Scream VI (2023)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2023-03-15 21:28

Written by: James Vanderbilt & Guy Busick (screenplay), Kevin Williamson (characters)
Directed by: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett
Starring: Melissa Barrera, Jenna Ortega, Jasmin Savoy Brown, and Mason Gooding

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

"Who gives a fuck about movies?”

Note: vague spoilers follow! I don't explicitly reveal the killer's identity or certain other plot developments, but it's still probably best to read this after seeing the movie.

A self-aware slasher franchise was bound to have an existential crisis sooner or later. As last year’s “requel” revealed, Scream itself is now a part of the very canon and tradition it once upended, so it was only natural that it would finally have its knives out for itself. A decade-long hiatus also gave it further purpose by allowing it to also update its metafictional musings for a new generation’s trends. It made for the most coherent and satisfying entry since the first sequel because it answered the bell and then some: not only did Scream prove it still had plenty to say, but the incoming creative team produced a worthy successor to Wes Craven’s slick, suspenseful, and sharp slasher tributes.

One year later, Scream has to do it all over again, which isn’t surprising given both the history of the franchise and slasher films in general. Success breeds further exploitation in the form of sequels that are tasked with delivering more of the same; however, by positioning itself as the genre’s Greek Chorus of sorts, Scream can’t just churn out another sequel, can it? It’s the paradox of being the smart kid: the expectations are always going to be a little bit higher for you, whether it’s fair or not. With its sixth entry, however, Scream feels like it wants to just let loose and have a little fun. Sure, it has its moments of impish cleverness with the formula, but it’s not nearly as introspective this time out, giving us the first entry that feels like a conventional—but still very fun—slasher sequel. For better and for worse, Scream VI is what it looks like when this franchise just wants to play the hits, an approach that winds up being sneakily interesting when you consider the doldrums that have historically settled in when franchises run this long.

The signature opening sequence—the surprising innovation that has now become hallowed tradition—proves that Scream still has a spring in its step. This time out, our newest Ghostface isn’t terrorizing a hapless teenager whose tenuous knowledge of horror movies can’t save her; instead, the target is Laura Crane (Samara Weaving), a university professor who specializes in the slasher genre. When she receives a call at the bar of a swanky restaurant, she assumes it’s her date, who claims to be lost on the streets of the big city before he starts grilling her about her job. The usual Ghostface schtick doesn’t seem to work on her, as she’s quick to respond with academic jargon clearly inspired by Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws. Sure enough, though, her expertise can’t save her from a very slasher movie fate when she’s lured out into the alley and butchered, reinforcing one of the franchise’s running theme: knowledge can’t always save you, and this time, they’ve even knocked off the horror movie expert in the opening sequence, continuing this creative team's dialogue with the horror crowd.

And just when long-time fans are set to settle in, content that they’ve seen yet another rendition of the franchise formula, more surprises follow. Let’s just say that our newly introduced Ghostface quickly finds themselves on the wrong end of a phone call that turns into a demented game of “hot and cold” as they tiptoe around their apartment to find the location of their own tormenter. Within these opening ten minutes, Scream VI seems to spill the stuff usually reserved for the climax—most notably the killer’s identity and motive—only to pull the rug from beneath the audience when another Ghostface appears and slaughters the first one in what winds up being the most thrilling opening sequence in a Scream film since part 2.

Things settle into familiarity from here, though, when we learn that the latest Ghostface killer has tracked Sam and Tara Carpenter (Melissa Barrera & Jenna Ortega) to New York City, where the latter has enrolled at Blackmore University in an effort to move on from the previous year’s Woodsboro Massacre. Sam, on the other hand, has been struggling to do the same: after being estranged from her sister for years, she’s now become an overprotective helicopter sibling, ready to employ her quick taser trigger finger on any guy who dares to enter Tara’s life. She also hasn’t been afforded the Sidney Prescott survivor girl narrative: now that the world knows she’s Billy Loomis’s daughter, online mobs have spread a conspiracy theory blaming her for the massacre, something the newest Ghostface seems determined to prove before they butcher her and all of her friends on Halloween.

