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Scream VI (2023)::rating::3.5::rating::3.5

Full disclosure:  I left the Scream franchise for dead about three sequels ago.  After all, a bunch of bratty know-it-alls riffing on stale horror tropes is cute for one movie, but it starts gettin’ old real quick.  By the third installment, these flicks started losing a lot of blood, and seemed destined for a chalk outline.

But something strange happens over the course of Scream VI.  This pallid corpse bolts up on the embalmer’s table and lurches back to its feet.  It’s alive!!!  Movies don’t surprise me very often, but this reanimated sixth film startled the holy hell out of me.  It’s well-acted, well-staged, and genuinely suspenseful.  Dare I say it?  This is one of the best in the series.

Storywise, VI acts as both a direct sequel to the fifth installment and a Valentine to the franchise’s entire canon.  That means we get callbacks on callbacks, the return of long-lost characters, and a general acknowledgement of just how silly these movies are.  (“I’m so sick of this franchise!”  One character bellows from a mouthful of blood.)  This sort of smirky self-awareness should be deader than disco by now, but the makers of VI somehow find a way to make it work.

I’ll describe the plot, just so long as you know it’s nothing more than a flimsy excuse to slash a few hot twenty-somethings right in the gizzard.  After the carnage of Scream V, sisters Sam (Melissa Barrera) and Tara (Jenna Ortega) have fled to New York City, where they attempt to restart their lives.  Twin besties Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and Chad (Mason Gooding) round out their reliable friend group.  A rift slowly deepens between the sisters, as Tara bristles at Sam’s frantic overprotection.

Of course, Sam’s instincts are spot-on.  (A *spoiler* is coming if you haven’t seen the fifth film.)  Even though the Ghostface killer who tormented them in the previous installment is dead, copycat murders begin springing up all around them. Quinn (Liana Liberato), another friend to the group, enlists her cop father (Dylan McDermott Dermot Mulroney) to investigate.

The new killings also attract the reappearance of Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), the nosy reporter who once trashed Sam in a salacious tell-all book.  Despite her sleazy reputation, Gale’s sleuthing has turned up vital information on the new Ghostface.  Turns out, this killer is a fawning mega-fan who has embraced Scream as a full-fledged horror franchise.  This means some of the rules for killing are different, while others no longer apply.  In a nutshell, no one is safe.  (Another franchise vet also pops up in this movie.  If you don’t know, I won’t spoil it for you.)

Scream VI starts out a little rough.  The filmmakers trip all over themselves in paying homage to the original work of Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson.  Even for a series built on meta humor, the opening scenes are little much.  Also, the early killings are fairly predictable and devoid of suspense.

But something unexpected happens in the film’s second act:  Momentum actually begins to build.  I found myself rooting for these characters, and more invested in the plot than I ever thought possible.  By the climactic battle, Scream VI has become one of the most intense and exciting slasher films to come along in a good while.

At the same time, co-directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, working from a savvy script by James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, achieve something amazing:  Scream VI delivers real scares, while also never taking itself seriously.  That finale is delightfully over the top, with characters surviving injuries that would kill Wile E. Coyote, and an unmasked villain right out of Scooby Doo territory.  (The surprise killer makes this scene work with a deliriously goofy performance.)  Scream VI takes a kitchen-sink mentality in its quest for entertainment value, and it’s hard not to admire such total commitment.

That also goes for the actors.  Barrera and Ortega transform their horror heroines into real human beings:  They’re smart, empathetic, pissed-off, and genuinely scared.  Cox also rounds out her bitchy gotcha reporter into three dimensions.  Yes, she’s ambitious and belligerent, but a stubborn streak of decency runs through her actions.  There’s even good work on the periphery:  Henry Czerny is amusing as a flummoxed therapist, and Samara Weaving has a fun cameo as a film professor who should’ve listened to her own lectures.

More full disclosure:  When I start a movie, I strive to do so without bias.  I avoid trailers, posters, and–of course–any other reviews.  But sometimes, a little pre-judgement creeps into my brain.  Scream VI filled me with dread.  The recent ones have been so disappointing, and I couldn’t help but expect more of the same.  Well, I’ll happily admit that I was wrong.  This sixth stabathon is a funny, nerdy, blood-soaked romp.  If you’ve made it this far in the franchise, consider this your reward.

122 min.  R.  Paramount+.

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