There’s a difference between satirizing horror movie cliches and succumbing to the same cliches, and Wes Craven‘s ability to balance serious scares, dark humor, and meta-commentary on a knife’s edge was once central to the appeal of his long-running Scream franchise. But times have changed, and not even this most playfully subversive of series is immune to a straightforward case of franchise fatigue.
Last year’s Scream “requel” from directors Tyler Gillett and Matt Bettinelli-Olpin was the fifth entry in the franchise but the first made without Craven at the helm, and his absence loomed large over the finished film. While its efforts to skewer toxic fandom and the derivative nature of “legacy sequels” were topical in nature, nu-Scream lacked Craven’s ruthless audacity as a filmmaker, settling for softball one-liners about “elevated horror” instead of carving up its targets with any of the viciously self-reflexive glee they demanded. Cleverness has always been the franchise’s calling card, but this Scream was too convoluted and self-involved to provide genuine insights into the horror landscape it sought to comment on.
Gone as well were the dynamic personalities at play within the franchise’s cast of characters. Though Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), and Dewey Riley (David Arquette) were all lured back to Woodsboro for a fresh round of bloodletting alongside Gen-Z protagonists Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera) and sister Tara (Jenna Ortega), Scream‘s script (by James Vanderbilt and Ready or Not scribe Guy Busick) utilized few of them fully and saddled most with so many self-referential callbacks and tedious genre movie title-drops that the characters came off as smug mouthpieces rather than flesh-and-blood characters.
Last year’s Scream was peculiar and unimaginative, leaning heavily on audience nostalgia for its leads without artistically justifying their return to the fold, expending too much of its length on those franchise veterans to make its new blood even half as compelling. For once, the franchise’s writing wasn’t sharp enough to sustain its winking, self-aware tone. More cash-grab than self-critique, it fell into many of the same franchise pitfalls it set out to satirize, to enervating effect.
Set a year after the events of the previous film, Scream VI (again directed by Gillett and Bettinelli-Olpin, from a script by Vanderbilt and Busick) shifts the setting from suburban Woodsboro to New York City but otherwise serves up more of the same wearying, second-rate snark. It’s a direct sequel to nu-Scream, and perhaps the first entry in the franchise to function purely as a follow-up, bringing virtually no fresh ideas to the table and instead furthering the flimsy narrative set in motion last time around.
Having survived the fifth Scream, Sam and Tara have decamped for college in New York alongside horror-literate twins Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and Chad (Mason Gooding). All bring with them the weight of family history, which is to say they’re franchise-familiar; Sam is the illegitimate daughter of the first film’s killer, Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich), while Mindy and Chad are descended from Jamie Kennedy‘s fan-favorite film nerd, Randy Meeks.
Though this is a franchise known for its prologues, Scream VI miscalculates its opening sequence almost instantly, wasting Ready or Not star Samara Weaving in the role of a timid and apologetic cinema studies professor who specializes in slasher movies but is nevertheless lured into an alleyway and savagely killed. Later scenes, such as a much-touted showdown in a bodega with a shotgun-wielding Ghostface and a nicely paranoid sequence set underground on a subway train make better use of the New York setting, but there’s a dismayingly formulaic bent to this sequel’s penchant for isolating its characters and picking them off one by one, even with such a sprawling inner-city canvas in play.
Despite the villain’s new hunting grounds, it’s the same old Ghostface. And though Scream VI dutifully shows its cards with references to horror sequels like Jason Takes Manhattan, one longs for a version of this film that might have cannily exploited the potential of its five-boroughs setting, instead of settling for close-quarters stalk-and-slash parlor games. (That the sequel was shot in Vancouver, a highly unconvincing stand-in for the Big Apple despite all the yellow cabs called in for the production, does not help.)
Following a salary dispute, Campbell sat this installment out, and she seems to have dodged a bullet as well as a blade, though Cox was evidently happy enough to reprise her role. Early on, Gale addresses Sidney’s absence by telling Sam and Tara that she “deserves to have her happy ending,” a line that drew more than a few derisive reactions at my screening. Back as well is Kirby Reed (Hayden Panettiere), last seen bleeding out at the end of Scream 4 but here reintroduced as a hardened FBI agent who’s made investigating Ghostface attacks a priority.
That Panettiere and Cox are both back for Scream VI isn’t surprising, given the fifth installment’s focus on planting in-jokes and Easter eggs for franchise die-hards, though neither feels essential to the story being told. Their returns, along with the renewed focus on the so-called “core four,” make this installment feel like Scream‘s least dangerous entry to date. Despite an early assertion that this new Ghostface killer is playing by “franchise rules,” meaning even legacy characters could be on the chopping block, this idea turns out to be lip service, and characters who wind up resembling bloody pincushions are prone to walking off all Ghostface’s slicing and dicing as if they’ve suffered paper cuts rather than stab wounds.
Investing more in the relationships between its new characters than last time around, Scream VI sets up some intermittently compelling tension between Sam and Tara, the latter yearning to pull away from her overprotective sister’s controlling influence, and a sweet spark of romance between Tara and Chad. Given more to do this time around, Ortega is such a naturally charismatic screen presence that one can only guess why the filmmakers continue to build out the franchise around the comparatively tedious Barrera. Both endearing comic presences, Gooding and Savoy Brown also deserve better than the groan-inducing IMDb trivia that Vanderbilt and Busick supply them with; when Mindy winces “I hate franchises,” it’s only slightly less obnoxious than her testing other characters’ horror bona fides by gauging their preferences for other franchise’s originals, requels, or sequels.
More episodic continuation than escalation of last year’s Scream, this sixth installment stages its finale inside an abandoned movie theater tricked out with memorabilia from the previous films, to serve as a museum-scaled Scream tribute. As these young characters ogle Ghostface masks worn by psychopaths of yore, geeking out over artifacts that played minor roles in slasher movies from over 20 years ago, it’s hard not to feel defeated by Scream‘s self-insistence. For a franchise once so quick-witted and fast on its feet to be glutted with its own mythology and leaden with witless dialogue is the kind of fate that Craven might have reserved for interminable later installments of his films’ in-universe Stab series, but Scream VI is too cliche-riddled and irony-poisoned to avoid collapsing into exactly the sort of artificial extension Craven would have slashed to ribbons.
Scream VI is now playing in theaters nationwide courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Spyglass Media Group.