One of the things I like to pride myself on when it comes to my reviews is that I take a lot of pains to avoid all but the most minor of spoilers unless absolutely necessary. While I know people are divided on the validity of spoilers (and I myself don’t generally care one way or the other), there is a certain thrill in the art of surprise, especially when the film in question goes out of its way to twist, bend, and play with our expectations. So at multiple points during my screening of the new Scream, I kept asking myself “How do I talk about how great this scene is without talking about this scene?” I’m going to try my best…
When Scream opens, it’s been 25 years since the original attack by Ghostface in the town of Woodsboro when a young girl named Tara (Jenna Ortega) is attacked in her home by someone in the Ghostface mask. Tara’s estranged sister Sam (Melissa Barrera) comes to town to figure out who Tara’s attacker is, eventually getting help from former Sheriff Dewey Riley (David Arquette). Dewey, of course, has a long history with Ghostface including the scars to prove it, and he’s convinced the killer is hiding within Tara’s circle of friends. As the killings continue and the danger escalates, both Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) and Ghostface’s original target Sidney Prescott (Neve Campell) get drawn back into one final confrontation with the killer that’s defined their lives.
If there’s one thing the Scream franchise is known for, it’s its penchant for metatextualism. The first film’s characters knew the rules of horror films even while they were acting out and on those rules, and they knew that we knew all of that was happening, too. It was this self-awareness that made it a sensation, helped it to revitalize the slasher film, and became the new template for hip, Hollywood horror. The first two sequels tried to up the ante on the meta side of things, but there really wasn’t a language for that at the time. So instead of a sharper meta, we just got more of the first film’s meta, which honestly made the third film collapse onto itself. Scream 4, however, benefited from a decade of meta development in film, and it rode a beautiful, twisted road of metatext into a blood-soaked sunset.
Now with Scream (not Scream 5…we’ll get to that later), the language of meta has matured and evolved even further, and this film dives head-first into a deep pool of metatextual brilliance. It surrounds itself with the the stuff, and it suffuses every minute of screen time with it. By the time the third act comes around, it explodes into a kind of supernova of self-awareness so bright it threatens to blind the audience to the actual plot and action of the film itself.
But thanks to the writing and directing, the film maintains a firm balance between this kind of internal-to-external exploration and staying true to the franchise’s slasher film bonafides. Scream tells its own story, it tells the story of the franchise, and it tells the story of our relationship in the real world with this franchise…while also featuring some of the most brutal, bloodiest, and heart-pounding scenes Ghostface has ever been a part of. It engages both the higher functions and reptile parts of the brain simultaneously, which I believe is the scientific qualification for being able to say “this film has everything.”
This is really a kind of changing of the guard for the franchise, which may account for how new and dfferent it feels. This is the first film not to be directed by the legendary Wes Craven, who died in 2015. It also wasn’t written by Kevin Williamson, although he stayed on as executive producer. (Williamson also didn’t write Scream 3, but we do not talk about Scream 3 in this house.) Heck, even Marco Beltrami stepped down from scoring duties to hand it off to Brian Tyler, who does a fantastic job by the way. Guiding this film is the writing team of James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick and the directing team of Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett of Radio Silence. The last collaboration of these four was the supremely entertaining Ready or Not, a film that could directly tie its bloody, campy roots to the success of the first Scream film.
The creative team here clearly has a love for not only the slasher genre but for the Scream franchise as a whole. They get it, and I mean they seriously GET IT. This is arguably the best film in the franchise since the first one, building skillfully off of the direction and energy of Scream 4 and going after itself with the precision of a world-class surgeon. This is a slasher film that autopsies itself before the audience’s eyes to show not only what makes it tick but to show what makes us tick. And some of us are…not in a good place if this film is to be believed.
But this isn’t just an exercise in intellectualism. The team also delivers on the pure horror elements we expect from a Scream film. In fact, they refine and remix those elements into something that breathes a new kind life into the series. One scene in particular sees them play with one of the typical “killer reveal” jump scares common in slasher films in a particularly brilliant way. We keep getting faked-out during the sequence to the point where it becomes intentionally comedic and encourages the audience to drop our guard. Then when the killer does appear, it’s that much more impactful because we’ve allowed ourselves to be vulnerable without even realizing it. It’s the best kind of cinematic manipulation.
All this is great, but you can’t have a potential massacre without a cast of fresh-faced victims, and this film gives us a decent new crop of savvy, self-aware young adults for Ghostface to terrorize. Melissa Barrera is a great new lead, even if Sam’s development is a little unconventional. Sam has issues and secrets that kind of all get spilled out pretty early on, which actually helps with her characterization and development. By getting all that out of the way in the first act, we get a better sense of what kind of person Sam is and her potential as a character. She’s not defined by a third act reveal, which is great because the plot delivers plenty of those on its own already.
The returning legacy characters are a very welcome sight of course, and all three appear more relaxed and comfortable than they have in a while. Courtney Cox especially plays Gale with a much higher degree of empathy and warmth than she’s been written with in previous installments. Neve Campbell very much lays into the idea that Sidney has become a kind of maternal bad-ass at this point, and it suits the character very well. But the best of the three has to be David Arquette, who plays Dewey as a broken man who still has the innocent, noble heart that the character’s always been defined by. All three actors turn in highly mature, often surprisingly nuanced roles.
Of the rest of the cast, the most notable of the young newcomers has got to be Jasmin Savoy Brown as Mindy, who serves as this film’s resident film geek and happens to be the niece of Randy Meeks, the original Scream‘s film geek. She also gets to be the series’ first openly queer character (Brown herself also identifies as queer). She has a monologue in the midpoint of the film defining the terms of a “requel” that she delivers in an energized, confident way as if she’s been waiting since scene one for the right moment to jump up and say it. She’s aware that the events she’s experiencing are like a “requel” to the Stab films, which are the in-universe horror films based on the events of the Scream movies. It’s not a reboot because fans don’t want those, and it’s not a straight up sequel because those are tired. Instead, we’re getting a “requel” just like we did with the Halloween, Terminator, and Jurassic Park series…which also all exist in-universe, as well. In fact, Scream often feels like what Halloween Kills would have been like if that film had given a flying [stab sound] about any of its characters.
Indeed, in proper requel fashion, this new Scream mostly ignores everything after the first film. Only a handful of characters from Scream 4 return, and even one of those is relegated to an easter egg. The events of Scream 2 and 3 are alluded to, but none of the characters are, and this new film mostly forgets that they ever happened. Which, honestly, I can’t argue with at all; the film is truly better off for it. It allows the creative team to be free of some of the franchise’s baggage and inertia, enabling them to take off in a new, exciting direction.
Beyond all that, the film is just a damn good time. It’s smart, it’s wicked, it’s brutal, it’s funny, it’s captivating. It’s everything a Scream film should be and more. Aside from a few fine-but-not-great performances in the over-full young cast, this is probably the most vital and alive the franchise has seemed since day one. That might explain all the blood. So much blood. We’re going to need some of those wet floor signs.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / A-