One year on from the events of the previous franchise entry, Ghostface is up to their old tricks again, slicing and dicing their way through a new batch of shrieking victims in Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s Scream VI. With the new generation of Screamers now firmly installed, headed by the Carpenter sisters Sam and Tara (Melissa Barrera, Jenna Ortega), can the ghost(face)s of the past be laid to rest?
By all accounts a middling series of films, Scream is known for its meta-snark, for resurrecting the slasher genre in the 1990s, and for helping to define the careers of a generation of hot young things from Neve Campbell to Skeet Ulrich (the latter objectively the most nineties name there has ever been). Now on its sixth instalment, Scream has chugged along, never delivering a truly terrible instalment (the jury’s out on parts three or four as the worst, both of which are just mediocre). Over nearly thirty years, it has built up a deep and abiding affection from a generation of filmgoers (this reviewer included), for whom Scream was one of their earliest exposure to horror and the slasher sub-genre.
After 2011’s Scream 4, the franchise looked to have finally run out of steam before last year’s self-styled legacy “requel” revitalised the series with a new writer-director team and a new cast. Now, with a knowing wink to the old horror cliché of sending the monster to New York, Tara is in college and trying to put the past behind her. Sam, meanwhile, is in therapy and still wrestling with her true identity as visions of her father, Billy Loomis (Ulrich), threaten to re-emerge. But the ghosts of the past – both literal and figurative – refuse to stay buried for long. After the obligatory pre-credits disembowelling, the bodies start piling up and the “core four” – consisting of Sam, Tara, Mindy (Jasmin Savoy-Brown) and Chad (Mason Gooding) – need to discover the identity of the killer.
The tagline for Scream VI promises ‘New York, New Rules’. Indeed, half the fun of these films is the increasingly absurd and convoluted ‘rules’ that they invent for themselves, and Scream VI is on top form here declaring itself a “sequel requel” – essentially a quasi-remake of Scream 2 with its college campus setting, but in which all the main characters – new and legacy – can be killed. How this is any different from any of the other films remains unclear, but the absurdity of these self-imposed edicts is half the fun of the thing. Film buff Mindy declares she has noticed that, six films in, they are in fact in a franchise. Someone give that woman an MA.
Speaking of legacy characters, Courteney Cox is as brilliant as ever self-serving reporter Gale Weathers, dodging punches and blades with her usual aplomb, while the most surprising delight is Hayden Panettiere’s Kirby from Scream 4, who is now working as an FBI agent specialising in serial killers (naturally), having survived her ordeal in 2011. It almost (but not quite) makes up for Neve Campbell’s absence from the film, which is pitifully explained away with some guff about Sidney “deserving a happy ending”. Given that the real reason for her absence is a dispute over her fee, one cannot help but feel that what Campbell actually deserves is a proper pay check.
It’s a shame that Campbell’s absence partly sours such an otherwise bright film, which so wonderfully captures that balance of horror, comedy smarts and melodrama that defined the original. Scream has never been a particularly scary series, but this one certainly comes close in parts: one scene involving a ladder and a later one on the subway are among the tensest and most tightly-edited sequences in the whole series. Six films in, Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett deserve credit for crafting two set pieces that manage to emphasise their characters’ vulnerability and paralysing fear in surprising and unique ways. It is also easily the most violent and gruesome of the series, earning its 18 certificate.
Horror is a funny old thing. Most susceptible to the laws of diminishing returns, it seems to be the genre most drawn to the allure of the long-running franchise and its reliance on tropes and cliché. It’s such a well-worn argument that it’s a cliché in itself to point out that horror thrives on cliché: in fact, we’ve probably got Scream itself to thank for that, even as Samara Weaving’s patently ridiculous Film Studies professor points out as much in this film’s opening scene. In obsessing over ‘rules’ or ‘cliché’ or ‘tropes’, we risk becoming circular and inward looking, losing the inherent vitality of the thing.
It’s what, perhaps, happened with Scream 4, forgetting that the snark and the meta-commentary were always scaffolding, never the structure. With 2022’s Scream and now Scream VI, writers James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick have fundamentally understood that this is the only rule that really matters: behind the clever-clever winks and nods, behind the knowing nods, there is a wealth of sincerity and affection for a series that by hook or by crook has sustained for the better part of three decades. If, as seems likely, there is to be a Scream VII, the studio should put its hands in its pockets and bring back the one and only final girl that we care to say “Hello” to.