In the new “Scream,” a character explains one of the current trends of Hollywood franchising, which depends neither on sequels, remakes, nor reboots, but on “requels.” A day after seeing the movie, I already can’t quite remember if that word means “reboot sequel” or “remake sequel” or if the distinction is supposed to matter.
The bad news about the fifth “Scream,” which dispenses with a number in the title for the illusion of freshness (and, yes, a character here mentions that too): The meta thing that was relatively startling in Wes Craven’s 1996 “Scream” is beyond tired now. The first “Scream” juxtaposed teen banter with surprising brutality, following a couple of kids who destroyed their friends as a kind of elaborate form of slasher-film cosplay, all while riffing on the rules of the genre. In the wake of the ongoing school shooting epidemic, the premise remains relevant, or at least potentially so.
But discussions of the rules of slasher sequels, or requels or whatever, merely bog the new “Scream” down. Here, the self-consciousness feels like a form of ass-covering, utilizing mockery as justification for the sort of derivative mediocrity that is quite common of the Hollywood reboot machine. At its worst, this requel is the film equivalent of a Ryan Reynolds performance.
Since Craven’s “Scream,” after 25 years of hipper-than-thou prestige cable shows, nostalgic remakes, online bickering, and Kevin Smith movies, hipster self-consciousness is the new normal. And the rules discussed by the new kids, who’re all forgettable, are nothing new either, merely variations on what was observed in the original “Scream” and the other three sequels, with a bit of gloss. (And, of course, a joke is made about that too.)
The good news is that quite a bit of the new “Scream” works anyway. It is nowhere near the cluttered, performatively relevant abomination that the recent “Halloween Kills” was. Yes, new directors Matt Bettinelli-Olphin and Tyler Gillet, taking over for Craven, who died in 2015, have to get through a lot of plot machinery first. We must learn of the new teens’ backstories so that they can be suitably offered up as red herrings, and Bettinelli-Olphin and Gillet lack Craven’s aplomb for allowing that homework to flow fluidly with the action. They also lack the maestro’s comparative classicism, his sense of setting up the geography of a scene. But once Ghostface, the slim, shivery killer with the albino ghoul mask, gets back to work, the film’s dominoes begin to fall with a savagery that might’ve done Craven proud.
Bettinelli-Olphin and Gillet have learned a significant lesson from Craven: play the violence up close and for keeps. The murders here are frequently jolting, and a few of them are even accompanied with unexpectedly human grace notes. It is eerie and even heartbreaking, for instance, to see a teen set the dinner table for a person we already know to have recently died a brutal, garish death. And a set piece in a suburban kitchen, a veritable symphony of hints as to where the killer might be, is up to the standard of the best sequences in the series. While the jokes may be derivative, the carnage here offers one significant and chilling update on the original films: the presence of cellphones forces every character to feel like surveilled, mis-directable prey at all times.
A primary draw for audiences my age, who were in high school when the first “Scream” was released in theaters, will be the OGs of the series: Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, and David Arquette. They are to this series what Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher were to the recent, misbegotten “Star Wars” trilogy, or what Jamie Lee Curtis is to the current “Halloween” remakes: a promise of tradition, and, hopefully, implicitly, of quality. (And, yes, there is a joke about this sort of casting coup too.)
Campbell, so soulful in the original “Scream” series, and Cox, so forceful, are given shockingly little to do here. Screenwriters James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick give Arquette the plumb role and he shines as the soul of the movie. Here, Arquette’s Deputy Dewey is a retired drunk living in a trailer, estranged from Cox’s super-reporter Gale Weathers, lonely and hating himself. Arquette’s scenes with the new kids, as he helps them navigate the new mystery, have a bit of the strangeness and poignancy of David Lynch’s most recent “Twin Peaks” revival. Dewey is also involved in two terrific bits of misdirection, involving the killer’s identity and whereabouts, respectively.
In short, the new “Scream” works when it’s bothering to be a shaggier, weirder, more emotional riff on the series, in accordance with the age of the fanbase that has carried it this far. But audiences in high school now presumably like their gore with a side of snark.