The central challenge of any Scream sequel is how to do justice to the self-aware, tongue-in-cheek quality of Scream without either straying too far into comic pointlessness or meta-disappearing up one’s own meta-ass. Not every Scream sequel has achieved this balance; one might argue most haven’t. In part because director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson’s brilliant, scary, and even kind of moving 1996 original was itself something of a poison pill: It came preloaded with all the po-mo self-reflectivity one could ever want, taking place in a world where generations of slasher movies had already prepared the victims for all the genre clichés they were about to confront (and usually fall prey to). Any attempt to one-up the movie was likely doomed to fail, because it had already one-upped itself, and it had done so while also managing to be absolutely terrifying.
The new Scream at least seems to understand this on some fundamental level. It has a back-to-basics quality that might, at first, lull you into thinking it’s a more straightforward reboot. It opens with the obligatory girl-stuck-at-home-talking-on-the-phone attack, as teenager Tara Carpenter (Jenna Ortega) is questioned by a mysterious voice that at first seems friendly, pretending to be a friend of her mom’s from “group,” but quickly devolves into the slithery, menacing cadences of Ghostface, who loves to quiz his or her victims about horror films (or, in Scream-speak, “scary movies.”) Of course, this is 2022, so Tara, it turns out, is more of an A24 gal and prefers so-called elevated horror. “Ask me about It Follows! Ask me about Hereditary! Ask me about The Witch!” she shrieks as things get more desperate — not long before she’s stabbed to within an inch of her life, with her leg broken for good measure. It’s a striking sequence, mainly because the talented Ortega makes Tara’s fear palpable as she goes from boredom to terror.
The attack on Tara prompts the intervention of her estranged older sister, Sam (Melissa Barrera), who along with her boyfriend, Richie (Jack Quaid), returns to the town of Woodsboro to take care of her sibling and also get to the bottom of who might have done something like this. Tara has, as one might expect, a close cohort of friends, all of whom could be the culprit but most of whom will become victims. Sam also enlists the help of former sheriff Dewey Riley (David Arquette), who is now divorced from TV personality Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) and living in a trailer with bottles of liquor strewn around. Dewey in turn calls Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), prompting her to return to Woodsboro as well — no great surprise there, as every previous Scream movie has been, on some basic level, Sidney’s story.
We soon learn that most of Tara’s friends have some connection to the teens from the original Scream. A pair of twins, Chad (Mason Gooding) and Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown), are the nephews of Jamie Kennedy’s mouthy, long-deceased horror fiend Randy Meeks, and their living room TV has been rechristened the Randolph Meeks Memorial Theater. But as the callbacks to the original films accumulate, it becomes clear this is no typical reboot or typical sequel … Or, well, wait, maybe it’s actually quite typical for our times: One helpful living room back-and-forth among these movie-savvy kids soon explains to us that they’re all living through a “requel,” one of those projects that brings back the original characters to give it some official heft, while passing the torch to a new generation of heroes.
The movies cited are the recent Halloween films that brought back Jamie Lee Curtis, but a more appropriate reference point may well be The Force Awakens, which brought back beloved Star Wars heroes but made them background players in a younger cast’s story line. There’s even a Force-ghost of sorts — as one of the first film’s villains, Billy Loomis, played by a digitally de-aged Skeet Ulrich, regularly appears in mirrors and such to converse with Sam.
Certainly, the cosplaying Empire-wannabe villains of The Force Awakens have more in common with the Ghostface of this Scream — as we’re told early on that this mysterious killer (or killers; there are often more than one) must be a heavy-duty fan who just wants to bring the old Ghostface magic back, in response to the liberties taken by the eighth entry in the Stab franchise. (The Stab movies, as you may remember, are the Scream movies’ stand-ins for the Scream movies, serving as both a wink-wink, see-what-we-did-there echo of what happened with the Scream movies in real life and a cautionary tale about all the terrible directions the Scream movies could have taken.) We’re told that Reddit and 4chan have lit up with irate haters who took exception both to the fictional Ghostface’s newer weapons (including a flamethrower!) and to the Stab movies’ turns toward social justice. If the previous Scream films were all about the commodification of horror, this one is about the obsessive toxicity of fandom in general, whether it comes from horror nuts, Star Wars nerds, or Ghostbusters obsessives.
Okay, but did it have to be so lifeless? One of the reasons why all the meta-textual bloviating of the original Scream worked was because Williamson had a great feel for the hyperarticulate ramblings of suburban teens; his dialogue wasn’t realistic, necessarily, but it created its own world. (That’s maybe one of the reasons why so many of the young actors from the first Scream actually became stars, something relatively rare for the slasher genre.) And Craven, at his best, cleverly mixed humor and horror: He could undercut a moment with a laugh, but he also used that to make the moment scarier. The reason Ghostface is always kind of a klutz in these movies — no matter who they may be — is because it makes it that much more terrifying and tragic when the killer inevitably succeeds in gutting the victim.
But these new characters don’t really come to life in any meaningful way, and if they can’t come to life, their deaths (or near-deaths) become rather uninteresting. Despite the diversity of the cast, they all seem like variations of one another. Ortega’s Tara is the one high point, perhaps because she spends so much of the movie wounded and particularly vulnerable, and thus set apart from the crowd. As her sister Sam, the ostensible hero of this film, Barrera is particularly wooden, but that’s probably because she’s saddled with lines like, “And that’s why I changed, and I got weird and I got distant with you, why I went and started doing every drug I could get my hands on, until I couldn’t take it anymore and I left you.” (The actress was one of the stars of last year’s In the Heights, and she was enchanting in that, so we know she can act. I blame the script, credited here to Zodiac scribe James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, but who knows how many studio hands these things go through.) The few moments of genuine emotion in the new film come primarily from the older characters, but it’s not necessarily because of anything they say or do in this movie. It’s because those of us who saw the earlier pictures have already formed some attachment to these people.
Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, who were previously responsible for 2019’s acclaimed horror-action-comedy Ready or Not (which Busick also wrote), do a nice job handling the cat-and-mouse chases between Ghostface and the victims, a hallmark of any Scream movie, but are not as confident when it comes to mounting any actual scares. They’re more interested, it seems, in not mounting scares: One scene that has someone opening closet and fridge doors repeatedly — with its nods to the horror trope of characters suddenly showing up behind those doors, a cliché already addressed in previous Scream movies — elicits knowing chuckles but is not actually suspenseful or even mildly frightening. It does feel, however, like something you’d see in a Scream movie, so maybe that’s the point. This new Scream is so determined to be a Scream movie that it forgets the primary, unstated rule established by the original Scream: You can sell anything to us, so long as you make it scary.
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