AUTHOR’S NOTE: You are about to read a review of a movie called Scream VI. While I will do my best to avoid spoilers for this particular film, this review will proceed under the assumption that the reader has seen the previous five films. If you are not caught up on your Screams, consider this your warning.
Reviewing a film in the Scream series is not like reviewing other movies. It is, of course, a horror movie at its core, and must be judged by the standard metrics: the acting, the suspense, the quality and creativity of the kills. But the Scream films– the good ones, anyway– are also works of criticism in their own right. The defining aspect of the series is the way in which it lampshades and comments upon the tropes of the horror genre itself (even as it utilizes and indulges in those same tropes in an ultimately fairly straightforward manner). The success of a Scream film is measured not just by how scary it is, but by how effectively it calls attention to the ways in which it’s scaring you. Arriving barely a year after the first entry in the series’ revival (the surprisingly good but maddeningly titled Scream), Scream VI succeeds in developing its new cast of characters, but is ultimately largely indistinguishable from the films it’s meant to send up.
For the first time in the series’ history, the action is transplanted from the idyllic suburbs of Woodsboro, California to the streets of New York City. Following a cold-opening involving the prerequisite menacing phone call (albeit with some entertaining new twists), we rejoin the “core four” of the previous film, now graduated and taking classes at a fictional Manhattan university. Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera) is working through her significant trauma, obsessing over the safety of her younger sister Tara (Jenna Ortega, appealing as always), fending off Reddit truthers who believe she masterminded the murders herself, and only occasionally seeing visions of her father, original Ghostface Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich, shot in soft focus with a silly wig). Inevitably, people start getting sliced and diced by a killer in a familiar rubber mask, and Sam begins receiving sinister, gravel-voiced phone calls. Sure enough, our heroes are being pursued by yet another Ghostface copycat, drawing the attention of tabloid journalist Gail Weathers (Courtney Cox, the final remnant of the “classic trio” following the onscreen departure of David Arquette and the offscreen exit of Neve Campbell). As always, survival will come down to outsmarting the killer, and defining and abiding by his Very Simple Rules.
I don’t think it will violate the spoiler embargo to reveal that, unlike a certain allegedly New York-set slasher, Scream VI does not confine the bulk of its action to a very long boat ride (this, of course, would have been franchise suicide, but it would have been an absolutely BALLER move). In some ways, though, it still feels like we’re circling the harbor. Following that opening scene (which, make no mistake, is one of the most inventive of the series), the film falls into a curiously straight-faced half hour of character development and exposition.When Sarah and Tara try to unpack the traumatic events of the previous film, they do so in down-to-earth terms with hardly a pithy pop-cultural reference between them. Later, the kids are assisted by Hayden Panettere reprising her role from Scream 4, and not one of them cracks a joke about how nostalgia-fueled reboots shamelessly resurrect ostensibly dead fan-favorite characters. These scenes generally work well enough in their own right, thanks largely to the charisma and likability of the film’s leads, but they don’t feel particularly Screamy.
As the new films’ Randy Meeks stand-in (and, consequently, the cast member who best taps into the energy of the series), it’s Jasmin Savoy Brown who finally cracks the film’s thesis: with its campus setting and new assortment of supporting characters, this latest killing spree bears an eerie resemblance to the events of Scream 2 (“Only nobody makes sequels anymore– we’re in a franchise!”). The comparison is likely more apt than the filmmakers intended. Like this film, Scream 2 was rushed into production and released less than a year after the surprise success of the original, and like Scream VI it suffered from a muddled concept: it’s a riff on the rules of sequels, but also a critique of post-OJ court culture, and maybe also a postmodern spin on Greek tragedies? Likewise, where last year’s Scream had its pick of fresh references from Halloween Kills to The Babadook, Scream VI simply doesn’t have a lot of new material to comment upon. In my opinion, the Scream series works best with a decade or so between entries (as in 2011’s underrated Scream 4). Ironically, the artistic success of the series depends upon its commercial failure.
With its relative lack of references, Scream VI raises a more existential question: is Scream compatible with the current generation? The original film, of course, was tailor-made for the fast-talking pop culture junkies of Generation X (even simple Dewey had seen The Town that Dreaded Sundown). Its sensibility translated reasonably well to the Millennial teens of Scream 4, who lived their lives online but still treasured their sprawling DVD collections. But physical media means little to Zoomers, and neither does snobbery over old movie references. Simply put, these kids are too nice to be in a Scream movie. This is a group of friends who love and support each other, who laugh affectionately at each others’ dumb jokes, and while that’s lovely, it’s just not Scream. There are light jabs at this generation’s gentle nature (when Brown identifies one of the new supporting cast as “the slutty roommate,” the roommate counters with “Uhh, sex-positive!”), but not enough to risk alienating its teen audience. This is not to say that Generation Z is immune to hard-edged horror satire (see last year’s Bodies Bodies Bodies for an excellent example), but I suspect they’re just not on Scream’s delightfully mean-spirited wavelength.
All this being said, Scream VI does effectively capture the bouncy pop-horror of the series, and some of its scenes rank among the series’ best (in one brilliant scene I can’t believe it took them this long to do, the characters escape onto a subway car, only to find themselves jammed between Halloween revelers dressed like iconic horror characters through the ages). The kids, again, are great (I suspect this will be one of those films we look back on in a few years in awe of how far its cast has come), and Cox is a typically bitchy delight. But for a franchise built on positioning itself at least nominally above and outside typical slasher fare, Scream VI plays it curiously straight. The original Scream marked an inflection point away from the mindless slashers of the ‘80s; this, in turn, might be the moment “elevated horror” fully gives way back to commercialized studio product.
dir. Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett
Opens Friday, 3/10 @ Somerville Theatre and theaters everywhere