Scream review: "The franchise isn't ready to die yet"

Scream 5
(Image: © Paramount Pictures)

GamesRadar+ Verdict

Let’s all Scream and Scream again (and again, and again, and again). The film’s dedicated ‘For Wes’, and he’ll be smiling.

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As much sequel as reboot, this could have been called Scream 5. Why it isn’t, other than putting off younger viewers who’ve not seen the first four instalments, is explained, naturally, by one of its movie-literate characters: it is, a la the Star Wars sequel trilogy, or the new Halloween movies, or Ghostbusters: Afterlife, a ‘requel’, telling a new story (which is much like the old story) with new characters but ensuring that legacy stars return to keep fans happy.

But all good things to those who wait. For while old favorites Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) and Dewey Riley (David Arquette) come into play as the story unfurls and the body count escalates, it starts with a new gang of teenagers. 

No, scratch that. It actually starts with a girl alone in a house and a ringing phone. Doesn’t it always? The girl is Woodsboro resident Tara Carpenter (Jenna Ortega), and she’s about to be subjected to a horror-movie quiz. A new Ghostface Killer is on the line, and so is her life. Now if only the questions were about The Babadook, The Witch, and Hereditary – elevated horror is her bag. But no, they’re on Stab 1-8, the series of slasher movies based on the real-life Woodsboro killings that happened 25 years ago. Oh well, if nothing else, it’s a good way to fill in new viewers on the Scream backstory even as Tara resorts to Google to learn all things Stab. Exposition level: genius.

The attack on Tara leads to her older sister, Sam (Melissa Barrera), returning to Woodsboro, from whence she once ran. With her comes boyfriend Richie (Jack Quaid) to provide comic relief. Tara’s friend group, meanwhile, includes Amber (Mikey Madison), Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown), Liv (Sonia Ammar), Wes (Dylan Minnette) and Chad (Mason Gooding), and you’d do well to pay close attention to them all – if they aren’t fodder, they’re the killer. That’s not a spoiler, it’s a rule, and is of course stated by one of the characters.  

The first Scream movie to not be directed by genre icon Wes Craven (he passed in 2015), and only the second not to be penned by Kevin Williamson – the other was Scream 3, the weakest of the first four movies – this fifth outing is slickly put together by directors Matt Bettinelli-Opin and Tyler Gillet (Southbound, Ready or Not), and screenwriters James Vanderbilt (Zodiac, White House Down) and Guy Busick (Castle Rock, Ready or Not). The stalk ‘n’ slash sequences, though decent, can’t match Craven’s mastery of mood and mechanics, but the new guys understand that Scream movies are sick as well as slick. Rated 18 like all of the previous films and the TV series, Scream serves up intense kills that are accompanied, as always, by brutal sound design. There’s a reason that the franchise within the franchise is called Stab…

But this requel (you’ll be doing it too once you’ve seen it) is at its strongest when it comes to playing by, and with, the rules. At times meta with the meta – in one scene, Ghostface comes up behind a character who is watching Ghostface come up behind a character in a Stab movie while said character screams at a character in an earlier Stab movie that the killer is behind them – it then punctures all of the layers in savagely unexpected ways. 

“Something about this one feels different,” muses Dewey of the latest kill spree, and he’s not wrong. For starters, Dewey himself is a little thicker of waist and reeks of booze, having lost his marriage and his job since 2011’s Scream 4. And Sam Carpenter has a backstory of familial tragedy. Is this all a tongue-in-cheek riff on the elevated horror movies that Tara name checks in that opening salvo? Or is Scream, the poster child for snarky postmodern horror, actually sincere in aiming for emotional stakes? It certainly seems that way when Campbell’s Sidney and Cox’s Gale share the screen, bringing all of their baggage with them, and more gravitas than you might expect.

And then comes the fun, clever, courageous third act, set in a familiar location but hellbent on doing new things with the franchise. Reveals arrive in leftfield ways, and bold swipes are made – at loners looking for a cause soaked in violence, or fame in bloodshed, and at toxic movie fans who demand that the sequels to their beloved movies are done exactly as they want them. This, in Scream 5. Talk about showing mettle in your meta.

“After tonight, no more books, no more movies, no more fucking Ghostface,” agree Sidney and Gale as they prepare for the climactic battle royale. Well, let’s wait and see, because this chapter is certainly strong enough to suggest the franchise isn’t ready to die yet. They always come back, right?

Scream is in cinemas from January 14, 2022. For more, check out our ranking of the best horror movies of all time.

Editor-at-Large, Total Film

Jamie Graham is the Editor-at-Large of Total Film magazine. You'll likely find them around these parts reviewing the biggest films on the planet and speaking to some of the biggest stars in the business – that's just what Jamie does. Jamie has also written for outlets like SFX and the Sunday Times Culture, and appeared on podcasts exploring the wondrous worlds of occult and horror.