Scream Queens, Season 1, Episode 4, “Haunted House”
Written by Ryan Murphy & Brad Falchuk & Ian Brennan
Directed by Bradley Buecker
Airs on Tuesdays at 9pm (ET) on FOX
Is Scream Queens scary? Furthermore, does it even want to be? After weeks of establishing the characters and brutally murdering more than a handful, the time has come to finally assess the camp/horror mash-up in the area that counts: Is it at all horrifying for the viewers to watch at home? After “Haunted House”, the beginning of a Halloween trilogy spanning three episodes, the answer is a definite yes. Putting aside the obsession with Chanel Oberlin (who remains insufferable) and a few side adventures (that remain mostly pointless), the central mystery kicks into full gear this week and brings a heaping dose of actual scares along with the extra intrigue. Upending cultural expectations of scary stories or mocking their tropes is one thing, but to be a truly effective piece of entertainment it helps to deliver the scares that are all-but-promised in the show’s title. Tonally, “Haunted House” is of a piece with the rest of the season to this point, with a few missteps, but it’s considerably better than its preceding episodes due to the extra focus on scary set pieces and suitably gross payoffs from the previous deaths.
The initial visit to former Kappa sister Maggie’s trailer and her subsequent death both work very well and are on par with some of the best things the show has done so far. Grace and Pete’s first visit to the off-the-grid bunker-style trailer has more in common with the previous episode’s Backstreet Boys homage, a light but informative jaunt of a fact-finding mission where the pair happen to be dressed up as Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey from How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. Maggie’s immediate willingness to spill the beans on everything that happened in 1995 is the exact opposite of how these encounters usually happen in horror movies,and didn’t come off as the blatant exposition dump, basically due to the extra bits of humor thrown in. The flashbacks are slight enough still that they don’t overwhelm the main story with too many character details from the past, yet they offer up a full enough explanation of the past. Maggie’s death is where the episode moves into a different gear, proving just how effective Ryan Murphy, Ian Brennan, and Brad Falchuk are at writing horror that stays with the audience long after the scene has ended.
Many of the murders until now have come with a cheeky wink to the audience, but that isn’t the case here, letting the show be deadly serious about at least one murder. Given that the audience doesn’t know Maggie well at all before she dies it is important that her death be memorable, and the writing and direction deliver in that area. Even if the viewer knows she will end the scene dead, the build up and tension before it actually happens evokes some of the best horror films of the last decade. From the Red Devil(s) banging on her trailer to her slow retreat into the center of the room for safety, each moment ratchets up the fear until she is finally done away with to the background screams of Leprechaun. Bradley Buecker’s direction translates the horror well from page to screen, with great camerawork such as the wide shot of Maggie’s silhouette alone on her porch, baseball bat raised high in fright, and the smart use of light and shadows within her trailer.
The climactic haunted house rendezvous where Hester and Chad discover the decomposing bodies of every victim so far is similarly fraught with rising tension, with the addition of suspense for the audience, who don’t know if the sequence will involve more murders or something else. The “something else” turns out to be the most disgusting thing the show has done since Ms. Bean died of a fried face, specifically Hester and Chad coming across the dead bodies of all of their friends (plus Coney!). Hester sticking her finger in the pus-filled body of Ms. Bean is enough to make the strongest of stomachs retch. Lea Michele leaving behind her neck brace and frizzy hair so soon in the show’s run reeks of her not being willing to be un-glam for too long on screen (or Ryan Murphy not wanting that for her) and it’s a shame, because her portrayal of truly creepy Hester was a great opportunity for her to break out of her normal performance beats. After getting to act normal for some of last episode, it’s a treat to have her revert back to the ultra-creepy and gross side of Hester here.
Glen Powell once again shines in his portrayal of a shallow but expressive frat boy, especially in the aftermath of the encounter as Chad and Hester sit dumbfounded and horrified in the cafeteria. His reaction to his haunted house warning not working on the student populace, and in fact doing the exact opposite, is amazing in how real it feels while still being over-the-top camp. After all the buildup, the party itself is mostly a second thought, with the exception of Zayday getting kidnapped by the Red Devil, which could mean that she is in on the murders (as Denise assumes) or just another victim spared for the time being and set to be killed later. Zayday calling the cops and having them tell her that the bodies mean it is a great party and not to waste taxpayer dollars is at first funny, but then feels like almost too easy a layup amidst everything else that is going on at the same time.
With Dean Munsch momentarily absolved of any wrongdoing, even though she continues to be the most irresponsible and power hungry school administrator of all time, the suspect list is once again wide open. Boone is still right at the top, but this episode places Wes more firmly in the creepy crosshairs and gives Gigi plenty of reasons to be vengeful towards the Kappa girls. The Gigi reveal comes almost out of nowhere, but will hopefully allow Nasim Pedrad to be more than comic relief from now on. It raises questions, like how Gigi got her hands on the Kappa baby in the first place, and if Grace is actually the mystery baby, then is Wes in on it as well? If Pete and Grace are the only people who visited Maggie in her trailer, it also makes narrative sense that Pete may have returned to finish the job after he got the information he wanted. Denise and Zayday having each other in their crosshairs means one or both could be part of the murder team, especially as they both seem so informed on strategies and motivations of the killer and Zayday was seemingly spared the ax. Many questions remain unanswered and the central mystery is still slightly undercooked, and as such, not the addictive whodunnit it could be, but between the shift away from Chanel being the end all be all of the show and the series being consistently scary each week, there is enough to keep tuning in for now.
- The opening sequence of Chanel “making dreams come true” by delivering Chanel-O-Ween gifts to her Instagram fans is mostly humorous and irrelevant to the overall episode other than being a place setter for the time of year, but the faux-reality programming spoof is a perfect replication of the many “grand prize” shows that Fox itself airs.
- Diego Boneta’s McCoughnahey impression is legitimately good, and Skyler Samuels pulls off the hard-to-wear but iconic yellow dress original worn by Kate Hudson.
- Denise was also a Kappa pledge, in 1988, and Niecy Nash’s flashback costuming is incredible. A continuing MVP of the cast.
- The less said about the cotton ball lunch, immediately followed by the violent feminists sequence, the better. It doesn’t belong for a story reason and is somewhat atonal to the rest of the episode.