“Scream,” the lively new meta slasher thriller, is neither a reboot nor a sequel to “Scream,” the landmark 1996 meta slasher thriller it shares a title with. The new movie is a requel, a term the film dutifully explains — it means a franchise extension that’s poised, on a kitchen knife blade, between the past and the present, between something jumpy and new and a respect for the legacy characters that gave the original its soul. (In this case, that means Courteney Cox, David Arquette, and Neve Campbell are back, and not just in token roles.) The young characters in the original “Scream” were living out their own schlock horror movie, complete with a masked killer who was like a mascot of death (he was like Edvard Munch’s The Scream turned into a piece of costume-shop kitsch), and they drew on the rules they’d absorbed from their endless watching of slasher films: how you get fooled into thinking the killer is this person when it’s really that person, the telltale actions that lead to your being slaughtered, and so on.
There’s plenty of that sort of thing in the new “Scream.” A young partier goes into the basement to get some beer, followed by a friend who says: Don’t you know not to go into the basement? At one point we’re told that rule number one for sussing out suspects is “Never trust the love interest.” Yet if that’s all there was to the new “Scream,” we’d have to call it a rehash.
The original “Scream” came out 26 years ago, and you could say that it was pitched to the VCR generation, or maybe the Cinemax generation — that is, the first moviegoers who’d grown up ingesting schlock horror sequels like M&Ms, deconstructing their formulas and mechanisms, reveling in the rules those films created through sheer repetition. So what has changed for this generation? According to “Scream,” the Internet has given rise to a new school of fan culture, in which movies are still endlessly dissected and deconstructed only now with a kind of primal cynicism about how and why they were made in the first place. Film fans are obsessed with sequels, but they also know how bad most sequels are.
In the new “Scream,” which is once again set in the town of Woodsboro, California, there is much talk about the horror franchise that began with “Stab,” a movie based on the Woodsboro massacre (it was introduced in “Scream 2”). It seems there have now been seven “Stab” sequels, most of them abysmal. Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown), the most cinematically astute of the characters, explains this all to us, acknowledging that the only really good “Stab” movie was the first one. I thought “Scream 2” was actually pretty good, but I’ll take the film’s self-satirizing point: that slasher sequels, even heavily ironic slasher sequels that build on a film as shivery and playful as “Scream,” have a baked-in we’ve-seen-it-before cheesiness.
The new “Scream” may be the first horror movie that turns the mockery of fan service into its own fan service. Is it fun? Mostly, yes. Surprising? It keeps faking you out about who the killer is, and playing that guessing game is part of the film’s suspense, but it’s a suspense based on the fact that the film can stay one step ahead of us in a totally arbitrary way. The new “Scream” is about as good as “Scream 2” was — it keeps the thrill of the original “Scream” bouncing in the air like a blood-drenched balloon — but the film is basically a set of variations on an old sleight-of-hand blueprint. Except the idea is that it’s now old enough to seem new again. (That’s part of the requel formula.) “Scream” doesn’t rewrite the rules of the “Scream” playbook. In a funny way, it ardently recycles them and condescends to them at the same time.
The film was directed by the team of Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, who got their start making segments of the 2012 cult anthology horror film “V/H/S.” They lure us into their winking celebration of the pleasures of trash horror in the funny and effective opening sequence, where Tara (Jenna Ortega), alone at home like Drew Barrymore in “Scream,” keeps getting called by the killer, who wants to talk about scary movies and play a game, except that Tara is an indie-film snob who looks down her nose at slasher films; her idea of a scary movie is “The Babadook.” As the killer gives her a quiz she can’t pass, she cries out, in desperation, “Ask me about ‘It Follows’! Ask me about ‘Hereditary’! Ask me about ‘The Witch’!” It’s the “Scream” prelude as comment-board debate.
The killer, Ghostface, quivery as always in a way that weirdly humanizes his homicidal plastic shroud, comes out of the woodwork and attacks Tara, but she survives, and we’re soon introduced to the film’s gallery of friends and suspects. Tara’s older sister, Sam (Melissa Barrera), would seem to be a safe bet for innocent, except we learn that she was a drugged-out black sheep for five years, abandoning her family after she learned who her real father was. (Hint: It’s someone from the original “Scream.” Though maybe not as scary a prospect as David Arquette.) Sam is a protective sister but riddled with psychotic flashbacks. Her boyfriend is Richie (Jack Quaid), who is so tall and genial and curly-haired in a latter-day Judge Reinhold way that…well, it could be him. (In these movies, it could be anybody.) Amber (Mikey Madison) is a hellion, and Mindy, centered in her film-fan-in-chief arcana, is the sort of person whose hyperrationality may be a mask. In an amusing moment, she’s watching “Stab” on TV, telling a hapless character who’s laying on the couch to “Turn around!” (because Ghostface is right behind him), and meanwhile she’s doing all this while seated on a couch with Ghostface right behind her.
Would anyone yell “Turn around!” at Mindy? I may be wrong, but the potential audience for the new “Scream” doesn’t strike me as a talk-back-to-the-screen generation; that would be uncool. Of course, one of the reasons people seek out scary movies is to undo their cool — to have it pulled out from under them — but “Scream” isn’t a wildly scary movie. It does have shocks, jolts, and one ingenious sequence in which a character is poking around a kitchen, and we expect the killer to jump into the frame, but he keeps waiting and timing the attack, stretching out the suspense like taffy. The film does its best to mix Cox, Arquette, and Campbell into the heart of the action, but they feel, inevitably, like tribal elders who we’re supposed to revere because of their “Scream” pedigree, even as that very dynamic gets skewered with a biting reference to bringing Jamie Lee Curtis back to the “Halloween” series. “Scream” is a movie crafty enough to let you see through its tricks. But I’m not sure, in doing so, if it’s wittily postmodern or just transparent.