Saturday, January 15, 2022

Scream and SCREAM Again

The mad genius of Wes Craven’s Scream movies was making them sharp commentary on the very genre of which they were exceedingly effective versions, and which he helped create. The innovation of Kevin Williamson’s screenplay was, after a couple decades of slasher pictures, making its characters young people who’d seen slasher pictures before. This thorough understanding of the types and tropes of the subgenre made for a thick layer of 90’s irony in their dialogue. Here were young people targeted in a small-town knifing spree from a masked killer, and they nonetheless thought a command of these stories’ cliches would keep them safe—typified in a scene where the horror nut pontificates about rules for survival, including never leaving alone saying “I’ll be right back.” This made the plot’s twists and turns all the more satisfying and surprising—cutting into the conventions by zigging where others zagged, or maybe doubling back around to predictable to catch you all the more off-balance. The first is one of the best of its kind, and a total deconstruction of it at the same time. As the series progressed, it became all the more meta, too, with good sequels including discussions of sequels, as the events of the first film inspired an in-universe horror franchise: Stab. By the 2011 release of the underrated Scream 4, it even became a generational commentary, a belated sequel to a cult property in which younger characters were fans of the movies based on the events of the first movies. That Craven continued making these warmly photographed and sleekly paced thrill machines capable of pulling off bloody kills and teasing genre play in the same movies, sometimes in the same scene, made them excellent entertainments.

So of course the fifth in the series, the confusingly titled Scream, is pretty aware it’s been another 11 years since the last and therefore must, in the current vogue, be all things to all people—a fresh cast of new people doing the same things, and a returning cast looking sideways at the proceedings until reluctantly drawn into the same old same old. It’s also the first in the series (save a forgotten three-season MTV show from a few years ago that goes unreferenced here) without either Craven, who passed away in 2015, or Williamson, who serves only as producer here. Maybe that accounts for the movie’s sense of grinding mechanics. It has been directed, by Ready or Not’s Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, and written, by James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, in what I could only think of as a karaoke version of the original’s moves. It has a small portion of Craven’s playful use of obstructed negative space, and a bit of the bite of Williamson’s writing. But it’s also clear the originals were the work of auteurs, while this new one is merely the product of talented technicians. They know the notes, but not the music. There’s a cute teen star (Jenna Ortega) on the wrong end of a menacing phone call in the opening scene. There’s a quickly sketched youth group full of victims and suspects (Melissa Barrera, Jack Quaid, Dylan Minnette, and others). There’s a reluctant call to action for the series’ previous survivors (David Arquette, Courteney Cox, Neve Campbell). And there’s an unknown ghostface killer skulking about in a gory whodunnit. The movie plunks down the sequences and surprises exactly where you’d expect them. It’s inelegant, but sometimes effective and always self-aware—like the bloodbath finale inaugurated by the killer waving a gun shouting, “Welcome to the third act, bitch!”

The project mistakes calling out obstacles and missteps for absolution when stumbling over them. There are long sequences in which characters lay out the new rules of a re-quel, along the way name-checking Terminator, Ghostbusters, Star Wars, and Halloween as recent examples of the quasi-remake sequel. There’s joking about the title, too, forgoing a number for a faux-remake naming convention in vogue, a fake grab for a glimmer of originality in the face of so much derivative. One character quips she prefers The Babadook and Hereditary to the Stabs, a fine wink at the art house horror cycle we’re in. Another complains the Stabs went off the rails with the fifth one. (Ha.) Still another references a toxic fanbase that won’t let long-running franchises try new things. That’s pretty sharp commentary on the online right-wing reactionaries who’ve latched onto long-running franchise fanbases to recruit young people into their shallow ax-grinding, anti-“woke” sloganeering. And the movie as a whole does a good job updating the talking points of its self-aware joshing for the current cultural landscape. I appreciated the effort. But the joy of the originals was not just that it could call out current horror tropes, but could upend them in unexpected puncturings. And they had characters you could care about even in the slasher structure—the deaths felt sad even as they fulfilled the genre’s obligation. This one’s everything you’d expect all the way down, and too routine to flesh out its feelings like that. Even the surprises are inevitable. There’s some low genre pleasure as far as that goes, and the young cast is gamely throwing itself into largely under-written parts. At best, it's watchable echoes of pleasures past. But, as is so often the case with these formulaic legacy sequels, there’s something depressing about the legacy characters, and us, stuck in this loop.

No comments:

Post a Comment