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Scream Review: Another Stab

On a long enough timeline, every franchise veers into territory where it's making movies about itself, whether we're talking about the most recent "Halloween" films, the "Star Wars" sequel trilogy, or "Ghostbusters: Afterlife" and its many efforts to fill in the gaps of decades. Even with those other franchises in mind, though, there's arguably no film series better suited to self-referential storytelling than "Scream," a slasher saga that began with a movie that was in many ways about other horror movies, then evolved to include its own in-universe slasher franchise for its characters to endlessly riff about. The endless meta-textual commentary baked into the "Scream" formula makes it tailor-made to become a kind of cinematic Ourobouros, consuming and remarking on itself in an endless feedback loop of content and commentary.

Of course, that kind of looping, no matter how clever, has its limits, which means fans had reason to be nervous when the first "Scream" film since 2011's "Scream 4" was announced. It wasn't just that we thought the series was done, but also that original director Wes Craven is no longer around, original writer Kevin Williamson isn't in the driver's seat anymore, and we've all seen enough legacy sequels to know that those particular waters can be perilous. There were a lot of things that could go wrong, even as the talent both in front of and behind the camera started to stack up. It was very easy to wonder: Would this be the movie where "Scream" lost the magic?

There was, of course, no way the new filmmakers — directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett and writers James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick — didn't see those questions coming, in part because they were probably wondering the same thing when they got this particular slasher party started. There seems to be an awareness built into every frame of this film and its marketing — including the self-generated rallying cry of "For Wes," in memory of Craven — that there's a lot riding on this sequel, more than just making yet another satisfying meta-slasher, and that means there's a sense of care here. But there's also something else, a ruthless and blackly comic edge that the original film and its first stellar sequel had in spades, an impish delight in every twist of both the plot and the knife. All of which is to say: It turns out when it came to "Scream" 2022, we had nothing to worry about.

Return to Woodsboro

The less said about where this particular journey back into the franchise is heading, the better, but if you've seen the other films, you know the basic rules. Someone is once again running around in that iconic Ghostface mask and cloak, carrying another one of those shiny knives with the hooked tip, and speaking with the same voice scrambler that sends chills down your spine when you hear it over a phone line. And once again, the killer is back in the sleepy town of Woodsboro, where the killings began, to torment a new generation of teens who have some kind of tie to the past murders. Enter the legacy team of Ghostface survivors: Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), trying to live a quiet life free of death and destruction, Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), still a newswoman extraordinaire, and Dewey Riley (David Arquette), who's living out a quiet semi-retirement in his hometown. Though they're reluctant to face down yet another killer, the original trio is also not willing to let another group of kids — including Sam (Melissa Barrera), Tara (Jenna Ortega), Richie (Jack Quaid), Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown), and more — fall prey to the killer. So another whodunit is born, as the body count mounts in Woodsboro, and the vast knowledge of the previous killing and the "Stab" movie franchise they inspired leads everyone to believe everyone else could be a suspect.

Right up front, from the very first sequence, this incarnation of "Scream" establishes two things: That it can deliver the slasher goods, and that it can swerve on its audience at exactly the right moment to throw us off balance as the best moments of previous installments did. Vanderbilt and Busick clearly did their homework with the script, working through every nook and cranny of "Scream" lore to find the best pieces to carry forward, but at no point do they feel like a Kevin Williamson cover band. Then there's the direction from Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett, which is clearly and reverentially inspired by Craven's master strokes, but never completely derivative of them. The result is a film that stands on its own as an impressive piece of slasher storytelling, while also digging deep into exactly what we want from a "Scream" film. Or at least, what we think we want...

Remember the Rules

Every "Scream" film has its own particular thematic pre-occupations within the larger scope of the franchise narrative. The original film is "How to survive a horror movie" viewed through a lens of subversion and comic modernization. "Scream 2" is about the nature of sequels and how they raise the stakes for good and for ill. "Scream 3" is very interested in the "all bets are off" framing of the concluding films in trilogies, and how far the envelope can be pushed while staying true to the original. And then there's "Scream 4," which digs deep into both the generational differences of horror fans and the nature of what it means to be a final girl in a modern slasher context.

With "Scream" 2022, the particular preoccupation, at least narratively, lies in the phenomenon of the "requel," a film that's not quite a reboot and not quite a sequel, but some combination of the two that's specially designed to attract both new and old fans. So, as with the previous films, this narrative preoccupation becomes not just a structural concern of the story, but the next phase of the "Scream" franchise having a conversation with itself. We see new characters echo old ones, old locations used in new ways, and even an entire scene full of increasingly elaborate jump scare fake-outs, just to let the audience in on the gag even more. It's all tied, as "Scream" always has been, to the idea of delivering on the promise of the film's setup while also saying something about the particular formula of this particular film. It's a tough line to walk, but in walking it, the film hits its stride, and it's there that some real magic happens.

"Scream" is wonderfully written, expertly directed, and acted by a cast of newcomers who dive headlong into the joyous chaos of the franchise, giving their all to even the wildest moments. It's a film made with love for what came before, but also with a fierce independent spirit, and a sense that the only way to truly honor the previous films is by blazing a new trail. It's a film about the nature of horror fandom, the constant narrative nitpicking that the age of film YouTube has brought us, the peril of sequel cycles and the paradoxical magic trick that is giving the fans what they want while subverting what they expect at the same time. Somehow, it's a film about all of that, and none of it ever feels like it's too much. It is, in the true spirit of the original, a movie jam-packed with meaning and joy and tension, and because of that, it fits right in with one of horror's greatest modern franchises.

"Scream" is in theaters January 14.