In the months leading up to its release, it was just as hard to not get my hopes up for Scream as it was easy to get excited for it. The prospect of a new addition to a franchise, one that respects and glorifies its legacy characters in just the right way after all these years, is like a shiny toy you’ve never played with. There’s always going to be this deep curiosity, the desperate desire to test it out, because it might be totally incredible, right? But there’s also the fear that it might be terribly boring, and won’t hold a candle to the last shiny toy you lost your mind over. I mean, this was the slasher of all slashers we’re talking about here. What if it wasn’t right? Among many things that ended up winning me over about Radio Silence directing group members Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s Scream, the main one was that—like its predecessors—it understood how we were going to feel about it before we even got to see it. It knew that I would be torn about its existence. And that, folks, just scratches the surface on why the new Scream, in all its meta-for-a-modern-time goodness, is the best installment since the Wes Craven original.
Stab 8—I mean, Scream (which, yes, is technically Scream 5 or 5cream)—knows a thing or two about how to play the reboot field. Screenwriters James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick come in right off the bat and do some new things that keep the classic staples of the franchise (for example, the opening scene) fresh: We get to keep our opening girl (Jenna Ortega). Ghostface makes a scene, but he doesn’t stake his claim—she doesn’t die. It’s a smart move, considering we know that opening scene (and all of its conventions, hilariously made fun of in a great intro montage) by heart at this point. It lets the audience know that we are not entirely playing by the rules we’ve always known. By this time in the franchise, it would be lazy if they didn’t change things up.
Similarly, they give us an unreliable narrator of sorts, our leading lady Sam (Melissa Barerra). The film follows her from Modesto, California back to our good old Woodsboro when her estranged sister is attacked by Ghostface 10 years after the last time he struck the town. Early on, the audience gets clued into the fact that she is taking antipsychotic medication—another choice by the screenwriters to do something wholly different. We’re used to Sidney Prescott, whose intellect and sound mind are what lead her to uncovering the truth in each installment. With a protagonist with mental health struggles at the wheel, not only does the conversation change, but the audience’s trust also wavers more. Like most decisions made in Scream world, it’s great for the movie.
The fifth installment—which takes place 25 years after the original—doesn’t hold back when it comes to analyzing the inner workings of a classic reboot down to the bones. Scream has always been a franchise for film lovers—and it’s never been afraid to be meta as hell, as meta as it needed to be to get its point across. It’s something we all love about the series, and part of why we keep coming back. We want to nod our heads in agreement when the funny guy says something entirely true to life, to look at the person next to us and see them nodding as well. To that end, there is quite a bit of focus on Stab 8, the film universe’s version of the latest movie in the Sidney Prescott franchise. In the film’s world, folks were disappointed in Stab 8. It didn’t live up to their expectations. The movie preemptively parallels the Stab 8 response to that of the film it lives inside, and further, how we as an audience were cautious about this installment before its release—one of the most satisfying moves by the writers. In typical Scream fashion, it does so in the most meta way possible, and while it’s a little like beating a dead horse, it always is and always has been. That, after all, is part of the point—to make you remember it.
The Scream franchise prides itself on being the kind of gritty kill-or-be-killed jump-scare slasher goodness that takes no prisoners and gives zero fucks—yes, there is quite a bit of discussion around this and a certain film studio who distributes more “prestige” entries in the genre—and with this attitude, it has been typically happy to flout any obligation to give its audience a reason to think or find catharsis. Final girl feels notwithstanding, the franchise isn’t interested in deep thought and has no problem saying it. Usually, that’s no problem, but five movies in, we’re doing things differently—and it works.
Big questions are raised and left in the air to hang: Are we really just the monsters we create? Are we the monsters that created us, and do we have to be? What is so toxic about loving something with everything you have and wanting it to stay good? Like you’d expect from the franchise, it doesn’t necessarily offer answers to those questions, but the fact that it poses them at all feels right. It isn’t some kind of gag or joke that will later have a perfect punchline, or even a piece of meta-observation intended to drive us crazy. It’s a serious survey of the emotional state of the characters the film does its best to torment—and in turn, it points the queries back toward the viewers. The point is for us to stew on them and think about them later, before or after we think about that one crazy kill we keep going back to. It is a welcomed dimension to the films that highlights the larger themes that have come into play as the Woodsboro legacy has aged.
Speaking of, you can’t talk about a new Scream movie without its legacy characters, and though we have few left, they are too important to gloss over. David Arquette’s Dewey Riley, Courteney Cox’s Gale Weathers and Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott are going to be part of film history forever, and it certainly feels good to know that this film doesn’t put a damper on any of their stories. There’s nothing more crucial than respecting the original (as mentioned several times in the film in deliciously dark and comedic ways), and that means doing right by these characters, who they were and who they’ve become. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett give the trio their due. Whether or not it’s actually a send-off, their treatment doesn’t feel cheap and as a fan, I was quick to appreciate that. I care about Sidney and Gale and Dewey. You might even say I’m like one of those diehard Stab fans that gets discussed in this installment. Yes, that probably heightened my satisfaction with this movie, being able to trace it all back to the original and see where the puzzle pieces fit. Being able to watch these characters come into their own as adults is really special, and it definitely will be an altogether different experience for the long-timers. It just hits better if you love it. Sure, the gags about elevated horror and getting back to the roots of slashers, the film trivia, the dedication to the craft of movies—it’s all part of the show. But it’s the fifth movie, and really, why make it if not to send a love letter to the fans?
And, as a fan, I stand by what I said: This is the best installment since the original, mainly because the film takes risks and bends conventions already set forth by the films that came before it. Scream was built on rules, but rules are always best when broken. The movie—which, I would be remiss not to add, has the most brutal kills of any of the films in the series—does an excellent job rewriting what we know and subverting what we expect, only to serve it all back to us in a new way that doesn’t skimp on the fun or the terror. Hell, it almost feels like starting at the beginning again, when Ghostface himself was shiny and new.
Directors: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett
Writers: James Vanderbilt, Guy Busick
Stars: Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, David Arquette, Melissa Barerra, Jack Quaid
Release Date: January 14, 2022
Lex Briscuso is an entertainment, film and culture writer who eats, sleeps, and breathes exceptional horror, sweeping dramas, and top-notch acting. She is a news desk writer at /Film and has bylines at FANGORIA, The Guardian, Shudder’s The Bite and EUPHORIA. Her horror radio show, YOUR NICHE IS DEAD, is live Mondays 5pm ET. She tweets @nikonamerica.