Review: Despite new faces, 'Scream' misses chance for a stab at something fresh

Brian Truitt

So much has changed in the past 25-plus years, but somehow the “Scream” franchise still is able to wring a good jump scare out of a ringing landline phone.

With new blood and familiar faces, “Scream” (★★½ out of four; rated R; in theaters Friday ) dusts off the old formula and makes a few tweaks as the fifth installment in the long-running meta-slasher horror franchise. Original stars Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox and David Arquette return – as well as the mysterious killer Ghostface – for a film that’s gorier and less playful than previous films. Even a fresh batch of newcomers can’t keep the staleness from creeping in, although the new “Scream” nicely mines modern movie discourse in a way to justify its own existence.

2022 movie preview:The 10 most must-see films, from 'The Batman' to 'Scream'

Tara (Jenna Ortega) tries to fend off a home invasion by Ghostface in "Scream."

The fictional small California town of Woodsboro has a plenty bloody history so it’s no surprise when Ghostface shows up for the first time in a decade hunting a new crop of teenagers all related to the locale’s murderous past. After Tara (Jenna Ortega) is attacked in the film’s signature violent opening, her older sister Sam (Melissa Barrera) – who got the heck out of Dodge years ago, for non-Ghostface reasons – drives back to Woodsboro with her boyfriend Richie (Jack Quaid) in tow. 

Tara’s friends worry that they’re next, for good reason. They’re either connected to someone from the earlier movies – for example, Wes (Dylan Minnette) is the son of Sheriff Judy Hicks (Marley Shelton, reprising her “Scream 4” role) – or an archetype of past characters, a la horror-fiend Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) who walks her peers through the “rules” they need to know to survive. In the end, Sam is the character most needing to deal with her history and this haunted place on the way to Ghostface's ultimate reveal. 

'Scream':David Arquette talks wrestling and finding self-respect

Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) returns to Woodsboro in full-on hero mode in "Scream."

Of course, the real experts are the people who lived through earlier melees. Lawman Dewey (Arquette) stayed in town and has seen better days, though when Ghostface reappears, he texts Sidney Prescott (Campbell), the franchise’s iconic “final girl” and now a concerned mom, and old flame Gale Weathers (Cox), who’s hit the big time as a New York morning show host. The trio is reunited yet again, a welcome sight for longtime fans, though they often pull focus from fleshing out the newer personalities.

Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, the duo behind the devilishly entertaining horror comedy “Ready or Not,” take on a “Scream” movie that knowingly tackles the “requel,” Hollywood's favorite new way to freshen up franchises with an installment that’s both reboot and sequel akin to the new “Halloween” and “Star Wars” movies. (The latter especially seems to be an inspiration – “Scream: Ghostface Awakens” would have been an apt title.)

Dewey Riley (David Arquette, far right) tries to keep youngsters Wes (Dylan Minnette), Richie (Jack Quaid) and Sam (Melissa Barrera) safe from a new round of Woodsboro murders in "Scream."

The younger characters have a meta-discussion about how no one likes how the eighth “Stab” movie – the films within the films of the “Scream” movies – was an “elevated horror” project a la "The Witch" and "Hereditary." And like 2011’s surprisingly good “Scream 4,” the new film tackles real-world culture in clever fashion. It’s also a showcase for a lot of budding movie star talent, most notably Ortega, Barrera, Quaid and Brown, though Arquette also gets a chance to turn in a great multilayered performance.

Clearly far from the worst the franchise has offered (sorry, “Scream 3”) and not quite to the level of the late Wes Craven's innovative 1996 original, Ghostface’s latest slice-and-dice through Woodsboro checks all the appropriate boxes though lacks some of the quirky fun that marked previous entries. Sure, there are plenty of one-liners, callbacks and gruesome kills barreling toward a revelatory ending that makes up for the missteps, but “Scream” misses a chance for a joyous stab at something truly new.