Scream: Why the Franchise Deserves One Last TV Stab

Scream is returning to television this week with a new MTV series. We look back on the franchise's history and why this might...make sense.

In case you’re not up to date on your MTV programming, the once iconic 1990s horror franchise, Scream, is headed to TV this week as a serial killing soap. Ghostface, the aptly named costumed visage of death in all the Scream films, is coming to text, Skype, and Snapchat an entire generation of new meat to death in between reruns of Snooki & Jwoww. And I’m here to ponder why this is a wonderful idea…or not.

Scream is one of the all-time classic horror franchises, not least of all because it is perhaps the only one where the sequels maintained the cast, crew, and relatively comparable quality of the original zeitgeist-slayer. Sure, the follow-ups never matched the first film, but none of them are truly bad movies either. Indeed, there are moments of lucid brilliance in all of them, sandwiched between mountains of formula and smug, self-satisfaction. Unlike the countless Halloween, Friday the 13th or Saw sequels, there’s a hidden simplicity to Scream’s faux-convoluted narrative that has allowed all the pictures to fit together as seamlessly as its returning (and dwindling) cast.

And why not? The original’s premise of a man on a phone threatening to kill you is still gripping, even if the ‘90s are long over. So, there must be an obvious reason why it must appeal to a new generation…right?

Hatched more or less over a weekend in Kevin Williamson’s Palm Springs home, Scream began, amusingly enough, with the title “Scary Movie.” Financially suffering from being unable to sell a script, the 30-year-old unknown felt inspired when hearing a report on the Gainesville Ripper. Tapping into the terror of being home alone with a murderer trying to get in the house, he cranked out an 18-page script treatment for “Scary Movie.” That version was more of a short play about a young woman alone in the house, being stalked by a nutjob over the landline.

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Driven by a love for horror franchises like Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street and, most obviously, When A Stranger Calls, Williamson realized he could draft the first truly self-aware horror movie. Over three days, he finished what would become Scream’s screenplay, as well as two five-page drafts for “Scary Movie 2” and “Scary Movie 3.”

Horror, meanwhile, was in its death throes by 1995. Jason had gone to Hell, Freddy was “dead,” and Michael Myers was now the helpless victim of a pagan cult possessing his body in Halloween VI (I kid you not). Likely for that very reason, many executives read and passed on “Scary Movie” before it wound up at Miramax’s sister label, Dimension Films. During this period, the thought of a pair of teen serial killers slicing and dicing their classmates was “too much” for some executives.

It is almost impossible to fathom that in this post-Saw and post-Human Centipede world that such a simple slasher could be considered too grisly for studio executives, but this was the era of a dot-com sugar high and post-Cold War “history is over!” naiveté. Ergo, the only other filmmaker remotely interested in the project besides the Weinsteins was Oliver “Greed is Good” Stone. He likely would have done for the script what he did for Tarantino’s Natural Born Killers. Fortunately, serendipity prevailed and Bob Weinstein’s Dimension ended up with its future signature franchise.

Eventually all of the pieces fell into place with regard to “Scary Movie.” Wes Craven, insisting he was done with horror, slowly came aboard the project as director. He had initially refused the job, forcing Dimension to approach Robert Rodriguez and Sam Raimi for the film. However both camp auteurs viewed the screenplay as more comedy than horror, much to Bob Weinstein’s chagrin. The prospect of the genius behind Army of Darkness being in charge of Ghostface’s phone calls is an intriguing one, but the series likely benefitted from Craven’s arrival…brought about largely thanks to Drew Barrymore campaigning for the role of “Casey,” the girl who dies in the first ten minutes.

The strength of that infamous early scene is its perfect blend of horror and self-aware satire. Fifteen years before there was Cabin in the Woods, there was Scream, a movie that Barrymore shrewdly pegged as her acting career relaunch. Those first 10 minutes of the film are a harrowing mixture of good-natured ribbing and brutal violence where the killer taunts Casey with more movie trivia than a Tarantino movie, and then slaughters her like she’s in one. Not since the early ‘80s had Craven crafted something so mean-spirited.

The inherent brilliance of Williamson’s conceit is that Casey is just like most viewers, a bored and cynical teenager who’s watched all this crap before and knows how it is supposed to play out. Yet, the “dumb” blond is still unable to avoid Ghostface’s knife when he guts her like a fish, leaving her disemboweled remains hanging from a tree in the front yard for her parents to find.

