de facto film reviews 2.5 stars

Last year’s Scream — or Scream 5 as most reasonable folks refer to it, saw the “legacyquel/requel” formula gets its comeuppance by way of the Scream treatment. Taking a bite out of Hollywood’s over-reliance on nostalgia and the IP-driven landscape of today, it was the first film not directed by the late, great horror master Wes Craven, and was instead helmed by Ready or Not filmmaking duo of Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett aka Radio Silence. While last year’s Scream succeeded in passing the torch from series alumni Neve Campbell, David Arquette and Courteney Cox to its cast of newcomers, and delivered solid thrills, it ultimately lacked the prickly meta subtext that defined Craven’s franchise. Just a year later and the unfortunate news of star Neve Campbell not returning over a pay dispute with the studio further gives the sixth installment of the franchise even more room to stand on in terms of its own legacy. However, it’s becoming clear the rich satire that helped define these films is getting duller and duller. Although Scream VI does take the cake for most face stabbings of any recent slasher.

It’s a year after the most recent massacre at Woodsboro and the survivors, sisters Sam (Melissa Barrera) and Tara (Jenna Ortega) alongside horror expert Mindy (Jasmin Savoy-Brown) and her brother Chad (Mason Gooding), have since moved to NYC. Tara, Mindy and Chad are enrolled at the fictional Brownstone University, while Sam struggles to cope with the events of the previous film that saw her boyfriend, Ritchie, revealed to be one of the Ghostface killers, worshiping the legacy of Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich, returning yet again in more eye-rolling ghost visions), one of the killers of the original Scream and Sam’s biological father. Another development has been the rise of a conspiracy theory claiming Sam to actually be the killer, with many believing Ritchie and Amber to be innocent. However, bodies begin to pile up around the city, and it appears another Ghostface copycat is on the loose, aiming to wipe out the remaining survivors.

Like every Scream, we open with a tense extended cold open, with this opening proving far more inventive and chilling, while establishing a new set of rules the film then quickly tosses aside. Its the kind of cold open that gives the sense that this franchise is ready to begin tackling new ground and take the story to bold new directions. Instead, the script doubles back on regurgitating the same talking points from Scream 2, but under the new guise of a “requel sequel”, meaning anyone can die now, including the main characters and returning legacy characters. I did happen to check my notes to make sure I didn’t use the same quote from Jamie Kennedy’s passionate speech from the first sequel, but alas, this is from the speech given by Jamin Savoy Brown’s Mindy, the niece to Kennedy’s Randy. Wes Craven’s original film, alongside Scream 2 and Scream 4 felt genuinely ahead of the times, whereas the script for VI, by returning screenwriters James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, rarely attempts to indulge in the franchise’s post-modernism with any sense of wit or genuine revelation. Much of the film’s most outlandish (and I do mean outlandish) twists come from other, better Scream movies. Not to mention the whodunnit element — no spoilers, obviously — which is possibly the least interesting aspect of the film, concluding with a downright irritating killer reveal.

While still a far cry from the tension so thoroughly brought to life by Wes Craven, whose gripping anamorphic framing became a staple of his four films, the Radio Silence duo allow for more of their playful style seen in Ready or Not to seep through in the films set pieces. A tense standoff in a bodega calls to mind the labyrinthian blocking and set design of the sound booth bit from Scream 2. However, the highly-advertised subway sequence critically lacks the geographical sense of place needed to elevate tension. The brutality of the violence is further emphasized, giving the film a grisly and visceral sense of personality that fits in with the NYC setting. The climactic set piece is effectively staged, using lighting — or lack thereof, to solid effect.

The cast is impressively assembled with Melissa Barrera mightily stepping into her own shoes as the series heroine. Neve Campbell’s absence, however unfortunate the real-life reasonings may be, does feel natural to this franchise as the character’s arc would have been exacerbated had the filmmakers continuously brought her back. The sole remaining legacy member is Courteney Cox, whose initial impression suggests the character’s arc has transgressed by four films, despite the vast growth we’ve seen from the character. We find Gale back to reporting true crime and being the selfish, opportunist we initially saw her to be. Even when the film calls her out on it, that still doesn’t mean the film has any sort of new arc for the beloved character. Cox, who is giving her best to the material, is severely shortchanged, making you wonder what the point of having her there was in the first place. Especially when the film has so much success in bringing back Hayden Panettiere’s fan-favorite Kirby.

The return of Scream 4‘s Kirby is a bit of fan service that is actually executed well with a clear reason as to why she’s there, her purpose and why she needs to be in the situation. Panettiere, who recently hasn’t acted as often as she should, is electric in her return to the franchise. Returning cast member Jenna Ortega — of course the “It” girl as of this writing for her starring role on Netflix’s Wednesday, but should be garnering more acclaim for her terrific turn in The Fallout, has more strong rapport with the likes of Barrera, as well as Jamin Savoy Brown and Mason Gooding. You can feel the new cast beginning to truly come into their own, with more clear character development and even moments of nuance. Unfortunately, those new developments take a backseat to the tried-and-true franchise formula.

Scream VI is a fun enough slasher sequel and a better sixth installment than most, but is a clear sign that we’re beginning to see diminishing returns. These new Scream films, however entertaining and well-made as they might be, severely lack the wit and biting subtext that helped define these films in the first place. For a franchise that made its mark by calling out the “rules” and conventions of the genre, the filmmakers seem to have no problem revelling in them.