Stabbing Again, Like Always
The Slasher genre is an institution of horror but it's also fair to say that, by and large, it's hard to make a new Slasher that actually feels fresh and interesting. When the convention of the genre is, "teenagers are steadily taken out, one by one, by a killer," it can be hard to build new ideas into films. Most Slashers feel rote, like they're just going through the motions of what came before, ad nauseam. When you look at the pillars of the genre -- Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and then Scream -- it's hard to think of any movies in the genre that have really pushed themselves beyond the shadow of those films.
I do consider the original, 1996 Scream to be a pillar of the genre. When you look at where the genre was at, dying off in the hands of Jason and Freddy after way too many iterative sequels, Scream, with its meta-textual reading as it played with the tropes of the genre, injected new life into the Slasher. Suddenly the genre was popular again, and a flood of new, teen-friendly Slashers came after. Of course, they then flooded the market and did the same iterative grinding that had happened the first time around. Scream ushered in a new wave of Slashers but it also helped to make the genre even more hoary and tired than it had been before.
Certainly its sequels didn't help matters. While there are moments in Scream 2, Scream 3, and yes even Scream 4 that actually work, none of those films really add anything new to the foundation that Scream built. If anything, but making a connected series of films with the same characters surviving one slasher attack after another, the Scream series managed to suck all the fun out of the proceedings. The heroes were coated in plot armor and would go on screaming for many moons to come. Scream is the kind of film that didn't need a sequel and, in fact, probably benefited greatly from never having a sequel.
All that being said, if Scream had to have a sequel, this fifth iteration (five-quel?) does about as good a job as any sequel could at justifying its existence. It manages this feat by taking everything back to the basics of the original, finding a proper connection to the first film so it can spin out its reboot/sequel intentions with aplomb. It's not a perfect films by any stretch but considering how bad the sequels got (looking at you, Scream 4) and just where the Slasher genre is in general, 2022's Scream (or, for the sake of our sanity, Scream 5) does a solid job actually continuing on the franchise properly.
In the film we're introduced first to Tara Carpenter (Jenna Ortega), the tragic girl in the house who gets a call from an unknown number. Sure enough, as this is a house in Woodsboro, there's a creepy killer on the other end of the line and, very quickly, he breaks into the house and attacks Tara. Surprisingly, and a first for the series, she doesn't die, but she does end up in the hospital. That's when her sister, Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera), gets a call. Sam had been living in Modesto, CA for years, having bailed on Woodsboro when she turned 18. But once she gets the call about her sister she immediately packs up and heads back to the murder capital, her boyfriend, Richie Kirsch (Jack Quaid), in tow.
Once Sam and Richie get to Woodsboro they find themselves embroiled in, effectively, a reboot/sequel to the original Woodsboro killings (see: Scream, 1996). The people being attacked all have connections to the kids slaughtered in the first killings, being sons, daughters, nieces and nephews, and the like. Whoever is doing the killings wants to make a legacy continuation of the "franchise", fueled by the Online complaints about how the in-movie franchise, Stab, ran the series into the ground. Sam, too, has her own connection to the events as, secretly, she was the daughter of original killer Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich), a man she still sees as visions when she looks in mirrors. Is Sam the killer, fueled by a lust for revenge for her dead dad, or are others doing the killings to make a new name for the franchise. As the bodies pile up the mystery will quickly unfold.
The best thing the film has going for it, I should say, is the cast. Although not all the actors get a lot to do, each of them manages to get deep into their characters. Barerra plays a solid final girl, with just enough grit and conviction to sell her underwritten character. Quaid is good as the charming an goofy boyfriend, a role he's played before in other productions. And, of course, the legacy actors -- David Arquette, Neve Campbell, and Courteney Cox -- are great in roles they've been playing for over 25 years. This is a solid cast that does what they can with the material.
The big flaw with the film is that it has so much it wants to do -- introduce a whole new cast of characters while bringing in all the legacy survivors, all while trying to tell all their stories and launch a new franchise -- that none of it really feels that developed. The character that comes out the best is Sam, certainly, as she's slotted in as the new lead girl. The movie works as an effective passing of the torch from Sidney to Sam and if the legacy characters never showed up again (although at least Campbell has expressed interest in coming back again in a sixth film) the franchise would be in good hands with the new final girl.
That said, none of the other characters in the film have nearly as much development as Sam. The second best character is Jasmin Savoy Brown's Mindy Meeks-Martin, who gets to play the Randy Meeks role in this new version. She clearly relishes the material and has fun as the movie geek in a movie, but most of her scenes are spouting lines that would have come from Randy, and then the rest of the time she's barely seen at all. The rest of the cast fares even worse, with less time to do anything with their characters. Most of them have no development and only the thinnest of paper-thing characterizations. They're the stock slasher characters in the film, a trope that the original Scream managed to avoid by making each of its characters interesting.
That being said, Scream 5 is still an effective film. That is, in large part, because while it doesn't have a strong handle on its expansive cast it does know how to do great slasher killing. The deaths in this film are gory, gross, and violent, giving the film a well-deserved Hard R. The film doesn't get as over-the-top abusive to its characters as, say, Rob Zombie's Halloween II. It is, instead, just visceral enough to make you feel it without ruining the fun of the horror.
When it call comes together, Scream 5 really does work. The film is at its best in its third act (denoted when one of the kills says, literally, "welcome to Act 3"). This is where the film finds the best energy, iterating on the original murder house act from the first film. It plays with that films third act, spinning out new ideas while honoring what came before, and it just hits all the right beats. Old and new cast work together, and the vibe of the film in this last portion really works. This is the film we needed, right here, a microcosm of what Scream could do so well.
A sequel is already in production and, I have to admit, I'm cautiously optimistic about it. This film gets enough stuff right that, with a movie more focused on the new cast, and time to better spin out their stories, I think sequel could do really well. The whole creative team is apparently involved in the sixth film and they clearly have enough sense about what works in this series that they can spin out some good scenes and gory sequences. Directed properly, I think another Scream could be well worth watching. Considering where we were with the franchise even just a few years ago, that's a big shift, all thanks to the solid work this fifth film did.