We lost Wes Craven the other week. Craven was never my favorite director–although I do have a soft spot for Freddy Krueger–but in reviewing his work I have come to realize what an intelligent craftsman he was. Craven was a meta-filmmaker. Not subtly, like Alfred Hitchcock,who was more interested in the psychological implications of film as a voyeuristic vehicle, but somewhat blatantly, less intellectually perhaps, but in no less a valid way. Craven’s point was simply that we like scary movies because we like being scared and we like movies. As a result, his movies were fun–the self reference of “Scream” and the media savvy of its sequels, even the wisecracks and dreamscapes of Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare of Elm Street series, were clever winks to the audience. It also didn’t hurt that Craven’s seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of film made him a highly controlled director. Craven will be missed for the elegance and intelligence he brought to horror, but he will mostly be missed for the sense of fun he brought to his scares.
So it was with trepidation that I approached MTV’s “Scream,” which ended earlier this month. It will be one of the last things that bears Craven’s name, so I wanted it to be good, but I know that television adaptations can be letdowns–especially from a television station whose idea of “compelling” can be teenage plastic surgery. So imagine my surprise when “Scream” ended up being not bad at all, especially for fans of the film series.
There are tons of references to the original “Scream,” some so subtly woven into the series I had to re-view the movie to catch a few. Aside from a killer on the phone (the mask is different this time around), there is: a first murder by a pool, a missing parent, a pair of lawbreakers and a party that goes horribly awry. Some of the show’s characters act as mirrors to characters from the film as well, so we have a walking collection of horror trivia, a pushy reporter and a burgeoning filmmaker. There’s also a nice homage to “Pulp Fiction” in the ninth episode, as well as scads of verbal references to quality horror from Hitchcock’s “Psycho” to Bryan Fuller’s “Hannibal.”
But “Scream” is more than a set of clever references. The show functions as a critique on high school pecking orders, but also on social media and instant communication, which is usually perceived as making us safer and more connected, but here it is turned into a tool of division and danger (seriously, you’ll start to wonder why anyone trusts text messages after the second episode). A dedicated horror fan might be a bit disappointed by the seeming lack of murders a few episodes in, but there is gore galore when there is gore, and a couple of murders in the last couple of episodes are quite creative. My favorite part–getting my kicks less from blood and more from atmosphere–came during the abandoned party scene. Even the music, a mixture of pleasantly downbeat indie rock and oddly Vivaldi-esque incidental music, is a nice surprise. There are also some talented players in the group, including John Karna, who is quite comfortable as the too-smart slasher movie guru Noah Foster, and the delightful Carlson Young, who is a master at handling her high school snark as slightly sophisticated and believably world weary 11th grade queen bee Brooke Maddox.
“Scream” isn’t “Hannibal,” but it’s probably better than “Bates Motel,” which declined in quality after its first season when it stopped understanding its central characters. “Scream” has no such problem (yet…it is scheduled for a second season) as it never forgets that high schoolers are pretentious backstabbers. It really does get hard to tell who can be trusted–you probably will suspect the real killer, along with a sea of people who aren’t murderers but are doing genuinely bad things.
None of the directors can quite match the visual intelligence of Craven–except perhaps MTV vet Jamie Travis, who has racked up an impressive number of surreal comedy shorts and helms the stunning pilot episode and season finale. But the show does have a tendency to slip into soap, particularly in the first half after a lull in the murders. Unlike “Pretty Little Liars”–not that I watch that show, of course–the soap is not so outlandish as to provide enough camp to muscle through. So it’s curious when the final reveal borders on incredulous to a noticeable degree, and the character in question undergoes a rather unbelievable personality change. Oh well. Maybe incredulity is why we watch horror movies to begin with. Maybe that’s the fun of it.