Scream review: scary good sequel goes back to basics

Ghostface in Paramount Pictures and Spyglass Media Group's "Scream." Photo Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Spyglass Media Group.
Ghostface in Paramount Pictures and Spyglass Media Group's "Scream." Photo Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Spyglass Media Group. /

Scream revitalizes the franchise’s now-famous formula in an appropriately meta installment that serves up gruesome kills and tongue-in-cheek humor.

It’s an opening scene that horror fans know by heart: home alone, an unsuspecting teenage girl picks up the phone one night, asked the infamous question: “what’s your favorite scary movie”? From Drew Barrymore to Anna Paquin and all the stars in between, the Scream films has established itself as a genre staple by reimagining the same plot structure – to varying degrees of success. Though Wes Craven’s franchise has always found its bread and butter in finding a new way to spice up the classic formula, the latest installment takes things up a notch – going “back to basics”, literally, and crafting the fifth film that both stands on its own and pays homage to the original without feeling derivative.

Starring Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, and David Arquette, Scream follows Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera) a teenage runaway who returns to her hometown of Woodsboro after her little sister Tara (Jenna Ortega) is left hospitalized after a brutal attack by the Ghostface killer. Though Sam is reluctant to return home, once it becomes clear that she‘s the true target of the new Ghostface, she takes matters into her own hands to unmask the culprit once and for all – enlisting the help of her boyfriend Richie (Jack Quaid) and ex-sheriff Dewey Riley (Arquette) to catch the killer.

Like the many films that came before it, Scream lifts several narrative beats from the original – the iconic opening of a girl home alone, the group of friends all being suspects, Ghostface having a new trait or gadget to terrorize the town, and a twist-filled ending that leaves the franchise with at least one less major character than the film before. However, where in previous installments the adherence to formula felt lazy, Scream‘s Uber-meta attitude towards both structure and character archetypes works in its favor, crafting a pseudo-love-letter to the original that understands what fans loved about the original and acknowledges those elements wholeheartedly.

Several characters are pseudo copycats of the original cast – thanks to the fact that nearly everyone is a relative of someone from the first film: twins Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and Chad (Mason Gooding) are Randy Meeks’ niece and nephew, loner Wes (Dylan Minnette) is the son of Scream 4‘s Deputy Judy Hicks (who returns here as the town’s Sheriff in Dewey’s absence). Rounding out Tara’s gang of friends are Liv Mckenzie (Sonia Ammar) and Amber Freeman (Mikey Madison), and together, the teens act as Ghostface’s hunting ground as bodies begin to drop.

The sizable group of friends isn’t the only potential victims, though, as Scream also boasts four legacy characters from previous installments – the aforementioned Sheriffs Judy Hicks and Dewey Riley, as well as franchise mainstays/final girls Sidney Prescott (Campbell) and Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox). As the film acknowledges in Mindy’s monologue explaining the rules of rebooting a franchise (an obvious riff on her uncle’s famous “rules of surviving a horror movie” from the original), having the mix of familiar faces and fresh blood makes for a refreshing, balanced cast – establishing new characters to root for while also allowing the audience to be invested in characters we already know in love.

Such a sizable ensemble cast (though par for the course for a Scream film) isn’t always an advantage, though – Scream could probably stand to cut a character or two from Tara’s friend group without losing much more than an unimaginative kill or two – though credit must be given that, despite having a massive cast, the film’s runtime still sits neatly below the two-hour mark, making for a well-paced viewing experience that never had us checking our watches.

In between carving up corpses, though, Scream employs its latest twist to keep the franchise fresh: the reveal early on that Sam is the illegitimate daughter of Billy Loomis, the original Ghostface killer. It’s certainly an interesting development, bolstered by the inclusion of the CGI (ghost?) of Billy, who haunts Sam throughout the film and eggs her on towards embracing her violent family heritage. The twist also provides for the central conflict between Sam and her sister Tara – who serves as the film’s most compelling relationship and joins the ranks of the franchise’s ever-growing list of competent female heroines.

Tara is particularly badass- breaking from franchise tradition and surviving the opening attack, and though she spends the rest of the film bedridden and riddled with stab wounds, her fighting spirit, sharp attitude, and fearlessness make her engaging and easy to root for – especially bolstered by Jenna Ortega’s spirited performance. Unfortunately, though, the same memorability doesn’t extend to Tara’s group of friends – through the gang of teens in a horror movie are hardly notorious for being well fleshed-out, this group feels particularly unimpressive and don’t bring much to the table, other than being suspicious of each other and serving as pincushions for Ghostface.

Neve Campbell and Courtney Cox are just as good as ever – maintaining the fire that made their original characters so well-loved, and still bringing the witty banter we’ve come to expect from Gale and Sidney. Of the returning cast, though, it’s David Arquette’s Dewey who shines the brightest- for a character who’s spent most of the franchise as the but of the joke and Ghostface’s punching bag, it’s refreshing to see him taken seriously as the emotional core of the film, and he comes into his own as a true protagonist and hero to newbies Sam and Tara.

When it comes to the kills themselves, Scream doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel – aside from an impressive fire stunt in the last act, the kills aren’t particularly memorable, and are about as gory as fans will have come to expect from the franchise. True to form, Scream also takes it upon itself to dole out its meta opinions on the latest trends in horror filmmaking, which means that this time around, Tara extols the virtues of ‘elevated’ horror and proclaims films like The Babadook and Hereditary as her favorites over trashy slashers like the Stab franchise.

Though the commentary on elevated horror and Mindy’s reboot monologue feels like dialogue ripped straight from the original, not all of the genre commentary lands – when the Ghostface killer is finally unmasked in the last act, they serve as the film’s feelings towards passionate ‘toxic’ fanbases – an analogy that, though certainly based in truth – feels underbaked and clunky, mishandled with sloppy dialogue as opposed to attempting to say something clever or compelling about the phenomena.

Still, even with some mixed messages and an ensemble cast just a tad too large, Scream is a remarkably competent sequel that takes all the right queues from the original while still forging its own identity. Anchored by key performances from Jenna Ortega and David Arquette, Scream is a much-needed return to form that spells a bright future for Ghostface in inevitable ensuing sequels.

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