Twenty-five years on, Scream is still one of our finest horror films with none of its revolutionary self-referential and metatextual brilliance diminished. The directorial precision of Wes Craven and the wit of screenwriter Kevin Williamson changed horror movies forever, kicking off a franchise with a set of uniquely challenging criteria for its descendants to fulfill: a Scream movie must analyze how horror movies work and why we watch them from a fresh angle, embody the very things it’s analyzing in a clever way, and, you know, be scary.
Boldly usurping the original’s unnumbered name, a new sequel has entered the chat — and unfortunately it amounts to little more than an annoying Twitter thread from 2017, missing the mark on each of the Scream criteria. Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett (who gave us a pretty fun horror satire with 2019’s Ready Or Not), this Scream is the burnout C-student younger sibling of a former valedictorian.
Even with the more divisive third and fourth installments, you could never say the series rested on its laurels. Scream 3 (the only other sequel not written by Williamson) turned the meta-analysis of the series onto itself and its own fandom and explored the culture of sexual exploitation at Hollywood’s rotten core decades before it would become a cultural flashpoint. More than ten years later, Scream 4 satirized the emerging like-and-subscribe psychosis of a new generation obsessed with online fame and craving attention at any terrifying cost.
Scream is the burnout younger sibling of a former valedictorian.
Each Scream faces the existential question of what new point it has to make regarding horror and the teens who consume it. 2022’s Scream seems at first to set its sights on so-called “elevated horror” — internet speak for contemporary horror movies that derive their scares from abstract or psychological means rather than from ghosts or men with knives. When people use this term, they are usually referring to movies, like Get Out and Hereditary, that are serious about their themes of social ills and (all together now) trauma. We meet the film’s first teen Drew-Barrymore-phone call-style, and when she professes her love for these kinds of prestige scary movies instead of traditional slasher films.
If you’ve dipped a toe into film criticism or online movie circles for two seconds at any point in the last few years, you are already exhausted by this terminology. “Elevated horror” provides a functionally useless distinction between this and that, partly because of how it implicitly dismisses films like the Screams of the past that succeed on both sides of the imaginary line it draws. A series whose inciting event is an affair that shatters two families and results in our hero finding her mother butchered is not not about trauma, nerds. Scream was rooted in those elements before it was considered a vibe, and it was hardly the first scary movie for which this was true.
But this non-Craven Scream doesn’t get that, and it doesn’t have much to say about the would-be subgenre beyond a few light jabs, let alone understand its own predecessors’ relationship to it. The vacuity of its attempted commentary is most apparent in the film’s biggest twist: our original killer, Skeet Ulrich’s Billy Loomis, had been cheating on heroine Sidney Prescott back in high school, and his secret daughter Sam (played by Melissa Barrera) is our new protagonist. Sam is the descendant of two mass-murdering psychopaths, but instead of using her fear of becoming them to delve deeper into her psychology (and perhaps unpack recent horror tropes), the film falls flat when exploring her innate inherited violence. It’s a smart idea for a twist that goes nowhere.
Scream doesn’t really understand how to use its canon to its advantage, most importantly in failing our beloved heroine Sidney Prescott when it brings her into the action. Neve Campbell returns only to be given precious little to do before the finale, and the film offers her little new dimension. One of our greatest scream queens is now a Mom Who Jogs With A Stroller; she’s so stock-photo bland she all but has a Photobucket watermark across her face. Her evolution here, much like David Gordon Green’s rebirthing of Laurie Strode in 2018’s Halloween, mostly hinges on her unfortunate reclaiming of guns. Courtney Cox’s Gale Weathers fares even worse, robbed of her brash attitude and iconic outfits (obviously the highest among them being the Scream 3 bangs).
Legacy is at least on this new Ghostface’s mind: not only is the killer trying to draw in the surviving original players, but their relatives become the prime targets. Green’s Halloween — part sequel, part reboot, or a “requel”, as Scream clunkily puts it — is a clear influence. But rather than ironically departing from Halloween’s example, as you might expect from the Craven/Williamson days, Scream simply follows its lead. It’s depressing to see a franchise that has always charged in its own direction decide instead to fall in line.
The subject Scream has most on its mind is modern online fandom in general. The first three films tasked Jamie Kennedy’s Randy to deliver soliloquies on the movies’ theses, explaining the rules of horror in brilliantly meta detail. Here, Randy’s avatar and relative Mindy (played by Jasmin Savoy Brown, who rules and is an innocent party here) monologues more about deeply online fan mindsets than about the movies they consume. In a misguided wink, the film even invokes The Last Jedi’s vitriolic online response by pitting its director Rian Johnson as the franchise-bastardizing director of the latest Stab installment.
There are simply other more interesting and less discussed ideas to explore than toxic fandom. This is a franchise that once excited us because it said things about movies that nothing else did. Instead, this newest sequel reaches for the lamest of low hanging fruit, delivering an effort in repeatedly stating the obvious. By the time (spoiler alert) it is revealed that the killers are quasi-4chan cartoons wanting to return the Stab franchise back to its gritty roots by framing Sam, it doesn’t feel like a sharp analysis of the moment — it feels like the easy way out.
Chris Feil is a freelance entertainment writer, with work in Vanity Fair, Vulture, The AVClub, and Polygon, among others. He co-hosts the film podcast This Had Oscar Buzz, and he did drink the prop drink but did not actually feel drunk.