Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

‘Scream VI’ generates some great thrills amidst tiresome meta jokes

The latest in the horror franchise walks a difficult line
Official Scream VI movie poster | IMDB

If you’re confused about how “Scream VI” relates to the other films in the series, have no fear; the film’s characters will tell you. Several times.

The “Scream” franchise is no stranger to self-referential jokes. Wes Craven’s original 1996 film remains a classic thanks to its snarky tone and memorable film-literate teen characters. It also helps that the Ghostface killer wasn’t afraid to get creative with the kills. But over 25 years and five sequels later, the bar for edginess has been raised.

The latest installment in the horror franchise comes just one year after the confusingly-titled “Scream,” a semi-reboot (or “requel,” as the characters call it) that introduced a new crop of quippy teens while bringing back franchise mainstays like Neve Campbell and Courteney Cox.

Written and directed by the same team (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett), “Scream VI” remains cursed with a bland protagonist and an overabundance of the meta sense of humor that once revolutionized the genre. Despite these elements, the real joys of the film (of which there are many) come in the form of new cast members and a few genuinely nerve-wracking sequences.

The film continues the story of sisters Sam (Melissa Barrera) and Tara Carpenter (Jenna Ortega) after they’ve fled the recently ravaged Woodsboro, Calif. to begin a new life in New York City. When a new Ghostface killer emerges in the city, Sam becomes the prime suspect thanks to the explosive ending of the previous film and her status as the daughter of Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich), one of the original Ghostface killers.

Despite sharing problems with the last entry, the film is a definite step up. 2022’s “Scream” seemed embarrassed to be a reboot of the franchise, stifling its characters with an onslaught of reminders that reboots are often hackneyed and lame. Here, the filmmakers confidently work within the franchise, allowing more space for visceral thrills.

This time around, the only legacy cast members left are Courteney Cox as journalist Gale Weathers, and Hayden Panettiere as Kirby Reed, a survivor of “Scream 4” and a newly minted FBI agent specializing in the history of Ghostface. Both are a welcome change of pace from the new crowd. In particular, Cox gets to a level of live-wire characterization that makes one remember how strange and entertaining the original films’ characters were.

As for the new crowd, Melissa Barrera seems to be in a different franchise. While Sam Carpenter is written to exude a darkness hiding beneath the surface, she comes off only as low energy. The choice to focus so much on Sam seems odd, given the level of charisma that Jenna Ortega brings to her role as Tara Carpenter. We also get a truly versatile performance from Dermot Mulroney as Detective Bailey, the father of the Carpenter sisters’ roommate and an intrepid investigator. Mulroney, a star of the ‘90s, brings a broad intensity to the story that feels right at home in a meta horror movie about a mask-wearing serial killer.

The city also proves to be a fantastic change of pace for the series.  A particularly tense sequence takes place in a high-rise apartment, with Ghostface driving  the heroines to escape over a cavernous alleyway using only a ladder. Another takes place on the subway, with each momentary blackout of the train lights obscuring the movement of a potential Ghostface. The relocation seems to be just what the franchise needed after the past spent five films were set in the same California town.

In both “Scream VI” and 2022’s “Scream,” there is a scene that I’ll call “The Poirot Scene.” Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) runs down the list of her close friends, including both Carpenter sisters, weighing their chances of being the as-yet-anonymous Ghostface killer. Unlike a typical Hercule Poirot investigation, Mindy’s investigation is based on her knowledge of horror movie tropes, specifically, the “rules” of franchise films of the past five years. The versatile name drops range from “The Babadook” to the latest James Bond film.

But stranger than the list of references is the casualness with which she uses corporate film language. With Ghostface seeming to copy the in-universe “Stab” film franchise, Mindy mentions the guidelines of “franchises,” “IP” and the expectation of one-upmanship in a horror series like the one we are watching.

The meta perspective of the “Scream” series has grown beyond simply pointing out tropes like dumb teens or escaped mental patients. “Scream VI” works best when it is crafting the thrills of a sillyteen-centric horror movie. Its devotion to the innovations of the ‘90s seems to be running out of steam, with their targets becoming broader and more groan-inducing. In the 2020s, there is a demand for a level of cynicism that will occasionally push past comedy into a genuinely bleak territory.

The film ends with a sequel tease, and based on the box office success of this film, it’s likely to go into production soon. One can only wonder what else can be picked apart and recycled for the next film. With any luck, the filmmakers will take a page from the original Wes Craven films and focus on building out engaging characters. Otherwise, you’re left with a product that runs only on forgettable cynicism.

Thomas Machacz can be reached at [email protected].

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