Scream 5 got the rebooted franchise off to a fairly shaky start, but with Scream 6 Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett have started to move out of the long shadow of Wes Craven’s first four films. Scream 6 is the first film without Neve Campbell as Sidney Prescott, while Courteney Cox’s Gail Weathers is the only remaining legacy character, so this feels like the point at which Scream moves from a series of sequels to a franchise proper. To that end, it makes a few big changes from the previous films. For one thing, Ghostface is now stalking New York City, in an echo of Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan. For another thing, the Ghostface iconology is starting to morph. The mask has a more corroded texture this time around, like one of the many gritty city walls where a slightly askew version of Ghostface starts to pop up in graffiti, evoking a further evolution of the villain in the franchise to come.
Those differences are couched in the weight of the legacy – the many genealogies of Ghostface that populate the killer’s lair. In fact, the killer here is a Ghostface fan who has compiled all conceivable memorabilia and marginalia, and then housed them in a decrepit movie theatre at the heart of the city. All of the previous Ghostfaces, from the mid 90s to now, are commemorated by a series of mannequins standing in a ceremonial semicircle on stage, while the props and sets from previous films are lovingly preserved in glass cases and behind cinema roping. It’s the next evolution from the Woodsboro film set of Scream 3, another level of self-referentiality that, thankfully, doesn’t mitigate against actual horror as much as in Scream 5. In part, that’s because Scream 6 has a particularly bold opening. After an ingenious kill scene that involves mobiles, online dating, and a New York film academic, Ghostface takes off his mask, and returns to the apartment where he lives with his co-killer. For a brief beat, the film turns into Ghostface: Portrait of a Serial Killer, as we follow this Ghostface through his nightly routines, before a third unnamed Ghostface arrives, reveals the co-killer’s body in the fridge, and murders the first killer, but without removing his own mask.
By providing us with a Ghostface who can attack in public space, and has a fully-fleshed private life of his own, the directors pave the way for the central premise of Scream 6: that, contrary to the wisdom of most classic slasher films private space is infinitely more dangerous than public space. In previous Scream films most deaths occurred in private space, or at least in private alcoves within public spaces, such as the cinema restrooms at the start of Scream 2. Here, the more public and crowded the space, the more power Ghostface commands, reflecting an American public sphere that has become increasingly precarious over the last half decade. Sam Carpenter, played by Melissa Barrera, gets her first call from Ghostface while she’s walking down a relatively busy New York street, and immediately glances around to wonder where he could be. In every other scene like this in the franchise, there’s a lag between the victim scrutinising the scene and the emergence of Ghostface, and while that lag remains, it’s shorter than ever before. Ghostface may not be the first person Sam looks at, but he is the second, and doesn’t hesitate to attack immediately, despite being in public.
Likewise, a later kill scene occurs right at the threshold between public and private space, as Sam’s therapist Chris, played by Henry Czerny, cautiously approaches his front door after the bell rings at an unexpected time, and asks who’s on the other side before opening it. Yet Ghostface simply breaks through the glass and stabs Chris then and there, destroying this sacrosanct threshold between public and private as part of his act of violence. At times, Ghostface’s presence recalls the mugging panic of 70s New York films, but it’s even more aligned with the public shooter, a phantom who makes every public space feel uneasy. Shortly after attacking Sam for the first time, Ghostface follows her into a convenience store and starts stabbing random people. He’s already a shooter in spirit here, but graduates into full-blown shooter when he seizes the manager’s shotgun and starts blasting customers away. Later, we learn that a bulletproof vest is a central aspect of this evolved Ghostface costume.
This anxiety about public space crystallises around the centrepiece of the film – a masterful scene set on the New York Subway. Over fifteen minutes, as the characters travel crosstown under Manhattan, the directors orchestrate a dance of shifting gazes, flashing lights, and reconfigurations of passengers after each stop, while setting all this against a mounting sense of inexorability that is encapsulated by the numbered stations that subdivide the action. Digital technology is tactily and plausibly elided by the poor cell service deep beneath the city, producing a state of sublime and almost unbearable suspense, while reinvesting the subway with the terror it exuded during the 80s, the height of slasherdom, when Jason came to town.
That link between slasher and shooter imbues Ghostface with a new bluntness, physicality and materiality that is quite distinct from the silky gymnastics of his previous incarnations. While he carries a knife, it’s not really a major part of his repertoire, which consists mainly in pushing, shoving and brute force. Many of the suspenseful scenes are as grating as they are suspenseful, as when Ghostface slams a door over and over, to enter a room where some characters are escaping out a window, and then rattles the ladder they are using to escape over and over, in an effort to shake them to the ground. He succeeds, and one of these characters dies, not from a knife wound, but from the blunt force trauma of her head hitting a garbage bin. During this same scene, knives give way to an empty knife block, which is used as a blunt weapon, and even when Ghostface does stab, it’s more like he’s striking or shoving his victims with a knife, producing some of the most thudding contact in the whole franchise.
To some extent, this bluntness, and this new pugilistic Ghostface, is a riposte to digital horror and an argument for the classical slasher. But Ghostface also moves here with the confidence of having a whole army and institution of Ghostfaces behind him. For the first time, Ghostface feels like he has institutional immunity, much as the crisis in American public space has been hastened by the very institutions that were originally supposed to protect against it. It makes sense, then, when the killer seems to be an FBI agent, but this is just the prelude to a further twist – there are three killers, a police officer and his two children. The institution (police force) and ideology (family values) that are meant to protect public space are the greatest threats to it, just as Ghostface has become a figurehead for a new American order that validates brute displays of strength above all, regardless of whether they come from white shooters or corrupt cops. Ghostface of Scream 6 fuses these two positions – he is a Moebius strip of shooter and cop – explaining his proclivity for guns over knives, and his need to kill the original two killers, in a twisted gesture of law and order, as both cop and superior slasher.
Accordingly, these Ghostfaces have a more sinister intent than previous Ghostfaces, at least for Sam. For it’s not enough for them to merely kill Sam – they have to indoctrinate her into their police-family, and draw upon the primal energy of her father, original killer Billy Loomis, as well as all the serial and franchisable energy that spun out from his actions. They envisage a Ghostface police state with Sam as one of their key architects, ordering her to put on a Ghostface mask, as she responds by hurling bricks at them, invoking the building blocks of the city itself against their escalating institutional power. Of course, she wins, as she must, but the last scene of the film lingers on her Ghostface mask lying on the ground, like the repository of an unresolved public violence, as if we were watching the beginning of a new superhero (or antihero) franchise. And the final “flash shot” before the credits roll is Ghostface loading a gun, like the last nightmarish image seen by the victims of white shooters and corrupt cops.