Editorial: An In Depth Look At Why TV’s SCREAM QUEENS Matters by Leonel VHS

vhs1Lately I’ve been reveling in the fact that horror has made a huge resurgence on the small screen within the last few years. Back when I was a youngster in the late eighties, horror had a small presence on television, but albeit in a different form. Most of what was on the air then were memorable anthology series ranging from the wonderful reincarnation of the beloved The Twilight Zone to Tales From the Darkside and Amazing Stories to series based on well-known horror franchises: Friday the 13th begat its own series and A Nightmare On Elm Street brought forth the ultra-cheesy and fun Freddy’s Nightmares. I love that there are quite a number of series now on the air to choose from. But unfortunately, the quality varies between them on a great scale. With some of them now having established loyal audiences and rabid cult followings, in their beginnings I was fair and gave each one of them their fair try, supporting them as any die-hard horror fan should. But, I was disillusioned to discover that the vast majority of them just didn’t crank my wheel the way I hoped they would.

I grabbed my popcorn and trust two-liter bottle of Pepsi sat through the first several episodes of Dexter, The Walking Dead, Penny Dreadful, Hemlock Grove, and even gave the first incarnation of American Horror Story a try with the anticipation of becoming hooked. Sadly, the only one that was ultimately able to grab my attention at all and get me to progress further than the first several chapters was Bates Motel. Not to say that the others weren’t good because they were, they just didn’t speak to me the way I wanted them to.

I have to admit that it’s because I’m such an eighties kid at heart so for me, horror was best back when now-classic franchises were getting going and those soon-to-be darlings that graced video store shelves thanks to the dawn of Video Home System were just finding their way into renter’s hands. Not to say that I haven’t embraced more modern fare or refrained from opening myself up to the broader spectrum of what horror as a whole entails, but it was that period that would end up defining fright films for me as a whole and end up shaping me into the fan I am today. It was the eighties that not only allowed horror to be groundbreaking and “rad” but it suddenly made this closeted horror-loving weirdo “hip” to the few others as myself that were in the know.

I was a big fan of those eighties television anthologies and loved taking my mother’s mini black-and-white television set to bed with me just to catch a glimpse of them, unbeknownst to her and my father. There was an unparalleled feeling of excitement I felt when I shut the television off after that night’s show’s episode. I would get tuck myself deep under the covers, feeling the anticipation slowly build as I thought about what I’d just seen and at the same time think about what the following week’s episode was going to bring. There was also that moment on which I stepped off the bus and onto the grounds of the middle school I attended on the following Monday, keeping an ear out for any conversations hovering around the playground that would mention any of the shows I’d watched over the weekend. I loved to be able to talk about how much I either loved the episode or hated it and impart my eleven year-old insight. I would get excited when I would listen to other’s opinions and listening to how much they were either terrified by what they saw or how absolutely lame it was. Either way, it was that kind of tête-à-tête that made my heart race and made me wish that there was more horror on television than what there was at the time. I have yet to find a show that made me feel the way I did then when those were on the air. For those of you who didn’t have the privilege to do so, the eighties were the most amazing and thrilling time to be a kid.

So when I first read the news last spring that Fox had commissioned a horror-themed television series to air later on in the year, the first question that immediately came to mind was, why? It isn’t that I’m against having more horror on modern-day television than already being broadcast. In fact, nothing couldvhs2 be further from the truth. With all of the shows already on the air with rabid cult followings and many others that either weren’t as popular or still fresh on the block, it was hard for me to think of a reason why someone would want to place yet another fright series on the prime-time schedule, much less on a major network. So instantly, I quickly dismissed and pigeonholed the idea before I knew or saw anything about it, making the impulsive judgment that Scream Queens was going to be just another run-of-the-mill, swiftly-concocted program aimed at either the teenage crowd or those people addicted to the current ratings-dominating cable shows in hopes of bringing their viewership over. Either way, I had the notion that it wasn’t going to be for me.

That all changed when I learned that horror royalty Jamie Lee Curtis herself had been cast in the lead role. I began researching the show and its intended premise and was pleasantly intrigued to read that show’s storyline would take place in the present stemming from an incident that occurred in the mid 90’s. With kids like me who were around during that time, the first thing that caught my attention was that the writers had incorporated nostalgia into the core of this series. What person currently in their late thirties to mid-forties doesn’t have fond memories of how cool the nineties were? Talk to anyone right now who was either a teen or young adult at that time and listen closely to how fondly they will remember everything from being addicted to Friends to their undying love of their Super Nintendo Entertainment Systems. Someone growing up as a kid in the nineties will tell you how much they’ve held on to their episodes of The Rugrats and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and how they still have their Tamagotchi within reach.

