Horror franchises are rarely a good thing. A successful horror film is often like a bolt of lightning, appearing seemingly from out of nowhere and rarely built with a follow-up in mind. This often makes horror sequels feel like cheap retreads, where the integrity of what made the original so satisfying is diluted. The 'Scream' franchise is singular in that even its weaker entries are still really strong, really entertaining films. It helps that the foundation on which the series is built, Wes Craven's meta-textual marvel 'Scream' (1996), is both a deeply satisfying horror film and a witty, irreverent commentary on the horror genre itself. Each of its sequels has gotten away with using the tired tropes of horror franchises by commenting on those tired tropes, giving them a spark most horror sequels lack.
This latest instalment, simply titled 'Scream', is the first entry since 2011's flashy, operatic 'Scream 4' and the first without series director and horror legend Wes Craven, who passed away in 2015. The idea of returning to Woodsboro, its hero Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) and the iconic Ghostface seemed inevitable, especially after the success of the reboot/sequel to 'Halloween' (2018), but there was a danger here also. The joy of the 'Scream' franchise has always been its irreverent humour and its clever, knowing subtext. Horror has also shifted considerably since 2011, with the gulf between popcorn horror entertainment and craft becoming even more pronounced, something the 'Scream' films always balanced beautifully. Without Craven at the helm (or the presence of original writer Kevin Williamson), could a new 'Scream' film possibly offer anything fresh or necessary?
Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett (the team behind the frustrating 2019 horror hit 'Ready or Not') and written by James Vanderbilt ('Zodiac') and Guy Busick ('Ready or Not'), 'Scream' once again brings us back to the town of Woodsboro, where a new Ghostface has begun terrorising the town. A slew of new characters is introduced, centred around Samantha Carpenter (Melissa Barrera, 'In The Heights'), a young woman returning to the town with a dark secret. The murders also bring back the surviving members of the first film, ex-cop Dewey Riley (David Arquette), reporter and writer Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), and the series' perennial hero Sidney Prescott. As chaos descends once again on Woodsboro, the race is on to catch the movie-inspired killer, using the principles of the reboot/remake as a guide.
While it isn't a total slam-dunk, this new 'Scream' certainly delivers in many of the ways one would hope. A lovely balance between horror and humour is maintained, especially when married with its necessary meta-commentary on the horror genre. The original 'Scream' pulled on tropes and references from the proceeding decades of horror cinema. For this new 'Scream', the urtext is the original film itself, as seen through the in-movie universe franchise 'Stab'. Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of this new film is its understanding of its own pointlessness. There's no real reason for a new 'Scream' film, but this very fact becomes the central conceit of the film itself - to lampoon the insincerity of the nostalgia-driven reboot craze, the ways in which it has succeeded and failed, and the ways in which fandom itself has become an uncomfortable, petulant force. This kind of meta self-awareness could have fallen flat, but it's done with such irreverence and speciality in 'Scream' that it adds a necessary weight and purpose to the film. Even its questionable title becomes the butt of many a satisfying joke.
The 'Scream' films can't rely on their meta commentary alone though; they need a strong story with strong characters to function. In this instance, 'Scream' mostly succeeds, though the new teen characters are mostly pretty nondescript. Samantha sticks out as a de-facto protagonist because she's given the most backstory and an interesting conundrum to unravel, one that links her nicely to the original cast. Much like 'Scream 4', 'Scream' suffers from a first act that takes a bit too long, weakly-written teen characters and an initial hesitation to go for the theatrics - but once the kills start, the film really finds its footing. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett follow nicely in Craven's footsteps by crafting a handsome, slick thriller that has the sheen of modern studio horror without falling into laziness. The set pieces in particular are beautifully crafted, evoking iconic sequences from previous films while adding a wicked sadism of their own.
While the cast is mostly so-so, there are some standouts. Melissa Barrera is very strong as Samantha, a Sidney Prescott-style glint in her eye of the woman at the centre of chaos being totally over this bullshit. Of the new teen characters, Jasmin Savoy Brown ('The Leftovers') really shines as Mindy, this film's Randy, with a quick wit and insatiable film knowledge. Her instant charisma lights up the screen every frame she's in, often elevating those around her. Another standout is Jenna Ortega as Samantha's younger sister Tara, constantly in the line of fire for the attacks and yet determined, strong and pissed-off.
There's no real reason for a new 'Scream' film, but this very fact becomes the central conceit of the film itself, to lampoon the insincerity of the nostalgia-driven reboot craze.
Maybe that's the key to a successful Scream character, why actors like Jamie Kennedy, Jada Pinkett Smith, Parker Posey and Hayden Panettiere were all standouts in their respective films - that these characters know they're in a horror film, and either revel in the opportunity or would really rather be anywhere else. This is what has always made Campbell, Cox and Arquette such a winning team; both as actors and as characters, they are totally aware of the theatrical artifice of it all, and as each successive film goes on, Dewey and Gale and Sidney are progressively just more and more tired of all this rubbish. When all these elements are in harmony, this film (as in all the previous films) really sings, and with all the pieces in place, promises a balls-to-the-wall final act deserving of the series.
This latest instalment could have been a failure, could have lent more into lazy slasher and horror tropes without realising these were only part of the appeal. Instead, as all reboots/remakes/reimaginings/sequels/prequels/whatevers should do, 'Scream' takes the time to ask what we loved about the series in the first place, tries to work out the principles to achieving this, lays out its ground rules, and then either gleefully adheres to them or cheekily blows them apart. It was never going to compete with the original, but anyone who walked in expecting that is, frankly, a fool. Horror has come a long way since 1996, has gone through a number of evolutions. Hell, 'Scream' itself has gone from the genre's assessor to an acknowledged foundational classic. The role of the 'Scream' franchise has always been to interrogate that evolution. That's why Ghostface always begins with, "What's your favourite scary movie?", so the film itself can plant that question in your head, ask you to consider why, and then tear that love apart limb from limb. I would argue that the key to the 'Scream' franchise isn't just good scares and witty jokes and clever commentary. It's also a series built on passion, love and joy for horror cinema, with a tongue in its cheek but without a hint of cynicism. This is what makes the latest 'Scream' such a fun, satisfying entry into the series, even with its many flaws. It's as much a joy to watch as it was clearly a joy to make, leaving your brain whizzing with ideas and your thirst for blood adequately sated.