My initial reaction to the Scream 5 trailer was that the movie was missing the charm – if you can call it that – of earlier instalments and would likely be greeted with indifference. Well clearly, I was erroneous in predicting box office gloom, but my assessment of the picture’s tone was fairly accurate. Scream’s ruthlessly meta- elements are often well orchestrated by writers James Vanderbilt and Gary Busick (and at times emphatically not so), but there’s something ruthlessly impersonal about the exercise – even compared to the cynicism of Scream 4’s failed cash grab.
I’m not sure I’ve seen any of the previous Screams more than once (If I have, it would have been the first). I do, however, recall enjoying the self-reflexive element, particularly as it progressed into sequel lore and movies within movies. Scream 5 (I’ll call it that for the sake of clarity) makes some initially in-keeping gestures towards the way horror has changed in the decade since Scream 4. I’m on board with the cynicism towards “elevated horror” outlined in the opening scene, as there’s something of an old-wine-in-new-skins flavour to their being “scary but with complex emotional and thematic underpinnings” (and I’ve enjoyed a good few of those mentioned – It Follows, Hereditary, The Witch, “I mean, Jordan Peele fucking rules”, well one of his does – less so The Babadook: “It’s an amazing meditation on motherhood and grief”).
Scream 5, though, is treading the ground of the “re-quel”, duly outlined therein and often an attempted course correct due to franchise owners having “pissed on their childhoods with the last sequel”. You “can’t just reboot from scratch” any more (Black Christmas, Flatliners and Child’s Play are referenced), we are told. And while you don’t want a straight sequel either, you don’t want to make it too new, hence the inclusion of legacy characters (Halloween, Jurassic Park, Terminator, Star Wars, Ghostbusters). Of course, at least some of these have met with doses of fan opprobrium, and this danger is acknowledged in reference to the Stabs (“The whole franchise goes off the rails with Number 5”); Scream 5 appears to have met with applause, by and large, but so did The Force Awakens, at first blush.
We’re informed “anyone can die in a re-quel” and Vanderbilt, Busick and directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett – replacing Wes Craven, to whom this is dedicated – emphasise this by killing off one of their three main legacy characters. At one point, we’re told it “wouldn’t be a bona fide Halloween without Jamie Lee”; in contrast, I’d argue it’s actually Donald Pleasance who filled those shoes. I had a sense they were going to dispose of Dewey (David Arquette) from the trailer, and his positioning is remarkably similar to Han Solo in The Force Awakens; he’s washed up, estranged from his wife, and is killed gratuitously and unnecessarily as a “shock” that entirely fails to pay the character off. I’d argue it’s actually much worse in Dewey’s case, though. The unlikeness of his surviving each time was one of the key appealing parts of the series (as he says, he’s been stabbed nine times, has permanent nerve damage and a limp). He’s thrown away here in a manner that ejects the series’ personable core. Again, if you can call it that.
In that sense, Scream 5 could be argued to fulfil its remit entirely – is that the most meta- part of it? That it should be as dissatisfying as all the other re-quels, mixing up elements from the first one to ultimately weak-sauce results? Obviously, neither Gale (Courtney Cox) nor Sidney (Neve Campbell) were going to be given the chop, as one of the other keys of a re-quel is a strong female lead (okay, perhaps not Jurassic World). I’m slightly surprised the line “But I guess being a sexually available woman is empowering these days” was allowed through (in reference to Melissa Barrera’s Sam Carpenter), but it is coming from one of the killers (Jack Quaid’s Richie Kirsch, so a toxic male).
The movie’s attempt to hitch the killers’ motivation to toxic fandom in action is a hot mess, really. No one here is smart enough to make that function coherently. Richie is pissed at the treatment of the Stab movies (which have reached Stab 8) and believes “Someone has to save the franchises”; “How can fandom be toxic? It’s about love. Hollywood is totally without ideas”.
It would have been much more impressive to have self-awareness of toxic fandom’s toxicity on the part of the killers, and incorporate that into their modus operandi (rather than simply being toxic about being accused of toxicity). One of the scenes I did like, even if it wasn’t quite as seamlessly executed as it might have been, was Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) watching a Stab character (Christopher Speed) watching Halloween. Such self-reflexivity might have extended to the killers’ motivation, which is disappointingly vanilla in its moralising, but to be expected from Hollywood’s current diktats; if you criticise Scream 5’s depiction of toxic fandom you’re probably toxic yourself, since the very term carries a pejorative that those involved are inherently at fault, as a means of distracting from/negating the substance of their criticism.
Taken to its conclusion then, Scream 5’s ending is either the height of astuteness, so even more super-meta- – by raising the spectre of toxic fandom, the makers instantly earn the respect of a legitimate commentary that distracts from the movie not making much sense – or depressingly unimaginative. I tend to the latter interpretation, on the basis that the movie as a whole lacks the necessary spark. It’s functional, but it isn’t really having fun with its characters, or the “re-quel” remit.
Barrera isn’t really much of a lead (Jenna Ortega is more engaging as her sister, although her big moment is the opening). Mikey Madison (Amber) has history as a psycho in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. She’s set up as a sour-faced killer type early on here, the only red flag being that acting like Michael Myers by way of Jason Voorhees when playing Ghostface is absurd enough with Richie, let alone her too. Quaid may have Dennis as a dad and Meg as a mum, but he looks like next-gen Joshua Jackson. Savoy Brown (The Leftovers) is probably the best of the new cast, as the twin sister of Chad (Mason Gooding). Although, if they wanted twins, they could have asked Josh Hartnett to appear with his brother Neve Campbell, looking decidedly the worse for years. Cox looks downright ghastly, as if she’s been desiccating in a coffin for the past six years. I’m assuming she uses Joan Rivers’ plastic surgeon.
Dewey (“Shitty Sam Elliott”) delivers the Scream lore this time (never trust the love interest; the killer’s motive is always connected to something from the past; the first victim always has a friend group the killer is a part of). The third act attempts meta- to cover its gaping holes in logic (“Who has a party in the middle of a killing spree?”), but as with the killers, it would have been more rewarding to make those kids self-aware, as opposed to gormless potential slasher fodder. The spectre of Billy Loomis only serves to show how old Skeet Ulrich has got (I even wondered if that was actually him initially).
It seems to me too that the movie is much gorier than I remembered of previous instalments. Which again, would be the re-quel emphasising the wrong elements (but completely in keeping with the 2018 Halloween as compared to the largely blood-free 1978 original). In my verdict on Scream 5 then, I can only concur with Sheriff Judy Hicks (Marley Shelton): “I prefer animated films and musicals”. Further still, and it pains me to say it, but yes, I prefer The Babadook too.
First published by Now in Full Color on 21/02/22.