Saturday, May 25, 2024

The “Scream” franchise is usually set in the fictional California town of Woodsboro and features a varied array of slashers donning the Ghostface mask. Ghostface’s victims have subsequently been connected to either the 1996 film’s original target, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), or her boyfriend Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich), the inaugural Ghostface. Back then the filmmaking tandem of  writer Kevin Williamson and veteran horror-meister Wes Craven (“Last House on the Left,” “The Hills Have Eyes”) reinvigorated the slasher genre by deconstructing it and infusing it with devilishly meta commentary in which characters were aware they had to abide by horror movie rules to survive. As the sequels kept coming, the dialogue became flat and the films became part of the canon it once satirized.

Radio Silence, a film collective that includes directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett and producer Chad Villella, are best known for segments in horror film anthologies such as “V/H/S” (2012) and “Southbound” (2015) and their first feature film, “Ready or Not” (2019). After Craven’s death and with Williamson producing, the trio took a stab at the franchise with “Scream” (2022), the fifth installment, which brought back regulars such as reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) and former sheriff Dewey Riley (David Arquette) while introducing a new cast of characters. They lacked the organic camaraderie and charisma of the originals, but there was a nugget of goodness in the story. 

The rebooting kicks in with the revelation that Ulrich’s Billy had a secret daughter, Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera, “In the Heights”), who is the latest Ghostface target. Thankfully, she has her daddy’s talent with a knife without the homicidal madness, making her a vigilante antihero and protector of her kid sister Tara (Jenna Ortega) and her friends, twins Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown), a film nerd, and Chad (Mason Gooding), the good-natured jock. They’re the “Core Four” heading off to college in New York City with Sam tagging along as their self-appointed bodyguard. Sam also has to contend with a growing viral conspiracy campaign accusing her of the murders from the last “Scream.”

“VI” is the first “Scream” set outside of Woodsboro and without Sidney. The new Ghostface proves quite formidable too, proven in a crowded bodega in a first move against the sisters. Another neat sequence evokes “Rear Window” (1954) with the “cute guy” across the way making futile attempts to alert the friends when the killer appears in their apartment. On Halloween night, reminiscent of the 1999 “Thomas Crown Affair” finale, masked suspects multiply in a crowded subway train with flickering lights, dizzily obscuring numbers and movement as the friends wonder if their fellow commuters are costumed passengers or stalkers. Later a sleek penthouse becomes an inescapable killing ground.

The filmmakers change things up smartly, and the opening sequence has a twist in which pretentious film zealots get their critiques carved up in real time. That said, the film mostly finds success because of Ortega. Since her first appearance in the franchise, Ortega’s career has skyrocketed with “X” (2022) and Netflix’s “Wednesday” (2022), so it is no surprise that her role has expanded. Old friends Gale Weathers and Kirby Reed (Hayden Panettiere) from “4” (2011), return in supporting roles without detracting from the new character focus; it’s Cox‘s arrogant yet likable reporter, now also an author of books about “Scream” murders, that scores the best and funniest Ghostface encounter. “VI” has much to offer for old-school fans and newcomers alike; it’s the most brutal and freshest sequel to date.