The 5th ‘Scream’ is Fiendishly Brutal (Movie Review)

Over a decade since the fourth installment became the late Wes Craven’s final film, Scream returns to the sleepy albeit bloody town of Woodsboro. New directors and writers are ready to take a stab at the ultimate metaseries that changed the game for scary movies in 1996. Legacy actors Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, and David Arquette have returned alongside newcomers Melissa Barrera, Jenna Ortega, and Jack Quaid. Twenty-five years after Sidney Prescott defeated not one but two Ghostface killers, can she still make with the stabby stabby? In 2022, will Ghostface have their own TikTok? Is #GutYouLikeAPig taken? One of the biggest horror franchises of all time has lasted three generations: from the slacker days of the nineties to the entitled millennials of the aughts. Now, the time has come time for zoomers to answer the call…

Everyone’s a suspect. Before director Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson gave the slasher genre new blood, it was understood that  Michael, Jason, Freddie, and even Chucky were unkillable. They were the stars, not the final gals. That all changed with Scream. Ghostface had a signature mask, but each killer is defeated by the end credits. Each subsequent tale had new people with a grudge against Sidney Prescott (Campbell) or sought fame via a murder spree. The mask stayed, but the murderers did not. Much of the fun in watching Scream was trying to figure out the killer’s identity. By the third outing, though, the reveals had become stale (a long-lost brother? Really?). The fourth installment shook things up with a terrific villain, a star-making performance, and an extended ending that hasn’t been topped.

I don’t think any one film in the series is on the level of John Carpenter’s original Halloween, but there’s no denying the metatextual angle was a winner in 1996. Having a character explain the “rules” of a horror movie, seeing said rules played out, and other sorts of pop culture musings expanded upon in the sequels were highly entertaining.

The series would get tweaked over the years. The trilogy was very much defined by GenX baddies who were disaffected and desensitized to the world. 2011’s Scream 4 had the older heroes confronted by the millennials’ “can do” way of being effective little monsters. Not every era was perfect for the series. Scream 4 dabbled with a live-streaming subplot which, the less said about that, the better.

Co-directors Matt Bettinelli-Olin and Tyler Gillet and co-writer Guy Busick have teamed up for this fifth Scream entry (veteran screenwriter James Vanderbilt is also credited). Their 2019 thriller, Ready or Not, offered plenty in terms of themes and setting, but one of the strongest aspects was its unflinching use of violence and gore. Similarly, this Scream is a bloody good time, but death feels less silly. Bodies dripping in blood are palpable for such a multiplex feature. Humor is still here, to a degree, but this is quite possibly the goriest of the series, and by extension, the most serious.

Beyond a cursory explanation of the plot, the new Scream is best experienced with little to no spoilers. Some fans might overthink the series if they expect the latest installment to be non-stop surprises and subversions. Yet the basic structure is mostly the same because, at five films in, the formula still works.

In a tense opening sequence, Tara Carpenter (Ortega) gets an unknown caller from a landline. Soon enough, the new final gal, Sam (the terrific Barrera), is called back to her hometown Woodsboro after her younger sister Tara’s attack. Since they all live in Woodsboro, more teens are introduced who have watched all eight Stab (“Scream”) films. Even the one directed “by the guy who did Knives Out.” Tara’s friend Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) is the official expert on Stab, the rules of horror, and more importantly, sequels, remakes, and the newly discussed “requel” (Think: The Force Awakens). Soon the conversations are not just about slasher movies but Hollywood’s need to give fans ‘new’ but not ‘too new’ films in already established franchises.

Scream avoids anything that might feel like pandering by keeping up-to-date with the times. Ghostface, thankfully, does not have an Insta or TikTok account. Of course, Netflix, YouTube streamers, and other contemporary modes of social media are used appropriately. In terms of the movie as a whole, it’s more a legacy film (or requel?) than Scream 4. It might seem like the same deal, but the generational divide is more apparent with the original cast members now in their 50s.

If Scream 4 was about the desire of the killers to be famous by doing “nothing” like the Kardashians or Hilton’s of the 2000s, the new entry is focused on the delicate balance between beloved franchises and fans. What does someone like Sidney or anyone else who survived the original ordeal owe the younger fans who can’t get enough of their deaths and carnage?

What’s surprising about the fifth entry is how well Sam, Tara, and the other new characters fare without the help of the legacy characters. For a good 40 minutes, the script by Busick and Vanderbilt takes its time getting to know the hopes and fears of those that reside in Woodsboro.

Barrera, who’s been a star on the rise since her English-language debut on the Starz series Vida and last year in Jon M. Chu’s glorious In the Heights, is an engaging, determined heroine. The rest of the cast, like Sam’s boyfriend Ritchie (Jack Quaid), also deliver strong turns. The true scene-stealer is Brown’s witty, assured role as horror movie guru Mindy. Overall, the cast is up to the task of navigating a script full of pop culture in-jokes and observations regarding the under-the surface-toxicity that exists in plenty of small communities, online or IRL.

As for Campbell, Cox, and Arquette, they’re somewhat underused, but I didn’t mind since the main cast of newcomers are good. Arquette has the best additions made to his decades-long character arc as Dewey Riley. Roger L. Jackson, who’s been the voice of Ghostface for all the films, has a few deviations with his delivery which is a welcome change-up.

The big third act reveals are mostly delivered with confidence and the aforementioned bloodshed. Of course, I won’t spoil what happens, but I’m happy with these revelations making sense on a thematic level, rather than just purely connecting the dots from person A to B.

Scream arrives in time when audiences might be in the mood for a scary movie. It definitely earns the hard R rating. The last decade has delivered what some have dubbed “elevated horror.” These are features operating as prestige or arthouse fare that seem to mostly come out of the studio A24. I love those too, but something is refreshing about a person in a mask who just wants to kill you… and everyone you know.


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