The sound of a phone ringing and an accompanied scream. Scream VI may open with a nod to old beginnings, but it marks a new one. It’s the first in the franchise without Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), as a new generation stands alone against Ghostface. A movie under the Scream title without Sidney is hard to fathom, but Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett succeed in making it stand apart from the rest. While the script does have many issues, the franchise’s latest is bigger and bloodier than ever. Ghostface is let loose in New York City, equalling stabbier stabs and killer violence.
Only months have passed since the events of the fifth installment. Sam (Melissa Barrera) is still grappling with having to kill her boyfriend Richie (played by Jack Quaid). It was in self-defense, of course, as Richie was under the Ghostface mask, but it saw Sam having to embrace a violent legacy. In the same home where Sidney faced off against Sam’s father, Billy Loomis (played by Skeet Ulrich), in the first Scream, Sam found herself with a blood-dripping knife in hand.
She and her sister, Tara (Jenna Ortega), are trying to move on. They said goodbye to small-town Woodsboro and moved to New York City, hoping to be shrouded behind its hustle and bustle. While Sam is working odd jobs and going to therapy, Tara is trying to be a normal college student. Sam is critical of how Tara is choosing to deal with, or not deal with, their trauma, but Tara doesn’t want to let what happened to them define her. This results in Tara having her guard down, but Sam is right behind her ready to tase men in the balls. Sam is overprotective, and it’s suffocating, but she has a reason.
They couldn’t have expected to hide from Ghostface forever, and as the killer butchers through the streets of New York, Sam, Tara, and their friends find themselves targets once again. The Big Apple’s concrete jungle is a sprawling new playground for a new killer. But as Billy Loomis’s daughter, all eyes are on Sam as she faces the ire of social media users who believe in Richie’s innocence. Her father’s ghost continues to haunt her, and under the weight of his murderous legacy, Sam will have to choose to embrace that legacy or destroy it.
The biggest question on fans’ minds: How could a Scream movie succeed without Sidney? While she does get a couple of mentions, you oddly don’t feel her absence or even think about her very much, which is a testament to the strength of this cast and a new generation of characters that have created space for themselves in an already well-established story. Along with Sam and Tara, Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and Chad (Mason Gooding) are back, completing the “Core Four” and establishing the film’s strong theme of family tied by shared experience rather than blood. Mindy still has the familiar sharp wit and movie knowledge, blessed to her by her Uncle Randy (played by Jamie Kennedy in the original films). Her twin brother Chad takes on a similar role to Sam as a protective figure to Tara, but now there’s a will-they-won’t-they romance between Tara and Chad that doesn’t land and is one of the many weaknesses in character writing that the script suffers from.
Along with the return of the last film’s cast, legacy characters also return. Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) from Scream 4, now working for the FBI, takes an obvious personal interest in these new murders and offers her aid to Sam and Tara. Gale (Courteney Cox), a constant presence in the franchise, re-enters the picture as an example of the true-crime craze that inadvertently (or not) capitalizes on other people’s trauma. A once trusted ally who took her writing too far, she works her way back into Sam and Tara’s life with her skills as an investigator. Out of the two, it’s the return of Panettiere as Kirby that most have been looking forward to, and she makes a big impression. She almost steals the show away from Barrera’s Sam. She’s super cool in attitude and style. She walks and talks like a cop, but she seems shielded like her body is a walking bulletproof vest. We only scratch the surface of how Kirby’s anger over what happened to her and her friends has affected her. It’s unfortunate, especially when learning more about the person she has become would have been more interesting to explore than watching the scenes with very one-note characters.
Samara Weaving does the most with her limited screen time. The same goes for Tony Revolori as a superfan of the franchise within this franchise, Stab. Other characters introduced – Sam and Tara’s roommate Quinn (Liana Liberato), Mindy’s girlfriend Anika (Devyn Nekoda), odd friend out Ethan (Jack Champion), and Sam’s secret boyfriend Danny (Josh Segarra) – are only there for added suspicion. This works to keep the audience guessing, but they’re written so thinly that it’s hard to not think of them as filler for most of the film.
The script has both its strengths and weakness. Along with the above, the film drags when there’s no action happening, and the killer reveal feels uncreative and unsatisfying. However, it succeeds at crafting what it does best: A meta-narrative. The sixth Scream is a “sequel to a requel,” as Mindy puts it, but also a franchise for the characters. The “Core Four” are now a part of their own slasher IP. And because of this, Mindy explains that the main characters are as expendable as everyone else, raising the stakes. But as the slasher expert lays out the rules of the sub-genres game, no one really plays by those rules.
Scream VI subverts expectations and stays unpredictable until the end. In twisting the slasher, it also examines toxic fan culture and social media, cult following to the extreme, and the odd fascination with real killers. The Ghostface killer is treated by the public as the year’s hottest Halloween costume, resulting in one of the best scenes of the whole series. As Sam and her friends board a subway train, they see Ghostface everywhere. The characters and the audience can’t tell who is the killer and who is a commuter off to a Halloween party. It’s an anxiety-inducing scene as the train’s lights flicker on and off and the masked creep in closer.
This new Ghostface, however, dawns an old mask, representative of the legacy of the Scream franchise itself and the one that Sam will carry forward. What legacy is and how it writes a person’s present and future is the strongest, most compelling aspect of the film’s script. With bigger set pieces, bloodier kills, moments of suspense, and sheer fear on display by the characters, Scream VI succeeds in capturing those audible gasps of surprise and elation from the audience. It’s the most violently brutal Scream entry yet, and it feels like it can only get bigger from here.