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David Arquette

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Jenna Ortega in a scene from 'Scream.' Photo from Paramount Pictures

By Jeffrey Sanzel

The horror and comedy genres have always been an uneasy mixture. Early examples show a clumsy and ultimately juvenile mix, fodder for the preteen matinee crowd. The most obvious examples include the Abbott and Costello/Universal outings where the duo clashed with a rogue’s gallery of baddies from Frankenstein’s monster to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Jenna Ortega with Ghostface
in a scene from ‘Scream.’ Photo by Brownie Harris/Paramount Pictures

Horror films shifted with the aggressively cold Hammer films and then found a reemergence in the late 60s into the 70s. Rosemary’s Baby (1968) ushered in an era of grudging respect for cinematic terror. The genre reached its peak with John Carpenter’s near-perfect Halloween (1978). Any humor found in these works was incidental and subtle. Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) introduced elements of dark comedy. (As the series deteriorated, serial killer Freddy Krueger descended to the level of a quippy late-night TV host, rather than the rooted evil in which he was forged.) 

Kevin Williamson’s screenplay for Scream (1996), directed by Craven, successfully blended horror and humor. Scream and its franchise are rooted in a meta-view of the clichés acknowledging the classic tropes. The first Scream movie was clever, brilliantly tense, and genuinely funny; its opening scene (featuring Drew Barrymore) is horrifyingly smart. The characters’ awareness of the rules of the slasher film informed their perceptions.

Three sequels followed with the cleverest element: the introduction of the film-within-a-film, Stab (and its sequels), taking self-awareness to another degree. While not completely deteriorating like most films followed by a number, the quality, insight, and thrills were less.

The newest incarnation, returning to the original title, Scream, continues where Scream 4 ended. Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett have taken the directorial reigns (Craven having passed away in 2015), working from a script by James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick. Though attempting to dodge a numerical appellation, this is Scream 5 and a standard slasher:

Group of teenagers in various generic relationships. Check.

Some connection to past storylines. Check.

Cameos of expendable characters from earlier films. Check.

Excessive violence and blood. Check.

People being brutalized but managing to not be in too much pain. Check.

Legacy characters appearing as Deus ex machina. Check.

At one point, the writers have given the “expert” a speech about “requels.” These are the films that are neither sequels nor reboots but some hybrid. Whether this is clever or justifying the new Scream is hard to say.

The story occurs twenty-five years after the Loomis-Macher murder spree in Woodboro. The first scene shares DNA with the opening of the original. While on the phone with the killer, terrified high school student Tara Carpenter (Jenna Ortega) must answer questions about the Stab franchise, or her friend will be murdered. Ghostface is actually in the Carpenter home and stabs Tara seven times (though the girl survives).

in a scene from ‘Scream.’
Photo from Paramount Pictures

The attack is a ploy to get Tara’s estranged sister, Sam (Melissa Barrera), to return. Joined by her attentive if slightly uniformed boyfriend, Richie (Jack Quaid), Sam quickly reveals her connection to one of the original killers. She and Richie recruit the dissipated former sheriff Dewey Riley (David Arquette). Ghostface continues his attacks, and the teenagers spout quips, referencing the horror movie rules. Running in the background is the release of a much-maligned Stab 8.

The jump scares are plentiful, predictable, and pedestrian, lacking a sense of danger, either on-screen (or in the audience). Even though there is a sadistic killer in their midst, the town strangely takes it as business-as-usual.

Just before the halfway mark, Sydney Prescott (Never Campbell) and Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) show up to join the hunt for the killer. The old gang is back together. The most painful, excruciating moment has nothing to do with knives: The reunion of the now divorced Dewy and Gale manages to be both under- and over-written simultaneously. 

Throughout, nods to other horror films include the dangerous hospital (Halloween 2) and the shower scene (Psycho). A character named Wes and an Elm Street memorialize Craven. A vague analysis of toxic fandom is important but not fully realized. A lack of texture and a plethora of stiff dialogue keep the film at a distance.

Even with the return of Arquette, Campbell, and Cox, the film fails to ignite. The new cast members do their best, each suspecting the other of being the killer. Even saddled with excessive exposition, Barrera and Ortega make for self-actualized Scream Queens.

There are definite flashes of wit and enormous meta potential. But clichés are sometimes just that: clichés. And, with all the blood, Scream is the hardest to watch when trying to be noble and sincere.

Whether a sequel, a reboot, or a “requel,” Scream is more of a whimper. And just as in the movie’s world where there will be a Stab 9, we can expect a Scream 2. Or 6. Number it as you will.

Rated R, Scream is now playing in local theaters.