The phone-call-with-the-killer sequence that opens every “Scream” film is always a tasty appetizer, one that as the characters in any “Scream” film could tell you establishes the tone for the movie in question. In “Scream VI,” that ritual scene kicks off at the bar of a trendy restaurant in downtown Manhattan. The woman seated at the bar is a professor of cinema studies (Samara Weaving), blonde and British. As she explains on the phone to her Tinder date, who can’t seem to locate the restaurant, she’s teaching a course in slasher films (which, the way she describes it, is no stab in the dark of plausibility). Her date, an annoying dork, is able to talk her out onto the street to help him find the place, and by the time she’s walking into a dark alley we know what’s coming. (His voice lowers into that familiar mocking AM-radio-DJ growl.) In this case, though, the killer is instantly unmasked as…a college bro. He returns to his apartment, and moments later he’s the scary-movie victim, talking on the phone with the real killer.
This elaborate double sequence, with its creepier-than-usual overtones (that bro describes how he relished committing a copycat murder), does a nice job of setting the table for “Scream VI,” the first entry in the series that unfolds in a place like New York City. The four survivors from “Scream,” last year’s “requel,” are all back, having dubbed themselves “the Core Four”: Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera), who triumphantly ended that movie by executing the film’s version of Ghostface; Sam’s half-sister, Tara (Jenna Ortega), who’s attending Blackmore College in New York (a fictional university that feels like NYU), and whom Sam hovers around like an overprotective parent; and Tara’s fellow student transplants, the whip-smart horror geek Mindy Meeks-Martin (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and her sexy brother Chad (Mason Gooding).
The directors, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, and screenwriters, James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, are also back. In their hands, it’s Mindy the brainiac horror superfan who once again elucidates the rules for how a “Scream” movie works, incorporating, as before, a new audience-driven corporate cynicism about what movies can and will do for an encore. Once Ghostface kicks off his rampage, Mindy correctly notes that what the characters are now in the middle of isn’t merely a sequel but a franchise, and she lays down the rules for what that suggests. It means that the new movie has got to be bigger and showier. That it’s got to swing in a new direction and subvert expectations. And that the legacy characters are strictly expendable. “Scream VI” more or less lives up to those dictates.
But here are a few rules of my own about where the “Scream” franchise is now at. Rule #1: The whole meta playfulness about the horror genre, with the characters sounding like schlock-culture scholars of their own dread-ridden fates, has become mere window dressing. Rule #2: The fact that we don’t know the identity of the killer has actually allowed this series to age more suspensefully than, say, the “Halloween” films, where it’s always the same evil drone under the mask. Rule #3: This means that the “Scream” series, while it retains just enough of the spirit of postmodern snark, now lives or dies on whether the movie in question actually succeeds as a thriller. And “Scream VI,” while it goes on for too long, is a pretty good thriller. It’s a gory homicidal shell game that’s clever in all the right ways, staged and shot more forcefully than the previous film, eager to take advantage of its more sprawling but enclosed cosmopolitan setting.
In the ’90s, the “Scream” films, in their self-reflexive slasher-on-rewind way, channeled a genuine affection for cinema. In “Scream VI,” one of Ghostface’s victims says, “We have to finish the movie,” to which Ghostface replies, just before stabbing him, “Who gives a fuck about movies?” “Scream VI” holds the audience, but it also tweaks a genre that it knows all too well no longer matters. The Ghostface mask, like an old leather couch, is a little ratty and worn this time, and that befits a 27-year-old series that has now had nine different Ghostface Killers.
In “Scream VI,” Ghostface is far from coy. He busts right into the center of scenes, attacking Sam and Tara in a bodega (the cashier has a shotgun, but that’s not enough to stop him). And the movie pulls the mask right out from under us with a sequence, early on, in which Ghostface breaks into an apartment that contains just about all the main characters, so we think, “It can’t be any of them.” We’re also given a good reason to think that it can’t be one of the roommates, the erotically rambunctious Quinn (Liana Liberato), whose father (Dermot Mulroney) is the police officer on the case. So that leaves…who? Ethan (Jack Champion) the stammering virgin nerd? Too easy.
Melissa Barrera has the fire and skill to play Sam as a woman so possessed with destroying the killer that it leaves her…possessed. Sam emerged as the heroine of “Scream,” but since then an online conspiracy theory has smeared her with the insinuation that she was actually the killer. And since she destroyed Ghostface with a vengeance equal to his own, she thinks — or at least her therapist (Henry Czerny) does — “Maybe I am a killer.” Between that and protecting Tara, Sam has a lot on her mind. The new stardom of Jenna Ortega, as the title character of “Wednesday,” will only help “Scream VI” at the box office, and she invests Tara with a surly spunk that counts. Courteney Cox makes sure that the return of Gale Weathers feels like more than a token legacy gesture, and ditto for Hayden Panettiere, whose Kirby Reed has returned (from “Scream 4”!) as an FBI agent, though her best scene is matching horror-movie assessments with Mindy.
The “Scream” series, in its first two installments (before it stalled creatively in “Scream III”), was always the slasher series that was too self-conscious to be just a slasher series. Now it’s the slasher series that’s just self-conscious enough not to be a pointless retread. This is really part two of the requel, which may be why it doesn’t wear out its welcome (though it could easily have been just 100 minutes long). There’s a terrific sequence set on Halloween night on a subway car teaming with costumed freaks. And there are several scenes that unfold in a kind of underground shrine, constructed in an abandoned movie theater, where the killer has assembled and displayed all the key evidence from all the cases. It’s a knowing nod to the fact that the series itself now faces the prospect of turning into a kind of “Scream” museum. But this team of filmmakers might just be smart enough to avoid that, as long as they keep coming up with ways to turn the cynical entropy that usually drags down horror series into the very thing that makes “Scream” scream.