In the 23 years since the release of Scream, the horror genre has both violently expanded and brutally contracted. There’s been a wealth of films and shows populated by a variety of evils, from cursed dolls to Swedish maypole cults, but those featuring masked villains holding gleaming kitchen knives have mostly faded into the darkness.
The slasher movie formula, which sees a group of attractive teenage archetypes stalked by a stab-happy killer, originated in the 1970s but was resurrected by Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson’s meta-horror which, in turn, also resurrected the entire genre, leading us to the scary movie saturation we’re now seeing. But slashers slowly crept back to the grave after a string of lesser offerings and, three films later, the Scream franchise followed suit with Scream 4’s underperformance indicative of how audience tastes had changed in the 15 years since the original. Four years later, Scream returned on the small screen in the shape of a so-so MTV series telling a new story of traumatised teens, followed up by a second season and a two-hour spin-off but for superfans, there was a glaring problem: the Edvard Munch-inspired mask and the sinister voice that accompanied it didn’t make an appearance.
So other than the title itself, there was little tying the show back to the original franchise and the show quietly died with about as much muted interest as it started with, a schlocky curio that failed to provoke enough curiosity. But like any slasher villain worth his or her salt, Scream is back from the dead and this time so is Ghostface.
A retooled, mercifully shorter, new season, titled Scream: Resurrection, is airing over three nights this week in two-hour chunks, passed off to VH1 after spending a horrifying time on the shelf at MTV. It boasts an unusual assortment of names attached, from producer Queen Latifah to a Paris Jackson cameo to a mum role for Mary J Blige, but the most important one of all is that of Roger L Jackson, whose voice gained infamy ever since it taunted Drew Barrymore with film trivia back in 1996. His return, along with the mask itself, makes the season feel more like the franchise it’s named after, even if the plot is entirely unrelated to anything involving Sidney Prescott and her wannabe starlet mother.
This time, in a subgenre that’s typically either ignored black characters or used them as first act pin cushions, characters of colour take centre stage with Black Lightning’s RJ Cyler playing Atlanta-based high school football player Deion. In a scattershot opening that half-heartedly plays with first kill conventions as well as giving a strange nod to Candyman, we see a young Deion witness the death of his brother, a childhood trauma that haunts him in the present day. In this Scream universe, Ghostface is fixated on this horrific incident and uses it as a reason to stalk Deion and his friends. And you can probably guess the rest.
As an embittered Scream stan, I can’t deny the thrill of seeing and hearing the original Ghostface back on screen for the first time since 2011 and admittedly, such nostalgic giddiness did help me through the show’s rockier patches. In introducing the franchise to a younger audience, the makers are tasked with coercing a new generation of teens into discovering a mostly dead subgenre. The last few years have seen two notable exceptions: Halloween and Happy Death Day. But both succeeded because of specific USPs. Happy Death Day was a slasher movie that was also a Groundhog Day-esque timeloop comedy and Halloween reunited Jamie Lee Curtis with Michael Myers, a slasher villain with more cultural capital than Ghostface given that he’s always the one wearing the mask. Scream has a harder job on its hands and it makes sense that it’s one that’s been quarantined on the small screen with far less at risk.
The Scream films were mostly fixated on white upper-middle-class suburbanites, living in obscenely extravagant houses, or in the second and third installments, we followed the lives of these privileged characters as they went to college and then Hollywood, living in houses even bigger than before. Positioning the action in Atlanta, with a working-class “final boy” heading up an impressively diverse cast does help to give the formula a much-needed refresh and there are some nifty references to how race affects the action throughout. Cops are no longer seen as a safe haven, black characters joke about the white reaction to being in a horror movie scenario and even Ghostface’s colour becomes a talking point (“His face is white, he’ll be out in no time”).
But outside of the show’s up-to-date references (an Uber driver gets killed! Ghostface now texts!), there’s an unavoidable emptiness at the center and it’s one that’s accentuated given the six-hour runtime. Any slasher would feel flabby when stretched out that much (a key reason why so many horror shows struggle past season one) but here it allows us far too much time to linger on the sub-Kevin Williamson dialogue (“We’re not The Breakfast Club, we’re the dead-fast club”) and a glaring lack of innovation. It has its naysayers but Scream 4 arrived with an awareness of how horror had changed in the years since 2000’s Scream. The final act, that saw the younger cast members either die or get unmasked as killers and then die, was a smart subversion of what a modern audience would expect in a genre monopolised by tired reboots. In Scream: Resurrection, we’re mostly going through the motions and even the attempts to provide genre commentary feel lazily reheated.
Horror uber-producer Jason Blum, who’s been behind everything from Get Out to The Purge to both Happy Death Day and Halloween, has recently expressed interest in rebooting Scream for the big screen (he’s also bringing back the influential 1974 slasher Black Christmas later this year) but he faces similar problems. Scream arrived in 1996 with both an academic knowledge of a much-maligned genre as well as an ability to poke fun without resorting to mean-spiritedness. Kevin Williamson had clear affection for films that had long disappeared from the multiplex and vibrant, fresh ideas as a result but now, as an audience, we’re inundated with horror, some good, most bad, and so our expectations have changed considerably. The sharp knife that slashed its way into the public consciousness back then has since gone blunt, as shown by this latest “resurrection”, and in order to make Scream feel necessary yet again, Blum will have to cut a little deeper.
Scream: Resurrection is airing on VH1 in the US with a UK date yet to be confirmed