The slasher movie icon known as Ghostface is back for a sixth go-round in “Scream VI,” the latest installment in the franchise put on the map by late director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson. Williamson is back as a producer, but series protagonist Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is not. Due to a pay dispute, Campbell decided to ghost(face) this movie.
But don’t worry. Sidney is “thought of and missed,” according to a conversation led by frenemy journalist Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox). Considering the circumstances around Campbell’s absence, the script by James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick (who also wrote the last installment, 2022′s “Scream”) would have been wise to leave any mention of her out entirely. Whether Sidney is missed by the audience is a question only the diehard fans “Scream VI” panders to can answer.
Stepping into Sidney’s spotlight are returning characters Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera) and her sister, Tara (Jenna Ortega, from Netflix’s “Wednesday”). Followers of the franchise know that Sam is the daughter of one of the first movie’s Ghostfaces, Billy Loomis. Skeet Ulrich returns in a cameo where he torments Sam from beyond the grave in visions that may indicate she is the new Ghostface. It’s nice to see Ulrich get work, though I never knew a dead character could age.
But I digress. After the last movie’s carnage, Sam, Tara, and sibling survivors Mindy Meeks-Martin (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and her brother, Chad (Mason Gooding), move away from “Scream”'s usual locale of Woodsboro, Calif. The quartet head to New York City, where the only Ghostface killer is the one in the Wu-Tang Clan, or so they think.
As expected, “Scream VI” opens with a tangential murder that has nothing to do with the main plot. Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett stage it in an alleyway and cast their “Ready or Not” star Samara Weaving as the victim. She’s a film professor who teaches a class on horror movies, yet she’s not smart enough to avoid dark alleys.
Her stabbing is sufficiently ruthless, reminding viewers that slasher movies are bathed in blood and guts. Then her Ghostface killer, who is revealed to us, gets killed even more viciously by another Ghostface. In the film’s trailer, we were promised a different take on Ghostface; at this point, I thought “Scream VI” might deliver it.
Part of the fun of earlier installments in the “Scream” franchise was trying to figure out who the masked killer was while the filmmakers intentionally made choices to either lean into, or avoid, horror movie tropes. There’s always a character who explains the rules of the game. (Mindy gets the job this time.) It’s obnoxious but clever. However, these movies are running out of ways to be self-aware, not to mention creating satisfactory permutations of “who is Ghostface?”
These movies are also running out of ways to kill people. There are only so many places on the human body a knife wielded by a superhuman killer can go. While “Scream VI” lovingly and graphically explores those places, it becomes monotonous. In the film’s defense, there are some delightfully nasty kills, and Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett stage each one with skill and, oftentimes, some suspense.
I should mention that I gave up on “Scream” after the fourth installment, which means I still recognized Kirby Reed, the “Scream 4″ alumna played by Hayden Panettiere. “Scream VI” brings back as many fan favorites as possible, and the actors are all fun to watch. For the sixth time, Gale is up to her old tricks. She’s again aligned with a policeman, this one played by Dermot Mulroney. The list of suspects-slash-victims include nerdy virgin Ethan (Jack Champion) and the far-luckier-at-sex Quinn (Liana Liberato).
The scariest thing about “Scream VI” isn’t seeing someone get knifed in the face 600 times; it’s this movie’s absurdly inaccurate depiction of New York City. Canadian cities like Toronto have played NYC in movies before; here it’s Montreal. The filmmakers don’t even try to get the Big Apple right. The audience at my Union Square screening burst into laughter at a mock-up of an MTA subway sign. The subway’s lights don’t go out like they do in this film, either. This isn’t 1974!
The most annoying trait of slasher franchises is their tendency to drag out their sequels, requels, and remakes well past their expiration date. They become sprawling Wikipedia entries filled with connecting details that fans commit to memory before screaming at any viewer who hasn’t done the same.
There’s a scene where Kirby and Mindy trade opinions on several horror franchises by choosing which movie is the best in the series. Regarding “Scream,” I doubt either of them would say this one. Well, maybe one of them would.
Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett. Written by James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick. Starring Courteney Cox, Jenna Ortega, Melissa Barrera, Hayden Panettiere, Jasmin Savoy Brown, Mason Gooding, Jack Champion, Liana Liberato, Dermot Mulroney, Skeet Ulrich. At AMC Boston Common, Landmark Kendall Square, and suburbs. 123 minutes. R (murder, murder, kill, kill, kill)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.