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Scream review: Metatextual as ever, the horror franchise now takes a stab at toxic fanboys

·3-min read
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  • Wes Craven
    Wes Craven
    American film director, screenwriter, and producer (1939-2015)

Dir: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett. Starring: Melissa Barrera, Mason Gooding, Jenna Ortega, Jack Quaid, Marley Shelton, Courteney Cox, David Arquette, Neve Campbell. 12A, 111 minutes.

Scream is one of the few franchises still free of a bloated ego. It’s never maintained that much reverence for its own iconography – namely, the opening to the 1996 original, in which a bobbed Drew Barrymore screams down the phone, as a sardonic voice asks her whether she likes scary movies, moments before she gets a knife in the chest. It’s the wider pop-horror landscape that’s treated that sequence as hallowed and untouchable. The Scream films, and their director Wes Craven, were happy to revisit, remix, and make fun of their own conventions as much as they liked.

That was always the aim – to rejuvenate the sagging teen slasher genre by both empowering and burdening its characters with the knowledge that they’re stuck inside a stereotypical slasher. And the latest Scream, the fifth in the franchise, doesn’t try to fix what isn’t broken. It’s a little metatextual analysis served up with a generous side of guts and gore, stabbing its cake and eating it with gleeful abandon.

In fact, when a new killer (or killers?) dons the cape and Edvard Munch-ian ghoul mask to become this generation’s Ghostface, mowing down the residents of Woodsboro, the local teens don’t seem all that impressed. They treat the in-universe equivalent of the Scream movies, called Stab, as something of a dated curio. They’re all about the so-called “elevated horror” trend, populated by It Follows, Hereditary, and The Babadook, which one character calls “an amazing meditation on motherhood and grief”.

They were clearly the kind of audience 2018’s Halloween tried to cash in on when it brought back Jamie Lee Curtis and then tossed a sackful of generational trauma in her lap. But Scream is interested in keeping its scares light and bloody, rather than meditative, while doubling down on the self-awareness. This time, the main targets for satire are the choleric, maturity-challenged fanboys who never got over their hatred for The Last Jedi, the revisionist middle instalment of the latest Star Wars trilogy. Also on the chopping block is the recent obsession with “requels” – ie the sequel that’s really a sly remake à la Jurassic World and Ghostbusters: Afterlife. The film’s confusing title, which inexplicably drops the “5”, is eventually played as a punchline.

Cynicism has always been Scream’s modus operandi, and so we’re treated to a brand new set of characters, including  Tara (Jenna Ortega) (Paramount Pictures)
Cynicism has always been Scream’s modus operandi, and so we’re treated to a brand new set of characters, including Tara (Jenna Ortega) (Paramount Pictures)

Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, behind 2019’s sharp and twisty horror-comedy Ready or Not, have easily reshaped Scream’s Nineties cynicism to weaponise it against the franchises that now wheel out self-awareness as an excuse for indulgence. And, though this may be the first instalment made without Wes Craven, who died in 2015, it still speaks in the horror maestro’s adventurous, boundary-breaking language.

In the end, Scream is nostalgic only in the way its central trio – Campbell’s Sidney, David Arquette’s Dewey Riley, and Courteney Cox’s Gale Weathers – take on the Luke, Han, and Leia roles of mentors to a new generation. That’s not to say they’ve been sidelined, but there’s a slightly twinkly-eyed, wistful tinge to their combined presences, as they sigh and smile like they’re flipping through an old photo album. Oh, remember that familiar sound of blood-curdling screams? Remember when Dewey was stabbed nine times and inexplicably survived?

But that kind of overt sincerity is brief. Cynicism has always been Scream’s modus operandi, and so we’re treated to a brand new set of characters – including sisters Sam (In the Heights’s Melissa Barrera) and Tara (Jenna Ortega) – who scream, run, and are occasionally hacked to pieces. The whole cast are game, bringing the same fresh-faced, cool kid energy that’s been the common denominator of every past Scream star (from Jada Pinkett Smith to Emma Roberts). And the film finds plenty of ways to deliver fresh and funny scares, by playing around with the visual grammar of horror – on who gets killed how, and who ultimately comes out on top. Scream remains full of surprises.

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