Thursday, March 16, 2023

Scream And Scream Again

In 1996, Scream arrived as a hip, snarky, ironic reinvention of the slasher genre. In 2023, though, we're now six films in to the Scream franchise and twenty seven years (!) removed from the pop culture landscape of 1996 so Scream isn't the smart aleck upstart anymore, it's now the horror establishment and Scream VI can't help but serve as a referendum on the state of slasher nation. 

With Michael Myers on sabbatical in the wake of Halloween Ends, Jason Voorhees still entangled in frustrating legal troubles, and with no one being able to figure out how to successfully resurrect the Elm St. franchise, Scream has now become the big legacy slasher on the block. Good thing, then, that the latest installment shows how strong the series' long term viability is. Based on the success of Scream VI, it's clear that for the foreseeable future, Ghostface will comfortably rule the slasher scene. 

Last year's comeback for the series, Scream, from the directing team of Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett and writers James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, was a solid installment but with its understandable emphasis on the returning legacy characters, the new crew was limited in how much of an impact they were able to make. The question lingered as to what kind of future Scream could have as its fan favorite original players retired from the series. The strength of Scream VI is that it allows the survivors of the last film to really move up and come into their own as the new leads of the series and let the audience develop the same kind of emotional attachment to them that they had for the OG crew of Sidney, Gale and Dewey.

Melissa Barrera as Billy Loomis' illegitimate daughter Sam Carpenter, Jenna Ortega as Sam's half sister Tara Carpenter, Jasmin Savoy Brown as the niece of Randy Meeks, Mindy Meeks-Martin, and Mason Gooding as Mindy's twin, Chad Meeks-Martin, are - as Chad dubs them - the "core four" and Scream VI secures their standing as the future of the franchise. Courtney Cox appears as Gale Weathers but she feels like a guest star in the Scream world now rather than a driving force, with the returning Hayden Panettiere as Scream 4 survivor Kirby Reed (now an FBI agent) having a bigger role than Cox here. The training wheels have come off for the new kids and there's no doubt that the franchise belongs to them now. 

Aside from elevating the "core four," what Scream VI also does well is to lean into the complex mythology of the series. By this point, the series has evolved into a horror version of the Fast and Furious franchise in that its cast of characters and all their back stories have become so vast and intertwined that by now only the die hard fans can easily recall the connections. Rather than try and streamline things and make these sequels more new viewer friendly, the complexity of Scream is now very much a part of its appeal. As with the latest F&F or MCU entries, it's expected that hardcore fans know all these people, that they know all these returning character's connections to each other and that fans appreciate being rewarded for their knowledge. You can still follow Scream VI without knowing the other movies chapter and verse - there's enough exposition given to get casual fans or new viewers up to speed - but it's definitely more satisfying to watch this with prior knowledge of who's who and with an awareness of the recurring motifs of the series. 

As for Scream VI's much hyped NYC setting, despite the tagline of "New City, New Rules," the Big Apple has such an anonymous presence here (this could be taking place in any big metropolis) that it gives the long mocked and maligned Jason Takes Manhattan (given a shout out here via a clip on TV) a surprising bit of redemption. This has everything to do with the fact that none of Scream VI was actually shot in NYC. Like Jason Takes Manhattan, Scream VI substitutes Canada for NYC (Manhattan was shot in Vancouver, Scream VI in Montreal) but unlike Scream VI, Manhattan did at least some location shooting in NYC, enough to have Jason standing smack in the middle of a bustling late '80s Times Square like a boss. 

So while Jason may have taken a ridiculously long time to get to NYC, when he finally did make it, the filmmakers were able to exploit the iconography of the city in a way that Scream VI does not. It's not like you could say that Manhattan gets the last laugh here, per se. It's not like it suddenly turned into a good movie. But it at least it keeps some bragging rights when it comes to being a slasher icon in NYC movie and that ain't nothing I say!    

While 2022's Scream could have served as the last word on the series, a nostalgia fueled comeback that potentially could have also been the last hurrah, Scream VI clearly makes the case for Scream as a series that has no expiration date. The new characters are firmly established and the series' convoluted soap opera tapestry has been embraced as an asset and expanded on. Watching Scream VI, it's easy to imagine that in time another group of characters will inherit the mantle of the "core four" and carry the torch into the next era of Scream and that the series can keep the narrative going indefinitely, in much the same way that Don Mancini has made Chucky into a franchise that has spanned decades and multiple generations and has only become richer and more interesting. 

On the downside, the makers of future Screams will have to deal with a problem that plagued the classic incarnation of the series. Once Randy was killed off in Scream 2, the audience's affection for the surviving members of the original cast was so strong that the Scream stewards were reluctant to put these characters in any real danger and thus they kept improbably surviving. Now it's going to be difficult to eliminate any of the "core four" without risking a backlash. At the same time, if people feel like all four of these characters will survive no matter what, it reduces the suspense. 

But hey, that's a problem for another day and another sequel. For now, the Scream franchise is on secure footing. If the decision makers at Paramount are smart, they'll just let the current creative team of directors Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett and writers Vanderbilt and Busick keep making these movies as long as they're interested in doing so. The current caretakers of Scream have nailed what really drove the classic incarnation of the series. The meta commentary was never the true backbone of Scream. That was always just window dressing, more glib than it was insightful. What kept audiences invested in Scream as a series was the fact that they always had a cast full of likable characters and it always delivered top shelf slasher action with tense, bloody set pieces. While most of the old school slashers are currently facing uncertain futures, Scream stands alone as a series that has figured out how to navigate a long term course for itself. Its continued success is going to be not just what keeps Scream thriving but what lets the slasher genre as a whole stay viable as a big screen commodity. That's a sincere accomplishment for a series known for its irony. 

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