Illustration by Jenn Marie Watermeier
This year’s Scream, the fifth film in the meta-slasher franchise, appropriately shares its name with the original, as it’s a love letter to that film and its fans. The film even speaks directly to them when one new character describes Stab, the movie within the movie, as “the movie your parents let you watch when you were 10 that made you fall in love with horror.” In this moment, fans who grew up with the Scream series will undoubtedly recall popping in the VHS tape of the original that they rented from Blockbuster, curling up on the couch and watching it under the safety of a blanket.
Like the original film, this one opens on a teenage girl home alone at night in the fictional town of Woodsboro, California. The Ghostface killer inevitably calls and forces her into playing their signature horror-movie trivia game. We’re in modern times now, so you’re probably thinking, “Let me Google that for you.” Well, she does turn to the search engine, but screenwriters James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick cleverly emphasize the impatience of today’s teens by making her scroll past one part of a two-part answer.
Of course, once the return of Ghostface hits the news, the original Woodsboro trio — Sidney (Neve Campbell), Dewey (David Arquette) and Gale (Courtney Cox) — come out of hiding to hunt the killer (or killers) down. But the film focuses more on another Woodsboro native named Sam (Melissa Barrera), who returns with reluctance and resentment, especially after revealing a juicy family secret that looms over the rest of the film.
Sam teams up with the friends of her sister, Tara (Jenny Ortega), many of whom Sam used to babysit. They find out Ghostface is going after relatives of the victims in the first film. These new kids on the block are movie-savvy like the original gang, so they quickly realize they’re in a “re-quel,” a sequel that’s really more of a franchise reboot fashioned after the original film. Again, Vanderbilt and Busick find humor here, making the teens bitter about being in a lowbrow slasher flick rather than the “elevated horror” films they prefer like The Babadook and Us.
While Scream may not have the same “dramatic underpinnings” that its teen characters love about The Babadook, it does have emotional heft. The reunion between Dewey and Gale is particularly poignant on a meta level, as the story finds the couple separated like Arquette and Cox are in real life. Their relationship is the aching heart at the core of the film.
Unfortunately, Campbell doesn’t get much to do as Sidney. But when she’s tossed into a scary situation near the end of the film that mirrors the original, it sparks some spine-tingling magic.
It’s in the third act that directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett really shine, recreating the single-setting claustrophobia they mastered in their previous film, Ready or Not. They also infuse the climax with that film’s cathartic, comical brutality.
Blood splatters everywhere, but the film’s heart remains intact, and that’s how it honors the late, great series helmer Wes Craven. His horror films could get nasty and scary, but he always brought a warm, personal touch to them. That’s evident at the end of 1996’s Scream, when the camera pulls back from a crime scene to reveal the sun rising on a new day.
When this film ends with the dedication “For Wes,” you’ll know that everyone involved means it from the bottom of their hearts.