25 years after the original series of murders in Woodsboro, a new Ghostface emerges, and Sidney Prescott must return to uncover the truth.
Slashers were in a sad state by the mid-1990s. The heyday of Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street had peaked in the previous decade—even if some franchises limped on with direct-to-video instalments. That all changed with Kevin Williamson’s screenplay for Scary Movie (which became Scream), as it had a beautifully fresh angle: what if the teenagers in a slasher movie had seen the likes of Halloween (1978) and would therefore behave more realistically, while commenting on the situation they’re in much like the audience watching? Directed by the legendary Wes Craven (The Hills Have Eyes), Scream added the post-modern ingredient slashers needed to attract a new generation. And its success led to a strong run of pre-millennial horror—from new properties like I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) and The Faculty (1998), both written by Williamson, to helping rejuvenate old franchises in Halloween H20 (1998), from a story by Williamson, and helping Bride of Chucky (1998) take the Child’s Play series down a more humorous path.
Wes Craven followed Scream up with three successful sequels before his death in 2015, but the franchise has since laid dormant for over a decade. Scream 4 (2011) had received good reviews and is widely regarded as superior to Scream 3 (2000), so it’s strange it’s taken so long for another entry to appear. Although it’s fair to say this franchise works best when it’s reflecting the current state of horror cinema —which, naturally, needs time to evolve to somewhere different that’s ripe for subversion or commentary.
Directing duo Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett (Ready or Not) are behind the camera this time, making Scream (hereafter Scream 5) an especially intriguing proposition because it’s the first sequel without Craven’s involvement. Kevin Williamson returned to write Scream 4 (after infamously being pushed aside for Scream 3, which went down a different creative path and wasn’t such a success), but even he’s stepped aside to allow Ready or Not‘s writers James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick a chance to find a fresh approach to the series.
It’s been 25 years since the original Woodsboro killing spree, so another “Ghostface” surfaces with typical unhinged reasons. The opening sequence directly homages Scream ’96 with Drew Barrymore, only this time teenager Tara Carpenter (Jenna Ortega) is alone in a house with high-tech security systems remotely controlled by her phone’s app. The shadow of the original always looms large, and won’t ever be topped, but Scream 5’s has fun subverting expectations thanks to Ghostface (again wonderfully voiced by Roger L. Jackson) having to be more charming and subtle than ever in order to wrong-foot his intended victim. Ultimately, Tara’s attack prompts the return of her estranged older sister, Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera), who comes back to Woodsboro with her boyfriend Richie (Jack Quaid) and faces various ghosts from her own secret past. And as the film’s poking fun at the concept of “requels” (reboot/remake sequels) throughout, events are quickly brought to the attention of retired sheriff Dewey Riley (David Arquette), who alerts his ex-wife Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) and inveterate “Final Girl” Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) to the situation.
Scream 5 —which the film inevitably jokes would be a better title — works as another effective instalment of the Scream franchise, which is perhaps the strongest and most consistently entertaining in horror history at this point. Even without Williamson and Craven, directors Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett manage to craft a worthwhile retread. If there’s one downside with Scream‘s concept it’s how each movie is broadly the same thing, only with some different characters, new killers with crazier motivations, and perhaps a few new trends in horror cinema to poke fun at. Here, it’s the popularity of “elevated horror” like The Babadook (2014) and Hereditary (2018), which are more appealing to teenagers than slashers because there’s an emphasis on the emotional lives of the characters, and some swipes at the “toxic fandom” viciously attacking sequels and remakes that don’t live up to the high standards fans have. (A brave bone of contention to have, seeing as this film could easily have become one of those.)
