‘Scream VI’ Slashes at Its Own Existence With Sharp Jokes and Screeching Terror

The “Scream” franchise keeps coming back like its vast assembly of deranged killers and family feuds. What sets it apart is that somehow its reboots have proven to be convincingly entertaining. By the sixth movie zone, most horror franchises have really lost it and gone off the rails. But since Wes Craven directed the original “Scream” in 1996, the charm here is that it’s a series made with the spirit of film buffs. The movie is always aware of what it is and proceeds to comment on itself. “Scream VI” moves the action to New York City, basing its format on the idea that a franchise must always go bigger. In another movie many moments would be beyond absurd, yet that’s the point because it knows this is where it has to go.

Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett leave the usual setting of Woodsboro and enroll our heroes into the same college in the Big Apple months after the events of 2022’s “Scream.” Tara (Jenna Ortega) remains close with twins and fellow Ghostface survivors Chad (Mason Gooding) and Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown). Tara’s big sister Sam (Melissa Barrera) has also moved in to make sure everyone is safe after the events of the last movie, when Sam’s boyfriend Richie (Jack Quaid) turned out to be a psycho killer determined to redeem the fictional film series “Stab,” which was inspired by the original Woodsboro murders. You may also recall Sam turned out to be the daughter of Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich), who carried out said crimes. She is still dealing with PTSD and seeking therapy, while Tara wants to pretend she’s over it. When a series of new murders start taking place, beginning with a doomed film professor (Samara Weaving), it’s clear the terror is back and it’s time for our heroes to once again figure out who’s behind the Ghostface costume.

Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett have essentially mastered the basic formula and thus find room to get more inventive. They don’t commit the same mistakes as the recent “Halloween” revivals. Like the previous entries, “Scream VI” has good, gory scares, but it’s also very tongue and cheek. As it must, the movie begins with a new victim (Weaving, who starred in the directors’ wicked satire “Ready or Not”) getting an ominous phone call leading to a vicious stabbing. Yet in a new setting the small town America feel is gone and we’re in the territory of dark, smoky alleys. The characters now run around the city with Ghostface roaming apartments or leaving you to bleed out behind a dumpster. While it feels new, it’s also slyly shadowing the original films. 1997’s “Scream 2” also progressed into its characters being college students. The technique makes it fun for comparisons since film culture has changed much since then. Resident film expert Mindy goes through the fine points of how the last movie was a requel, now they’re in a franchise. Her discussion on franchises as IP factories meant to go bigger while remaining familiar, thus ensuring box office hits, is quite keen. Sound familiar? 

Aware of its own clichés, the directors and writers, James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, let loose by throwing them around. New characters include straight-A nice guy Ethan (Jack Champion) and roommate Quinn (Liana Liberato). She’s the one in every horror film who sleeps around and here resents Sam calling her a “slut,” because she’s actually sex positive. Quinn’s father is scruffy Detective Bailey (Dermot Mulroney), perfectly cast to brood around and get sucked into the unfolding carnage. Sam is having a fling with the well-built Latino guy in the next building, Danny (Josh Segarra), who sounds more like East L.A. than New York. He also doesn’t realize it’s more helpful to call 911 than to scream endlessly from across his building while witnessing an attack. Of course, the movie knows this. Two characters in our group of friends start falling in love, as they must, because “Scream” deep down is about youthful anxieties. Courtney Cox flawlessly returns as TV reporter Gale Weathers, who we delightfully learn wrote another trashy book about the crimes of the last movie. 

“Scream VI” would have been a complete blast as pure satire but because these filmmakers know how to stage bloody action well, it still delivers as pure thriller. There are the intense chases through apartments where death arrives with a shock. But remember, we’re now in franchise territory, so some of the action is heightened to levels that threaten to get gloriously absurd. Ghostface even wields a shotgun at one point inside a convenience store, killing several bystanders, an occurrence that does not appear to make the news later. Cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz keeps it classy with a gothic, sharp look even as these directors love their gore packed with many close-ups of gushing fake blood. It’s a “Scream” movie, you can’t ask for more. There’s real intensity to the violence, as it also comments on itself. Someone gets stabbed repeatedly on a subway train full of Halloween revelers dressed as classic horror characters. When another death is announced, Mindy bemoans, “Wait, the guy obsessed with Argento?” And just when you roll your eyes at one particular stabbing spree, someone literally yells, “how are you still alive?!”

An elephant in the room is the absence of original “Scream” star Neve Campbell, who skipped this one after a pay dispute. While the writing does a convincing enough job explaining where our beloved Sidney is, even this can be seen as material for the scrip’s jabs at the industry. Mindy explains that franchises get so massive any cast member can become disposable, which Campbell might have proven. To fill in more of the nostalgia gap, Hayden Panettiere returns as Kirby Reed from “Scream 4,” now working as a leather-clad FBI agent with a husky voice. Her performance alone should inspire some cult adoration. It’s balanced by Melissa Barrera and Jenna Ortega (star of Netflix’s big hit “Wednesday”) finding good dramatic notes amid the mayhem. These films are references within references, with a grand finale fully commenting on fandom obsession with keeping a series going forever. But the pair really make us believe these are sisters struggling with damaged psyches. Even when Sam hallucinates with a digitally de-aged Skeet Ulrich, she brings out the tension of inner turmoil in a way that avoids corniness. You can ponder all that after the credits. “Scream VI” is best enjoyed as a surprisingly strong, slashing continuation of the 27-year-old series. Even as it thrills, it has much fun jabbing at its own existence.

Scream VI” releases March 10 in theaters nationwide.