Critics are really excited about the new season of Black Mirror, a show whose first two seasons I only occasionally sampled. But on the strength of the reviews I watched one of the new episodes yesterday, which TV Insider critic Matt Roush identified as the best of six-episode anthology: “Playtest.” It was, critics said, the closest that the series comes to pure and traditional horror, which happens to be one of my fields of expertise. I wrote the book on it, after all. The episode tells the story of an American tourist named Cooper (Wyatt Russell) who takes part in a video game company’s beta test of a neural implant that creates an augmented reality horror video game experience. If you haven’t seen the episode, you should probably stop reading because to criticize it is to give away part of the “twist” at the end.
“Guaranteed to make you jump,” Roush said, but as Cooper himself offers during the episode, jump scares aren’t much to build a story on. I found the episode disappointing, and the reason for that is that the story very carefully apes the form of a horror classic and strips of it of its impact.
The story in question is Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” and “Playtest” carefully inverts each part of the story. In “Occurrence,” a wealthy Southern plantation owner named Peyton Farquhar is lured into a trap by Union soldiers during the Civil War, revealing his Confederate loyalty and resulting in his hanging as a saboteur. Thinking of his beloved family, he escapes when the noose snaps and makes his way back home amid strange hallucinations, only to have it revealed that the entire story was his dying brain’s final fantasy as the noose snapped his neck.
“Playtest” inverts the details while keeping the narrative thrust. In this version, an impoverished American tourist is lured into a trap by unscrupulous corporate types. Like Farquhar, our tourist, Cooper, is also thinking of his family, but this time it is with horror, not longing. He is deathly afraid of his mother’s Alzheimer’s and the memory of his dead father. The company inserts a device into his neck, much like a digital noose, and they put him into an augmented reality horror game, whose jump scares take up the lion’s share of the hour. But in another inversion of “Owl Creek,” Cooper takes his noose voluntarily, and with high expectations of fun. When the hallucinations—sorry, “augmented reality mental projections”—turn dangerous, the digital noose is said to malfunction, just like the snapped noose in “Owl Creek” and he is led to believe that he has been freed from the game. He travels back home to his mother, at which point the show reveals that, like Farhquar in “Owl Creek,” he has fantasized his return home in the instant when the device malfunctions. But the show isn’t content to ape the ending of “Owl Creek” only once; instead, it has this revelation become a nested fantasy, repeating the revelation to diminishing returns by having the entirety of the game be the crazed ravings of his dying brain in the split second between receiving the digital noose and his inevitable death.
The comparison with “Owl Creek” also illuminates why this episode didn’t work for me. In “Owl Creek” Bierce sets up the emotional shock of the sudden climax by having his hero think he is escaping back to a better life, to happiness. The ending, in just a sentence, cuts the legs out from under the character and the reader, presenting both shock and emotional heft in a very brief space. By contrast, Cooper in “Playtest” is trying to escape his own life at every level—through ignoring his mother’s phone calls, through traveling the world, through video games—so his return home is not a longed-for triumph but simply more sadness. Because Cooper does nothing but fail to escape misery, his equally sudden death doesn’t play as a surprise but an inevitability, not catharsis but culmination.
Reviews of the episode, when not philosophizing about the dangers of smartphones and video games, said it was the closest the series came to The Twilight Zone, which is ironic since Zone broadcast an episode (recut from a French film) adapting Bierce’s “Owl Creek Bridge.”
I’m not even sure that episode writer Charlie Brooker, the creator of Black Mirror, knew that he was paralleling “Owl Creek.” He told Rolling Stone that he was just trying to create a pastiche of “old-school horror” layered atop the horror video games like Silent Hill and Resident Evil he played while writing the episode:
"It partly came about because I wanted to do a haunted house story," Brooker says. "Compared to some of the episodes, it's quite a romp. It's not like a message episode. I kept calling it our Evil Dead 2, which I think slightly annoys Dan [Trachtenberg], our director, but he's even geekier about games than I am. It was very deliberate that we wanted to reference old-school horror."
I’m not sure whether I would be more disappointed to learn that Brooker tried and failed to make a modern “Owl Creek,” or that he didn’t know it at all and simply absorbed the tropes from the TV shows, movies, and video games inspired by it.
Either way, the episode is fine as far as it goes, if you like jump scares and screaming and a little bit of atmosphere. On that level, it’s again OK, but even on the surface level of “scaring a guy in a haunted house with fake horror” it doesn’t compare to the 1971 Night Gallery segment “A Question of Fear,” in which Leslie Nielsen spends the night inside the Psycho house, which is rigged as an interactive horror game, with a truly gruesome ending that similarly culminates in the hero’s inevitable demise immediately after he thinks he’s defeated the game. The reason for that death, however, is much more effective than the random malfunction of technology in “Playtest,” but similarly plays on the idea of exploiting the participant’s deepest fears.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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