When news broke that MTV was going to try its hand at episodic horror and that they had selected the Scream franchise as its model, many were wondering how the slasher elements would transfer to the small screen. Unlike other horror genres that seem an ideal fit for serialized and anthology television, slasher films often use a very specific pacing structure that can be hard to mimic beyond 90 minutes.
As a fan of the franchise, I was dismayed to learn that part of the deal to have Scream come to the small screen was an agreement that effectively took the prospect of a Scream 5 theatrical release off the table. Was the decision a sound one? Based upon the pilot, the jury is still out. If the 1996 Scream film was a self-referential slasher dripping with a 90s sensibility, MTV’s revamped version is a generic mishmash of slasher tropes with a decidedly 2015 flair. The end result is an uneven pilot that dangles enough questions of interest to merit tuning in for episode two.
The idyllic quaintness of Woodsboro gives way to a virtual playground of wealth and privilege. The fictional Lakewood is an interesting choice of setting because it situates the story right away into a landscape of typical teen fare where social hierarchy is everything. Surprisingly, this choice works because it separates the television show from the film and creates a way for the show to have recognizable moments from the film without becoming a straight up retelling.
Written by Jill Blotevogel, whose credits include Ravenswood and Harper’s Island, the pilot sticks surprisingly close to its cinematic predecessor, albeit with a few updated tweaks. Initially, it seems as though the series has decided to simply insert new characters into the archetypes created by the 1996 film. Emma Duvall, (Willa Fitzgerald) is an almost a carbon copy of Sidney Prescott down to her much mocked virginity, while Noah Foster (John Karna) instantly brings to mind Randy Meeks with his rambling soliloquies on the nature and the rules of horror.
But the most explicit homage to the original film comes courtesy of a scantily clad Nina Patterson (Bella Thorne) whose reign of terror helps open the series. Yet, unlike Drew Barrymore’s unforgettable Casey, Nina is far from a sympathetic character. In scenes echoing the disappointing Unfriended, we are clued in that Nina is a mean girl in designer clothing who thinks nothing of cyberbullying those around her. It’s an interesting tonal difference from the film where good girl Casey’s murder was engineered to upend audience expectation. Here we know Nina is a goner and yet, we can’t help but think her death may be the slightest bit deserved. This tonal shift from away from the film’s meta commentary on the slasher genre and to a critique of teens creating artificially perfect lives on social media becomes more pronounced as the episode continues.
Another way that the show radically departs from the film is in its attention to the adults of the community. With the exception of a few well-placed cameos, the adults of Woodsboro were rarely seen in the original film. Such is not the case in Lakewood where secrets have a marked and discernible lineage. Surprisingly, it is one of the adults whose story offers the episode’s most intriguing moment. We learn that Emma’s mother, Maggie (Tracy Middendorf), was once the target of an obsessive stalker who went on a murder spree when she rejected him. The ante is upped when it is revealed that the murderer had a physical deformity that echoes the lines of the mask worn by the Scream killer.
One of the big questions fans were asking prior to the premiere was whether MTV would dial back on the slaughter quotient. In an age where explicit gore is readily available on network shows, Scream wisely decides to up the blood ante. And while it doesn’t come close to reaching Hannibal’s grisly heights, there is enough carnage to render the show legitimate in the minds of horror fans.
It is difficult to know whether some of the more questionable acting choices are intentional or not given that the slasher has never been renowned for particularly elevated performances. And while the acting doesn’t reach the heights of MTV’s breakout hit Finding Carter, it isn’t distracting to the point of crippling the story. The narrative is bolstered by genre specific cinematography that is best on display during a potentially deadly midnight swim.
Early on Noah waxes philosophic on all the reasons why a slasher story cannot and should not be realized as an ongoing episodic series. His points are valid and the fact that the pilot does not end on a note of true dread does not bode well for the show being able to sustain ten hours of fear. But between the Maggie storyline, which offers the most classic take on slasher mythology, and Scream’s aggressive take on social media run amuck, there are just enough moments to warrant a second viewing.