by Rita Aresta
Following the start of the second season of Scream Queens, take a look at how Ryan Murphy’s newest venture pays homage to slasher movies and plays on the absurd to paint a cruel picture of North American youths
In 1978, killer Michael Meyers escaped from a sanatorium back to his hometown, going after babysitter Laurie Strode, portrayed by Jamie Lee Curtis, originating one of horror’s longest running franchises: Halloween. 37 years later, the “Scream Queen” stars in another horror production, which doesn’t stem from a movie franchise, but from the mind of one of today’s biggest showrunners. However, this time the main story element is absurdity, not fear.
Jamie Lee Curtis as Dean Munsch
Through Scream in 1996, Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson achieved the unimaginable: to rekindle the public’s interest in 1980s horror movie format, with its teenage deaths, virgin heroines and fantastic killers. Overuse of this magical formula could’ve signposted an attempt to get such films to take themselves too seriously, however Williamson managed to use healthy doses of humour and irony in the script and although somewhat flirting with trashiness, managed to get the public to laugh and believe in fear and death at the same time.
Scream Queens, created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan debuted in September 2015, as a means of keeping their partnership with Fox since Glee’s six years were over. To be honest, whatever project Murphy presented to the producers, they were bound to invest in it, as the guy has basically proved to be a goldmine. Although this new project didn’t feature the musical genre as its creative base, it was based on the three pillars from these three dramaturgical clockworks: horror (resurrected by two of them in its core essence with American Horror Story), ridiculous dialogue targeted at a young audience (from Glee) and pop culture references (present in all of their works). There is a constant and unscrupulous amount of verbosity, but it’s always completely contextualised.
To reinvent old formulae of bold scripts and conceptual aesthetics was also Murphy’s main strategy to transform American Horror Story into a successful anthology. Such success brought with it the possibility of exploring other themes – and thus we got Scream Queens and American Crime Story. With a plotline that’s enclosed in itself each season, this format’s greatest merit is the way it leaves us wondering what will be the next themes and what characters will the same actors portray.
With a huge marketing campaign, this series was conceived and divulged as an anthology, which in itself meant less worrying about time and more focus on action. Murphy and his team – with keen commercial sense and impressive pop culture knowledge base – provided a cast including artists strongly related to teenage fandom and pop music such as Ariana Grande and Nick Jonas. Lea Michele was recycled from Glee and Emma Roberts was redirected from American Horror Story. The original “Scream Queen” Jamie Lee Curtis and Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) joined the rank of well-known cinema actors, and Curtis’s participation pretty much ensured that the series would be protected from failure – although things didn’t completely turn out that way.
Emma Roberts as Chanel Oberlin, channelling her inner Jackie Kennedy
Its creators described the storyline as a mixture of Mean Girls, Scream and Friday the 13th – which is pretty accurate. The first season is set in Wallace University, where the Kappa Kappa Tau female fraternity is tormented by the death of its members. It’s a simple enough premise that hides a multitude of small details. Starting from a slasher movie outlook, it soon establishes from the pilot episode that, although Glee still maintained a level of compromise with reality, Scream Queens was determined to throw away any potential similarities and it’d be set in its own outrageous parallel universe.
References to the 1990s are present from the outset and the plotline begins in 1995, when one of the fraternity members gives birth and dies immediately after. As expected, this event provides the catalyst for the killer’s motive, which appears in 2015 dressed as a “Red Devil” (the university’s mascot), preferentially killing those in the fraternity or somehow related to it.
KKT is presided by Chanel Oberlin (Emma Roberts), a self-described “gross rich” girl who knows what she wants and runs the house like a headquarter of humiliation. Instead of acting as a representative of her peers, she prefers to treat them as slaves. Each one of them is a Chanel, only numbered: Chanel number 1, number 2, number 3 and so on, having relinquished their own names. This is Murphy’s typical amplification of extreme frivolity, in keeping with exaggeration and absurdity as key ingredients, and using them to shout out his intentions. As usually seen in this type of plots, the fraternity is depicted as a sanctuary of pure hedonism, and popularity rules are the only thing that the characters take seriously. A series of subtlety, this is not.
Chanels #3 (Billie Lourd), #6 (Lea Michele) and #5 (Abigail Breslin)
Chanel’s personal hell starts when Dean Munsch (Jamie Lee Curtis) decides to take control of the fraternity and declares that any girl can join the ranks of KKT. As a result, all the potentially popular girls immediately become disinterested and are replaced by a group of underdogs (or should I say, underbitches?). There’s a girl with a neck brace, a black girl, a candle vlogger, a lesbian (Predatory Lez) and a deaf girl (Deaf Taylor Swift). It’s in this dynamic of cruelty and cynicism that Murphy brings forward his best mordacious dialogue, with bitter comedy on how in American society the only thing that matters is what others think of you and not what you actually are.
