The novelty of the SCREAM franchise has faded significantly, even with its reboot in 2022. By now, even the casual horror fan is well aware of the premise of “Ghost Face,” an unseen killer, or often killers, wreaking havoc on residents hailing from the fictional California town of Woodsboro. What’s kept the franchise going is its ability to be both scary and satirical, frightening us with its disguised serial killer, yet tickling our funny bones with its commentary on the cliches of slasher films. It’s always been wholly meta, making fun of what’s scaring us as it edges us closer to our seats. This new entry, SCREAM VI is no exception, though it does something significantly better than the recent entries – it stays mostly serious. Sure, there are some good laughs and some snarky commentary on IPs and reboots, but by and large, the approach here is straighter and even grounded. The characters onscreen are taking things more earnestly, and thus, so are we in the audience.
The gravity starts with the two leads, the ‘final girls’ from the last go-round. Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera) and her sister Tera (Jenna Ortega) survived “Ghost Face” in the fifth film, but now they’re being targeted by a new killer assuming the mantel who’s followed them to college in the Big Apple. Now, in most slasher films, one of such survivors would be the first one offed, but not here. This script wants to be less predictable and develop its characters more, particularly the two leads. In addition to fighting off a mad killer, the two sisters are fighting to stay connected with each other despite considerable animosity between them in their past. There’s more at stake here and it works to keep the audience wholly invested.
Thankfully, the tone of the film stays more serious like that too. The supporting characters aren’t just trotted out to die; they take what’s happening around them with welcome soberness. And as much scary fun as all this bloodletting and mayhem is, it feels weightier. Moving the action to New York City also adds consequences to the proceedings since the city is inherently intimidating.
Such serious-mindedness even shows up before the main plot kicks in. In the first set-piece of the film, a new “Ghost Face” targets a horror film studies teacher at the college where the sisters are. The college prof (Samara Weaving) banters with a lost blind date on the phone as he’s trying to find the bar they agreed to meet at. They discuss horror movie tropes, and indeed, they start to come true for the doomed educator, but their dialogue isn’t too jokey. Instead, it’s palpably frightening as she unwittingly puts herself in danger before it’s too late. The scene riffs on horror cliches, but it’s treated with a certain solemnity. You feel this kill and it’s disturbing.
Throughout this film, there are very few targets just asking for it, and none of the kills are played for laughs. The violence is sudden, vicious, and impactful. Two set-pieces especially stand out for their tension in the terror of their predicaments. In one, the two sisters and their friends attempt to escape the marauding killer by crawling atop a ladder 500 feet above the ground between two New York City apartments. The second finds the two sisters pinned down in a local bodega as the killer shoots at them with a shotgun. This “Ghost Face” isn’t beholden to the dagger; his only constant is bringing death.
Like other films in the franchise, many familiar faces return, including twin siblings Mindy (Jasmine Savoy-Brown) and Chad (Mason Gooding). (Everyone is at the same school? Convenient.) Of course, intrepid reporter Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) shows up, as does previous survivor Kirby Reed (Hayden Panettiere). She’s now an FBI agent working the case. Lending even more support are new college students played by Devyn Nekoda, Josh Segarra, Jack Champion, Liana Liberato, and Tony Revolori. They all help serve up the guessing game of “Are they a friend or foe”, yet despite so many players, the focus remains on the sisters. Even with veteran character actors Dermot Mulroney and Henry Czerny contributing their talents, the siblings stay front and center.
The fact that Ortega might be the hottest actress in Hollywood after her breakthrough role as the title character of Netflix’s WEDNESDAY series is a coup for this sequel. (She played the Drew Barrymore-esque role in the fifth one, but survived.) Ortega plays more down-to-earth than arch here, yet her character is equally plucky and courageous like the headstrong Wednesday. She’s not as acerbic, but James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick give her sharp dialogue nonetheless and she runs with it. So do the other cast members.
Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett shoot with economic flair, moving the camera and the players about their setting for full hide & seek frights. The directors overdo some of the knifings with too much gutting, and the film pulls too many punches late in the game when characters who’ve been skewered somehow survive. They want good people to stay above ground, a noble thought for sure. But make no mistake, this outing feels shrewder and more thoughtful. Even a third-act subway scene impresses with its ability to stay dramatic and suspenseful, keeping us off-guard through most of it.
Who knows how long the SCREAM franchise can go, but if the sequels like SCREAM VI keep the stakes high and the characters worth cheering for as they fight to stay alive, audiences will likely show up at the cineplex. Keep things grave, albeit with fewer graves. That would seem to be the ticket.