‘Scream’ Is a Meta, Mostly Fun Bloodbath

The world has changed in the 25 years since the release of the first “Scream” film, and the fifth and latest in the franchise, also titled “Scream,” pays tribute to its roots while also evolving with the times. Woodsboro Zoomers, those with either direct ties to the past local killings or who just grew up hearing about them, find themselves threatened by another copycat killer (or most likely killers) donning the Ghostface mask, forcing “legacy” characters Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) and Dewey Riley (David Arquette) to come to their aid. 

“Scream” is the first in the series to not have been written by Kevin Williamson or directed by Wes Craven, who died in 2015. “Zodiac” scribe James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick wrote this latest script, while “Ready or Not” directing team Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett take over from Craven. This sequel, or “requel” (reboot-sequel), follows a familiar formula, but the filmmakers mostly wink at this. The “Stab” series, the films-within-the films that dramatize the past killings, are heavily reference here. While Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) originally served as Woodsboro’s scary movie historian, infamously laying out the rules for surviving a horror movie in the first film, his niece Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown), daughter of Martha Meeks (Heather Matarazzo, in a welcome surprise cameo), takes over here, and terms like “elevated horror,” “Mary Sue,” and “toxic fandom” get thrown around. The explosion of the internet in the past quarter of the century that has given way to YouTube, Reddit and the like, means the discussion surrounding film franchises (and other things) has grown immensely, for better or worse, and the filmmakers take advantage of that here.

The film begins on a familiar beat, with a teen girl, Tara Carpenter (Jenna Ortega), getting an anonymous phone call from Ghostface (voiced by Roger L. Jackson) while home alone that leads to her being stabbed. Despite this brutal attack, Tara survives, and her estranged older sister, Sam (Melissa Barrera), drives in from Modesto, CA with her boyfriend, Richie (Jack Quaid), to be by her side. It is at the hospital that Sam reveals a dark secret that led to the breakup of their family, and it involves a connection to one of the original killers. The first person who Ghostface actually kills this time around, local burnout Vince (Kyle Gallner), turns out to be the nephew of one of the original killers, but he’s a creep who stalked Tara’s friend Liv (Sonia Ben Ammar), so it’s no big loss, but more innocent people find their lives in peril, including Sam, who narrowly avoids getting butchered in a hospital waiting room.

Sam and Richie pay a visit to Dewey. Following his split from Gale a few years ago, he’s crawled into a bottle, been forcibly retired from the police force, and now lives in a trailer. The once bright-eyed and bushy-tailed man of the law has some wisdom to drop, and Arquette plays him hardened, but still lovable. He is suspicious of Richie, the love interest, but says the killer is most likely in Tara’s friend group, which includes Mindy, Liv, Amber (Mikey Madison), Mindy’s brother Chad (Mason Gooding) and Wes (Dylan Minnette), the son of Judy Hicks (Marley Shelton), who has replaced Dewey as the sheriff.

Dewey calls Sidney, who’s now living in an undisclosed city away from Woodsboro with an off-screen husband and kids. She initially says she’ll stay away, but comes to the conclusion that she has to be there. Gale, meanwhile, who’s now the host of a morning show in New York, is eager to return, and she has an affecting reunion with her ex. Cox and Arquette, who have also divorced since the last film and have remained close friends, bring genuine emotions to their scenes together. Not surprisingly, the three old dogs want to end Ghostface for once and for all, and the third act sees all the players, old and new, brought together at a familiar location.

While Craven’s “Scream” movies were certainly bloody, he had a more less-is-more approach when it came to the killings, and he never resorted to torture porn. This latest “Scream” does linger more on the violent parts. Maybe this is because audiences have become more jaded, and not only have films gotten more extreme, but mass shootings now happen on a more regular basis, desensitizing the public as a whole. However, the final body count is slightly less, and fewer teens are mortally wounded. Also in keeping with the changing times, a key character has the good sense to state at the end that the person (or people) behind Ghostface this time should remain in anonymity and not have their story sensationalized by the media.

While the meta elements continue to be fun, the newer filmmakers do at times try a little too hard to be clever, to the point that it is distracting at certain moments. But overall, “Scream” is a solid sequel that does justice to Craven’s legacy. It’s mentioned here that the “Stab” series jumped the shark after the first five films, and it would be wise if the studio took the hint and retired Ghostface after this one before “Scream” also becomes a punchline. However, Sam is an intriguing character, and any spinoff featuring Barrera would most likely be well-received by audiences.

Scream” releases Jan. 14 in theaters nationwide.