At some point in the now seemingly perpetual Scream franchise, which has spawned six feature films (and counting) and a forgotten television adaptation, the original modus operandi of the post-modern slasher seems to have fallen to the wayside. Where once Wes Craven’s and Kevin Williamson’s films focused on lovingly deconstructing and subverting tired horror tropes while speaking to an audience overly familiar with them, at some point, the focus shifted – possibly around the Scream 4 installment.
The series’ self-aware posturing over the failings of slapdash remakes is where it began to recede into itself and started mostly commenting on the tropes of its own movies. Which is all well and good if this tendency to look inward represented an evolution for the series, but Scream 6 amounted to nothing more than obligatory, regressive navel gazing.
This is an utter shame for directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett – who have returned after 2022’s (frustratingly titled) Scream, the first entry in the series to not be helmed by Craven or Williamson, to pick their story of an entirely new, movie-obsessed crop of Woodsboro teens hounded by the Ghostface persona back up one year later. While their film follows the newly dubbed “Core Four” of the previous film, sisters Samantha and Tara Carpenter (Melissa Barrera and Jenna Ortega) and twins Mindy and Chad (Jasmin Savoy Brown and Mason Gooding) after they’ve settled in New York, Scream 6 is at its best when it does not feel so beholden to repeat the established formulas of the franchise or make such broad appeals to an assumed fanbase.
Yes, a new Ghostface killer (or killers because it’s always more than one) materializes on the scene and begins stalking them once again, but returning screenwriters James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick have filled in these characters enough where they could theoretically exist without needing to be tethered back to Craven’s films. This installment is the reaching of a rubicon for this series, where infinite potential directions to follow stand before it (new city, new characters, new horror-film trends), and, lamentably, it turns itself around and settles into placated nostalgia.
That said, one only needs to look at the many brilliant and brutal set pieces/death scenes to see Scream 6 in its top form. The multiple scenes of Ghostface stalking, taunting, chasing and occasionally butchering its hapless victims are shot with sharp attention paid to overbearing tension and perfectly placed dark humor. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillet demonstrate that they know how to creatively play with the slasher formula as laid out by this franchise and make it their own through tight editing, frantic-yet-legible cinematography, imaginative sets (none of which are actually shot in New York, despite their best efforts to convince you otherwise), and utterly gruesome flourishes of blood and guts. Scream 6 dazzles you with how unforgivingly brutal and gripping these scenes of vicious pursuit and execution can get – a spectacularly visceral scene involving a ladder or the anxiety-inducing simplicity of the subway scene from the trailer stand out as obvious highlights.
The film finds itself into a riveting flow of set pieces and endearing comedic chemistry between our “Core Four,” but unfortunately this flow has to stop dead so that Scream 6 can properly prostrate itself before its predecessors and “play the hits” of a Scream film. Of course this is to be expected with Scream being the self-referential franchise that it is, and as a fan, you were probably waiting with bated breath for the obligatory scene where we establish what “rules” apply this time around and for our characters to toss out some name drops of other horror films.
The problem is that these portions of the screenplay feel rote and perfunctory, not so much offering insight into horror tropes or the venerable Scream formula this time around as much as they are lazily telegraphing the film’s many twists and checking off a box on a list of Scream requirements. Moreover, where Scream 6 truly loses the plot is in its almost hagiographic treatment of the previous entries in the series, which (without spoiling) figure heavily into the central whodunnit mystery in a manner so self-indulgent that its appeal lies almost exclusively with hardcore fans of the franchise. At one point, a returning character from a previous Scream film describes the actions of this Ghostface as “dropping franchise Easter eggs in real time,” and I never wished more that characters in a Scream film would just talk like human beings and not TVTropes webpages.
This pseudo-screed might sound like I am faulting the latest Scream purely for the sin of being a Scream movie, but that’s not true (although in all honestly I have not truly loved a Scream film since the first entry). Scream 6 has a lot of elements I like, from its fantastic set pieces and slick sense of pacing to its pitch-perfect cast, who make their characters feel as lived in and endearing as any of the ones created by Craven and Williamson. What clouds all these positives is the film’s (and, more specifically, the franchise’s) fundamental inability to pick a direction that isn’t constantly glancing back on itself and its past. Even with this film’s many pithy comments about the diminishing returns of horror franchises, I already know Scream 7 is a foregone conclusion at this point. I only hope, for this next one, we decide to look forward for once.