I’d like to think that I know when I’m being pandered to, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t a bit flattering regardless. The target audience of the Scream franchise has always been horror hounds and general film dorks, with its reveling in story tropes, genre clichés, and the dramatic irony that comes with audience foreknowledge. The more time you’ve spent rewinding horror franchise VHSs, the more likely that Scream is going to be up your alley. Of course I loved the original Scream – there isn’t much more predictable than that. However, the sequels have been a different story.
Scream relied on audience familiarity with a genre that dominated the preceding decade to its release, and weaponized the expectations that movie-goers had developed based on everything they had seen from the well-worn body of slasher films since the late 1970s. The sequels, however, relied on the same source materials: they never quite kept pace with the zeitgeist. The Scream franchise never moved on from the VHS era, and audiences clearly did. Films like Cabin in the Woods capitalized on audience meta-knowledge in new ways, and Scream became a relic of 1980s and 1990s culture, just like a dusty VCR in an attic.
The landscape of horror today, however, has shifted dramatically. We’re in a curiously (but pretty solidly) bifurcated era for the genre, defined simultaneously by arthouse “prestige” horror – think anything branded by Jordan Peele or A24 – and a mixed bag of “re-quels” – quasi-reboots of long-dormant franchises, like David Gordon Green’s Halloween, Nia DaCosta’s recent Candyman, or the Spiral entry into the Saw franchise. There hasn’t been a more opportune time to dust off and retool the Scream franchise – there’s a whole new book of rules and audience expectations to tinker and toy with.
I went into 2021’s Scream with admittedly low expectations. The only trailer I saw gave the impression of a mildly updated remix of the well-worn path: sure, the advances in technology have opened new doors (literally) for Ghostface, but all signs pointed to a re-heat of an old formula with some new gimmicks. Instead, the film itself is in every way a product of our current horror genre zeitgeist, and revels in teasing horror-knowledgeable audiences in exactly the way the original Scream did. Unlike Green’s Halloween, which fully tosses out its endless sprawl of sequel lore, today’s Scream somewhat hand-waves the sequels, but doesn’t omit them entirely as truth within the world. There is no ret-conning to be had here, which is impressive writing gymnastics for a screenplay looking to establish new ground.
Our new Scream introduces a new slate of vibrant characters, who are debatably more charming and relatable when compared to their 1996 predecessors (who I have found more grating on re-watches in recent years). Jack Quaid, Jasmin Savoy Brown, and Dylan Minnette are particular standouts in the ensemble of newcomers, who more than fill the shoes of the previous accessory performers like Matthew Lillard, Liev Schreiber, and Jamie Kennedy. They are joined by a handful of familiar (if much-aged) faces, including David Arquette, Neve Campbell, and Courteney Cox. If you ask me, the new blood was far more compelling than the old, but the stalwarts fill in their roles well.
The new Scream is brutal and visceral in a way that it hasn’t felt like since the inception of the franchise, which plays beautifully in concert with a cast of lovable and relatable knife-fodder. As one character notes in the final act, “our story has stakes,” which makes it stand out in contrast with its fellow Scream sequels. I was genuinely shocked at how well this film succeeded in accomplishing its goals: there’s not an obvious weak link to point out. Even the language of its cinematography bobs and weaves around and through expectations, dangling the audience on a string with well-crafted mise-en-scene and camera movement. One sequence in particular was an absolute joy to watch with an audience, as it artfully elicited gasps and laughs at the creative *absence* of payoffs.
Scream (2022) is an unexpected early highlight for me from the burgeoning cinema landscape of 2022. It is possible that I’m just the perfect audience for this particular form of pandering, but I’m happy to accept that. This was one hell of a good ride, and in my opinion the best sequel Scream could ask for.