Movie Review: Scream (2022)
By Ben Gruchow
January 30, 2022
The Scream franchise does not have a terrifically good qualitative average, despite producing only one entry (2000’s Scream 3) that was outright bad. The movies live on a middle ground of detached serviceability, rarely allowing the thing they were more successful at (being “about themselves” in varying ways) to dominate tone more often than the thing they were less successful at (being effective whodunits) or even the thing they were mostly bad at (being soap operas). The closest any of the first four movies came to reconciling all three of those things was 1997’s Scream 2, which also had the benefit of being the only one in the series released into a culture that was ready and waiting for it. Those first two entries weren’t great films, but they had an assured, snappy pep that kept them enjoyable. The following two had liabilities on their own merits, but both of them shared the trait of being past their prime, trying to maintain relevance by repeated insistence.
And yet, for all of my snotty put-downs above, I do sort of like the Scream movies. Their best moments are funny, trenchant, and/or satisfyingly gory; their worst moments still have a squareness about them that’s amusing and maybe a little endearing. So color me perplexed at the ambiguity of my reaction to this fifth entry in the series, simply and pointlessly titled Scream despite not being a remake in any usual sense. This is the first film in the series directed by someone other than the late Wes Craven (a filmmaker of estimable skill) and written by someone other than Kevin Williamson (a screenwriter of much more limited skill whose work on basically anything past the halfway point of Scream 2 has aged like raw milk under an exploding sun), and by almost any standard I can think of is immediately and obviously “better” than at least the two films that preceded it, not just in its construction as a thriller but in its characterization and capacity for accurate self-awareness.
Does “better” equal “good” here? Context matters. As far as I’m concerned, a big part of the reason why Scream plays as well as it does is by comparison. Envision a world where this is a direct sequel to Scream 2, and the cracks in the foundation of the sequel get quite a bit larger. That said: there’s certainly something at work here beyond mindless fan service and attempted retcons. The movie offers up the three legacy characters from the original run of films: Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), Dewey Riley (David Arquette), and Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) are here, but strictly in a supporting capacity; you could snip their scenes right out of the edit and leave behind a narrative that still mostly functions. Pulling focus are a fresh group of expendable teenagers, led by Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera, giving by no small margin the movie’s best performance) and they’re tasked with articulating the new “rules” of horror that they (and we) are supposed to follow, after Sam’s little sister Tara (Jenna Ortega, giving the second-best performance) is attacked in the opening sequence by a cloaked figure wearing the familiar Ghostface mask. She survives, but the arrival of a new serial killer in Woodsboro sets off a new assessment of suspects and a new set of possible motivations: not only Sam herself, but Amber (Mikey Madison), Wes (Dylan Minnette), Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown), Chad (Mason Gooding), and Liv (Sonia Ben Ammar). This is before we even get to Richie (Jack Quaid), Sam’s new boyfriend, who accompanies her to Woodsboro.
Credit where it’s due: this is by far the most engaging group of newcomers of any of the movies in this franchise since the first, and Scream 2022 far outdoes Scream 1996 in presenting those people as individuals with emotions and thought processes, as opposed to walking quip and retort machines. We’re still squarely within two dimensions as far as characterization goes, but it’s something. Special notice must go to Barrera and Ortega, who add a half-dimension by virtue of their comfortable, lived-in chemistry (despite them looking nothing alike; the screenplay has a reason for this, and it’s the hoariest cliché you can think of outside of Scream 3’s “It was the secret brother all along” approach, but Barrera is able to sell even that with a relative degree of grace). Credit must also be given toward the way the eventual motive(s) are structured: for the first time since the original, the rationale that would make someone finally flip from “unstable” to “let’s put on this infamous costume and set up this voicebox hardware” actually hangs together pretty well outside of the demands of the larger series narrative, and there’s a very deliberate and conscious reason behind why the killer would wear the costume and not just go around with a random mask stabbing people. In other words, we’re doing better than Scream 2’s Mrs. Loomis not just losing her mind, but losing it enough to buy and wear the same costume her son did, while flawlessly maintaining a façade of sanity until the appropriate time.
I mentioned legacy characters a few paragraphs back, and now’s as good a time as any to dive into a third thing that Scream does pretty well: the dissertation of the moviegoing environment. The writers, perhaps sensing that an attempt to focus in on horror movies for rules would lead them down the path of Scream 4, limited their characters to observing the difference between slasher films (like the movie-franchise-within-a-movie-franchise Stab) and “elevated” horror, a la The Babadook, The Witch, etc. The fact that horror in 2021 can easily reference actor showcases, or singular directorial visions has its own ground to mine and satire, but that’s not ground Scream is interested in. Instead, the screenplay saves most of its fire to the concept of the “requel”: the sequel that also functions as a soft reboot (The Suicide Squad, The Force Awakens, Jurassic World) under the depressingly accurate point that audiences don’t want to be simply told the next chapter of a story; they want to be reminded of the past and assured (and reassured) that they are above the material, with a safe and predictable product that ultimately preserves legacy characters and storytelling at the expense of new ones. The outcome of a director experimenting with a big IP is on display with Stab 8; this movie, we’re told, broke from the franchise formula and paid for it with a toxic reaction from the hardcore fans (in what is probably the biggest groaner line in the screenplay, a character remarks of Stab 8: “Didn’t Rian Johnson direct that one?”; this is followed by what is probably the ballsiest line in the screenplay, where another character remarks, “I actually really liked [that one]”, no doubt paving the way for several angry Internet comments-to-be from those individuals who were filled with rage back in 2017 when Johnson took the blandly competent Force Awakens, scrapped it for parts, and assembled a superior sequel out of them).
Credit for those things go to directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, of 2019’s Ready or Not, and writers James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick. The team has put together a reasonably sound story, and if the result doesn’t necessarily suggest anything smarter than what the Scream movies have already shown us, they absolutely suggest more care and thought being taken in the way it goes about its business than anything we’ve seen from the franchise since the late 90’s. The movie earns its R rating. It is not scary, and it would still rather toss off a one-liner than actually challenge the viewer, but it does possess an awareness of how to build tension from edit to edit, and it frequently uses that awareness to good effect; a mid-film scene that repeatedly obscures our view of the background behind characters via various doors goes on just long enough for us to get the joke, and a stalk-and-chase sequence in a darkened hospital somewhat later on is surprisingly effective thriller filmmaking from a series that long ago decided to chase comedy more intently than horror. Scream is serviceable entertainment for a crowd that wants to see those genre elements executed in a mostly successful way. Myself, I prefer elevated horror.
3 out of 5