There’s a thing people say about sex and pizza that isn’t strictly true but gets at how reliably satisfying those things can be under the right conditions: Even when they’re bad, they’re good. That also goes for Scream movies. The six of them comprise the most consistent franchise in slasher history, and across all subgenres of horror, for that matter. And the latest, Scream VI, isn’t merely good, it’s one of the franchise’s best—as funny as it is scary as it is inventive. Its current crop of characters, introduced in last year’s Scream “requel,” have settled nicely into their roles, and they’re given even more to do in the longest of the franchise’s entries, where nary a minute is wasted as the plot hurtles through its New York setting.
In its profile, Scream VI, which is forecasted to have the biggest opening of the series (perhaps on account of Jenna Ortega’s exploding fame), reminds me of Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, the mind-bogglingly successful 1988 entry that was as committed to being a solid teen movie as it was to finding new, surrealistic ways to play with the franchise’s tools. Things went to shit when the fifth Nightmare movie was rushed out the following year. Interestingly, Scream VI was itself a sort of rush job, as it’s hitting theaters about 14 months after its relatively so-so (but you know, still good in the greater scheme of horror!) predecessor, the confusingly titled Scream. But the gang behind that one—directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett of the filmmaking collective Radio Silence, and screenwriters James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick—are back and seemingly energized. It’s as though after proving their competence with a fairly safe pass, they’ve been given the freedom to be funnier, weirder, and bloodier.
This Scream has a Manson family member’s penchant for knife penetration—the stabbings here are brutal and unflinching. There’s a similar sort of reckoning with and profiting off of violence as in 2021's Halloween Kills, but it’s not as gratuitous or hypocritical. In fact, it almost approaches tasteful at times, though the film remains largely and rightly unpleasant—included is a disgusting description from one copycat killer on the thrill of murder that feels like an illicit examination of a depraved mind. Scream VI is willing to really get in there, under the skin, and play around with the guts of death and misery.
Scream VI is set on the fictional college campus of Blackmore in Manhattan, but those scenes were shot at McGill University in Montreal; I have to wonder if its Canada shooting location is itself a reference to the New York-set Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, which was largely shot in Vancouver. More relevant is that Scream 2 took place on a college campus, and this sequel to the requel is openly indebted to the sequel to the original. The characters likewise notice that they’re on campus just like the characters in the second movie of the Stab franchise-within-the-franchise, Stab 2, which is a way of referencing Scream, too. (This sequel-requel echoing is like how Halloween II took place in a hospital, and then much of Halloween Kills, the sequel to the requel, did as well. Also, so did Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, which was not a remake of the original Halloween II, but a sequel to Zombie’s remake of the 1978 Halloween.)
The referencing fans out from there with abundance. Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown), a survivor from the last movie and the niece of Randy (Jamie Kennedy), who died in Scream 2, is so in the horror culture that she’s commenting on the movie as a movie in real time—she bemoans missing an expository monologue at one point and, at another, mutters, “Fuck this franchise.” Instead of coming off as too on-the-nose, it’s quite reasonable that a horror-obsessed character would notice when her life hews closely to the conventions of a horror movie. In Scream VI, the franchise coils back on itself gracefully and with good humor; one of the big early laughs comes from a professor who modestly points out that her concentration is “just film studies.”
Mindy, her twin Chad (Mason Gooding), who I thought died in the last movie, and Tara (Ortega) all attend Blackmore, where a rash of murders breaks out. Tara’s sister Sam (Melissa Barrera) is also in the city, hovering over her sister—she tases a frat guy’s balls when he tries to lead her inebriated sister up to his room. (Again, this Scream shows its harder core with the threat of rape being made explicit in what, in my recollection, is a first for the franchise.) Sam is reeling from the events in the last movie, which found her boyfriend trying to murder her and led to her ultimate triumph in self-defense. “I stabbed him 22 times and I slit his throat. And I shot him in the head. But that’s not why I’m here,” she tells her therapist, hilariously. Her actual reason: “Because it felt right.”
Sam continues to wrestle over her potential birthright: Billy Loomis, a killer in the original movie played by Skeet Ulrich (who, as he did in the last movie, reprises his role in Sam’s visions), was her father. Is serial killing an inheritable trait? Sam’s road to discovering that having a killer for a father can be a feature, not a bug, is complicated by a widespread conspiracy stating that she was actually the one who performed the murders last time, and then furthermore by her being framed when this latest round of killings start to take place. Said killings include a horrifyingly suspenseful scene in a bodega that leaves three dead and Sam and Tara miraculously unharmed. There’s another similarly suspenseful scene involving attempting to get from one apartment building to the next via a horizontal ladder. Ah, New York.
Rejoining the new pack is Scream 4’s Kirby (Hayden Panettiere), who I also thought had died, but is very much alive and now an FBI agent. Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) is here too, and up to her old tricks. She reports on the new string of murders and gets punched by Tara, who’s furious that she wrote a book about the events of the last movie after swearing she wouldn’t—in it, Weathers called Sam “unstable” and a “born killer.”
Scream VI zips around and has so much fun in the process that it’s easy to overlook its weaknesses—namely its phoned-in or just plain wrong use of New York. Unlike when Jason Voorhees visited, there are no big Times Square moments. Given its apparent Village-esque surroundings, Blackmore seems to be a cognate of NYU, though the fratty atmosphere is no NYU that I know. Similarly, during a subway attack scene, Ghostface is able to stab a character in plain sight, and then when she stumbles onto the platform, she’s met with apathy from the surrounding commuters. Please. People would be all over that. Someone trips in New York and immediately a surrounding crowd forms with several people offering to call an ambulance. Oh well! No slasher’s perfect. (Aside from Halloween, that is.)
More than 26 years have passed since Scream’s 1996 debut, which is more than enough time for even the most durable horror franchises to start to atrophy. And yet, this one is showing no signs of age. In Scream VI, the “core four” friends—Tara, Sam, Mindy, and Chad—are basically Scooby-Doo’s Mystery Inc., but charmingly so. Those meddling kids are really good at surviving stab wounds! The mystery of Ghostface’s identity is predictably impossible to guess (too much suspicion clouds any real evidence suggested early in the film), but that doesn’t make the reveal any less satisfying. Perhaps most impressive is the subtle approach to its issues. Scream VI conjures stan culture, gaslighting, the real toll of death, and trauma (including a sophisticated contrasting of the last movie’s survivors’ experiences with it) without hitting you over the head (or having one if its cast members repeat “trauwma” ad nauseam in promo interviews). The Scream franchise’s implicit (and sometimes explicit) ethos is that horror movies should and could be better. Each entry provides a logistical challenge to preserve the scary satire of the original, while pushing the story forward. Like its almost impossibly smart, resourceful, and physically adept characters, Scream VI is dead set on overachieving. It lives up to the quality it demands.