How the Scream TV series defied expectations

Despite scepticism from fans of the franchise, MTV's Scream series honors the first rule of remakes: don't eff with the original...

The Scream franchise is deservedly adored by cinemagoers and critics, and widely considered to be one of the best horror films to come out of the back end of the 90s. You can certainly see why, with Kevin Williamson’s tack-sharp script packed with zingers, its overall clever subversion of the genre, a sterling central performance from Neve Campbell and an undercurrent of cheeky fun. The third act is still, to this day, a triumphant blend of humor, (literally) knife-edge tension and genuine scares.

Few horror movies have achieved what Scream did. Or, to give it its dues, what Scream 2 also did. The sequel to Wes Craven’s original hit could have been a messy affair but it achieved an improbable feat: it was just as fun and spooky as the first. Even though there is, of course, a repetitiveness to be found in seeing a clumsy masked oaf chase after the same group of people while trying to stab them, Scream 2 worked because it pushed forward the arcs of the core quartet – Gale, Randy, Dewey and Sidney – while maintaining the spirit of the original. There’s less to be said about Scream 3 because, beside an interesting and worthwhile motive to the killer, it’s a bit of a slog. Things weren’t great behind the scenes and the humor-to-horror ratio was hugely misjudged so, apart from the end, really, it’s largely forgettable. Scream 4 brought the series back in 2011 with another round of entertaining murders, the gore amped up and the tension heightened, but it didn’t do astonishingly well at the box office and the planned fifth and sixth instalments fell through.

Which brings us to Scream, the films’ television counterpart, which debuted on MTV at the beginning of the summer. It was announced a while back and, initially, it looked promising. Wes Craven seemed to be on board to direct the pilot, Ghostface would, naturally, be back and rumours swirled that the show might even be set in Woodsboro. What we got was a vastly different piece. There was no Wes Craven behind the camera (although he has an executive producer credit), no Ghostface, no Sidney Prescott and no Woodsboro. MTV, known for the unique flavouring of its programming, was producing it and for many that was a detriment. There seemed, all the way up until airing, to be very little point in making Scream. I and many fans of the films set their expectations low and tuned in for what was expected to be a sexed up, glossy ghost of the original. I was proved wrong.

What Scream excels at is perfectly capturing the spirit of the original. It’s fun and highly entertaining in its quieter moments but when it wants to be scary and tense, the transition is seamless. In every episode so far, the characters have been confronted or stalked by the killer and each time it’s a genuinely unsettling sequence. Creator Jill E. Blotevogel worked on Harper’s Island and Pretty Little Liars spinoff Ravenswood so she’s well versed in writing compelling drama with additional bloody thrills, elements that the films balanced well. Similarly, the snappy pop culture-infused dialogue is back (in the second episode, Terminator Genisys is given a mention and more recently, Pretty Little Liars) and Scream still comes with the self-referential winks to the audience the series is known for. Like the films, there are some darkly funny gags peppered throughout (in the show’s first murder, whilst channelling Drew Barrymore, Bella Thorne tries to phone the police but is thwarted by Siri who decides to dial Pottery Barn instead) and by the end of episode one, it’s clear that we are simply watching the movies in a different guise.

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Blotevogel may have tinkered with the set-up but it’s unmistakably similar to the plight of Sidney Prescott and company back in 1996. Emma Duval is our modern day Sidney (Willa Fitzgerald is a very strong lead) with friends that fit the original moulds. There’s a Randy Meeks in the form of horror aficionado Noah Foster (John Karna), a Tatum Riley in the kittenish Brooke Maddox (Carlson Young is very well cast) and Connor Weil’s Will Belmont and Tom Maden’s Jake Fitzgerald are an updated Billy and Stu. The origins of the killer might be different – twenty years prior to the series opening a disfigured outcast infatuated with a young girl went on a murderous spree when he was rejected and in the present day someone is impersonating him – but their MO is the same. What remains unclear at this point in the series is the endgame of Scream‘s killer, Brandon James (possibly the least formidable name for a murderer ever).

