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In ‘Scream VI,’ the Real Villain Is Franchise Fever

The latest installment in the long-running slasher series delivers the usual bloody thrills, but it also sends up the era of all-powerful franchise IP

Paramount Pictures/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Scream VI opens with a sequence that fans came to expect long ago: A woman, played by Samara Weaving, answers her phone and discusses horror movies. Granted, there are a couple of interesting tweaks to the franchise’s formula: She’s waiting for a “Flirtr” date at a crowded restaurant in Manhattan, and as an associate professor of film studies specializing in 20th-century slashers, she knows her stuff. The person on the other end of the line is her date, who claims to be lost and to need help finding the place. Ultimately, this leads the woman to wander down a dark alley, the kind of situation that a slasher scholar should really be savvy enough to avoid. At this point, it’s too late to stop the inevitable: A new Ghostface emerges and claims their first victim. Scream VI is ticking all the usual boxes … until Ghostface promptly takes off their mask, revealing the killer’s identity within minutes.

A Scream film in which the audience knows more about Ghostface than the characters is an intriguing proposition, especially when said killer, a twerpy college student named Jason (Tony Revolori), is attending the fictional Blackmore University alongside three survivors of 2022’s Scream: Tara (Jenna Ortega), Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown), and Chad (Mason Gooding). Following in the footsteps of Richie (Jack Quaid) from the previous movie, Jason is a fan of the in-universe Stab franchise. He wants to kill Tara and her half-sister, Sam (Melissa Barrera), also a New York resident, to inspire better sequels and avenge the former Ghostface. (The reveal that Jason targeted his professor because she gave him a C-minus on an assignment further underlines his toxic film bro credentials.) But just as quickly as Jason is unmasked, the hunter becomes the hunted: Like an apex predator, the real Ghostface of this film wants to dispose of the cheap imitation getting in the way of their own grand designs.

There are certain boxes that always have to be ticked in a Scream movie, and being a whodunit is as nonnegotiable as it gets. But that’s far from the only consideration: In the spirit of the series’ meta sensibilities, Scream sequels must justify their own existences within the context of broader trends in the horror genre. To that end, Scream 2 poked fun at the need for sequels to constantly up the ante; Scream 3 explored the challenges of culminating a trilogy; Scream 4 eerily foreshadowed the horrors of social media clout chasing while satirizing the cyclical nature of remakes; and 2022’s Scream mocked its own identity as a legacy sequel striving to satisfy obsessive fans of the original by turning them into its newest villains. That’s always been the nature of this particular beast, but as Scream VI settles into a groove, it suggests that the future of these movies might be a little less meta—and a lot more cynical.

As it becomes clear that there’s a new killer (or killers) on the loose, the surviving foursome from the last Scream convene on campus with a few of their friends—any of whom could be the new Ghostface—to discuss the rules of the situation they find themselves in. (This kind of scene, a staple since the first Scream, was once led by Jamie Kennedy’s dearly departed horror aficionado, Randy Meeks; his niece, Mindy, is a worthy successor.) As Mindy explains, they’re now caught in a “franchise,” complete with the new Ghostface leaving Easter eggs at crime scenes in the form of the masks worn by previous killers.

To address the elephant in the room: Yes, Scream has been a franchise for a good long time. (If six movies and an underwhelming anthology series aren’t the definition of a franchise, I don’t know what is.) But Mindy’s larger point is that the characters are now less important than the IP they find themselves in: Anyone can die, and the franchise will live on. This revelation is meant to alarm the audience and make it clear that nobody is off-limits, but that anything-goes philosophy is easier to adopt when the franchise’s biggest star, Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott, is sitting out Scream VI over a pay dispute. (My two cents: Pay your Scream queen what she’s worth!)

Of all the ways the Scream franchise has reflected the entertainment industry over the years, this IP-above-all development is a bit disheartening, even if it’s hard to dispute that Scream VI is simply following the trend toward preexisting IPs becoming the most treasured assets of every major studio. To be fair, it’s not like the earlier Scream sequels were green-lit solely on the merits of their artistic ambitions: With the exception of Scream 4, all of the films have grossed over $100 million. Making more of these movies is just good business. (All signs point to Scream VI making a killing at the box office.) But whereas other slasher franchises eventually fell victim to quantity being valued over quality (see: Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser, Halloween, and so on), Scream has mostly been able to avoid diminishing returns by framing each sequel as a commentary on itself. Now, with Scream VI conceding that the franchise is bigger than the characters, it feels like the floodgates have opened for future sequels to be churned out for the same reason.

Thankfully, despite portending a bleaker outlook for future Scream sequels, Scream VI does deliver the bloody thrills that any self-respecting genre sicko wants out of a slasher movie. If codirectors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett were too deferential to the late Wes Craven while handling the 2022 Scream to put their own imprint on the franchise, the filmmaking duo seems far less restrained with the follow-up. The body count is enormous; the gore is dialed up to a 10; the set pieces are as consistently creative as they are pulse-pounding. While Scream VI rarely looks like it’s actually taking place in New York—the film was shot in Montreal—the best moments see Ghostface terrorizing their victims in the claustrophobic confines of a bodega and a crowded subway car. The latter scene, which happens to take place on Halloween night, uses a bunch of bystanders wearing the costumes of iconic horror villains (decoys in Ghostface masks included) to create a real sense of unease. As far as New York–based slashers go, Scream VI easily (and unsurprisingly) puts Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan to shame.

The climactic showdown with Ghostface features another inspired location: an old movie theater converted into a shrine celebrating the blood-soaked events and iconography of the previous Scream movies. (In less meta terms, it’s technically a bunch of stolen evidence from old crime scenes.) Considering the Scream franchise has repeatedly invoked the fictional Stab movies and their in-universe pop culture influences, this kind of winking self-indulgence is certainly on-brand. But it should also serve as a warning: According to Scream’s own lore, the Stab franchise went off the rails with increasingly mindless sequels that betrayed the ingenuity of the films that preceded them.

It goes without saying that even the most die-hard IRL Scream fans probably won’t try to engineer their own killing sprees to help inspire the movies they hold dear. But if Scream VI heralds a new era when the demands of continuing the franchise are valued above all else, then the fate of future films could lead to something even scarier. One day, unimpressed fans could cut their losses and give up the Ghostface.