By Michael O'Sullivan
The "Scream" franchise began in 1996 as a piece of brilliant meta-horror: a slasher movie, directed by Wes Craven and written by Kevin Williamson, that cleverly critiqued the conventions of the genre in a way that was genuinely scary, genuinely funny and, most important, fun.
The idea of a masked serial killer who uses the arch insights of a slasher-movie fan to torment his victims, also slasher-movie fans, before killing them was slyly, pleasurably circular.
But by the time "Scream 4" rolled around - the last instalment by its original collaborators before Craven's 2015 death - the filmmakers didn't seem to care if we were laughing with their wit or at their laziness, as I wrote of the 2011 sequel.
Now, with the latest chapter (called simply "Scream" again, but with the centre of the title M rendered as a styled Roman numeral V), the movie doesn't seem to care whether it earns a third category of reaction: the hate-laugh.
At a recent preview screening of the new instalment - co-directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, from a screenplay by James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, in a way that is so insufferably self-conscious that watching it feels like it's watching you back, waiting for your reaction - one audience member signalled his displeasure at the heavy-handedness of its humour by loudly stating, not laughing, "Ha. Ha."
The film centres on a bunch of teenagers in the franchise's fictional town of Woodsboro, one of whom, Tara (Jenna Ortega), is attacked in the opening scene by an apparent copycat killer.
Wearing the franchise's iconic "Ghostface" mask and the hooded, black robe of the Grim Reaper, he (or perhaps she, using voice-altering technology) torments Tara over the phone with a trivia quiz about the "Stab" films, a fictional franchise that is said to be based on the killings depicted in the Scream universe. (Clips of the "Stab" canon, whose eighth instalment utilises a stylised numeral 8 instead of the letter B, appear throughout the new "Scream," along with jokes about the fake franchise's "sloppy, lazy filmmaking." Insert eye-roll emoji here.)
Tara is not a fan of slasher movies, preferring what she calls the elevated horror of "The Babadook," "It Follows," "The Witch" and "Hereditary." Clever girl.
But her assailant is not impressed by her taste, ultimately going after her like a piece of Wagyu beef. (Every kitchen in Woodsboro seems to have a ridiculously well-equipped knife block out of Williams-Sonoma, offering an arsenal of chef's blades, suitable for mealtime or murder.)
Lather, rinse, repeat.
More people get filleted and gutted, as the Gen-Z cast comments, with a sense of increasingly annoying ironic detachment, on the survival "rules" of horror films that they then proceed to violate (including "Never say, 'I'll be right back,' " before wandering off to their own deaths).
Eventually, the stars of the earlier "Scream" films - Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox and David Arquette, playing characters referred to by this film's zoomers as the "legacy cast" - also show up and join forces with Tara, Tara's older sister Sam (Melissa Barrera) and Sam's boyfriend (Jack Quaid) to identify the perpetrator of the present mayhem.
But try as it might - and oh how it tries, mightily - to be a "meta-slasher whodunit," as one of the high school crews puts it, this "Scream" feels less like a movie than a podcast about a movie, one hosted by a claque of irritating, smarty-pants commentators who don't know when to shut up.
There is such a thing as toxic fandom, to borrow the term used by one of this movie's young protagonists, and "Scream," which is filled with endless conversation about the difference between a sequel and a "requel" and more rules than a penitentiary, suffers from it, fatally.
To quote Tara, I still prefer "The Babadook."