You can see some clever wrinkles trying to push their way to the surface throughout Scream VI: there’s that tantalizing, topsy-turvy opening, Sam’s unconventional survivor girl narrative, and, of course, the Big Apple itself, once again reimagined as a land of steel concrete, trapped by dark waters (yes, there’s a Jason Takes Manhattan reference in the film too). And while these all give Scream VI just enough of a distinct flavor, they’re mostly embellishments rather than genuinely clever subversion, making it hard to shake the feeling that this is just more Scream—only slightly different. It’s the same genre cocktail you’ve enjoyed before, but you’ve altered the ingredients.

To be fair, the franchise’s signature genre commentary basically admits this. During the requisite recitation of the rules, returning horror expert Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) insists the characters are now trapped in a franchise, a concept that doesn’t ring quite as true or vital as the previous film’s requel premise, mostly because Scream has been a franchise for over 20 years now. According to these particular rules, anything goes: everyone—legacy characters (Gale Weathers is back alongside Scream 4 survivor Kirby Reed) and newcomers alike—are disposable, and all of them are suspects, essentially retracing the steps of Scream 2 (something the characters are quick to note—just as the original Woodsboro Massacre was followed by a campus slaughter, the “requel” continuity is following suit). And that’s pretty much the extent of the genre musings this time around, which would be fine if the film itself really leaned into it.

It seems to me that this is exactly what Scream should be acknowledging six movies in: slasher franchises do tend to get away from themselves, taking audiences to places they never could have imagined when they first began. Admittedly, there’s a hint of that here, and this entry requires the most suspension of disbelief since part 3’s absurd Hollywood detour, but it undercuts its “anything goes” mantra with an abundance of implausible survivals. I get it—Scream has pulled this trick in the past, and it’s the rare slasher franchise defined by its recurring protagonists, but this outing abuses the notion by staging four fake-outs. Maybe all of this falls under the umbrella of “anything goes” and marks a clever inversion of the indestructible killer trope of most franchises. I could hear that argument—I just wish Scream VI made a stronger, more coherent case itself. Where the previous film cleverly weaved its commentary into the killer’s motivations to interrogate the franchise’s place in the current genre landscape, the rules here feel more like flimsy hand-waving, maybe even an unwitting admission that, sometimes, even the most interesting and heady franchises, don’t really have anywhere to go.

Again, that would be all very well and good if the film consistently explored that notion with the latest killer’s motivations. Our new Ghostface occasionally references nostalgia as a possible motive, like when he inevitably targets Gale, drawing attention to the obligatory nature of certain elements of the formula. Scream VI feels like it’s so close to picking up its predecessor’s thread about toxic nostalgia and fan expectations but ultimately falls short of saying anything particularly insightful about horror franchises.

Maybe it’s because this franchise has become so enamored with itself that it can’t see that particular forest for the trees. Obviously, Scream has always been eager to please slasher movie geeks, but it’s also now in the business of pleasing Scream geeks with references to fan theories (characters speculate if Stu is even dead) and long-awaited sequences (Ghostface can’t help but point out that Gale has never been subjected to one of his calls). At one point, Kirby and Mindy riff on popular horror debates, like which Nightmare on Elm Street is the best (“the original,” they answer in unison, echoing Casey Becker in the first Scream) or the status of Psycho II (“underrated,” they insist).

I suppose I’m complicit in it all—I couldn’t help but get a chuckle out of a lot of this stuff, and I felt super vindicated when I could identify the Jason Takes Manhattan bit based just on audio. Still, it’s somewhat ironic that the previous movie pointed an accusatory knife at the fans and asked them if they really want the same old shit from these franchises, only for this follow-up to capitulate to that very impulse. Scream VI insists on formula and nostalgia all the way down to the killer’s motivation, which hearkens back to the good old fashioned revenge of the original trilogy. The snake isn’t just eating its own tail at this point: it’s winking and nodding along, insistent that you recognize it. Appropriately enough, the climax here unfolds in a shrine that the killer has erected in tribute to both Stab and Scream, turning the entire ordeal into an Easter egg hunt that feels like it could have implicated the fans’ own nostalgia if the script had some more bite to it.

But I’ll be damned if it all still doesn’t work. I know all of my throat-clearing during the past several paragraphs makes it sound like I’m down on Scream VI, but that’s not even remotely true because the returning creative team flexes some killer slasher chops throughout. This feels like the most Scream movie because it’s packed with an abundance of slash-and-stalk (and slash-and-shoot) sequences, most of them punctuated with some absolutely gnarly gore. As much as I love Scream, it’s rarely been the type of franchise that indulges in the type of splatter movie theatrics that made many of its predecessors so popular (which is just to say you don’t really watch these movies to delight in the body count). Scream VI changes that in a big way with a Ghostface that stuffs a skewered body into a refrigerator for a startling sight gag (shades of Jason in Friday 2!) before stabbing, shooting, and bludgeoning over half a dozen victims in what feels like the most downright brutal massacre yet.

