‘Scream’ is the Best ‘Scream’ Since ‘Scream’

Meta commentary is, for better or for worse, everywhere in film these days. Movies are increasingly self-aware, self-referential, and self-deprecating, to varying degrees of success. When done well, a movie written in this fashion can be witty and intelligent, savvy in its own genre tropes enough to lampshade and subvert them. When done poorly, however, a movie that tries too hard to be cleverer than it is only manages to come across as obnoxious and painfully tone-deaf. A bad movie doesn’t get extra points simply by virtue of acknowledging that it’s bad, or that it’s full of clichés.

Comedies are the arena in which this tends to work the best, as it’s the genre that more naturally lends itself to parody and satire. Which, ultimately, is what most meta-commentary veers into: Mocking established archetypes and expected trends, ranging in intensity from gentle ribbing to merciless ridiculing. It’s why, for a brief, tortuous window in the early-to-mid 2000s, we were subjected to an endless cavalcade of low-budget, lazy parody films, from the actually-pretty-smart Scary Movie to the we’re-barely-even-trying-at-this-point Epic Movie and Disaster Movie.

But coming in at a close second place behind comedy is horror. Meta horror has been a staple of the genre for years now, almost surpassing horror that’s played straight in both quantity and popularity. It seems like every other month, there’s some snappy, irreverent new indie or Blumhouse horror flick released that pokes fun at one subgenre or another. Christopher Landon is well known for his genre-bending horror comedies like Happy Death Day and Freaky, while Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods has become the gold standard for horror satire since its debut in 2011. Even serious franchise films like Candyman and Halloween have dipped their toes into the metatextual, with both recent revivals playing with and upending the core components of their respective concepts in order to make a broader commentary on their own subject matter.

And while this kind of inward-thinking approach to horror storytelling has been present in the genre for almost as long as the genre has existed in pop culture, the current reigning champ of the meta horror movie didn’t come around until 1996: Scream. The brainchild of screenwriter Kevin Williamson and horror mastermind Wes Craven, Scream was single-handedly responsible for the revival and reinvigoration of not just the slasher genre, which had been dwindling in popularity since the late 80s, but in pop horror as a whole. Scream made scary movies cool again, for audiences of young and old people alike, by not only presenting them with a fresh, effective new source of scares, but also a thoughtful, sharp, and snappy deconstruction of all the trappings that made the genre go stale in the first place.

Scream is a horror film about horror films. The characters are familiar with the structure and the rules to a slasher flick, and the film uses their in-universe knowledge of the situation against them. It’s a movie designed both to critique and to celebrate the genre, all the while reinventing all of the tried-and-true tropes that had come to define it after so many years. But perhaps more importantly than that, the original Scream also chose, in a much deeper and timelier fashion than I think audiences really understood at the time, to explore the cultural ramifications of horror in pop culture. You have to remember that this was a pre-Columbine world in 1996: With the Satanic Panic of the late 70s and early 80s long gone, it would be a few years before the media would once again turn its gaze (and its blame) towards movies, video games, and music, in the wake of that tragic event in 1999. Scream played with relationship between media and violence that, in a lot of ways, was well ahead of its time.

Each subsequent sequel expanded upon this central idea, of tackling not only horror tropes, but the cultural elements surrounding them, in equally creative and inventive ways. Scream 2 lambasted the very concept of a sequel itself, all the while exploring the effect repeated trauma and survivor’s guilt, 3 dissected the structure of trilogies, while at the same time delving into the seedy underbelly of Hollywood politics (well before the Me Too movement, no less), and 4 commented, with a healthy dose of snark, on the remake/reboot trend that had been spreading through Hollywood like wildfire in recent years. So when a new Scream was announced, it understandably raised the question: What more can these films reasonably tackle at before they run out of material? What else is there left to say at this point? Why bother making another entry?

As it turns out, it’s those very questions that Scream (2022) builds its premise on. The new Scream is all about fan expectations and franchise longevity. If the previous Scream movies were about horror movies in general, then Scream 2022 is about Scream movies specifically. It ups the meta-ante by several dramatic orders of magnitude, making it not only a commentary on current state of affairs in the horror industry, as is tradition at this point, but the popularity and legacy of its own franchise as well. It’s hands-own the smartest thematic backbone that any of these films has had since the original over 20 years ago.

From the title itself, which mocks the way that ‘reboot-quels’ (or ‘requels,’ as they’re referred to in the film) like Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre have named their updated entrees in their respective franchises, down to the tiniest, insignificant details like street names and side-character surnames, Scream 2022 is once again absolutely dripping with horror film connections and references. Some of these are blatant and obvious, which even the most casual viewer will catch. Some are slightly more obscure, and some are downright esoteric. It’s a fantastic, fun easter egg hunt if you’re a horror buff, which fans of the franchise have come to expect at this point.

But to be honest, my biggest concern going into Scream wasn’t so much its thematic content or its subject matter, nor was it its devotion to tongue-in-cheek nods to the genre; I have faith in the franchise at this point to deliver on the subtext, the satire, and the references. And it wasn’t even the new creative team: Since Wes Craven has sadly passed away since the Scream 4 was released in 2011, this would be the first film in the series without him at the helm. And Kevin Williamson would be sitting this outing out as well, eschewing his normal screenwriting credit for a producer’s role.

