For a horror franchise famous for playfully stabbing at its own conventions, it is perhaps all too fitting that Scream always seems to so vehemently break its own salient rule of never saying the doomed phrase “I’ll be right back”. But the strength of this slasher series, that which has seen it return time and again, has always been its ability to shrewdly adapt its modus operandi – one of razor-sharp self-awareness and wink-nudge cine-literate shtick – to fit the cultural conversation of the present.
For its latest outing, the now-six strong film franchise finds itself amid the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple as the iconic Ghostface – now surely more famous than the Edvard Munch painting the mask is based on – leaves a trail of murderous mayhem about Manhattan. ‘New York, new rules,’ the movie’s tagline teasingly promises. But it’s a prophecy that only rings half true: this larger scale, notably grislier entry ultimately suffers from some dubious plotting and too often falls back on fan-serving nostalgia.
Picking things up a year after the events of the fifth film (Scream’s take on the ‘requel’), the new principal contingent, Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera) and half-sister Tara (Jenna Ortega), have left the town of Woodsboro behind. Yet while they might have put miles between themselves and Scream’s fictional hometown, they struggle to truly escape the trauma of what happened to them there. But in the city that never sleeps, along with fellow survivors Chad and Mindy Meeks-Martin (Mason Gooding and Jasmin Savoy Brown), Tara has her sights set on moving on with life while Sam keeps a protective eye over her sibling, as she herself continues to grapple with the revelation that she is the daughter of Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich), one of the perpetrators of the original 1996 killings.
However, it’s not long until the bodies start to pile up as another spate of slayings begin, each one with a tangible link to the murders of the previous five films. As such, the familiars once again find themselves dealt an unwanted dose of deadly déjà vu alongside series veteran Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) and a fresh crop of victims-slash-suspects. There is also a welcome return for fan-favourite Kirby Reed (Hayden Panettiere) whose long-debated survival in Scream4 was finally confirmed in last year’s sequel.
Invariably, the call-backs are many and the Easter eggs plentiful, but, of course, the one notable absentee in all of this is Neve Campbell’s tortured Final Girl Sidney Prescott. Following a dispute over pay, Campbell, the face of the franchise for well over two decades, chose not to return, and while her presence is undoubtedly missed – thankfully her character receives several respectful namechecks throughout – it’s in the absence of such Scream Queen royalty that Scream VI actually flourishes.
It gently shifts the focus, and indeed much of the emotional weight, onto the new central quartet (now officially dubbed the “core four”). Writers James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick do a decent job of further fleshing out the character dynamics established last time out, even if those introduced for the first time here will likely be forgotten by the time the credits roll. There is also ample room for directing duo Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett to once again put their own distinctive stamp on the franchise. The kills feel less inventive but this is an overtly more gruesome affair, with Ghostface, at one stage shotgun in hand, cutting a far more serious, ruthless figure than ever before. Gone, it seems, are the days of Scream’s masked killer clumsily tripping over furniture or getting bashed over the head by all manner of household item.
There are, however, problems: namely, a third-act showdown that serves as a rather blatant re-hash of Scream 2’s climatic college campus antics and a killer reveal – perhaps the least compelling in the series to date – that lacks the pointed, tongue-in-cheek commentary of previous instalments. Still, there is plenty in Scream VI to satisfy the long-standing loyalists and more than enough to justify its existence. It might not be the sharpest knife in the block, but Scream’s latest jaunt is bloody good fun.
George Nash is a freelance film journalist. Follow him on Twitter via @_GeorgeNash for more movie musings