It’s not all about the gore, though. Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett stage a number of playfully demented sequences: that killer opener that’s so great I feel compelled to mention it again, a much (and rightfully) heralded bodega sequence, a nail-biting bit involving a ladder, clever subway stalking, and a climax that feels like most of the others, only it’s even more grandiose. Before Scream VI was officially titled, I joked on Twitter that it should be called Scream and Scream Again (in reference to the 1970 Amicus/AIP production), and that would have been more than appropriate considering that’s the big angle here: more Scream, now bigger and badder than ever. And that’s fine—somehow, it feels like we were due for an entry in this franchise that just wants to throw a big, raucous Halloween party with most of its friends invited.

Unlike most long-running slasher franchises, it can get away with this because Scream has always invested heavily in its characters, and this one is no different. The returning survivors—now dubbed “The Core Four”—come into their own here, proving they’re more than capable of carrying the franchise torch. It’s crucial that they aren’t just new versions of the old gang (something that couldn’t quite be said about the bunch in Scream 4), particularly Sam, who’s still (literally) haunted by the specter of her psychotic father (Billy Loomis “returns” again not as Proud Ghost Dad here but as a trickster figure trying to lure Sam into the family business). Cox is delightful as ever as Gale, though her slight heel turn here (despite her final words in the last movie, she’s back in full on media huckster mode) feels like the most misguided adhesion to the formula. After an Easter egg cameo in the previous film, Kirby’s back as an FBI agent with an obvious, vested interest in this case, and her offbeat caginess opens the door for some climactic nonsense. The newcomers (headlined by Dermot Mulroney as an investigating officer and Henry Czerny as Sam’s therapist) all leave an impression, and the franchise’s history with scrambling up expectations with character archetypes means you can’t be sure if they’re dead meat or a suspect (in one of the film’s better wrinkles, one proves to be both) .

The biggest testament to the film’s testament here is that I was rarely bothered by the stuff that could have been alarming. Sidney Prescott’s absence—the biggest elephant in the room since Neve Campbell announced she wouldn’t be returning—feels natural enough, and, as the film itself insists, she deserves her happy ending. At 122 minutes, it’s the longest Scream movie so far, yet it breezes by as briskly as previous entries. Kevin Williamson’s distinct voice is still missing, though it’s probably for the better that nobody strains to recapture it (plus, there are some moments here that wouldn’t feel too out of place in a Dawson’s Creek episode—I’m choosing to believe it’s a tribute of sorts). And maybe it’s the Jason Takes Manhattan fan in me who has long accepted that he actually took Vancouver, but it doesn’t bother me that Scream VI was actually produced in Montreal. While it would have been nice to get at least one authentic sequence in the Big Apple, the production designers’ work is convincing enough to provide a fresh feel for a franchise that’s never strayed from California.

After two movies, it’s fair to say that this new creative team has earned my trust. I was as skeptical as anyone about a Scream movie involving neither Craven nor Williamson, and now we have two movies that prove the series has reached that echelon where it can sustain itself. What was once a unique franchise defined by returning characters and creators has found itself in the position of past franchises that had to evolve, something that, quite frankly, felt inevitable for a series preoccupied with slasher movie conventions. While we’re a long way from Ghostface stalking and knocking off a new, random set of characters with each sequel, the past two entries have marked a shift indicating Scream will endure because it’s a genre institution.

Part VI might not boast the most explicit genre commentary or introspection, but maybe that’s the point this time out. By eagerly relenting to a formula that thrives on nostalgia and fan service, it implies that maybe this is what we want after all. If the previous film was Scream having its cake, then this is where it gets to eat it too, continuing the franchise’s long-running theme of needling the slasher genre before embracing its conventions. The ouroboros has just coiled a little tighter: Scream VI knows that you know what it knows what a Scream movie should be, and it dutifully plays along almost as a prank Because this time, the joke might be on us, an audience that worships at the altar of Scream and delights in a stroll down memory lane that ends up at a blood-stained altar for Scream.

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