In Review: 'Scream,' 'Belle'
A brand-name horror franchise (sort of) starts over and an animated feature (kind of) offers a 21st century retelling of 'Beauty and the Beast.'
Dir. Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett
There are two ways of looking at Scream, the fourth sequel to the self-referential horror franchise that began in 1996 and seemingly ended in 2011, a few years before series director Wes Craven died, as humans sometimes do. One is that this is close to the best possible version of Scream that could be stitched together out of tattered mythology, a multi-generational cast and audience, and a metafictional house of mirrors that’s reflected back on itself like a glittering ‘70s discotheque. The other is that Scream, like so many other sequels or reboots or “requels,” to use the film’s terminology, has thoroughly exhausted itself. It’s become yet another body that a zombified industry has bitten in the neck, and now it’s roaming the earth. And many of us will not know the difference because we’ve been trained to forget what a flesh-and-blood being actually looks like.
This is a rant that applies to so many other, much less skillfully made and entertaining movies than nü-Scream, but then, here’s a franchise that has thrived on meta-commentary, and now it’s opened up discussion on the sins of contemporary Hollywood. The film itself allows few moments to pass without its own commentary, starting with a title that may seem confusing for those who assume they’re seeing a reboot but are actually seeing a sequel that’s too embarrassed to be one. Hence the film’s nonsense term “requel,” and the myriad other ingenious ways the team of screenwriters James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, along with Ready or Not directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, frame reheated seconds as a haute cuisine.
The opening of Scream is the opening of Scream. Teenage girl left alone in the house. Phone call from chatty psychopath, who wants to play a game of horror movie trivia with someone else’s life on the line. Stabby-stabby. The alterations here are mostly clever updates to 2021: The interplay between smart phones and landlines, discussion about “elevated horror” films like The Babadook, the shared knowledge of long-ago Scream-like sequels (called Stab in the movies-within-the-movies) that skipped a generation of high-schoolers, unless their parents let them watch when they were 10. When it’s time for the violence, Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett honor the original with a visceral bludgeoning that would make Craven proud. The only small wrinkle… [mild spoilers ahead]
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… is that the victim doesn’t die from her Julius Caesar-like array of stab wounds. The young, homage-surnamed survivor is Tara Carpenter (Jenny Ortega), a resident of Woodsboro, the cursed town that’s been plagued by various iterations of the Ghostface killer over the years. (The series keeps trying to give Woodsboro the same weight at Haddonfield, Illinois, but it hasn’t stuck.) News of the attack brings Tara’s older sister Samantha (Melissa Barrera) back to town after she left suddenly and inexplicably five years earlier. The reason for her disappearance makes her a suspect, along with her boyfriend Richie (Jack Quaid), who tags along, not to mention her entire friend group from school, with its expected assortment of jocks, punks, queers, smart-alecks, and party animals. Place your bets on whodunit.
Don’t place them yet, however, because maybe some franchise favorites have broken bad over the years. As news of another Ghostface circulates, the semi-retired deputy Dewey Riley (David Arquette) emerges from his double-wide like a hungover groundhog, and the two stars of the series, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) and Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), leave the big city to return to the scene of their many past traumas. They are like Jamie Lee Curtis in the revamped Halloween films, Final Girls who can never retire from the job. Sidney and Gale do share a wry sense of humor about it, at least.
Like many better-than-average renditions of exhausted franchises, the main takeaway from Scream is the wish that its directors were making an original film, rather than recycling an old one to the best of their considerable abilities. What many forget about Craven’s Scream is that the meta elements were part of its subversive theme, a bleakly satirical effort to contrast the gruesome horror visited on Sidney with the utter detachment of her peers, who process actual death as they would deaths on screen. Craven lost track of the theme as his own sequels spun out, and this Scream doesn’t find it, either, as it busies itself with reshuffling the deck for Generation Z. There may be more than one way to skin a cat, but the number is well under five. — Scott Tobias
Scream opens in theaters everywhere Friday. It premieres on Paramount+ 45 days later.
Dir. Mamoru Hosoda
You can be anyone you want online in the seconds-in-the-future world of Belle, the latest animated feature from Mirai director Mamoru Hosoda. The wildly popular metaverse of U markets itself as a place of reinvention with ads that read, “You can’t start over in reality, but you can start over in U.” Except not really. U is an online world in which users’ avatars are tied to their biometric readings, leading to a fusing of identities tighter than the creators of Roblox ever dreamed of creating. But, as seventeen-year-old Suzu (voiced by Kaho Nakamura in the Japanese language version of the film and Kylie McNeill in the English dub) discovers, even the most seemingly radical digital makeover remains tethered to the flesh-and-blood world. Online, she’s Bell, a celebrated singing sensation whose hits pulsate throughout the metropolis at the heart of U. IRL, she’s a shy, provincial high schooler still mourning the loss of her mother.
There’s a simple, chiding film about the value of the tangible world that could be made from this set-up, but Hosoda doesn’t have any interest in making it. Belle gently renders the beauty of Suzu’s rural surroundings and affectionately depicts the awkwardness of teen life (particularly in expertly timed reaction shots to embarrassing moments). But it also captures the appeal of online life, a world of explosive colors and wild characters that has a beauty of its own, even if it is filled with residents prone to make snap judgments as their interest drifts from one shiny attention-grabber to the next. (It’s as savvy and often as funny a depiction of online life as Ralph Breaks the Internet.)
Instead, Belle is more concerned with the way Suzu’s existence bridges both worlds, and how she remains, on some fundamental level, the same person in each (and a better person for recognizing this). This plays out via a story inspired, as the name suggests, by the tale of Beauty and the Beast, following Suzu/Bell as she seeks to understand a U resident known only as Dragon (Takeru Satoh/Paul Castro Jr.), a tortured, disruptive presence who lives in a castle in the ruins at U’s edge. They’re drawn to each other, but pushed apart by Dragon’s anger and distrust and by Justin (Toshiyuki Morikawa/Chace Crawford), a self-appointed enforcer of right and wrong within U.
Belle uses the vast world of U to tell what’s ultimately an intimate coming-of-age story, one in which Suzu’s search for Dragon’s true identity requires her to figure out her own, within U and especially within the real world, with its unwanted crushes, awkward emotions, and lingering pains. Borrowing plot elements from the story of Beauty and the Beast is just one way it acknowledges that the world changes even as wants and needs and the stories that express them evolve don’t, however profoundly technology might disrupt our lives and offer ways out that aren’t really escapes at all. —Keith Phipps