Scream: new characters, new rules, new killers – discuss with spoilers

·9 min read
<span>Photograph: Brownie Harris/AP</span>
Photograph: Brownie Harris/AP

What’s your favourite scary movie? If you came of age in the 90s there’s a strong chance it was Wes Craven’s 1996 slasher Scream, not just because it was (and still is) a genuine masterwork, but because it arrived during a decade when the quality of horror films was scarier than the content.

Related: Scream review – irony-laden horror ‘requel’ is starting to creak with age

Scream was a rare horror film that existed in a world where people actually watched horror films, so trying to avoid getting stabbed meant being hyper-aware of the rules that underpinned the genre, brutally instilled by two fanboy killers. The series proceeded with predictably diminishing returns but, for a slasher franchise, the sequels were still smarter than most, crafting a fairly detailed universe of interconnected bloodbaths and the inevitable films based off them (the knowingly wretched Stab franchise). A decade after the hugely underrated fourth chapter, Ghostface is back in Scream (the same title being a jokey reference to a theme in the film although really more of a way to lure in a broader audience outside of Scream completists), but is his or her return from creative necessity or just commercial inevitability?

Here is a very spoiler-heavy discussion of Nu Scream:

The cold open

Jenna Ortega in the new Scream.
Jenna Ortega in the new Scream. Photograph: AP

Ever since Drew Barrymore misremembered the specifics of Friday the 13th and found her insides on the outside as penalty, the quality of a Scream film has been judged within the first 15 minutes, a grisly opening kill that sets the tone for what comes after. Scream 4 outsmarted our expectations with a fun wrong-footing cold open within a cold open within a cold open, which led to speculation about how the new chapter might do something even wilder, stakes raised and rules rewritten. But while some had predicted that perhaps one of the OG pin cushions might be at risk, what’s most surprising about the start of Scream 22 is how straightforward it all is.

The set-up is a back-to-basics callback to how it all started with You and Yes Day teen Jenna Ortega as Tara, the sacrificial Casey-shaped lamb, less recognisable this time perhaps but still fielding trivia questions from Ghostface. There are minor tweaks – the questions are about the Stab franchise rather than IRL slashers, she’s hounded by both landline and smartphone – but the most notable change is that, for the first time in the series, the first victim actually survives the attack …

The backstory

Melissa Barrera, who plays Samantha.
Melissa Barrera, who plays Samantha. Photograph: Brownie Harris/AP

The reason being that Tara was in fact just bait to lure her sister Samantha (In the Heights’ Melissa Barrera) back to Woodsboro, along with boyfriend Richie (The Boys’ Jack Quaid) who’s mostly unaware of the trauma that’s haunted the town ever since the original killings. Samantha is a reformed wild child who left town after raising hell and never came back. The killer soon contacts her, teasing that he or she knows her secret, which we discover is an unfortunate familial tie: Samantha is the illegitimate daughter of Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich), one of the original killers. It’s a fun, goofy link, and one that’s very much in line with the franchise’s charmingly soapy mythology but, in a misjudged piece of fan service, Ulrich frequently appears to Samantha as a vision, urging her to lean into her murderous heritage.

Samantha then becomes the new final girl but one with an edge – she might also be a killer – a not-too-dissimilar set-up to the fourth film’s positioning of Sidney’s niece Jill as fake-out heroine who turns out to be the villain. She’s not the only new cast member with a connection to the past. Tara’s group of friends includes the niece and nephew of Randy (Jamie Kennedy) who died in the second film and the son of Judy (Marley Shelton) who was introduced in the fourth. The links between old and new inevitably leads Samantha to …

The legacy cast

Courteney Cox, part of the original Scream core.
Courteney Cox, part of the original Scream core. Photograph: Brownie Harris/AP

Walking wounded they may be, but it’s a miracle that three core Scream survivors are even walking at all, having faced off against various Ghostfaces in every one of the previous films. One of the smartest touches in 2011’s Scream 4 was to set up the structure of a reboot with a young cast primed to take over but then kill them all off either as victims or villains (“D0n’t fuck with the original,” Campbell quips at the end, echoing widespread reboot fatigue at the time). Here, there’s less cohesion between young and old, the latter particularly, at times criminally, wasted. We’re first reunited with Dewey (Arquette), now living in a trailer, retired from the force and seeing his ex-wife Gale (Cox) only on her morning show. He’s dragged back into the drama by Samantha, craving advice on how to survive which leads to an update of the “here are the rules” speech that advises her not to trust her boyfriend (more on that later) and that the motive is somehow connected to the past.

