I’ve got to hand it to the Scream series for making me want to continue to champion and critique it based on actual merit and not just how well it satisfies in the realm of slasher flicks. Scream VI is drafting off the success of the better-than-expected fifth entry, titled ‘Scream’ as a meta-joke, and arriving just over a year later. The last time there was that quick a turnaround in this series, the result was 1997’s Scream 2, my preferred entry in this franchise and one of the late Wes Craven’s best directorial efforts. The Radio Silence team (directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett) have returned for this sixth film, though I can’t quite say Scream VI matches up to the franchise’s high point. However, even with a weak third act, there’s a lot of fun to be had, some very tense Ghostface chases and action, and a whole lot of gore to paint the streets of New York City red.
Sticking with real-time, this film is set just over a year after the previous film’s events. The survivors of that story, Sisters Sam and Tara Carpenter (Melissa Barrera and Jenna Ortega) and twins Mindy and Chad Meeks-Martin (Jasmin Savoy Brown and Mason Gooding), have left Woodsboro behind and now call New York City home. Of course, their new arrangement hasn’t stopped a threat from showing its (ghost)face, as this core four and their friends are now plagued by a new streak of murders.
The plot is nothing new at this point, which doesn’t make a difference, as these Scream films rely on what’s built around them in terms of the characters and the meta-narrative simultaneously taking place and ideally deconstructing what’s occurring as it goes. Writers James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick have their work cut out for them, given all the elements they’ve chosen to work with. It almost makes it worth it for the film to famously not have Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott involved due to salary disputes. Sure, there’s still room for Courtney Cox’s Gale Weathers, but part of what worked about 2022’s Scream was choosing to hold the legacy cast members at arm’s length, making room for this new crew.
As a result, a highlight of Scream VI is watching the sisters and the twins further delve into their characters and explore the chemistry between them. Barrera continues to shine as what is ostensibly the new series lead, making more out of her past trauma. This is especially important given what was surely a divisive reveal about Sam’s origins in the previous film. Meanwhile, holding up the comedic end, Brown gets to engage in many fun sequences that pull in her character’s way of matching up her and her friends’ lives to that of the potential victims and killers in the very movies that provide an understanding of their current situation.
Comedy, in general, has always been in the DNA of the Scream series. While the overreliance on humor hurt the film’s weakest entry (2000’s Scream 3), it’s used to good effect here. No one is overly funny, and as a way to break the tension, having this young cast bounce some clever lines off one another is a reliable way of keeping the audience involved without forgetting the stakes of what is happening around them. The addition of metacommentary is also important to how the in-jokes come into play. Without going too far into the story that unfolds, there’s undoubtedly a reverence for the previous films that induce a few smiles.
Scream VI is a horror movie though, so a considerable curiosity comes from how to make the unknown Ghostface scary once again. Changing up the setting is a good start. An urban environment, let alone New York, feels like an unknown in a lot of ways. Yes, many horror films are set in the big city, but seeing Ghostface take Manhattan is an interesting step that feels delivered on (even if they did film in Montreal). While there’s still an effort to contain the action to specific locations, several inspired horror set pieces take place in notable areas of a city, such as a subway, alleys, cramped apartments, and, best of all – a bodega. New York may not feel like a character in the film, but settling on this kind of setting still works.
Additionally, there’s a clear decision to ramp up the violence and intensity. I appreciated the noted level of brutality on display, as it allows for a lingering feeling that no one is safe. While the figure of Ghostface is purposefully vague to preserve their identity for the final act, small choices, such as the weathered mask and how they choose to stalk their prey, makes a difference when attempting to appreciate what this sort of villainy has to offer in a series that risks repeating itself a lot. The sense of danger is clear, as is the intriguing sense of mystery, such as the film’s cold open that serves as one of the better attempts at subversion for this series.
Sadly, looking at the story as a whole shows where the stumbling blocks lie. While the scare-based scenes are tense and exciting, this still feels like one of the more predictable entries. Even the way Scream VI wants to ensnare these characters in the parameters of a horror film feels more like a perfunctory step rather than something super clever (despite the fun coming from the character’s discussion of the rules and whatnot). With all that in mind, the issues are most egregious in the third act once everything is laid out. It wouldn’t be appropriate to explain why but while I enjoyed some of the actions taking place in this film’s finale, I can’t say I was entirely on board with certain explanations and monologues, given the standards I feel appropriate to hold for this franchise.
Not helping matters is having somewhat of a mixed bag when it comes to the supporting performers. Hayden Panettiere returns as fan-favorite Kirby Reed, a survivor of the events of 2011’s Scream 4. However, compared to the energy found in that film’s performance, whether or not it just comes down to the writing, Kirby doesn’t exactly shine here. Similar things could be said about Dermot Mulroney’s detective, who seems bent on playing “generic cop character.” Even Cox appears a bit out of step, absent the other legacy characters around her (RIP Dewey).
Still, the younger cast does most of the heavy lifting, and there is a genuine likability to be found throughout this feature. As stated, the Scream series has done a fine job of feeling as though it exists in a larger realm of horror, as opposed to cheap cash-ins (that still often feature great use of innovation from young, hungry filmmakers). Given that sort of prestige, it does mean that less-than-stellar elements stand out more. So, while I wish the ending was stronger, I can’t deny the thrill of watching a number of great chase scenes or enjoying the new ways Ghostface can engage with their potential victims thanks to what Roger L. Jackson brings to that now-classic phone voice. Sure, trouble can be found in New York, but it’s still better than having all these characters stuck on a cruise ship.
Scream VI opens in theaters on March 10, 2023.