Scream VI
Jenna Ortega (Tara) and Melissa Barrera (Sam) star in Paramount Pictures and Spyglass Media Group's Scream VI; courtesy of Paramount

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In the original Scream film, context matters when Jamie Kennedy’s character describes “the rules for surviving a horror movie.” To friends giving him shit for how seriously he takes horror, Kennedy’s Randy enumerates slasher movie cliches at a high school party where John Carpenter’s classic Halloween plays in the background. Nearly 30 years later, Scream VI has a similar scene, one where a character describes “the rules for surviving a horror franchise.” This happens on a college quad, not a drunken party, and now there is little sense of skepticism—the scene has an obligatory, almost didactic quality. While some satire has peppered the franchise, it has now become self-aware. To its detriment, Scream VI only comments on itself.

The biggest shift is that directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett move the action from the fictional town of Woodsboro, California, to Manhattan—only the second and third films haven’t taken place in the town that started it all. They envision the city as a kind of hellscape where killers can stalk the streets with impunity, and locals are indifferent to suffering. Perhaps unintentionally, the predominance of night scenes leads to a persistent formal problem. This film is extremely dark, literally, to the point where you might strain to understand what befalls all the characters. Compared with the original Scream, with its bright cinematography that lit the actors appropriately, there is the sense the directors somehow do not care about how their film looks.

Either way, a surprisingly clever prologue sets the tone. Someone in a ghost-face mask lures a hapless film studies professor (Samara Weaving) into an alley, where she is mercilessly stabbed to death. Then something strange happens: The killer immediately takes off his mask, and we follow him for a while. At first, it seems like screenwriters James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick want something different, creating a kind of suspense where the tension is that we know something the two heroesSam (Melissa Barrera) and her sister Tara (Jenna Ortega)—do not. Alas, it’s a short-lived possibility. Then Vanderbilt and Busick stick to the formula, creating set pieces so that a new Ghostface may butcher victims until only the heroes stand in their way.

Some of these suspense scenes are admittedly involving. One of the best comes early in the film: Sam and Tara are in a bodega, and Ghostface stalks through with a less typical Scream killer weapon. In another, they must use a stepladder to traverse the windows of adjacent apartment buildings. There is a merciless slasher logic to what happens, and yet, as the film continues, the cracks begin to show. The biggest scene happens on the subway, one where seemingly every passenger is wearing a creepy mask. Despite someone intoning “We must stick together,” the heroes immediately split up across two trains, seemingly without it occurring to anyone they could meet at the next stop. The attacks also veer into implausible territory, including one character who can still move around after being disemboweled.

There are some fans of the franchise or genre who might say these faults are precisely the point and add to the fun. That might be the case for most slasher films, but not here, which is another way of saying Scream VI is a victim of its own self-awareness. We are taught these characters are smart and that the film will rise above cliches, only to wallow in them anyway. Also, as an entry in a larger horror franchise, there is now a slovenly need to give past Scream characters their due, whether it’s Courteney Cox’s big scene as Gale Weathers, or Hayden Panettiere reprising her role from Scream 4 (presumably because Scream’s original queen Neve Campbell chose not to return for the sixth installment due to being financially undervalued). There are so many callbacks that the plot can sometimes grind to a halt, making sure that every subplot and character gets the attention they don’t always deserve. For a genre that works best by heightening the mayhem, there is a weird superfluous quality to each dialogue-driven pause.

Part of the frustration is how it’s easy to see the tighter, more propulsive film underneath all the bloat. All the performances are strong, with Barrera and Ortega further establishing themselves as the new scream queens, while the supporting roles provide comic relief. Fans of the HBO Max series The Other Two will delight when Josh Segarra appears as Danny, Sam’s dim-witted neighbor who speaks like a bro with an inner poet. And it’s noteworthy that the reboot seems pretty committed to casting actors of color in both starring and side roles—a new step in a genre that has been so largely White that jokes about Black people being the first to die are part of pop culture canon. As for the whodunit itself, the script includes enough fake-outs and red herrings to keep veterans on their toes. Not every plot point withstands scrutiny, but how could it? At the end, what matters is how the franchise advances, saving fan-favorite characters while jettisoning others.

Throughout Scream VI, the protagonists increasingly use “family” to refer to themselves, not just Sam or Tara. If family becomes the guiding principle for future Scream movies, then that’s the influence of the Fast and Furious series, which uses “family” as an excuse to build relationships and cameos. That does not bode well for Scream 7, since the last thing any slasher genre needs is a commitment to character survival. Moreover, by becoming entirely self-referential, these films further alienate horror fans who do not consider franchise devotion like a badge of honor. Now that Scream seemingly embraces that each sequel will become a little bit worse, it has done the very thing it has mostly avoided. It has become ordinary.

Scream VI opens in theaters nationwide on March 10.