Is Scream Losing Its Voice?

The satirical horror franchise is becoming as bloated as its source material.

Jenna Ortega looks worriedly over her shoulder in "Scream VI"
Paramount Pictures

In January 2022, when the fifth Scream film came out, more than a decade had passed since someone had last donned the Ghostface mask and terrorized teens with threatening phone calls and a deftly wielded hunting knife. That movie, the first Scream not directed by the series’ now-deceased auteur, Wes Craven, had a lot of new developments to catch up on in the genre it ribbed so well: the rise of “elevated” horror, the tiresome formulae of legacy sequels, and how a killer who’s reliant on landlines might function in the smartphone era. The result was enough of a hit for executives to green-light Scream VI, which is rushing to multiplexes a mere 14 months later. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the follow-up has less to say.

Scream has always thrived on metatextuality: In the opening scene of the original 1996 film, an unseen caller starts quizzing a high schooler (played by Drew Barrymore) over the phone about scary movies. The movie allowed Craven, a master of the slasher form, and the screenwriter Kevin Williamson to mock the tired structure of the genre while still delivering a successful version of it. Last year, I was initially wary that the franchise’s new leadership, the Ready or Not directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, wouldn’t be able to re-create the tone of such a voice-driven classic. But I was reassured by their take, which had real fun at the expense of the rageful, Reddit-dwelling online film nerds of the latest generation.

Scream VI retains Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett, along with the screenwriters James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, but it lacks the previous films’ nimbleness in finding fresh angles on the horror world. The quick turnaround is partly to blame—not enough has happened within the genre in the intervening year to really be commented on—but the other problem is the prosaic nature of a sixth movie entry. Prior Screams satirized the tropes of a standard slasher sequel (Scream 2), the grand finale of a trilogy (Scream 3), the reboot (Scream 4), and the legacy sequel that brings back old cast members and mixes them with new characters (last year’s confusingly titled Scream).

All Scream VI really has going for it is that it has relocated its cast to New York City, following the example of other series that did the same. (I’m mostly thinking of the camp classic Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan.) After the last film’s bloodbath, Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera) and her half sister, Tara (Jenna Ortega), have moved to the Big Apple, where Tara and their movie-loving pals Chad (Mason Gooding) and Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) are attending college. The crew has made some new friends but is still stewing over old traumas when, surprise, surprise, another Ghostface killer emerges and starts slaying co-eds across the city—while implicating Sam in the murders.

Scream VI doesn’t have quite the same “legacy” pull as its predecessor. Hayden Panettiere (who gave the best performance of Scream 4) makes a welcome return as the smart-aleck Kirby, now an FBI agent on the Ghostface case, but Courteney Cox is one of the only cast members from the original film this time around, reappearing as the dogged tabloid journalist Gale Weathers. Instead of featuring a slew of character reprises, the movie sources nostalgia from its script, about a franchise-obsessed killer who collects mementos from infamous slayings and leaves them at his own crime scenes. It’s a nonsensical yarn but an obvious way for the film to glance back at its storied history, perhaps in search of some emotional weight.

At one point, Kirby and an NYPD detective (played by a snarly Dermot Mulroney, clearly just here to have a good time) examine a bulletin board covered with former suspects (from prior Scream films), looking for clues. But the pair might as well be Hollywood producers trying to track a new lead on an outdated blueprint, admiring the headshots of Ghostfaces of yore rather than investigating original material. The smiling visages of actors such as Timothy Olyphant, Laurie Metcalf, Emma Roberts, and Skeet Ulrich offer an amusing road map through a grand and gory backstory. They don’t, however, point the characters or the viewers to a clear path forward.

Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett remain gifted at set pieces, and Scream VI has more than a few arresting moments. The opening sequence (always a high point for these movies) features an entertaining switcheroo and a plum cameo for the Ready or Not star Samara Weaving. A clever series of murders takes place across two adjacent apartment buildings and uses the spatial geography of cramped New York housing brilliantly. And an extended, suspenseful scene on the subway is a blast. But there just isn’t enough juice behind the stagecraft. The Scream movies have thrived because they’ve always stayed one step ahead of their source material—but as the franchise grows more bloated, they risk becoming their own punch line.