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Jan 14, 2022
There's no topping the original Scream. And that's because there's no beating the sublime surprise of its ending. Sure, the sequels gave us the gleefully deranged performances of Timothy Olyphant, Laurie Metcalf, and Emma Roberts. Yes, they offer fun kills, suspenseful showdowns, and deliciously menacing monologues. But Stu and Billy were a double act that can't really be repeated, no matter how many times this franchise tries. So, in its fifth installment — titled simply Scream — there will be much murder, metaness, and teens, who are as pretty and witty as they are doomed. Yet filmmakers Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett can't escape the long shadow of Wes Craven and his 1996 classic. The problem is that Scream's rules have built a box into which its sequels simply must fit. There will be a cold open, where a teen girl is horrifically attacked by a homicidal prank caller. A squad of hip high-schoolers will be more bemused than terrified by news of a killer in their midst. They will throw a party. They will prattle on about horror movies, this time name-dropping not only slashers like Halloween, but also "elevated horror" hits like The Babadook, It Follows, and The Witch. Then, many of them will die. The killers will be revealed but ultimately bested by Final Girl Supreme: Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell). There might be some shake-ups in location and the stereotypes who come out to play (and slay). But the franchise's rules have become less foreshadowing and more predictable thrills. So, while the blows hit hard — aided by gruesome practical effects and a grisly soundscape of snapping bones, splurging blood, and tearing flesh — their impact doesn't last. Credit: Photo Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Spyglass Media Group From the start, the stakes of this Scream are hurt by slapping together the next generation of Woodsboro teens, giving us too little time to get to know them. The screenplay by James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick stalks in the footsteps of screenwriter Kevin Williamson by setting the group up in a hangout just outside their high school. But instead of sharp articulations that succinctly establish the class clown, the nerd, the bad boy, the nice girl, and the mean girl, these teens are more defined by fashion than action. One of them wears a rainbow pin to hint at queerness. One sports a letterman's jacket, so let's assume he's a jock. One is — I dunno — blonde. They aren't characters as much as they are stand-ins for the beloved characters who came before. The most defining detail of several of these teens is that they're related to a former Scream character. So, hey here's Mindy Meeks-Martin (Jasmin Savoy Brown), who — like her late uncle Randy — lectures friends about how the laws of horror movies will dictate whether they live or die. To Brown's credit, she's a scorching screen presence, edged with a smirk and self-confidence that Randy didn't find until Scream 2. However, she — like so many of her co-stars including the spunky Jenna Ortega — is trapped in a thankless role that is nakedly functional. (Seek her out in Yellowjackets and The Sound of Violence, both on Showtime now! ) Credit: Photo Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Spyglass Media Group Though this film centers on a new circle of friends, its heroine isn't among them. She's the haunted older sister of the first victim. A Sidney Prescott knock-off who is achingly dull, twenty-something Sam (Melissa Barrera) ran from Woodsboro and never looked back. But now she's back, dragging along a dark secret and her doe-eyed boyfriend Richie (Jack Quaid, who steals scenes with bursting energy). However, a new dark-haired heroine against Ghostface might not be enough to hook audiences. So, legacy characters return, meaning Sidney (Neve Campbell), Gail Weathers (Courteney Cox), and Dewey Riley (David Arquette). On paper, it's a savvy move. But in execution, it's more painful than the gut stabs that happen throughout. Credit: Photo Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Spyglass Media Group Having been through this killing-spree rigamarole four times before, Sidney isn't even scared anymore. She and Gail are practically eye-rolling as they prep to pursue Ghostface once more. Their over-it attitude is played for laughs, but it kills tension. As for Dewey, this movie does him dirty, transforming him fully into the "half-man" horror trope. Damaged deeply by his brutal brushes with Ghostface, he's the limping, bitter, town drunk, who snarls survival advice from a shabby mobile home. To Arquette's credit, he brings more life to the film than his seemingly bored recurring co-stars, but it's a bummer to see Dewey so defeated. Sure, plot-wise, it gives him a chance to rally and redeem himself as a hero. But for fans who've long cheered for the resilient lawman, it's an ugly cheat on his character. Credit: Photo Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Spyglass Media Group Nonetheless, this team of directors and writers brings thrilling kills to the screen, just as they did with the wildly fun horror-comedy, Ready or Not. Within these suspenseful slaying setpieces, the makers show a profound awareness of what audiences expect, like for the killer to pop up behind the fridge door as it closes. They use these expectations to toy with tension and subvert the expected jump scare, which makes the hits that do happen freshly surprising. For some, these scenes of sensational slaughter are all that might matter. If you're going for just one more haunted hayride through Woodsboro, then this Scream (or Scream 5 or 5cream) will satisfy you. But these filmmakers had the chance to make their mark on this franchise by doing something bold and new, and they just didn't. It's a shame, because the most shocking sequence is one where they break the slasher standards of nighttime homespun homicide. Regrettably, their finale is far safer. Credit: Photo Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Spyglass Media Group Without spoilers, the climax dabbles in hot topics that have been more sharply explored in Ghostbusters (2016) , Red Rocket , and Yellowjackets. So, while there's plenty of ghoulish spectacle, this Scream doesn't have much to say. Though rambunctiously performed, the should-be big scenes about movies and murder ring hollow, flushed with buzz words without the sense that the screenwriters fully grasp their context. Sure, this Scream delivers in chills, thrills, and darkly funny moments. But its ending is less haunting than hectic. So, in the end, it doesn't cut deep. Scream opens in theaters Jan. 14.