Watching Scream VI, a creeping sense of dread began to overtake me. It wasn’t from seeing Ghostface stalk one of his soon-to-be victims. Neither was it out of worry whether one of the new teen characters (here dubbed “the Core Four”) would live or die. Instead, it was from the depressing realization that one of my favorite slasher sagas was running on fumes. A series that once prided itself on taking the piss out of lazy sequel trends has now, perhaps inevitably, succumbed to them.
That isn’t to say Scream VI is a terrible movie per se; as modern slashers go, there’s some fun to be had with a few sequences here. Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett (both part of the indie filmmaking collective Radio Silence) can’t hope to measure up to late director Wes Craven’s inventive set pieces and biting wit, but they’re no slouches either. Unfortunately, it’s in the screenplay department where this sequel falls apart — collapsing under an overabundance of thinly written characters, bizarre subplots that lead nowhere and a ludicrous third act that throws in so many reversals and psych-outs that it ultimately feels meaningless.
As marketing has emphasized, the setting has changed from the fictional town of Woodsboro to New York City, where Sam (Melissa Barrera) and Tara Carpenter (Jenna Ortega), the two siblings introduced in the last film, are now attending college. Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and Chad (Mason Gooding) round out the rest of the Core Four, all coping with the sudden fame of surviving the latest Ghostface massacre. The Scream movies have always been whodunnits at heart, so diving any further into the plot would be unfair, but obviously, it’s only a matter of time before another Ghostface killer starts hacking his way through the Big Apple.
The filmmakers deserve credit for taking advantage of the setting, too. Unlike Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (which we see a character watching at one point), the movie utilizes New York landmarks for a couple of genuinely tense sequences. The best takes place in a crowded subway car, where various passengers’ costumes (including Ghostface masks and shoutouts to other slasher icons), noisy claustrophobia and sudden darkness from tunnel plunges are used to great effect. It balances humor, winking genre references and creative staging in a way that recalls Craven at his best.
But a couple of well-staged scares can’t save Scream VI from the feeling of diminishing returns. In the now-obligatory scene where a nerdy character must explain the rules of the movie they’re in, Mindy, the new reboots’ replacement for Jamie Kennedy’s Randy, declares “This isn’t a legacyquel anymore … it’s a franchise.” Mindy’s thesis is that franchises must repeat the established formula but with a bigger budget and new characters. Sadly, pointing out that your movie is just a rehash of rehashed ideas doesn’t make it clever.
And it’s not like a slasher needs to be original. Some of the best slashers ever made don’t have an ounce of ambition. But Scream VI wants to poke fun at tired horror tropes while doing little to rise above them. The biggest issue is that we have a new cast of characters acting out the same storyline we’ve seen in other Scream sequels, but neither is nearly as compelling this time around.
This newest generation of Scream films succumbs to what some of the less-successful Marvel films do as well, which is casting a handful of charismatic actors and having them trade weak one-liners at rapid-fire speed. And as charming as Ortega and Brown are, just having them stand around and trade banter along the lines, “Well, that just happened” doesn’t make for memorable characterization. Frankly, there isn’t that much beneath the surface here, and not a single of these new additions will be as memorable in 25 years as Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott or David Arquette’s Dewey.
On top of that, there are just so. damn. many of them. As seen from the film’s terrible poster, this thing is filled to the brim with supporting characters who serve little purpose except to be red herrings. Even returning players like Courtney Cox and Hayden Panettiere (back from Scream 4) have no room to make a mark in such an overcrowded screenplay. Cox in particular could be removed entirely and the story would hardly change.
Scream VI plays like a movie at war with itself. It desperately wants to change things up with a new setting and fresh faces, but it’s also afraid to take any real risks to the point that most audiences can guess who the killer is when they pop on screen. By the time we reach a scene where our characters are literally walking around a museum of props from the previous Scream films, it becomes clear: Maybe Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett should stop being so precious with the series they decided to resurrect.