Ever since Scream 2 opened with the premiere of the movie-within-the-movie Stab, based on the events of the previous installment, the horror franchise has been built around references to itself. The original Scream, released in 1996, is a clever deconstruction of slasher-movie conventions that’s also a masterfully effective slasher movie on its own, thanks to the direction from horror legend Wes Craven and the expertly constructed screenplay by Kevin Williamson. Subsequent Scream movies are full of nods to other horror classics, but part of the fun of the franchise is the way it comments on its own mythology.
And a big part of that commentary has always been about the nature of sequels and franchises themselves. The fifth movie in the series, confusingly titled simply Scream, brings that meta commentary up to date, tackling the idea of legacy sequels (what the characters here call “requels”) and the influence of toxic fandom. It’s a smart twist on the franchise’s reliable themes, adding a few new ideas while largely sticking to what has worked in previous movies. Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett (Ready or Not) and screenwriters James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick return to the small town of Woodsboro, California, where it’s been 25 years since the killings that took place in the first Scream.
As a legacy sequel, Scream recreates many of the elements of the 1996 movie, starting with a teenage girl at home alone getting a call from a menacing killer (voiced again by Roger L. Jackson) who torments her with horror trivia before chasing her down and stabbing her. Here, that girl is Tara Carpenter (Jenna Ortega), and she barely survives the attack from the masked killer known as Ghostface. Tara’s sister Sam (Melissa Barrera) rushes home to Woodsboro to be with her sister, bringing along her boyfriend Richie (Jack Quaid). Soon whoever is under the Ghostface mask stars picking off more people connected to Sam — who’s hiding her own secret related to the initial killings.
Scream offers up a requisite group of teens for potential slaughter, including twins Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and Chad (Mason Gooding), the niece and nephew of original horror nerd Randy (Jamie Kennedy). Mindy replaces her late uncle as the resident genre expert, laying out the rules of “requels,” which introduce new protagonists but connect to the earlier movies by featuring classic characters in supporting roles. Enter Dewey Riley (David Arquette), now a reclusive drunk after losing both his job as Woodsboro sheriff and his wife Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), who’s returned to TV news as a morning show anchor.
Dewey reluctantly agrees to help Sam and her friends figure out who the killer is, and it’s not long before both Gale and longtime series protagonist Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) show up in Woodsboro, too. The filmmakers balance the large cast effectively, even making room for some unexpectedly affecting moments between former spouses Dewey and Gale. Arquette, who began the series playing Dewey as an awkward dork, embraces Dewey’s evolution into a bitter hermit, giving both the best performance in the movie and his best performance of the series.
Barrera captures the mixture of tough and vulnerable that made Sidney into such an enduring character, although she’s still no match for Campbell, especially once the two characters come together in the final act. Brown is amusing as the horror know-it-all who of course doesn’t know enough not to get stabbed, and Quaid provides the voice of semi-reason as the character who’s never seen any Stab movies and doesn’t understand why people care about them.
Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett generate solid suspense in a few set pieces, although they’re inevitably working in Craven’s shadow, especially since 2011’s Scream 4 was the final film he made before his death in 2015. The comedy sometimes gets a little too lost in its own self-awareness, but the commentary on fan culture is surprisingly sharp, channeling some of the same sentiments that Lana Wachowski put into the recent The Matrix Resurrections. Ultimately Scream is merely another entertaining but familiar variation on the same ideas that Williamson and Craven introduced in the original movie, but that makes perfect sense for a franchise that has always been self-referential.