When they’re not worried about a bloodthirsty killer on the loose, the teenagers in MTV’s new “Scream” show preoccupy themselves with a more esoteric concern: Can a horror property really be stretched out over 10 episodes?
As Noah (John Karna), the show’s resident film-geek character, says skeptically, “You can’t do a slasher movie as a TV series.”
It’s a neat trick, at once indulging the franchise’s love for self-reference while pre-empting a question that may already be on the audience’s mind.
Nineteen years after it first delighted moviegoers with its sly and gory explorations – and nearly three years after the start of a long development process – “Scream” makes a return. What seemed to have fizzled with a fourth film installment in 2011 has, like one of those resilient slasher-movie killers, jolted back from near-death. This time, though, it will do so on television, testing the limits of reboots, post-modernism and a network’s demographic reach.
“I think the angle the show takes harks back to what people love about the movie, but with a voice that is youthful and contemporary,” said Susanne Daniels, MTV’s president of programming, adding: “We always thought that if we could capture even 50 percent of what the movie did in this series, we would be satisfied.”
In 1996, “Scream” and its bull’s-eyed heroine Sidney Prescott sold nearly 25 million tickets in the U.S. thanks to a fresh and clever take on the horror genre. The movie boasted a director legend in Wes Craven, a writer phenomenon in Kevin Williamson, a quintessentially ’90s cast that included Courteney Cox and Neve Campbell, and a savvy release by Miramax Films’ genre arm Dimension.
In 2015, “Scream” looks a lot different. While Dimension remains, Cox, Campbell and the rest of the cast are gone. Williamson had no involvement. Craven offered some notes but was not an instrumental force.
Instead, Jill Blotevogel and Jaime Paglia – veterans of the Syfy series “Eureka” – were hired as show runners and executive producers and set the series down another narrative path. This is a new town with a new back story. Absent from the world is signature villain Ghostface.
But if the characters and content are different, the form and spirit are similar: a gruesome murder, a building mystery, a revolving door of suspects, a heroine with a dark family back story. And, of course, plenty of references to the horror genre itself.
After the poolside murder of a teenager – shades of Drew Barrymore’s Casey Becker – there is new fear in the small town of Lakewood, particularly among a core band of high schoolers. Central to that group is the capable Emma (Willa Fitzgerald), whose mother, Maggie (Tracy Middendorf), also happens to be a medical examiner and has her own past investigating murders. After the killer strikes, Emma tries to hash out what’s happening by talking to such people as pal Noah, by feeling out her mother, and by reconnecting with old friend Audrey (Bex Taylor-Klaus), a loner who is cyberbullied after a video of her with another woman goes viral.
“Scream” has always been about horror as a Trojan horse for larger zeitgeist subjects, which makes it fitting that the new version is filled with texting millennials and housed on the 21st century medium of original-series cable. Even bullying is a key theme, as a victim-turned-killer from 20 years before becomes a key part of the back story – and, possibly, the front story.
“I don’t think anybody can do what Kevin Williamson did in 1996,” Blotevogel said of her approach. “We are trying to take the best of that. And we have a wider palette of colors than he had. There are so many ways a killer can use to terrify victims, for instance. It’s not just about them calling on a land line.”
That palette has been part of why it’s taken so long for the show to arrive. “Scream,” which was teased at an MTV upfront presentation as far back as 2013, has been on a winding, film-like road to the screen.
The writers Jay Beattie and Dan Dworkin initially penned a script with a supernatural bent. Dimension’s Bob Weinstein didn’t like the otherworldly aspect, so the script was scrapped and Blotevogel and Paglia subsequently hired. Producers hired a cast and got to a table read, but an actress, Amy Forsyth, was deemed not right for the part. She was let go and replaced with Taylor-Klaus.
Throughout, there have also been long conversations between writers, MTV and Dimension over the show’s tone and direction, and such deceptively tricky questions as the proper number of kills. Too many, after all, and you lose the character attachment essential for TV. Too few and, well, it stops being “Scream.”
“It’s really a challenge because once you start to set the teens-are-dying in motion, the instinct is to keep doing that,” said Paglia. “And we have to find the right balance of how many people you can kill and who can you kill.”
“Scream” was ahead of its time in 1996, at once mocking a genre while also serving as a key entrant in it. The postmodern sensibility is now more in vogue than ever – practiced most profitably by “22 Jump Street” and “The Lego Movie” directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller – which makes this a perfect moment for “Scream.”
But the TV series can also run into the issue of meta-itis. The “Scream” movies played against horror-film conventions. The “Scream” show must play against both (many more) horror-film conventions and the “Scream” movies themselves. Right off the bat, writers had to figure out whether to give the killer a mask, an indelible symbol of the original. They did, but with a different look, which has caused some fan push-back. Writers also opted – after some back-and-forth – not to use the “Scream” series as a reference point within the show; even self-reference has its limits.
“Scream” is also unique in that, unlike other cable series such as “Fargo,” “Bates Motel” or even MTV’s own “Teen Wolf,” it is drawn not from a long-ago cinematic unconscious but from a property that never really went away.
Still, whether it resonates for young viewers is an open question. The network is targeting its core demographic of 12- to 24-year-olds (or, at most, 30-year-olds), not a group that would have been very aware, or alive, when the original became a phenomenon.
Dimension’s Weinstein, at least, says the talk of millennial amnesia is overstated. “Thank God for Netflix and video on demand, because I think a lot of them have seen ‘Scream’ movies,” he said, adding, “You just have to look at TV. ‘Walking Dead’ is huge. All of these are huge. We think there’s a real opportunity here.”
A younger generation may, indeed, have its own touch points. “’Hannibal’ is gone, and ‘Dexter’ is gone, so we need this. We need more horror,” said Karna, in a reference-heavy comment his character would appreciate.
To convey the feel of the show, Blotevogel encouraged actors to think about it as moving in two directions at once, as both “Friday the 13th” and “Friday Night Lights.”
That would be an ambitious hybrid even without the added parameters provided by the show’s network home. With its glossy look and well-scrubbed actors, “Scream” will be quickly identifiable as an MTV series even to those with only a passing familiarity with the network’s brand of scripted programming.
“I am not immune to the skepticism,” said Fitzgerald, who plays Emma. “But I think why these movies are being remade into TV shows is that a TV show allows you to spend much more time with these characters. It’s not that you want to see more of the story – you want to see more of the people.”