Scream VI feels like a confident turning point for a long-running self-referential slasher series, though what that series is becoming remains tantalizingly unclear. For close to a quarter-century, the Scream sequels were playing defense. Director Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson had a back-to-back one-two punch with the success of the first two movies, but Scream 3 was delayed and met middling reactions from the fans. Eleven years later, with Scream 4, Craven and Williamson tried to wrap their heads around a new generation thirsting for social-media notoriety, and those younger audiences didn’t seem to care much.
Another 11 years after that, 2022’s newly rechristened Scream addressed the proliferation of legacy sequels in the horror genre and beyond. It was a hit with audiences and critics, which meant the inevitable sequel, 2023’s Scream VI, is the first genuinely fast-tracked Scream since Scream 2 was rushed to theaters. Suddenly, Scream is an A-list horror series again. Or in the corporate parlance winkingly applied in Scream VI, it’s now a franchise, a never-ending cycle of fan service subject to its own set of rules and conventions.
But when Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown), niece of the early films’ dearly departed movie geek Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy), holds court to deliver a hyper-nerdy treatise on the rules of franchises, the material isn’t as rich as her explanation of “requels” (or legacy sequels) from the previous movie. Her vague guidelines for franchises — particularly the idea that new franchise entries must go bigger to top the previous films — aren’t that different from the sequel rules Randy laid out back in Scream 2.
This being a Scream movie, it’s possible that this rehash of the 1997 movie is another wink at horror audiences, a nod to how Scream VI can assert itself as a major franchise entry while still eventually circling back to familiar ’90s slashings. It’s also entirely possible that directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, and screenwriters James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, are already growing weary of film-culture commentary. Two different Scream VI characters voice this theory: “The movies don’t matter,” one says. Ghostface himself puts it even more bluntly: “Who gives a fuck about movies?”
The answer to this rhetorical question is pretty much just Mindy. For Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera), daughter of original killer Billy Loomis and survivor of the 2022 Scream, this stuff is too real. She’s still processing the trauma of her boyfriend plotting to murder her, and feeling fiercely protective of her little sister, Tara (Jenna Ortega), as they embark on a fresh start in New York City. Tara just wants to have some college fun, while Sam fumes over internet rumors that she was the real villain of the previous film’s events, victimizing her psycho ex — a clever riff on the way parasocial relationships often form online. Mindy and her brother, Chad (Mason Gooding), have also graduated in New York, and the group’s social circle broadens to include Mindy’s girlfriend, Anika (Devyn Nekoda), Sam and Tara’s roommate, Quinn (Liana Liberato), and Chad’s roommate, Ethan (Jack Champion).
Naturally, these new characters, along with everyone else in the movie, turn into suspects when someone in a Ghostface mask starts slashing people up. From there, the film launches a series of frequent (and frequently ridiculous) hairpin turns. There’s a twisty variation on the classic Scream cold open, featuring some familiar faces, though not franchise regulars. There are fewer legacy characters than last time: Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) is the only returning cast member from the original three movies. But don’t think of this as a soft reboot, not with Scream 4 fan fave Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) back in action.
In spite of the game attempts at maintaining and enriching five previous films’ worth of continuity, there’s a sense that Scream VI is casting about for what the franchise might look like in a culture where moviegoing doesn’t hold the same place of mass-audience supremacy it once did. Cross-media franchises don’t necessarily dominate cultural conversation anymore, but the filmmakers obviously still love scary movies. The film’s best sequence, a Halloween subway ride where the heroes cast suspicious eyes on dozens of menacingly costumed NYC citizens (including several in Ghostface masks, naturally), is packed with visual references to genre classics.
They also make sure to include a clip of Jason Takes Manhattan, the Friday the 13th series trip to New York that notoriously expends much of its running time on a boat, rather than the city streets. (Carrying on a piece of that tradition, Scream VI was mostly and obviously not shot in New York.) Horror fans will have fun at this film. At the same time, the filmmakers — a collaborative team collectively known as Radio Silence — have crafted more of a jump-scare action movie than an atmospheric horror-thriller, not unlike their 2019 horror-comedy Ready or Not.
To be fair, the Scream movies have never been the kind of psychological slow-burners Tara claims she loves in the 2022 Scream. But Scream VI particularly emphasizes fights and chases, with a Terminator-like Ghostface whose stabbing power seems especially vicious. (To combat this power-up, his victims have mysteriously become more adept than ever at surviving gnarly, repeated wounds.) There are advantages to this approach. Scream VI is more streamlined than the slightly scattered fifth movie, with the established and extremely likable “core four” of new characters fully taking center stage. The satirical stuff isn’t as funny or pointed as the previous film’s riffs on toxic fandom, but the film is a better showcase for Sam and Tara as actual characters. Barrera, with her sleepy-eyed angst over her murderous family history, and Ortega, with her irresistible wariness, make a fine pair of neo-gothic siblings stuck relying on each other.
The family bond is what the movie eventually settles on to drive home its themes, pushing the story further away from movie-world commentary. Again, maybe this is meant to reflect the diminishment of cinema at a time when so many movies are treated as content-mill distractions. “It’s all about true-crime limited series these days,” Gale laments about her inability to sell movie rights to her previous book (though this movie’s portrait of NYC law enforcement, removed from the small-town folksiness of Woodsboro, is amusingly preposterous). The movie briefly touches upon cultural legacies, forever franchises, weirdo collectors, and fandom again, but none of it really sticks.
And the fate of much-hyped returnee Kirby might provide a chilling warning to Sam and Tara: It’s neat to see Panettiere again, but her somewhat awkward role as a hotshot FBI agent shows how difficult it can be to square youthful slasher-movie heroes with lived-in real-world experience. The Scream series may not be equipped for a transition into more character-driven plotting.
Is this a problem? While viewers are mid-movie, not especially. Like the other Scream sequels in general, this one makes for a zippy Saturday night at the movies, and for now, it’s still easy to imagine some characters returning for another go-round in a year or two. (Any franchise that perpetuates Jenna Ortega’s scream-queen reign should get a pass to continue.) But fans looking for a definitive explanation of how this non-supernatural slasher will outfox the era of the forever franchise, where nothing stays dead no matter how many people get killed, will come away empty-handed. Where 2022’s Scream showed how the series could keep adapting and changing to fit new cinematic trends, this one hints at how unsustainable franchise maintenance can feel over the long term, even for a series that’s enjoying its deserved resurgence in creativity and popularity. Suddenly, the Scream movies feel like they’re back playing defense again.
Scream VI opens in theaters on March 10.