In 1996, a horror film shot in Marin and Sonoma County by master director Wes Craven changed the rules of the genre by going meta.
The now-iconic Scream ushered in a new era of self-aware slashers and played with the conventions of movies in a fun and gory manner. Since that first tongue-in-cheek bloodbath, the Scream franchise has kept audiences guessing who the killer is behind the Ghostface mask with sequels that explain the rules of surviving horror movies and, sometimes, break them.
So, how does a critic review a movie when the movie knows that the audience knows that the movie knows that the audience knows that the movie knows it’s a movie?
With the latest chapter of the series—the so-called “re-quel” simply titled Scream—in theaters now, critics are—or are not—enjoying a new round of meta-chills. And, much like the rules of horror, there are rules to reviewing a horror movie.
Rule No. 1: No Spoilers! This is a longtime reviewer rule that became an unwritten rule of society once Netflix began dropping entire seasons of shows at once. Additionally, the Scream franchise differs from most slashers in the fact that Ghostface is a different person—or people—each time. Knowing who the killer is going into the movie really changes the experience, and not for the better. So, while it’s tempting to tip one’s hat to the ending, it’s essential not to spoil the fun.
Rule No. 2: Praise the original and bash the sequels. There’s a trend among horror movie reviewers to recognize a great original movie while bemoaning almost all the sequels that come after. The Scream films mostly follow that trend, except for Scream 2, which is now recognized as an excellent follow-up. With a 77% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the new Scream is actually the best-reviewed part-five horror movie out of the major franchises, though critics like Peter Bradshaw, of the Guardian, and Christy Lemire, of FilmWeek, almost seem surprised they liked it—because that’s against the rules.
Rule No. 3: Make it personal. Horror movies are always personal for the viewer, and the things that scare us differ as much as our individual experiences. Good critics know this, and let the reader decide for themselves, such as when Rolling Stone film-critic David Fear and Us Weekly critic Mara Reinstein refer to the audience as “You,” and ask, “Do you like scary movies?” If you do, you’ll like the new Scream, in theaters now.