The Scream franchise is one of my favorites in the annals of horror cinema, probably second only to the Hellraiser films. The first Scream was a revelation, forever changing the slasher film. The second was just fine, the third was a mess. The fourth film gave the franchise new hope, though, and the fifth was nothing short of fantastic; a near-perfect combination of metahumor, legacy, and bloody violence. So why then does Scream VI, which has the same crew as the previous film and almost the same cast, sometimes feel like such a Scream 3-size disappointment? How dull did Ghostface’s knife get over the past year?
We take the story out of Woodsboro, as the “Core Four” from the last film have moved to New York City for college: Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera) and her sister Tara (Jenna Ortega) as well as twins Chad (Mason Gooding) and Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown). In the time since the last Ghostface attacks, an online conspiracy theory has gained ground claiming that Sam framed the real killers and perpetrated the murders herself. This leads to tension at home but also a massive spotlight on Sam herself when Ghostface shows up in NYC, ready to stab, stab again at Sam, Tara, and anyone in their immediate vicinity.
There are legacy characters that appear, of course. Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) is back again to get her character buffeted around by the script. Like in the other films, she flips back and forth between being either “that bitch” or That Bitch. After being relegated to an Easter egg in the fifth film, Scream 4 survivor Kirby Reed (Hayden Panettiere) shows up as a young FBI agent investigating the new Ghostface murders.
One person you might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned yet is face-of-the-franchise Sidney Prescott, iconically played by Neve Campbell in all of the previous films. That’s because Campbell refused to be a part of the production when it wasn’t going to pay her what she was worth. Considering how relatively low the budgets for the Scream films are, and especially considering how much they typically end up making, I find this to be inexcusable. This is Sidney [stab noise]-ing Prescott. Pay the woman. To say that Scream VI suffers from Campbell’s absence is a massive understatement.
To be fair, the film doesn’t do Sidney dirty. The only reference we have to her is Gale saying that when the new killings started, Sidney and her family hunkered down somewhere for safety. However, the creative team has said that Campbell’s absence required massive rewrites to the script. Even though returning writers James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick have put together a mostly coherent screenplay, its lack of true focus is evident. There are definite pacing issues, although the film does find something resembling a stride by shortly after the halfway point.
Sam and Tara are the new main characters now. Both Melissa Barrera and Jenna Ortega do a great job in both their own characterizations but especially in the sisterly connection that serves as the film’s closest thing to an anchor point. Barrera balances Sam’s strength and vulnerability well, able to also effectively demonstrate her struggle with the darkness inside of her; she’s still having hallucinations of her father, killer Billy Loomis from the very first film (played again by a digitally de-aged Skeet Ulrich). Ortega for her part gets much more to do with Tara here than she did last time, and thank goodness, because Ortega gives Tara a definite hopeful spark that contrasts with Sam’s inner conflict. She’s The Star to Sam’s The Moon, and their dynamic is very believable.
Both Mason Gooding and Jasmin Savoy Brown also bring some energy in their roles as Chad and Mindy, especially Savoy Brown. Gooding is a genial presence and extremely easy on the eyes, but the script never really knows what to do with Chad except give him an inexplicable and inorganic ship-tease with Tara. Mindy gets much more material here, the year between films serving to solidify her as the one true heir to her uncle Randy Meeks‘ status as resident film geek misanthrope. As written, Mindy rides the line between awesome and annoying, but as played, Savoy Brown keeps her firmly on the side of awesome. Mindy’s also allowed to be much more overtly queer in this film, but never at the cost of her character.
The legacy characters bring a degree of comfort here amidst the script’s lack of true solidity and film’s sometimes hesitant vibe. Courtney Cox is on point as she always is as the no-nonsense to a fault Gale. It seems like nearly every film resets any growth or character development Gale undergoes, but Cox’s dedication to the character makes us like her regardless. Hayden Panettiere is an extremely welcome presence, as she was one of the best new additions to the series in Scream 4 and walks into this film clearly thrilled to be part of it. Her energy is infectious, and she makes the most of every minute she’s on screen.
But what about the kills? What about THE KILLS? For the most part, this film more than delivers on that aspect of it, nearly surpassing the blood spilled in the previous installment. Directors Matt Bettinelli-Oplin and Tyler Gillett (a.k.a. Radio Silence) expertly pair heart-wrenching tension with reptile-brain thrills. They know how to turn up the anxiety until the audience is ready to pop, then punctuate that with intense, brutal action. One highlight involves characters trying to escape Ghostface by using a ladder as a makeshift bridge between two apartment windows, where we’re put directly into the characters’ panic and fear, losing track of space and time while focusing only on escape.
But the film’s best moment involves an extended sequence on the subway as the characters head into the third act. It’s Halloween, and there are tons of people in Ghostface masks. As the trains progress, the lights on the cars go in and out, and every time one of the Ghostfaces moves, the film’s grip on us gets a little tighter. It doesn’t help that characters are divided between two entirely separate trains, making them even more vulnerable. It’s not so much a question of if one of the Ghostfaces will attack but what will happen to the group as a whole when one of them does.
But as great as that sequence is, it does highlight one of the film’s problems. Many of the scenes last a little bit longer than they should, usually by only a beat or two but enough to dampen the film’s momentum. The film doesn’t necessarily feel bloated, but it also doesn’t feel as lean as it should. And this is a question of precision: even five minutes cut across the film would have improved it tremendously.
The film also isn’t as witty or clever as the previous film, even though it sure thinks it is. The humor is just as wicked but less metatextual, almost as if its been subsumed by the tropes it tries to skewer. It’s almost like its drowning in its own reflection. The finale also piles twists on twists on twists to the point of absurdity, and while that absurdity may be the end goal, it’s played too straight-faced to register as effective satire (and it feels far too much like old tricks from previous films). The narrative side of those twists comes almost literally out of nowhere and makes so little sense in the context of the rest of the film that part of me just checked out at that point and didn’t care about how the film ended.
Scream VI isn’t the lowest point of the franchise, and it does its best to stay entertaining and visceral, but it’s still a shadow of its predecessor. Without Sidney Prescott, it sometimes feels like an afterthought or an off-brand spinoff. Absolutely no shade meant to the cast; they all do a great job and are appealing in their own right. But next time if you really want us to scream, bring us the queen.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / B-