The new “Scream” movie opens with a scene that feels as familiar as the title it shares with the 1996 film that kickstarted the slasher franchise. A teenager, Tara Carpenter (Jenna Ortega), is home alone, in her kitchen, texting with her friend Amber (Mikey Madison) on her cell phone. But the Carpenters turn out to be the rare modern-day household that still has a landline, and when it rings, Tara is perplexed. When she answers the phone, she assumes that it’s her absent mom’s new boyfriend on the other end of the line, and strikes up a conversation with him— a conversation that seems perfectly normal, until he starts quizzing Tara on her favorite scary movies.
Those who are familiar with the “Scream” series, of which this is the fifth installment, know what this scenario entails. A new Ghostface killer (or killers) is back Woodsboro, which hasn’t experienced the gruesome phenomenon that the town is known for— and which inspired a series of in-film movies titled “Stab”— in a decade. And a lot has changed in that decade. Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), the target of the first Ghostface killer and the individual who has found herself at the center of the killings ever since then, has moved away, and is now a wife and mother. Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) no longer lives in Woodsboro either; she’s an anchor for a morning news show, and divorced from Dewey Riley (David Arquette), Woodsboro’s former sheriff who is now a husk of the man he once was, living alone and depressed in a trailer surrounded by bottles of liquor and memories of Gale.
But the more things change, the more things stay the same, and many of the rules for the Ghostface killer that Dewey outlines early in the film still apply. There’s a new face that the attacks center around, however: Tara’s estranged older sister Sam (Melissa Barrera), who ran away from Woodsboro years ago to escape a traumatizing family secret, a secret that ties her to the original killings. She returns home in the wake of the attack on her sister along with her clueless boyfriend Richie (Jack Quaid), and enlists Dewey and Tara’s group of friends, which include Amber; Wes (Dylan Minnette), the son of current sheriff Judy Hicks (Marley Sheldon, reprising her role from “Scream 4”); twins Chad (Mason Gooding) and Mindy (Jasmine Savoy Brown), the children of Martha Meeks (Heather Matarazzo) and whose uncle Randy was a victim of a previous killer; and Chad’s girlfriend Liv (Sonia Ben Ammar). Together, they make up a group where anyone could be the killer, while also embodying an aspect of the film’s meta commentary on sequels— or as Mindy quips, the “requel,” a sequel that also serves as a franchise reboot. A requel has ties to the original while simultaneously introducing a new group of characters. And that’s exactly what this new “Scream” does. Sidney, Gale, and Dewey are integral figures in the story, but they are not the center of the action; that torch is passed on to Sam.
This self-awareness also applies, within the context of the film, to the discussion of the new Ghostface’s possible motive. Every “Scream” movie serves in some way as a meta commentary on both the horror genre and entertainment media as a whole. The first “Scream” riffed on classic slashers. “Scream 4” took on sequels, while also poking at, for example, the torture porn genre that includes films like “Saw.” There are perhaps more layers than ever to the meta nature of the fifth “Scream,” but it realizes them in a way that feels much less heavy-handed than some of the previous movies do (previous “Scream” scribe Kevin Williamson just serves as an executive producer here, so we can probably thank new writers James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick for that). The popular genre trope that this “Scream” toys with is that of elevated horror, horror movies that have layers to them that go deeper than just mindless kills. After all, in the decade that has elapsed since “Scream 4” was released, films like “Get Out” and “Midsommar” have skyrocketed in popularity, particularly with young audiences. When the killer quizzes Tara over the phone at the beginning of the film, she states that “The Babadook” is her favorite horror movie because it’s a moving meditation on motherhood and grief, before name-dropping titles like “Hereditary” and “It Follows,” insisting that she’s more of an expert on the latest A24 indie than any “Stab” movie.
“Scream” also tackles another topic that has become a sore subject in pop culture over the last few years, one that ends up being the overarching theme of the film: that of toxic fandom. Toxic fandom is a term applied to fans of franchises who feel entitled to certain things from creators, and when those creators don’t deliver on their expectations, vitriol is directed toward them in the form of social media attack and even death threats. It’s an occurrence that happens more and more frequently the more beloved older franchises receive new reboots. “Scream” frames this discussion using what has become arguably the most famous instance of toxic fandom. Mindy argues that the killer could be a slighted fan of the “Stab” franchise trying to reclaim it following “Stab 8,” a movie directed by “that guy who made ‘Knives Out’” that messed with the established “Stab” formula and enraged certain sects of fans. This is, of course, a thinly veiled but effective allusion to “Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi,” a more recent installment in the series that has been going since 1977 that took some risks sent some longtime fans into a tailspin. The idea that an angry fan is possibly behind the new killings is a great impetus for the story, but it’s also a clever and unnerving commentary on the current state of fandom.
Finally, while the first “Scream” was a meta commentary on slashers, enough time has passed that this “Scream” serves as a meta commentary on its own franchise. As with the slasher genre as a whole, there are certain rules that come with each “Scream” movie, rules that this film plays with somewhat. This is the first “Scream” movie not directed by Wes Craven, who passed away in 2015. The director’s chair is filled by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillet, and the duo behind the horror comedy “Ready or Not” bring that same energy to this film. There are several instances, such as the opening scene, where the audience is fed what appears to be a familiar scenario, only for it to play with our expectations in both big and small ways. “You’re the most derivative one yet,” Sidney tells the killer at one point. That statement may be true of this film, but as far as requels go, it’s an incredibly effective blend of old and new (if it’s doing its job, there are even a couple of moments that may make those entitled fans the movie vilifies angry). The old trio gives us emotional beats to care about. Sidney is more self-assured than ever before. Arquette steals the movie, taking his character to a place he’s never been before in the film’s most moving subplot (maybe the most moving part of any of these movies, for that matter). He may be, as one character refers to him as, “shitty Sam Elliott,” but Sam’s plight offers Dewey an opportunity for redemption, to get back on his feet and be the heroic sheriff he once was. The new characters are compelling. Barrera, who broke out in last year’s film adaptation of the musical “In the Heights,” is good, if not as interesting as the more colorful faces surrounding her (Madison’s Amber and Brown’s Mindy in particular are screams), and Ortega proves to be more than a worthy successor to Drew Barrymore’s iconic scream queen. The kills are bloody and brutal, the callbacks to the previous “Scream” movies feel appropriate, and the story is very twisty, in the supremely satisfying way that when you reflect back on the entire movie after finishing it, you can see where the story was pointing in that direction the entire time. The formula may be a familiar one, but “Scream” feels fresher than ever before. When the end credits roll, there’s a dedication that reads, “For Wes.” I think he would be proud.
“Scream” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 114 minutes. Rated R.