Well at least it’s not outer space! At least it’s not this time. Perhaps we’ll see Ghostface stalking and slashin’ the hallways and closets of the international space station by way of zero gravity someday. But not this day, because this day the Scream franchise seems satisfied with merely following Jason to take Manhattan and Leprechaun into da Hood as Scream VI storms into the city that never sleeps for its latest round of meta slashin’ antics. And whether that Big Apple content is candied or whether it is full of worms varies wildly from scene to scene, but I will give the new movie this—it’s better than the last one.
That said, it is admittedly kind of strange how tied to the fictional burg of Woodsboro the Scream franchise feels in my brain, given there are now as many films set outside of that town as there are within it. Wes Craven’s Scream 2 followed final girl Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) and the gang to college in Ohio, while Scream 3 took the self-reflexive slasher mayhem straight to the tap of Hollywood itself. (The scenes set on the Stab film’s Woodsboro soundstage are admittedly a meta-hoot though, and no doubt add to the overall Woodsboro vibe.)
But then, as if reeling from the goofiness of Part 3’s ret-con consummation—hey look, it’s a secret brother?—Parts 4 & 5 screeched the franchise back home to lick its wounds, attempting to reboot things to basics. Twas now just a Ghostface, standing in front of a girl, asking her to stab him.
But I guess directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett (the Ready or Not duo who picked up the megaphone of directing duties with last year’s “re-quel” after Craven passed away in 2015) got that hometown nostalgia out of their system right quick. Because like Scream 2 before it (and Scream VI will have you thinking about Scream 2 a lot) they’ve gone and taken the gang—their gang that is, with a few strays (excuse me, “legacy characters”) left over from Craven’s OG crew—off to college! Cue the frat parties, the dorm rooms, the suspicious roommates and the strapping love interests that we all recognize and ourselves went into debt for, back in the day.
Of course my college debt is just tens of thousands of dollars, which I’ll gladly take instead of a serial killer ghost dad with floppy bangs who whispers unsettling violence at me whenever I look at my own reflection. That’s what Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera) is still dealing with here a year or so after, in Scream 5 née simply Scream, she discovered she’s the daughter of Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich, cameoing here again as that bloody man in the mirror) and fought off a killer boyfriend of her own, while also coming unto the mounting realization that all of that violence… well, it kinda gets her off?
Ghost Dad’s super into it, too. But her therapist (Henry Czerny, riding along with his boys after Ready or Not) is super not into it, and speed-dials the fuzz the second Sam spills her (figurative) guts to him about those bad feels. Not that the ever-sinister NYPD (here in the form of a leering Dermot Mulroney) isn’t already on her case, since an online conspiracy has branded Sam to be the deranged mastermind who orchestrated all of the last movie’s bloody-frenzied events. Accosted constantly on the street by screeching accusers wielding cell phones primed to document her every misstep (and let’s be real, that’s just any New Yorker’s daily walk to the bodega), the big city isn’t being too kind to this tender, possibly-deranged Carpenter sister. And that’s before the hacked-to-bits bodies start piling up in the kind of movie-alleyways that exist exactly nowhere in actual New York City. (This movie shot in Montreal might as well have been set on Mars, given how New York it never looks.)
So what keeps Sam strap-hangin despite the odds? That would be the other Carpenter sister, of course —lil’ sis Tara (Jenna Ortega, now a bonafide scream queen with these movies and X and Wednesday besides) is the one who’s actually gone to NYC for college; Sam has just followed Tara in order to keep her safe. With predictably suffocating results. Also in town for schoolin’ are the twins Mindy and Chad (Jasmin Savoy-Brown and Mason Gooding), unlikely survivors of their last run-ins with Ghostface and the other half of what they all come to call “the core four” with self-branding glee.
And somewhere in between all of the last movie’s returning characters and the vast new assortment (who weirdly always seem to leave a room right before Ghostface appears, huh), Scream VI must also find space to stuff in noted author and television personality Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) and former horror-aficionado fan-favorite turned frost-tipped Fed, Kirby (Hayden Panettiere, of Part 4). These are a lot of characters! And by the end of the movie every single one of them will have spilled puddles, rives, torrents of blood—some more than others, sure, but nobody’s walking away scar-less. If they’re walking away at all.
What Scream VI has got going for it is Bettinelli-Olpin & Gillett are clearly feeling more confident here than they were with their last one—their characters are now comfortably front and center, and this movie actually finds ways to make us care more about that so-called “core four.” It takes its time, establishes rapport, prods around in their individual quirks. To my surprise I found myself genuinely invested in them this time around, in ways I decidedly did not in the last one—not while my girl Sidney was there on the sidelines sucking up the oxygen. In that way I suppose it’s to the film’s betterment that Neve Campbell got dicked over by the money men (although still, fuck them). And Gale & Kirby are shoved pretty firmly to the side for the film’s majority.
There are several expertly delivered sequences in this flick—most of which were spoiled by the trailers, but still. They work. As they showcased in Ready or Not the directors are capable of delineating a space clearly, showing us the dangers lurking within it, and then smashing them down from all sides in feats of organically-grown tension. It’s a very real skill-set, making sure your audience knows what the hell is going on in an action sequence while also teasing out the threat that hasn’t popped yet to the breaking point, and then letting ‘er blow. And Scream VI delivers that glorious transportive rush more than once.
All that said, its whodunit aspect is deeply stupid, with a wallop upside the head of backstory that broadsides us early on that is so clearly the reason for the killin’ season that I can’t believe anybody thought it was smart to leave it in. I find it deeply annoying when people crow about how smart they are for how early they had a mystery figured out, but I knew where Scream VI was headed by twenty minutes in, and its fake-outs only began to seem a little desperate by the halfway point. Especially since they were clearly never going to go anywhere with them—four left turns leave you right where you started, after all.
The problem is everybody seems unconcerned with actually rocking the boat at this point. The Scream formula is embedded deeply in place. Yes the opening scene does get goosed here in a fun way (although the people calling this round better than Scream 2’s movie-theater scene need to have their opinions checked). But it’s still ultimately a set-piece that’s removed from the rest of the story.
And what makes that especially disappointing is for a brief second it hints at a true upheaval in the formula—a way forward that would have gestured toward Alfred Hitchcock’s famed quote about how to build long-term suspense over short-term surprise. Basically if the audience knows there’s a bomb under the table while the characters don’t, the audience remains a nervous wreck the whole damn time.
But Scream VI seems fine with staying to its series of quick blasts, leaving us temporarily rattled but never profoundly stirred, never deeply disturbed. When the “rules” get told to us this time, as they inevitably must, they feel more insignificant than ever—if the gist is that anything can happen, then nothing probably will. It’s like a superhero with all of the superpowers—where do you even go from there? And sure enough—not so far. I suppose there is some meta-commentary to be had in the franchise now becoming more about itself than it is about anything else—an airless, sealed-off space of Easter Eggs and clap-backs, mirroring only ghosts (and Ghost Dads) back at us, each iteration a little less than fresh. One does wish that it could’ve made like every nerdy kid who moved to New York though, and tried a little harder for some true reinvention. Well, maybe on Mars!