Since it debuted in 1996, the Scream series has utilized its “slasher movie about slasher movies” gimmick to keep itself fresh, constantly revising its rules and patterns to mirror the evolution of the genre. The format, established by screenwriter Kevin Williamson, practically writes itself — the first Scream riffs on John Carpenter’s Halloween, its imitators, and its ancestors. Scream 2 plays with the expectations around horror sequels, Scream 3 is about trilogies, and Scream 4 is about the horror remakes of its era. 2022’s Scream, the first without Williamson or director Wes Craven, takes the piss out of the current “requel” or “legasequel” trend, in which the original cast passes the torch to a new generation. This puts Scream VI, “a sequel to a requel,” at something of a disadvantage, in that there are no specific low-hanging rules or tropes to subvert. It’s not uncharted territory, it’s simply not as ripe for parody. Without a specific metatextual checklist to work from, Scream VI is forced to function simply as “a franchise movie,” an installment in a series whose only unbreakable rule is that it never ends.
SCREAM VI ★★1/2 (2.5/4 stars)
Scream has always been mired in its own mythology, with each film’s killer inspired by those that came before. But, true to its mission as a modern franchise film, Scream VI’s focus is inward rather than at the wider world of cinema. For the first time in the series, it feels as if exploring the characters is a higher priority than commenting on the state of the genre. For most sequels, this would be an unequivocally positive development, but in the case of Scream, it means this chapter is missing a bit of what makes the series special. It still functions as a bloody, thrilling mystery, but it doesn’t operate on the higher level that Scream fans have come to expect.
Scream VI picks up with the survivors from the previous film attempting to start a new life in New York City, a far cry from the suburban California setting of the rest of the series. Naturally, the legacy of the Ghostface murders has followed them East, and soon they’re on the run for their lives yet again. True to form, Scream VI is a neck-breakingly twisty whodunnit in which absolutely everyone is a suspect and nowhere is safe, a danger that is only intensified by the new setting. Where its suburban siblings play on fear of isolation in big, empty houses, this installment exploits the equal and opposite fear of crowds and tight spaces, which is an excellent fit for a series whose iconic killer is always a mortal in a common store-bought mask. All anyone needs to become Ghostface is to decide to do it, and all they need to get away with it is for everyone around them to keep minding their business, as New Yorkers are wont to do. A sequence set on a packed subway on Halloween night is easily one of the most chilling in franchise history.
The real key to the tension is, of course, the characters, and Scream has never had a more lovable cast for audiences to fret over. The self-styled “core four” of the relaunched series each feels essential, heightening the danger in a film where any of the leads could realistically die. Central protagonist Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera) is haunted by visions of her serial-killer father urging her to become Scream’s new villain. Her younger sister Tara (Jenna Ortega) is her reason for living, but Tara wants her own life, something the audience knows she can never have. It’s through her that we experience the exhaustion of being trapped in the franchise meat grinder. Mindy Meeks-Martin (Jasmin Savoy Brown) is the gang’s resident horror-movie supergenius, but beyond her role of explaining the patterns of the genre to the gang/audience, she’s also effortlessly funny. Her twin brother Chad (Mason Gooding), is simply adorable, a sweet, handsome non-toxic jock who has chemistry with everyone. It’s a testament to how well these performers work together that absent original Scream star Neve Campbell isn’t missed, and that Courteney Cox’s appearances in the film don’t feel that necessary. Like last week’s Creed III, the next installment in this franchise should get by just fine without any of the legacy cast.
The more exciting returning character is Kirby Reed (Hayden Panettiere), who’s back in a surprising new capacity after apparently surviving the events of Scream 4. (If there’s anything Scream teaches us, it’s that people can withstand being stabbed many, many times if they’re popular enough.) Amongst the array of new suspects/potential victims are salt-and-pepper square jaw Dermott Mulroney; star of the directors’ debut feature Ready or Not, Samara Weaving; and Jack Champion, who is unrecognizable without the awful blond dreads he wore as Spider in Avatar 2. A big cast means more fingers to point and gallons of blood to spare. There are plenty of gnarly kills as well as the usual handful of ironically silly ones, though the drawdown in metatextual setup and payoff means that the balance between nasty and funny isn’t as pitch-perfect as in the 1996 or 2022 Screams.
Throttling back on the overt genre commentary also costs Scream VI some of the protection from criticism enjoyed by its predecessors. In the past, Scream’s genre-savvy characters have been positioned to play defense for the movie as it happens. If a twist is too predictable or too contrived, it’s only because “that’s how these movies work.” Scream VI is more occupied studying the effects of the previous film on its characters than on its own shape as a horror sequel, and therefore doesn’t have the benefit of brushing aside its own flaws. For instance, Scream VI’s plot gets wobbly in the third act, a problem so common amongst modern blockbusters that this film could probably have gotten away with it if they’d pointed it out themselves. It’s also possible that Scream VI’s recursiveness and relative aimlessness is a deliberate statement on the nature of franchise filmmaking, where the only point of most installments is to keep the wheels turning, but if so, it’s done without the usual wink towards the camera. Only time and deeper viewing will reveal whether the storytellers are playing a long game or have simply tripped over themselves in the rush to produce a follow-up to a hit, as countless filmmakers have done before them.
Make no mistake, Scream VI is still an exciting and functional thrill ride, but it could be an ill omen that a series designed to adapt to its times may be blending in too well. For the first time, Scream seems at risk of becoming just another horror perennial, one that fans go see because there’s a new installment, not because it has anything new to say.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.