This year’s Scream (not to be confused with 1996’s Scream, of course) contains a moment with a Matryoshka doll of references: a low-angle shot of a showerhead echoes the scene from movie-within-a-movie Stab in 1997’s Scream 2, which was obviously itself nodding to 1960’s Psycho. There are more layers here than a J.Crew outfit, but none of it should be a surprise to fans of the newly revived franchise, whose metatextuality is as essential to its DNA as the Ghostface killer. With its cheeky self-awareness, horror movie rules, and spelled-out genre call-outs, the Scream series continues this decade’s trend of giving beloved 20th-century properties a facelift to appeal to new audiences, but remaining recognizable to those who watched them the first time around. Its 2021 predecessors have declared themselves as made for the filmmakers (The Matrix Resurrections), for — ugh — the “true” fans (Ghostbusters: Afterlife), or for absolutely no one other than the shareholders (Space Jam: A New Legacy). Scream distances itself from the Jason Reitman approach (without actually name-checking the pandering nostalgia of Ghostbusters: Afterlife), offering an entertaining commentary on toxic fandom amidst all its comedy and slasher violence.
Directed by Ready or Not duo Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, Scream (2022) is the first film in the series not helmed by late horror legend Wes Craven. It still adheres to the structural formula of its predecessors, but will it play by the traditional rules? An opening scene features a familiar (soon-to-be-bloodied) face playing cat-and-mouse with Ghostface first over the phone and then in person, followed by an establishing section that introduces a lot of pretty young (and perhaps soon-to-be pretty dead) things. The second act dispatches characters and potential suspects in grisly fashion, setting the scene for the third-act bloodbath to finish the job. This time the pretty young things are played by Melissa Barrera, Jasmin Savoy Brown, Mason Gooding, Mikey Madison, Dylan Minnette, Jenna Ortega, and Jack Quaid — all solid here, and all representing promising new(ish) talent.
The younger generation is the focus for almost the first half of the film, with the original trio only elevated to starring roles in the later acts. Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, and David Arquette serve as the connection with the first four films as Sidney, Gail, and Dewey, as the past refuses to die in Woodsboro, even while many of its citizens do. The Scream series shares a core idea with a vastly different cinematic offering from the ‘90s, Magnolia: “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.” As in the first four films, a connection to the previous deaths motivates the killer(s), but 2022’s Scream twists the franchise’s approach to this in a way that may be briefly fun for fans of the original, but whose conception and execution ultimately disappoint.
Despite that misstep, Scream is largely a lot of fun, filled with the metacommentary, one-liners, and multiple stab wounds of its predecessors. However, while it might match the mid-range of the series in quality (Screams 2 and 4, for the record), it’s still less of a blast than Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett’s Ready or Not. It’s also less trenchant in its commentary; Ready or Not eviscerated the elite both literally and figuratively, taking its upper-class characters down with precision and delight. Meanwhile, Scream focuses on a particular brand of devoted movie fans bent on protecting IP to the detriment of creating something new. While this results in some enjoyably goofy speeches evoking the evils of this type of fanatical fidelity, the screenplay from James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick lacks clarity in its message. And while Ready or Not evinced the work of two stylish filmmakers, the visuals of this Scream are generic and not particularly memorable. It’s a capably made film from the technical perspective but never achieves more than that. “Elevated horror” like The Babadook, Get Out, and Hereditary are shouted out for their thematic depth — and dismissed by Ghostface himself — but they also are doing more with their look than this Scream attempts, to its detriment.
Similarly, this new Scream never wows in the way that the 1996 original did. It isn’t surprising, given how each new entry in the series has tried and failed to replicate the freshness that Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson brought to what was at that point a flagging genre (and then spawned imitations of its own). However, the 2022 edition manages to evoke what we loved about the franchise while still breaking enough new ground to both maintain interest and live up to what the films were always trying to do: at once tweak our conception of what horror can do while paying a deeply loving homage to it.