From the moment “Scream VI” begins, you get the sense that you’re meant to believe this will not be your classic “Scream” movie.
The film starts, of course, with a ringing phone and a woman who’s unaware that she’s in imminent peril. But after that familiar opening, the story takes some early twists and turns that make it feel like the filmmakers are trying to throw big-time “Scream” fans and canny movie-goers off their game. Or, so it may seem at first.
The newest “Scream” installment is helmed by directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillet and written by James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick – the same team that relaunched the “Scream” franchise just last year, introducing us to new and old characters alike. After the events of 2022’s “Scream” (yes, that is the same title as the first film), our characters have tried to move on after yet another Ghostface killer attack. Tara Carpenter (Jenna Ortega) and her friends Mindy and Chad Meeks-Martin (Jasmin Savoy Brown and Mason Gooding) have enrolled in college in New York City. Sam (Melissa Barrera) – Tara’s overprotective sister who also happens to be the illegitimate daughter of the original Ghostface killer Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) – has joined the trio with the sole aim of keeping Tara safe.
With a new city comes new friends – and also new suspects. The four are joined by Ethan (Jack Champion), Quinn (Liana Liberato), and Anika (Devyn Nekoda). When a new Ghostface killer emerges, Quinn’s detective father (Dermot Mulroney) and former Ghostface-victim-turned-FBI-agent Kirby Reed (Hayden Panettiere) join the crew to try and solve the case, getting more than a little meta along the way.
As much as the early beats of “Scream VI” might intentionally try to throw the audience for a loop, everything I’ve just described has all the hallmarks of your typical “Scream” movie. Characters, old and new, come together to fight a familiar, yet different killer with slightly new motives updated for the times. And that’s not a bad thing! The “Scream” movies’ formulaic consistency is what has allowed the franchise to evolve and stay relevant for more than two decades. Opting for similar story beats time and time again allows the meta commentary on movies and culture to slot right in with ease.
This movie’s particular meta commentary continues the franchise’s feminist bent. “Scream” has always been a story that focuses on women and their trauma – literally, no person alive has been more traumatized than series protagonist Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) – but in Tara and Sam, the franchise pushes that narrative forward. While Sidney has had women on her side in the past, most of them tend to die and one of them is Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) who, let’s face it, isn’t always the easiest person to get along with.
Tara and Sam’s relationship is also not easy, but it’s complex in a way that isn’t simply adversarial. In the last film, the two had just reunited after spending some time estranged. “Scream VI” spends time ruminating on how that time apart affected their relationship, as well as both women’s inability to deal with the trauma they suffered in the last film – i.e., getting attacked by a couple of psychos in ghost masks. Sam worries that Tara is ignoring her own pain, but Sam’s insistence on disregarding her happiness so that she can be available at any moment to come to Tara’s defense isn’t necessarily the healthiest of coping mechanisms. The movie easily slots that typical older/younger sister dynamic – a bent towards protection vs. the desire to prove you can handle yourself on your own – over radically heightened circumstances.
The push and pull in Tara and Sam’s relationship combined with the outside forces that make some of their worst tendencies necessary provides for a more complex relationship between women than we’ve seen in the past in this franchise. Barerra, who I was lukewarm on in the previous film, really leans into Sam’s anger here in a way that holds a lot of gravity and menace. One of the most important qualities of a “Scream” heroine is that they could believably kick a grown man’s ass, which is something she has in spades. Barrera’s immovable force quality complements Ortega’s more classic scream queen energy. They’re two sides of a coin – one ready to stab with a stone-faced clarity, the other ready to do the same while screaming and sobbing her way through it.
Like most “Scream” films, “Scream VI” is more of a murder mystery than a true blue scary movie – albeit, with some gnarly kills and tension-filled set pieces thrown in for good measure. The film continues the franchise’s interest in both deconstructing the elements of a slasher flick while simultaneously using those same elements to comment on a social anxiety – knowingly falling in step with the very genre it’s pulling apart. At the beginning of the movie, Laura Crane – a film studies professor played by Samara Weaving, a burgeoning scream queen herself – says that the slashers of an era can usually give us clues to what’s going on culturally in a particular time. That’s far from a new concept, but that’s exactly what “Scream” does. The meta narratives may change, but “Scream” will always be there to deliver them to us with a sly wink and a bloody smile.