What Makes Scream, Scream?

By  · Published on April 22nd, 2015

If the target audience for MTV’s new Scream TV series is high school kids, none of them were alive when the original movie came out. It stands to reason that they could fool around with the formula, then. It’s not like the people watching the show are set up to be sticklers about the details.

Still, at what point do audiences get to call foul on a reboot or adaptation for being nothing like the source? It’s a question as old as cinema itself, which was raised on the backs of popular novels, but the issue gets even more complicated for a show like Scream.

First of all, Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson’s film was a meta riff on a subgenre that felt stale at the time. It was an earnest, lovingly critical response to slashers and the laziness they’d come to represent, so it’s difficult to use the kill scenes as somehow emblematic of the spirit of Scream itself. They’re almost all funnier (because the killer is a human being who slips on spilled beer as easily as the next guy), but their sticking to the formula for slasher movies is all part of the gag. The kills aren’t specifically iconic to Scream because they’re being purposefully borrowed from a genre’s worth of movies.

That means that the things that makes Scream, Scream aren’t the kills. Fortunately, it’s not like the elements at the heart of Scream’s essence are a mystery. There are three of them:

  1. The Ghostface mask
  2. The self-aware tone that straddles homage and mockery
  3. The figure who embodies that geeky self-awareness (Randy)

MTV’s new series has already scrapped the Ghostface mask in a truly bizarre, if-it-aint-broke-fix-it move. Producer Bob Weinstein explained that they did away with the single-most instantly recognizable element of the series because this new mask, “ties in specifically to the story. The mask has an importance; it’s not a mask for mask’s sake.”

That’s all well and good, and the mask’s involvement and use may be fantastic, but it seems to directly undermine the Screamness of the story. It signals that this is an entirely new killer. A different mask because this is a different story.

Which is slightly ironic. Even though the blade-shaped white mask became the symbol of the film series, it was always a different killer under the plastic every time. They always had a connection to Sidney, and they always had the mask – an object that, through the success of the first movie, became something far more than simply a “mask for mask’s sake.” It became a totem that hearkened back to and foretold trauma for the series’ central character and for the audience.

There’s at least a small correlation between the Scream TV series situation and what happened with Halloween 3, when the franchise decided, for whatever reason, not to use Michael Myers. Granted, they went an entirely different direction – it wasn’t a slasher film with a different slasher – but we all know how it turned out.

At the same time, it’s premature to write off Scream as an In Name Only adaptation solely because they wanted a new mask. It’s still possible that the series will connect in some way back to Sidney and Woodsboro, even if the show itself doesn’t take place in Woodsboro either (it’s in a town called Lakewood that has it’s own troubled, secret past).

There are always the second and third elements, but these are non-negotiable. The first full trailer for the series hints at a playful tone (texting “Heads up” to the girl about to have a head thrown into her hot tub), and they’ve got a replacement Randy in the form of Noah Foster who tells us that you can’t make a slasher television series because the road to hell gets too steep by the time the first body is found. It’s a nod to the challenge of turning Scream into a TV show – not because of the structural difficulties (although they exist), but because of the Who Asked For This nature of the project. The showrunners get it. They have to get it. Let’s all hope that they get it.

When Scream 4 was announced, it was in a similar leaky boat: a decade-later sequel to a closed-out story that succeeded in being exactly as good as you’d assume a fourth entry to be. At least it had the three original main characters to buoy itself. It also had the mask in case we all got confused.

Instead, the Scream TV series looks more like 90210 with attractive, annoying kids being gutted. Now that I type that, I recognize how fantastic it sounds as a premise, but it’s also interesting how much work the show will have to do to earn its name, to show that it belongs as part of Craven’s legacy. The bottom line is that the creative team will have to prove that they didn’t simply make a generic slasher, slap “Scream” on the opening credits and go for by-the-ounce frozen yogurt to celebrate.

If television is going to get into the same reboot-and-adapt game that studio filmmaking is happy to play, we’ll all have to accept changes to properties we love. Typically it’s silly to argue about whether a superhero’s costume is one shade darker than normal, or if a character’s already-muddied origin story is muddied more. However, it’s still important and critically fair to ask if these shows are preserving the essence of the franchise whose name they’re building on.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.