Scream and Scream Again

scream_ver2_xlgI was 15 years old when Scream first came out back in 1996, at a time and place in my life when it was pretty much guaranteed to be a big deal for me. I didn’t see it in theatres, so chances are I didn’t actually catch it until the following year, when it was available on home video, with that VHS cover that prominently advertised Drew Barrymore’s very brief involvement in the film.

While I had always been into movies and monsters and whatnot, these were the days just before the Internet became what it is now, when the only movies I had access to were the ones that played on the three television channels that we got, or that I could rent from the video section of the local grocery store. As a young horror movie nerd living in isolation from most things that could sustain a horror movie nerd, Scream wasn’t so much an introduction to self-aware horror as it was a confirmation that, yes, there were other people like me out there.

I don’t normally think of Scream when I think of my formative influences, in part because I rarely sit down and think to myself, “I want to make something like Scream,” or even, “I want to respond to this aspect of Scream in this particular way.” But is that really what a formative influence is? I think our formative influences are less often the things that made us go, “I want to create something like X” and more often the things that left us with the, often semi-unconscious realization, “Oh hell, I can do something kind of like Y!”

Come to think of it, I’m not actually sure that I’ve ever seen a Scream film on the big screen. For all the times the sequels traded in the experience of watching a movie in a crowded and rowdy theatre, for me they have always been home video movies. Like the Ring franchise, best encapsulated by that indelible image of a couple of friends sitting down on the couch with a tub of popcorn to watch a scary movie. I have seen all of the Scream films, though, more than once, and found things to like in all of them, though only the first one ever had the particular impact on me that it did.

In fact, if you want to measure solely based upon how much I enjoyed watching them, Scream 4 might be my favorite of the bunch. All of the Scream sequels succeed or fail, to the extent that they do, for reasons that have almost nothing to do with what made the first film work. After that initial outing, the first film’s premise is a liability, not a benefit, and so the Scream franchise, while still shackled to its own rules, lives and dies by its adherence to its core cast of characters, who, after making four movies with one another across almost twenty years, really do feel like old friends who have been through a lot together. Maybe that’s why Scream 4 works better for me than parts 2 or 3 did…

All of which is an extraordinarily long-winded way of saying that I loved Scream, but never really identified myself as a lover of it, or felt like I had a very big investment in the brand. So I wasn’t really expecting much from the spinoff TV series, which abandoned the thing that I just said made the franchise continue to work, and which, let’s face it, just seemed like a bad idea. Hell, the show even knows that it’s a bad idea, and gives its Randy-equivalent character a monologue in the first episode explaining exactly why it’s a bad idea. And yet…

I started watching the first season of the Scream TV series because I was bored and wanted something horror-y and episodic and it was on Netflix. I didn’t expect to like it; I certainly didn’t expect to fall in love. Don’t get me wrong; Scream is nowhere near a perfect show. It’s camped somewhere maybe just above the realm of “guilty pleasure.” Is it better than the movie franchise? I don’t know that I’d be willing to commit to that, and it’s certainly not going to change the game the way the first movie did, but I’m pretty sure that I like it better.

Part of this is because the show knows how to get to me, to push my particular buttons. The decision to tie the events of the show to a previous mass murder, an homage to the plot of any given early-80s slasher film, changes the dynamic in a way that appeals directly to me, adding a welcome sense of history and, yes, even minor mythology to the proceedings.

But mostly the show works by managing to be what it needs to be more often than it doesn’t. It’s endearing when it needs to be endearing, creepy when it needs to be creepy, poignant when it needs to be poignant. In one of his monologues, Noah, our resident Randy-alike, talks about how you have to care about the people in order to make a show like this work, and Scream does a decent job of supplying a raft of people that you can care about, if you’re so inclined. There’s more than a little of “fun teenage clue solving hi-jinks,” but always broken up by something particularly gruesome or painful, to keep everything from becoming too weightless.

The first season starts off a little rough and ends with a whimper instead of a bang, but in-between it is something pretty special, so I was really excited to check out the second season, especially when I saw its convention of naming episodes after horror movie titles. It dropped onto Netflix on September 30th, and since I was laid up from having a tonsillectomy and couldn’t really do anything else anyway, I watched all 12 episodes within 24 hours.

I’ve heard lots of people say that they liked the second season better than the first. I’m not sure that I’m one of them, but it has a lot going for it. If I didn’t like it better, it probably has as much to do with the fact that I went into season 1 expecting nothing and got something I loved, while I went into season 2 already expecting something I loved, and still mostly got it.

There’s something to be said for storytelling that’s unexpectedly effective, without getting too ambitious. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t strong set pieces, and some familiar horror directors who show up to helm episodes to various effect. In season 1 there are good segments in an abandoned hospital and at the Halloween dance, not to mention one particularly gruesome kill that hits all the harder because the show hasn’t done anything especially noteworthy in the gore department up until that point. In season 2, there’s a sequence in a funhouse at a carnival, directed by Gil Kenan, that reminds me of how disappointed I am that his Poltergeist remake wasn’t more fun, and of course the town of Lakewood has an old-fashioned one-screen revival theatre that appears to only show horror films.

Season 2 has some issues with pacing, but as with season 1, the main problem is with the ending. If the first season was a little unsteady on the dismount, then the “resolution” of season 2 is a full-on faceplant off the beam. It’s tricky to say more without getting into the realm of major spoilers, but suffice to say that it’s difficult to imagine anyone who would find this tired, unearned ending satisfying.

My first draft of this post ended on a note saying that, while I would probably sign up for a third season, albeit with a lot of hesitation, it might be best to just let the show die there, especially in the wake of that finale. After all, there’s really only so much flogging that a premise like this can endure.

But then the official Scream website launched a video previewing their two-hour Halloween special, which not only adds another historic killing spree but also takes the show on the road with some full-on Agatha Christie, And Then There Were None murder island shenanigans, and just like that I am completely on board again. While the showrunners on Scream may not be great at sticking landings, they obviously know exactly how to push my buttons, so I guess I’m along for the ride, however disappointing the destinations may prove.

[This post originally appeared on my Patreon.]

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