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Melissa Barrera and Jenna Ortega hide on the floor of a New York City bodega in "Scream VI."

I keep being suckered by these Scream movies. Each time, I go in thinking that this time they’ll finally get the formula right, and each time, I walk away underwhelmed. It’s been that way ever since I watched the original Scream back in 1996 and thought, “This isn’t as clever as it thinks.” Here we all are 27 years later with a change of filmmakers (necessitated by Wes Craven’s death) and a new cast of characters, and my opinion still hasn’t shifted. That’s annoying.

The maddening thing is, the last two Screams have been done by funny filmmakers, and I can’t remember a single time I laughed out loud at either of them. Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett did Ready or Not before this. They bring on two stars of that stand-alone movie (Samara Weaving and Henry Czerny) for Scream VI, and it only serves to highlight how funny their earlier film was. This doesn’t even have anything as light-hearted as Jerry O’Connell singing “I Think I Love You” from Scream 2. When offering up meta-commentary on a genre’s tropes, a filmmaker has to be a film critic, and these guys aren’t good at it. The Cabin in the Woods commented on horror-movie clichés in much smarter ways. So did the Happy Death Day movies and Freaky, You’re Next, and any of Jordan Peele’s movies. Hell, even Scary Movie (the first one, not the umpteen sequels) gives more entertainment value than these Screams.

The current movie does start off promisingly enough: After the new Ghostface (Tony Revolori) commits his first murder, he immediately takes his mask off and reveals himself to us. Then he goes home and receives a call from another Ghostface, who taunts him that he’s hiding somewhere in the wannabe’s tiny Manhattan apartment. Following the bloodbath of last year’s Scream, Tara Carpenter (Jenna Ortega) has left Woodsboro for New York City to attend Fictitious University, and her half-sister Sam (Melissa Barrera) has followed her to the Big Apple in a frantically overprotective wish to keep an eye on her. When their college friends start falling victim to the new new Ghostface, Tara and her Woodsboro friends are joined by Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), an NYPD detective (Dermot Mulroney) and an FBI agent (Hayden Panettiere) whom we previously saw surviving Scream 4.

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This franchise conceived as light entertainment now seems to be buckling under the weight of its history. Characters endlessly discuss stuff that happened in the previous five films and dealing with trauma, and while the latter could be an interesting subject for a horror film, it turns to mush in these filmmakers’ hands. Last week, we saw how Creed III was better off for fully disengaging from the Rocky movies and standing on its own. As Tara’s friend Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) points out in her usual tiresome way, even Luke Skywalker was sacrificed so that the younger characters could take over the saga. Scream VI can’t do that even though it mercifully leaves Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott out of the equation.

Maybe it wouldn’t make a difference — Sam and Tara are pallid characters, and you’d never guess from their performances here how dynamic Barrera and Ortega have been elsewhere. This despite Sam being the mentally troubled daughter of Billy Loomis, a killer from the original film whose ghost (played by a CGI de-aged Skeet Ulrich) appears to her and tells her to embrace her bloodlust. Scream 4 already floated the idea of a final girl who survives because she’s a killer herself, and this movie won’t take that step even if making Sam dangerous would shift this series’ parameters.

What else? The New York setting only pays off in one scene when our heroines find themselves on a subway car filled with Halloween trick-or-treaters dressed as Ghostface (with a sprinkling of Pinhead, Michael Myers, and the Babadook). The killer manipulates internet conspiracy nuts to make Sam into a social pariah, and the movie misses a glorious chance to jab anti-vaxxers, Proud Boys, and toxic fans who make life miserable for the rest of us. The film tries to make Gale into a retroactively sympathetic figure, and that doesn’t work, either. Those old-school slasher flicks were deservedly mocked because its murderers kept coming back from the dead. This series does away with that formula, but without replacing it in any meaningful way. Scream isn’t building toward anything.

Scream VI
Starring Melissa Barrera and Jenna Ortega. Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett. Written by James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick. Rated R.

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