“Scream” movies are like pizza — when they’re good, they’re great, and even when they’re not as good, they’re still satisfying. Thankfully, “Scream VI” is a tasty slice. Even though with each new installment the “Scream” franchise creeps closer and closer to the fictional in-movie “Stab” franchise that these films are ostensibly skewering, writers James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick keep the blade sharp, while directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett bring a brawny, bruising and bloody style to this “requel sequel.”
This is the second “Scream” movie not directed by Wes Craven (“Ready or Not” directors Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett took over with the previous “legasequel” in 2022), and the first without franchise star Neve Campbell as Sidney Prescott. While it’s a shame that Campbell didn’t return due to an inadequate salary offer, it was time to let Sidney ride off into the sunset and release her from Ghostface-chasing duty. There’s a new “Scream” queen in town — Melissa Barrera — and she stabs back.
This time, the Woodsboro crew of most recent Ghostface survivors are in New York City — one could say it’s “Ghostface Takes Manhattan.” Tara (Jenna Ortega) is attending fictional Blackmore University, trying to live a normal life with her overprotective big sis Sam (Barrera) in tow. As usual, the film opens with a call from Ghostface, who would like to play a game, this time elevating the horror nerd trivia to the level of the ivory tower, with references to a 20th century slasher-film studies class taught at Blackmore. From the beginning, it’s a Ghostface inception, the copycats folding into themselves, unclear who is targeting whom and why.
The closest analogue to “Scream VI” is “Scream 2,” which is directly stated by the film’s resident Randy (the first “Scream’s” horror expert and audience surrogate), his niece Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown). Both films leave the high school setting for college, introduce new characters and tangle with the academic side of horror. It’s bigger, shaggier and a bit messier than its predecessor, and while it bears other fun similarities to “Scream 2,” mentioning more ventures into spoiler territory.
The script of this team’s previous “Scream” outing felt a bit more incisive, cutting straight to the heart of the toxic fanboy matter. Here, there’s a scattered message about the power of online rumor and misinformation, as Sam has become Public Enemy No. 1, thanks to a few nasty trolls and the revelation of her genetic lineage as the daughter of original “Scream” villain Billy Loomis.
What makes Sam the Evolved Final Girl is precisely her killer instinct. While the vulnerable Sidney harnessed her emotions to fight back, Sam’s Loomis DNA makes her Ghostface’s most dangerous foe: She is physically powerful and possessed of a near feral energy. Barrera walks the line between fearful and menacing well, and she and Ortega make a winning blood-spattered sisterly duo.
Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett take us swaggering through the New York City streets via cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz’s dizzying, disorienting camera. The centerpiece sequence — a subway packed with Halloween revelers — is a beautiful piece of suspense filmmaking, utilizing the sights, sounds and geography of the space to create an all-too-real sense of public terror that gestures toward the notion of bystander effect. How can one be safe from Ghostface in a world of copycat murderers and an increasingly ironic and apathetic world?
Last year’s “Scream” proved that this filmmaking team were worthy heirs to Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson’s iconic franchise, and while “Scream VI” underlines that point, it also illustrates that there’s still a rich vein to tap, using established lore to take the preeminent slasher movie IP in new and fascinating directions.
Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
Rated: R, for strong bloody violence and language throughout, and brief drug use
Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes
Playing: Starts March 10 in general release