With anything and everything coming from both the eighties and nineties influencing modern films, music, and television, it’s not surprising that so many of us feed off of anything and everything even remotely resembling something from our beloved childhoods. Now, talk to a die-hard eighties horror fan who spent many hours sitting in front of first or second generation Video Cassette Recorders that were connected to cathode-ray tubes housed in wood-finished cabinets, and they will tell you that not only are they devoted to genre definers as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street, but you will find that there is a deep-rooted love and devotion to those films that at the time didn’t have the same popularity – or even familiarity. For every installment of the above franchises, there were ten or more films veering in quality that slowly became cult classics because of how absolutely fun and horrible they were.

Bring up The Deadly Spawn, The Last Slumber Party, Killer Klowns From Outer Space and straight-forward horror comedies like Saturday the 14th, Student Bodies, and Return of the Living Dead and you will see an eighties horror fan light up. There is something endearing about those films that are, in reality, incredibly inept in logic, boasting characters who couldn’t deliver a line of dialogue if their life depended on it (pun absolutely intended) with effects done by what appear to be nine year-old Boy Scouts trying to earn a merit badge that hold special places in our collective hearts.

After reading more about the show and gathering every bit of information I could come across that didn’t contain any spoilers, I took a chance and nervously sat through the first scene of the pilot episode the night it premiered. Just with the manner in which the foundation of the entire story was established by combining bad fashion, 90’s music, dated dialogue (i.e., 90’s slang) and an opening sequence that echoed an eighties sorority house slasher, I was hooked. I watched intently and was quickly impressed and delighted by the way the narrative had been laid out, proving to me that these guys definitely had done their homework. Not only did the writers manage to dissect a bad 80’s film by running a fine, sharpened scalpel down its center, but they stylistically pinned its torso flaps to each side, exposing and brilliantly showcasing any and every element that comprises a cheesy horror film. Then, taking firm hold of the knob, they cranked the volume up to its maximum, just the way Marty McFly memorably did to that CRM-114.

vhs3Watching all of these familiar and wonderfully executed horror clichés present on screen and incorporated into the storyline itself, the creators turned the heat up a little more by taking it one step further and indulging us horror fans with the unexpected treat of tongue-in-cheek nods that echo scenes from classic eighties horror films. Just within the pilot episodes we get fantastic references to the original Halloween, The House on Sorority Row, and Motel Hell. The writers presented these little witty morsels to show us that not only they are familiar with these movies that we love so much but they also give them the same admiration and reverence we do by cleverly incorporating them into the action. Clearly, they, too, are one of us. By the time the end credits appeared, I’d become a rabid fan, eager to tune in to the next chapter

When mentioning Scream Queens to other horror fans within my circle, I’ve been disappointed to hear that the greater majority – if not all – of them have dismissed the show in its entirety just after viewing one episode. The biggest grumbles I hear are that the show lacks wit and flair, that the characters are all one-dimensional and vapid, and that the show trips over its own shoelaces by reveling in complete ineptness. The unnecessary and blatant homoeroticism between some of the main characters and overall semi-queer tone are being described as irresponsible recycled filler just to rely on shock value and to keep a particular demographic tuned in every week. I hear criticisms that red herrings are ever-present and instead of using them to distract and cause viewers to think a little harder about the grand scheme of the show, they are being overused and ultimately muddling up the story’s tight plot. I hear objections about the weak and sometimes-juvenile dialogue written for and being delivered by each of the show’s characters and how unbelievably inexcusable it is to praise anything that the show has to offer, therefore giving more than good reason to want the show dropped from Fox’s roster.

What many horror fans and casual viewers are failing to see is that Scream Queens is the small-screen’s answer to The Cabin in the Woods. What made that film so spectacular is the same thing that makes this show a standout within this season’s programming. While most of the horror shows currently being broadcast are serious and straight-forward in tone, this show not only goes in the opposite direction but it slams its foot on the gas pedal of its shiny, champagne colored Bentley to blatantly zoom passed a highway patrolman at a hundred miles an hour. When discussing the show with me, horror fans often dispute that the combination of references, cheesy, 80’s-like atmospheres, and slasher themes aren’t enough to keep them interested. By all means, I agree. Others tell me that even taking those things into consideration, the shows overall absurdity and ham-fisted humor keeps them from taking it seriously on any level. Again, I agree. But what you have to appreciate is that all of the above are being done with the sole intention of being purposely and utterly ridiculous.

