My mom worried that watching horror movies would desensitize me to violence, but the real threat — especially with ongoing, decades-long franchises like Scream — is desensitization to these series themselves. With Scream VI, Scream (2022) filmmakers Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett are so interested in reinventing Wes Craven’s saga and keeping audiences guessing and grossed out that they’ve made a film that makes no impact at all. Who’s the killer (or killers) this time? Who gives a fuck?
This sixth outing feels more brutal than its predecessors, upping the ante with some truly disgusting kills and making sure you hear every gurgle of blood as it pours from bellies and mouths and eye sockets. Yet the stakes are somehow lower than they’ve been in the past. We’re literally told no one is safe thanks to the expected meta-commentary — and plenty of people die in gruesome ways — but the body count seems lower here, especially in the film’s second half and especially for anyone that we might actually care about.
Speaking of characters we care about, Sidney Prescott is notably absent (Neve Campbell wasn’t getting paid enough to return), and David Arquette’s Dewey — acknowledged by the film itself as a “fan favorite” — didn’t make it out of Scream V alive. That leaves Courtney Cox’s Gale Weathers as the only remaining face from the original series, but Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett bring back Hayden Panettiere as Kirby Reed from Scream 4 to keep the nostalgia level high (as if the ‘90s throwback styles of the Gen-Z characters isn’t enough). Returning from Scream (2022), the four real leads here are varying degrees of compelling this time around, with Melissa Barrera’s Samantha ranking as the least interesting of the bunch, though she’s supposed to be the heart of the film. C’mon, Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett: Jenna Ortega is right there.
Following the path of Scream 2, Scream VI finds our surviving heroes in college, but they haven’t stayed close to home like their predecessors. Instead, Tara Carpenter (Ortega), Mindy Meeks Martin (Jasmin Savoy Brown), and Chad (Mason Gooding) have left sunny California for some place that’s supposed to be New York City to attend Blackmore University (a totally real place that exists in Brooklyn or … somewhere). The filmmakers seem to have roughly the local knowledge of someone who went to the Big Apple on their senior trip (and still call it the Big Apple). It’s unclear why they even set the movie in the metropolis — beyond crafting a solid set piece that finds Ghost Face stalking through a subway car (creating one of the film’s few moments of true tension).
Sam, who has tagged along with her sister across the country, is haunted by the previous movie’s events (or her life or whatever). A year later, she still struggles with how easy she found it to kill that film’s murderers, wondering if it’s due to her genes and being the daughter of the original killer, Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich). Meanwhile, the conspiracy-minded corners of the internet are convinced she was the true mastermind of the Woodsboro crimes. However, Sam isn’t the only one who can’t move on from the past: the new Ghostface has found her, Tara, Chad, and Mindy, and the killer stalks them across a version of New York City (aka Montreal) where there are no subway transfers required to go from the Upper West Side to Long Island City. What a magical world that would be.
That kind of idiocy and lack of care is rampant throughout Scream VI. The mystery is dumb, with the reveal more likely to garner an “I knew it!” than a gasp of surprise. (Though an actor under the Ghostface mask does deserve credit for being a series-appropriate level of enjoyably deranged once we know their identity.) Of course, references abound, including inevitable ones to previous Scream/Stab films that threaten to fold the movie in on itself. Meanwhile, callbacks to the greatest horror movies ever only ever feel like name-dropping without any real art underneath. Sorry, dudes: mentioning Dario Argento and decades’ worth of final girls doesn’t mean that your movie is on that level.
Blood flows amidst some admittedly interesting scenes, but it’s largely just so boring. Mindy talks about how a sequel to a re-quel in a franchise (Jesus Christ) has to be bigger and bolder, but Scream VI is mostly just longer, topping the two-hour mark and feeling more like a test of endurance than a movie. It starts with promise, upending the usual formula with some fun twists and familiar faces in its first sequence, but even the better, more inventive set pieces peppered throughout can’t really make much of a dent in the overall dullness.
Like many characters in its fellow slasher movies, Scream VI is too cute and not smart enough. It winks so frequently and so insistently at the audience that you start to wonder if it’s more of an involuntary twitch than a meaningful signal. While last year’s re-quel brought fresh blood to the series, this sequel feels like the franchise is starting to congeal again.
“Scream VI” is in theaters tonight.