When Chanel Oberlin marches through the hallowed halls of her once-great sorority with the sharp resolve of a military sergeant and dunks her maid’s head into a large vat of hot frying oil, it’s a slow-motion car crash scenario. No matter how much we want to, we can’t seem to tear our eyes away in horror when the maid begins peeling her face off.
In a genre replete with chainsaw-wielding masked murderers and one too many damsels-in-distress, spoofing horror film cliches has become a spoof in itself. Horror films have come a long way since Freddy Krueger terrorized suburban teenagers in their dreams and Michael Myers chased Laurie Strode around her house with a kitchen knife. Film franchises like Scream (or the much-lauded Cabin in the Woods) riff on horror movie conventions with a certain level of self-discernment while still delivering on the promised blood and gore.
When co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, the minds behind Glee and American Horror Story, first imagined Scream Queens as a spoof of other horror movie spoofs, Murphy promised at least one character death per episode. In a show which Murphy describes as, “Heathers meets Halloween,” Scream Queens has more than delivered on that promise. When the large star-studded ensemble cast features pop stars Ariana Grande and Nick Jonas, along with Little Miss Sunshine’s Abigail Breslin, Glee’s Lea Michele, scream queen veteran Jamie Lee Curtis, and American Horror Story alums Emma Roberts and Skyler Samuels, it’s only a matter of time before they’re picked off one by one.
Murphy’s writing delves into the familiar territory of identity politics and hatred for humor’s sake. Roberts plays the show’s lead, Chanel Oberlin, the president of Kappa Kappa Tau who fights back against school administrators when they force her sorority to accept pledges of every creed. Meanwhile, a chainsaw-wielding serial killer in a red devil costume begins targeting members of Kappa. Chanel is written as a caricature of the rich, popular, racist, white girl trope. With her derision toward “fatties and ethnics,” as well as her ableist, classist, and homophobic remarks, Chanel is meant to be the character we love to hate. “I thought about donating my clothes to charity, but there’s something so depressing about poor people walking around in couture,” she says in one scene. “It’s like sorry, but that Lanvin sweater is not appropriate for your job at Roy Rogers, welfare queen.”
Rather than disputing Chanel’s worldview, however, Scream Queens seems to perpetuate it. While Keke Palmer plays Zayday Williams, the genius sidekick to the show’s protagonist, Grace Gardner (Samuels), Scream Queens also features a lazy black security guard and a sexually embittered ’70s-era feminist played by Curtis. It’s sloppy storytelling at its peak, abandoning cohesive plot structure and character development in favor of slasher film-level antics. The show’s humor ultimately falls flat when characters seem to embrace their own stereotypes rather than challenge them.
The deaths themselves are Shakespearean in nature—each scene is a testament to how far Murphy and Falchuk are willing to go in terms of shock value and gross-out humor. Ironically enough, the only time Scream Queens is even mildly watchable is when characters are being sawed in half or decapitated by ride-on lawn mowers. We keep our eyes glued to the screen with the same level of reverence as when we watched Paris Hilton get brutally impaled in the 2005 House of Wax remake. When the show forsakes nuanced characters and believable plot structure (two elements that make horror films scary in the first place,) the only way to watch is to mute the show during dialogue scenes and only tune in when you hear the distant whirl of a chainsaw.
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