That is where the charm of the show as a whole lies. A series that willingly refuses to take itself seriously in the first place and knowingly goes the extra mile every week to top the previous episode’s illogicality and absurdity can’t be expected to gain any respect by anyone. Believe me when I say that I checked every nook and cranny of the first few episodes and I sat there patiently expecting Jamie Kennedy of Scream 2 to pop out from out of hiding, point at me and yell out, “You’ve been X’ed!” No way could a scripted show be this hilariously and almost ineptly delivered on purpose. But if you can somehow bypass what people would label as its superficial flaws and look deep beneath the show’s façade of being what could be a clever and polished mix of Sisters of Death and Sorority House Massacre, a rather original and solid story is being told. Yes, Scream Queens is a horror-comedy, but many seem to immediately sack the show for that reason only. Yes, to the naked eye, the show appears to lack any originality. But pay attention to the narrative and you will find that there is much more going on than any of us realize.

vhs4With the underwhelming and over-rated Scream series that just concluded its first season over the summer, I was able to figure out who the killer was within a matter of episodes coming to see that I was correct when the finale aired. Thankfully, that isn’t the case here. Just when I think I’ve used all the horror-knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years as both a writer and as a fan to pinpoint who I think the culprit might be within Scream Queens, something comes along that knocks any and all my theories off the shelf. That is one of the reasons I have become such a fan. Just when I think I may have it all figured out, I’m shown something that proves me wrong, all while tickling my funny bone(s) at the same time. While the Scream television series completely lacked what made its film counterpart so engrossing and revered (its “in-jokes”, self-referential humor and “whodunit” style of storytelling), Scream Queens takes some of the traits found in that film and not only incorporates them but intelligently uses them to give a fresh and unique twist to modern horror-television dominated by zombies, serial killers and vampires just as the original Scream film gave the ailing horror genre a breath of life in the 90’s.

With viewers, Scream Queens is unfortunately being mistaken for either an outright horror series in the vein of American Horror Story or a serious drama-thriller like Bates Motel which is probably why many have found it so off-putting. The show wants to genuinely be taken seriously, but at the same time, begs you not to. It takes what we know and love about horror films – and to some extent, horror television – and places them in a story and setting that gives those elements their own distinctive characteristics, flamboyantly and shamelessly parading them while at the same time delivering a fantastically entertaining episode every week.

What many also don’t realize is that the series has a very clever and very underhanded mission: it wants you to recognize every nod, reference and alluding to slasher movies and horror in general and it purposely salt and peppers them everywhere so that you will sit up and point at the television screen. It hopes that you will fall over laughing at every lame joke, every clever pun, and every single over-delivered line of intentionally horrible dialogue. After all, it’s a horror-comedy! The show expects you to notice every pretty face and beautiful body both dressed and slightly undressed to show you that they’ve placed something there for everyone to enjoy. Even those of us with slightly anomalous tastes get some kind of treat in the form of eye-candy every week. It’s an adult show, right? But ultimately, it wants you to enjoy and revel in every single choreographed visual while secretly hoping that you’re being distracted enough that major details and clues escape you as to the mystery and motive of the red devil so that when the revelation finally comes at the season’s finale, you won’t know what hit you. Something – or someone – is hiding, waiting in the darkness for just the opportune time.

After each episode of Scream Queens ends, I climb into bed, grab the covers and giddily pull them over my head, just as I did when I was a kid in the 80’s after vhs5watching Twilight Zone. I cannot remember the last time a television show gave me the excitement that I feel when watching it. There’s a quality in it that shines through even though it seems to be misunderstood and it’s the combination of both the clever writing and the brilliance of the cast that manages to make it a rather distinctive and extremely fun bit of television. I find myself reading other’s opinions online about it every week and love to hear what they have to say about it. I’m wonderfully surprised to find that so many others besides myself have not only taking a liking (or loving) to it but have developed an attachment to it.

Everyone involved in the series deserves credit for taking a chance and going against the norm, giving television viewers something different and fabulously charming and for recognizing that horror on television is allowed to be silly, irreverent and everything but cookie-cutter. It’s great to see a show with slasher elements combined with a comedic undertone flourish on the small screen. I’m highly anticipating the season’s ending to see how all of what we’ve already seen comes together in what I hope will be a memorable and bombastic climax. With all the information we’ve already been given and with so many viewers yearning to know just who is doing away with everyone in the Kappa house, this is sure to deliver. Once it comes to a close, I will be first to admit that its presence on Tuesday nights will me missed. I am sure another season will come in the near future, as the show now has a devoted following. But should it find itself sans a repeat, it can smile knowing that it has made its mark in the horror world, the world of television, and in the hearts of horror fans everywhere. There isn’t anything like this on television at all, and as a horror fan always looking for something new, I am grateful. It definitely merits at least one watch. And that one watch just may turn you into a fan.

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