If there’s one thing we’re supposed to take away from “Scream VI,” it’s that this meta horror series is officially a franchise now. Of course, the idea that it wasn’t already would certainly be news to Paramount executives. Any series that lasts long enough to spawn six movies is a franchise in the literal sense of the word. But up to this point, the Wes Craven-created property had gone to great lengths to differentiate itself from the slasher franchises it loves to lampoon.
“Friday the 13th” and “Nightmare on Elm Street” and all of their ilk are the poster children for quantity-based filmmaking. They exist in worlds where continuity is nonexistent, supporting characters come and go without ever being missed, and the bad guy can never be definitively killed. There’s never been a serious attempt to wrap up the overarching narrative — and you know there’s never going to be — because the franchise is bigger than any one actor or director. Those movies are going to keep coming out until the heat death of the universe, and loyal fans will keep seeing them out of sunk costs and the possibility that a bold filmmaker can turn a cheaply made sequel into a diamond in the rough (looking at you, “Jason X”).
There’s no denying that the “Scream” movies come awfully close to matching that description, but they’ve always been able to toe the line without crossing it. Up to now, each sequel has used a self-referential framing device to justify its own existence: “Scream 2” mocked horror sequels, “Scream 3” explored the way trilogy endings differ from their predecessors, “Scream 4” poked fun at the prevalence of remakes, and last year’s “Scream” made a convoluted attempt to comment on “elevated horror” and reboots that bring back legacy characters.
Those narrative devices offered a shred of plausible deniability against charges that the “Scream” series was just an endless assembly line of slasher whodunnits. Anyone who felt like using semantics to defend the series could plausibly make the claim that changes to the horror movie ecosystem necessitated each of the four sequels.
No more. While “Scream VI” still features its share of meta humor, it leaves no doubt that this universe is now fleshed out enough to support an infinite number of sequels that aren’t parodies of industry trends. And the film’s ability to shine without the involvement of Craven (who died in 2015) is a clear sign that the “Scream” series can afford to lose any of its key players if it’s smart about replacing them.
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s tenure at the helm of the franchise got off to a rocky start when their 2022 reboot clearly lacked Craven’s wit and visual panache. But their second “Scream” film sees them stepping out of Craven’s shadow entirely, proving that there’s plenty of room for new filmmakers to put their own spin on the series.
The last “Scream” movie was an obvious reset for the franchise. The self-described “re-quel” brought back fan favorites like Courteney Cox and David Arquette, but it primarily focused on introducing a new generation of stars to fight Ghostface. That film saw two horror junkies attempting to film their own remake of the fictional “Stab” movies by initiating a new set of murders in Woodsboro. While the killers were eventually caught, survivors like Sam (Melissa Barrera) and Tara (Jenna Ortega) Carpenter and Chad (Mason Gooding) and Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) Meeks-Martin were traumatized for life.
“Scream VI” picks up right where that left off, following the two sets of siblings to New York City after they made the all-too-rational decision to leave town after the killing spree. Now they’re trying to adapt to life as college freshmen, but it quickly becomes clear that they can’t just run from their Ghostface problem. Sam has become the subject of a brutal online harassment campaign because a conspiracy theory claimed that she was the actual killer in Woodsboro. And Tara is trying to break free of her overprotective sister, who won’t let her out of her sight. When a film studies professor gets stabbed to death by a guy in a Ghostface mask, they know it’s only a matter of time before the latest movie-obsessed killer comes for them. Their only recourse is to find him first.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a “Scream” movie without characters using their knowledge of real horror movies to protect themselves. As they begin to narrow down the list of suspects, it dawns on them that they’re living in a full-fledged franchise now. That means that many of the old “rules” that characters have used to survive previous installments are useless. Everyone is on edge once they realize that anyone can die at any moment — romantic leads and fan favorite characters aren’t safe anymore. The only thing left to do is brace themselves for a bigger, bloodier face-off with their new assailant.
“Scream VI” is a clear continuation of what Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett established in “Scream,” but it improves on the “re-quel” in just about every way. The college setting allows the young leads to take center stage, freeing up the legacy characters to add color at all the right moments without having to carry the film. (If it wasn’t obvious already, it’s time to acknowledge that Cox’s Gale Weathers is one of the best human characters that the horror genre has ever produced. The idea of a grifty investigative journalist who will do anything to monetize her proximity to tragedies becomes more plausible with each passing film, and Cox flawlessly alternates between genuine competence and sleazy opportunism.)
And more than anything, it’s just really fucking fun. The set pieces are bigger, the killer reveal is twistier, and the film actually uses its New York setting to its full advantage. (Unlike the abysmal “Jason Takes Manhattan,” which devotes the majority of its runtime to the boat ride that took Jason Voorhees to Manhattan and treats his actual time in the city like an epilogue.) While the camerawork sometimes falls short of the formalism that Craven spent a lifetime honing, this film zips along with the energy of something that was clearly made in the 2020s. The whole movie is living proof that the franchise has plenty of gas left in the tank —and that we should all be excited about the inevitable “Scream VII.”
Without spoiling anything about who survives the latest film, it goes without saying that almost everyone will outgrow this franchise eventually. Characters will be killed off, actors will distance themselves from the slasher world in search of bigger roles, and directors like Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett will eventually move onto other projects. But if there’s one thing that the “Scream” franchise has taught us, it’s that there’s always someone new waiting to put on the mask. If they keep making ’em like “Scream VI,” the future is as bright as it is bloody.
Paramount will release “Scream VI” in theaters on Friday, March 10.
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