(While this review contains no reveals for Scream VI, it discusses several spoilers for the franchise’s previous entries)
“There’s never been one like me, Gale!” proclaims Ghostface in a dreary phone call to the vixen-reporter, Gale Weathers—a sequence already teased in one of the promotional trailers of Scream VI (2023). Ghostface’s egoistic claim about his distinctness from other murderous predecessors, while not without its indulgence, is not a bluff. This sixth entry of the long-running franchise features a brutal (at one point even gun-wielding), no-nonsense, and dexterous killer, hellbent on turning each day a living hell for the film’s protagonists.
But despite his self-proclamation about a marked difference from other caper-donning villains, this Ghostface hits many familiar beats. And that applies to Scream VI as well—the sequel to last year’s Scream (2022) and the sixth entry in one of the most consistently enjoyable horror franchises of all time. While Scream VI is certainly a solidly done slasher (far better than any other horror sequels in recent memory), it still plays too safely in the end, considering the fact that the franchise’s main appeal has been its subversive nature.
For anyone writing/directing a Scream film, the most significant challenge lies not just in creating a superior whodunit-slasher but also in staging a groundbreaking opening sequence. OG creators Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson consistently tried to match the indomitable appeal of the iconic Drew Barrymore opening sequences—resulting in the haunting theatre scene from Scream 2 (1997) and the wickedly-meta opening of Scream 4 (2011). Even though the phone call sequence from the original film still retains its crown, writers James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick craft a pretty ingenious opening to their ‘scary movie.’
We follow Laura (Samara Weaving), a film studies professor who teaches slasher cinema, as she is waiting in the bar for her date to come up. Following a call from none other than Mr. Ghostface, Laura is lured inside a dark alley and brutally murdered—a clever wink to the Helen Shivers sequence from I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997, also scripted by Williamson). But just as one thinks that the ordeal has ended, the film backstabs at the audience’s expectation. It transforms into a prolonged scene that is one of the franchise’s most ‘I-did-not-see-that-coming’ opening moments (maybe barring the Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell exchange in the fourth installment!)
After this mayhem, we resume with the survivors from the previous film. Sam (Melissa Barrera) has moved to New York with her younger sister Tara (Jenna Ortega), who is attending college in the city. Joining the duo are the twins—the film-nerd Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and Chad (Mason Gooding), who are attending the same institution. Around them are a whole new bunch of suspects and killer-fodder—Sam and Tara’s flatmate Quinn (Liana Liberato), their mysterious hunky neighbor Danny (Josh Segarra), Mindy’s girlfriend Anika (Devyn Nekoda), Chad’s roommate Ethan (Jack Champion), Sam’s therapist Dr. Stone (Henry Czerny) and Wayne Bailey (Dermot Mulroney)—Quinn’s father and a detective investigating the recent Ghostface murders.
While hoping for a fresh start away from their murderous town of Woodsboro, the survivors find themselves rocked by a more menacing Ghostface killer. In their quest to unmask the killer, Sam and Tara are joined by fan-favorite franchise returnees—the bossy investigative journalist Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) and Kirby Reed (Hayden Panettiere), a film geek who now works as an FBI agent.
The prime reasons for the cult and critical appeal of the Scream franchise have been its intelligent blend of typical slasher elements with self-aware meta-commentary. Scream VI delivers on both fronts by employing its New York setting (even though the film was filmed in Montreal) to exacerbate slasher thrills while simultaneously poking fun at Hollywood franchises. Vanderbilt and Busick’s fast-paced screenplay introduces one jolt after another, which directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett execute with knife-sharp finesse. While there are way too many giddy set pieces to mention here, the one including a ladder placed between two buildings is an adrenaline-filled ride that had most of the audience members in my theatre shouting and yelling at the screen.
There are also numerous winks and homages to sequences from previous entries in the franchise (most notably from Scream 2—a film the directors have acknowledged as an inspiration) as well as to other 1990s slashers—including an underrated sequence from Urban Legend (1998). For the meta-commentary, Scream VI targets tropes of horror movie franchises, which, as Mindy explains, tend to get bigger and bloodier—often treating legacy characters as disposable meat-bags. Plus, as usual, everyone is a suspect, and no one is safe! The film also carefully frames its whodunit structure—the killer reveals this time is not as apparent as it was in the predecessor.
Another underrated aspect of the franchise that Scream VI delivers upon is its game casting. From veterans like Courtney Cox and Dermot Mulroney bringing their best game to the film to the incredibly talented younger generation—the performances and camaraderie between the characters aid in fostering a bond with them and amp up the tension considerably when Ghostface strikes.
Carrying the torch from her uncle Randy, Jasmine Savoy Brown’s Mindy provides much-needed humor and self-awareness to the proceedings. Mason Gooding, who charmingly resisted the jock stereotype in the previous film, gets more to do in the sequel, and he adequately delivers. Devyn Nekoda as Mindy’s girlfriend Anika provides a great turn in an increasingly nail-biting sequence—which is easily a franchise highlight.
Hayden Panettiere easily slips into the role of tomboyish Kirby while simultaneously accounting for resilient character growth in the meantime. Melissa Barrera has to do much of the heavy lifting in the cast, and Barrera is more than up to the task of creating one of the most offbeat final girls in a horror franchise. Her bonding with Tara (a great Jenna Ortega) also provides emotional weight to the film and a badass dual-character arc for the two of them.
Despite delivering solidly as a well-executed whodunit slasher, Scream VI does feel a bit timid when it comes to either adhering to or subverting the franchise rules. While its jibes at the current franchise formula are perceptive, Scream VI, like the original, marches against the rules to decide who gets to die and survive. But in this case, the subversion feels more like a safe choice to continue the franchise rather than a radical departure from genre norms. The 2022 entry (which had a more well-thought-out meta element) had commented upon the two types of horror fandoms—the first which wants the franchise to retain its original spirit and rehash the same formula over and over again, while others wishing for a more nuanced approach in the series, much like the elevated horror turn of the last decade.
David Gordon Green’s Halloween trilogy tried to steer more towards the latter in its half-baked attempts to analyze evil and mass hysteria, alienating fans from all corners. Your enjoyment of Scream VI would depend precisely on which side of the camp you belong to, despite the film’s partial attempt to have its footing on both fronts.
But, unlike Green, who struggled to incorporate dread and mayhem into his trilogy—this new undertaking by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett feels more assured and skilled, primarily because of the duo’s horror roots. What they need is a reinvention of the franchise’s most trite tropes. It is finally time that the franchise begins to look inwards. Or, in the meantime, it could just go back to Scream 2—a sequel unafraid to be bold and risky, just like the original.