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Scream VI review – New York-set slasher gives great stabs but gets lost in transition

The latest installment in the meta-horror saga lacks the stamina and purpose of its predecessors, but still manages to be a lot of fun

Only a year after the fifth instalment hit theatres, the fast-tracked Scream VI is already here. Anticipation levels are high, as always, for the meta-slasher crown jewel, even long after king Wes Craven has left us. 2022's Scream bore the burden of being the first post-Craven film in the universe and – considering the levels of jokes, narrative twists, and inventive stabs one has to provide to impress the decades-long fanbase – pulled it off admirably. Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett delivered a contemporary, always-online take on the Woodsboro tales with legacy characters like Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) and Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) facing their past trauma once again. But while its predecessor wore its film-loving heart on its sleeve, Scream VI boldly declares that “no one cares about the movies anymore.”

The “movies” in question are the films-within-the-films that make up the Stab franchise, first born out of Scream 2 and serving as the guidebook and self-referential tool that the subsequent killers model themselves after. Indeed, in the sixth chapter, the Stab narratives provide less solace than ever in a film world gone slightly astray. Not to say that Scream has lost its cinephile drive completely, but it now exists in a fossilised state, a museum of curiosities – but a museum nonetheless. In order to mark its departure, the film trades its small-town setting for a bustling New York City, where survivor quartet Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown), Chad (Mason Gooding), Samantha (Melissa Barrera), and her sister Tara (Jenny Ortega) try and make it – anxiety-free – in the Big Apple.

While it’s rather risky for this franchise to show a city plagued by the same mania as the tiny Woodsboro, the metropolis’ uber-anonymity proves to be fruitful soil for the franchise’s signature jump scares and blood baths. A particularly well-done sequence makes a meat train out of the NYC subway in such an impressive way that even the light-flashing gimmick cannot cheapen its fanfare. Elsewhere, there are some genuinely great stabs that will get the crowds shrieking (or hollering, depending on who gets cut), and some snappy one-liners that feel fitting, even if they’re rather flat out of context.

Scream VI can be summarised as the return of the repressed, but while this may be true for every new addition to an ongoing horror franchise, this one deals openly with its past. Therapy is talked about and attended, traumas are discussed in detail, and processing is encouraged; and while these psychological dimensions make the film the most wholesome of the lot, there is something missing. Though Cox is back, alongside Scream 4's Kirby Reed (Hayden Panettiere), the absence of Neve Campbell is tangible, and the half-arsed explanation of Sidney’s departure does feel like a betrayal. But this is not necessarily an argument for nostalgia, since – as we’ve already seen last year – both Barrera and Ortega make for great final girls. It’s more the case that Scream VI doesn’t quite know where it sits.

The meta-game has been strung out too far and while a decisive break with the saga’s genesis might have been fitting, the new film does not offer us just that. Rather, it’s a transitional state, something in between the old and the new that tries a bit too hard to please both newcomers and long-standing fans. The Scream universe has always been obsessed with themes of origin, legacy, and heritage in terms of both violence and cinema, but instead of working hard to put that essentialist logic to the test, Scream VI fiddles with the well-known tropes until there's not much left other than some inspiringly insistent stabs.

Scream IV is released in UK cinemas on 9 March.

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