Neve Campbell and Courteney Cox return for a belated victory lap that’s thrilled with its own meta-ness while only sometimes being scary.

In today's Scream, all the doors lock shut with a reassuring thunk via smartphone app. That pesky landline ringing off the hook — who even has those anymore? — is ignored. And when it finally does get answered, and a menacing voice oozes out (26-year franchise vet Roger Jackson, in fine form) with a signature question, "What's your favorite scary movie?" the answer he receives is more brutal than any blade, serrated or otherwise: "The Babadook," snaps high-school kid Tara (Jenna Ortega), a fan of smarter "elevated horror" films like Hereditary and It Follows, certainly not the "cheeseball" stuff in which "everybody had weird hair."

Scream is long past over, its mid-'90s post–Pulp Fiction moment burning hot and brief. These days it gives off nostalgic warmth, not fear. Insolent Tara does get paid a visit by the iconic Ghostface (a stabby, hard-R attack that oversells the viciousness), and maybe that's this franchise's revenge on the better movies that have arrived in its wake. Yet as its exhausted non-title would suggest, 2022's intermittently fun and dull Scream has a game plan firmly, doggedly in place. It's very much your father's Scream. You're not going to be scared by it, but you may like being swaddled in something as cozily familiar as Freddy Krueger's sweater.

Going in, you expect a young, expendable group of future corpses, and co-directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett (part of the scrappy horror collective Radio Silence behind Ready or Not and V/H/S) have sharp casting instincts, throwing off our urge to pick the killer ahead of time. Tara survives her attack, bringing home to fictional Woodsboro her protective older sister Sam (In the Heights' Melissa Barrera) and her doting, good-guy boyfriend Richie (Jack Quaid, a ringer for his dad, Dennis). Other Gen-Z types assemble on couches and at house parties, fodder for the concept.

You're not coming for them, though. Scream trots out its legacy cast with the flourish of a magician pulling off a well-practiced trick. Who's that confident mom and self-help author walking in the park and looking over her shoulder? Why, it's Neve Campbell, returning as final girl Sidney Prescott. And that big-shot journalist stepping out of a car at a crime scene? Tilt-up and it's none other than Courteney Cox's Gale Weathers. Eventually, they'll become an efficient tag team and killing machine themselves — nothing fazes them, several sequels in. 

Sometimes, the age has helped: David Arquette, thicker and salt-and-pepper-bearded, still possesses a charming stiff-necked awkwardness as ex-sheriff Dewey, fallen on hard times. Now he even has a survivor's grandeur. (Less so another returning character who shall remain unspoiled for now, who doesn't seem to have changed his acting methods — or his t-shirt — since 1996.) When Jamie Lee Curtis committed to David Gordon Green's unusually smart 2018 reboot of Halloween, her bitter, haunted grandma with a penchant for weaponry made sense.

Here, the older actors don't have a rationale other than: Do it again. Scream 4, the last installment from 2011, took a stab at internet celebrity and Kardashian-era emptiness; you admired its overreach even if things didn't quite gel. Working from a screenplay co-written by Zodiac's James Vanderbilt, this new and presumably final chapter takes shots at everything from toxic fandom to Rian Johnson and Snyder-cut obsessives demanding their own endings. Once again, those attempts at timeliness don't feel coherent so much as thesis-ready and opportunistic.

Ultimately — and to its unimpeachable credit — the first Scream was, at root, a solid piece of craft, director Wes Craven's third horror classic after 1972's The Last House on the Left and the Reagan-era essential A Nightmare on Elm Street. (Let's throw in The Hills Have Eyes, too.) While the new movie is laced with Easter eggs and homages to the late master, it doesn't build its sequences with the same meat-and-potatoes solidity as Craven did. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett don't have those chops yet. Go ahead and poke fun at elevated horror, but until you attain that level of technical command and depth, you're just bringing a very large knife to a gunfight. B-

Pick up a copy of Entertainment Weekly's Ultimate Guide to Screamavailable online or wherever magazines are sold.

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