Scream VI review – Ghostface takes Manhattan in standout slasher sequel
There’s a moment in the uncommonly good slasher sequel Scream VI when Hayden Panettiere’s returning fan favourite character says she died for four minutes after being stabbed in 2011’s fourth instalment. That film, now viewed as a rather under-appreciated entry, killed the franchise for far longer, positioned as the start of a new trilogy but instead stopping the series for over a decade, its wounding box office proving far harder to heal.
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But easy access to the series via streaming and an increased appetite for the horror genre led to a hyped resurrection and last year’s simply titled Scream became a surprise hit, re-engaging the OG 90s kids while also inspiring a legion of new bloodthirsty fans. As a legacy sequel it was only half-successful, juggling the old and the new with shaky hands, but it was good enough in a landscape where that’s more than enough, and cautious intrigue awaited wherever the franchise might go next.
As with 1997’s Scream 2, we didn’t need to wait that long with the worryingly rushed Scream VI out just over a year later, survivors re-assembling for more meta mayhem. While, as is always the case with a Scream movie, there are plenty of surprising twists in store for them and us, perhaps the biggest surprise is just how impressive the whole thing is, given both the frantic cram of production and the muddle of what came before. There are so many plates now in the air – two different generations grappling with one absurdly convoluted timeline – but returning screenwriters James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick have found a way to make the spinning feel effortless, mastering a tonal balance that they struggled with last time around.
Tone has always been key with the Scream movies, an unusual melange of self-referential snark, Scooby Doo mystery-solving, gory horror and far-fetched family soap. Unlike so many slasher sequels that focus more on the primal basics of watching someone in a mask do horrible things to anonymous young people, a new Scream is tasked with not only tackling an almost 30-year-long melodrama involving multiple families and multiple grudges but also with a need to reinvent the wheel, each sequel having to say or do something we haven’t seen before. While Scream VI is far less fixated on a thesis than the fifth was, it’s still clever enough to comment on franchise fatigue and the repetitive grind of trauma without feeling as didactic or as smug as so many more superficially high-minded horror films. There are brief but effective tinges of sadness (it’s the sixth film and a lot of people have died at this point) but it’s sprightly enough to not get bogged down by it, remembering the most important thing a Scream film should be is fun.
We’re out of Woodsboro for only the third time in the franchise (the second film took us to a leafy college campus, the third to Hollywood) and, like Jason Voorhees before him/her/them, Ghostface is taking Manhattan, or more accurately Montreal posing as Manhattan. Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera), aka the daughter of Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich, still returning in visions, still a heinous idea), has insisted herself upon her sister Tara (Jenna Ortega), an understandably smothering presence after the two almost died months before. But before you can say the classic slasher sequel line “It’s starting again”, it starts again with bodies piling up around them, at the bodega, in an apartment building and, of course, on the subway.
What’s notable this time around is that it’s not Neve Campbell’s tortured Final Girl Sidney Prescott resignedly delivering that line because, for the first time, she’s not a part of this chapter. The star spoke out about a perceived low salary, a slight given her prominence in the franchise and how much money the last film made, and decided not to return (a strategy that will surely, hopefully, pay off with a healthy paycheck for the inevitable Scream VII). Instead, it’s down to Courteney Cox, returning as opportunistic yet haunted journalist Gale Weathers (and thankfully given more to do this time which she does predictably well), and Panettiere’s film geek turned FBI agent to represent the older guard while Mason Gooding and Jasmin Savoy Brown’s brother-sister pairing Chad and Mindy, aka nephew and niece of Jamie Kennedy’s Randy Meeks, return on the younger side.
After a genuinely surprising and horribly effective cold open, something every Scream is judged by, directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett find their groove instantly, freed from the shackles of both the scene-setting of the last film and a need to be as tiresomely meta. Barrera also feels freer, overcoming some of her soapier acting impulses, and fostering a strong sibling dynamic with Ortega, again a standout. While we might have left the fifth film worried that the newer generation would ever be able to capture the same long-running chemistry as their predecessors, there’s little doubt here, the “core four” as they call themselves proving both charming and heartfelt.
It’s the second film in the new rebooted universe so bigger is seen as better with a number of brash and bloody setpieces, most of which prove suspenseful enough if never actually scary (has a Scream film needed to be truly scary since the first?). It’s the goriest movie of the series so far but without veering into grimness, again that tonal balance perfectly modulated. The last act reveal is as goofy as one would expect but satisfyingly so for reasons impossible to explain without entering spoiler territory. What can be said is that there’s so much affection for what’s come before that it leads us to be that much more excited about what’s to come next. If further Screams can provide this much of a propulsive jolt then there’s more life in the franchise than we thought.
Scream VI is in US, UK and Australian cinemas on 10 March