I was pleased Scream 5 makes an attempt to move away from the core trio of Sidney, Gale, and Dewey — by focusing a lot more on the new characters than I anticipated from the way it’s being marketed. But in some ways Scream 4 was already the sort of sequel this wants to be, just a weaker version of it, as there’s certainly some added strength in tying this directly to the OG Scream for the franchise’s 25th anniversary. The reverence shown for Wes Craven — a young character is named after him, we see Woodsboro has its own “Elm Street”, etc —is also appreciated and fun to spot. There are plenty of others way Scream 5 echoes the ’96 movie, too, but some of it could be construed as a spoiler. Suffice to say this movie feels separated from the main trilogy and less untethered from it than Scream 4 felt, but also perhaps slightly too enamoured with the past. Scream is a huge franchise, sure, but it’s not the pop culture behemoth this movie seems to think, so there were times when some of the references and callbacks didn’t seem to be connecting with the audiences I saw it with — perhaps because most people don’t really put Scream ‘96 in the same tier as Star Wars (1977) and Ghostbusters (1984). So for that reason, it’s perhaps more “for the fans” (and made by fans), than the previous three sequels —which felt like more genuine follow-ups in a sense.
The performance are good and I especially liked Ortega and Barrera as the sisters whose family history holds the key to why they’re being targeted by Ghostface. Jack Quaid (The Boys) is also great, as is Jasmin Savoy Brown as Mindy Meeks-Martin (the niece of horror geek Randy from the first two films), and the rest of the supporting cast don’t put a foot wrong. The returning characters are a bit more puzzling, although David Arquette perhaps gets the best material he’s had an an older Dewey who’s become a drunk living in a trailer and watching his ex-wife of the morning news. One senses a bit of Arquette’s real-life creeping in at times, or at least fuelling his performance, which certainly helps his scenes. He was married to Courteney Cox for real, so their off-screen breakup and on-screen reunion is tenderly handled —and certainly the best moment Cox gets as Gale this time.
Otherwise, the honest truth is that Gale and particularly Sidney didn’t need to return for more. The same story could have been told without them. I suspect writers James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick weren’t sure a new Scream without Wes Craven would lure the legacy actors back for more, so had to deliver a script that could be sweetened by the presence of Campbell, Cox, and Arquette but not rely on their involvement. And that’s fair enough. But I can’t deny it’s a shame that Sidney and Gale get little to do until the climax—and then their presence kind of takes the emphasis away from the movie’s actual protagonists.
In terms of the horror and comedy, Scream 5 works well, although it’s not as fresh and funny as the previous films. The approach to the horror is interesting because it’s bloodier and gorier, with graphic close-ups of knives tearing into bodies (even if there’s CGI at work, sadly), but there are no inventive death scenes like the original’s lethal garage door. The Scream franchise isn’t acclaimed for the ingenuity of its death scenes, as Ghostface has a singular way of going about business with a knife (hence why the film-saga-within-a-film-saga is called Stab), but this sequel certainly felt like the directors only pushed the envelope with how much blood and guts they showed and didn’t find ways for Ghostface to terrorise people in more interesting ways.
Overall, Scream 5 proves you can make a good instalment of this franchise without its two key creatives involved. Whether or not this “reboot” leads to a Scream 6 remains to be seen, but this sequel doubles down on the notion that everything about Ghostface plays into Sidney Prescott and what happened in Woodboro back in 1996. Scream benefits from being able to have different killers adopt the same disguise for subsequent movies (avoiding the Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, and Jason Voorhees problem of invulnerability), and in taking a step outside of the genre its stories can twist audience expectations, but it’s also become trapped within the confines of one particular town and one particular young girl’s terrifying experience 25 years ago. I’m not sure how long that can keep being the linchpin for new killings, presuming we’ll next see Ghostface in the early-2030s when Sidney’s turning 60 and likely protecting her own teenager from the next fame-hungry copycat in a mask and gown.
USA | 2022 | 114 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
directors: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett.
writers: James Vanderbilt & Guy Busick (based on characters created by Kevin Williamson).
starring: Melissa Barrera, Jenna Ortega, Jack Quaid, Dylan Minnette, Mason Gooding, Jasmin Savoy Brown, Mikey Madison, Sonia Ben Ammar, Marley Shelton, Courteney Cox, David Arquette & Neve Campbell.