The fifth franchise installment tackles horror films and horror films about horror films.
There are rules for how to write a review for a Scream film.
One, you can’t reveal who the killer or killers are.
Two, you have to recognize that the original Scream, a meta-commentary on the slasher film genre that also happened to revitalize the horror genre as a real box office powerhouse, is the best in the series.
Three, you must determine how well the film fits into the larger quality and narrative of the franchise.
I didn’t write these rules, I mostly just follow them. Luckily, the fifth installment in the series, simply (if confusingly) also just titled Scream, gives a lot to chew on. After all, where horror is in 2022 feels radically different than where it was just a decade ago, to say nothing of where it was in 1996. The rise of “elevated” horror as a genre that is both celebrated and derided, the cultural reassessment of the original canonized horror, and of course the ongoing debate of how to carry on these legacies—all of these developments are baked into the DNA of the new Scream.
The Scream series offers a particularly challenging concern: All previous entries were directed by the same person, the late horror master Wes Craven, a somewhat unusual feature for a horror franchise. But with Craven gone, who do you hand the reigns over to? Luckily, those in charge of the franchise found a good soulmate in the team known as Radio Silence, whose 2019 outing Ready or Not was a perfectly pitched social satire wrapped within the framing of a reverse satanic slasher film (a single good person pitted against an army of devil-worshiping killers). Thus their point of view within the new take on Scream, a series that’s always had its tongue in its cheek, seemed fitting.
And luckily, those strengths don’t disappoint; directors Matt Bettinelli-Opin and Tyler Gillet, with writing partners James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, so totemically get what makes Scream work that they hit the ground running and never really let up.
The movie opens (once again) with an unsettling phone call that leads to a teen in Woodsboro getting stabbed by someone new in the Ghostface mask. But unlike in some previous films, the victim in question doesn’t die. Rather, teen Tara (Jenna Ortega) is only injured enough to be hosptialized. Of course, this immediately leads to speculation amongst Tara’s group of friends, because this is Woodboro and they know: One of them is most likely the killer.
This is perhaps the greatest magic trick of the Scream films—they have the trappings and rhythms of a slasher film, but the promise is always that the killer is someone new, that there is a fresh set of suspects, potential motives, threatening monologues and uncertain alliances. Every character is given their moment or beat to make you wonder, could they be the killer? The new cast of doomed teens are all up for the asks of the film, playing to the broad stereotypes but also self-aware enough to feel lively and different.
Our primary viewpoint for this go around is Sam Carpenter (Melissa Berrera), a Woodsboro resident who fled the home of Ghostface years ago for unknown reasons. But her sister Tara’s near-murder draws her back home alongside her supportive and affable boyfriend Richie (Jack Quaid, a stand out of the new cast), despite a dark secret that ties her directly to the larger lore of the Ghostface murders.
From there, the dominoes fall down in ways that will be especially satisfying for devotees of the series. This includes gruesome, knife-centric murders and a plot that has enough twists that are outlandish without ever feeling unearned.
Eventually the new cast of fresh faced would-be victims reach out to the holy trinity of Scream characters: David Arquette’s Dewey Riley, Courtney Cox’s Gail Winters, and of course Neve Campbell’s Sydney Prescott. Unlike previous entires in the series, there is less of an exact reason these characters get looped in, outside of the responsibility they feel for responding whenever a new Ghostface arrives. But as the film itself argues, they have to be there or else the film would feel less significant.
If there is any disappointment in Scream, it rests on the fact that the three legacy characters mostly hang in the periphery until needed. Of them, Arquette fares best, and is given a weight and focus to Dewey that plays to an aged Arquette’s strengths. He has seen this all before, multiple times, and has been unable to stop it. Campbell and Cox, who become much more prominent in the final act of the film, feel far more ancillary in their placement, only there because…well, it’s a Scream movie, and you can’t have one of those without Sydney and Gail.
Without giving away the final act’s big reveals, it is worth noting that the new Scream is both aware of and confident about its place within the larger series conversation. The original film’s trick was to acknowledge that it was well aware of the tropes that plagued these kinds of movies while simultaneously feeding those tropes to you. The Radio Silence’s Scream not only reflects the rules of a horror film but specifically riffs on the expectations of a Scream movie, recognizing when it is playing into direct reflections of the originals.
Down to the fact the movie is just called Scream is itself a statement about what the movie is trying to drive at. It’s a movie that explores what defines a Scream film specifically on an elemental level. It is a horror film that is about horror films, but also a horror film that is about horror films that are about horror films. (Like the Stab francise) Exploring and deconstructing that legacy is when the film is at its most exciting and nastily hilarious. It is a slasher, a mystery, an ode, and a fresh start. And it is so perfectly calibrated that the moment it feels like it could go off the rails or become too self-aware, it reminds you that it is confident enough in its mannerisms to never go too far. Rather, Scream rides the line so precisely that by the time you get to final bloody affair, everything sort of clicks into place beautifully. In some ways, it could stand as a final Scream film, but it also makes the argument for why self-reflective popcorn entertainment is so energizing and keeps us coming back.