Let’s start with the elephant in the room.

Due to salary disputes, Scream VI is the first entry in the franchise without any involvement from mainstay Neve Campbell. And frankly, if Campbell thinks she’s worth more to the franchise than whatever they offered to pay her, I think she’s more than earned the right to that opinion. Seriously, who among us is in any position to disagree with her on that?

Then I went and saw all five movies for the first time. Yes, I had previously seen the original first entry, but that condescending lame-brained fourth movie put me off from the rest of the series for a long time. That said, I will admit that the fourth movie does look slightly better within the tropes and context and backstory of the broader series. More to the point, it’s been five straight movies of killers obsessed with Maureen and/or Sidney Prescott, using them as motivations and/or methods to Ghostface’s madness. That well has gone dry, we need to move on. Which brings me to the next important point.

With Scream (5), the team at Radio Silence made it perfectly clear that the torch was being passed to a new generation of characters and filmmakers, blazing a new path forward for the franchise after the passing of the late Wes Craven. With the fifth movie (the one that killed off David Arquette’s Dewey, arguably just as central to the franchise as Sidney herself), the filmmakers were clearly pushing the established legacy characters to more of a background role so the new leads could take center stage. The trend continues in this movie, as Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox, now with an exec producer credit) gets only brief yet memorable screen time, and her most pivotal contributions to the plot happen entirely offscreen.

The point being that if the filmmakers wanted Sidney to play more of a supporting role in this movie, yet Campbell still wanted to be paid like a franchise lead… I’m just saying, that would explain a lot. Pure speculation on my part, I know, but that definitely tracks.

And anyway, Sidney Prescott is now happily married to Patrick Dempsey’s old character and they’ve got three kids together. Overcoming disaster and moving on past traumas are crucial recurring franchise themes (more on that later), and it helps to develop both if we get even one character who gets to enjoy a happy ending that sticks. Sidney has more than earned that, let her enjoy it for a little while. At least until her kids get to be teenagers (maybe around the ninth or tenth movie), when they will absolutely be centered as the franchise leads.

I hasten to add that a crucial strength of the franchise is its flexibility to fit the sociopolitical climate of the time. Moreover, Ghostface isn’t like Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees — he doesn’t have supernatural powers to explain why he keeps coming back from the dead, and he’s never the same guy we’ve come to know and understand from the previous film. Anyone with a mask, a hooked knife, and a Roger Jackson voice modulator could be Ghostface — he’s a concept that transcends boundaries, and keeping him confined to Sidney Prescott or the town of Woodsboro isn’t using that concept to its full potential. This whole franchise was built for change from the ground up, so a sea change like this should be welcomed.

Which brings us to the next generation, as featured in the latest movie. After the greatest fake-out opening kill in franchise history (complete with Samara Weaving and Tony Revolori as our traditional stunt-casting kills), we follow the previous film’s the surviving leads to the fictional Blackmore College in NYC.

Mindy Meeks-Martin (Jasmine Savoy Brown) is now a film major, complete with Devyn Nekoda as Anika, her new girlfriend. We’ve also got Chad Meeks-Martin (Mason Gooding, son of Cuba Jr.) on hand and positioning himself as a potential love interest for Tara Carpenter.

Which brings us to the Carpenter sisters. While Tara (Jenna Ortega) came to NYC as a college student, big sister Sam (Melissa Barrera) came along just to keep an eye on Tara and make sure she stays safe. Tara chafes at this, especially since Sam is still on the hook for all those years when Sam cut off all contact from her family. More to the point, Tara is determined to run away from her past trauma, refusing to a few bad blood-soaked days define who and what she is. Tara wants a normal life, and more than that, she wants Sam to have a life of her own.

Trouble is, that choice isn’t entirely hers to make.

Sam is trying her best to cope with her connection to the Woodsboro murders, but no therapist will go anywhere near her particular blend of trauma and psychotic family history. (Yes, Skeet Ulrich does poke his head in for a couple more hallucinogenic greetings from OG Ghostface Billy Loomis.) More importantly, Sam’s dead Ghostface ex-boyfriend was somehow able to win the social media war, convincing legions of online conspiracy theory lunatics that the bastard daughter of Billy Loomis was the actual mastermind behind the murders of Scream (5).

