Ghostface Takes a Killer Bite Out of the Big Apple in Scream VI
I was lukewarm on last year’s Scream legacy sequel. While I appreciated all of the fresh faces and agreed it was time to move longtime stars Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, and David Arquette into supporting roles, the take on the material overseen by directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett — aka “Radio Silence” — felt like too much of a rehash of similar themes found in 2011’s Scream 4.
The film still entertained, and the love and care that went into keeping the late, great Wes Craven’s spirit alive was readily apparent. I just didn’t feel like either Radio Silence or screenwriters James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick had anything new to say, and instead of attempting to move the horror-comedy-social commentary needle, they appeared to be content to play a familiar game, only with a new cast of main characters.
That core creative team returns for Scream VI, and while I still can’t say they shake things up or have too much new to say about the current cultural zeitgeist (with one major exception), dang is this sixth chapter in the series tremendously entertaining. Radio Silence, Vanderbilt, and Busick have constructed a masterfully ghoulish puzzle box, and while observant members of the audience shouldn’t have too much trouble solving it, that does not make doing so any less fun.
Like Scream 2, the action moves to a collegiate setting. But instead of a small California university bathed in sunshine, Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera), her younger sister Tara (Jenna Ortega), and their best friends, fraternal twins Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and Chad Meeks-Martin (Mason Gooding), have decided to matriculate on the other side of the country, in New York City. Sam has come with the trio to keep an eye on Tara, much to the latter’s consternation. But the Big Apple should be safe, right? In a city this gigantic, it’s not like the foursome should have anything Ghostface-related to worry about.
Wrong. There’s a new Ghostface, and this one is especially brutal. Even more curious, this masked killer has an obsession with all nine of the previous incarnations. Their escapades don’t just catch the eye of Ghostface expert Gale Weathers (Cox), but also capture the attention of the FBI. Agent Kirby Reed (Hayden Panettiere) — yes, that Kirby Reed, one of the few survivors from Jill Roberts and Charlie Walker’s infamous murder spree over a decade prior — is eager to take charge of the case from NYPD Detective Bailey (Dermot Mulroney).
For reasons not worth going into, Sidney Prescott is not here. As Gale explains to Sam and Tara roughly halfway through, it’s time this all-time great “final girl” is allowed her happy ending. So don’t expect Campbell to make an appearance, not even a cameo, and for those who think Scream can’t be Scream without her, prepare to be disappointed.
Here’s the thing, though. Sidney’s absence is a good thing. Campbell not coming back forced Vanderbilt and Busick to get creative. It also allowed them to spend more time on the core four characters from the last entry: Sam, Tara, Mindy, and Chad. Sure, Gale gets a few scenes (including one spectacular stalk-chase-evade-fight set piece), and Kirby’s return appropriately warrants a decent-sized subplot. But the focus is on the Carpenter sisters and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the Meeks-Martin siblings, and that’s as it should be.
The second time is a charm for Barrera. She does a grand job giving Sam depth. The character’s constant psychological battles as she deals with the repercussions of her parentage are handled much better this time, as is her determination to protect Tara no matter the cost. Barrera rises to the occasion, showcasing an emotional verisimilitude that was missing from her performance the last time, and Sam is far more interesting and worthy of rooting for because of this.
Ortega is once again outstanding, and Brown and Gooding shine in the moments where Mindy and Chad are given the chance to make an impression. It’s nice to see Kirby back in action, and Panettiere shows she hasn’t lost that energetic spark that helped make the character so memorable back in Scream 4. Mulroney is also good, and while the writing doesn’t always do Detective Bailey a ton of favors, the wily veteran has enough tricks hidden up his sleeve to overcome most of the narrative silliness.
I’m not going to talk about any of the other newcomers. I’m not going to speak about the pre-title opening other than to say it’s one of the better ones, and if I had to rank them, I’d say only the prologues in the original Scream and in Scream 2 are superior.
I will also state that, as clever as the plotting is, I didn’t find it especially difficult to figure out who was doing what when. Ghostface’s identity is obvious in my opinion, and for a series obsessed with breaking convention and toying with the rules, this one does play it a wee too safe during the climactic stretch.
But Radio Silence directs the heck out of the film, topping themselves with each stupendous sequence of suspense, danger, and action. A bit in a neighborhood grocery store is unrelentingly tense, while another scene involving our heroes dangling between apartment complexes on a rickety ladder is magnificently handled. The final showdown in a Ghostface shrine located in a dilapidated movie theater is also well worth the wait. The directors pull out all the bloody stops as the clash with this latest Ghostface concludes.
As far as the meta aspects go, Vanderbilt and Busick do not find a lot to say that hasn’t been said before in the previous installments. The one notable exception concerns how news outlets and social media can transform truth into a lie and make angry zealots believe obvious falsehoods as if they were a scientific certainty. But as shrewdly as this is handled, once the action and the bloodletting take firm control, these aspects are given short shrift, making the payoff less consequentially impactful in the process.
Be that as it may, Ghostface’s assault on the Big Apple is a good one. Scream VI shows there’s still life in this series, and now that a new generation has been given control of the story, I’m curious to see where things go next.
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)