The erroneously titled Scream VI (no Sidney Prescott, no Scream) made it to theaters barely a year after its predecessor, the obnoxiously titled Scream (not to be confused with Scream; sometimes, I feel like they want us to hate them), striking while the iron is hot in capitalizing on an inexplicably well-received rejuvenation of the premier horror franchise of the 90s. As you can probably tell, I don’t like it one bit, especially considering how hostile the last one was towards anyone who may hesitate to love it. However, Scream VI is better than the first entry in this new phase; it’s not great and certainly nowhere near the level of any of the real Scream movies. But it has some inventive, well-directed horror sequences, and it capitalizes on the change of setting. It’s even got a couple of interesting characters – though not any of the main ones, unfortunately.
Samantha and Tara Carpenter (Melissa Barrera and Jenna Ortega), the sister-survivors from last time, have moved from Woodsboro to New York City so Tara can attend college. But when the Ghostface murders start again, they team up with fellow Woodsboro escapees Mindy and Chad Meeks-Martin (Jasmin Savoy-Brown and Mason Gooding) and some new friends/suspects to find the new killer or killers.
Your enjoyment of Scream VI likely depends on how much you care about the Scream movies, particularly the characters. If it matters to you, I don’t think you’ll care for this one. It exists almost as a parody of Scream as much as a sequel, with the meta-commentary not only becoming nauseatingly ubiquitous but aimed specifically at Scream instead of the horror genre in general. After a while, you start to wonder if directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett even like Scream. Virtually every element of the Wes Craven era has some kind of reflection, each of which is more a pale imitation than an update or homage. The new characters introduced last year are the center of the story now, but instead of letting them find their own way, Scream VI keeps trying to compare them to Sidney, Gale, and Dewey, and it only reminds us of what we’ll never have again.
Although considering the black hole of charisma these people create, maybe that isn’t such a bad idea. The newbies are not cool, not likable, not interesting, and not anyone you want to spend two hours rooting for as they face down Ghostface. The original three, plus Randy and some of the other periphery characters (rest in peace, Tatum), were fun, relatable kids we didn’t want to die. The new recruits, on the other hand, are the type of characters the old movies made fun of, dull and unengaging space-fillers whose best contributions are entertaining deaths whenever they’re kind enough to supply one. They’ve got none of the humanity of the old Scream heroes, villains, or victims, despite trying as hard as they can to fake it. As a result, the Scream franchise has gone from a series of character-driven films you want to revisit to disposable slashers where you’re rooting for the killer to gut these cornball nobodies.
It doesn’t help that Melissa Barrera’s Samantha is yet another boring super-badass tough girl whose too-cool-for-school attitude wears thin quickly. She has none of the vulnerability Sidney had, none of the fear or doubt, and when she tries to replicate the guilt, it doesn’t land. Neve Campbell could convey with a look what Sidney was feeling, how she was horrified and sorry and weary every time the killings began anew. Barrera looks vacant, like she’s there because there has to be a lead. Jenna Ortega is a little better, probably a victim more of bad writing than any acting inadequacies, but she’s reduced to childish screaming fits when she needs to emote. Jasmin Savoy-Brown is certainly more animated than either of the leads, but Mindy remains excruciating, a fanfiction version of Randy with none of his charm or relatability. And Mason Gooding’s Chad is the same block of wood he was last time. When these also-rans declare themselves the center of the franchise, it feels like a consolation prize for Scream fans. It also feels artificial because, if it weren’t, they wouldn’t have to tell us.
Part of the problem is that much of the character work in Scream VI is done through expository dialogue. For example, we know Samantha is “working two shitty jobs” to put Tara through school because Tara tells us; we don’t see Sam at either of these jobs so we can feel the tedium and exhaustion she feels. Important parts of the investigation happen off-screen and are simply related to Samantha and Tara, robbing us of the opportunity of trying to solve the mystery along with the characters, one of the most fun parts of a Scream movie. The actors get little chance to act in any meaningful way, which, again, is a double-edged sword because when they do, it usually falls flat. Two of the characters begin a romance that is forced and completely unearned, taking up screen time more than giving anyone a personality. Other relationships are likewise devoid of passion or emotion; you never feel like you’re watching anything other than two actors kiss for a paycheck.
The acting standouts, unfortunately, all have small parts. The obvious one is Courteney Cox, who knows exactly how to play Gale Weathers, the sole returning member of the Scream triumvirate. She’s just as sassy and biting, and whenever she’s around, you wish Scream VI were two hours of her insulting the newbies. In fact, it’s the grown-ups who are the best characters and give the best performances. (Technically, they’re all grown-ups, but you know what I mean.) Dermot Mulroney plays a cop with personal ties to the group, and he’s more human in one scene than all the main kids throughout the film. Henry Czerny of Clear and Present Danger and Mission: Impossible shows up as a psychiatrist, and he’s believable, funny, and relatable in his brief screen time. And, most tragically of all, the first victim in the requisite opening sequence, played by Samara Weaving, similarly conveys much with little, saying and doing small things that make her feel real to us. The way she trails off when explaining her job, the tone she inflects when talking on the phone, all of it is genuine, like someone you’d meet at a bar. How she’s not a bigger name is beyond me.
So, who would like Scream VI? I think horror movie fans who just want a good time at a slasher flick will find a lot to like because there are some excellent sequences in this film. The opening with Samara Weaving is a great one, seemingly similar to the old Scream movies while breaking the rules but ultimately making it work. The scene on the subway featured in the trailers is even better in the actual film, with plenty of suspense and fantastic editing. It’s much more complex than it’s depicted in the trailer, and it’s incredibly effective. As someone who lives here and has taken the New York subway many times, it’s accurate in its depiction of a train ride, too, and this is one example of what I meant when I said Scream VI takes advantage of its setting. There’s also a good scene in a convenience store, pieces of which were also in the trailers. There’s plenty of blood and stabbing, but what makes these sequences work so well is the suspense they generate, increasing the tension with every step Ghostface takes.
That doesn’t go for the finale, though, which is the worst one of the franchise. The solution to the mystery is dumb and involves a big, shameless cheat, and the climax is derivative of every one that has come before it, with lazy references that make Scream VI feel like it was made to make fun of itself. These kinds of references/rip-offs are scattered throughout the film, but it all comes to a head in the finale, with the in-jokes and downright copycatting pelting you till you want to leave the theater. Added to this are several instances where Scream VI doesn’t play fair with its kills or where it confuses nods to the older movies with character traits. Being self-aware doesn’t excuse bad writing.
And it is bad writing, although mixed with some good directing. And that’s what it boils down to in the end. If you want visceral thrills, you could do a lot worse than Scream VI. But if you care about the story and characters, this franchise is over for you.