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‘Scream’ Film Review: Slasher Series Returns With Laughs, Terror, and Meta-Commentary Intact

This franchise-restarting ”requel“ follows in the footsteps of ”Halloween“ and even ”Star Wars“ when it comes to making everything old new again

It’s been more than 25 years and it’s still hard to believe that the premise for “Scream” worked once, let alone multiple times. The slasher-movie franchise, originally written by Kevin Williamson and directed, until this latest installment, by the late “Master of Horror” Wes Craven, took the framework of tawdry, low-rent slasher flicks and built on those ramshackle bones a dense multi-generational ensemble drama, infused with self-aware meta-humor, and riddled with violent set pieces that, at their best, are among the best in the genre.

After four films inspired by, in succession, slasher movies, cash-in sequels, Hollywood scandals, and flimsy reboots, the time has once again come to set the “Scream” franchise loose to criticize the current state of horror-movie affairs. And although the new “Scream” comes from new screenwriters and new filmmakers, it still fits impressively into the longstanding tradition. Their “Scream” is a very, very, very fine “Scream.”

No “Scream” movie would be complete without a memorable opening scare sequence, and this time “Scream” itself is the brunt of the joke. “Ready or Not” directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, collectively known as Radio Silence, stage a newfangled riff on the original high-stakes trivia game, except now a teenager named Tara (Jenna Ortega, “Yes Day”) must answer questions about a slasher movie that’s even older now than “Friday the 13th” was when Drew Barrymore was under the knife: the “Scream” movies themselves, which exist in this universe under the moniker “Stab.”

It seems that the “Stab” series has once again fallen out of favor, and now young audiences know about as much about that 25-year-old horror classic as they do about all the other hit 1996 films, like “Phenomenon” or “Ransom.” But it’s still got fans, fans who take it deadly seriously, and any franchise with fans is fodder nowadays for the latest Hollywood phenomenon: requels.

Radio Silence’s “Scream” finds a whole new crew of charismatic teenagers, gives some of them a deeper connection to the franchise’s past, and brings in the surviving old guard to usher in a new era for the series. David Gordon Green’s “Halloween” appears to be the template but, if you turn your head and look at it from the right angle, so does the latest “Star Wars” trilogy.

Unlike the valiant and surprising “Scream 4,” which took a similar approach, the new “Scream” has a more rigorously battle-tested formula to lampoon, giving its meta humor a lot more weight. It also has a more dynamic cast of new young characters. Melissa Barrera (“In the Heights”) plays Sam Carpenter, the older sister of Ghostface’s first victim, who returns to Woodsboro to settle family business and to confront her past.

She brings her boyfriend Richie (Jack Quaid, “The Boys”), who has never seen the “Stab” films and has to catch up quickly, and immediately begins investigating Tara’s circle of friends, like charming twins Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown, “Yellowjackets”) and Chad (Mason Gooding, “Love, Victor”) and the Sheriff’s goody-two-shoes son Wes (Dylan Minnette, “13 Reasons Why”).

Along the way they recruit former Woodsboro sheriff Dewey Riley (David Arquette), whose lifelong romance with Gale Weaters (Courteney Cox) has hit the skids — again — and dig up more dirt than ever before on killers of the “Scream” franchise’s past. You’d better believe Neve Campbell is back too. Cameos abound. So do the kills.

The screenplay by James Vanderbilt (“Murder Mystery”) and Guy Busick (“Ready or Not”) knows how to navigate the teen-soap-opera subplots better than any film in this series since the original, and the directors know how to segue artfully into one shocking death scene after another. This new “Scream” is by far the most violent, gruesome, and gory film in the series, but the vivid stabbings and huge pools of blood aren’t here to distract from any deficiencies in the story. The film’s brutality makes all these killings sadder, more pathetic than ever before.

“Scream” is a horror movie, through and through. It’s also a small-town drama. It’s also a vicious and spot-on commentary about some of the more repugnant fads in the modern entertainment hellscape. It’s also extremely funny. Radio Silence seems to have understood that what makes a “Scream” movie is an uncanny, borderline-unbelievable balance of disparate tones and material, and that they have been able to direct not just a very good sequel but also a film that feels like a worthy and indelible chapter in the ongoing “Scream” saga, without the contributions of the original writer or director, is nothing short of magical.

One could, if one were so inclined, nitpick that some of the smaller characters make some very foolish decisions. Or one could note that after the killer’s (killers’?) plan is revealed, it’s clear that the whole grand scheme behind this latest murder spree relies on a lot more good luck than anything else. But it’s still a slasher movie. The plot exists only to get people perforated with pointy things, and if you’re not willing to cut these movies just a teensy bit of slack by now, why are you even still here?

Vividly photographed by Brett Jutkiewicz (“The Black Phone”) and cunningly edited by Michel Aller (“There’s Someone Inside Your House”), this new “Scream” is a killer. Smartly scary and scary smart, consistent with the history of this series but unafraid to piss off fans if it’s for the good of the story. This satire of requels may very well be the first requel done right. It’s a scream, baby.

“Scream” opens in US theaters Jan. 14.