"Evil" and "The VVitch" are this week's picks.
Don't you ever laugh as the hearse goes by,
For you may be the next one to die.
They wrap you up in big white sheets
and cover you from head to feet.
They put you in a big black box
And cover you with dirt and rocks.
All goes well for about a week,
Until your coffin begins to leak.
The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out,
The worms play pinochle on your snout,
They eat your eyes, they eat your nose,
They eat the jelly between your toes.
A big green worm with rolling eyes
Crawls in your stomach and out your sides.
Your stomach turns a slimy green,
And pus pours out like whipping cream.
You'll spread it on a slice of bread,
And that's what you eat when you are dead.
- Alvin Schwartz, "The Hearse Song"
Autumn has always been my favorite season. Growing up in Maryland, it was a time of wearing peacoats and drinking hot cocoa and watching the leaves turn earthy shades of red and orange and getting chills down the back of your neck when the wind hits it close to midnight. All of those things helped make spooky season feel like spooky season.
We get none of them here in Florida. It's 84 degrees out while I write this. That sucks!
Some will disagree, of course, but there's a reason there are not many horror/slasher films located on tropical islands. The atmosphere just isn't right. So as a transplant, I'm wondering if you all have any tricks to make the season feel more appropriate. If you do, comment below, or send an email to [email protected].
I know one way for sure: putting something frightening on the television. So let's get to it.
CBS, TV-14, 42 minutes
I don’t like to be a snob. There have been great shows on network TV in the past. I’ve written about a few of them. But over the past decade or so, there haven’t been many, with the most talented creators getting scooped up by either streaming services or prestige networks like HBO. That’s what makes things like Bryan Fuller’s “Hannibal,” which ran on NBC from 2013-2015, such a miracle. It was and remains one of the most affecting depictions of the killer-detective relationship ever filmed and definitely the most beautiful. It was also weird as hell, and I have no idea how he got NBC to greenlight it, let alone renew it twice.
“Evil” is only four episodes into its run. I don’t want to burden it with expectations, but I will say that it is the network show that has shown me the most promise since “Hannibal.” Not just because they are both horror shows — though that helps — but because they have the same ability to traverse ground other network shows are scared to tread.
“Evil” follows Kristen Bouchard (a terrific Katja Herbers), a psychologist who makes most of her money testifying as an expert witness for prosecutors. Her job is to determine whether a defendant is mentally fit to stand trial, and she believes they are — always. When one case breaks this streak, Bouchard gets fired, and in need of immediate cash for reasons still unknown (but hinted at), she ends up working with someone involved with that case: David Acosta (Mike Colter), who I would best describe as a spiritual detective. He works for the Catholic church — he’s also training to be a priest — and his main job is to determine whether or not members of the church in serious need of help are possessed by a demon or if there is an earthly solution. His team works as parts of a trinity: Acosta is the believer, Bouchard is the agnostic psychologist, and their other partner, Ben Shakir (Aasif Mandvi), is the full-on skeptic.
What’s interesting about “Evil” is its handling of religion doesn’t take sides. Acosta isn’t made fun of for believing in demons, nor is Shakir proven a fool for being an atheist. Some of their cases do turn out to have an answer rooted in science, no demon to be found. Others are harder to explain. It’s following a “case of the week” format, but there’s also a lot of serialization, like Bouchard being tormented via night terrors by an incubus named George or a storyline revolving around a lawyer named Leland Townsend (Michael Emerson), who seems hell-bent on destroying the work Bouchard, Acosta and Shakir are doing.
Also, at one point, Acosta does some sort of ayahuasca-adjacent drug, so he can see encrypted visual messages from God and decodes them by using a famous painting to find three triangulated points on a map of the U.S. This is only about the third-weirdest thing that has happened in four episodes.
It does have some downsides. The show’s CGI can be a little wonky — I’m guessing it does not have a huge budget — and sometimes it does more telling than showing for my liking. But these are small complaints. Colter is the bigger name, and he’s good, but Herbers totally steals the show. She’s believable as a take-no-shit psychologist, as a de facto single mother of four young girls — she’s married, but her husband has been conspicuously absent thus far, supposedly working as a Mt. Everest tour guide — and as someone experiencing things she does not understand, often within minutes of one another. It’s a tough role to pull off, and she does.
It’s been a promising start, and it has already been renewed for a second season despite lackluster ratings, so CBS must have faith in it from a quality standpoint. If “Evil” ever decides to fully embrace its serialized side, it could become something special.
“The VVitch” (2015)
Netflix, rated R, 92 minutes
Because I’m going to see Robert Eggers new film, “The Lighthouse,” this weekend, I wanted to take a look back at his first film, “The Witch,” stylized “The VVitch.” (Why? I don’t know, but it looks cool.)
Some people think this movie is not scary, and those people are wrong because within five minutes of this movie beginning, a baby gets kidnapped by the titular witch (or is it?) and turned into ointment, and then the baby’s brother asks his father if the unbaptized baby, Sam, is going to go to heaven, and the father has no answer.
“The VVitch” is the tale of a 1600s Puritan family in New England that gets kicked out of its colony over a religious dispute. When Sam is taken, it tears them apart. We know it was a witch, but they don’t. They believe the witch is simply a legend — at least some members of the family, like father William (Ralph Ineson) and son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw). They think it was a wolf. They can see the tracks, they say, because what else are they supposed to say? They need something to cling to.
Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) knows this can’t be true. She was watching Sam before he vanished, and I do mean vanished, during a game of peek-a-boo. Her mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie), suspects she had something to do with the disappearance and plots to send her away to another family to work as a servant.
Then things get grim.
“The VVitch” isn’t a conventional horror movie, and maybe that’s why critics loved it, and audiences did not. It does not make its bones through jump scares. It revels in mood and fills the viewer with a constant sense of dread. The family believes that every good thing that happens to them is a gift from God, and every bad thing is a sign they have angered God. They live in isolation. There is no internet. There is barely any science, compared to today, or an understanding of how the world works. They are grieving and confused and paranoid and utterly alone, and it is easy to understand how those circumstances could lead to people doing seemingly unfathomable things.
Eggers, in his debut feature, proves that he is close to mastering the technical aspects of the craft. Every frame is purposefully drab, which adds to the film’s bleakness. The shots of the New England fields are sweeping and give context to how isolated the family truly is. He only used natural light and candles to give the film its hue, no special effects or tricks of the camera.
It is filmmaking in is purest form, telling a tale as old as time (almost). When religion is literally all you have, there is nothing more frightening than losing it.
Quote of the Week:
Young twins Jonas (Lucas Dawson) and Mercy (Ellie Grainger) singing a devilish song about the family goat in "The VVitch."
"Black Phillip, Black Phillip, a crown grows out his head.
Black Phillip, Black Phillip, to nanny queen is wed.
Jump to the fence post. Running in the stall.
Black Phillip, Black Phillip, king of all."
(Is there anything scarier than little kids singing a cappella in unison? I think not.)