The fifth film in the “Scream” series has a counter-intuitive title: “Scream”. That may be unhelpful to cinema-goers who are discussing the film, and to journalists who are writing about it, but it’s not unprecedented. The sequel to “Halloween” (1978), released in 2018, was called “Halloween”. Last year’s sequel to “Candyman” (1992) was called “Candyman”. In February Netflix is streaming a sequel to “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (1974) called “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”: only the removal of the space between “Chain” and “Saw” distinguishes the two. Besides, the new “Scream” isn’t just following a trend, but commenting on one. Ever since the original film was released in 1996, the series has adhered to slasher movie conventions while making postmodern jokes about them.
In the first “Scream” instalment, written by Kevin Williamson and directed by Wes Craven, a knife-wielding killer in a black cowl and a “Ghostface” mask is stalking teenagers, the twist being that one of those teenagers is a film buff who has learnt the dos and don’ts of surviving a slasher movie. In “Scream 2”, the characters talk about how to survive a sequel, in “Scream 3” they talk about what might happen in the final part of a trilogy. And so on.
The current “Scream” addresses the phenomenon of “requels” or “legacy sequels”: that is, films which are essentially remakes of decades-old genre classics, but which feature some actors in the same roles as they had in those classics. This is not just a horror phenomenon. Both “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” put young heroes in old scenarios (blowing up a Death Star; busting the demonic Gozer), so they were, in effect, remakes. But they brought back various familiar faces from “Star Wars” and “Ghostbusters”, too.
Thus, in the latest “Scream”, there is another homicidal maniac on the loose in the small town of Woodsboro. A new crop of attractive, snarky teenagers are the victims and, perhaps, the perpetrators: Sam (Melissa Barrera) is the requisite heroine with a gender neutral or masculine name. However, after a long wait, the series’ three mainstays turn up for nostalgia’s sake: Sidney (Neve Campbell), who is targeted every time someone puts on a Ghostface mask; Gale (Courteney Cox), the ambitious reporter who keeps writing books about the bloodbaths; and Dewey (David Arquette), the big-hearted sheriff. Several characters then chat about how this mix of old and new has become the standard way to revive a cinematic franchise.
As witty as this may be, it isn’t as inventive as the previous “Scream” films. “Scream 4”, which came out in 2011, played with the idea of Sidney passing the torch onto the next generation. Perhaps such repetition was inevitable. Requels, by their very nature, are reverential and backward-looking, and more concerned with echoing the past than going somewhere unexpected. So it is with “Scream”. The directors, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, and screenwriters, James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, do a respectful impersonation of what Craven (who died in 2015) and Mr Williamson did in 1996. But as the film ticks off all the usual sadistic phone calls and false alarms, and the usual smirking banter about horror clichés and movie fandom, it becomes impossible to ignore that it has all been done more craftily before.
This is, after all, the fifth episode in a deliberately formulaic series, even if it doesn’t have a numeral in the title. In the 1990s the combination of gory violence and self-referential comedy was startling. Today the contrived meta humour is more likely to prompt groans than screams of laughter, and the supposedly scary sequences are too rote yet too far-fetched to be frightening. Can viewers accept the notion that so many different people over the years would go on so many identical killing sprees? Sidney’s cracks about the murderer being “derivative” and needing “new material” are too accurate to be funny. Similarly, another character’s comments about such “elevated” horror dramas as “Get Out”, “Hereditary” and “The Babadook” are a little close to the bone. They seem to be an admission that the genre has moved on a long way since the 1990s. “Scream”, in disappointing contrast, has hardly moved on at all. ■
“Scream” is playing in American and British cinemas now