Ghostface and meta commentary are back in this sequel, yet the weight of obligations to the dictates of the franchise ultimately drags it down.
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By Jason Zinoman
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It was not surprising when Quentin Tarantino, an auteur unusually willing to criticize the work of his peers in public, told an interviewer that he didn’t like the original “Scream,” calling its director, Wes Craven, “the iron chain attached to its ankle.”
An ungenerous observer might see a connection between this opinion and the fact that Craven hated Tarantino’s first movie, “Reservoir Dogs,” so much that he walked out of a screening, only to be surprised by the director himself, asking what Craven thought. Side note: Never do that to a director or a critic. Timing matters.
While “Scream” has become the most beloved franchise about horror fandom, with scary-movie obsessives as victims or killers or both, there have always been die-hards who felt its self-referential humor came at the expense of the scares; it was fun slasher-lite, spoofing its audience while really pandering to them. These horror snobs, and I count myself among them, know that Wes Craven can go for the throat, but with these movies, he chose not to.
“Scream VI” aims to win us over. (Craven died in 2015, and was paid homage to in the last “Scream” movie, skillfully directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett.) In one of its gruesome kills, a knife doesn’t just go for the throat, it shoves it down and twists. This is a grimier entry, more likely to break with convention — one where the white mask of its serial killer Ghostface is scuffed up. The character’s physicality is also steadier, more willing to be still, with the occasional Michael Myers head tilt. Moving from the well-appointed and brightly lit homes of small towns and the suburbs to the dark alleys of New York sounded like a desperate move (see “Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan”), but placing stalker sequences in crowds inspired some fresh thinking.
There are a couple of truly frightening, patiently established suspense scenes, including one inside a subway car during Halloween that’s filled with people in costumes of horror villains, including multiple Ghostfaces. It’s a nicely staged vignette that, in keeping with the spirit of “Scream,” operates as a meta commentary on the glut of scary movies. But it’s tricky business balancing disturbing terror and jokey film criticism, and while this sequel occasionally pulls it off, the weight of obligations to the dictates of the franchise ultimately drags it down.
Building off the story line of the previous movie, Tara (Jenna Ortega) and her sister, Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera), whose last name will have some fans of “Halloween” chuckling insufferably, have left their cursed small town of Woodsboro to attend an N.Y.U.-like school in Manhattan with a new gang of friends/potential killers. Once a masked figure starts stabbing people, everyone looks askance at each other and starts breaking down the rules to surviving a horror movie.
With a richer character to work with than the protagonists in the early films, Barrera does an effectively brooding job playing a tortured possible antihero. As the daughter of Billy Loomis (played by Skeet Ulrich), the killer in the original movie, whose ghostly presence returns here, she adds some new tension to the boilerplate disposable victims.
This is a movie where no less than three characters are brutally stabbed but preposterously don’t die, and yet, it’s also the first “Scream” without Neve Campbell’s Sidney, which goes to show that Hollywood contract negotiations are more horrifyingly fatal than any cinematic maniac.
Courteney Cox does come back as the opportunistic reporter Gale Weathers and, as is tradition, gets punched in the face with panache. There’s also a return of the character Kirby Reed (Hayden Panettiere) from “Scream 4,” which may have some people scrambling to read plot summaries on Wikipedia. These callbacks clutter up the movie even if they provide opportunities for those who binge watched the series on Paramount+ to horrorsplain to their friends and family.
“Scream” has always been as much of a whodunit as a slasher, so more characters do provide opportunities for misdirection, but the problem here is not just an excess of people. It’s the feeling of the past and the future weighing down the present: the past in how film-nerd chatter gets dutifully shoehorned in (there’s nothing as funny as the post-kill line “I still prefer ‘The Babadook’” from the fifth “Scream”), and the future in how some characters just won’t die because, well, that would mess up “Scream 7” and “Scream 8.” You also get the sense that Sidney, who is mentioned multiple times in the script, is handled diplomatically because the filmmakers hope to lure her back for later movies.
This is the curse of franchise filmmaking. Just because the movie-fan character Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) — who delivers the traditional monologue establishing the rules to survive — draws attention to this issue doesn’t make it go away.
Self-awareness will not fix plausibility or pacing issues or make your movie scarier. It could help a comedy, though, and perhaps that’s the best version of these movies, which would suggest that the filmmakers lighten up and ignore the die-hard horror nerds altogether, along with the snooty critics from The New York Times. How’s that for meta?
Rated R for bloody jabbing, stabbing, gabbing. Running time: 2 hours 3 minutes. In theaters.
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