* Warning: this article contains large spoilers for Scream seasons 1 and 2 *
I like scary movies. I also like scary TV. With Hannibal, Bates Motel, From Dusk Til Dawn and The Exorcist recently showing the former can successfully become the latter, it’s not been a bad time for fans of both the big and small screen. And then there’s Scream. Based on Wes Craven’s postmodern franchise, this MTV series has recently been renewed for a third run. Not bad, considering how crap the idea sounded. Yet after a lacklustre second outing, which had around half the ratings of the first, it’s been cut to 6 episodes and will have all new showrunners. Needless to say they’ve got their work cut out for them.
Taking place in the fictional town of Lakewood, Scream borrows the high school setting, the self-referential humour, constant calls and masked murderer tropes from its source material. Other than this template there’s nothing to connect them – oddly not even a reference to the Stab movies to point at a shared universe. It also lacks the effortless blend of horror and comedy, or much of the same sustained tension, that made it such a hit. This is annoying since Scream is not outright bad. When it comes to the technical side, the writers pace the action well. They do a commendable job of giving each episode an internalised three act structure, that ends on a point of intrigue to deepen the ongoing plot. The directors are also able to skilfully build an atmosphere, making the suburban houses and their surrounding woods/ farms into a genuinely creepy backdrop. Then the actors are good at being believable in the face of unbelievable circumstances. Yet it’s arguably a franchise uniquely unsuitable for a serialised format.
As Craven liked to point out, the most important rule of horror is to make the audience fear the filmmaker. Hence why the halfway point of Last House was so effective, or the death of Drew Barrymore in the original Scream. Everyone must seem like a potential corpse. Though, admittedly, the later sequels failed on this aspect I expect many were genuinely taken aback when Randy died in part two. I also expect the thought of Dewey being dead by the end of the same entry, or Sidney before the end of the fourth, didn’t seem too unlikely. In the parameters of a 90 minute movie this sort of suspense is achievable. Yet it is much more difficult to achieve over a period of 12 hours, let-alone multiple seasons. Save for American Horror Story, which switches every year, most shows revolve around the same ensemble. Whilst this is useful in keeping us invested, and hopefully developing an affection for those at the centre of it, it’s useless for worrying us. Particularly when the subgenre is one that revolves around body-count over creepiness.
Until the finale is announced, it simply seems infeasible any of the main cast will die. Noah getting stabbed and buried midway through the second felt like it should have been a big moment. Yet with him being midway through an arc, and also a fan favourite, it was obviously a story beat instead of a genuine shock. Albeit one that was mined well for drama, but a story beat none the less. Concerns for the cast all but grind to a halt during these mid-season sections and it’s easy to find yourself wanting to skip ahead to when they might be in peril. Then there’s the supporting lineup’s deaths that are meant to get to you but don’t really. Like when Zoe then got killed and it was so-so. Especially with her role in the show until then being to enhance his part instead of being one. Rather than being a sad loss she just joined the list of relatively minor folks that were dispatched with minimal impact save for the sad sight of a different person being sad.
Next there’s the villains. Nothing kills a murder mystery like a recurring core group. So far each finale has had a fairly minor character as its specter. In season 1 it was the journalist Piper: a suspect so obvious her reveal couldn’t reasonably be considered a twist. In the second it was the largely side-lined boyfriend Kieran, who from an early point seemed the only real option. After all, it wouldn’t be a lead and the even more minor characters had been killed off already, or would be too small to seem a logical pick. Furthermore, when your narrative revolves around a series of near attacks then all viewers have to do is pay attention to who is never put into harm’s way. Yes Kieran got tied up at one point (offscreen), though how he did this to himself way more of a riddle than his identity. There’s also a bad habit of having transparent red herrings show up to say or do something so bloody suspicious that they’re written off from the word go (did anyone watching season 2 really suspect it was Eli?). So far the solutions have been tied to an already tired mythology, that necessitates the people behind it are of a certain age or have awkwardly mentioned uncertain origins.
Inexplicably most of the gang don’t even dig horror films. Instead the prefer to pass time on their sofas pouting. What little genre commentary there is also risks irrelevance, with the homages and references being laregely limited to the sorts of slasher films that don’t get made any more. There’s very little attempt to recontextualise it to the modern day, with the vastly changed contemporary genre scene being ignored. By Scream 4 this was a legitimate complaint, though at least there scriptwriter Williamson had a 15 year legacy and a remake conceit to play with. Here the satire also doesn’t add up to much, with the gags themselves feeling 20 years old and then being soon undermined by the sort of angst-riddled teen melodrama that the movie felt like an antidote to. It simply takes itself too seriously. Maybe the team felt they had to do it this way, as a wink can’t last more than 90 minutes and they want us to stick with this lot. Regardless, this choice means it fails to capture what the films are about beyond a very superficial level.
Still, the series isn’t necessarily dead and cold surprise us. Up next is a 2 hour Halloween special, which may work well if it functions like a normal slasher. Importantly Brooke, Audrey, Emma or Noah ought to get the chop or be behind the mask. I also expect season 3 could benefit from it’s reduced length, so as to up the potential threat in each part and minimise the feeling of midseason safety. Frankly I’d like to like it a lot more, so I wish whoever takes it over luck. Yet more than that I think it’s maybe time to leave Lakewood and adopt an anthology approach: all new people, places and plotlines. If we know the premise is changing season to season then maybe it’ll make the whole thing much scarier, bringing back the all-important sense anyone can die. Potentially this approach could be really cool, doing away with all my main gripes. Otherwise I fear it’ll join the same ranks as Blade, Freddy’s Nightmares, Poltergeist and Damien. I’d say Wes’ last masterpiece deserves better.
Scream Halloween special is exclusive to Netflix in the UK and released on October 18th