“You can’t make a slasher movie into a TV show,” snarks a smart-alecky teen in the first episode of Scream, MTV’s new television show based not only on a slasher movie, but the most successful slasher movie of all time.
The creators of the June 30 debut series hope audiences disagree.
Executive produced by the film series' architect Wes Craven, Scream is gunning for pop culture-obsessed Generation Zers with its Pretty Little Liars air of soapy mystery and a cast of pretty, sharp-tongued youngsters, most of whom were toddlers when the meta-horror original debuted in 1996 and changed the scary movie game.
Woodsboro, this ain’t: Set in a new town with new characters but packed with nods to the original films, Scream the TV show takes place in a similarly idyllic suburban American town dubbed Lakewood, where locals are shocked by the gory murder of a promiscuous mean girl (Disney star Bella Thorne, perfectly cast) by a killer in a Ghostface mask.
Only this “Ghostface” mask belongs not to the iconic Scream killer but, in true I Know What You Did Last Summer fashion, to a decades-old urban legend named Brandon James dreamed up by the show’s creators. Town lore has it that the deformed Lakewood boy went on a murderous rampage after being spurned by the girl he loved and perished in a local lake, and now may or may not be back from the dead to carve up more sassy teenagers.
Like Scream the movie, Scream the TV show is led by a good girl protagonist, Emma (played by Willa Fitzgerald), who has a seemingly perfect jock boyfriend (Connor Weil) and a mother who harbors secret ties to the horrific murders (Tracy Middendorf, best known to horror fans as Julie from Wes Craven’s New Nightmare).
Lakewood’s also got a mysterious new kid (Amadeus Serafini), a bitchy blonde (Carlson Young), an Asian-American girl to diversify the white suburban angst (Brianne Tju), a bi-curious wannabe filmmaker (Bex Taylor-Klaus), and a know-it-all nerd (John Karna) whose bottomless well of horror movie trivia will no doubt come in handy as the slasher tallies up his (or hers or their) body count.
Not that you’ll need to get to know all of these fresh faces, as Scream franchise executive producer Bob Weinstein quipped at the series’ LA Film Festival premiere. “In all honesty, I do not know the names of all the cast,” he admitted to a packed audience, “and it’s best that I don’t because they’re not going to all make it, that’s fucking for sure.”
Roger Ebert called them “dead teenager movies,” outlining the myriad ways in which dumb decisions and clichés got you deservedly offed in the slashers of the ‘70s and ‘80s. In MTV’s Scream, texting is the new call from a stranger; instead of phoning from inside the house, he sends you a stalker pic of you answering his text with the creepy rapidity of a Snapchat.
In the “Drew Barrymore moment” that opens the series, Thorne embodies the ambivalent overconfidence of the smartphone-addled post-millennial, too dependent on technology to survive a surprise visit IRL from a knife-wielding killer. But Scream is savvy enough to play with fan expectations, baiting those steeped in the films’ mythology with familiar moments and endless red herrings.
“The horror movie does not lend itself to TV,” co-showrunner Jill Blotevogel said Sunday night. “This is going to be different… it’s a little more Friday Night Lights, it’s going to have a deeper mystery a la Twin Peaks, we have a story from the past as well as the present… [and] we won’t get the answers at the end of 90 minutes.”
The self-aware streak running through the pilot episode acts not as a formal gamechanger, but as a declaration of intent to critics. Characters name-drop everything from Plato’s Allegory of the Cave to competing shows like American Horror Story and horror classics like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (the 1973 original, not the 2003 remake), the show’s way of showing off its horror cred.
Whether or not it sells that street cred over the course of the 10-episode first season remains to be seen. Hardcore horror geeks might find the teen melodrama a little too CW/ABC Family-soft, but they at least have a kindred spirit in Noah, the aforementioned nerd who’s clearly written as a spiritual successor to Scream stalwart Randy Meeks.
He’s played by actor John Karna, who was four years old when the first Scream came out and snuck over to a friend’s house to watch the first two movies when he was ten. “It was truly terrifying and I never told my mom,” he said. “I’m sorry, Mom!”
Appropriately enough, Karna’s since become the biggest horror nerd of the cast. “I didn’t know that I would love the first Friday the 13th the way that I do,” he told The Daily Beast. “I’ve seen that movie maybe 10 different times. Halloween is one of my favorites, I think that’s a masterful movie and Jamie Lee Curtis is just killing it.”
I quizzed Karna on his knowledge of genre fare and was pleasantly surprised.
“I loved It Follows. It’s so good! The Babadook was one that really killed me. I went back and watched The Conjuring and was so surprised. That’s a horrifying movie right there—that one doesn’t mess around. I tried to go back as far as I could. I loved watching Nosferatu and loved seeing where it all comes from. I liked watching the old school B-movies, creature features with killer ants and The Day The Earth Stood Still. Such a good movie. As I went on I really tried to focus on the ‘80s slasher movies. There were so many that got made, it was insane!”
It’s hard to blame most of the cast for not seeing a single Scream movie before joining the show; every single one of them was born in the ‘90s. They all now say they like scary movies, even if it took group movie nights to study up on the franchise, or recent indie darlings like Honeymoon by Leigh Janiak, one of a few indie horror filmmakers brought on to direct the series.
“I watched Insidious 3—that was actually pretty scary, right?” said Brianne Tju, who was born six months before Scream premiered in 1996 and turned 19 the same day as the show’s premiere. “And You’re Next! That one is pretty good. I thought it was well executed. I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
Connor Weil, born in 1993, describes himself as “such a baby” when it comes to horror movies, but “I always loved The Sixth Sense, The Others, Signs—the really clever thrillers, those are my jams. M. Night, you’re the man.”
At 17, Thorne is both Scream’s youngest cast member and its biggest star, thanks to her rabid Disney Channel fan base. With 6 million-plus Twitter followers comes great freedom to do whatever the hell kind of projects she wants, like her upcoming Lifetime movie about a high schooler hooked on heroin. “If I read a script and I love it then I’m doing it and nobody’s going to stop me—unless the director hates me,” she laughed.
“People keep asking me, ‘Why are you doing that? You’re a girl doing heroin, that looks bad,’ but hello, newsflash, this is what kids are doing these days,” she said of Perfect High, which makes its broadcast debut within days of Scream. “It’s a very big thing now.”
Thorne says she saw Scream at 10 and named The Strangers, Insidious, and You’re Next as recent faves. “I love the horror genre. I’m obsessed. I watch a lot of horror films and I love horror TV shows, although there’s really not a great one out right now. I’m excited that ours might be the first new one to come out.”
Scream’s new Sidney Prescott-esque heroine, Willa Fitzgerald, was born in 1991 and didn't see the original films—or realize the show was a reboot—until after she was cast.
Still, Scream’s de facto new final girl says she’s been earning her horror stripes since high school. Which, of course, wasn’t very long ago. “My favorites are Let The Right One In—the original, definitely the original—and The Shining,” she said. “Sometimes slashers are just fun because they’re gory and scary, but Let The Right One In and The Shining have such incredible narratives behind them and the way that they’re shot. I mean, they’re perfect.”
She pauses. “I haven’t seen the remake.”