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‘Scream’ and the New Wave of Self-Hating Sequels

If major studios are only going to make IP-driven movies, we might have a mutiny on our hands

Getty Images/Paramount Pictures/Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

Everything old is new again, and one generation’s Scream is another generation’s … Scream. When it was announced that a fifth movie in the horror franchise was in the works, the expectation was that the film would simply be called Scream 5—or, in the best possible timeline, 5cream—but in June, codirector Tyler Gillett revealed that the latest release would share the same title as the original. The choice seemed like an unnecessary headache for multiple reasons: Not only because of the confusion it was obviously welcoming, but because it was trespassing on the hallowed grounds of Wes Craven, the late mastermind behind the iconic horror franchise. But to the 2022 Scream’s credit, repurposing the title was a decision made with the franchise’s meta sensibilities in mind.

As savvy newcomer Mindy (played by Jasmin Savoy Brown) lays out once the bodies begin piling up in Woodsboro again, the characters are caught in the middle of what she coins a “requel.” A requel intends to be both a sequel and a reboot: a way for a franchise to inject new life into itself while also relying on the cachet of the past, combining legacy characters with some fresh—and in Scream’s case, often literal—blood. (See also: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, or the 2018 Halloween sequel also called, uh, Halloween.) Adding to the self-referential nature of the endeavor is the fact that Mindy is the niece of Randy Meeks, Scream’s original “video store guy” who laid out the rules for surviving a slasher movie.

It’s ultimately revealed that the latest Ghostface killers are motivated by Stab, the franchise-within-the-franchise that has apparently gone off the rails with every underwhelming sequel. Disappointed by the latest Stab installment that features Ghostface in a gold-plated mask wielding a flamethrower, these new maniacs hope to reverse-engineer a new entry that lives up to their expectations by devising their own murder spree that can later be adapted into a movie. It’s a cheeky bit of a meta-commentary that not only underlines the pitfalls of letting creative decisions be dictated by toxic fandoms—Rian Johnson and the backlash he created is unsurprisingly invoked in Scream—but the enduring struggle for franchises to stay relevant under the constant demand for more sequels. (In Scream 4, there’s an offhand mention that Stab 5 includes a story line about time, though, fortunately, the same can’t be said for the fifth Scream.)

Like The Matrix Resurrections, the new Scream openly questions the conditions responsible for its very existence: a winking sequel in active rebellion against itself. As returning heroine Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) says at one point, both in defiance of the newest killers and as a backhanded compliment to the latest installment: “I’ve seen this movie before.”

While the meta machinations are intrinsic to the Scream franchise’s DNA, the requel craze has become endemic to Hollywood. It’s not exactly breaking news that major studios are leaning more and more on sequels, reboots, and remakes in lieu of original ideas. Last year, Free Guy director Shawn Levy lamented that his project is part of a dying breed. He’s not wrong: In 2021, his film was the only movie in the top 10 in box office totals not based on preexisting IP—and even Free Guy uses iconography from Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe under the pretext of (ugh) corporate synergy between 20th Century Studios and Disney. These constraints mean that most filmmakers—basically anyone not named Christopher Nolan or Jordan Peele, another director invoked in Scream—have little choice but to work within a studio’s collection of properties. And if they don’t want to, well, too bad. The Matrix Resurrections went so far as to say the quiet part out loud: Warner Bros. was willing to resurrect the franchise with or without the Wachowskis, so Lana Wachowski went along for the ride while giving an extended middle finger to the studio for forcing her hand.

But in contrast to The Matrix Resurrections, the new Scream appears to view these franchise limitations as a challenge to embrace. Even as the film skewers toxic fan culture, there’s a palpable sense that directors Gillet and Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, along with screenwriters James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, are thrilled about playing in Craven’s sandbox—while at the same time trying desperately not to screw things up. Ironically, for a movie whose script has an antagonistic relationship with sequel-hungry, parasocial fans, the new Scream clearly wants both to earn their stamp of approval and to do right by Craven’s immeasurable legacy. To that end, the movie features a character named Wes (Dylan Minnette), which leads to an indelible moment when someone sends a text that reads, “Is Wes still bugging you?”

Scream and The Matrix Resurrections take different paths to channel the feeling of requel anxiety, but it’s hard to imagine that these will be the last franchise installments to openly bristle at the notion of giving fans more of what they want. Perhaps the best and most prescient expression of franchise fatigue was the 22 Jump Street post-credits sequence imagining countless sequels with increasingly diminishing—and desperate—returns. (That movie came out in 2014, before many requels had reared their heads in Hollywood.)

An existential crisis within Hollywood is beginning to play out on the big screen. If major studios keep demanding to return to the same pieces of IP—and based on the box office returns of Spider-Man: No Way Home, a requel itself, there’s no reason for them not to—then there will be less and less room for original projects, which Scream and The Matrix once were in the ’90s. But not only that—as more and more requels are released, it’ll be harder and harder to produce versions with original-feeling slants, which could lead to even more of the kind of overt insurrection of Resurrections and Scream.

Rebellious sequels like Scream might not be able to change the increasingly myopic direction of Hollywood. They’re trying to make the most of the situation, and deride an industry that’s lost some of the magic that was once at its core. As major studios cling to sequels, reboots, and remakes, filmmakers will continue to rage against the IP-dominated machine—even as they’re participating in it. In a move that Ghostface would appreciate, the call is coming from inside the house.