In short order, we learn that the current Ghostface is one of these conspiracy theorists, out to make Sam suffer for her alleged role in the previous film. Then the first couple murders happen and we get assistance (?) from an NYPD detective played by Dermot Mulroney. Of course Gale Weathers comes back into play, though her help is not exactly welcome after she wrote a book that directly contributed to the Sam-Carpenter-as-Ghostface theory. (Oh, Gale…) Last but not least, we got a surprise return appearance from Hayden Panettiere, as Kirby Reed inexplicably survived the events of Scream 4 and went on to become an FBI agent.

Right off the bat, the movie definitely looks a lot darker than previous entries. A lot of that has to do with the change in setting to the grimier, more urban, more claustrophobic setting of NYC. It’s a strange paradox how one can be in a bigger city and yet feel far more cramped. One could be surrounded by a million other people and yet still feel completely alone. The film leans hard into that, and it makes for a chilling spin on horror cinema we don’t see often.

In the past, the Scream franchise has lived and died on its commentary regarding the state of cinema in general and horror cinema in particular. That was back when we had to wait multiple years between Scream films. Scream (5) only came out last year. The film industry doesn’t change in any substantial way that quickly. Furthermore, while this film speculates on the rules and expectations of long-running franchises, the truth is that we’re dealing with a sequel to a requel — something that doesn’t really exist yet. With the notable exception of David Gordon Green’s Halloween trilogy, we’ve yet to see a horror movie requel successful enough to spawn a sequel of this scale.

To be clear, the kills and scares in this movie are appropriately fantastic and the filmmakers do a sterling job of subverting the tropes and expectations we’ve come to expect from this franchise. But that’s in large part because of where this movie truly excels.

There’s a clear similarity between Sam’s family history with Billy Loomis, and Sidney suffering for her mother’s promiscuity. To be perfectly frank, Sam’s family baggage and potentially genetic homicidal mania are not only more compelling, but far less problematic. Alas, Tara is nowhere near as competent as Gale, Chad isn’t half as compelling or sympathetic as Dewey, and the romantic chemistry between them is practically nil.

With the absence of Sidney Prescott and without anything new to say about the state of horror cinema (To repeat, it’s only been a year since the previous film!), the filmmakers pass the time by delving into the character archetypes and themes firmly established by the previous films. Between the fifth and sixth movies, the filmmakers are stating loud and clear that they’re positioning Sam, Tara, Chad, and Mindy as the new “Core Four” of the franchise to replace the Sidney/Gale/Dewey triad. They even threw in Mindy to fill the Randy Meeks role, and let’s be real, anything after Jamie freaking Kennedy would be an upgrade.

All of that said, it makes a huge difference that the franchise is now anchored by two pairs of siblings who come together to make their own ad hoc family. This theme was always there in the background, given Sidney’s struggles with her birth family, her difficulties in choosing who to trust, and her increasingly close-knit ties with Gale and Dewey. And of course we can’t forget Dewey’s ongoing grief for his late sister — killed all the way back in the first movie — as shown by way of numerous little details kept literally in the background of the previous films.

I refer to themes of family, most especially with regards to the family we choose, the family we’re born with, and the people we hold close so we can get through the hard times together. Legacy is another huge recurring theme, both in the context of long-running horror franchises and in the context of the baggage we carry with us. And of course we have the perpetual struggle of moving past trauma, with the question of how and when trauma will ever be really over and whether a “normal” life is ever possible without it. Sidney Prescott’s entire arc — most especially in the first three movies — was all about learning to cope with trauma, and now Sam and Tara are coming at it from opposing angles. It works superbly well.

For better and for worse, Scream VI is definitely more of a character drama than previous entries. Not that the slasher horror aspect is awful — far from it, we’ve got some delectably clever scares and some of the most hardcore kills in the series to date. Even so, while prior films put an emphasis on meta commentary about Hollywood and the film industry rather than more personal and introspective themes, this film is unique in that it takes the opposite approach. In this way, the filmmakers continue the work from the previous entry, building up the new leads into worthy successors.

There’s definitely a sense that the filmmakers are trying to change horses in mid-stream, and the filmmakers are visibly struggling to find a balance in honoring the legacy characters while building up the new vanguard. I appreciate the need to get the new leads good and settled quickly so we can keep moving forward. But then again, we’re never getting any more meta horror commentary unless we allow a few years for trends to come and go. It’s a difficult balance to sort out, and it’ll make all the difference whether Scream 7 comes out next year or in another five years.

But hey, if this is what a “transitional” Scream movie looks like, I could definitely live with it for another film or two.

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