Review: ‘Scream VI’ scares up twists and meta commentary in NYC

click to enlarge Review: ‘Scream VI’ scares up twists and meta commentary in NYC
Paramount Pictures/Submitted
Ghostface in Paramount Pictures and Spyglass Media Group’s “Scream VI.”

More than 25 years after the first film and without the late, great horror maestro Wes Craven at its helm, it would be easy to say the “Scream” franchise should be left alone.

But when filmmaking duo Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett (“Ready or Not”) stepped in and took the mantle with last year’s “requel,” which both kept the legacy of its four predecessors intact while putting the focus on a new generation, they showed that there’s still potential in the satirical, twist-heavy horror films.

The 2022 film, confusingly titled “Scream” despite being the fifth one, may not have been a series highlight (the best is still the original 1996 film, with 1997’s “Scream 2” and 2011’s belatedly well-received “Scream 4” competing for second place) but did have its positives with its Ghostface sequences, return of David Arquette, and ahead-of-the-curve casting of Jenna Ortega.

Now, just a year later, the series is returning to a numbered format with “Scream VI,” which finds its footing with the younger cast as it continues to move away from legacy characters (only Courteney Cox returns from all five previous entries).

This time the series is transported to New York City, a decision that in sequel history recalls the much-maligned (but, honestly, still entertaining) “Friday the 13th: Jason Takes Manhattan.” The comparison, however, stops there — with the new setting being a breath of fresh air for the “Scream” films, which by and large have taken place in Woodsboro (save for the second and third installments).

In the aftermath of last year’s film, half-sisters Samantha (Melissa Barrera) and Tara Carpenter (Ortega) and twins Chad (Mason Gooding) and Mindy Meeks-Martin (Jasmin Savoy Brown) move to the city to attend college, where they find themselves as the targets of a new Ghostface.

Newcomers include the core group’s friends Ethan Landry (Jack Champion), Quinn Bailey (Liana Liberato) and Anika Kayoko (Devyn Nekoda), as well as Quinn’s father, Detective Bailey (Dermot Mulroney). Tony Revolori, Josh Segarra and Samara Weaving are also among the cast.

While Ortega’s performance was a highlight of the 2022 film, here the ensemble strikes more of a balance — Savoy Brown, for one, delivers an animated performance filled with entertainingly meta monologues, with central lead Barrera even improving upon her character (minus the ham-fisted visions of Skeet Ulrich as Billy Loomis) — while Cox finds herself at home back in Gale Weathers’ shoes, not simply feeling like a story obligation as in the last film.

click to enlarge Review: ‘Scream VI’ scares up twists and meta commentary in NYC
Paramount Pictures/Submitted
From left to right, Dermot Mulroney (Detective Bailey), Jenna Ortega (Tara Carpenter), Jack Champion (Ethan Landry), Hayden Panettiere (Kirby Reed), Jasmin Savoy Brown (Mindy Meeks-Martin), Melissa Barrera (Sam Carpenter) and Mason Gooding (Chad Meeks-Martin) star in Paramount Pictures and Spyglass Media Group’s “Scream VI.”

In addition to Cox’s return as the tabloid reporter and author, Hayden Panettiere reprises the role of Kirby Reed from the 2011 film, with a fun twist on the character after a lengthy hiatus.

Core franchise protagonist Neve Campbell’s absence as Sidney Prescott will likely be a sore spot for longtime fans of the series, though it’s a loss that ultimately goes unfelt in the grand scheme of the film, quickly explained away in dialogue and ultimately irrelevant to the story at hand.

Set in the run up to Halloween, “Scream VI” uses the city to its advantage, taking places in crowded city streets, trains and bodegas, filled with masked trick-or-treaters and Ghostface doppelgangers. It features some of the most intense, threatening and gory Ghostface action thus far, though it’s not without its moments of levity.

Like past “Scream” films, the sixth installment celebrates its legacy and horror fandom (characters share opinions on “underrated” horror sequels like “Psycho II” and “Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter,” as well as the trendy cinephile social media platform Letterboxd), while commenting on its own existence as part of a franchise. The film goes so far as to have Savoy Brown’s character acknowledge being in a “sequel to a requel,” one that even parallels the college setting of 1997’s “Scream 2.” This means, as she mentions in the film, a higher budget with bigger stakes.

But more than two and a half decades after the first film, it’s important that “Scream VI” manages to find new ways to subvert expectations of the whodunnit formula. And it does.

The climax — don’t worry, no spoilers here — is admittedly a weak point, at least in the sense that the reveals continue to build upon the convoluted connectivity between films and characters. Notably, however, that’s always been the thing with the series, made easier to take in by the highly referential commentary on the horror genre it has continued to do so well.

But whereas 2022’s “Scream” was a solid reintroduction of Ghostface to longtime fans and a new demographic that left room for improvement, “Scream VI” is the revitalization the franchise needed to stay alive going forward.

“Scream VI” opens in theaters Friday, March 10.

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