By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Melissa Barrera, Jenna Ortega and Jasmin Savoy Brown
Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett
Written by James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick
The creators of SCREAM VI clearly knew what some slasher fans would be thinking when it was announced this latest sequel would be set in New York City, and have an onscreen character watching FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VIII: JASON TAKES MANHATTAN on TV in an early scene. SCREAM VI was also shot largely (a quick trip to Central Park excepted) in Canada, in this case Montreal, which will be fairly conspicuous to Big Apple dwellers. The difference is that Ghostface’s latest rampage actually takes place entirely in Manhattan, and takes good advantage of the opportunity to give the perennial maniac a much more expansive playground.
As explained in the franchise’s typical meta style by horror devotee Mindy (Jasmine Savoy Brown), the very fact that they’re in a franchise with SCREAM VI, following last year’s “requel,” means that everything is bigger this time around, and that even the key characters aren’t safe. Those would also be Mindy’s fellow survivors from the last Woodsboro massacre: Half-sisters Sam (Melissa Barrera) and Tara (Jenna Ortega) and Mindy’s brother Chad (Mason Gooding), the latter of whom wants to dub them with the media-friendly nickname “The Core Four.” They’ve all relocated to New York, where Tara, Mindy and Chad are attending the fictitious Blackmore University, and where the movie makes clear there are dangers beyond cloaked-and-masked murderers, as Sam prevents Tara from being taken advantage of by a frat-boy creep at a party. Barrera and Ortega continue to have great sisterly chemistry, even as it is tested by Sam’s overprotectiveness toward Tara–which will, of course, come to be justified.
This is demonstrated by the traditional SCREAM opener featuring a Special Guest Victim (a welcome and, given the filmmaking team, inevitable one) that makes it clear the quartet have far from left Ghostface in their past. It also signals the increased scope of SCREAM VI, as there are two Special Guest Victims this time, one stalking proceeding from the other in a manner that both delivers the scary goods and sets up the ways in which the violent past will inform the protagonists’ present.
Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett and writers James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, all encoring from the previous film, have the SCREAM formula down cold by this point, and the skill to keep the proceedings from playing like formula. The new urban environment gives them plenty of opportunities to stage different and frightening kinds of setpieces, including a few that take place in public. SCREAM VI is set in the days leading up to Halloween (a slasher-film tradition of its own that the filmmakers don’t oversell), which means that that Ghostface-garbed figure one or more of our heroes spot might not actually be a threat. Or maybe it is; one of SCREAM VI’s very best sequences has two of them sharing a subway with a couple of Ghostfaces, uncertain yet certain that they’re in danger. Bettinelli-Olpin, Gillett and editor Jay Prychidny (a feature first-timer with small-screen credits including ORPHAN BLACK and WEDNESDAY) work a great, uneasy vibe out of this situation, one that anyone used to subway travel can especially appreciate.
In addition to being an accomplished scream machine, the film also touches on trenchant, timely themes such as Internet notoriety and its misapplication, and the worship of real-life criminals to the point of bestowing celebrity upon them. The latter incorporates one particular setting that’s an impressive culmination of the themes that have been underlying the SCREAM series from the beginning, and leads both new and old characters to reckon with their pasts. The most notable of the latter is Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), the journalist turned TV host who really wants to help, but also can’t stop exploiting the ongoing killings in the name of book sales. The last remaining cast link to Wes Craven’s original (the absence of Neve Campbell’s Sidney gets a plausible explanation–which is more than Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky receives in CREED III), Cox continues to have fun balancing Gale’s pursuit of fame with a more human, sympathetic side. Then there’s Kirby, the fan favorite from SCREAM 4 played once again by Hayden Panettiere, now an FBI agent but still a die-hard fright-film fan, who has a nice moment comparing preferences with Mindy.
New to the scene are Chad’s roommate Ethan (Jack Champion) and Sam and Tara’s roommate Quinn (THE BEACH HOUSE’s Liana Liberato); he’s a nerd and she’s sex-positive, which under the circumstances puts them on the not-likely-to-survive list, though fortunately Quinn’s dad (Dermot Mulroney) is a detective trying to solve the murders. Josh Segarra plays the hunk across the courtyard who catches Sam’s eye–but can he be trusted? The guessing game of not only who the disguised culprit is, but how many of them there are, still works, with appropriate red herrings and fakeouts, though very alert viewers might be able to figure out at least part of the mystery in advance. They’ll also appreciate the larger number of onscreen callbacks and in-references scattered throughout SCREAM VI, shouting out to everything from past sequels to Craven’s porno pseudonym, which is all part of the fun of these films. Getting us to care and be scared for the leads while simultaneously winking at us has always been the challenge for the SCREAM teams, and on evidence of SCREAM VI and its predecessor, the franchise is currently in very good hands.