More than ten years since Scream 4 divided critics and earned so-so box office, the latest Scream (★★★☆☆) takes great pains introducing a new cast and new set of rules for surviving a horror film, should you notice your life turning into a murderous bloodbath.
In this installment, it’s sisters Tara (Jenna Ortega) and Sam (Melissa Barrera) who find themselves the bullseye targets within a circle of friends stalked by the Ghostface killer in a new murder spree terrorizing Woodsboro. As self-reliant older sis Sam, Barrera makes for an appealing heroine, but the film so belabors its first-act set-up of the siblings’ convoluted family melodrama that the sequel stalls a bit out of the gate.
So it’s up to the series’ legacy stars — Neve Campbell as gritty survivor Sidney Prescott, Courteney Cox as ever-ambitious journalist Gale Weathers, and David Arquette as lovable lawman Dewey Riley — to sweep in, and, paradoxically, inject fresh energy into the old slasher routine.
This being a franchise known for self-referential commentary on horror movies, someone in the film actually refers to Sid, Gale, and Dewey as “legacy characters” living a sequel to the tragic events they experienced throughout the first four films. Only now, Sam is the star, and possibly the “final girl,” or perhaps even the killer.
The script, by James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, also takes knowing jabs at what one movie fan in the film calls “elevated horror.” They deem cerebral fright flicks like The Babadook and Hereditary to be superior to straight-up slasher fare like Stab, the fictional horror movie within the Scream movies inspired by the events portrayed in the original Scream.
The abundant meta twists and takes generally are sharper than the Ghostface murder mystery is tense or involving — so maybe that film snob has a point. Co-directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett brought more distinctive visual style and atmosphere to their playful 2019 horror-comedy Ready or Not.
Here, the pacing is repetitive, awfully reliant on potential victims opening and closing doors and cabinets to create supposedly suspenseful reveals. The repetition seems to be the joke, but it doesn’t add much to the suspense.
As far as the film’s attempts at macabre humor are concerned, this Scream, the first in the franchise not helmed by late horror legend Wes Craven, likely misses the original director. On the other hand, Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett go to town on the gruesome stabbings. Diehard horror fans won’t be disappointed by Ghostface’s vigorous impaling technique.
And diehard Scream fans should enjoy the deep rapport and commitment of stars Campbell, Cox, and particularly Arquette, who’s evolved Dewey from dolt to champion. Dewey even has his own guitar-strumming theme music, all-too-briefly reprised as yet another self-referential nod to the series’ long history.
Rather than merely coasting on that nostalgia, though, the filmmakers build on the relationships we’ve come to know, and ultimately reveal connections to the newbies that makes them more interesting, while expanding the list of possible suspects.
In keeping with Scream series tradition, practically anyone onscreen might be behind the Ghostface mask. The fear for panicking Woodsboro residents lies in knowing that the killer stalking you, far from being some unkillable, Michael Myers-style ghoul, could be a friend or loved one you trust. No one is safe this go-round, and no one lies beyond suspicion.
Scream is Rated R and opens in theaters everywhere Friday, January 14. Visit www.fandango.com.
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