2023 | rated R | starring Melissa Barrera, Jenna Ortega, Jasmin Savoy-Brown, Mason Gooding, Courtney Cox, Hayden Panettiere, Dermot Mulroney | directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett | 2h 2m |
Season 7 Premiere
In 2022 directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett (the duo behind the gothic bloodbath Ready or Not) delivered something rare: a franchise reboot that actually cared about the franchise it was rebooting. With a fresh new cast, returning favorite characters and a boatload of fan service, 2022’s Scream showed the duo was dialed into this series unique mix of horror, commentary, camp and self-referential parody, cautiously stepping into the huge shoes of Wes Craven. The film was more homage than expansion, but it replicated the tone and style established for a Scream movie perfectly. With the set-up at their back, the team decides to shake things up this with Scream VI, delivering a new setting, new rules and a nasty new killer. It all adds up to one of the most unique and one of the best entries of this long-running series.
Between Scream 5 and 6, a fan film called “Scream: Legacy” hit Youtube. It’s a reasonably well-made 1-hour project, decently acted with a good sound-alike Ghostface killer. And in all of it’s 65 minute running time it doesn’t have a single movie reference in it. It’s just a slasher movie. The overwhelmingly positive reception this project got shocked me. What’s a Scream movie without the meta-horror element? We’re along way from 1996 and Scream as a series has now outlasted the movies it was originally riffing, removing the source material from the consciousness of an entire new generation. Luckily, despite a clever opening that declares “who gives a f**k about movies”, screenwriters James Vanderbilt (Zodiac) and Gary Busick (Ready or Not) don’t skimp on the new rules and references. This time setting their sights on the rules of horror franchises in a Halloween setting full of costumed cameos (including a few from their own people-hunting film).
We pick up a year after Scream, with Samantha (Melissa Barrera) following younger sister Tara (Jenna Ortega), movie-buff Mindy (Jasmin Savoy-Brown) and anti-jock Chad (Mason Gooding) to college in New York City. Killings with left-behind Ghostface masks start popping up all over the city bringing Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) out of the woodwork and pointing directly at Sam, instead of her dead ex boyfriend Ritchie, to blame for the prior year’s Woodsboro massacre. Framed and terrorized by their hooded attackers, Sam, Tara, Mindy, Chad and a few new suspicious love interests and roommates try to survive Halloween, looking to the help of a grizzled cop (Dermot Mulroney) and trivia-buff-turned-FBI agent, Kirby Reed (Hayden Panettiere).
From a technical perspective, Scream VI is put together like a well-oiled machine. Scream films can be long-in-the-tooth and have a herky-jerky pace, this one is the longest of them all (at over 2 hours) and flies by at a more nimble pace than ever. It finds a near note-perfect balance between speed, crafting killer set pieces, a darker tone, solid humor and time spent enriching the characters. Bettinelli and Gillett hone in on what worked the first time around and explore it, not just expanding the characters, but giving room for the chemistry among the cast to breath, developing the two siblings into a Core Four that feel like real friends instead of the usual slasher movie knife fodder. Chad in particular goes from a more stereotypical jock to a goofy love interest, but everyone is challenged – Mindy with someone she cares about, Tara with a desire to find freedom in the city and Sam to control the increasing fear that she’s becoming more and more like her father, Billy Loomis. The movie is keenly aware that this is lightening in a bottle and leans into it hard. For me, personally, a the relationships among the characters, particularly if friends actually feel like they are friends, is more important than any “character development”. It elevates everything.
It is really well done and Ghostface is more brutal then ever. Vanderbilt and Busick are right there in the heads of the audience, managing expectations and flipping them on their head for a few golden twists and red herrings. The attack scenes feel like they are playing out like a live back-and-forth debate about how much or how little the film is ready to bend, break or abide by it’s own rules. Like Jason Vorhees and the Gremlins before them, Scream journeys to the Big Apple for a change of pace, unlike those movies it uses the setting well, turning crowded streets, subways, cramped apartments, back alleys and bodegas into taught set pieces. The film doesn’t go for the tourist spots, but the grimy underbelly of Manhattan from those that live their. In addition to the technical efforts, what really makes this movie sing is that the cast has uncommonly good natural chemistry.
In keeping with the series, this film delivers an elaborate opening that twists and turns that might be one of my very favorites of the series. It features Samara Weaving as a college professor of 21st century slasher movies (which is about as absurd and funny as Kirby becoming an FBI agent, but let’s go with it). One of the things that frustrates me about Scream is that it tends to pull it’s punches about the value of horror movies. No other genre regularly gains mainstream acceptance by making fun of itself or being what it’s not (Elevated Horror). In this opening Weaving is so close to delivering the full-throated defense of horror movies I’ve always wanted to see this series do – because it’s the only one that can do it – and then it pulls back. It does the same for Serial Innocence Project culture, hinting at the obsession with proving that attractive prisoners are all innocent by the social media adoration of Ritchie. When Gail says that True Crime is what’s big now, I instantly got an image of what a really sharp version of this series could have been about. But that’s never been Scream, at least since Scream 2.
I loved this movie – until I didn’t. All of my qualms with Scream VI would be behind a spoiler warning in the third act. Suffice to say the killer reveal is a lame one, their motives are lame and it robs the movie of that extra level of meta commentary that a great Scream movie has. While I loved 90% of this movie, this is an issue, because these movies are defined by their killers and their motives. I prefer my Scream movies to be about movies, and not just reference them. Where Scream 5 had a lot to say about the conflict between agenda-driven Hollywood reboots and the toxic fans that hate them, Scream VI would rather fold over it’s own legacy. It’s a disappointment, but at that point a lot of good will has been built up from the ride that preceded it.
Scream VI is by design the self-aware other side of the coin to Scream 5, in the same way the college-set Scream 2 was the other side of the coin to Scream. While that movie did what it did to near perfection, Scream VI is flawed, but aims to do something more ambitious and for that I appreciate it. It juggles a lot beautifully without feeling overstuffed. These movies have a history of being more clever than funny, but I laughed out loud a few times at this film. It’s nastier edge and solid jokes remove the cheesier elements that usually come with this series. Scream VI delivers elaborate kills without jump scares, fan service, series shake-ups, Star Wars jabs, fleshed out characters and another twisty murder mystery. I think the ball gets dropped in the third act keeping it from greatness but otherwise, this is another treat for fans of a series that 6 movies in still manages to feel fresh and relevant.