Before Scream, the characters in so many slasher movies were dumb — and often by design. (The stupider the potential victims, the fewer qualms the audience might feel about enjoying the twisted violence leveled against them.) Scream’s stroke of genius was to emphasize the characters’ intelligence by making them hyper-literate horror aficionados under attack from a deranged film nerd who kills according to the “rules” of the slasher genre. Putting fan surrogates on screen who understood (and, importantly, loved) horror films invited stronger identification on the part of the audience. Plus, it’s always more fun to watch a smart movie than a dumb one, and to root for smart characters instead of idiots.
It’s been more than 25 years since the original Scream, which has now spawned as many or more sequels than most of the schlocky scary movies it was initially designed to critique. Each subsequent Scream found a new subset of horror to spoof; sequels, trilogies, legacyquels and now, in the new Scream VI, IP-perpetuating mega-franchises. (The “rules” this time include “No one is safe, not even the protagonist” an “Whatever happened last time, the opposite will occur.”)
But after six movies, the cold, hard truth is that the Scream franchise itself has nearly as many unspoken rules as its would-be targets. In fact, here are a few of the rules of every Scream movie:
The film always begins with a shocking cold open where a recognizable actress is stalked by Ghostface. In Scream VI, that honor goes to Ready or Not’s Samara Weaving, in a sequence that — to the movie’s credit — is genuinely surprising. It’s probably the film’s best scene.
The nerdy comic relief always gets a scene where they explain what kind of horror movie the characters are trapped in. In the first Scream trilogy, this key role was occupied by Jamie Kennedy’s Randy. In the last two films, it’s been Randy’s niece Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown). Like Kennedy before her, Brown is extremely charming in these showcase monologue moments, although they’ve really run out of material if this one is a spoof of franchises, which was previously done in Scream 3 (and 4 and 5 too).
The killer’s identity is meaningless. Screams are not only slasher spoofs, they’re also whodunits, with the killer’s identity kept secret until a final, shocking reveal. The franchise has been so concerned about script leaks through the years that its creators have supposedly resorted to preparing multiple drafts of the screenplay, and even shooting multiple versions of scenes to ensure that the true spoilers don’t get out. While the concern for an audience’s experience is admirable, that approach also speaks to an unfortunate fact: The killers’ motives are so random, and who lives and who dies is so arbitrary, that the filmmakers can literally shoot multiple versions of their story and any of them could plausibly be the solution.
Ghostface can never be heard by any of the heroes as he or she skulks around in combat boots, even when he or she is talking loudly into a phone through a voice changer three feet away from the person on the other end of the line. This happens with surprising and frustrating frequency in Scream VI.
There are others, but you get the idea: At this point, Scream is more beholden to its own tropes than it is to sending up the ones in other movies. Scream VI relocates the mayhem from California to New York City (or technically the parts of Montreal that look vaguely like New York City if you shoot them in shallow focus). That at least gives this installment a different look than its predecessors. Otherwise, Scream VI is more of the same — with an even sillier than usual killer reveal.
The storyline involves the franchise’s current heroines (Melissa Barrera’s Sam and Jenna Ortega’s Tara) as their lives in the Big Apple are upended by the emergence of a new Ghostface who blames Sam for the killings depicted in 2022’s Scream. The new killer begins picking off Sam, Tara, and their college buddies one by one — some of whom are so quickly introduced and so thinly drawn I cannot tell you there names because I didn’t catch them.
READ MORE: Our Full Recap of the Scream Series So Far
That’s disappointing, since this new Scream comes from the same creative team as the last one; directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett and writers James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick. Their previous Scream at least played with the notion of a Scream legacyquel in clever ways. But that film seemingly exhausted all of their ideas about modern horror (not to mention most of the Scream legacy cast), leaving little for Scream VI to say or satirize. One key location full of Scream Easter eggs suggests a much more interesting sequel about the obsessive nerd fan service that has taken over so much big-scale blockbuster filmmaking. But that concept is confined to that one set, and they don’t surface anywhere else in the script.
Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett do know how to stage a good scare sequence, and Scream VI has enough decent ones to prevent the film from tipping over into disaster. Besides the effective cold open, there’s a sustained suspense setpiece where two groups of characters wind up on separate subway trains on Halloween, surrounded by trick or treaters in Ghostface masks … or maybe the real Ghostface.
In those moments, Scream VI becomes a serviceable horror sequel. But wasn’t Scream conceived to make fun of serviceable horror sequels? It does feel like the franchise has lost its way a little. When the inevitable Scream VII comes along, I would hope it skips the half-hearted teasing of other movies and looks inward. Instead of making fun of the rules of other franchises, it might be time for Scream to start breaking some of its own.
–Scream VI is the first installment in the franchise without an appearance from Neve Campbell, although her character is mentioned. That leaves Courteney Cox’s Gale Weathers as the only remaining original cast member still haunted by Ghostface. (Cox is still effective in these movies, and while her role isn’t huge, she does make the most of it.)
-Speaking of Cox: In one scene, which appears in all the movie’s trailers, Gale is attacked in her home by Ghostface. During the assault, the killer attacks a man who’s in Gale’s apartment with her. Someone mentions this guy is Gale’s “boyfriend,” but the character is never named, is barely shown onscreen when he’s not being stabbed, has maybe two lines of dialogue, and is not explained any further than that. Who was that guy?
-Note to anyone chasing a Ghostface: If you’re looking for his secret lair, maybe the place to start the search is the building with extremely elaborate and artful Ghostface graffiti morals complete with quotes from the films.
The Worst Billion-Dollar Blockbusters
All of these movies grossed more than $1 billion at the box office. And they all stink.