Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s “Scream” is not very inventive with its title but on purpose.
As is the new way of Hollywood to keep fans interested after a franchise’s decade or so break, a return to a film series just takes the name of the original that started it all. The latest examples are 2018’s “Halloween” and 2019’s “Shaft” (which is a sequel to a remake of an original, each one sharing the same title). The latest “Scream” is taking a shot at that kind of promotional laziness.
This new release is the fifth film in the “Scream” franchise and the first one without original director Wes Craven (who died in 2015) and screenwriter Kevin Williamson, but their combined presence is felt in every scene.
Written by James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, “Scream” (part 5) returns to the fictional town of Woodsboro, California, where 26 years ago a series of murders occurred that would affect the community for the next two decades.
In the franchise-standard de rigueur opening sequence, Jenna Ortega is “Tara”, a young woman home alone who is attacked by Horror film legend Ghostface, still stabbing and slashing with his signature hunting knife. Before physically coming for his prey, Tara is attacked emotionally by the killer’s menacing phone games, uttering one of the most recognizable lines in Slasher film history, “What’s your favorite scary movie?” As always, Roger L. Jackson provides the killer’s (digitally altered) voice, and his work is as creepy as ever. We can forgive that Tara’s house still has a landline in an age where this rarely exists.
Tara is brutally stabbed over and over and lays there bleeding before anyone can get to her. Her assault sets the tone for two adjustments to the series.
Tara’s attack is quite vicious, and the film’s violence is amped up for these modern times. Victims are stabbed repeatedly with brutality more ferocious than any of the previous entries. This is a strange choice (to up the violence during a time when movie audiences have become more skittish to on-screen brutality) and a welcome irony. In an age of prudish and constantly offended audiences, make the kills are stronger and bloodier. A welcome return to the wild-abandon violence of the 80s slasher craze, to which the entire “Scream” series pays tribute.
The second change doesn’t work as well. While most who go under Ghostface’s blade do die, some of the victims in this film can really take a stabbing! People are sliced and stabbed multiple times and seem to bleed out for hours, yet somehow survive and can move around too easily, even roughly fighting back against Ghostface. While I understand the urge to have well-liked characters survive, it felt silly to see someone at death’s door be able to run and fight.
Tara does survive, which brings home her estranged sister Sam (Melissa Bareera), who brings with her some unresolved family issues that led her to leave home years ago. Sam arrives with her loving new boyfriend Richie (Jack Quaid), who has never seen a “Stab” film, the movie within a movie that is based on the lives of the characters from the first “Scream”.
As the film progresses, it is unclear if the killer is targeting Sam, trying to force her back to Woodsboro, or it is all an elaborate scheme to do the ultimate callback and bring the survivors from the 1996 killing spree back for one final “Re-quel”.
All the above is the answer. More people begin dying at the hands of Ghostface and Sam’s past just might be the key to it all.
Looking to put an end to the killings, Sam and Richie seek help from former cop Dewey (David Arquette, giving a committed performance). His involvement leads to the return of his now ex-wife Gayle Weathers (Courtney Cox, turning in some of her best work) and Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell, looking as if she would rather be anywhere else but this film). The three legacy characters don’t necessarily team up, but each one stumbles around the film and happen to be in the major moments when they occur.
This is one of only a few instances where Vanderbilt and Busick’s screenplay fails to work. To bring back the three most beloved characters from the hit franchise is something special. Timelines and character arcs can really be explored. While Dewey’s story is sad and interesting, the screenplay falters with Weathers and especially Sidney. There is care given to where and why Dewey is now, and the film is at its best in his scenes. While fans know that Gayle Weathers plays a big part in his life, the film gives them only one important moment that is much too brief. Cox is good in the role but her place in “Scream” history should have demanded more.
The screenwriters completely fail the Sidney Prescott character. For Horror fans, this is one of the great “final girls” and to bring her back as an adult for the “one final battle” is used as a mere gimmick here. This is disheartening, as Campbell can be a very good actress with the right material. She certainly deserved more.
The film’s major pothole is the constant self-reference. It is fun for a long while until it begins to turn on itself and our patience. This is a film made almost entirely of callbacks to other films. While this is certainly the point of any entry in the “Scream” series, this one becomes too much until the final reveal chokes on itself, and the finale becomes a hodgepodge of sloppiness. That said, the screenplay finds a cleverness most of the time and stays true to the reference-heavy work of Kevin Williamson’s previous four.
This film skewers many issues that plague modern films; remakes hiding as “continuations”, the cash grab of bringing back characters from the original film, messing with a film series lore or character arcs, etc.
One of the most satisfying takedowns is a jab at a certain beloved franchise from a different genre, as one character is angry how the last “Stab” entry was bad and forgot what made the franchise so special to its fans. The director mentioned is Rian Johnson. I’ll let you “detective” your way to what film is being referenced.
It is in the film’s giant middle finger to the overly sensitive and self-important fan culture of today where “Scream” finds its most important statement. Spoilers prevent me from revealing how the out-of-control fanboy warriors are taken down, save to say it is right on the money and hits its target with deadly precision.
There are many playful suspense sequences that give audiences the thrill ride they have come to expect from the series and directors Olpin and Gillette find a good blend of humor, commentary, excitement, and brutal bloody killings. The filmmakers find interesting ways to adapt the feel and message of the original to this new age, somewhat proving that our digital world of smartphones and constant online activity is more of a hindrance than a progression.
Brian Tyler’s score does well emulating Marco Beltrami’s work for the series, but cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz fails to capture the full use of the frame the way Mark Irwin so skillfully did under Craven’s direction in the first film.
The cast is fine but there are a couple of performances that try for the macabre zaniness of Matthew Lillard’s “out there” work in the original film that fails completely.
While the stupidity factor gets too strong and the film occasionally feels repetitious, that just might be the point. Perhaps “Scream” has now set its sights on the emptiness of the modern Hollywood system and how name recognition and repetitiveness rules over fresh ideas and creativity.
Warts and all, “Scream” is a fun film for most of its running time and filled with enough Horror goodness (and a whole lot of blood!) to please fans of both the series and the Horror genre.
Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillette
Screenplay by James Vanderbilt & Guy Busick
Starring Melissa Barrera, Jack Quaid, Jenna Ortega, Jasmin Savoy Brown, Mikey Madison, Roger Jackson, David Arquette, Courtney Cox, Neve Campbell
R, 114 Minutes, Paramount Pictures, Spyglass Media, Lantern Entertainment