Hayden Panetierre Is the Best Part of Movie

(Warning: Scream 4, Scream 5, and some Scream 6 spoilers ahead!)

When the lights went down at my Wednesday evening showing of Scream 6, the audience was already lubricated adequately with plenty of alcohol. I’m often afraid of seeing certain horror movies at dine-in theaters. Sometimes, I just want to focus on the thrills and chills without hearing forks and knives clattering against some abomination of a small-bite pizza. But for the sixth installment into the legendary Scream series—my favorite horror franchise of all time—I jumped at the opportunity for a rowdy, liquored-up crowd.

Scream is the kind of horror franchise where audience reactions are almost always encouraged. Cameos, outrageous kills, and fan service are in high supply. Scream’s love of its own fanbase has made it a force to be reckoned with, especially in a genre where sequels sputter out onto VOD streaming with little remaining integrity to what made their series so great in the first place.

Maybe it was the signature Espalòn cocktails (“The Empire Screamer”—the name could’ve used work) flowing, or perhaps it was franchise fans hotly anticipating the twists and turns of this latest installment. But whatever it was, it resulted in a theater full of people cheering when the great Hayden Panettiere appeared onscreen. The excitement was both palpable and correct, Panettiere’s return to the franchise is one of the best things about this already terrific sequel.

Any Scream newbies may not remember just how fun it was to see Panettiere make her franchise debut in Scream 4. After a couple of years of Disney projects, a singing career that never got off the ground, a hit role as the always-in-peril cheerleader on NBC’s Heroes, and a critically hailed turn on the country soap Nashville, Panettiere had become a household name. But it was her exciting presence in the horror franchise’s fourth installment that really got people buzzing.

Panettiere was a shining beacon of Scream 4’s distinct 2011-ness. She alone exuded the essence of a time that straddled early Facebook status updates and the all-out social media explosion. Even Emma Roberts, who had a deliciously wicked turn as one of the film’s two Ghostface killers, was still only entering her Ryan Murphy-encouraged prime. As Kirby Reed, a confident and horror-obsessed high schooler, Panettiere outshone them all—even the seasoned players like Neve Campbell and Courteney Cox.

What made Panettiere so different from the typical Scream B-player was that her character never lacked confidence. Where Sidney Prescott and Randy Meeks would go into preservation mode (as most of us would), Kirby used her wit. In a famous scene, Kirby has to answer a horror quiz from Ghostface while under extreme duress and never once falters, beating him at his own game. Sure, it resulted in her being stabbed in the stomach by Charlie Walker (Rory Culkin)—the person she was trying to save—but we can’t besmirch her character’s good faith!

Now, 12 years after that film, Panettiere returns to the franchise after being left for dead. In some ways, it feels like a cosmically beautiful return for Panettiere, as well. Scream 6 is Panettiere’s first screen role after a rocky few years in and out of the public eye. And like Kirby Reed, Panettiere is a persistent force who refuses to stay down.

Kirby’s role in Scream 6 is decently hokey, which is perfectly fine by me. It’s certainly no less convoluted than having Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera) see visions of her dead dad, Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich), to further the plot. Thankfully, those psychic apparitions are toned down this time in favor of more Kirby. She now works for the FBI, and volunteers to look into Sam’s case after Sam and her sister, Tara (Jenna Ortega) are attacked after their move from Woodsboro to New York City.

When we first meet Kirby again, she’s seated with her feet propped up on the desk of NYPD Detective Bailey’s (Dermot Mulroney) office. Cue the audience going wild. When Kirby spins around, the cheers turn into laughter—at least from me—since whoever in the hair and makeup department decided it would be a good idea to slap a horrible wig on Panettiere’s noodle. Or, as my dear colleague Laura Bradley referred to it, “Fox News hair.”

No, the Megyn Kelly hair does not work. Yes, Hayden Panettiere still has very lovely blonde hair, herself! The mystery behind this suspicious headpiece continues to take form, but that’s not what we’re here for. We’re here for Kirby using her FBI expertise to help trap the latest Ghostface killer(s).

But the FBI? Her? The script anticipates this question, and lets Cox’s Gale Weathers try to give Kirby a little dressing down. “She’s in the FBI?” Gale questions. “She’s, like, a zygote.” True, Kirby might be a little young to have made it through FBI training, but trauma can often be a fast track to your true path! Let the girl have a firearm, she’s earned it.

Kirby spends the entire film working with Sam, Tara, and the remainder of the new Core Four players to track and hunt Ghostface, ultimately ending up at an abandoned theater in midtown Manhattan. (Or, a corner of Quebec dressed to look a lot like midtown, just with fewer falafel carts.) The theater—a shrine to all of the Ghostfaces of the past, complete with stolen “memorabilia” from police evidence rooms—is where the final showdown between the remaining survivors takes place. And what a raucous showdown it is.

If you’re a Scream fan that has somehow made it this far into the Panetierre praise without heeding the spoiler alert, don’t worry, I’m not going to give away the killer here. What I will say is that Kirby is given a couple of very fun misdirects that really play with the audience’s expectations. Did Kirby snap after what she endured in Scream 4, or did she really become a white knight, specializing in Ghostface hunting? Sounds a little far-fetched, doesn’t it?

Regardless of what may or may not go down with Kirby in Scream 6, she’s undeniably one of the best parts of the film. Panetierre’s wickedly fun star presence in Scream 4 gave fans something entirely new: a would-be throwaway character to really root for, even over a decade later. What’s more, it’s a triumph for Panetierre, who hasn’t lost an ounce of her spark. “I was worried that I couldn’t act anymore,” she recently told Entertainment Weekly. “This was the best first movie back that I could’ve dreamt of.”

Panetierre—who has been through unimaginable hardships, including tragically losing her brother in February—came to Scream 6 with something to prove, both to fans and herself. She and her character have been through the wringer, and are both still moving forward, against every odd. In that same Entertainment Weekly interview, Panetierre seemingly summed it up for both herself and Kirby alike. “What does somebody do after they’ve been through trauma? They either lock all their doors or they come out fighting. And she came out fighting.”

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