“Think about it,” says Noah Foster in the pilot episode of MTV’s Scream. “Girl and her friends arrive at the dance, the camp, the deserted town, whatever. Killer-with-a-gimmick takes them out one-by-one. 90 minutes later, the sun comes up as the girl sits in the back of the ambulance watching her friends’ bodies being wheeled past. Roll credits.”
It’s an awkward piece of self-aware dialogue but also a fair, if simplistic, summation of what a slasher movie is. Like a musical or a rom-com the slasher genre is one hardwired to hit the same familiar beats each time around and, like a musical or a rom-com, audiences keep coming back for more.
Horror cinema’s pilgrimage to mainstream TV in the 2000s has helped open our eyes to plenty of diverse new genre TV. For vampires you have The Vampire Diaries, for creepy avant-garde imagery you have American Horror Story, for zombies you have The Walking Dead, and for chiselled blokes who make regular appearances on Tumblr and hunt werewolves and ghosts you have Supernatural.
The slasher genre, on the other hand, took a bit of time before it got its own show. Of course, its influence clearly hung over the likes of True Blood and American Horror Story but it took a long time before the genre made the leap to the small screen in the form of a full-blooded slasher TV show.
As Noah Foster says in Scream, the structure of a slasher movie can be cookie-cutter simple. When that structure is stretched across a TV show things become a little more difficult. How do you maintain the audience’s interest in the quieter moments? How many people do you kill off? When do you reveal crucial details about the killer? How long do you make your finale? Questions that will, hopefully, be answered here.
The tricky first half hour
Slasher movies cannot simply thrive on spilling blood. In creating an engaging horror film where people frequently drop dead you must make sure the audience has at least the slightest pang of sympathy for the deceased. Sure, there’s plenty of fun to be had in seeing generally good-looking characters run around and pop their clogs in some unnecessarily gruesome way but the success of most slasher films relies on whether the writers create characters who are as well-rounded and developed as they are good-looking.
The first half hour is usually the ideal time to do this and typically when the archetypes start acting according to their label. It’s easy for scriptwriters to brand everyone within a handy catch-all archetype because it saves time but it also offers diminishing returns for the audience and can lumber the actor with poor material. The best slashers give the cannon fodder plenty of light and shade, and they have only ninety minutes to do it.
Slasher TV, on the other hand, has considerably less of an excuse. If you want to keep your audience invested in what is essentially an extended slasher film then you have to create characters with more depth than The Jock, The Virgin (yuck), The Nerd, or The Black Friend (because, “hey, our films are totally diverse and inclusive, hence why we chose to kill off the only person of color after the first twenty minutes. It was a creative decision, we swear!”).
Harper’s Island, CBS’ murder-mystery event series that aired in 2009, opted to embrace the archetypes so common in horror movies. The poster, which promotes all 25 suspects like players in a murderous game of Guess Who? gives each character a very basic one-line description. You’ve got characters like The Good Girl, The Groom, The Old Flame, The Outsider, The Black Sheep, and The Hustler, and while that sounds like truly nightmarish TV (nobody wants to watch 5 hours of walking clichés) Harper’s Island makes it work. The characters blossom and develop over the course of the series and, though initially, it doesn’t make for the most enjoyable viewing, with some patience, Harper’s Island really comes into its own.
Looking at a slasher series that took a different approach, you have Scream Queens, Ryan Murphy’s feisty horror-comedy series. It is a different kettle of fish in almost every sense. It made sure practically every character was so awful that you wouldn’t really care if they died. The characters, however, were less archetypical than Harper’s Island, each member of the ensemble cast fleshed out enough for you to care or at least be interested in them and their motivations. Scream Queens also avoided the pitfalls of the dull first half hour by concentrating on drama irrelevant to the slasher story at its heart.
The most important issue here is timing. Slasher movies can get away with a dull first half hour in the promise of what’s just around the corner, but TV requires much more of a time commitment. If it isn’t interesting or bloody enough then you’re at risk of putting viewers to sleep. Slasher TV needs to craft interesting characters you can root for and make sure they’re compelling enough that the audience is capable of sitting through the quieter moments.
Setting the ball rolling
There’s always a big, messy death to kick off a slasher movie and slasher TV does not break that mould. All popular series that fall into this subgenre typically start their first episode with an especially gruesome, tantalizing kill. Movies do it – take the masterpiece of filmmaking that is Scream‘s first ten minutes, when an unwitting Drew Barrymore is taunted over the phone before being filleted – but slasher TV need to be more discreet. The gruesome circumstance of Barrymore’s character’s demise caused the main cast in Scream to become immediately suspicious of a killer in their midst. Once that fear is instilled in your characters it’s unshakeable and there’s no room for backtracking. Essentially, slasher TV has to kill off a character in a horrible way without it actually causing any of the other characters to suspect there is a serial killer on the loose.
