In 1996, when Wes Craven directed SCREAM, he made a horror movie that worked as a dissertation of the genre as well as a straight-up frightener. In the very opening scene, teenager Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) argued with an unknown caller about the tropes of scary movies and soon realized that she was on the phone with a psycho killer. He ended up slashing her to bits and the franchise was born, yielding a number of inferior sequels, and now in 2022, a reboot. The films have only grown more self-conscious with each successive one, and this latest steps outside of itself so often that you almost expect Anna Faris to show up. (You’ll remember that she starred in the SCARY MOVIE franchise that spoofed all the SCREAM films and then some.) Indeed, this reboot of SCREAM is so meta, you might as well be in a film class talking about the movie as it proceeds.
What made the first SCREAM the most interesting, beyond its meta tendencies, was the motives of “Ghost Face,” the film’s black-robed killer. Screenwriter Kevin Williamson was smart enough while he was riffing on the tropes, to give the film a fresh, whodunnit appeal. We didn’t know who was doing the killing until the climax and, because of that, the film played as a murder mystery as much as a slasher film. Every sequel since has had the same hook, albeit to lesser degrees of interesting killers and motivations.
In this new SCREAM, rather unimaginatively titled, the audience is left in the dark as to why the killings have started again and what’s the end game of the new Ghost Face. The serial killer seems to be going after offspring connected to those originally involved in the ordeal back in Woodsboro, CA 25 years ago. Does the killer have an ax to grind with “last girl” Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), reporter Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox), or retired sheriff Dewey Riley (David Arquette)? Those three all return to explore the mystery as well, but it’s the newer Gen Z players who dominate the action this time out.
That starts with an opening that recalls Barrymore’s classic opener from the franchise, as spunky teen Tara Carpenter (Jenna Ortega) is lured into a similar cat and mouse game while home alone. An unknown caller pesters her about horror movies and quickly becomes her tormentor. The scene works yet again, swinging easily back and forth between scares and laughs.
The big surprise here is that Tara survives her attack and continues on as a primary character. For that alone, you want to applaud screenwriters James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick. They’re cleverly screwing with our expectations based on what we know about the franchise, and again they’re adding all the more meta to the mix. This is a horror movie about horror movies and, in particular, SCREAM movies.
The writers, and dual directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, succeed demonstrably throughout with a deft sense of where to employ the familiar and where to diverge from it. They concentrate a lot on the characters in the melee and ensure we have a rooting interest in all of them. They don’t shy away from the violence, but it’s never too gratuitous. Mostly, what they all bring to the party is a surprising sense of sincerity. Even though this SCREAM is constantly talking about the genre and its tropes, it never gets too glib.
That starts with lead Melissa Barrera who stands out as lead character Sam Carpenter because of her clear-eyed approach to the part. Sam is Tara’s older and troubled sister, and Barrera plays the angst straight. Sure, Sam’s a riff on Neve Campbell’s Sidney, but the new character is more accessible and sweeter than the often sulky Sid. Interestingly, the writers have made Sidney more likable here and Campbell runs with it. She gives a performance that is smart, witty, and sexy. (Someone, please put Campbell in more big roles!)
Barrera and Campbell are ably supported by all their costars, including a young cast that includes Jack Quaid, Mason Gooding, Dylan Minnette, Mikey Madison, and Jasmin Savoy-Brown. They all play characters who aren’t nearly as oblivious as other such types have been in the past and that makes this version all the savvier. Sure, many of the teens become pin cushions for Ghost Face’s blade, but at least they fight back better.
The question remains – – did we really need another SCREAM? Of course not, but what studio is going to leave a mega-franchise alone for a minute when there’s money to be made? Thankfully, this SCREAM does as well as it can even though so much of it feels so, so familiar. And, other than its existence being unnecessary, its greatest failing lies in the reveal of its whodunnit. The unmasking is hurt by the casting of someone who played a similar role just a few years ago. Still, this SCREAM does have enough sense in part to satirize that performance. Indeed, that bit here is so meta it might need a new word to describe it…meta-meta? No matta, this SCREAM works, even if it’s all too familiar.