Over the course of six films and three decades, Scream has quietly established itself as the sturdiest and most reliable of today’s horror franchises. It’s never had to reboot itself. It’s never had to awkwardly sweep its unloved sequels under the rug. Some instalments have certainly been better than others, but the series has only ever slightly stumbled over the years – it’s never dramatically self-combusted. That’s partly because the Scream formula is ideally tailored for endless repetition. All you need is a fresh batch of teenagers and a dose of self-awareness and, voilà, you’ve got yourself a Scream movie.
Scream VI, really, only ever achieves the bare minimum of those requirements. Yet it’s both wholly satisfying and ridiculously fun. Opting for a location switch à la Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, it sees the four core survivors of the last film – sisters Sam (Melissa Barrera) and Tara (Jenna Ortega), plus twins Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and Chad (Mason Gooding) – relocate to New York City. Ghostface, the mantle taken up in each film by new and mysterious killers, resurfaces once more.
Mindy, our resident horror buff, is quick to establish the rules of the game: these would-be victims are now deep in the age of the cinematic franchise, and all bets are off. All that matters now is the brand name, which means both protagonists and legacy characters have become equal cannon fodder (as she points out, James Bond and Luke Skywalker died so their franchises could live on). With Sidney Prescott safely offscreen (Neve Campbell chose not to return, following a dispute over pay) and Dewey Riley (David Arquette) already six feet under, that doesn’t exactly spell good news for reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), the one remaining, original Scream veteran.
But, if anything, Campbell’s (potentially temporary) departure has gently shifted the focus away from the preciousness of the original film, and towards the larger, less nostalgically regarded sequels. That explains the return of Scream 4’s Kirby Reed (Hayden Panettiere), who was revealed in last year’s sequel to have survived her encounter with Ghostface in her original film and now works as an FBI special agent. It doesn’t matter all that much if you remember her – Panettiere plays the role with a sly wit, as she tussles with Gale for elder statesman superiority.
Mindy, during her briefing, makes the case that franchises only survive by subverting expectations. That’s a bit of an oversell for Scream VI, to be frank. The reveal of the film’s Ghostface killer(s?) isn’t as clever as last time, lacking the same pointed commentary on toxic fandoms and fragile masculinity. But James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick’s script does a heroic job of making every character – from Dermot Mulroney’s detective to Josh Segarra’s love interest – seem unnaturally intense and instantly suspicious. And then, of course, there’s Sam herself, revealed in the last film to be the daughter of original Ghostface Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich, who once more returns in ghostly, digitally de-aged form), who does a lot of staring into the middle distance with a look of would-be bloodlust.
Even if the kills aren’t all that inventive, they’re bloody, efficient, and brutally composed by returning directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett ââWell. The real subversion of Scream VI, in fact, is that we’re shown an unmasked Ghostface picking up a gun for the very first time – and it’s striking how the film suddenly slows down and goes silent. For a horror figure that’s often been a source of light ridicule, frequently tripping over his own robes and getting his head smacked with random objects, here’s the one time Ghostface is treated with deadly seriousness, crystallised around an image of potent, real-world terror.
Samara Weaving’s Laura, an associate professor in film studies, explains at one point that the rigorousness of the slasher film’s formula has made the genre a perfect barometer of our current culture. For all that Scream VI may feel sturdy and familiar, you just know some academic in 20 or so years will be picking apart its bones to tell us how much it really said about who we are. Scream is a long way from losing its purpose.
Dir: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett. Starring: Melissa Barrera, Jenna Ortega, Jasmin Savoy Brown, Mason Gooding, Dermot Mulroney, Samara Weaving, Hayden Panettiere, Courteney Cox. 18, 123 minutes.
‘Scream VI’ is in cinemas from 9 March