For the past few weeks, I’ve been catching up on obscure genre movies and series. I was amused to see that the Decades channel showed a few episodes of Circle of Fear (a.k.a. Ghost Story), a 1970s supernatural series that NBC commissioned as a companion piece to Night Gallery. I had never seen Circle of Fear, which only ran for 22 episodes over two years, and it turns out that it is a rather poor knockoff of Night Gallery. Episodes are overlong at an hour, and the production values are low, even for 1970s TV. The stories are a little flat, and the enjoyment of the episodes comes mostly from the retro stylings of the outrageously 1970s costumes and sets, and the appearance of celebrities like John Astin, Carolyn Jones, Martin Sheen, and others. I’m glad I saw it, but I don’t think I’d want to watch it again.
Another show I wouldn’t want to watch again: Slasher, the Canadian horror anthology series whose first season aired on the defunct Chiller channel and whose second hit Netflix a few months ago. The first season was plagued with poor pacing, turgid dialogue, and stiff acting, along with a pointless plot that relied too much on the idea that the title slasher was an insane nut-job who was only pretending to be normal. The second season, which I finished this past week was a major improvement over the second, but not without its problems. The second season, unrelated to the first (despite one actor playing a new role, in the manner of American Horror Story), finds a group of former camp counselors returning to their old camp site in mid-winter to recover the body of a fellow counselor that they killed because the site is about to be developed, and their crime exposed. A slasher picks them off one by one, while flashbacks gradually reveal and revise what happened the night of the murder.
Slasher’s second season—titled “Guilty Party”—is brisk and watchable for most of its run, despite a few questionable actors and a couple of plot holes. The ending, however, has one good twist that is genuinely surprising but also utterly familiar to genre fans. I was disappointed to see the story resolve with yet another variation on the insane killer theme, and the final minutes, set after the events of the series proper, are bonkers, mostly illogical, and, finally, gross.
The second season does a much better job of setting up some satisfying murders and crafting a decent mystery, but the heavy lifting is done by the location, where tall trees and heavy snow create a suitably bleak and isolated atmosphere that creates an aesthetic of horror that the first season’s blandly cheerful Canadian village couldn’t match. Formally, this season seemed much more like a sequel to Freeform’s enjoyable if unsatisfying summer camp supernatural mystery Dead of Summer than to Slasher’s own first season, both in terms of the setting and the use of character-specific flashbacks—though, in reality, they’re all just ripping off Lost.
Speaking of Freeform: They brought back Beyond recently for its second season. Regular readers will remember that I reviewed Beyond last January when the network made the whole first season of the supernatural drama about a young man who awoke from a 12-year coma with superpowers available for viewing at the launch of the series. I found the execution problematic at the time. It’s basically MTV’s Teen Wolf with all of the Gothic elements and aesthetic competence replaced with the look and feel of a Hallmark original movie. I checked back in with the second season, mostly because I am a glutton for punishment, but also because I wanted to see whether they corrected course from the problems I had identified last year. It turns out that they overcorrected. I hope I’m not to blame for taking a problematic but mediocre show and turning it into an unwatchable dead zone.
The first season centered on an evil cult that was trying to … I don’t even remember. But the heart of the first season involved the hero trying to fit in with a society that had left him behind. This year… well, after a couple of episodes, it seems that the story is going nowhere fast.
I had complained last year that the show’s characters were too young to be so familiar with 1990s pop culture, which peppered their dialogue in a throwback to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and turn-of-the-Millennium teen movies. That’s all gone now. Every conversation is ploddingly, dully straightforward, unleavened with humor. I had complained, too, that Burkley Duffield’s 25-year-old character Holden seemed creepy hanging out with his 17-year-old brother’s friends. That’s all gone now, and Holden is now working in an airplane parts supply company, unconvincingly trying to navigate the dull adult problems of supply chain management. (Seriously: An entire plot point was about the coding of a part on warehouse shelves.) I also complained that Jonathan Whitesell, who is a year older than Duffield, looked too mature to be his kid brother eight years his junior. This year they put him in oversized clothes and a goofy bowl haircut to try to make him look smaller and younger.
It would all be funny if it weren’t for the waste of a serviceable premise on painfully bland execution. Duffield still looks too young and soft to be an adult superman, but I’ll try to find something positive to say: Whitesell must be a good actor to breathe a semblance of life into the Xerox copy of Dylan O’Brien’s Teen Wolf character that they gave him. I am almost morbidly interested to see how bad it will get by the time the season ends. But I don’t really want to watch it to find out. Freeform ought to scrap this misbegotten product of Heroes creator Tim Kring’s production company and try again.
