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Scream review – surprisingly smart riff on Hollywood’s reboot addiction

The fifth entry in the long-running meta-horror series takes aim at the "legacy sequel" with this satisfying slasher subversion

“That sounds boring,” snarls Scream's iconic killer Ghostface upon learning that his latest victims are more interested in what's known as “elevated horror.” Tara's (Jenna Ortega) favourite is The Babadook, she explains – a complex meditation on motherhood. “Whodunnit” slashers are old hat. So where does that leave poor old Ghostface in 2022? Fret more for his new targets, perhaps, who are forced to play by the rules of the “requel” – a mix of reboot and sequel – in this fifth and probably not final entry in the long-running franchise.

Horror maestro Wes Craven originally planned to cap his innovative meta-horror series, which begin in 1996 with the genuinely radical Scream, with 2000's Scream 3 – a divisive chapter that for many took the self-referencing a bit too far. 11 years later, he returned with the surprisingly prescient Scream 4, blending more self-aware horror antics with an exploration of a new generation's hunger for social media stardom.

The question of whether five times is too many inevitably arrives with this latest chapter. Then again, the nature of today's endless sequel market, not to mention the ways in which studios have tried to pander to the (often toxic) fanbases of its most beloved franchises in recent years, means there's plenty of new trends to explore. So this time the assemblage of unlucky teens are battling the notions of a “legacy sequel”: that is, a sequel that brings in a new, younger cast and puts them alongside the series' long-serving characters – a passing of the torch-type affair that wants to appeal to established fans and newcomers alike.

The Scream series has always defined itself through characters who understand the rules of horror movies, of course, and so – as this incarnation of Ghostface returns to traumatise a new group of very woke, irony-heavy teenagers – we're again exposed to a killer versed in the horror genre and victims who know all the tropes. This time it all swirls around Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera) , a young woman drawn back to sunny Woodsboro to face the demons of her past after her sister is attacked by Ghostface, and who has a dark connection to the events of the 1996 original.

This Scream is very intentionally in direct conversation with that first movie: its killers are frustrated over the diminishing quality of the universe's surrogate Scream franchise, Stab, and want to restore its reputation (cue the toxic fandom!). So much so, in fact, that they're willing to re-stage sequences that long-time fans will be highly familiar with – most notably in a clever update of Scream's infamous Drew Barrymore opener, in itself recontextualized for a fake movie-within-a-movie starring Heather Graham in Scream 2, both of which are unpacked and dissected again here (Inception has nothing on these layers).

Ready or Not directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett do a fine job of filling in for the late Craven, adopting an unfussy, crisp filmmaking approach that honours the look and feel of the previous movies. Admittedly, nothing here feels particularly “fresh,” though the set-pieces are sharp and effective, gushing blood is gloriously red, and the script by James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick is packed with just enough “ah, clever!” moments to keep the whole thing from feeling like a cash-grab.

And what of our original cast? Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox and David Arquette return to the fray, with Arquette making the most impact as a more melancholy incarnation of Dewey Riley, haunted by years of killings and the demise of his romance with Cox's news reporter Gale Weathers. If there's a sense of sidelining our favourites, it's only natural: that is a rule of the legacy sequel. But here's where it might of been nice for Scream to break horror movie convention. The new characters are fundamentally less appealing – and more annoying – than the originals, and it's hard to escape the feeling that the oldies are left feeling a little underserved (even if that's the point).

The finale, which brings it all back to one of the franchise's most infamous locations, marks the height of sequel pandering – but there's a good enough reason, which makes it's easy to indulge, guilt-free, in the meta-mania of it all. Five movies in, who would have guessed this franchise would could still find new ways to broach the same subject? Then again, maybe it's not that surprising: Hollywood will stop at nothing to repackage its existing IPs. As long as that's the case, Scream will have a place.

Scream is now showing in UK cinemas.

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