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In one moment, she is laughing with her killer at the absurdity of horror films, and in the next she dies several feet away from her target demographic’s safety blanket: mom and dad. The folks (and shrieking audiences) even get to hear their little girl whisper for their help on the other end of the phone line as blood foams in her mouth.

It is a genuinely disturbing scene. One that the entire series has never matched. It also created a beautiful template for the franchise’s tone, which all the other films sprang organically out of. Cast a bunch of semi-names, have them espouse encyclopedic horror movie knowledge and then defile their corpses in the most morbid way possible—by sensitive 1990s standards, at least.

For younger viewers, Scream may seem a tame film these days. But the initial cut received an NC-17 by the MPAA in 1996. During the era of Forrest Gump and Titanic, the MPAA, like many adult audiences, were less forgiving at the sight of teens pulling out the intestines of the school quarterback or breaking girlfriends’ necks with a garage door. Still, the aspect most remember about the film is not the titular shouts of terror, but the laughs that they followed.

Most notably, the character of Randy represented an avatar for the horror junkies watching at home. Played by Jamie Kennedy in his one non-annoying role, Randy was the audience. He has seen Prom Night, Halloween, The Hills Have Eyes, and every other depraved slaughterfest in existence. He knows the “rules.” As Scream’s “fool” (as per Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s recoding), Randy was figuring this game out well before Fran Kranz hot-wired that elevator. He could tell the other characters about the audience partaking in their violent suffering, yet still be unable to stop the rules that they were breaking from consuming them.

The rest of the cast filled the parts in more traditional ways. Neve Campbell was best known for doing the TV show Party of Five. Courtney Cox was even more eye-catching in her big screen transition from the hugely popular sitcom, Friends. David Arquette completed the series’ trio of leads (or quartet, if you count Kennedy) and was also known by young audiences from guest spots on Blossom and 90210. As with casting the little girl from E.T., Craven and the Weinsteins created a pop culture event for younger viewers by putting actors ready to “pop” in a horror flick that popped all their blood vessels.

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Instantly, horror went from being the realm of “video nasties” and C-list entertainments to studio breeding grounds for supposedly upcoming stars. But unlike practically every horror film made prior to Scream, and most of the ones since, Williamson and Craven instilled their cast of characters with real personalities that let the mayhem play out through protagonists instead of cattle.

The one through-line in all four Scream films is its trio of heroes. You had Cox’s Gale, the bitchy, fame-driven reporter who represented ‘90s media like the bastard daughter of Barbara Walters and Jerry Springer; there was Arquette’s affable Dewey, Barney Fife with an unintentional porn stache; and, of course, Sidney Prescott, Campbell’s virginal survivor girl.

What continues to make Scream so unique in horror is that these heroes/victims are far more developed than the killer. This is so evident that while Ghosface’s mask and devious voice (provided by Roger L. Jackson) appears in all the movies, they are also only theatrical tricks used by different people. Unlike Freddy, Jason, Michael, or Pinhead, audiences are not coming for the killer. They are coming to see these likable characters return and grow from past experiences.

None of this is more transparent than in Neve Campbell’s “survivor girl.” She does have sex in the first film and lives—though unlike other rare returning horror heroines, she appears deeply affected by those events in the sequels. She grows from a victim trying to hide from the past in Scream 2 to a near-crazy recluse and hermit in the third, to finally more of an action heroine who has accepted her fate as a lighthouse beacon for sickos the world over in the fourth.

These sequels also take the unusual challenge of trying to increase the laughs more than the body count each time up to bat. Their greatest struggle, particularly for weak-link Scream 3, is that the game is already over. Ghostface turned out to be Sid’s truly disturbed sociopathic boyfriend, Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich), a wacko with mommy issues. There could be more twists of who the killer is, but the first film deconstructed the slasher genre so thoroughly that the sequels increasingly became comedies that satirized general Hollywood tropes and stereotypes.

Scream 2 is a deranged mockery of horror sequels in general, Hollywood franchising in specificity, and the true crime/celebrity court trials of 1990s 24-hour news cycles in the main. Scream 3 is just a self-satisfied smirk set in Hollywood where the filmmakers of the movie-within-a-movie franchise, “Stab,” start getting killed off by Sid’s long lost half-brother (yeah…).

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Then finally after a long break, Scream 4, the modestly successful horror-comedy of 2011, ended the series as a big middle finger to remakes and reboots.

