The New Scream Is a Meta-Horror Film About Meta-Horror Films

Part sequel, part reboot, it's a slasher-film hall of mirrors.


If you grew up in America in the 1980s, you grew up watching, or at least aware of, a string of horror franchise films, most of which revolved around the same idea: A masked killer brutally murders suburban teens. What began with John Carpenter's Halloween followed with Friday the 13th and Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street, and then a handful of mostly awful sequels to each, plus various low-level imitators.

By the end of the decade, it was clear that, with a handful of exceptions, most of these films were cheaply churned out cash grabs, built on predictable formulas that sharp teen viewers had figured out. Indeed, as the sequels progressed, seeing these films became less an experience of real horror and more an exercise in box checking, as the genre's requirements were dutifully met. The viewers had picked up on the hidden rules. Watching teens get slaughtered had become an ironic game.

So when the original Scream came along in 1996, it was something of a revelation. Directed by Nightmare's Craven, it not only turned those hidden rules into the film's explicit text, most prominently in a famous monologue about the unspoken rules of horror films, it offered an argument, of sorts, that the game itself was horrific.

Brutal slaughter wasn't funny, or winkingly clever, or fun; it was, in fact, quite terrifying. And there was something disquieting about the way that so many teenagers treated it as a form of detached amusement—which, in the movie, took the form of teenagers joking their way through mass slaughter. They related to their circumstances as if they were in a schlocky movie, even as their friends were being systematically gutted. As Scott Tobias recently wrote for The Reveal, Scream's "meta elements were part of its subversive theme, a bleakly satirical effort to contrast the gruesome horror visited on [protagonist/final girl] Sidney with the utter detachment of her peers, who process actual death as they would deaths on screen." Scream was both a deconstruction of the era's teen-slasher format and an indictment of its moral callousness and the cynicism it taught dedicated viewers.

The complication was that Scream was also quite funny and quite clever, even as it found ways to emphasize the sickening nature of its kills. And thus its legacy became largely about its knowingness, the smug self-awareness of its characters, especially as a series of, yes, franchise sequels leaned further toward meta-comic cleverness and less on brutality.

How meta did those sequels become? They even included an in-movie horror franchise, dubbed Stab, based on the events of the Scream films, allowing the Scream series to wryly comment on, well, the impact of the Scream series, further mixing and muddling the notions of real life and movie horror. The sequels weren't bad, taken on their own terms, but the Scream films developed into a franchise about watching horror movies rather than one about the true nature of horror.

And that brings us to Scream (2022), which despite its lack of numerical notation is the fifth entry in the franchise, part soft reboot, part long-awaited sequel: As the film explains, it's a "requel."

Yes, I do mean "explains." Once again, this is a movie about teens trapped in a horror movie scenario who can only relate to it as a horror movie scenario. There is a monologue detailing the rules, multiple disquisitions on the state of horror movie fandom, references to Jordan Peele, Hereditary, The Babadook, and "elevated" horror. Characters even ask whether the Stab franchise, which in the movie's universe is eight films in, has run out of ideas. Hardy har.

Are these characters talking about movies they've seen, or the movie you're watching? The answer, of course, is yes. Scream is meta-horror about meta-horror, a reflection on a reflection, a prism in a hall of mirrors, in which the meta-ness has swallowed its own tail, and is somehow coming back for another round now that there's a new generation with a new relationship to big-screen horror.

In what is probably the film's cleverest twist, this time the killers are targeting the offspring of characters who were involved in the original Scream—fitting, given that the target audience probably consists of teenagers born to parents who watched the original. The big twist at the end, meanwhile, is predicated on franchise fandom, and one of the kills pivots on the line, "maybe you're too weak for this franchise."

Like The Matrix Resurrections, the new Scream sometimes feels like a video essay about the legacy of a still-popular 1990s cultural phenomenon, a snarky YouTube commentary projected on the big screen. And as it proceeds, it becomes more of a riff on the way that internet movie discourse has shaped contemporary film fandom, the way online arguments about movies have shaped what movies are and should be. So while Scream is a sequel and reboot and all the rest, it's also something else: a take. And the take mostly seems to be, we're still doing this. Why yes, yes we are.

What the movie doesn't have is an answer why. As with previous entries in the franchise, Scream (2022) works well enough on its own terms, and it might even be the best film since the original. The movie isn't particularly deep, but the script by James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick is often quite clever, and directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett stage the various kills and scares with verve, wit, and precious few cheap jump scares. At a minimum, the film's creators are well aware of what viewers expect from these sorts of movies, and they find a way to deliver on those expectations without coming across as rote or formulaic. But that is precisely the formula the Scream franchise has settled into, becoming exactly the sort of cutesy, knowing, detached experience that the original critiqued. After two and a half decades, watching Scream movies has become its own kind of game.