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At one point during Scream, the fifth entry in the slasher horror series that nonetheless opts for the original’s title, someone enumerates on the idea of a “requel.” Like 2018’s Halloween or even Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the requel splits the difference of a remake and a sequel, continuing the story with new characters while preserving the structure of the original tale—and the familiar faces—that made the franchise such a success. Self-awareness has always been a staple of the Scream films and the new characters find modern ways to be ironic and clever, while Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, and David Arquette assure longtime fans the filmmakers have not forgotten their roots. Their intentions are commendable, except this Scream cannot do the one thing the original did over 25 years ago: It forgets to be scary.
Once again, a psycho in a Ghostface mask taunts and murders a group of teenagers in Woodsboro. This is similar to the other three Scream sequels, but not to worry: Like 2018’s Halloween, you only need the first film to understand what’s happening here. The opening sequence involves a young woman butchered alone at home, except this time we have Jenna Ortega instead of Drew Barrymore. You may recall that Barrymore dies—very quickly—in the original Scream, which cemented that anyone, no matter how big a star, is a potential victim. But this time, Ortega’s character, Tara, survives the attack. In fact, Tara’s survival is a ruse to lure her older sister Sam (Melissa Barrera) back to her hometown.
The script, by Guy Busick and James Vanderbilt, supplies Sam with a dark secret, one that connects her to the original slasher rampage. She tries to skip town, even though the original hero, Sidney Prescott (Campbell), assures Sam that running is pointless. All the characters converge on a suburban house party, as they must, while anyone there might be the killer.
Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett last collaborated on Ready or Not, a horror comedy that takes its kooky premise to its logical, hilariously dark conclusion. What made Ready or Not compelling was that it evoked a specific mood—the madness of ultra-wealthy characters preying on an innocent whose only crime was loving the wrong man. Scream has none of that eccentricity. Many scenes are shot with bland pools of light, making it look like the characters are stuck in a sitcom, not an inescapable killing spree.
The directors trust that their audience knows horror tropes, and that trust extends to many suspense sequences attempting to subvert clichés and editing tricks. This time the “gotcha” scares are too clever by half. Slasher fans know the one about the victim who opens a refrigerator door, not realizing the killer will reveal themselves the second it closes. Yet, this Scream repeats that gag to the point that it loses its power.
That pervasive self-awareness also extends to the newer cast members. Barrera is a likable actor—she was a highlight of last year’s In the Heights—but as written, her character does not have enough vulnerability or recognizably human qualities to make us care about her the way we root for Campbell’s Sidney. Tara’s friends make up the lion’s share of the killer’s victims, but they are primarily used as vehicles for irony and misdirection, qualities that are meant to reward sophisticated audiences or keep them guessing, and not much else. Unsurprisingly, Arquette is the only performer who finds the emotional reserves to help audiences connect to the latest film. His character is a husk of his former self who somehow rises to the occasion, which is way more engrossing than watching another character get slaughtered because they’re attractive and make bad, horror movie choices.
To its credit, Scream partially implicates the audience as it litigates the state of modern horror. These characters do not just know about the “rules” of surviving a horror film; they participate in a dialogue with filmmakers because they nurse how their expectations must be met. By the time a character whines, “How can fandom be toxic,” Bettinelli-Olpin, Gillett, and the screenwriters nearly critique the modern notion that fans must be placated. If this Scream was not an extended exercise in giving audiences what they want, their point might stick. For a film that attempts to critique “elevated horror” films like The Babadook and Hereditary, Scream doesn’t exactly make the case that pure genre exercises are necessarily better. At least implacable monsters like Michael Myers kill because they must; in Scream, the killer’s many monologues reduce the franchise to what it should resist most: an intellectual exercise.
Scream will be in area theaters starting Jan. 14.