Melissa Barrera and Jenna Ortega go up against New York Ghostface in this new instalment of the tired horror franchise

Scream VI

Source: Paramount Pictures

‘Scream VI’

Dirs: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett. USA. 2023. 123mins

In the 26 years since the original Scream revitalised a flatlining genre, its cloaked killer Ghostface has become an icon of horror cinema.The celebrity of such bogeymen is something this self-aware franchise has always played upon, and the latest instalment is no exception. It’s more interesting, however, as an exploration of the legacy of trauma — a theme which inspired the famous Edvard Munch painting on which the instantly recognisable killer’s mask is partly based. But as troubled Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera) attempts to make a new life in New York after surviving the carnage of 2022’s reboot/sequel Scream, any moments of psychological reflection are drowned out by lashings of gore and buckets of nostalgia.

 Essentially a by-the-numbers slasher

That is unlikely to stop this latest instalment adding significantly to a franchise which has grossed over $744m worldwide across five films (the original 1996 film making $173m of that total). As evidenced by last year’s Scream, which took $30m during its three-day opening weekend, fans are likely to turn out when the film opens on March 10 in multiple territories including the UK and US, A wider audience could be tempted by the rising star power of Jenna Ortega, who can be seen as Wednesday Addams in Netflix’s hit show, and Jasmin Savoy Brown, star of soon-to-be-returning TV horror series Yellowjackets.

While you don’t need to be familiar with the franchise to follow what is essentially a by-the-numbers slasher, the film unashamedly rewards its fans. It takes place a year after the events of last year’s Scream (also directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, taking over from the late Wes Craven), in which the small California town of Woodsboro played host to a new Ghostface killer targeting those connected with the first murders 25 years before. After barely escaping with their lives, Samantha — the daughter of one of the first film’s killers Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) and the unwitting girlfriend of Scream 2022’s murderer Ritchie — and her sister Tara (Ortega) move to New York (although the film shot in Montreal). Along with fellow survivors Chad (Mason Gooding) and Mindy (an impressively spiky Savoy Brown), Tara pursues a college education while the older Sam keeps an eye on her sister with something akin to obsessive overprotection.

The dynamic between the sisters, both victims of trauma, is one of the film’s more intriguing strands. While Sam attempts to exorcise her demons in therapy, Tara just wants to forget and be normal; a pipe dream, Sam suggests. This difference of opinion drives a wedge between them, their relationship struggling with the fallout of their shared experience. Barrera and Ortega compliment each other well, but their nuanced dynamic becomes rather less about emotion and more about survival when they realise they are being targeted by yet another new Ghostface.

In the words of Mindy, who delivers this film’s requisite, now somewhat tired, meta-soliloquy on the “rules” of surviving a scary movie, the move to New York brings a bigger canvas. And if Ghostface is frightening enough in a sleepy backwater, he’s an even more terrifying prospect in a big city swarming with strangers — many of whom are wearing his face as a mask for Halloween. (He’s become famous thanks to ’Stab’, the franchise-within-a-franchise about the Woodsboro murders.) A particularly effective sequence takes place aboard a packed subway train, the lights flickering and the tracks squealing as a real-world nightmare unfolds within a sea of passengers all wearing instantly recognisable horror costumes. 

Another standout sequence sees news anchor Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) —  the only major character to appear in every film — come up against Ghostface, and use her own controversial book about the Woodboro murders as a weapon. But the notion that Gale’s entire persona is intertwined with Ghostface, that her fame relies on his continued kills, is another fascinating idea that is briefly touched on, only to be lost in the fray.

This playbook will be pretty familiar to anyone who has seen the previous films — or, indeed, much of the modern horror it has inspired. Those in the know may get a kick from the way in which returning screenwriters James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick tie the entire series together in a story which, while rather convoluted and contrived, has a completist satisfaction. Similarly, some elements of the production design will thrill Scream aficionados; as will Roger Jackson’s gravely Ghostface voice and the insistent, foreboding trill of the phone which, despite the advent of the mobile ringtone, still sounds exactly the same. 

Yet while that familiarity is Scream VI’s major strength, it has also become its fundamental flaw. The location may have changed, the kills may be increasingly inventive, but underneath all that window dressing it’s the same as it ever was. The inventive post-modern thrill of the original film (and its solid first sequel) is now itself a tired trope; this is a franchise propped up on a foundation of nostalgia, and the cracks are starting to show.

Production companies: Paramount Pictures, Project X Entertainment, Radio Silence Production, Spyglass Entertainment

Worldwide distribution: Paramount Pictures

Producers: Paul Neinstein, William Sherak, James Vanderbilt

Screenplay: James Vanderbilt & Guy Busick, based on characters created by Kevin Williamson

Cinematography: Brett Jutkiewicz

Production design: Michele Laliberte

Editing: Jay Prychidny

Music: Sven Faulconer, Brian Tyler

Main cast: Melissa Barrera, Jenna Ortega, Mason Gooding, Jasmin Savoy Brown, Courteney Cox, Hayden Panettiere, Dermot Mulroney