It sounds hyperbolic, but it’s fair to say that in the horror genre, there was before Scream and there was after Scream. That’s the original Scream, not SCREAM, which is spelled with all capital letters and is most definitely not titled Scream 5 or even 5cream, but we’ll get to that shortly. Because it’s kind of impossible to discuss SCREAM without first reflecting on the monumental shift Wes Craven‘s 1996 film caused to an entire industry. Just over a decade after injecting a hefty dose of supernatural dream logic into slashers with A Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven—working from Kevin Williamson‘s script—changed the face of horror again by dissecting his own tropes, cutting through the guts and gristle to reveal the beating heart of a genre. Scream showed audiences the rulebook, walked them step-by-step through every trick, and then threw it out the window (only to sneak around back, snag the rule book from the dirt, and whack the audience in the back of the head with it).
For better or worse, the next several decades were littered with films trying to replicate the Scream formula, despite the fact the Scream formula is “following a formula gets you murdered to death with a sharp object,” and suddenly the entire state of mainstream horror was a snake slicing off its own tail with a kitchen knife. Even Craven’s own sequels—some of which were successful, others of which feature Jay and Silent Bob—have to reckon with the fact Scream exists, that Craven’s subversions of the rules he helped write had irrevocably changed the way audiences experience horror. Every single aspect of Scream‘s ripple effect, positive and negative and everything in-between, is still weaving its way through today’s pop culture landscape; you see it in Netflix’s Fear Street, a wonderful slasher love letter written in blood by the queer community who didn’t have much room at the table in 1996; you feel it in David Gordon Green‘s Halloween sequels, which are more about deconstructing the idea of Halloween becoming a franchise than they are telling a Halloween story; you sense it in the (deeply obnoxious) term “elevated horror,” used exclusively by people who spell it The VVitch, because inevitably “I know the rules of horror” becomes “I am smarter than horror” becomes “anything that is smart cannot also be horror.”
All of this is an aggressively long-winded way to say: SCREAM attempts to wrestle with all of the above, all at once, and it’s fascinating to unpack. It’s a movie that could only come from filmmakers molded in a post-Scream world, their storytelling instincts shaped not only by “the rules” but also the meta-rules to subvert the rules. In this case, it’s directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, with a script by James Vanderbilt (Zodiac) and Guy Busick (Ready or Not). Together, they’ve crafted a Scream sequel that is essentially about the horror of making a Scream sequel in the year 2022 without Wes Craven; that constantly questions what the hell a Scream sequel should even look like in the year 2022 without Wes Craven; that asks whether the world wants a Scream sequel in the year 2022, without Wes Craven, in a landscape dominated by (sigh) “elevated horror.” (SCREAM would make an excellent double feature with The Matrix Resurrections, another legacy sequel that playfully anguishes over its own existence.) Thanks to the in-universe Stab franchise, the fun of SCREAM becomes its characters literally debating the rules of surviving a Scream movie. But peel back another layer and you find Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillet grappling with the rules of making a Scream movie; no, a Scream legacy sequel, a relatively new sub-sub-genre that comes with its own set of rules, which then overlap with a thousand different wants, needs, and expectations across a million different Reddit threads.
The filmmaker’s existential crisis via slasher sequel is, I promise you, a blast to watch play out, but the real tight-rope walk of a Scream movie is whether it can ask these meta-questions and also just…operate as a kickass murder mystery. From a pure filmmaking standpoint, Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillet prove that their truly delightful 2019 boardgame bloodbath Ready or Not was no fluke, because SCREAM‘s set-pieces are as fun as they are bloody, the type of tailor-made-for-a-packed-theater set-ups that show a keen understanding of why horror is such a close cousin to comedy. The directing duo homage when an homage is needed, but this movie doesn’t try to recreate Craven’s style; SCREAM is a bit sleeker than its predecessors, a little grander, especially in how it frames Ghostface. This is a movie that is very aware of the ways Ghostface has become as much a piece of iconography as a character, cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz capturing the killer in ways that feel particularly otherworldly; silhouetted in front of car headlights, or up from the angle of a victim on their back. Don’t worry, though: SCREAM also understands the small things that make the character work, because when the time comes, this new Ghostface is crashing around like a dang doofus, flipping over tables in ways that would make Stu Macher and his unhinged scarecrow energy proud.
Unfortunately, it’s the “mystery” aspect of the whole affair that falls the flattest. The set-up is familiar: A new masked killer is on the loose in Woodsboro, their spree starting with a young girl, Tara Carpenter (Jenna Ortega), home alone and unfortunate enough to pick up when a stranger calls. The brutal attack reaches the attention of Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera), Tara’s estranged sister, who returns to Woodsboro with her boyfriend Richie (Jack Quaid) and a whole load of spoilery family secrets that eventually come to light. But first, Tara’s entire friend group becomes a suspect list: Wes (Dylan Minette), Mindy (Jasmine Savoy Brown), Liv (Sonia Ben Ammar), Amber (Mikey Madison), and Chad (Mason Gooding). This cast is just likable as hell, pulling off the harder-than-it-sounds trick of playing high school friends who naturally, realistically feel like high school friends. It’s not that SCREAM doesn’t enjoyably herd its school of red herrings, but the movie does them a disservice by tipping its hat just a bit too far. Because of the original Scream‘s deeply un-subtle nature overall, Craven and Williamson don’t get enough credit for how deftly they moved those pieces across the board. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillet, for as much fun as they’re clearly having, often lack that subtle hand. There are a few unnecessary visual Easter Eggs that, at least to my eye, make the killer’s identity just left of obvious, taking the wind out of the pivotal third-act reveal. SCREAM, essentially, ruins its surprise by getting a little too cute.
But that’s also the sticking point that makes SCREAM’s intentions so fun to analyze, because isn’t getting a little too cute with your Easter Eggs the most accurate, most loving Scream homage of them all? Any time I felt SCREAM crossed that line into too on-the-nose territory—which, woo boy, it does—I remembered Wes Craven quite literally appears in Scream dressed as Freddy Krueger, that Jamie Kennedy actually says the words “look behind you, Jamie” while a killer sneaks up behind him. The most Craven-esque aspect of SCREAM is the way it doesn’t just point out a trope and call it a day. It uses tropes—and the audience’s knowledge of those tropes—like a weapon. The script all but says that legacy characters Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), and Dewey Reilly (David Arquette) are here because, hey, it’s in the legacy sequel rule book. (Both Jurassic World and Halloween ’18 get a shout-out.) And when they do show up, there is that cheap, nostalgic warmth to the simple fact they’re here, that we recognize them, that we remember the four other movies they’re in that we enjoyed. The easiest thing to misunderstand about both Scream and SCREAM is that they do provide that nostalgia hit. But then there’s the twist of the knife.
They also a tease a fun Easter egg to look out for in the Hicks family home.
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