Ratings information for the series finds that the show is down from last season, with fewer than 250,000 viewers in its 8 PM Thursday timeslot. Last year, the show peaked at 1 million viewers before sliding slowly down to 300,000. I can’t imagine it will be long for this world with numbers like that, but apparently it does well on streaming platforms.
Additionally, this weekend I watched Heartthrob, an independent thriller from writer-director Chris Silverton. The movie was shot in late 2016 and had a brief theatrical run last summer in limited release. It is currently streaming on Netflix. The movie stars Keir Gilchrist (Atypical), Aubrey Peeples (Nashville), and Peter Facinelli (Twilight, Supergirl). As you can guess, the movie is on Netflix because one of its stars, Gilchrist, is also on a Netflix show. That seems to be the underlying reasoning behind Netflix’s strange selection of substandard movies, like Open House, which I reviewed last week. I’ll admit, however, that I only watched the movie because Gilchrist bears an uncanny resemblance to my brother at the same age. It’s a strange experience to watch a horror movie starring someone who looks like my brother, but one that I found more amusing than I probably should have.
Anyway, Heartthrob was a surprisingly effective, though not entirely successful, melding of the conventions of two teen genres: the teen romance and the teen slasher flick. The movie begins innocently enough, with a shy but brilliant valedictorian named Henry (Gilchrist) falling for what first seems to be a manic pixie dream girl named Sam (Peeples) in the summer after high school. Their romance seems to come straight from a 1990s teen romance, but disquieting elements emerge. We see, for example, that Henry sabotaged Sam’s engine in order to stage a meeting with her. Henry confronts Sam’s friends, accusing them of having designs on her.
It’s not long before Henry descends into madness in a gender-reversed version of the teen stalkers in movies like Swimfan, which are basically aged-down versions of Fatal Attraction. Story-wise, this movie is like Fear, but with a soft spot for the villain. While this is a weaker film because it has about an hour of story stretched over ninety minutes of runtime, it was a generally effective version of the teen stalker narrative, taken to its logical conclusion when Henry decides to begin eliminating perceived threats. Tonally, the movie is surprisingly similar to Crush, the Lucas Till movie about a high school athlete who becomes the object of a young woman’s obsession. Gender swaps aside, both films play with the similarities between teen romance and teen horror movies by using the conventions of one genre to tell a story set in the other.
If this were the whole of Heartthrob movie, I would give it a qualified endorsement because the actors are appealing, the story has just enough content to make it worth streaming, and the beach scenery in the seaside town where the story is set is quite beautiful. But the ending of the movie raises an issue that makes the movie problematic in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Consider yourself warned that I am going to spoil the ending, should you want to watch the movie.
OK, so here we go: Henry dies at the end in a big scene to threatened violence, and Sam tries to move on with her life after discovering that her boyfriend was a spree killer who had become dangerously obsessed with her. She starts an affair with a professor in order to “feel” something through sex, but realizes that nothing can ever be as exciting and invigorating as the pathological love Henry had for her, so the movie closes with Sam declaring her everlasting love for Henry, and the movie seems to play this straight, not as the depths of horror but the climax of a teen romance.
There is no indication that Sam has become unhinged or was driven mad by what happened. Instead, the movie seems to want to genuinely romanticize a serial killer, and the choice to suggest that Henry’s love for Sam is the sort of wild intensity that surpasses normal life basically ruins the movie. It might have worked if the film more clearly framed her emotional state as a tragedy rather than creepily reproducing the ending to The Fault in Our Stars without seeming to recognize why this is a bad choice.
If you made it this far, I will leave you with a palette cleanser. The Netflix original horror-comedy The Babysitter receives my unqualified endorsement. It is not scary, or really more than superficially a horror movie, but it is a funny and oddly charming comedy about a 14-year-old wimp who discovers that his beloved babysitter and her friends are part of a Satanic blood cult and fights back when they try to kill him. At a brisk 84 minutes, it has hardly a wasted minute, and under McG’s competent direction the action and the pastiche of gags referencing everything from Home Alone (lampshaded too clearly) to The Evil Dead was funny, sweet, and built to a satisfying ending. It wasn’t terribly original, but it did what it set out to do with style, and that counts for a lot.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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