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‘Scream VI’ review: Back to the mask

The phone call sequence with the killer that opens every “Scream” movie is always a delicious appetizer, which the characters in any “Scream” movie can tell you sets the tone for the movie in question. In “Scream VI,” this ritual scene takes place in a trendy restaurant bar in Midtown Manhattan. The woman sitting at the bar is a film studies professor (Samara Weaving), blonde and British. As she explains on the phone to her online date, who can’t seem to locate the restaurant, she’s taking a course in slasher films (which, the way she describes it, isn’t a stab at the darkness of plausibility). Her date, a pesky asshole, is able to talk her down the street into helping him find the place, and by the time she walks into a dark alley, we know what’s coming. (His voice drops to that familiar, sarcastic AM-radio-DJ). In this case, though, the killer is immediately revealed as… his college bro. He returns to his apartment, and moments later he The scary movie victim is talking on the phone with the real killer.

This elaborate double-crossing sequence, with its more spooky overtones than usual (it’s bro describes how he enjoyed committing a copycat murder), does a great job of setting the table for “Scream VI,” the first entry in the series that unfolds in a place like New York City. Calling themselves the Core Four, the four survivors of last year’s “Scream” rebellion are back: Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera), who triumphantly ends the film by executing the movie’s version of Ghostface. Sam’s half-sister, Tara (Jenna Ortega), who attends Blackmore College in New York (a fictional university similar to NYU), and whom Sam hovers around like her overprotective father; and fellow transplant students, clever horror expert Mindy Mix-Martin (Jasmine Savoy-Brown) and her sexy brother Chad (Mason Gooding).

Also returning are directors, Matt Bettinelli Olbin and Tyler Gillett, and screenwriters, James Vanderbilt and Jay Busiek. In their hands is Mindy, the super-horror fan, who once again explains the rules for how a “Scream” movie works, incorporating, as before, audience-driven new corporate quips about what movies can and will do for Encore. Once Ghostface begins his rampage, Mindy correctly notes that the characters now in the middle of it aren’t just a sequel but a franchise, and she sets the rules for what that suggests. This means that the new movie should be bigger and more fun. You must swing in a new direction and subvert expectations. And that old characters are completely expendable. “Sixth Scream” somewhat lives up to those dictates.

But here are some of my rules for where the Scream franchise is now. Rule #1: Anything to do with the fun of the horror genre, with characters who look like schlock cultists from their macabre fates, has become a mere window dressing. Rule #2: The fact that we don’t know the killer’s identity has allowed this series to age more interestingly than, say, the “Halloween” movies, where it’s always the same evil plane under the mask. Rule #3: This means that the Scream series, while retaining enough of its postmodern spirit, now lives or dies depending on whether the film in question actually succeeds as a thriller. And “Scream VI,” while it’s been going on for a long time, is a pretty exciting movie. It’s a bloody-smart killer game in all the right ways, more aggressively staged and shot than the previous film, and eager to capitalize on its sprawling but closed world setting.

In the ’90s, the Scream movies, with their self-reflexive, self-reflexive rewinding style, channeled a real emotion into cinema. In Scream VI, one of Ghostface’s victims says, “We have to finish the movie,” to which Ghostface replies, just before being stabbed, “Who cares about movies?” “Scream VI” holds the audience, but it also tweaks a genre it knows so well that no longer matters. The Ghostface mask, like an old leather couch, is a bit tatty and worn this time around, befitting a 27-year-old series that now features nine different Ghostface killers.

In “Scream VI,” Ghostface is beyond shy. He breaks right into the center of scenes, attacking Sam and Tara at a bodega (the cashier has a gun, but that’s not enough to stop him). And the movie pulls the mask right out from under us with a sequence, early on, where Ghostface breaks into an apartment that just contains all the main characters, so we think, “It can’t be any of them.” We also get good reason to believe it couldn’t be one of the roommates, rowdy Quinn (Liana Liberato), whose police officer father (Dermot Mulroney) is working on the case. So that leaves… who? Ethan (Jack Champion) nerd, a bumbling virgin? very easy.

Melissa Barrera has the fire and skill to play Sam as a woman so possessed by a killer’s destruction that it leaves her… possessed. Sam appeared as the heroine of “Scream,” but has since been tainted by an online conspiracy theory by suggesting she was actually the killer. And since she destroyed Ghostface with a vengeance equal to his, she thinks – or at least her handler (Henry Czerny) does – “Maybe I I be Fight.” Between that and protecting Tara, Sam has a lot on her mind. Jenna Ortega’s newfound stardom, as the title character of “Wednesday,” will only help “Scream VI” hit the box office, and she invests Tara with a strong, indispensable grit. Courteney Cox makes sure that The return of Gale Weathers feels like more than a retro nod, and so does Hayden Panettiere, whose Kirby Reed (from “Scream 4”!) returns to the FBI, though her best scene is matching horror movie ratings with who is this.

The “Scream” series, in its first two sequels (before its creative hiatus in “Scream III”), has always been a slasher series that was too self-conscious to be anything but a slasher series. Now it’s a slasher series that’s self-conscious enough not to be a pointless retread. This is really the second part of the re-order, which may be why his welcome hasn’t faded (even though it could only have been 100 minutes). There’s a great sequence set on Halloween night in a subway car teaming up with costumed freaks. And there are several scenes that unfold in a kind of underground shrine, erected in an abandoned movie theater, where the killer has collected and shown all the key evidence from all the cases. It’s a knowing nod to the fact that the series itself now faces the prospect of becoming a sort of “Scream” museum. But this team of filmmakers may be smart enough to avoid that, as long as they keep devising ways to turn the cynical entropy that usually drags horror series into the very thing that makes “Scream” scream.


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