My suspicion with the Scream movies is that they were released in too close succession to ever develop any sort of meaningful commentary about horror trends beyond themselves. The first three installments came out within a four-year period (1996, 1997, 2000), the original riffing on familiar slasher conventions of the 1970s and 1980s with callous, ironic detachment (that the subgenre was already parodically cannibalizing itself during its heyday, a la The Slumber Party Massacre, is neither here nor there).
Scream 2 appeared merely a year later, too early to exploit the found footage craze that would follow in The Blair Witch Project’s wake (oddly, Scream has yet to make much use of the ubiquity of smartphone cameras). The Hollywood backlot-bound Scream 3 was an ouroboros, taking unspecified jabs at lecherous film producers that didn’t seem to bother a credited Harvey Weinstein too much. Scream 4 (2011) made passing reference to the mean-spirited “torture porn” that had emerged during the War on Terror (Saw, Hostel), but by then the damage was long done and the series had settled into comfortable insularity.
To its credit, then, Scream (hereafter Scream 5) has at least captured the Hollywood zeitgeist of soft reboots, name-checking relevant horror titles The Force Awakens and Jurassic World. Or maybe Hollywood’s preferred method of franchise-building has finally mutated into its own genre of perpetually self-referential Screams.
Doesn’t matter. Find in Scream 5 the same sequel ambivalence and smirking disdain for toxic fandom as The Matrix Resurrections, with more or less the same level of insight.
A masked killer is once again roving the fictional Woodsboro. Tara (Jenna Ortega), bucks series convention by surviving the home invasion cold opener but is left severely wounded and hospitalized, coaxing estranged older sister Sam (Melissa Barrera) back home. Tara and Sam’s last name is Carpenter, serving as a pointlessly depressing reminder that genre bedrock John Carpenter hasn’t directed a movie since the critical/financial flop The Ward, but has been producing well-received studio albums I’ve been meaning to check out, so also thanks, Scream 5?
Early in the film, Tara informs the killer that she prefers “elevated horror” like The Babadook to Scream’s film-within-a-film device “Stab,” acknowledging Scream 5’s displacement in a genre drifting towards legitimacy. The thing about the critically fashionable It Follows, Hereditary, The Witch, Get Out, etc. is that they all have coherent worldviews and function as metaphors for something going on in the world around them.
The Scream sequels come dangerously close to a thesis with their fame-obsessed rogues’ gallery and the idea of tabloid scandal as a path to celebrity status. But because Scream 5 doesn’t seem to know what to do with the slow decline of traditional, PR-controlled monoculture stardom amidst the advent of social media juggernauts, it retreats to Gen-Zers prattling ad nauseam about movie reboots.
Series director Wes Craven passed away in 2015, with Scream 5 falling to Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett. The two previously helmed the one-percenter bloodbath Ready or Not, meaning that Scream 5’s brand of self-loathing reads as members of the boutique horror set condescending to lower-tier material. Scream 5 is at least appreciably gruesome, and maintains the series’ small joy of visceral physicality, as some poor stunt person stumbles downstairs and takes various household objects to the face.
If anything, Scream’s whodunnit intrigue more comfortably sits alongside the quasi-procedural/mystery franchise Saw, that series deriving from the lurid Italian giallo of the 1960s and ‘70s. The idea of a movie-obsessed killer also brings to mind Peeping Tom, a 1960 British slasher about a serial killer with a bayonet-like contraption fixed to his camera so that he can film his victims’ dying moments.
There’s an entire world of worthwhile horror cinema out there, but Scream 5 remains stubbornly, provincially fixated on its place in relation to a narrow facet of mainstream American pop culture.