Hey, who put this knife on the mantle?
Hey, who put this knife on the mantle?

Scream and its sequels have always felt like those “Learn Conversational French” videos, where you learn a language by watching stilted interactions between people who speak in the simplest of sentences (“j’adore les blue jeans”), except that in Scream, the language you’re learning is that of horror films (“don’t kill me, I want to be in the sequel!”).

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The latest installment is another opportunity to practice those linguistic skills, while adding a few words to the vocabulary. But not many! Just as Scream (1996) was a movie about itself, Scream (2022) is a horror film where everyone has not only seen every horror film, they’ve seen every horror film in their own franchise.

The result is a cat-and-mouse game among characters that are essentially superheroes with cheat codes: When everyone is aware of the constraints of the genre, the game transforms into the killer and the survivors finding loopholes around predictable tropes in order to commit gory murders or evade them. It’s a horror film, but only by virtue of all the fake blood; at their heart, the Screams are all comic mysteries with satisfying surprise twists. (Scream is Murder She Wrote for sickos.)

Is this game actually fun? That depends on how much you enjoy speaking the language.

It begins with a signal that we’re in familiar hands: What appears, at first, to be a perfect remake of the memorable opening scene of the original.

A young woman putters around the (palatially large) kitchen of an empty suburban house, bothered by a gravel-voiced phone caller who wants to talk about “Stab,” the in-universe horror films inspired by the events of the first Scream. (Yes, the nesting dolls go deep.)

“How well do you remember the original?” the caller asks.

“It’s super ‘90s,” the young woman shrugs. Oh, it’s not looking good for her.

This neo-Scream faces a difficult challenge of finding fresh surprises without wandering away from the elements that make it … you know … Screamish. Compounding the challenge are the layers of post-’90s irony that have built up over media in general, as well as the evolution of rabid fandoms that hold impossible expectations of creators. “How can fandom be toxic?” wonders a particularly overzealous Stab fan, and he might as well turn to the camera and address this comment directly into the lens. “It’s about love.”

That’s a neat idea, one worth exploring — but not by this film! Scream movies aren’t as much about thoroughly interrogating ideas as they are about throwing one or two out and then pumping fake blood all over hot 20-somethings playing teens. Following the opening tribute to opening tributes, we meet our heroes, a plucky gang of high schoolers who’d look at home in any CW series. There’s the jock, the nerd, the goth, the slut — they all have names, of course, but I didn’t bother remembering them because they probably won’t be needing them for much longer.

They also, it’s revealed, have curious ties to the characters of the original film, and it’s not long before a few familiar faces pop up: David Arquette is back as the improbably sturdy police officer, Courtney Cox as the rapacious news anchor, Neve Campbell as the embodiment of pure charisma. There is a scene in which the characters played by David and Courtney (themselves real-life exes) discuss their in-movie relationship, and I haven’t had such an out-of-body experience in a theater since Tom and Nicole in Eyes Wide Shut.

Also, on the subject of returning cast, Heather Matarazzo — a.k.a. Dawn Weiner from Welcome to the Dollhouse — is marvelously back as Marsha, though all-too-briefly. God, what I wouldn’t give for a sequel all about her. Anyway!

The film makes some adjustments for its modern setting, swapping landlines for smartphones and throwing in references to Reddit and superior mysteries like Knives Out. There is an easily-removed-for-overseas-audiences same-sex kiss. A line about fandom message boards — expertly tossed-off as an aside — made me bark with laughter. But it is, at its heart, a house that is solidly fixed to a 26-year-old foundation. The furniture's been moved, but there have been no modifications to the load-bearing walls.

I found myself wondering, at about the halfway mark, if this is a young person’s movie or an old person’s movie. We get lots of time with hot-headed kiddos, screaming and sobbing their way through hallways as the killer closes in; but then we shift to the grizzled old-timers reflecting on the absurd horrors of their lives while walking the next generation of stab victims through the paces. This intergenerational collaboration feels, at times, like a handing-down of a beauty pageant crown, and the film’s greatest pleasures come when the two groups are working in collaboration.

Whose film is it? Appealingly, they all manage to share, which will undoubtedly be remarked upon in the next one.

You can watch Scream in theaters starting this Friday, January 14.

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