Kappa Kappa Tau’s new pledges: Grace (Skyler Samuels), Zayday (Keke Palmer), Hester “Neckbrace” (Lea Michele), Jessica “Candle Vlogger” (Breezy Eslin), Sam “Predatory Lez” (Jeanna Han), Tiffany “Deaf Taylor Swift” (Whitney Meyer)
In the pilot episode, the Red Devil kills one of the characters in a very unique way: their killing-scene textbook dialogue (including screaming and begging) is exchanged via text messages. While being stabbed, the agonising character still chooses not to call for help, but to post on Twitter that she’s being murdered. It’s the ultimate message from the show’s creators, anticipating a plot that won’t necessarily be based on the real world, albeit underlining behavioural truths that are almost away hidden in day-to-day life.
This provocative humour is present throughout the whole series. It’s soon clear that although there’s a clever plot behind the murders, each episode is a tool for Murphy et al to talk about everything that’s present in the daily lives of young Americans. It gets to a point where the portrayal is so bitter and the prejudices and frivolities are exposed so eagerly, that inevitably some sort of defence mechanism kicks in, and from there we can begin to understand how Scream Queens’ audience numbers started to decrease.
Just like the first season of American Horror Story, some viewers struggled to buy into its premise, bringing some level of rejection. It’s worth remembering that trash is a genre that not only allows the uncouth and the ridicule, but also in fact validates it. Causing laughter through the visual appeal of horror is its intention, even though the characters do take the deaths seriously. Therefore, saying one didn’t like Scream Queens because it was implausible or idiotic isn’t much of an insult to it. Having said that, the audience numbers were lower than expected. This is probably also due to the fact that a lot of people were expecting a comedy, whereas others were expecting a horror series, and the end result was somewhere in between, which couldn’t please everyone.
While the series made interesting decisions, such as the fact that the killer uses a different weapon in each episode, it ended up overcomplicating the “whodunit” web and the way in which the crimes were solved. Slasher movies are in themselves productions of rather simplistic structure, but which rely on a certain subtlety in order to be properly referenced. However, one thing that separated this series from others was its ending. Although the revelation of the killer’s identity was obvious (Murphy himself had said it would be), the way in which it was laid out was very clever. The idea of inverting the “final girl” (typical female survivor in this type of movie) and “killer” roles was great and it made for a very satisfying ending, although the cliff-hanger was a bit mean – but surely had me looking forward to the next season.
Is that a dead body? – The Chanels and Denise Hemphill (Niecy Nash)
It’s not a purely ideological matter, however. There’s some sort of constant tune in these three creators’ text that is very characteristic. There’s also great carelessness towards plausibility – anything goes when it comes to leading a character to unimaginable ends, as long as it serves the purpose of a good laugh. The entire critique is made with overwhelming amounts of absurdity, exposing situations that could hardly happen in that lacklustre manner in real life. In fact, the whole situation spirals out of proportion, although ultimately that doesn’t mean that what they’re saying, underneath all the insanity, isn’t true. The problem here is that the vast majority of good dramaturgy consists of means, mediums and equilibriums. Exceptions to this rule are rare and tend to meander between disaster and brilliance. If there are comedies in the quiet end of the spectrum, there’s then Scream Queens, which shouts as loud as it can, and sometimes it can be hard to tell which moments ones are pure genius and which ones are surprising failures.
Everything in Scream Queens underlines the juvenile alienation present in society’s upper classes, but without any sort of syndicalist compromise. Every criticism, analogy and reference in Murphy’s universe is always understood with some degree of provocativeness. That’s his trademark, and keeping up quality and narrative rhythm is very difficult, but he almost always manages it.
Overall, Scream Queens may not be a series for hardcore horror fans – and to be fair, its main focus is comedy rather than horror. But if you’re someone who enjoys good movie parodies (like me), then this series is likely to cause more than a few Scary Movie inconsequential laughs. The series starts off well, but ends up slightly losing its plot, especially towards the end. The same has happened with American Horror Story as well as other works of Murphy. He’s a man full of great ideas, but unfortunately doesn’t care enough for them to take them seriously and tends to start focusing in other projects, with series ending up in limbo.
Best episodes: “Pilot” (ep.1), “Chainsaw” (ep.3), “The Final Girl(s)” (ep.13)
Top quotes: “I’ll have a trenta, no foam, 5 shot, half-caff, no foam, pumpkin spice latte, with no foam, at 210 degrees.” (Chanel Oberlin)
“This is what I learned at Quantico, and by watching movies about Quantico – oh, and from the hit TV show Quantico, now in its thrilling second season! Here’s the thing: if you wanna catch a killer, you gotta get inside the mind of a killer.” (Denise Hemphill)
Scream Queens returned for its second season last September, with a number of surviving characters plus a handful of new ones, set in a hospital. It’ll no doubt be still very appealing to a young demographic, especially now Taylor Lautner (Twilight series) is on board. Differing from American Horror Story, which creates a completely new storyline each season, the second season of Scream Queens has undertones of continuity in its plot. Once again, Murphy managed to achieve what so many showrunners spend their life trying (and failing) to get: to create a pop culture icon that, despite its numerous references, has its own voice and mythos.
Catch Scream Queens, Thursdays at 10pm on E4