What's Your Favorite Scary Movie? Is It on Netflix?

Scream
Neve Campbell accepting the award for best female performance for "Scream 2" at the 1998 MTV Movie Awards. REUTERS

When MTV announced that it was remaking 1996 horror classic Scream as a television show, the movie's fans shared a collective eye roll. Once a bastion of counterculture, MTV has in the last decade entered the trenches of reality show pandering, inviting a "Why don't they play music videos anymore?!" rallying cry from the generation that grew up on VJs and Total Request Live. Even with the involvement of original Scream writer Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven, the show carried all the risks of ABC's 1995 spinoff of Clueless—half the original cast returned, and it was still painfully mediocre.

The stakes are high for MTV, whose primetime ratings are down 21.7 percent this season over last, according to Nielsen. Like other channels long accustomed to the easy success of reality television, MTV has tensely watched the pendulum swing back toward scripted shows as Americans grow tired of spinoffs of spinoffs of people arguing on islands. Even Bravo—whose star rose on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and supernovaed with the Real Housewives franchise—has a half-dozen scripted shows airing or in development, including a series based on Bret Easton Ellis's novel The Rules of Attraction.

To date, MTV's jump into scripted fare has been the kind of mixed bag you'd expect from the channel that brought us Undressed. (Related: Bring back Undressed!) Early contenders such as 2011's Skins and 2012's I Just Want My Pants Back ultimately fizzled, while Awkward and Teen Wolf have sailed into fifth seasons. To be sure, reality show staples Teen Mom and Ridiculousness still crowd the channel's lineup, but Scream is easily MTV's most high-profile gamble on the future of actors saying lines someone else wrote for them. After all, this is a movie that made $170 million worldwide, yielded three sequels and indirectly brought us Scary Movie. It is to the horror genre what Dumb and Dumber is to the buddy comedy, what Half Baked is to the stoner flick and what Interstellar is to the fantasy film in which Anne Hathaway leaves Earth forever.

I was 11 when Scream was released—old enough to watch it (lenient mom) but too young and geeky to identify with the dramas of its main characters. (Sidney and Billy having sex! Tatum throwing a party with beer!) To watch a television remake at age 29 on MTV—sandwiched between commercials for Proactiv and Dating Naked—is to feel for a brief moment sucker-punched by the fists of time. The only thing that's stayed inarguably the same over the past 19 years is fictional teenagers' capacity for getting murdered.

The entire pilot of Scream is a sometimes scene-by-scene nod to its cinematic ancestor, including the movie's first minutes. In the show, a hidden camera video of two teenage girls kissing goes viral, and Nina Patterson (played by Bella Thorne), one of the girls behind its publication, returns home after a long day's cyberbullying to her parents' empty manse. In this updated version of the opening scene, gone are Drew Barrymore's Jiffy Pop and bulky wireless phone, replaced by an accessorized Pomeranian and an iPhone that turns on house speakers via voice command. Also gone is the phone call itself. Nina gets murder texts—"How does it feel to be the star of the show?"—plus real-time video clips of herself taken from inside the house. When she is ultimately sacrificed to the gods of slasher film intros, it is by a new Ghostface, whose mask has been only slightly updated from its now-iconic 1996 iteration.

And so with its kickoff murder, Scream 2015 lays out exactly what it is: an ode to the movie, but with all the beeps and boops of a digital world. Technology is ubiquitous on the show: Police press conferences are watched on laptops; incriminating videos must be deleted from hard drives; kegs are ordered with iPads. Phones are mentioned constantly and seen just as often—on tables and desks or, more commonly, nestled in the hands of their owners. At one point, the killer even sends the equivalent of a school-wide Snapchat. Meanwhile, Ghostface's actual phone calls—a staple in the original—are here just one weapon in a veritable threat arsenal, a throwback to a movie set in those bygone days before you could let someone know you were right behind them via mobile live stream.

Much of what made the original Scream great was its meta-treatment of the horror genre; little happened in the movie that wasn't at some point discussed by the characters in an abstract conversation about horror movies. It was a tactic that made even Scream's most cliché moments feel ironic and sophisticated, while still being camp. For the most part, that same blend of violence and levity appears in MTV's Scream. This is a show where you tell Siri to call 911 and she calls Pottery Barn, where killers text "Heads up" before tossing decapitated craniums into hot tubs. It's part Pretty Little Liars, part Cabin in the Woods. And while the meta-conversations live on in the remake, they are, smartly, about television instead of movies. "You can't do a slasher movie as a TV series," says student/murder buff (and Jamie Kennedy update) Noah Foster (John Karna) early in the pilot. "Slasher movies burn bright and fast. TV needs to stretch things out."

Stretching Scream out will be MTV's biggest challenge. As a standalone, the show's first few episodes put it at a B-. The acting can be a little stilted, though it seems possible the rather large cast will coalesce more as the season continues (or at least the ones who survive will). And while Noah and Audrey Jensen (Bex Taylor-Klaus) are easily Scream's standout characters—Noah is tasked with the meta commentary and Audrey with the show's timely bullying and sexuality plotlines—neither has the immediate on-screen impact of, say, Matthew Lillard or Rose McGowan. The show's ostensible lead, Emma Duvall (Willa Fitzgerald) is downright muted.

Where new Scream shines is as an updated version of its 20-year-old predecessor, a show that embraces rather than avoids its reliance on nostalgia. Scream is in this way a metaphor for MTV itself, an entertainment empire caught between keeping up with its core demographic and living up to its aging legacy. MTV doesn't play music videos because we don't watch music videos on television. Because YouTube. Because 2015. Because no one under 25 even has a television. Bringing a 1996 teen staple into the edgy, screen-crazed and overly mascaraed world of modern teendom is no small task, and with Scream at least, MTV rises to the occasion. Break out your knife emoji.

What's Your Favorite Scary Movie? Is It on Netflix? | Culture