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Movie review: 'Scream' betrays its legacy by ignoring comic element

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Movie review: 'Scream' betrays its legacy by ignoring comic element
A new Ghostface is on the prowl in "Scream." Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 12 (UPI) -- 1996's Scream was the horror movie for horror fans, because it was about the very rules of horror movies. The creators of the series tracked the evolution of horror franchises in sequels, trilogies and remakes.

2022's Scream, the fifth entry but with the same title as the original, reflects upon its own origins. That's a potentially fascinating premise, but it takes the wrong message from the original film.

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Tara (Jenna Ortega) receives a threatening phone call in the first scene of the movie, and yes, she comments on how unusual it is to receive a landline call in 2022. Her attack by a killer in the Ghostface costume prompts her sister Sam (Melissa Barrera) to return to Woodsboro, with her supportive boyfriend Richie (Jack Quaid) in tow. Tara's friends also speculate on who the new killer could be, and Sam eventually consults the original Woodsboro survivors, Dewey (David Arquette), Gale (Courteney Cox) and Sidney (Neve Campbell).

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To reveal much more about the plot might be considered spoilers, but the screenplay by Guy Busick and James Vanderbilt forgot that the Scream movies were horror-comedies. It wasn't just that characters made fun of horror movies. They were funny throughout. The new Scream makes few attempts at comic relief, spending more time on convoluted backstories. It's strange because these filmmakers are not without humor. Busick wrote Ready or Not for directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett.

1996's Scream was revelatory because it made devoted horror fans feel seen. By 1996, there were decades of horror movies to establish conventions like "sex = death" and never to say, "I'll be right back." There were also enough sequels and trilogies for those to have established rules for Scream 2 and 3 to address. Horror buffs could feel like they were the self-aware characters in the movies, and casual viewers might learn what made die-hard fans so passionate.

Scream 4 had something to say about an era of remakes and Internet celebrity, but 2022's Scream comes at the peak of franchise fever and has the least to say as a result. This movie exists because of the culture that keeps reviving dormant franchises, and yet it is conflicted about its commentary on that very phenomenon.

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When characters in Scream 2022 start complaining about sequels that betray the original, they're no longer discussing trends inherent in the horror genre like the original Scream did. The new movie simply becomes a live-action retelling of the online discourse you can find on Twitter.

This is all so recent, within the last few years of social media, that it feels more like an Epic Movie spoof than a lasting commentary on the state of cinema. At worst, this Scream is amplifying the most toxic fans, where the original was celebrating the sophistication of horror lovers.

The original also addressed the age-old question of whether horror movies influenced real-life violence. If the new Scream is trying to update that debate to the new phenomenon of toxic fans' violent behavior, it fails because the film has no moral high ground. Each time the new Scream makes an observation about derivative sequels, it's already committed two of those sins itself.

Aside from the lack of humor, the script is also very clumsy with exposition. First, Sam shares a whole lot of backstory instead of the movie showing us who she is. Later in the movie, Gale and Dewey have a conversation entirely for the audience's sake to catch up with the legacy characters. Gale and Dewey would have had that talk a long time ago.

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The new Scream does have some effective suspense/pursuit scenes. The violence is especially graphic, including some less-than-convincing CGI stabbings. A Scream movie needs to be more than that, though. The commentary on horror movies seems more like lip service than any study of recent trends, and forgetting to be funny is a surprising oversight.

Scream opens Friday in theaters.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

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