Scream (Paramount Pictures)
The Scream franchise has always been slightly impervious to criticism by design: it has always been a slasher movie of the type that critics have never liked all that much, but at the same time a satire and a deconstruction of the genre. When it engages in the tropes of a cheap slasher movie, it does so at an ironic distance that winks at the audience, and that alleviates some of the tawdriness. The first movie might have started with a script by Kevin Williamson, the Dawson’s Creek scribe who reshaped the teen drama through ironic verbal dexterity, but it was directed by the late horror expert Wes Craven, which always meant that even when it was a winking look at horror, it was still always meant to scare you.
The design of the Scream movies may insulate it from some of the criticisms of slasher movies, but it also happens that the movies tend to be pretty good. None of the films may have reached the heights of a horror movie like The Exorcist, but considering how the quality of horror sequels tends to drop precipitously, the Scream series has a remarkable track record. There isn’t a bad one of the five, probably because the series always featured actors a cut above the standard slasher movie (and the series produced so few movies that none of them were meant to be disposable.
But the latest version of the series, which eschews the 5 and simply goes by Scream, debuts in an era where the slasher movie has fallen out of a fashion, much like it had in the late nineties when audiences had long tired of Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees. But the media landscape for horror is not quite the same as it was in 1996, since this is the era of Elevated Horror, where people like Ari Aster and Jordan Peele make scary movies with a message. Since Scream is the most self-aware of all movie franchises, this obviously comes into play.
The standard for a Scream movie is to begin with a death at the hands of Ghostface, but this one has a minor departure. The victim this time is not a star like Drew Barrymore, and the character lives. Jenna Ortega plays Tara Carpenter, Ghostface’s first target, and when she survives, that brings her estranged sister Sam (Melissa Barrera, In the Heights) back to Woodsdale to help figure out who has taken up the Ghostface mask and save her sister. Like the first movie, Scream introduces a friend group played by somewhat recognizable teen stars (Dylan Minnette from 13 Reasons Why is probably the most famous of them), any of whom, possibly several of whom, might be the killer. Connections to earlier characters from the franchise will be revealed, and most importantly the stars of the main trio will return.
As one character explains, this is a re-quel. It’s not a pure reboot like the Chris Pine Star Trek movies because it connects to the earlier mythology, but its next generation quality separates it from a pure Scream sequel that focuses fully on the characters played by Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox and David Arquette. It draws from the same playbook as The Force Awakens, although the main trio from the earlier films don’t recede into the background. Barrera is the protagonist of the story, but Scream doesn’t use Campbell, Cox and Arquette merely to pass the torch. All three have substantial roles, which they perform with weariness but conviction.
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, who did the clever Ready or Not, take over directing duties from Craven, who died in 2015, and they understand the balancing act of the series. A Scream movie should be funny, self-deprecating and have its pulse on movie geek tastes, yet it should also offer conventional horror movie scares. Perhaps the meta quality of the series doesn’t have nearly the novelty that it did in the late nineties — it was a simpler time — but the filmmakers hit the right notes. Except for the first scene, which is always the highlight of a Scream movie, the filmmakers don’t quite sustain the level of wit, though, which keeps it from being a top entry in the franchise. But this Scream knows what it’s doing, quite self-referentially so, and delivers on that balance of horror and meta commentary for which the franchise is distinctly known.
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