Bettinelli-Olpin & Gillett: Scream (2022)
Scream is the first film in the franchise that wasn’t directed by Wes Craven – and it shows. At times, it’s a homage to the horror master, while at times it plays as fan fiction, building towards a climax that can’t quite decide how to resolve it all. From the outset, it’s clear that there has been a seismic shift in horror taste since Scream 4, let alone since the original film. Together, the teenagers of 2022 express their admiration for what David Church has described as the post-horror canon of the 2010s – films like The Babadook, Hereditary, The Witch and Get Out, that replace the energy and exhilaration of classic horror with a more depressive and downbeat tone. Some of the characters don’t watch horror at all – one prefers animated films and musicals – while none of them seem to have any enduring attachment to the multiplex. One character provides a long Netflix session as their main alibi, while even the Stab franchise-within-the-franchise now seems to be experienced entirely on streaming sites.
All of that amounts to an acknowledgment that the slasher has been largely dethroned from horror cinema – not just as a living trope, but as a source of nostalgia, since Scream unfolds amongst teenagers who are probably too young to even be nostalgic for the first films in the franchise. In other words, the Scream canon has absorbed the canon of classic slasher films, meaning that this version of Scream stands in relation to Wes Craven’s original in the same way that that original stood in relation to Halloween and Friday the 13th. Most of the people who watched the original Scream as teenagers, like myself, didn’t possess any lived memory of the slasher cycles of the late 1970s and 1980s. In fact, many of us only discovered those cycles through Scream, gradually recognising all of Craven’s references when we finally watched the originals later on. This new version of Scream takes that process one step further – it’s the echo of an echo, a second-order nostalgia that plays more as a sombre genre elegy.
That’s not to say that it’s an entirely dour affair, however, since directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett are clearly big enough fans of the franchise to update it in a few interesting ways. The biggest challenge for Scream, in 2022, revolves around how to restore the sense of vulnerability in physical space that was such a hallmark of the slasher film. With mobiles everywhere, it’s hard to feel that same primal vulnerability, especially since the phones of 2022 are far more packed with geolocative technologies than the phones of 2011, when Scream 4 was released. At the same time, Scream 4 was able to tap into a mode of found footage horror that feels quite dated by 2022, when directors have started to move away from glitchy digital footage in favour of the post-horror textures the teenagers all invoke here.
On top of all that, the original Scream was striking precisely because it suggested a new mobile technology ecology just around the corner. When I first saw that opening scene with Drew Barrymore, I was utterly terrified by the prospect that somebody could talk to you while watching you from outside your kitchen window. That possibility is now simply a banal fact of mobile phone technology, and yet its very banality makes you realise how artfully that primal scene of the franchise generated its terror from the threshold between two completely different spatial regimes. By contrast, in 2022, landlines are uncanny, just as most people have shed any residual association of mobiles with landlines. When Scream 4 came out, it wasn’t uncommon to call mobiles on a whim, or to respond to text messages with a call, but in 2022 it’s almost taboo to call somebody on a mobile phone when you can communicate virtually instead, especially since we now have so many different apps and platforms to use.
All those considerations inform the first scene of Scream, which takes place in a strikingly similar house to the original opening scene, and involves many of the same beats, but flips the script so that landlines, rather than mobiles, are now uncanny. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the uncanniness still stems from the mobile-landline continuum, but with a newfound sense that landlines, rather than mobiles, are the estranging part of that equation. In this opening scene, Tara Carpenter, played by Jenny Ortega, receives a phone call from the new Ghostface, who asks her to pick her favourite scary movie, and then challenges her to a deadly trivia competition. However, instead of testing her knowledge of Jason Vorhees and Michael Myers, as occurred in the first film, the killer now tests her knowledge of the Stab franchise, which has apparently overtaken the Scream franchise by this point, since it seems to number at least eight films, all of which are available to stream.
This scene plays a deft cat-and-mouse game with mobile and landline technology. While we first meet Tara ensconced in her mobile, the killer has to call the landline a few times to get her to pick up. Even then, and even when he grows menacing, he’s not all that scary, since Tara is relaying the conversation via text to her friend Amber. Above and beyond the comforting fact of having a third party in the scene, Tara’s text exchange makes her somewhat distracted from Ghostface, who has to resort to increasingly ingenious strategies to make his terror felt. His ace card is revealing to Tara that he has cloned Amber’s phone, and that he has been talking to her on both interfaces all along, which he confirms with a shot of Amber from outside her bedroom window, in a digital update of the moment in the original opening scene when Ghostface revealed Casey Becker’s boyfriend sitting on the porch. In a single uncanny instant, Amber loses all sense of digital omniscience, as the landline and mobile collapse into a single interface, helmed by Ghostface, who is suddenly right inside the house.
That ingenuity around mobile technology continues for most of the film, as Ghostface resorts to cloning as his main weapon – an effective way to imbue mobile phones with the anonymity of landlines. For the next three kill scenes, the directors also compare mobile technology to car mobility, placing the victims in situations where cars are either moving too fast to prevent them getting to their phones, or not moving fast enough for them to act on information they’ve gleaned from their phones. In one of the best scenes, a mother, who is also a cop, speeds home while on her car phone with Ghostface, who taunts her with the fact that her son has just got in the shower, and left his phone on the bathroom sink. As the film proceeds, the mounting violence also makes phone use more difficult – most dramatically when a character tries to unlock their phone, their hands slippery with blood, but can’t get it in time.