After Scream 4 there wasn’t much of an appetite for a fifth movie. While Scream 4 was a good film (despite the climax hinging on a performance that arguably didn’t work), it didn’t offer enough results to justify the merit of any further films. Making the jump from the big to the small screen is an ideal way of continuing the Scream franchise because it frees it from the trappings of a 90-minute horror movie (no matter how subversive or tongue-in-cheek). There are new stories to be told, the writers can take their time telling them, and we can see what a Scream movie in a world of selfie sticks, Kardashians and FaceTime would look like.

One of the predominant criticisms Scream‘s strongest critics levelled at the TV series was the absence of its hallmarks: Neve Campbell, Ghostface and Woodsboro. Without any of them, a TV continuation seemed redundant but, remarkably, Scream has pulled it off. Sidney Prescott might not be back to roll off one-liners and generally kick ass but, if we’re honest, her story is done. Scream 4 seemed to wrap up her tale and while it would be fantastic to see Neve Campbell back in the role, it’s not likely. Willa Fitzgerald’s Emma is an excellent substitute, combining the quiet fierceness, pluckiness and vulnerability of Sidney with a modern day sensibility. Her story is a slight twist on Sidney’s (she’s still been singled out by the killer, however) and so while she has some of the same DNA as Neve Campbell’s scream queen, she’s still refreshingly new.

The deliberate exclusion of Ghostface was a major point of contention when Scream entered production. Sidney and Woodsboro are, technically, inessential (though the series would suffer tremendously without the former), whereas Ghostface is the Scream movies for many people. Not including Ghostface in a show with the Scream brand on it seemed like sacrilege but, again, the show manages to get away with it for a much simpler reason. The killer here moves like Ghostface, speaks like Ghostface, looks like Ghostface (if someone took the famous Munch-inspired mask and held it over a candle for a while, you would end up with the mask seen here), kills like Ghostface, and taunts like Ghostface.

Scream the TV series is actually scarier than the original films because compared to Ghostface, Brandon James is methodical and intelligent; someone who plans his deathly jaunts and watches his victims from afar. Ghostface was much clumsier, stumbling after Sidney and her friends back in the 90s, bumping into things and concealing himself in cupboards. Yes, humor was derived from Ghostface’s uncoordinated demeanour but this was always tempered by the genuine fear he filled audiences with. Scream relies much more on horror than the first three films, trading the exhilarating chase sequences for greater suspense and a higher success rate for the killer. Brandon James is very like A in Pretty Little Liars in that he is seemingly omnipotent and capable of striking anywhere and anyone.

As a freestanding show, without the baggage that comes with being associated with the films, Scream is a solid teen mystery drama series. Everyone is beautiful, cynical and connected to every social network under the sun. The domestic drama has been done before (Pretty Little Liars is one touchpoint) with cheating couples, teacher-student relationships, secret gay relationships all appearing thus far, but it’s watchable, engaging stuff and the young actors sell it well. The high school drama does help – the show doesn’t jump from set piece to set piece – because when the killer starts to pick off those close to Emma, it hurts. In the original movie, when Sidney’s nearest and dearest fell prey to Ghostface, it was unfortunate and sad but because of the short time in which they appeared, you were never really attached to them. With Scream you have ten episodes, ten or more murders, and an ensemble of characters you’re rooting for. We all, whether we like it or not, have our favourites and there’s always the chance they won’t make it out alive (a second season has already been given the go-ahead and with the show having only wrapped filming this month, a cliffhanger or an alternate ending seems likely) so the stakes are raised to the same level as Game Of Thrones.

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Creator, Blotevogel told BuzzFeed a couple of months ago that “[Bob Weinstein] wanted the connective tissue to be the spirit of Scream. We will have a masked killer, and that is our biggest connection” and back in May, that was the sound of the death knell for me. Blotevogel seemed to be captaining a doomed show cynically cashing in on a franchise that many, including me, hold dearly. The result is something altogether unexpected: a gory, blackly humorous chiller with shades of Pretty Little Liars but, and most importantly, oodles of the self-referential macabre charm of the Scream films. Complete with a worthy successor to Sidney and a more than suitable Ghostface stand-in, Scream reshapes its slasher movie structure to fit the teen mystery-drama mould and it works well.

“You forgot the first rule of remakes: don’t fuck with the original,” said Sidney in Scream 4, and Scream doesn’t. It forges its own identity while tipping its hat respectfully to the source material, never forgetting where it comes from.