We’re also reunited with Judy, a minor character from the last film, and Randy’s sister Martha, allowing for a small scene with Heather Matarazzo who appeared in the third (an Easter egg later showing a YouTube link to an interview with “survivor Kirby Reed” also confirms that the Scream 4 fan favourite, played by Hayden Panettiere, is also still alive). Dewey reluctantly calls Sidney to warn her, which allows us to learn that she now has kids and is married to Mark (who we can assume is Patrick Dempsey’s Mark from Scream 3) but urges her to stay away. After Scream 4 survivor Judy is killed along with her son Wes, we then see the return of Gale, eager for the story, who shares a poignant, if within the larger context of the series repetitive, scene with Dewey – added poignancy because of the off-screen history shared by Cox and Arquette. But any chance of a romantic reunion is curtailed when …

The big death

David Arquette.
David Arquette, who finds himself on the chopping block. Photograph: Brownie Harris/AP

It had to happen some time. Every new Scream teases the death of one of the old guard (trailers for 4 suggested it was Gale’s turn) and after marketing for the latest featured only minimal scenes of the main trio, it was seen as a given that someone had to go. But as the only returning cast member to get even the slightest bit of character texture this time around, it’s a shame that Dewey is the one who finds himself on the chopping block. It’s an effectively nasty way to go; a hospital corridor slaying that sees the killer stab Dewey in both his front and back simultaneously, creepily bragging that “it’s an honour” to be the one who gets to murder someone so infamous (the violence throughout feels gnarlier than usual). But it does suck some of the energy from the film, leaving Gale and a returning Sidney to mope before being thrust into the climax …

The killers

Jack Quaid and Melissa Barrera in Scream
Jack Quaid and Barrera. Photograph: Brownie Harris/AP

In the final act, the characters are all drawn to the house owned by Billy’s partner-in-crime Stu, the location of the first film’s extended bloodbath finale. It’s where Tara’s best friend Amber (Better Things star Mikey Madison) lives, and where she’s hosting a boozy, ill-advised memorial for their friend Wes. The teens are partying through the grief while also starting to question who out of them might be the killer (it’s easily the most paranoid of the Screams so far). There are notable callbacks to the original – Amber goes to the garage to get beer a la Tatum while Randy’s niece Mindy (Yellowjackets’ Jasmin Savoy Brown) replicates her uncle’s drunk horror movie couch-watch – but they mostly serve to remind us how little we know or care about the undeveloped teens this time around, despite strong performances across the board. There’s too many of them and they have too little do do, which is why when killer #1 is revealed – Amber – it’s met with an “Oh … that one” shrug.

Madison does well, recycling her manic shtick from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but the impact of her betrayal to BFF Tara is less a stab and more a light graze. Then in yet another callback, killer #2 is unmasked – Richie, the scream queen’s boyfriend turning evil once again. Quaid’s ranting is a little repetitive but in-between the guff, there are some decent half-ideas, all explaining the hows and whys …

The requel

So while previous Screams have satirised sequels, trilogies and reboots, this time it’s the “requel”, also know as the legacy sequel, when older characters return alongside the new blood, explained by Mindy earlier in the film. What’s driving the two killers this time is fury with the eighth Stab movie which pissed off fans by completely jumping the shark, giving Ghostface a metallic mask, a flamethrower and a sleeveless muscle tee. Stab super-fans Amber and Ritchie met on Reddit and concocted a plan to course-correct the series. If they enacted a more faithful set of killings, the next Stab film would be forced to tell that story instead, therefore saving the franchise. The real villains are therefore toxic fans (“How can fandom be toxic?” Ritchie asks), something anyone who’s spent at least five minutes on the internet will be on board with, and even if the writing is a little heavy-handed (Stab 8 directed by Rian Johnson after the whole Last Jedi brouhaha is a bit much), it’s still a smart-ish way to justify a return to Woodsboro.

Yet despite being aware of the rules of a requel, the writers aren’t quite able to follow them very well. What made Force Awakens such a success was the well-calibrated mix of old and new but here, the original cast members are sidelined so much that they ultimately feel like reluctant cameos. Gale and Sidney are truly wasted and while Campbell and Cox manage to conjure some magic thanks to their long histories with the characters, they’re almost superfluous in the messy finale (shooting Gale as soon as she arrives is a thunderously bad idea). Their survival at the end seems to mean less to the makers than the survival of the newbies, all seemingly primed for the next chapter (essentially doing the very thing Scream 4 was ridiculing). A strong start at the box office suggests there’s more to come – but what next?

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