Are you familiar with the term re-quel? As a character explains in this highly educational meta-movie, it’s a project that’s both a reboot (full of new faces), and a sequel (stuffed with characters we know and adore). The best re-quels offer a nostalgia hit with an ultra-post-modern kick. And – a small but crucial detail – they tend to put money in the bank.
Unlike the purely wonderful and ground-breaking Scream, released in 1996, the fifth instalment of the horror franchise is going where others have gone (see 2018’s Halloween and last year’s Candyman). But directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, taking over from legend Wes Craven, repeatedly acknowledge that what they’re doing isn’t entirely original. And the ennui-laden mood is what makes you lean forward in your seat. The creative team are all but saying: Scream. Yawn. What’s the diff?
The gags are mostly terrific, as you’d expect from writer Guy Busick, who worked on Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett’s witty, ferociously class-conscious blood bath Ready or Not. The new film’s opening scene has a West Coast teen, Tara (Jenna Ortega; excellent), being taunted by a horror-movie-obsessed maniac who, in every sense, seems to have her number. But then she surprises the killer, aka Ghostface, by saying that her favourite creepy classic is Australian indie hit The Babadook. And that she also likes It Follows, Hereditary and The Witch. She describes these movies as “elevated horror” (a real phrase), laying the groundwork for a culture war that will be fought with knives and guns.
More risks, it’s true, could have been taken. There are no jokes about Harvey Weinstein, all the more frustrating because Scream 3 (which, like all the Scream movies till now, was produced by Weinstein’s Miramax) bulged with references to an abusive Hollywood producer in need of a wake-up call. Maybe a whole set of vicious (and more or less libellous) wisecracks will turn up in a directors’ cut farther down the line.
Essentially, though, Scream is smart. All that’s lacking is a plot, or a heroine, capable of making us squeal.
It’s hard to care about central character Sam (Tara’s sister). Partly that’s because her backstory is generic (she’s traumatised by a secret involving her flawed and libidinous mum. That old theme). Partly it’s because she’s played by In the Heights’ Melissa Barrera with zero charisma. Whether being hunted by Ghostface, popping pills, squabbling with Tara’s tight-knit group of friends, or meeting Woodsboro icons Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), Dewey Riley (David Arquette) and Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), Barrera’s Sam goes from zero to zero. There should be a step actors are sent to, when they are unable to express emotion. The noughty step.
Someone like Ana de Armas would have made a far more edgy lead. A quip is actually made about Rian Johnson’s wily whodunnit, Knives Out (which was dominated by de Armas’ multi-layered turn). Bad move; it reminds us of what we’re missing.
Having Sidney, Dewey and Gale around compounds the issue. Campbell and Arquette are supremely soulful performers and Cox is perfect in her role (as a frazzled media star, with Ozzy Osbourne hair and make-up, Gale is all too believable). I wanted more from all three actors. When characters and performers are this well-matched, it’s painful to see them stuck on the margins.
We need to talk about Sam. She won’t stop Scream making a mint, but left unchecked, she’ll be the death of this franchise.
114mins, 18. In cinemas