savvy to the rules as well.
One year later came Scream 2, a rushed sequel that satirizes rushed sequels. It’s a decidedly weaker film, but it’s lean, mean, and tons of fun. It has some of the best sequences in the whole franchise (the police car scene is a nail-biter!), and it turned the returning characters into icons. Then came Scream 3, which satirized trilogies by expanding the pre-Scream mythology and giving the killer a sort of supernatural power (explained by “cool tech”, since these movies are meant to exist in the real world). It’s better than you remember, and at the time, it effectively closed the Scream machine down. It also marked probably the last time Creed was included in a movie soundtrack.
Fast forward a decade and we’ve got Scream 4, which rebooted the series while also lampooning horror reboots (it claims to be lampooning remakes, but that doesn’t quite fit the bill). It was a surprise, largely seen as a return to form after what many considered to be a tepid third entry. Scream 4‘s only crime is that it felt slightly toothless — all the legacy characters survive, and the killer is just yet another aggrieved family member of Sidney’s. But it all works so well and is so self-aware that it’s hard to be harsh. The trick of this franchise is that most of its inherent goofiness can be chalked up to parody, whether intended or not. Scream 4 also gave us Kirby, perhaps the most beloved character outside of the original Woodsboro teens.
All four movies are a blast, but for my money, the sequels are all of pretty similar quality, although none quite capture the magic of the original. Scream changed the game in a big way, and its sequels, while smarter than most multi-decade slasher franchises, couldn’t help but to become the exact thing they parodied (so much so that their format became ripe for parody as well via the Scary Movie franchise). Fast forward another decade, through a handful of legacy sequels to popular horror flicks, and naturally Scream had to return. And as is standard for this sort of thing, the new entry is simply titled Scream. This shiny, new shocker aims to skewer the legacy sequel landscape in typical Scream fashion, and in doing so, has made what is easily the best Scream movie since Scream. I’ve now done that thing where I’ve used the word Scream so many times that it doesn’t feel like a word anymore.
The term employed in Scream (the new one) is re-quel, a portmanteau of reboot and sequel. I’ve always liked sequelboot and legacy sequel, two less wieldy terms that still don’t feel as marble-mouthy as re-quel, but who am I to go against royalty? Cuz let’s face it, even a Wes Craven-less Scream movie is still goddamn royalty.
This time around directing duties go to Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, two of the filmmakers behind the Radio Silence filmmaking collective (V/H/S, Ready or Not), with a script written by James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick. This foursome has conjured some type of magic, because if I didn’t know any better, I’d think I was once again watching a Craven/Williamson film. This is high praise, and there’s about to be a lot more of it.
In the Scream canon, the town of Woodsboro has been so plagued by Ghostface and Ghostface copycats, that the in-movie franchise based on each set of murders is up to its eighth entry. Hilariously, the Ghostface of Stab 8 brandishes a sleek metal mask, a sleeveless shirt, and a massive flamethrower. Strong “Michael Myers karate fights Busta Rhymes” vibes. The residents of Woodsboro have a mixed relationship with the Stab movies — they’re simultaneously proud to be part of pop culture and ashamed to be the home of so much murder. Reminds me a lot of my home here in Philly.
The story opens much the way that Scream (the old one) did, only now our first potential victim must be coaxed via text to answer her land line. “What’s your favorite scary movie?” asks an immediately recognizable voice, only now instead of naming an 80s era slasher, Tara (Jenna Ortega) cites The Babadook. She prefers elevated horror. Her words, not mine.
This attack draws Tara’s estranged sister Sam (Melissa Barrera) back to town with her boyfriend (Jack Quaid) in tow. They investigate with the help of Tara’s friends, some of whom have creative ties to the original Scream roster (this is not a spoiler so shut your butt). Once bodies start piling up it gets the attention of Officer Dewey (David Arquette), now a drunk in a trailer, Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), now a morning show host, and of course, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), now a mom who jogs with a stroller and wears athleisure.
Meta-commentary is abound at every turn, skewering horror tropes, franchise tropes, re-quels, fandoms, and even specific character behaviors. It’s impressive how smart this material is, and also how funny. In fact, this is easily the funniest Scream movie, front to back. At times the jokes are winking (they explicitly say Rian Johnson directed Stab 8), while others are built into the filmmaking itself. A great example of this is a sequence that sets up the classic “character closes a cabinet, revealing the killer standing RIGHT THERE!” Only the killer isn’t there this time. Or the next time. Or the next. It’s a hilarious scene that doubles as a method of creating tension — cuz really, there could be a killer there. All bets are off.
This isn’t just the funniest entry in the series, it’s also the most violent. The current iteration of Ghostface seems is the angriest yet, as evidenced by the brutality of the killings. Ghostface’s shifting identity over the years has lead to a diverse set of physical characteristics, and this one is easily the scrappiest. Where previous Ghostfaces have certainly showed enjoyment in their deeds, the current Ghostface gets off on it, continuing to hack and slash long after the intended victim has expired. It’s fucking awesome.
The new lineup of kids is a pretty well fleshed out group of potential corpses, while our trio of legacy characters mostly exists on the sidelines. I’m not bothered by this since they’ve been built so strongly over the course of over half of my life. I think putting Sidney at the center yet again would harm the film’s explosive pacing and subtract from the new characters (upon whom I’m sure future films will be mounted). It does seem like some heartbreaking cuts were probably made (I’d be happy to drink in some deleted scenes one day), but my guess is that they were all made for the best. Scream MOVES.
To say much more would be to dip into spoiler territory, so I’ll just leave it at this: Scream, the fifth in the series and the first without Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson, is so much better than anyone could have hoped. I had high hopes and they’ve been exceeded. A few twists and turns are predictable, but plenty more are shocking as hell, and the legacy characters we’ve grown to love are used effectively. Nobody is just cashing a check here and it shows. We can hem and haw over whether or not Hollywood is out of ideas, but at the end of the day, even a re-quel can be transcendent if the people behind it care, which is very evident here.
Now please please please PLEASE help me in demanding that our culture do right by David Arquette, who is a TREMENDOUS actor. Put him in something meaty. He can do it.