If there’s one thing that the most recent sequence of Scream reboots can claim proficiency in, it’s the art of misdirection. These films, beginning with last year’s simply titled Scream, are good at making an audience member overthink the scenario at hand while the film is rolling. They hide their killers via analysis paralysis, throwing so many possibilities at the viewer that it becomes very difficult to settle on a working theory before the inevitable third act reveal. The characters likewise interrogate the viewer’s own thought process by voicing all the possibilities out loud, making the viewer doubt themselves by repeatedly broaching possibilities such as “What if ____ is the killer?” It’s this tool in particular that the recent Screams have repeatedly used to make convention seem like subversion.
The newly released Scream VI relies heavily on this playbook, and although it’s often engaging and suspenseful while the lights are down in the cinema, this is sadly one of those cases where the façade begins to crumble as soon as the credits begin to roll. Although directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett are still bringing style and suspense to the equation–while briefly shoehorning in muse Samara Weaving, a la Ready or Not–they’re let down this time by the less inspired work of writers James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, whose screenplay fails to provide the entry with much in the way of cohesion or a satisfying antagonist payoff. They’ve crafted a Scream sequel that struggles badly to hold up to any line of questioning–a disappointment, given that 2022’s Scream ultimately proved to be the most satisfying entry since the original. Scream VI will not have the same staying power.
The action in this go-round has obviously moved to a new locale, as the surviving “Core Four” of Samantha (Melissa Barrera), Tara (Jenna Ortega), Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and Chad (Mason Gooding) have moved as a unit to New York City, where all but Sam are now enrolled in college. Like any previous attempt to leave Woodsboro behind, however, the specter of Ghostface always follows closely on the heels of the primary protagonist, here reaffirmed as Samantha despite an occasionally shaky performance by Barrera in the preceding installment. Her character has never been more like Sidney Prescott than she is here, having had her internet infamy boosted considerably by the killing spree that occurred a year earlier. Of all the film’s little touches, the idea that Samantha would be hounded by obsessive Reddit sleuths and conspiracy theorists is without a doubt the most accurate–in this world, a vocal contingent of (QAnon adjacent, no doubt) internet weirdos have embraced the idea that Richie Kirsch was innocent, and that Samantha is a vicious killer who got away with murder. It doesn’t matter that such a theory makes no sense–in fact, that’s the whole point. We’re living in an era where a large percentage of the population chooses conspiracy fantasy over harsh reality on any given day; these people should be present even in our slasher flicks. Tara, on the other hand, never quite has an opportunity to ascend to proper co-lead, because it’s Samantha’s baggage that continues to drive this plot forward.
What, then, is Scream VI‘s true point of focus or inspiration? The theories of our characters zero in on the vague idea of “franchise” tropes, but this label feels rather hollow–something snatched out of thin air, and a concession to the scriptural demand that there needs to be one scene in any given Scream movie where the characters sit in a circle and discuss film tropes. The same scene likewise allows resident film scholar Mindy to broach the idea that this Ghostface–and by extension, Scream VI itself–could be primarily inspired by Scream 2/Stab 2, which also moved the action away from Woodsboro, to a college campus. This thought is then discarded, with the assurance that “things won’t be that simple,” but this ultimately proves to be another one of Scream VI’s savvier misdirects. When all is said and done, it is indeed Scream 2 that informs this movie, for better or worse. Its killer(s) may not venerate the Stab series like Richie did, but they’re still drawn inexorably into its inescapable gravitational field. At the end of the day, that they don Ghostface masks at all is one of the harder things for the movie to justify.
Another area where some credit is due is Scream VI‘s limited use of what the previous installment firmly coined as “legacy characters.” Is Gale Weathers in this movie? In a sense, sure, but her appearances and role are so perfunctory that it’s clear the film agrees with Mindy’s thesis that the legacy characters have increasingly passed out of relevance. We argued last year that this was the right move, and that the Scream series should give up its clinging attachment to the likes of Gale and Sidney if it ever wants its new protagonists to be taken seriously. Here, the film itself nods in the affirmative, making its own case that the likes of Gale are mostly a distraction at this point, as are her repeated references to Sidney. They’ve put in their time; let them retire with a little dignity.
What Scream VI ultimately lacks, on the other hand, is a clear sense of what it’s trying to say beyond the literal plot unfolding on screen. The greatest strength of last year’s film was its new and fresh focus on interrogating its own fandom, and indeed the very idea of overly entitled fandoms in general. In doing so, it became the first Scream to move its impetus away from the fallout of the original sin of Sidney Prescott’s mother, with killers driven by infatuation and delusion, an unhealthy love placed into an incorporeal vessel–a film franchise–that was incapable of ever returning their ardor. That was a significantly more heady, cerebral sort of motivation for a killing spree than what we’re presented with here, and it leaves Scream VI feeling as if it doesn’t particularly have any commentary to make. Where the 2022 film’s caricature of fandom is likely to remain relevant for decades, there’s nothing so powerful in this subtext. It has only its admittedly impressive bloodletting to propel it, which is at least enough to generate the occasional guffaw.
Without ideas to prop it up, though, the audience is given nothing in particular to examine afterward than the nuts and bolts of Scream VI‘s plot, which only invites its structural flaws to groan and then collapse under the weight of so much excess and contradiction. Much could, and will, be written about the massive holes and gaps in the film’s internal logic, or the throwaway lines of dialogue meant to handwave seemingly impossible occurrences, but we don’t need to get into such spoilers here. Suffice to say, Scream VI ultimately betrays the audience’s trust to some degree, by telling us how capable and prepared our protagonists are, but then showing us the opposite. They’ve developed into a genuinely likable bunch, with a strong bond forged by shared trauma and innate chemistry, but they’ve done it in spite of this film’s screenplay, rather than with any particular aid from it.
Now more than ever, the economic imperative of sequelization is laying heavy on the Scream franchise. This film’s conclusion invites no particular follow up, no need to continue on with yet another Ghostface rampage. We have no clear reason to continue the series at all, besides the fact that there’s money to be made. If Scream is to survive, it will need to unearth some new raison d’être, because whatever is currently serving as one has just about run its course.
Director: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett
Writer: James Vanderbilt, Guy Busick
Starring: Melissa Barrera, Jenna Ortega, Courteney Cox, Jasmin Savoy Brown, Mason Gooding, Hayden Panettiere, Dermot Mulroney, Jack Champion, Liana Liberato, Tony Revolori, Samara Weaving
Release Date: March 10, 2023
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.