Once More Unto the Mask – Variety

The sequel to the sequel takes place in the city where the series finds fresh ways to heighten old scares.

The phone call-with-the-killer sequence that opens every “Scream” movie is always a tasty appetizer, one that the characters in any “Scream” movie could tell you establishes the tone for that movie. In “Scream VI,” that scene starts at the bar of a trendy restaurant in downtown Manhattan. The woman sitting at the bar is a cinema studies professor, blonde and British. As she says on the phone to her online date, who can’t seem to find the restaurant, she’s teaching a course on slasher movies (which, as she explains it, isn’t a stab in the dark of probability). Her date, a sweetly annoying jerk, is able to talk her into the street to help him find the place, and when she walks into a dark alley, we know what’s coming. (His voice lowers into that familiar sneering AM radio DJ bro.) In this case, though, the killer is instantly revealed as…a college frat. He returns to his apartment, and moments later he is the scary movie victim talking on the phone with the real killer.

This elaborate double sequence, with its creepier-than-usual overtones (that brother describes how he enjoyed committing a copycat murder), does a nice job of setting the table for “Scream VI,” the first entry in the series set in somewhere like New York City. The four main characters from “Scream,” last year’s “requel,” are all back: Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera), who triumphantly ended the film by performing the film’s version of Ghostface; Sam’s younger sister, Tara (Jenna Ortega), who attends Blackmore College in New York (a fictional university that feels like NYU) and whom Sam hovers over as an overprotective parent; and Tara’s fellow transplant students, whip-smart horror geek Mindy Meeks-Martin (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and her hot brother Chad (Mason Gooding).

Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett and screenwriters James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick also return. In their hands, it’s Mindy, the brainiac horror superfan, who once again illuminates the rules of how a “Scream” movie works, incorporating, as before, a new audience-based corporate cynicism about what movies can and will do for an encore . When Ghostface goes on his rampage, Mindy correctly notes that what the characters are now in the middle of is not just a sequel, but a franchise, and she lays down the rules for what that implies. This means that the new film must be bigger and more of a show. That it must swing in a new direction and undermine expectations. And that the inheritance characters are strictly consumable. “Scream VI” more or less lives up to those dictates.

But here are a few of my own rules about where the “Scream” franchise is now. Rule #1: The whole meta-playfulness of the horror genre, with the characters sounding like schlock cultural researchers of their own dreaded destinies, has become mere window dressing. Rule #2: The fact that we don’t know the identity of the killer has actually allowed this series to age more excitingly than, say, the “Halloween” movies, where it’s always the same evil drone under the mask. Rule #3: This means that the “Scream” series, while retaining just enough of the spirit of postmodern snark, now lives or dies by whether the film in question actually succeeds as a thriller. And “Scream VI,” even if it goes on too long, is a pretty good thriller. It’s a killer shell game that’s smart in all the right ways, staged and shot more forcefully than the previous film, eager to take advantage of its more sprawling but contained cosmopolitan setting.

In the ’90s, the “Scream” movies, in their self-reflexive slasher-on-rewind way, channeled a genuine love of cinema. In “Scream VI”, one of Ghostface’s victims says, “We’ve got to finish the movie,” to which Ghostface replies, just before stabbing him, “Who cares about movies?” “Scream VI” holds audiences, but it also adjusts a genre it knows no longer matters. The Ghostface mask is, like an old leather couch, a little shabby and worn this time, and that suits a 27-year-old series that has now had nine different Ghostface Killers.

In “Scream VI,” Ghostface is far from coy. He goes right into the scenes and attacks Sam and Tara in a bodega (the cashier has a shotgun, but it’s not enough to stop him). And the film pulls the mask right out from under us with a sequence, early on, where Ghostface breaks into an apartment containing pretty much all of the main characters, leaving us thinking, “It can’t be any of them.” We’re also given good reason to believe it can’t be one of the roommates, the erotically battered Quinn (Liana Liberato), whose father (Dermot Mulroney) is the police officer on the case. So that leaves… who? Ethan (Jack Champion) the stuttering virgin nerd? Too easy.

Melissa Barrera has the fire and skill to play Sam as a woman so obsessed with destroying the killer that it leaves her…obsessed. Sam appeared as the heroine in “Scream,” but since then an online conspiracy theory has smeared her with the insinuation that she was actually the killer. And when she destroyed Ghostface with a vengeance equal to his own, she thinks — or at least her therapist (Henry Czerny) does — “Maybe I is a killer.” 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” at the box office, and she invests Tara with a sour spunk that counts. Courteney Cox makes Gale Weathers’ return feel like more than a token legacy gesture, and ditto for Hayden Panettiere, whose Kirby Reed has returned (from “Scream 4”) as an FBI agent, though her best scene is matching horror movie ratings with Mindy.

The “Scream” series, in its first two installments (before it creatively stalled in “Scream III”), was always the slasher series that was too self-aware to be just a slasher series. Now it’s the slasher franchise that’s just self-aware enough not to be a pointless retread. This is really part two of the requel, which may be why it doesn’t wear out its welcome (although it could easily have been a mere 100 minutes long). There’s a great sequence set on Halloween night in a subway car going along with costumed freaks. And there are several scenes set in a sort of underground sanctuary constructed in an abandoned movie theater where the killer has collected and displayed 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 “Scream” museum of sorts. But this team of filmmakers might just be smart enough to avoid it, as long as they keep finding ways to reverse the cynical entropy that usually drags horror shows down to the very thing that makes “Scream” scream.

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