Whenever trends in horror have popped up, Scream has been there to offer commentary. The fifth film in the franchise, also titled Scream, doesn’t bring much new to the table, banking more on nostalgia for the trendsetting original, but that’s kind of what the whole movie is about.
After her sister is attacked, Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera) returns to her hometown of Woodsboro California, where it is revealed she has a dark secret that goes all the way back to the original 1996 Woodsboro killings. As Sam tries to mend things with her sister, it soon becomes clear that someone has learned her secret, and is trying to use it to ‘reboot’ the murders. Along with a cast of memorable newcomers, Scream veterans Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, and David Arquette return as Sidney Prescott, Gale Weathers, and Dewey Riley who try to aid the heroes in navigating the franchise’s famous rules, and see who can make it to the end.
One strength Scream has over most horror franchises are characters. As with The Force Awakens and Terminator: Dark Fate, the legacy characters return more as supporting roles to bolster the series’ newcomers. Thankfully, the new cast has a lot of standout performances that make them perhaps the best cast since the original. Along with Barrera, welcome newcomers include Jack Quaid as Richie (Barrera’s boyfriend), Jenna Ortega as Tara (Barrera’s terrorized sister), and Mikey Madison as Amber, the loner in this new ensemble of misfits. Jasmin Savoy Brown and Mason Gooding steal the show as Mindy and Chad, the horror-loving niece and nephew of Randy, Jamie Kennedy’s character from Scream 1 and 2. Seeing these characters interact really recalls much of the charm of the original film, something even the best sequels struggled to replicate. Since we actually start to enjoy these characters, there is actually a degree of tension when the killer is about.
Scream isn’t without its flaws. There are a few moments where characters make dumb decisions, which for a series based on subverting cliches is frustrating. There’s also the issue of a lack of surprise. One of the most enjoyable things about the Scream movies is wondering who the killer is. It’s always a different maniac (or maniacs) behind the mask, and the best films always keep viewers guessing who will be outed in the big reveal. Here, the identity of the killer is sort of obvious, which takes some of the fun out of the experience. My friend joined me for the film and we had it figured out relatively quickly, and spent the whole movie waiting for the characters to learn what we already guessed.
Despite this, the movie does a good job breaking some trends. Every Scream movie opens with an elaborate attack sequence, a staple of the franchise since the original’s iconic opening. Here, the victim actually survives and spends much of the film vulnerable in the hospital while other characters try to protect her, a good instance of following a convention but putting a new twist on it. In another well-crafted sequence, one character is murdered right outside their home, while someone else inside the house is unaware of what has just happened. The film then follows the oblivious character for several minutes as they go about mundane chores, leaving us to wonder just when the killer will pop up. It’s a nicely crafted ‘bomb under the table’ sequence that reminds audiences that sometimes holding off on a jump scare is more effective than just throwing one at the viewer.
Another thing horror films have tried (and often failed) to do is catch up with the times. It used to be easy to cut a group of teenagers off from the world in the era before cell phones and apps. This film uses apps to make the characters more vulnerable, using a GPS app to lure one character into a trap, or hacking a phone and using it to unlock the doors to one character’s house. Given the security new technology offers, it can be easy to forget how vulnerable it makes us too.
It’s also interesting to see where the legacy characters have wound up. Lovable oaf Dewy is a burnout living in a trailer, Gale is a daytime talk show host who has little contact with her friends, and Sidney has become a successful mother whose last major life goal is getting caught up in yet another killing spree. The interesting thing is the characters were actually left in a pretty good spot in Scream 4. Dewy was the sheriff of Woodsboro, Gale continued to find success with her books, and Sidney became a real-life hero to victims everywhere. Seeing them now, they’re no longer in such a good place. They feel tired. The three react to the latest spree more with ‘oh, we’re doing this again’ vibe that really makes the audience question ‘yeah. are we?’
That’s because this film is all about toxic nostalgia. One of the great things about the Scream series is, sans the third film, most felt like they had a reason to exist. The first was a commentary on the trends set by 80s slasher films. The second was a commentary on the sequels to slasher films. The underrated 4th film took a look at the then-popular trend of remaking horror films. This latest one looks at another trend, that of the requel. Requels are of course reboots to a long-running franchise that both continue the previous story while also trying to bring something fresh, like Halloween 2018, the new Child’s Play series, Force Awakens, and so on.
When it comes to the Scream series, there hasn’t been much innovation since the original. This latest film is honestly one of the least innovative, taking us back to the same town, following roughly the same beats, and even ending with a set-piece set in a rowdy party of teenagers almost identical to Craven’s classic. Even locations from the original make notable appearances, something that will leave fans satisfied and elicit eye rolls from others. But repetition and nostalgia are central themes to this latest film, The killer repeatedly references the ‘purity and brilliance of the first film’s events, dismisses newer horror films like Hereditary and The Witch, and is going out of their way to create a worthy follow up. Like the original, the killer is an obsessed fan, only they’re obsessed with the very universe in which they live.
This of course comes to a head in the final act of Scream, where the killer is outed and they try their best to re-create what made the finale to the first classic so effective. Is it derivative of the original? Yes. Even the characters call the final set piece a tired retread of the first. It is also very entertaining? Absolutely. This new film is a welcome return to a lot of what made the original so great, but it also asks its audiences when is it okay to let go? Sometimes a series has run its course, and to keep it going only serves as a reminder of what has been lost. That’s why for me this film serves as a fitting end to the long-running series.
Unlike most horror series, Scream has the ability to change and reflect the horror trends of whatever is popular. The fact that it hasn’t really changed that much since the innovative original has made the series, and the original, seems less groundbreaking as the years pass by. The characters both old and new feel a sense of entrapment, with the villain using them as pawns in a game of chess. Perhaps that’s why this movie resonated with me. The characters are fighting for not only their lives but also their freedom from the franchise. Since this entry was so good, why not reward them with that freedom and let this be the last?
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