‘Scream VI’ Stabs the Whole Idea of Horror-Movie Franchises in the Face
Say what you want about Scream, the 2022 reboot of everybody’s favorite ‘90s/‘00s meta-slasher — it completely understood the pop-culture–osphere it was coming into and commenting on, i.e. the era of endless nostalgia retreads and “requels.” That original cycle was all about making horror movies that bet on how much we, the viewers, knew about the rules of classic horror movies; any attempt to pump fresh blood into the intellectual property had to inherently grok a much different world regarding shared cinematic universes, Film Twitter discourse, Easter eggs, etc. Thankfully, cracking open these spirit-of-‘22 concerns like they were so many horny teenagers’ skulls at Camp Crystal Lake turned out to be even more on-brand than we would have thought. This was a franchise, after all, that was hip to toxic fandom way, way ahead of the curve.
And yet… as anyone fluent in multi-film series will tell you, the savviest I.P. saviors still risk wearing out their welcome, even when they’ve tweaked genre tropes and established a new beginning out of legacy endings. Scream VI — oh, so we’re rocking Roman numerals now, are we? — builds off the stab-your-cake-and-eat-it-too good will of last year’s reset. Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett are back; ditto screenwriters Guy Busick and James Vanderbilt. Melissa Barrera once again fills the “final girl” position as Sam Carpenter, and now-superfamous Jenna Ortega returns as her equally traumatized sister, Tara. Familiar new faces, in the form of Mason Gooding and the invaluable Jasmin Savoy Brown as Chad and Mindy Meeks-Martin, sidle up next to welcome older faces — Courtney Cox’s Gayle Weathers, naturally, but also Hayden Panettiere’s Kirby Reed (!) from Scream 4 — and Ghostfaces.
Instead of Woodsboro, California, the Carpenters & co. are now in New York City, where Tara is going to Blackmore University and apparently majoring in numbing her psychic pain. As for Sam, she’s the target of online conspiracy theories that posit she staged all those killings and is living up to her lineage as a Loomis. (Her dad was Billy Loomis, a.k.a. the guy who committed all those homicides back in the ‘90s, which inspired the Stab movies, etc. etc.) But the fact that they’ve relocated to the East Coast, along with the Meeks-Martin siblings, doesn’t stop a string of murders from happening in their vicinity. And guess what kind of mask the killer, or perhaps killers, are wearing? Sixth verse, same as the first.
You don’t have to be a die-hard fan to get a chill when — during a fake-out prologue involving a film studies professor, a blind date, and what unexpectedly turns out to be a triple homicide — Roger L. Jackson’s voice first coos the eternal question, “What’s your favorite scary movie?” through someone’s phone. That sinister baritone is firmly embedded in the Horror Sonics Hall of Fame, right next to Friday the 13th’s tch-tch-tch-haw-haw-haw, Godzilla’s roar, and every John Carpenter score ever. But you may need to be a genuine Scream stan to get excited over the constant in-house callbacks that the movie keeps throwing at you, whether it’s in the name of goosing reactions out of hardcore fans or affectionately mocking the fact that the series is now old enough to warrant its own deep-cut inside jokes. And there’s a legit worry that the characters’ ribs may be so sore from endlessly nudging each other that they won’t feel a Ghostface-wielded serrated blade being slipped into them. (Spoiler: Don’t fret, several of them do.)
It’s the exact same balance that Bettinelli-Olpin, Gillett et al. did with Scream ‘22, except they’ve already played their cards in terms of what they’re going after besides old-fashioned jump scares. Jasmin Savoy Brown’s speech about being caught in a requel was exposition that doubled as an eloquent state-of-the-genre-movie-nation, or maybe vice versa. This time, once the bodies start piling up and the breadcrumb trails lead back to every past Scream entry, she lays out a new thesis: They’re now caught up in a franchise. Which means everyone is a suspect, everyone is now expendable no matter how beloved you are, and it’s less about the names above the title and all about the title. Forget just going after cheap nostalgia-bait — this post–brand-resurrection chapter wants to stab the entire concept of endless horror-movie franchising and cheap fan-milking right in the face.
It sounds like a level-up in terms of targets, right? Except the film isn’t saying anything new about any of this, and given that it’s little more than a year since Scream expertly skewered the Mary Sue Nation, the overly protective fandom hives, and the corporate exploitation of easily recognizable scary-movie canon fodder, this wink-wink thesis is less a deathblow and more déjà vu. All that’s left are what-can-we-do-in-New York set pieces (there’s a good cat-and-mouse sequence between Ghostface and the Carpenters in a bodega, and an even better stalking scene in a crowded subway) and the reveals, which strain credulity even for a Scream movie. Which is definitely saying something.
At one point, Cox’s tabloid-journalist superstar discovers a hidden warehouse where the killer(s) have constructed a sort of Stab series shrine. There’s the knife that almost gutted Panettiere’s fan favorite — who’s now an FBI agent! You go, Kirby! — and there are sketches of original-recipe Scream victims, and over there are cases containing all of the old Ghostface masks and cloaks. All of these artifacts turn the place into a mix of museum and homicidal HQ, and without giving too much away, this is a key location in regard to the film’s climax. But it’s also a nifty little analogy for Scream VI itself. This sequel-to-the-requel has all of the trappings of the series you know and love, has arranged everything for us to admire, and doesn’t know what to do with any of it past putting it under glass or striking a few poses with well-worn props. For some folks, that plus some jump scares are enough. But the sixth time isn’t the charm here. And it’s certainly way, way less fun and clever than it thinks it is.