The Scream franchise has its hits and misses. The self-aware slasher often crosses the line of being too recursive, while ironically afraid to take the risks it overtly states are possible.
In the second act of every instalment, a genre-savvy sidekick painstakingly outlines the ironclad ‘rules’ of the genre. 1980s slasher films were highly conventionalised: as one character points out this time, the formula was a product of its time. Even though the Screams pay slavish homage to the 1980s cycle, they’re trapped by their own 1990s ‘teenie-kill’ conventions, where the cast of magazine heartthrobs are too famous to die.
Scream VI kicks off in the traditional way: a cameo from a fresh blonde scream queen whose character considers herself a horror aficionado. Things take an interesting turn from there, launching into the most engaging Scream movie since the original. We’ve finally left the sleepy town of Woodsboro, long plagued by a masked killer Ghostface. The new generation of teens have moved to New York, but their past soon catches up with them.
In a better timeline, the fifth instalment was not annoyingly also titled ‘Scream’ but followed Scr3am and Scre4m to be 5cream. Scream (the fifth, 2022) implemented some bold but long-overdue updates: one of the core trio fell, and a new pair of protagonists were introduced.
The original heroine Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) has finally retired in favour of a new duo: half-sisters Sam and Tara Carpenter, played by Melissa Barrera and Jenna Ortega. Sam is the daughter of the original Ghostface, and Skeet Ulrich returns as the imaginary devil on her shoulder. Torn between her protective instincts for Tara and a hereditary bloodlust, Sam is easily the most interesting character the franchise has introduced.
Barrera and Ortega never miss a note: their tense chemistry drives the narrative whenever the convoluted plot stumbles. With Sidney out of play and Dewey (David Arquette) slain, the only original Woodsboro survivor in Scream VI is Gale (Courtney Cox).
Having a core cast member around might risk outshining the new leads, but if anything Gale is under-utilised this time around. As a true-crime journalist whose livelihood is entangled with sensationalising the murders, she’s complicit in – if not responsible for – the vilification of Sam for violently avenging herself on her would-be killers in the last film.
Gale’s presence highlights something that distinguishes Scream universe from traditional slashers and the fictional Stab movies (the in-universe movie adaptations of the Woodsboro murders: it’s complicated).
In Scream, Ghostface’s avid fan culture is a lot like contemporary true-crime fandom. The classic slashers drew loosely from real-world moral panics around stranger danger, but the masked maniacs were a fictional fixture. Freddy Kreuger was literally the stuff of nightmares, a supernatural force lumped in with the ordinary (if extraordinarily hard to terminate) killers like Michael Myers of Halloween and the Voorhees of Friday the 13th.
Freddy was a creation of the late Wes Craven, the director who went on to satirise his own work in the first Scream films. Look closely and you’ll spot these classic movie monsters in Scream VI. Gale would have been an excellent vehicle to comment on the blurring of fiction and reality, and the tastelessness of casting Sam in the role of celebrity-monster.
The other weak points are identical to the last four instalments: a villain revelation that prioritises surprise over sense, and the laborious monologues about how the ‘rules’ of the slasher have changed. Despite ominous forecasts from the genre-savvy Mindy (Jasmin Savoy-Brown), Scream VI plays it safe with the slaughter.
Slash, rinse, repeat
In the universe of Scream, characters become pathologically obsessed with repetition and imitation. There’s some interesting overlaps between psychological compulsion and genre fidelity, but directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett aren’t nearly as interested in exploring that as they are peppering visual references into every frame. Without much narrative depth, Sam’s hallucinations of her killer father should be unforgivably cheesy, but Barrera sells it every minute she’s on screen.
There’s always been an unusual affinity between the Final Girl and the slasher. When Carol Clover first coined the term in her book Men, Women and Chain Saws, she noted a growing slippage between protagonist and antagonist in the slasher.
The final girl’s outsider status seems to draw her closer to killer. Barrera walks a tightrope as the murderous heroine. Of all the predictable elements in a franchise that delights in predictions, Barrera’s inevitable snap as a slasher-by-birthright is fabulously vindicating. Expect screams of delight more than screams of terror, but screams there will be.
There are few franchises where the sixth instalment is as strong as the first, but as Sam teaches us: sometimes the best thing to do is embrace what you really are.
Scream VI is in cinemas now.