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 preempting 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 Tuesday. What seemed to have fizzled with a fourth film installment in 2011 has, like one of those resilient horror-movie killers, jolted upright after apparent death. This time, though, "Scream" will come back to life on television--in the process 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% of what the movie did in this series, we would be satisfied."
In 1996, "Scream" and its bullseyed heroine Sidney Prescott sold nearly 25 million tickets in the U.S. thanks to its clever spin 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. There is a new back story. There is no Ghostface.
But if the characters and content are different, the form and spirit are the same: a gruesome murder is the jumping-off point for a building mystery, a revolving door of suspects and a heroine with a dark family back story. And, of course, there are 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 with her own past investigating murders. After the killer strikes, Emma tries to figure 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 being 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 such fixtures as texting Millennials while also being distributed on that 21st-century medium of original-series cable. Teen bullying is also a key theme (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. "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 brought on a cast and got as far as a table read, but the actress hired to play Audrey, 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 over the show's tone and direction, and oft-confounding questions such as the proper number of kills to include. 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. This 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 would seem to make this a perfect moment for a new version "Scream."
But that also means the show can run into the issue of meta-itis. The "Scream" movies, after all, played against horror-film conventions. The "Scream" show must play against both (many more) horror-film conventions and the "Scream" movies themselves. Writers grappled with 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, apparently, 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 exactly 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," essentially, and "Friday Night Lights."
That would be an ambitious hybrid even without the added parameters of 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, when asked whether some might see this as a way to take a generic MTV teen-genre show and retrofit it into an iconic property. "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."
More than just the "Scream" legacy is on the line. While MTV under former WB programming chief Daniels has found success with her scripted shows — they include the high-school sex dramedy "Faking It" and the ABC Family-esque "Finding Carter" — none is as well-known as "Scream."
Together with "Shannara," the "Game of Thrones"-like fantasy series that will debut within the next year, it helps form the most high-profile scripted slate MTV has put together in years and is a litmus test for whether MTV under Daniels can compete in the stakes-filled game of branded TV entertainment
The executive said she thought the rich folklore of "Scream" gave the series an edge.
It also, she acknowledged, set the bar high.
"When I was working with Joss Whedon and we were developing 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' from a movie to a TV series, it felt like the stakes were low because the movie wasn't highly regarded," she said, then paused. "This is very different."