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Full ‘Scream’ ahead

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Most creative work tends to be in conversation with the work that preceded it. That’s as true of filmmaking as any other artistic endeavor – true paradigm shifts independent of previous creation are exceedingly rare.

But even in that realm, horror filmmaking stands a step above. The whole genre is constructed around self-reflection, with today’s films drawing from those that came before – both figuratively and (more and more often) literally.

That said, no horror franchise has so thoroughly ventured into the meta realm as “Scream.” From the very first entry back in 1996, the series has made its bones by investing fully in its own self-referential nature.

And Ghostface is back.

The latest installment – also titled “Scream” – marks the fifth film in the franchise. Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, two members of the creative collective Radio Silence, from a script by James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, it’s very much a continuation of the core ethos of the series; namely, the idea that the conventions of horror cinema are very much a part of the horror being played out in this particular story. The self-awareness that makes these movies so appealing is still very present.

It’s also a good bit, well … stabbier than you might anticipate. While the metahumor is still very much in play, there’s a fair amount of gore at play here. It gets bloody in ways that you might not expect from these films, but it still works; the film finds ways to stay in conversation with itself even as it digs into the conceptual and/or visceral shifts in modern horror.

It’s 25 years after the events of the first “Scream” film. A high school student named Tara (Jenna Ortega) is attacked in her home by someone wearing the now-ubiquitous Ghostface mask and costume. She is badly hurt, but she survives.

Tara’s friend Wes (Dylan Minnette) takes it upon himself to reach out to Tara’s estranged sister Sam (Melissa Barrera) and tell her about what happened. She drops everything and, along with her boyfriend Richie (Jack Quaid), returns to Woodsboro, a place that reminds her of a dark secret that she hoped to once and for all forget.

Sam’s return sees her interacting with Tara and her friends. There’s Wes, as well as the Meeks-Martin twins Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and Chad (Mason Gooding), plus Liv (Sonia Ammar) and Amber (Mikey Madison). They all have their own suspicions, both about what happened to Tara and about Sam’s motivations for returning.

Now, in this world, the horrific murders in Woodsboro back in the day led to an ongoing and lucrative film franchise known as “Stab,” a series with a fandom that has remained loyal despite the many changes wrought by the sequels (we’re up to the eighth film here). It doesn’t take long before we get our young people dishing out theories about how the current murder spree is connected to the ideas behind those films.

We also get to check in with familiar faces from previous installments. Dewey (David Arquette) is no longer with the police department, having limped into forced retirement. His relationship with Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) deteriorated after he followed her to New York City; he left without saying goodbye. And of course, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is kept in the loop as the first final girl of it all.

Since this is a “Scream” movie, you know you’re going to get a bunch of murders and a bunch of wild suspicions tossed about, as well as a discourse about the nature of horror films. We get all of that, including a deconstruction of the term “requel,” which matches both the narrative of “Scream” and the movie itself.

And also since this is a “Scream” movie, no one is safe.

Sam must deal with her own demons and try to find a way to protect her sister from the darkness that surrounds Woodsboro. But with people around her dropping like flies, it’s hard to tell who – if anyone – she can trust.

As someone with a fondness for the original film and a vague feeling of diminishing returns regarding the sequels, I was apprehensive about a decade-later return – particularly one without the late Wes Craven at the helm. That being said, I dug this movie. It felt like a return to form of sorts, one that took a real stab at recapturing that combination of sly self-awareness and genuine affection that made the first film work so wonderfully. There are so many little moments, homages and Easter eggs intended to both subvert and celebrate the tropes of the horror genre, that leap out at the viewer.

There’s a zippiness to the proceedings that really contributes to the experience. Too often, this sort of metafictional work can grow ponderous, the narrative getting crushed beneath the weight of too many references. “Scream” never falls into that trap – the filmmakers really keep things moving, sweeping us along for the ride.

The cast – newcomers and old hands alike – do good work. Barrera is the ostensible star – an analog of sorts for Sidney – and she handles that responsibility well, even if it does prove to be a relatively thankless gig. The new teen crew is strong across the board, with everyone clearly understanding the assignment in a way that works beautifully. Brown gets the “how horror works” speech in this one and really crushes it, but every one of them really get it done. And it’s nice to see some of the old-timers back (though I found myself wondering how long it had been since Arquette and Cox were in the same room together). In truth, while Cox and Campbell are both pretty good, Arquette’s take on the nobly damaged Dewey was almost shockingly strong. These films succeed on the strength of their ensembles, and this is a good one.

It’s rare for a franchise to find reinvigoration this many films in (and this long after the previous entry), but there’s new life in this “Scream.” It manages to be both loyal to that which came before while also carving out space for a different direction. It is smart and funny and bloody, a great example of the kind of metagenre horror-comedy that the franchise invented.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 26 January 2022 14:32

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