In 1996, when horror was a bad word and the slasher subsect had been relegated to bargain bins and a straight-to-VHS lifespan, genre maestro Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes) and a (then) relatively unknown Kevin Williamson dared to defy the conventions by creating a film that played into the stereotypes whilst simultaneously commenting on them.
It all began with the simplest of questions – “What’s your favourite scary movie?” – in a scene that has gone down in history as one of the greatest all-time openers in cinema; no spoilers, but if you aren’t aware of just why Drew Barrymore is synonymous with the genre then you have some serious rectifying to do. Subverting expectations is what Craven and Williamson mastered within the Scream series, whether it was placing one of their biggest (aforementioned) stars in immediate peril or the absolute brazenness displayed in each killer reveal, it was an admirable quality they continually mastered with each subsequent sequel.
Whilst the general consensus is that 1996’s Scream and its 1997 sequel, Scream 2, are near-flawless entries in the series, 2000’s oft-maligned Scream 3 and the ultimate non-starter that was 2011’s Scream 4 still hold a certain entertainment value; as a whole, you know your series is holding well if the worst you have on offer is an unhinged Parker Posey leaning into a Nancy Drew mentality as she investigates a killing spree.
Though the intent was there for Scream 4 to rejuvenate the series and begin a brand new trilogy, audiences in general didn’t show up as intended. Whether it was that too much time had passed, or, you know, that really so much of that film’s cast ended up falling victim to the knife-happy Ghostface that has remained the staple villain throughout, it appeared that Craven and co. had sung their swan song in relation to these films; the director’s ultimate passing in 2015 cementing that, as series survivors Neve Campbell, David Arquette, and Courteney Cox all noted how a Scream film could never be made without Craven’s involvement.
So, with all that, how is it that we have a fifth Scream film?
Before we get to the ins and outs of the film itself, the fact that this essential “Scream 5″ is just calling itself Scream is understandably confusing, and, just to clarify, it isn’t a Halloween situation where that 2018 sequel undid all the sequels that came prior. Scream is very much the fifth instalment, a continuation of the story that started some 25 years ago, tying itself so innately to the original film, but doing so in a way that doesn’t negate the actions or the characters we loved and lost along the way.
Campbell’s resilient heroine Sidney Prescott, Arquette’s loveable Dewey Riley, and Cox’s cutthroat Gale Weathers have all returned to the fold here, though, in a more successful manner than that of Scream 4, they appear here in a supportive manner, genuinely feeling like they are passing the torch to the new generational cast on hand. Sidney’s days of being a victim are over, and, in a wise play from writing/directing duo Tyler Gillett and Matt Bettinelli-Olpin (who helmed 2019’s wildly over-the-top Ready or Not), her return to her hometown of Woodsboro isn’t because a Ghostfaced killer is after her, it’s because she’s able to assist in such a bloody situation.
The true target here is Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera). Just why she’s on the hit list is a narrative additive that is best left discovered when watching the film, but in her being targeted, it sets up a welcome dynamic between herself and those closest to her – where everyone is either a suspect or a victim-in-waiting – and with Sidney, Dewey, and Gale; Sam, who as we learn was something of a menace as a teenager in Woodsboro, seeks out Dewey’s help early on in the piece, believing he’s the key to helping solving who’s behind this.
The whodunnit temperament that’s at the centre of the Scream narratives is one that has ebbed and flowed over the course of the 4 films thus far, and thankfully Gillett and Bettinelli-Olpin – who pitched themselves to Campbell, Arquette, and Cox early on in this film’s conception, stating how they were massive fans and would be doing Craven proud with this iteration – are smart enough to pivot away from the revenge plot lines and deranged family members that the previous 4 films have all indulged in when it came time to revealing the who and why behind each attack on Sidney’s life. Being that it’s Sam’s well-being that this film banks on adds an extra layer of anxiety, with the reasoning for her being targeted linked to a legacy character from the original, something that then extends itself to the eventual introduced new players that far more successfully leave their mark on the series than what other sequel characters have managed; Jasmin Savoy Brown as Mindy Meeks-Martin, niece to the dearly departed Randy Meeks, arguably one of the series’ most beloved characters, an immediate stand-out as she effortlessly sprouts an updated “horror rules” list that highlights how comedically self-aware Gillett and Bettinelli-Olpin’s script is.
Razor-sharp humour and the ability to then genuinely unnerve with oft-sickening violence has always been a two-hander the Scream films executed with glee, and this Scream is no exception. Perhaps the most brutal of them all, the ferocity adhered to in which this 2022 Ghostface launches at his prey lends the film an air of violent unpredictability, and though we ultimately shouldn’t be surprised at this, the fact that a fifth film is able to startle us as much as this one does is a further testament to the filmmakers and their evident love of both the genre and the staple Craven touches.
Ultimately it’s that evident respect for Craven that shines through here, with this feeling like a sequel that he himself would have helmed. It’s funny without talking down to audiences or the genre, it’s scary without resorting to cheap scares or gimmicks – and, when it so openly toys with us, it’s in on the joke – and it’s joyously unpredictable in a manner that the first Scream film truly delighted in. Though it does cater to fans with certain mentions and call-backs, it’s intelligent enough not to exclude the unversed either, though I can’t imagine anyone seeing this that isn’t somehow familiar with the films that came prior.
FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Scream is screening in Australian theatres from January 13th, 2022.