In the 25 years since Scream revived mainstream horror, kickstarted a teen-movie boom, and inspired multiple sequels, every franchise has become Scream. Sure, they aren’t all youth-culture murder mysteries about defeating masked killers. But the self-aware commentary on the ins, outs, and tropes of its own genre, the element that really set Scream apart in 1996, has become a go-to screenwriting move for any franchise. (Though few of them execute it with such mischievous wit.)
This is especially true of legacy sequels, or remake-quels, or, as characters in the 2022 Scream call them, “re-quels.” Whatever you call it, big franchise pictures like Jurassic World, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, or even never-rebooted MCU entries tend to have at least one or two characters who can speak self-referentially about the events of previous installments. Even kid-targeted movies sometimes feel the need to do this; last year’s Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway made plenty of pointlessly cheeky references to the first film’s shortcomings.
The Scream series itself mostly sat out this pop-culture cycle, until now. Scream 4 came out nearly 11 years ago, which was 11 years after Scream 3. That schedule suggests a Before Sunrise-style once-a-decade check-in on the horror genre, rather than the usual diminishing returns of a slasher series. To that end, the new Scream isn’t a fresh start — it’s very much Scream 5, even though it shares its title with the original movie. Like the 2018 Halloween or 2011’s The Thing, it’s a follow-up branded like a reboot. Does a new crop of Scream teenagers complain loudly about how stupid this trend is? Of course! How could they not?
These friends, many with some manner of connection to characters from the earlier films, also speak knowledgeably about their lineage, and how modern-day fans demand that any new characters must interact meaningfully with older legacy characters. Notably, Scream’s legacy characters don’t spend much time talking about movies; they’re more concerned with their real lives. (Plus, Jamie Kennedy’s horror-fan character Randy, the source of most of Scream’s meta elements, died back in Scream 2.)
Dewey (David Arquette), the deputy turned sheriff turned premature retiree, gets involved in one centerpiece discussion, but tabloid reporter turned morning-show host Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) and shut-in turned family woman Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) are all business. They aren’t interested in returning to the murder-plagued small town of Woodsboro until the bodies start piling up, knocked off by yet another killer in the iconic Ghostface mask and black cloak.
Predictably, the killer (or killers — multiple characters point out that there are usually at least two) is focused on taking down the next generation. After delivering a patented corker of a Scream opener, with yet another young woman home alone, receiving a creepy phone call that turns deadly, new directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett must rush into the introduction of a new gaggle of teenagers, to populate the suspect list. The screenplay throws a wobbly curveball by making the new point-of-view heroine neither Sidney nor a high-schooler, but Sam (Melissa Barrera), a twentysomething who several years ago mysteriously abandoned Woodsboro and her younger sister Tara (Jenna Ortega).
Sam’s return home with her boyfriend Richie (Jack Quaid, quipping as if auditioning for the MCU) mixes up the formula, and Barrera and Ortega make for vulnerable-yet-scrappy successors to Sidney. But these plot machinations require shuffling a bunch of Tara’s friends on- and offscreen at the story’s convenience. In the fine tradition of re-quels, many of the younger characters often feel like perfunctory afterthoughts, not having any particular relationship with Sam.
This new-class roster includes Wes (Dylan Minnette), Liv (Sonia Ben Ammar), Amber (Mikey Madison), Chad (Mason Gooding), and his sister Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown, from Yellowjackets). Mindy is the most memorable of the group, following in the tradition of Kennedy’s much-missed Randy — she’s the genre-savvy nerd, reborn as a cooler, more self-possessed teenager who still seems capable of disappearing down the rabbit hole of online discourse. In a scene with Mindy holding court, ranting about re-quels, fandom, and weirdos on Reddit, this Scream fully clicks into continuity with its fellow sequels, whose best moments combine antsy tension with breathless pop-culture theorizing.
Though Tara offers some praise for “elevated horror” — ”Ask me about It Follows!” she cries, as the killer menaces her with trivia centered on Scream’s in-universe horror series Stab — the focus here is no longer especially horror-specific. Still, Scream 5 manages some decent stalking-killer setpieces. Though it’s the first entry without director Wes Craven, who died in 2015, Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett maintain his propulsion and add extra flourishes of gore, while cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz (who also shot the duo’s lively comedic horror Ready or Not) brings richer visual tones back to the series after the overlit Scream 4. In other words, they know how to make blood look good.
This Scream also attempts something like The Matrix Resurrections, pushing self-referentiality to its limit in order to goof on its status as a potential decades-later cash-in, while still brokering a satisfying reunion with its beloved original characters. But the Matrix comparison doesn’t always flatter the 2022 Scream. Campbell, Cox, and Arquette all have chances to shine, and Campbell’s rueful confidence even approaches something vaguely touching. But this is a crowded movie where the body count sometimes inspires relief rather than dread: Finally, some of these extra characters are being cleared out!
The whodunnit angle (still novel for a slasher series, even after all these years) also means that the Scream sequels can’t always unveil their full thesis until the climactic unmasking, making it both difficult to discuss without spoilers (suffice to say, this one is a lot of fun) and more importantly, difficult to parse as part of the ongoing story of this lore-heavy sequel. In a clever, telling detail, characters in this Scream repeatedly chuck the notion of horror-movie rules in favor of Stab-specific rules — which at this point are really just observations about Woodsboro family histories.
That development might feel more like an ouroboros if not for a horror rule the Scream series has repeatedly, wonderfully flouted: These movies have never once ended by explicitly setting up another Scream. (Maybe that’s why it took the last few so long to get going.) Twenty-five years in, the series is still smart enough to acknowledge that there’s no need to tease a sequel. Whether in two years or another 11, the franchise will prevail. Fandom is its own unkillable mania, and Scream will keep figuring out how to survive it.
The 2022 Scream opens in America theaters on Jan. 13.