©Paramount/courtesy Everett Col
The sequel to the sequel is set in the city, where the series finds new ways to compound old scares.
The killer phone call sequence that opens every “Scream” movie is always a tasty appetizer, which, as the characters in any “Scream” movie could tell you, sets the tone for the movie in question. In “Scream VI”, this scene starts at the bar of a trendy restaurant in downtown Manhattan. The woman sitting at the bar is a professor of film studies, blonde and British. As she says on the phone to her online date, who can’t seem to locate the restaurant, she’s teaching a class on slasher movies (which, as she explains, isn’t a stunt dagger in the darkness of plausibility). Her date, a sweetly annoying dork, is able to talk to her on the street to help her find the place, and the moment she enters a dark alley, we know what’s coming. (His voice drops to that familiar mocking growl of AM-DJ radio.) In this case, however, the killer is instantly unmasked as…a college bro. He returns to his apartment, and moments later he is the victim of the horror movie, talking on the phone with the real killer.
This elaborate double sequence, with its creepier-than-usual overtones (this brother describes how much he enjoyed committing copycat murder), does a good job of setting the stage for “Scream VI,” the first entry in the series that takes place in a place like New York. The four main characters of “Scream,” last year’s “requel,” are all back: Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera), who triumphantly ended that film by performing the cinematic version of Ghostface; Sam’s little sister, Tara (Jenna Ortega), who attends Blackmore College in New York (a fictional college resembling NYU), and whom Sam overlooks as an overprotective parent; and Tara’s fellow transplant students, clever horror geek Mindy Meeks-Martin (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and her sexy brother Chad (Mason Gooding).
Directors, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, and screenwriters, James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, also return. In their hands is Mindy the cerebral horror superfan who once again elucidates the operating rules of a “Scream” movie, incorporating, as before, a new audience-based corporate cynicism about what movies can and will for an encore. Once Ghostface launches its rampage, Mindy correctly notes that what the characters are now in the middle of isn’t just a sequel but a franchise, and she sets the rules for what that suggests. This means the new film needs to be bigger and more flashy. That it must swing in a new direction and subvert expectations. And that legacy characters are strictly expendable. “Scream VI” more or less lives up to these precepts.
But here are some personal rules about where the “Scream” franchise stands today. Rule #1: All of the horror genre’s meta-gameplay, with the characters looking like schlock culture scholars of their own dreadful fates, has become mere window dressing. Rule #2: The fact that we don’t know the identity of the killer has actually allowed this series to age with more suspense than, say, the “Halloween” movies, where it’s always the same evil drone under the mask. Rule #3: This means that the “Scream” series, while retaining just enough of the postmodern snark spirit, lives or dies now if the film in question actually succeeds as a thriller. And “Scream VI”, even if it lasts too long, is a very good thriller. It’s a homicidal shell game that’s smart in all the right ways, staged and shot with more force than the previous film, eager to take advantage of its more sprawling but closed-in cosmopolitan setting.
In the 90s, the “Scream” films, in their self-reflexive way of slashing on rewind, channeled a genuine affection for cinema. In “Scream VI”, one of Ghostface’s victims says, “We have to finish the movie”, to which Ghostface responds, just before stabbing him, “Who gives a fuck about movies?” “Scream VI” holds audiences back, but it also polishes a genre it knows all too well no longer matters. The Ghostface mask, like an old leather couch, is a bit shabby and worn this time around, and that’s fitting for a 27-year-old streak that now has nine different Ghostface Killers.
In “Scream VI”, Ghostface is far from shy. He rushes center stage, attacking Sam and Tara at a bodega (the cashier has a shotgun, but that’s not enough to stop him). And the movie takes the mask off us with a sequence, at the start, in which Ghostface breaks into an apartment that has pretty much all of the main characters in it, so we think, “It can’t be any of them.” We’re also given a good reason to think it can’t be one of the housemates, the erotically exuberant Quinn (Liana Liberato), whose father (Dermot Mulroney) is the cop in charge of the case. So that leaves… who? Ethan (Jack Champion) the stuttering virgin nerd? Too easy.
Melissa Barrera has the fire and skill to play Sam as a woman so possessed by the killer’s destruction that she leaves her…possessed. Sam became the heroine of “Scream”, but since then an online conspiracy theory has coated her with the insinuation that she was in fact the killer. And ever since she destroyed Ghostface with a vengeance equal to hers, she thinks – or at least her therapist (Henry Czerny) does – “Maybe I am A killer.” Between that and protecting Tara, Sam has a lot on his mind. Jenna Ortega’s newfound stardom as the lead character in “Wednesday” will only help “Scream VI” at the box office, and she invests Tara with a snarling spunk that matters. Courteney Cox makes sure Gale Weathers’ return feels like more than a token inheritance gesture, and the same for Hayden Panettiere, whose Kirby Reed is back (from “Scream 4”!) as an FBI agent, though his best scene is in the horror-movie ratings with Mindy.
The “Scream” series, in its first two episodes (before coming to a creative halt in “Scream III”), was always the slasher series that was too self-aware to be just a series. slash. Now it’s the slasher series that’s just embarrassed enough not to be a pointless retread. It really is the second part of the sequel, which perhaps explains why it doesn’t exhaust its welcome (although it could easily have been just 100 minutes). There’s a terrific sequence that takes place on Halloween night in a subway car teaming up with costumed monsters. And there are several scenes that take place in some kind of underground sanctuary, built in an abandoned movie theater, where the killer has gathered and displayed all the key evidence for all cases. It’s a conscious nod to the fact that the series itself now faces the prospect of turning into a sort of “Scream” museum. But this team of filmmakers might be smart enough to avoid that, as long as they keep finding ways to turn the cynical entropy that typically drives horror series into the very thing that makes “Scream” scream.