Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown), a film buff in the painfully self-referential new “Scream,” defines a “requel” as a movie returning to the original elements of its precursors, like “legacy characters,” while carrying the storyline forward rather than simply regurgitating it. This fifth installment in the “Scream” series was originally planned for release last year, in celebration of Wes Craven’s 1996 original’s 25th anniversary.
In the 21st century, directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s chosen genre has cycled through several trends: J- and K-horror, found footage, torture porn, and elevated horror. While the latter was initially a brush of fresh air in the genre, its interest in topical subjects has often turned into new forms of exploitation, with horror films’ raw grindhouse roots getting lost. Still, it altered the impression many people have that horror movies all consist of serial killers chasing women and carving their bodies up in gory ways. If there’s a new fashion on the horizon, it’s an uninspired, nostalgic one. Look at “Malignant,” Netflix’s ‘Fear Street” trilogy, or this version of “Scream.”
Returning to the series’ primal scene, it begins with Tara (Jenna Ortega) receiving a phone call from a strange man. It interrupts her texting with a friend. As she stays on the line, she realizes that she’s speaking with a man who is watching and stalking her. As they say, the calls are coming from inside the house, placed by this film’s version of the Ghostface-mask killer. After he stabs her, she ends up in the hospital and her sister Samantha (Melissa Barrera) feels guilty she couldn’t protect her sibling. They join up with their teenage friends and several veterans of the series to hunt Ghostface.
Craven’s original “Scream” already looked back at ‘80s slasher movies with a jaundiced eye, while still participating eagerly in the sub-genre. Its delicate balance of wit and brutality was hard to copy, even in the later sequels also directed by Craven. Kevin Williamson, the gay screenwriter of “Scream,” went on to create the TV show “Dawson’s Creek.” The 2022 “Scream” often feels like an edgy teen cable TV drama, only settling into a real groove in its final third.
It is eager to tell you about the current landscape of horror films, complain about toxic fandom, and quote iconic lines like “What’s your favorite scary movie?” In fact, it never ceases rubbing the audience’s face in its own self-awareness. This recycles the main thread of the entire series, in which a film called “Stab” has been made about the events depicted in “Scream.” “Ending Explained” videos for “Scream” will probably arrive on YouTube, and the film acknowledges them by showing a YT video critiquing “Stab 8.”
Craven’s “Scream” was one of the first films obviously influenced by scholar Carol Clover’s feminist analysis of the slasher movie in her book “Men, Women and Chainsaws.” Clover coined the phrase and concept “final girl.” Repeating the reactionary politics of ‘80s slasher films — where Black characters usually died early and teenage girls were punished with murder for being sexually active, drinking alcohol or smoking weed — wouldn’t fly now (although “Malignant” came surprisingly close). The killers in Craven’s “Scream” were coded as a gay couple, riffing on the trope of two young same-gender lovers going on a murder spree that began with Hitchcock’s “Rope.” Subverting film bro stereotypes, Mindy, the obsessive horror fan with a huge Blu-Ray collection, is a queer woman of color (as is Brown.) A shower scene inspired by “Psycho” places a nude young man in the place of Janet Leigh. While both men and women get murdered, the film delights in phallic violence against men.
But all of this plays like a defense mechanism. “Scream” wards off criticism by acknowledging that it is the latest in a long line of Hollywood sequels and reboots endlessly reworking decades-old material. Knowing what you’re doing still doesn’t mean you’re any good at it. This “Scream” has nothing to offer which wasn’t accomplished much better long ago in the series. It gives its characters dialogue about horror films relying on jump scares, then goes on to serve up its own string of fake-outs — shots in which the killer suddenly appears.
The homages to Hitchcock and John Carpenter, as well as naming a character after Craven, only show how little personality Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett have. It still strides into one of the slasher movie’s main pitfalls: setting out an ensemble cast with no real personality apart from one or two traits. The gore has no real bite, while the lighthearted mood does the bare minimum to remain entertaining. The film is preceded by a brief clip urging the audience not to give away spoilers, but when it reaches the end of its twists, you may not care who’s behind the Ghostface mask.
“SCREAM” | Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett | Paramount | Opens citywide Jan. 14th