No, what I was most concerned about when this film was announced was whether it would actually put enough time and attention into crafting a competent standalone film, one that would hold up to scrutiny beyond its connections to the previous films and its “Hey, I get that reference!” meta appeal. Like I said earlier, meta commentary does not a good film make. Simply being self-aware isn’t sufficient to elevate a film if its core material isn’t strong enough to support its core plot. Thankfully, I can proudly, happily say that the franchise is in safe hands.

If you’ve seen 2019’s Ready or Not, then you’re already familiar with directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s work, and know that they have exactly the right tone and language in their direction to pick up the reigns of the Scream franchise. Their material is funny, it’s intelligently reflexive, and, most importantly, it has genuine heart and charm. All of these strengths, which feature prominently in Ready or Not and made it one of that year’s best new releases, make what could have felt like a cheap cash grab feel like a true successor to the Scream mantel. The Scream of 2022 is not only smart and cheeky, it’s truly engaging and moving in a way that even some of the previous films, directed by Craven himself, had begun to stray from by the third or fourth outing.

Ghostface and Jenna Ortega in Paramount Pictures and Spyglass Media Group’s “Scream.”

The new generation of characters are fantastic, and are easily the highlight of the film. I find one of the most common complaints I have with movies in general is how they tend to portray teenagers. Either they’re painfully outdated clichés of clique-y archetypes that no longer exist, or they’re insufferable parodies of cartoonish Gen-Z caricatures written by out-of-touch Boomer screenwriters. Here, our teen heroes/victims are portrayed as honest, realistic, relatively nuanced characters who feel like real-life teenagers. They have an appropriate balance of snark and charm, and effortlessly bounce back and forth between carelessly mocking their own predicament and believably fighting for their lives. The performances are stellar, with leading ladies and on-screen sisters Melissa Barrera and Jenna Ortega pulling much of the weight themselves in what will assuredly put them in the upper echelon of slasher heroines.

Speaking of which, the returning legacy characters, without which Scream would feel hollow and soulless, once again return to superb effect. The trio of Neve Campbell, David Arquette, and Courtney Cox are the backbone of the franchise, being the corresponding pillar in front of the camera to Wes Craven behind it, and their absence would have been tantamount to blasphemy. And yet, it’s a delicate balancing act that the film must play: Too much of the classic characters and the newcomers feel like filler or set-dressing, and too little of their presence and they become nothing more than glorified cameos. Luckily, Scream manages to strike this balance with perfection and ease, weaving them naturally and organically into and out of the story in a way that both honors their legacy, while still giving the new generation room to shine on their own. David Arquette in particular gives perhaps the best performance in the film as returning Woodsboro lawman Dewey Riley, making me genuinely wonder where the hell he’s been hiding these acting chops all these years.

The plot is likewise a brilliant marriage of the new and the old, taking the franchise’s trademark horror whodunnit formula and reinventing it for the modern audience. As with all murder mysteries, it would be dangerous, if not outright impossible, to go into specifics about the story, but, in true Scream fashion, it begins with an attack by someone in a Ghostface costume, and spirals into a desperate, paranoid attempt to suss out the killer’s identity before they can expand their body count. It’s tight, it’s twisty, and, as intended, it’ll keep you guessing until the very end. As a series veteran at this point, I was sure I had guessed the identity of the new Ghostface three or four times during the runtime of the film, and was wrong at every turn. The ending this time is a real stunner, and the motivation for the killer (or killers?) is one that easily ranks alongside the original for its originality and its timely relevance.

But great performances and a stellar plot only make for a great film, not a great horror film. So does this new incarnation of Scream deliver on the chills, kills, and thrills?

Oh yes, and then some. This is hands-down the most intense Scream by far. Ghostface isn’t playing around this time. The murders in this installment are the goriest, most gut-wrenching in the series to date, and will absolutely make you wince and avert your eyes on more than one occasion. He’s ruthless, he’s efficient, and he’s out for blood, more than ever before. It’s bloody, it’s brutal, and it knows how to ramp up the tension and the suspense in a way that would have undoubtedly made Wes proud. Scream had perhaps begun to get a little too jokey by the time the original run of films ended, and this film reels things back to more comfortably frightening territory, without ever seeming like it was resorting to gratuity for gratuity’s sake.

I really can’t stress enough how much I loved this film. Granted, I’m very much the target audience, but even if you aren’t, it’s still a great time at the movies. If I had any real gripes about the film, it’s that perhaps the third act begins to lean a little too heavily on the legacy and the formula of the previous films (especially the first), but I’m willing to forgive that in the face of all it’s successes.

With Halloween and Candyman before it, Scream has solidified that we are in a slasher-revival golden age, and I am absolutely 100% here for it. Like those other films of its kind, Scream 2022 serves as a perfect capstone on the storyline that has continued since the first film all the way back in 1997, while also setting the stage for a new era of stories set in its world. If this is the end of Woodsboro, Sydney Prescott, and Ghostface, I’m perfectly satisfied. But if this creative team wants to keep the ball rolling, now that the torch has been successfully passed, then I’m solidly onboard as well.

Here’s to you, Wes.

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