There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie: You can never have sex, never drink or do drugs, never say you’ll “be right back.” But there are also certain rules that characters have to adhere to in order to navigate a meta-horror movie, like: Be extremely well-versed in the rules of horror movies, especially the classic slashers (your Halloweens, your Friday the 13ths, your Nightmare on Elm Streets). You should be enough of a fan to recognize potentially stabby situations — don’t go in the basement or the woods! avoid bloody valentines, terror trains and prom nights! — but not so much of a fan that you put on creepy masks and murder your classmates. And if you’ve lived through a franchise’s first entry, make sure you watch the movies that exploit your “real-life” trauma playing within the movieverse you’re in, just in case art imitates life imitating art imitating…say, just how deep does this rabbit hole go?
A quarter of a century ago, Scream winked and nudged and butchered its way into pop culture by assuming folks were fluent enough in genre conventions to know how those movies worked. It’s a hell of a tightrope act that screenwriter Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven nimbly tiptoed, balancing in-jokes for a generation raised on VCR horror binges while still delivering thrills, chills and adrenaline rushes. Even in a decade characterized by pomo self-consciousness and mondo meta virtuosity (the ’60s got Godard and Dylan, but the ’90s gave us Tarantino and Beck), this 1996 hit relied as much on a shared knowingness as it did that signature Ghostface mask. And when the series started inserting their own reflective rip-offs within the franchise itself. i.e. the Stab movies that dramatized those horrific teen massacres seen in Scream, you got a bonus M.C. Escher buzz — the joy of watching a slasher eat its own tail.
Fast-forward a few decades, and brand-name nostalgia is even bigger business; the nature of franchising and fandom, however, has changed. Scream 2022 is nothing if not extremely up-to-date, knowing very well that it’s re-entering a poposphere in which the conversation is less “how cool were those movies!?” and more “how can I keep permanently reliving my childhood?” After a suitably snarky update to the original opening — another phone call in which the voice of Roger L. Jackson sinisterly asks a babysitter if she like scary movies…only now they’re arguing about the merits of “elevated horror” — word goes out that there’s a new Ghostface killer in Woodsboro. A potential victim, Tara Carpenter (Jenna Ortega), ends up in the hospital. Her long-estranged sister, Sam (Melissa Barrera), rushes back to her old home town to take care of her. They both have a connection to that first wave of killings way back in the day, though only one of them knows it.
Tara’s high school friends, made up of the usual assortment of pop-savvy jocks, geeks, kooks and mall-goths, are ready to play amateur detectives and find out who’s behind the Gen-Z Ghostface masks. Ditto Richie (The Boys’ Jack Quaid), Sam’s boyfriend who’s along for the ride. Meanwhile, a visit to the ex-lawman Dewey Riley (David Arquette) after more bodies drop prompts him to reach out to both Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox), now a bigshot TV anchor in New York, and former final-girl extraordinaire Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell). It’s around this point that the smartest member of this would-be Scooby Gang, played by Yellowjackets‘ Jasmin Savoy Brown, figures out that these aren’t just copycat killings. They’re all in the middle of a “requel.”
Yes, a requel — the distinctly 21st century Frankenstein’s monster of a franchise entry in which legacy characters from beloved series pair up with fresh blood in the name of breathing new life into an old but highly beloved intellectual property. It’s somehow both a reboot and a sequel, a “return to basics” and a reset after diminishing returns. If your film is part of a series [cough] but you ditch the numbers after the title [cough, cough] and simply name your new entry after the first movie [cough, COUGH, sputter, dead], then you may be a requel. God forbid you anger those who worship the brand like a religion, and feel that those who somehow mess with the integrity of such canon fodder be subject to a campaign of online harassment, name-calling and worse. You might get Mary Sue-d.
And while it may be spoilery to say much else, it’s safe to note that this type of toxic fandom is exactly what Scream ’22 is sharpening its knives for as it goes in for the meta-kill. It’s a smart way of tackling a topic that’s plagued both long-in-the-tooth franchises and relatively new cinematic universes — that some sort of purity of essence must be maintained, and that fans are entitled to protect their cherished memories because, say, tweaking a detail or letting a POC character enter their pop culture sandbox is a personal attack. And the concept of taking such folks to task acts as a through line to the countless in-house callbacks and references to other movies, even when this particular house of mirrors feels like it’s about to collapse in on itself. It’s hard to say what the directorial duo of Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett (the same guys who gave us the equally cheeky Ready or Not) and screenwriters James Vanderbilt (Zodiac) and Guy Busick (Castle Rock) might have at stake here. But they all definitely have an axe to grind, and are more than willing to take said axe to a slaughterfest set on sacred genre ground.
Do you like scary movies about scary movies that somehow laugh at yet pay reverence to other scary movies? Then you will love this new Scream. Do you prefer your horror to not be so back-pattingly clever about all of that, and to remove tongues from mouths rather than place them firmly in cheeks? Then you’re shit outta luck here, my friend, though that’s been some purists’ beef with the series since Drew Barrymore first put the Jiffy-Pop on the stove and picked up her phone. It also runs out of steam long before it runs out the clock, which has also been a staple of the series as well. Yet you have to applaud how boldly this fifth entry tries to flip the bird to the entire rinse-repeat-regurgitate idea of trapping film series in amber, while also delivering you the thrill of the familiar and those dopamine bumps that come with the pang of recognition. It wants to eat its cake and stab it repeatedly, too. And if you don’t like it, watch out. They might come after you in the next requel.