With almost twenty-seven years under its belt and now a sixth installment to its name, the Scream movies have shifted focus yet again. The series once about its leads’ attempts to extricate themselves from whatever pop-culture refraction others, killer or not, forced upon them is no more. The funhouse of previous entries is no longer the obstacle but the rule. Films are facile – “episodic,” even, as Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) declares – but the change isn’t inherently good or bad. It’s simply different in the context of Scream. It’s finally a 21st-century franchise.

It’s not another sequel, reboot, remake, or even “requel,” as the fifth entry so onanistically labeled itself. With Scream VI, the franchise doesn’t just have continuity; it has lore. It’s been a year since the most recent killings in Woodsboro. Now Tara (Jenna Ortega) and twins Chad (Mason Gooding) and Mindy have moved to New York City for college and a fresh start. But while Tara wants to forget the past, her older sister Sam (Melissa Barrera) has tagged along to stay close to her sole family member.

Sam can’t escape what happened. In a needed hook to her character, she even tries to confront it, here via help from her therapist (Henry Czerny) and a watchful eye over others. Alas, Reddit has become awash with “Woodsboro truthers” insisting her ex and most recent Ghostface, Richie (Jack Quaid), was innocent; that she’s actually a murderer. This thread provides more of a texture than an underpinning, but it’s not unwelcome either. Regardless, her status as a pariah takes a backseat when a new killer starts stalking the city.

Soon enough, the self-labeled “Core Four” find themselves involved in a new investigation. New faces include Mindy’s girlfriend, Anika (Devyn Nekoda); Sam’s love interest, Danny (Josh Segarra); classmate Ethan (Jack Champion); and Tara’s roommate, Quinn (Liana Liberato). Leading the case is a comically gruff detective in the form of the latter’s dad, Bailey (Dermot Mulroney). Meanwhile, Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) has broken her promise at the end of 5 and written another book, while Kirby Reed (Hayden Panettiere) returns from her near-death fate in Scream 4. And guess what? She’s an FBI agent now!

As is the case with any Scream, all exist on a spectrum from prime suspect to knife fodder. And what fodder they turn out to be. From its opening onward, Scream VI boasts some of the franchise’s harshest violence without falling into biliousness. Returning directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett and writers James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick provide something far less desperate to please than 5. Gone are the facetious attempts at staving away criticisms; shots at echoing 1 and 4 are no more. The movie is respectful and aware of its predecessors, but not fanatical about them. There’s a weight the last film lacked.

Three or four set pieces show considerable growth in tension and spatial awareness. One may even rank among Scream’s best chase scenes. In many ways it plays well into the script’s own approach to late-franchise worldbuilding, surpassing the physiognomy and tributary approach on which 5 relied. Rather, that’s what Ghostface is doing. They’re using masks of all previous nine killers and have even built a shrine to them, the ensuing callbacks playing into pathoses rather than in lieu of them. But for forming its history into a saga, Scream VI is quite straightforward in some ways. It’s less intent on subverting clichés than it is on entertaining.

While it may sound antithetical to its DNA, it provides something of a reprieve. The meta has more to do with texture than actual text. It’s self-aware but not self-conscious, opting for something more intramural than before to inform its reflexivity. The rules of a franchise echo those of Scream 2 almost to a fault; the episodic quality Mindy describes provides a sense of freedom. The set pieces are up to snuff when they don’t excel, and even if the film doesn’t mine its New York setting to complete potential, its world feels fuller. As Ghostface’s plans begin coming to light the movie reveals an alacrity, its tone matching its occasional absurdity.

And it does get quite absurd, usually in hindsight. Far and away Scream VI‘s biggest issue is the logical faults that reveal themselves. Among two of the more effective moments, one ends up coming to nothing early on, resembling something of a discarded plot thread. Another requires such a suspension of disbelief the filmmaking could have remedied by maintaining a subjective point of view. Perhaps scaling back the brutality a bit may have helped. It’s when VI feels as if it’s trying to get one over on its audience that it falters most.

On a running basis, however, characters hold the picture afloat. The script does far better work for the returning kids from 5 while doing right by Gale and Kirby, despite some awkward dialogue from time to time. (A particular example comes in a reference to Sidney Prescott following Neve Campbell’s departure from the franchise from a pay dispute.) Gooding is far better here, but it’s Barrera who shows a massive improvement––at last she and the script make Sam someone to care about rather than a blank face. Elsewhere, Panettiere remains a delight, as keyed into Kirby twelve years later.

Accordingly, Scream VI has enough to anchor jokes. It’s bigger, often better for straightforward thrills, though the mix of popcorn entertainment and social philosophy from franchise past is something to miss. Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett focus on the former. Perhaps that’s their strength, at least per here.

As a whodunnit it largely works, save one aspect easy to spot miles away. Stakes-wise it’s high, even if it pulls its punches once or twice on who bites the bullet. As a return to form for Scream, this is a sigh of relief––notwithstanding some key issues, VI has a freewheeling sense of lunacy, and it’s way too fun to decry. Does it make 5 better in retrospect? Of course not, but it may justify its existence in some ways. The new creative team is growing. Hopefully they continue to do so. Bring on the next one.

Scream VI opens in theaters on Friday, March 10.

Grade: B

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