Scream has always carried a sense of winking parody. The 1996 original film was critical of slasher films but also a knowing nod to its many aspects. It’s as if director Wes Craven was seeking to deconstruct a horror genre he had helped popularize. It was a neat idea, where teenagers trapped in a slasher movie are somewhat knowing of slasher movies yet not able to avoid becoming victims of the genre’s many trappings. It’s one thing to yell back at the screen when a victim flees up the stairs to escape a killer. It’s another thing to encounter a killer in real life, something that the Scream films scrutinize.
So now we come to the fifth Scream movie that is simply titled Scream. Doesn’t it seem weird that they hide the numbers even though this is indeed a continuation of the previous films? The movie mocks this move as well while still doing it, keeping with the meta-commentary that is more a knowing nod than a skewering. Also present in the film is the torch-passing writing of soft-reboots, much akin to how films like The Force Awakens or Ghostbusters: Afterlife mixed old and new characters. And, yes, the film calls itself out on this angle as well.
The story remains very much the same formula. There’s a teenage girl in Woodsboro who is home alone and receives a phone call on her LAN line. She answers and there’s a creepy voice asking her to play a game. The topic is once again horror movies but our modern teen is more knowing of high-concept horror like The Babadook than the simplistic slashers the killer would rather talk about. There’s a hostage involved, they play the game, a chase ensues, a slashing is made by the Ghostface killer, and so on. Welcome to the new Woodsboro, same as the old Woodsboro.
The case of the slasher falls to both a new ensemble of teens and a familiar collective of previous characters. The new Sidney of this film is Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera), having escaped Woodsboro to avoid revealing a dark family secret but drawn back when she can’t run away from the past. Also returning to the film is the original Sidney (Neve Campbell), another character who was also out of town but is called back when Ghostface rises from his grave. We won’t see much of her until the second act but her first moment on screen is noted by a dramatic turn to the camera as the music swells, a pause present for the fan applause.
Other returning characters get the same treatment as they’re thrown back into the mix. Sherrif Dewey Riley (David Arquette) is now a retired drunk who tries to keep out of murder cases. Reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) returns to cover more murders for the sake of journalism, reviving her off/on romance with Dewey. There’s also Judy Hicks (Marley Shelton) from the previous Scream movie, now having moved up in rank within the police force. They all swarm around the scene and provide their useful insight for slasher movie logic to some teenagers who need to get back into the swing of slasher movie logic.
Thankfully, this film never stoops so low as to make this movie a generational gap picture where the old has to guide the new. The film certainly seemed to be heading this way with how the new crop of youngsters are more into high-brow horror and not keen on their slasher trivia. This obliviousness, however, is treated as a good thing. Once our band of suspects and survivors start learning the rules, they attempt to trot around their small town with caution. But, as previous Scream movies have demonstrated, it’s about as hard to avoid horror tropes in this town as it is to avoid elaborate disasters in the Final Destination movies.
Without giving too much away about the true killers for this twisty tale, the motivating factor here is toxic fandom. This was a great route to take considering how overblown and vitriolic franchise fans have become in desiring the traditional yet scrutinizing revivals. There’s some fascistic commentary worth exploring from this angle that is touched on here and there.
One of the teen horror nerds remarks on how easy it is for fans of the in-universe Scream stand-in gets all pissy when a film doesn’t meet their Goldilocks-zone standards. The nerd remarks that sequels should be new but not two new and feature old characters but not all old characters. It’s an uphill battle to find a sequel that works to please such critical consumers and Scream comes about as close as any horror film would to mocking this mindset.
For the most part, however, Scream is every bit the retread it tries to satirize, hoping it’ll seem more compelling for critiquing itself before you do. It still features returning characters who are all given their close-up shots and grand exits. It still features the victims making mistakes they didn’t account for, even when considering the classic slasher trappings to an almost absurd degree. It also becomes incredibly annoying how meta the dialogue becomes that it never feels as though it backs off the fourth wall for a bit.
One would think that by the third act, which every knowing character speaks highly of being the juiciest part, the twists and turns could take off on their own without the commentary. Yet we’re still getting talk of cool-looking deaths and brilliant staging for duels. There comes a point where the allegory is so ridiculously blunt that I found myself muttering under my breathe “we know” every time a character calls out another horror trope or example of fandom run amok.
Scream still does what Scream does best but rarely veers outside its familiar formula that the wrinkles become far more visible. The appreciation for the film ultimately comes down to how much you still dig the parody staging of slashers and how strongly it can be used for satirizing fans. Some of it works when it feels as though the film is actually trying to say something about the nature of obsessive fans who let franchise fatigue and lackluster sequels bother them more than they should. Yet the adherence to the common slasher elements while openly mocking them feels more jarring than it is insightful within this retread that can’t wait to rant to the audience about retreads.