MTV’s unfairly reviled Scream adaptation does a fine job handling its opening kill. Bella Thorne plays Nina, the nasty mean girl who is targeted by the show’s killer in the pilot, and the repercussions of her death are felt but the characters don’t immediately descend into a nightmare of hysteria and recrimination. It largely helps that the characters are desensitized and coolly calm teens that don’t fear the prospect of an active murderer in their town (despite the fact there was a killing spree twenty years prior). The showrunners were allowed to milk the state of relative normality for a while before they pulled a literal killer punch in an early episode when they offed one of the show’s best characters.
Likewise, Scream Queens kicked into gear when it murdered one of the show’s top suspects and a main character to boot. But, generally, the key players in Scream Queens were aware of the murders but they simply did nothing about them, meaning the body count could rise without any major action needing to be taken.
The best way to start off the murder spree in a slasher TV series is to make sure you have an expendable enough cast. Scream and Scream Queens both fell foul of this, refusing to kill off anyone of note until quite late in the day. It meant that when the killer attacked it was without stakes and so felt inconsequential, if still enjoyable.
Playing cat and mouse, and killing your darlings
The last half hour is what most people look forward to when it comes to slasher movies. Depending on your film – it’s actually a surprisingly flexible subgenre – the biggest bout of action can take place either at the end (Psycho, Halloween) or in set pieces throughout (I Know What You Did Last Summer, Scream, Friday The 13th). When you take that structure and transplant it to a TV show you need to tweak it considerably because your show can’t be that exciting half an hour stretched across every episode (you’d have a plot-less bloodbath, essentially) but it also can’t be relegated to only an episode or two.
The best example of a show that dished out an even, satisfying batch of murders and bloody action is 2009’s Harper’s Island. It’s a hugely enjoyable binge-worthy treat that’s definitely worth checking out. It’s compelling (once you’ve figured out who’s who in its mighty cast), the mystery is satisfying, it has twists galore, as well as some unexpectedly poignant moments and it, by and large, set the standard for slasher TV. One of the things it instantly had in its favor was its willingness to kill off at least one character in every episode (one episode in the latter half of the series dispatched five members of the main cast), thus raising the stakes from the word go. It also knew exactly when to take things up a notch. The show’s endgame straddles several episodes, making for a terrifying white-knuckle, trigger-happy finale.
Looking elsewhere and at an example that’s a bit more recent, MTV’s Scream confined its biggest bloodbath (and I use that word in the loosest possible sense) to one episode, which was both to its detriment and its benefit. That chapter in the first season’s story showed just how good the show could be when it truly committed to its murderous premise (particularly when it had such titanic boots to fill) but it was too little too late. The writers seemed frightened of killing their darlings and as a consequence there were no stakes, even if there was a pleasing slice of action to cap the series.
The less said about the action in Scream Queens the better. It was mostly bereft of it, concentrating more on salty one-liners that would hit big as Tumblr gifs but there were some genuinely thrilling sequences dotted about. Unfortunately they did not come in the two-part finale, which contained about two brushes with the show’s big bad, the Red Devil, that both fell flat.
Getting some answers
As good as it is, Scream is not the conventional slasher movie and its Giallo-style whodunnit has always been something of an exciting and rare added bonus to the gory thrills and iconic lines. Other, lesser horror movies that have followed in Scream‘s wake, such as The Faculty, Urban Legends, and Valentine have each chosen not to disclose the identity of their killer to create a similar air of intrigue and tension but none have done what Scream did. The whodunnit plot has already proved hugely successful on TV so when it comes to the conclusion, slasher television shows have their work cut out for them.
Harper’s Island did a fine job of teasing out its finale, laying down the groundwork for its eventual discovery. The reveal was perfect because it gave us answers at the expense of one of the show’s most well-loved characters.
Less successful was MTV’s Scream because the killer’s identity was obvious from early on. The actual reveal itself was wildly overdone, thanks to some major scenery-chewing by the cast, but there was also something endearing about the show’s silly, earnest finale, and evidently that charm was enough to get the show a second season.
Which leaves us with a final question: if, with engaging characters, a willingness to let the axe fall on favourites, and satisfying finales, slasher movies can make it successfully through season one of a TV show, how will they cope when it comes to a second? Or even a third? Watch this space.