Mobile phones also mitigate against the cardinal rule of the slasher film: never be alone (or go anywhere alone). Since digital technology makes it feel as if we are never truly alone, the directors orchestrate mercurial shifts between large groups and characters suddenly finding themselves alone, usually at the very moment when their phone fails them. Ghostface tends to strike at these points where the alone-togetherness of social media is most acute, to the point where he personifes the ways that digital life create an isolation within connectivity. As a result, the characters often feel most vulnerable when they are bunched together as a group, since all it takes is the slightest moment of digital distraction for any one of them to look up from their phones and realise that the comforting crowd has retreated a vast distance.
These updates to the technology ecology of the franchise were my favourite parts of Scream, which starts to falter when it moves into the reflexive heart of the franchise. On the face of it, this is a pretty good deconstruction of what it means to be a “requel,” replete with a new set of rules about the balance between new characters and legacy characters: “the killer’s motive is always connected to something in the past…the first victim is always a friend group that the killer is part of.” Yet these new rules betray a deeper anxiety about the franchise, especially since, as one of the requelled teenagers points out, there is no serialised figure here along the lines of Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers – just the endless plasticity and malleability of Ghostface. At times, this perky requel gives way to a broader sense of the Woodsboro Murders as a generational event, doomed to be subjected to a rolling series of copycats with each new decade. In their desperation to evoke something new, the requel rules actually produce a morbid sense that the franchise can never escape or exceeds the peaks of its past.
This produces an unusual and dissonant tone – perky but not funny, reflexive but joyless. The main mood here is exhaustion, elegy and even trauma, a concession that the past is intractable without any clear way of how to cope with it. At times, it reminded me of Twin Peaks: The Return, especially when Sidney Prescott finds herself driving to the Woodsboro City Limits, in the same way that the final scenes of The Return revolve around the Twin Peaks City Limits. In both cases, there’s a drive to quantify a spatiotemporal scheme that now feels utterly historicised, as if discerning the exact boundaries of Woodsboro would allow us to work backwards and restore the vivid sense of space that was so critical to Craven’s original vision. Yet the archaic overtones of “city limits” indicates that this project itself is part of the film’s indebtedness to the past, and to the trauma of its older characters, since none of the teenagers seem interested in the pre-digital space and time that the franchise itself mourns.
What might be described as the perky nihilism of the film also extends to the way it handles violence. All of the legacy characters feel especially wounded by their history here, especially David Arquette’s Dewey, who is suffering from permanent nerve damage when the teenagers finally uncover him holing up in a caravan park, and eventually becomes Ghostface’s most traumatic victim. As the comic epicentre of the franchise, especially in tandem with Rose McGowan’s Tatum, his death is particularly pointed here, especially since it also crystallises a new mode of violence for Ghostface as well. More than any of the previous Ghostfaces, this killer relishes the moment of stabbing, often holding the knife directly in front of his victim’s faces to ensure the best angle. Hardly anybody is stabbed in the chest or back, with most of the kill scenes involving traumatic damage to the face and neck, as if Ghostface is daring his victims to remove the mask, in a last-ditch recourse to the whodunit jouissance of the original.
All three features of Scream – the perky nihilism, the digital ingenuity and the requel fandom – crystallise around the third act, which unfolds in the same party house as the third act of the original. One of the scariest moment in the original third act was when Gail Weathers’ news crew were watching Ghostface make his way back outside on their “live” feed, only to realise that there was a fifteen-second delay at the very moment they turned around to find him waiting for them. I found that fifteen-second space on the very cusp of total simultaneity unbelievably uncanny when I first watched the film, and the directors remediate it here with one of the best sequences of the film. Instead of a fifteen-second feed delay, they present us with a geolocative app that doesn’t quite meet up with its target, leading a character out into the night to the position where their friend’s phone should be. This is a common experience in our digital age – the Uber arriving a few doors down, the Google Maps not quite reading our initial location correctly – and it’s put to especially effective use in this scene, as the character in question has to resort to getting to his knees and looking for the phone physically.
However, this moment of ingenuity is quickly buried beneath a barrage of references to the original third act that quickly feels like defeatism, especially once we arrive at the most depressing denouement in the franchise. For it turns out that the two killers orchestrated this killing spree because they were frustrated in the same way as the director, the audience and the franchise itself at the lack of a new direction. In a supremely self-reflexive ending, they promise that their string of murders has injected the Stab franchise (and by extension the Scream franchise) with a whole new direction for the future. Some critics found this delightfully metacinematic, but I found it defeatist – like the main subject of the film was the inevitable disappointment of fans and the inevitable decline of the franchise. Despite some really ingenious moments, then, Scream is ultimately a fairly limp gesture of fandom, too defeatist and too reverential to ever really earn the dediction to Craven that closes the action.
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