It's tempting to call "Scream VI" - the latest installment in the long-running meta-slasher franchise, now set in New York City instead of the fictional Woodsboro, Mich., and featuring a whole gaggle of Ghostface killers - less of a fresh idea than a cynical exercise in boosting an existing intellectual property to make a buck. But including a line of dialogue in the new screenplay that does exactly that - an allusion to the bad habits of horror franchises, including the fictional "Stab" series, films-within-these-films that serve as stand-ins for the one you're watching - doesn't inoculate the makers of this latest chapter against accusations of trafficking in lazy formula.
In fact, it only calls attention to it.
But that's the whole gimmick here, and always has been, ever since "Scream" first landed in theaters in 1996 with a splash (of fake blood and real humor). It was refreshing to puncture the tropes of the serial-killer genre with constant references to them, only to watch them play out, or be subverted, on-screen. But what was once refreshing grows stale when it is repeated again and again.
The new film opens in Manhattan, where four survivors of the last film, who have dubbed themselves the "Core Four," have relocated to escape bad memories. (Would that I were so lucky.) The Carpenter sisters, Tara and Sam (Jenna Ortega and Melissa Barrera), are joined by brother and sister Chad and Mindy Meeks-Martin (Mason Gooding and Jasmin Savoy Brown), along with various roommates and love interests, played by Liana Liberato, Jack Champion and Devyn Nekoda.
Did I say roommates and love interests? Make that suspects. Almost every character - including Sam, who dispatched Ghostface in the 2022 "Scream" and is the daughter of the 1996 film's killer - is not to be trusted. (Sam's father, played by Skeet Ulrich, appears in hallucinations.)
Or so the filmmakers would have it. Maybe I've seen too many of these things, but I pegged the killer halfway through the film. Note to returning co-directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett and co-writers James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick: That's a problem.
But give 'em credit for chutzpah. The film opens with a pair of dueling (and quickly dead) Ghostfaces, one of whom (Tony Revolori) is immediately revealed to be a disgruntled college student stalking his teacher (Samara Weaving), a professor of 20th-century slasher history who he complains gave him a C-minus on his paper on giallo, Italy's homegrown slasher subgenre. It's almost funny, for film nerds.
It's also a bold misdirect, throwing not one but two copycat killers at the audience in the film's first minutes, then watching them die. Their deaths bring the total of deceased Ghostfaces to nine, a fact you will know, even if you're shaky on the franchise canon, because Bettinelli-Olpin and company stage the climax of "Scream VI" in a kind of "Scream" museum: an abandoned movie theater featuring paraphernalia from every film, and the costumes - grim reaper robes and ghoulish white masks - from all of the series's murderers.
It's bold, all right, assuming that this piece of pop-cultural I.P. (created by original writer Kevin Williamson and the late director Wes Craven) deserves enshrinement. But it's not exactly fresh. It's been said that museums are where art goes to die. Perhaps that's also true for empty movie theaters. In the final scenes of "Scream VI," there are a lot of deaths unfolding, including, arguably, the demise of a once-vital film franchise.