Before the world premiere of the Scream Queens pilot at San Diego Comic-Con, Jamie Lee Curtis emceed the event like it was last call the night before the Navy leaves the Golden Coast, and there was still plenty of partying to do. By the time Curtis had introduced the cast, including Emma Roberts and Lea Michele, and paid her respects to Scream Queens creator Ryan Murphy, the mood in the room was wild, jubilant, and maybe a little nuts. So in many respects, it reflected the tone of the maniacally entertaining television series they were about to watch.
While I have vowed not to give away any spoilers for the first hour of Fox’s high-concept slasher/comedy/soap opera/mystery thriller, I can definitely say that at least as a proof of concept, the pilot delivers one satisfying slice of fun right after the next.
At first glance, Scream Queens would appear to be the meta, self-aware realization of Kevin Williamson’s Scream atmosphere that is woefully lacking to a fatal degree in MTV’s own adaptation of that movie franchise. However, while Murphy and fellow writers Ian Brennan and Brad Falchuk are certainly pulling from that influence, Murphy is again crafting a much more ambitious pop culture pastiche as his latest television project; it’s a series stitched together by one intentionally broad on-the-nose influence at a time.
Not only does Murphy have the most legendary Scream Queen herself in his series, the aforementioned Jamie Lee Curtis—who is wonderful here as a university dean just as driven to end the terror of sororities as Laurie Strode was to stop her brother in the similar campus setting of Halloween: H20—but he also has out-and-out callbacks to the creepy stalking of Michael Myers from the original Halloween film. And perhaps best of all, composer Mac Quayle channels John Carpenter’s synthesized soundscapes from that waking nightmare.
But additionally, Scream Queens pulls from The House On Sorority Row (1983), Prom Night (1980, also starring Curtis), and, perhaps most pertinently, 1988’s dark comedy masterpiece, Heathers. Indeed, far more important than any straight horror influence, Scream Queens feels like a direct descendant of Daniel Waters’ screenplay, uninhibited by lesser copycats’ fear of restraint in depicting mean girls. Rather, Scream Queens is somewhat of a 21st century update about what would happen if the Heathers had lived to graduation and made it to college: they’d join a sorority and become even bitchier.
In this regard, Scream Queens seems destined to be Murphy’s star vehicle creation for Emma Roberts. Roberts is certainly no stranger to playing the Queen Bee before, including in Murphy’s American Horror Story: Coven, but Scream Queens is constructed from the ground up around Roberts channelling some capital-B Bitchiness energy into a human monstrosity of walking narcissism… and it’s intensely entertaining to watch.
There are several deaths in the Scream Queens pilot, but the genuine horror of the piece comes from Roberts’ Chanel Oberlin, the president of the Kappa Kappa Tau sorority and impending candidate for vice chancellor of Hell. Directly referring to her friends as “minions,” whose names she will not bother to learn (Abigail Breslin is simply “Chanel #5” and Ariana Grande is “Chanel #2”), Chanel Oberlin’s iron grip on her Greek House is so severe that she is immediately in direct conflict with Dean Cathy Munsch (Curtis), a former women’s rights activist who has made it her mission to disembowel Kappa Kappa Tau in general, and Chanel’s post-collegiate future in particular.
The real conflict of the entire series may very well come from this rivalry since Dean Munsch forces Chanel to accept anybody who wants to pledge at the sorority, including Lea Michele who is mugging for the camera as Hester “Neckbrace,” an awkward pledge with just such a vice on her neck, and Grace Gardner (Skyler Samuels), the ostensible good/survivor girl with perhaps a dark secret.
There are plenty of other characters, loads of them in fact, but they mostly feel present to up the body count, which judging by the pilot will be astronomical by the end. But since most of them are as reprehensible as Chanel, who refers to her sorority’s maid as a “white Mammy” that is forced to quote politically incorrect scenes from Gone With The Wind, chances are that you won’t get too teary-eyed upon their seemingly inevitable deaths. In fact, the square-jawed frat boys of Chad (Glen Powell) and Boone (Nick Jonas) are drawn to almost wonderful Animal House villainy effect with their oblivious homoeroticism and insistence that Michael Bay is the best director of all time.
When the deaths do finally come, they are bountiful in their gruesomeness. Mostly perpetrated by a masked Red Devil whose secret identity is the season’s big mystery, the amount of violence and gore that Scream Queens is able to get by network censors and broadcasting regulations is impressive. But this is most likely due to none of them being played for particular suspense or horror. The series is truly at its campiest and most unhinged whacky when the Red Devil appears—and Chanel keeps covering up that her sorority has a bit of a murder problem going on.
Scream Queens is a diabolically fun pilot that delivers exactly the kind of bizarre tonal shocks that the marketing has promised. There is something to be said about the pilot perhaps cycling through far too many plotlines and death scenes in an hour so rapid that it makes you wonder if the whole story might be wrapped up by episode three. But if Murphy can maintain the schizophrenic energy on display here for the entire first series’ story, viewers are in for a dizzying sensory overload of meanness, which feels much more authentic to Murphy’s temperament than the “we’re all snowflakes” snake oil that even the creators didn’t buy during the last five seasons of Glee.
If this is his vision for the future of network television, it is a quite welcomed and frenzied one, especially whenever Roberts and Curtis lock horns. Who even needs a Devil mask in those moments?
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