‘Scream’ is a Scary Movie Franchise Afraid to be Scary

Scream 6

Note: This article contains spoilers for Scream VI

The Scream franchise is in the best hands possible with Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett at the helm. As torchbearers for the inimitable Wes Craven’s iconic slasher franchise, they achieved the impossible. Twenty years after Ghostface lived up to his name, then just a ghost of the once-unstoppable meta-horror franchise, they resurrected him. I say twenty years because it’d been tried before, of course. For as much as I and other franchise diehards love Scream 4 and Scream: The TV Series, neither successfully converted any franchise naysayers. Scream (2022) revitalized the “tarnished brand,” so to say, both critically and commercially. Yet, for as great as they are—Scream was my number one horror movie of 2022, Scream VI will be up there this year—they’re missing a key element that made the original trilogy so monumental; the late Wes Craven’s humanistic sensibilities. Basically, they’re not treating the horror seriously.

Craven was arguably the greatest humanist horror filmmaker of our time, possibly all time. In the contemporary oeuvre, it’s likely Mike Flanagan who comes closest to recognizing how the potential value and goodness of people, not concepts, not ghouls, are at the heart of the best scary stories. It’s why several weeks back, I argued against bringing Sidney Prescott into any more of these movies. Doing so would render Prescott more an idea—a property—and less a person.

Earnestness is often rejected in modern horror, at least in the genre’s bigger releases. The new Scream duology’s (likely soon to be a trilogy) sensibilities exist within a theatrical horror landscape that often rejects a zealous appreciation of people and feelings. Look at the most recent Halloween trilogy, for instance. While I was and remain a big fan of David Gordon Green’s bonkers approach to the source material, critics rightfully point out that, all things considered, it reduced Michael Myers to one big joke. Despite assurances to the contrary, the new Halloween timeline wanted to be funny.

It makes sense, I presume, to inoculate oneself from criticism. It’s better to laugh at yourself before audiences can do it first. Earnestness is vulnerability. The modern moviegoing compulsion is to find all the flaws. All the things that don’t make sense. Laugh at them. Share them online. Reduce an artistic endeavor to a homework assignment, suspension of disbelief be damned.

It’s not what movies are meant to be. The sensemaking capacity of the very best stories aren’t rooted in rationality or logic. They’re rooted in feeling. It’s not even exclusive to horror. The disheartening trend has polluted almost the entirety of the theatrical ecosystem. It’s in every blockbuster, every MCU project and IP imaginable. Trailers for the forthcoming Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny really want you to know how silly the whole thing really is. Remember when Tom Holland and his friends made fun of Alfred Molina’s “Doctor Otto Octavius” in Spider-Man: No Way Home’s marketing material? See, they’re in on the joke. They know just how goofy all this really is. Make fun of yourself lest the audience mistakes your intentions for sincerity.

But what’s wrong with that? In the case of the new Scream movies, the humor is the most damning evidence of this resistance to feeling and being. Yes, the Scream movies have always been funny. But both Craven and scribe Kevin Williamson knew when to delicately shift the tonal scales. For all the talk of how brutal the latest entry is, it’s worth remembering Drew Barrymore’s Casey Becker desperately tried to call out to her parents right before her death. The opening doesn’t just endure as one of the greatest horror movie intros of all time because it’s clever, because it’s testing the audience. It endures because it’s tragic. It endures because it’s terrifying.

The same goes for Scream 2. Jada Pinkett-Smith’s death isn’t funny. Neither Craven nor Williamson want the audience to think it is. It’s sad. In Craven’s universe, death is serious. It’s never fun. In the newest movies, even the most tragic deaths have a grim undercurrent of humor. Anika’s (Devyn Nekoda) Scream VI death culminates in a gruesome, Grand Guignol-style gag, with her head being reduced to potato mush on a dumpster lid.

Gag on gag on gag reduce whatever tension the antecedent apartment chase generated. Shortly thereafter, Courteney Cox’s Gale Weathers arrives on the scene with Hayden Panettiere’s Kirby Reed. They bicker and banter, not at all mindful that two young college girls (only one, really, but they don’t know that) were just savagely killed. Scream VI misappropriates the meta-commentary. Metatextual humor, almost paradoxically, needs to feel organic. The jokes in Scream VI feel culled from a YouTube trailer reaction video.

Not all of the blame belongs to Bettinelli-Olpin, Gillett, and scribes James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick. They’ve scripted the perfect Scream movies for the new decade, no doubt. A manifestation of Scream (2022)’s motives, fandom drives some of the worst decisions. Kirby really doesn’t need to be back in the Scream universe. As happy as I am to see Panettiere acting again, what is she even doing with these kids in New York? What is Gale doing there? To make it work (and it has to work, these legacy players generate big box office bucks), credulity is stretched to its breaking point. It’s so silly, and the filmmakers know it. They can’t just know it, though. They have to laugh at it first and deliver the punchline before the audience can come up with it for themselves.

Recent releases like M3GAN and Cocaine Bear know they’re silly. They are horror comedies, through and through. Mindful detachment works there. Tonally, from its inception, the Scream series has always been different, however. It was a horror movie first, and a comedy second. That’s not to undermine the role of humor in horror movies at all. Horror needs release, and humor is as perfect a bedfellow as any. Death is frightening and existential, and a spoonful of humor makes the grim, inevitable horror go down smoothly. Hereditary, one of the scariest movies ever made, has plenty of organic, diegetic camp. Nope was funny without ever threatening the integrity of its scare.

Scream’s humor is different. This new iteration is too knowing, almost too ashamed to be real. It’s cinematic self-preservation, a way of affably saying, “We recognize how dumb this all is, and trust us, we’re not taking it seriously either.” Smugness has never a movie made, however. It’s okay for Scream to be scary. Not every death needs to be punctuated with a joke or one-liner. What’s my favorite scary movie? The one that was okay with being scary.



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