The Scream franchise hatched by writer Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven in 1996 injected new life into the slasher film by observing the rules of the genre while simultaneously subverting them. Its meta mischief and high body count spawned a voracious new generation of horror nerds and raked in $608 million in global box office. Revisiting the property 11 years after Scream 4, the new installment — made with Williamson’s blessing and dedicated to the late Craven — goes back to the original for inspiration but seriously over-indulges in self-referential cleverness, to the point of undermining the actual scare factor.
It’s hard not to groan when imperiled Californian teens sit around contemplating who might be responsible for the bloody slaughter once again unleashed on suburban Woodsboro, along with who might be next to feel the knife, and one of them pipes up with the realization of the killer: “Oh my God, he’s making a requel!” You might be more inclined to respond positively to a legacy character telling the latest sinister voice at the end of a phone line, “You really need some new material.”
The entire franchise was built on a knowing dissection of the slasher film and all its tropes, so it’s quite possible that some longtime fans will eagerly consume this playful new serving of constant carnage and mayhem, which climaxes with a bloodbath in the very same house where Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) faced down the original killer behind the Ghostface mask in the first finale. But meta riffs on horror are no longer a novelty, neutered by countless imitations and parodies.
The fresh twist here in James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick’s screenplay is the take on toxic fandom. “Someone has to save the franchise!” shrieks a character in perverse self-justification while busy notching up deaths. “Hollywood’s totally out of ideas.” Whether you find that amusing or so far up its own ass — to put it bluntly — that its winking humor becomes grating will be a matter of personal taste.
It’s hard to get too invested in the peril of characters whose life being at stake doesn’t stop them expounding on the differences between old-school and elevated art horror. While being threatened and quizzed on her landline by Ghostface (Roger L. Jackson returns to provide the creepy electronically manipulated phone voice), first target Tara (Jenna Ortega) begs not to be grilled about the Stab franchise that stands in for the Scream films here. “Ask me anything about It Follows or Hereditary or The Witch!” she pleads. Another teen in a discussion that follows three attacks — one of them fatal — notes, “What’s wrong with elevated horror? I mean, Jordan Peele fucking rules!”
A little of this stuff goes a long way. Unlike the first Scream, where the dissertations on the rules of horror were predominantly the domain of Jamie Kennedy’s Randy Meeks, almost everyone here offers commentary on some trope or other.
If nothing else, it’s a pleasure to see Campbell again in fine form as Sidney, striding back into Woodsboro to take care of unfinished business. Also returning is Courteney Cox’s TV news reporter Gale Weathers, now a New York morning-show host, and David Arquette, quite touching as former sheriff Dewey Riley, who’s been kicked off the force and is stewing in alcohol to soothe his aching heart after his split with Gale. The script milks poignant moments out of Cox and Arquette’s on- and off-camera relationship in a couple of sweet reunion scenes. A handful of other characters (and their original actors) from previous installments turn up briefly, among them a major figure whose connection to one of the newcomers is a significant plot driver.
It’s too bad that crew of fresh faces leaves so little impression. After the attack on Tara, her estranged sister Sam (Melissa Barrera) rushes back to town, accompanied by her boyfriend Richie (Jack Quaid), who professes to be unfamiliar with the Stab films but dives into a crash course of Netflix viewing and fan forums. Tara’s close-knit band of high school friends includes her best bud Amber (Mikey Madison); Randy’s twin niece and nephew, Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and Chad (Mason Gooding); Chad’s girlfriend Liv (Sonia Ammar); and Wes Hicks (Dylan Minnette), whose mother Judy (Marley Shelton) has been promoted from deputy to sheriff since Dewey’s exit from the job.
Co-directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett handle the escalating terror with reasonable skill as members of the CW-esque ensemble start dropping like flies. The trouble is, they can’t stop talking about the plot mechanics of slasher movies long enough to let much nail-biting tension take hold. The first few startling appearances of Ghostface pack a jolt or two. But as the action progresses, the filmmakers start teasing us with pointed music cues and shots set up to make us anticipate the murderous, cloaked and masked antagonist behind every door. That gives Ghostface’s reappearances, when they do happen, the feel of a game rather than a life-or-death encounter.
The killer always goes back to the past, we’re told, so it’s obvious that all roads lead to Sidney, along with Sam, for reasons that won’t be revealed here. Those connections are capably established in a screenplay positively intoxicated with Scream lore; the clues as to the killer’s identity are laid with sly humor and just enough misdirection to keep it interesting, and the multiplying string of murders don’t stint on gore. But there’s not a lot of invention to reflect the passage of time since the franchise’s origins. While cellphones are omnipresent, it’s still good old landlines that deliver the biggest jumps, and a family locator app adds just a modicum of suspense to delay one inevitable knifing.
In one hairy moment, Sam tells her boyfriend, “You know that part in horror movies when you wanna yell at the characters to be smart and get the fuck out? This is that part, Richie!” You might instead find yourself wanting to yell at them to shut up about horror movies and be smarter about strategizing to avoid the killer — or killers, to be consistent with past episodes — in their midst.
The movie namechecks everything from The Babadook to Halloween, Friday the 13th to Psycho, complete with a shower scene. Sure, there’s some fun in all that meta-playfulness. But there’s also a facetiousness that wears thin and intrudes on the killing spree, making me often wish I was watching any one of the superior movies being referenced.