The Scream series is a big deal for me.
The original wasn’t the first film to ignite my love for the horror genre, but it was the first horror film I got to see on the big screen. I remember sneaking into the cinema in 1997 to watch it, and my handily tall friend Simon Taylor – who physically towered over his peers – managed to buy the VHS and offer it to me for my 12th birthday.
I was thrilled. There was something about that white cover with the piercing blue eyes of the female face and the red lettering of the title matching the red lips obscured by a hand that remains engraved in my tiny lizard brain to this day. I exhausted that cassette tape to the point the magnetic strip was completely demolished after so many repeated watches. Even now, I’m pretty sure I can quote Wes Craven’s meta masterstroke from beginning to end.
The celebrated director did nothing short of revitalize horror by lovingly dissecting hallowed tropes through a mix of wit, scares, comedy and a then-rare dose of self-awareness which created a distinctive relationship between the film and its genre-savvy audience.
I didn’t have to wait long for some more dialogue and references to commit to memory. Scream 2 came out the following year and was a rare sequel that actually equalled its predecessor, proving the character Randy wrong when he brazenly stated that “by definition alone, sequels are inferior films”.
The less said about Scream 3, the better – partly because of Courtney Cox’s haunting baby bangs but mostly due Ehren Kruger disastrous script. It buried the franchise, and left me having to wait 11 long years before Scream 4 arrived - an effective legacy sequel that gave the series some updated panache. It was Craven’s final film, as he died four years later. My mourning period still isn't over.
Last year’s fifth chapter, the frustratingly – but knowingly – titled Scream, saw directing duo Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillet (Ready Or Not) take the reins for “requel” that surprisingly delivered the slasher goods in impressively gruesome fashion. The script by James Vanderbilt (Zodiac) and Guy Busick (Ready Or Not) honoured Wes’ wit with some sharp commentary about toxic fandom, and when it was announced that the same filmmaking team was fast-tracking a sixth instalment (thereby replicating the same one-year wait between the original and its sequel), there was no reason for me to feel anything but giddy.
How wrong I was.
Scream VI (we’re on roman numerals now, apparently) shifts the setting to New York City for the first time.
The franchise’s current next-gen heroines (Melissa Barrera’s Samantha and Jenna Ortega’s Tara) and two other survivors from last year’s Scream (the brother-and-sister duo Chad and Mindy, played by Mason Gooding and Jasmin Savoy Brown) have moved their lives to the Big Apple in order to escape Woodsboro’s blood-drenched legacy. However, their plans are upended with the emergence of a new Ghostface, who seems to have intimate knowledge of Woodsboro’s heritage and is keen to slice’n’dice his way towards Sam’s heart by gaslighting the general public into believing that she is to blame for the 2022 killings. He, she or they are also leaving behind some DNA of the past killers at the new crime scenes.
So, New York, new rules?
While the scene change initially seemed a little desperate – especially with memories of Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan still provoking all the wrong kinds of nightmares – trading in the series’ small-town setting for a bustling New York serves this “sequel to the requel” well. Even if the series has moved away from Woodsboro before, New York is new territory and gives the film its own distinctive vibe. That, and the much-hyped set piece featuring Ghostface on the NYC subway is great fun. As is the film’s expectation-defying opening sequence, which takes a few risks with the formula.
Sadly, this willingness to do something different and to upend audience expectations doesn’t materialize in the rest of the film, which is intense but maddeningly uneven. Any attempts to comment or meta-mock horror conventions the franchise itself helped build all fall flat.
“We're in a franchise!” one of the Core Four explains. Sure. And? If all you’re going to do is use Scream 2 as a template and forget to craft some smart meta-critiques that aren’t beholden to the series’ own very tropes, then why bother?
The narrative lacks the verve and intelligence of its superior Scream predecessors, and while the Stabby McStabberson murders do rank among the series’ most brutal so far, the overall handling of Ghostface(s) this time around is a huge, unimaginative let-down. Without erring into spoiler territory, if you’re hoping for a surprising whoslashedit reveal on the same level as the prior movies (Scream 3 aside, naturally), brace yourselves for disappointment. I found myself letting out an almighty sigh during the drawn-out finale, digging my fingernails into my palm as I watched Scream VI ’s convoluted reveals and twists border on parody.
Granted, Wes Craven has always toyed with the ideas of legacy and absentee parental figures, and I always go back to Wes’ A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream films for these musings on hereditary and intergenerational trauma. However, Scream VI fumbles the themes and fools itself into thinking that some nasty stabs will make up for any glaring shortcomings.
The cast are (mostly) not to blame, with Jenna Ortega standing out and Courteney Cox making the most of returning as Gale Weathers despite Neve Campbell’s absence – the first time Sidney Prescott does not appear in a Scream film, a contractual pickle that feels like a massive oversight and ultimately, a betrayal explained-off with a pithy one-liner. However, handing the de facto Sidney role to Melissa Barrera is a mistake, as her acting leaves much to be desired, especially compared with that of her fellow franchise returnees. Put simply – she can’t act to save her life, and the script annoyingly refuses to bump her off.
It may still be impressive that the series up until now only had one genuinely bad chapter, but for anyone hoping that Scream VI would be a continuation of last year’s franchise-rejuvenating entry, temper those expectations.
After 25 years since the original Scream, I can’t help but come to the cold hard conclusion is that we’ve now reached the diminishing returns phase. Scream VI doesn’t elevate Scream 3 off the bottom spot, but it comfortably sits alongside it, and with this woefully stiff new chapter in mind, 2022’s Scream further shines with its looped loop finale, which revealed itself as the would-be perfect send-off for the series.
No such luck, and when the inevitable Scream VII pops up, I sincerely hope that Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillet don’t forget that no matter how impressively nasty the deaths are, these legacyquels need smarts.
“Who gives a f**k about movies?” asks Ghostface at one point. I do, but please be careful with this franchise in the future. I don’t want my Scream marathons to be dated 1997 – 2022.
Scream VI is in theatres now.