In a film that is dedicated to self-reference and meta self-awareness, my favorite snippet of SCREAM is a throwaway reference to “that guy who directed KNIVES OUT”. That, of course, is Rian Johnson, who had previously worked on THE LAST JEDI, thereby drawing the wrath of a section of Star Wars fans of all persuasions, from casual follower to hard-core fanboy and -girldom. The vitriol evoked was startling, even for a franchise that has pretty much spawned a secular religion.
This installment of the Scream franchise is all about fandom, with as many references to the failure of the sequels to the franchise-within-a-franchise, STAB, as comparing and contrasting with those other horror franchise faves, HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE 13TH. While this SCREAM has much to recommend it to fans of the satirical slasher subgenre, horror aficionados will be richly rewarded by the skill with which the filmmakers here manipulate tropes and cliches with gleeful subversion.
This time out, it’s a new set of good-looking teenage victims in the sleepy town of Woodsboro waiting their turn to be fodder for the knife wielding Ghostface killer. And, because this is an exercise in homage and call-outs, it is only right that it begins with one of those GLTs to be home alone when she receives the menacing phone call that ends in bloodshed. Sure, it’s updated to include both a landline and a cell phone, not to mention a brief disquisition on the various sub-genres of horror from intellectual to splatter, but the spirit is the same, as is the tension and suspense. And this is where SCREAM’s true accomplishment lies: we know what’s going to happen, but we’re still startled when it does, and being toyed with along the way is part of both that suspense and humor. Blood-soaked humor, but sometimes a chortle can be as much a relief as an acknowledgement of the joke.
The first victim of Ghostface is Tara (Jenna Ortega), whose mother is conveniently away at a conference in London. When news spreads of the attack, it brings the proper sense of déjà-vu dread to Woodsboro’s sheriff, one of the original’s GLTs, Judy Hicks (Marley Shelton) while also bringing back to Woodsboro not only Tara’s estranged sister, Sam (Melissa Barrera) with boyfriend Richie (Jack Quaid) in tow, but also two other survivors of the original Ghostface’s reign of terror, Gale Weathers (Courteny Cox) and Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell). It also brings Gale’s ex-husband, ex-town sheriff Dewey Riley(David Arquette in a sweetly world-weary performance) out of retirement. The body count climbs, as Ghostface’s knife plunges into viscera and blood vessels with wild abandon.
Meanwhile, as with the original, the characters remind us of the rules of horror films. Things like when someone says that they’ll be right back, they won’t, and how to figure out who the next victim will be, and who the killer really is. There is also a delightful deconstruction of the differences between reboots, sequels, and requels, for the edification of the viewer, and, one suspects, the catharsis of the writers.
The new crop, dare one call it the Next Generation, of Scream fodder is a nice mix of millennials that include Sherrif Judy’s stylishly coiffed son, and Tara’s boyfriend, Wes (Dylan Minnette), a name that is a tribute to Wes Craven, of course. There are also twins Chad and Mindy (Mason Gooding and Jasmin Savoy Brown) the children of another Scream alum Martha Meeks (Heather Matarazzo), as well as sundry others who are easy on the eyes as they fill out scenes at school and at the requisite house party that hosts the sanguineous finale. They all throw themselves into their roles with serious commitment, handle a quip with a light touch, and, when necessary, bleed out with conviction.
SCREAM is a, ahem, sharp film that revels in the artificiality of its premise while also being deliciously scary. As is pointed out, in a requel, anyone is fair game. Further, while it is not explicitly pointed out, not every knife to the gut is fatal, nor even much of an inconvenience, thereby upping the uncertainty quotient. It manages to be surprising while also absolutely playing by the rules.