In actuality, the previous Scream 3 was not Williamson’s original intent. He did not even write that mediocrity. He was off riding high on his Dawson’s Creek fame and making the woefully misjudged dark comedy, Teaching Mrs. Tingle (originally “Killing Mrs. Tingle,” before Columbine happened). In the intervening decade, the Scream Trilogy went from being the pinnacle of popular horror to a fad beaten into the ground by the *ACTUAL* Scary Movie franchise.

Eleven years since Scream 3, horror had seen three whole cycles in Hollywood pass: J-horror remakes like The Ring, torture porn, such as Hostel, and the remake of American classics like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Also, a fourth was only then just beginning with the onslaught of Paranormal Activity movies and their knock-offs.

In that time, Williamson’s career had seemingly plateaued and he only recently returned to the pop culture scene with CW’s The Vampire Diaries (Dawson’s Creek with fangs). But another idea seemed to strike him. With all these horror remakes and reboots coming along from Rob Zombie or anything ever released by Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes, why not just bring Scream back?

His original unused idea for Scream 3 had been a “Return to Woodsboro” (the town from the first film). It also, intriguingly, would have featured a villain from the first film, Matthew Lillard’s comedy-sidekick killer Stu, reemerging as a serial killer in prison with a cult following who used his acolytes to commit murder. The second idea did not appear in Scream 4, but sounds awfully similar to Williamson’s last brief television hit, The Following.

However, the first idea was perfect for a reboot. Bring back your original trio of survivors, now relics from the ‘90s (save for Cougar Town aficionados) and have them meet “new blood!” This next generation even included a very obvious replacement “survivor girl” in Sid’s cousin, Jill (Emma Roberts), and a new plucky movie geek for the audience to latch on to: a now reimagined sexy pixie girl with a video game name, Kirby (Hayden Panettiere). Plus, it would feature a whole cast of supporting characters waiting to either be slaughtered or made into red herrings, including stars from True Blood, Community, and Veronica Mars.

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Before the writer and the Weinsteins had a falling out during production, Williamson and director Craven claimed that there would be more Scream films to come. Yet, I wonder if that was an elaborate con. There really is nowhere to go from here. Sid, Dewey, and Gale surviving this nonsense for a fourth time makes them more or less comical superheroes, which I mean as the highest of compliments. Further, the reboot cast was completely eviscerated before the end credits. Not a single one is left to carry the franchise forwards. And the best twist? Replacement survivor girl, Jill, turned out to be the killer.

“A fucking Facebook killer?! You’re kidding me, right?” Anna Paquin whines during Scream 4’s matryoshka doll opening sequence. “A bunch of articulate teens sit around and deconstruct horror movies until Ghostface kills them one by one? It’s been done to death. The whole self-aware, post-modern meta shit.” The rant acts as the film’s preemptive response to inevitable critics crying foul at the pointlessness of unending sequels (or TV spin-offs). It also works as the second of two fake-out openers with the films within films. In short, it is Williamson admitting that this self-aware franchise has reached the point where, if it continues, it will start eating itself with snarky knowingness.

In many ways, Scream 4 was not the continuation of the series, but its epitaph. The movie mocks the idea of updating tropes for the 21st century via Facebook or Twitter. The young cast meant to replace Sid and the gang all dies. And her doppelganger, Jill, is an attention-starved reality show wannabe who admires the Kardashians. A desire to be famous is motive enough to kill her friends.

In an All About Eve twist, she will kill Sidney simply to replace her as the new ingénue victim in the spotlight (casting Julia Roberts’s niece in the role is inspired). By ending the film on a close-up of dead Jill’s face, Craven and the gang effectively cursed out the idea of the story continuing or of spin-offs and unending sequels in general—and most especially replacement remakes.

Which brings us back to the MTV show. As a film franchise, Scream has come full circle. There is almost nowhere left to go following Scream 4’s ending. Also, considering Scream 4 didn’t make a profit until DVD, there is little financial incentive for the series to continue in its previous cinematic form.

But now, we may just get that wonderfully unaware, self-aware travesty mocked in Scream 4’s opening moments. A painfully meta-enterprise that is eating itself. And where better to do that than on one of the networks that popularized the “famous for nothing” reality ethos that Emma Roberts’ Jill was such a parody of? On MTV, Scream is reaching its own prophesized satirical zenith and last blood-clogged gasp.

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It may be cynicism, but seeing a series that so knowingly could predict its fate of unending sequels or spin-offs turns MTV’s Scream into a worthy joke. So why not? It’s one final stab at the punch-line that everyone except the show will be in on.

You can also have a stab at me on Twitter.