'Scream' review: Looking at the past in the reflection of a knife
Series' fifth entry is a commentary on the series, horror movies in general and the nature of toxic fandom.
The self-reflexive house of mirrors that is the "Scream" series gazes longingly at itself in "Scream," the franchise's fifth entry and a natural end point that brings the slasher story back to its beginnings.
It offers a wry commentary on sequels, re-quels (not quite a reboot, not quite a sequel) and meta-horror that functions as a clever, knowing wink-wink to itself and fans of the series. For awhile, it's also a pretty good horror movie. It stumbles by the end — these movies always do — but by bringing itself full circle, it stands as the best "Scream" since the original.
That's faint praise, sure, considering the diminishing returns of the sequels — the most recent being 2011's Metro Detroit-filmed "Scream 4," which featured a go-for-broke Emma Roberts going for broke in the big finish — which isn't saying anything that this "Scream" doesn't say itself.
The screenplay by Guy Busick (2019's "Ready or Not") and James Vanderbilt ("The Amazing Spider-Man," "White House Down") takes the spirit of Kevin Williamson's 1996 original and twists it even further inward, turning "Scream" into a post-modern take on the "Scream" series, as well as the current state of film and internet fan discourse.
That's not necessarily new — "Scream 2" was as much a play on the original "Scream" as "Scream" was a critique on all the slasher films that came before it, and the audiences that grew up watching them — but the new "Scream" exists in a world where movie universes and franchise fare have gobbled the film world whole, so there's plenty of fresh meat to sink its knife into.
And there's no shortage of gabbing in this "Scream," not only about the "Scream" movies themselves but also about elevated horror ("The Babadook," "Hereditary"), toxic fandom and the nature of fan service as it pertains to modern movies.
There are references — most direct, some indirect — to everything from "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Halloween" to "The Last Jedi," along with callbacks galore to things both inside and outside the "Scream" landscape. The Leonardo DiCaprio points at screen meme is a perfect way to describe the "Scream" viewing experience.
All of this is pleasing in a sense but it doesn't add up to a movie so much as it does, in another twist of the knife, to a piece of fan service. Its attempts to distance itself from that fact by commenting on it are unconvincing, especially in the convoluted, overwrought finale. As one of the characters plainly states, we've seen this movie before.
We're back in Woodsboro and a landline is ringing, and a teenager named Tara (Jenna Ortega) answers the phone only to find someone on the other end wanting to talk about scary movies. (Voice actor Roger L. Jackson again plays the part of "The Voice," and he proves to be the most indispensable part of the "Scream" legacy.) An attack leaves Tara in the hospital and a whole new crew of Woodsboro kids as the suspects, including some with blood ties back to the original "Scream" cast of characters.
Tara's sister, Sam ("In the Heights'" Melissa Barrera), returns to town to help track down the perpetrator, and she enlists the help of Dewey Riley (Arquette), now down on his luck and living in a trailer.
He's retired from the police force and estranged from his ex-wife Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) — in real life, Arquette and Cox finalized their divorce in 2013, more fodder for the funhouse mirrors — whom he watches longingly on morning TV. But he agrees to help Tara and her boyfriend Richie (Jack Quaid, son of Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan) track down the attacker, who since leaving Tara alive has begun carving his way through town.
Soon Gale and series heroine Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) are back home as well, because who can resist a slasher spree? Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett ("Ready or Not," "V/H/S") stage several daring sequences, gleefully toying with audience expectations of jump scares while ramping up the horror violence and lessening the humorous tone of the previous movies. Their horror mechanics are on point.
But as the directors walk through the paces set forth by series helmer Wes Craven (there's a character named Wes and a "For Wes" dedication to the late horror master, who died in 2015, in the end credits), sometimes in wholesale re-creations of the original "Scream" set pieces — the closing sequence is a literal return to the home where the climax of the first movie took place — "Scream" successfully scratches a nostalgia itch but feels anchored to the past, as the new characters, save for Sam, barely register.
In a sense, the deck was always stacked against them. "Scream" doesn't set out to carve a new path, it offers the promise of something new while wrapping audiences in the familiarity of old. Yes, "Scream" comments on and plays with those very ideas, but that doesn't make it any less guilty of succumbing to them. It just means it doesn't follow its own rules.
Rated R: for strong bloody violence, language throughout and some sexual references
Running time: 114 minutes