There’s a battle brewing, and it’s being fought by streaming services, cable TV and Primetime television. If you’re too weak to resist, UnBinged is here to help, telling you what to hate, what to love and what to love to hate. This week: reviews of Squid Game and Midnight Mass; plus Chucky and I Know What You Did Last Summer.
It seems that every couch potato in America was just sitting at home and minding their own business when suddenly, a batshit insane Korean series came out of nowhere and became their favorite freaky TV show. And then it took the entire country by storm. Much like Tiger King and WandaVision, Squid Game quickly became the latest “quara-stream” sensation. Featuring a splatterpunk attitude with a Fisher-Price aesthetic, millions tuned in to the carnage, making the Korean series one of the most watched Netflix shows in the history of the streaming service.
Which begs the question: Why? Why are people turning their attention to a strange series featuring games and gore? Much like the celebrated Parasite, Squid Game is a series about the upper echelons of society and those who must play by their rules, but in this case, literally.
The story focuses on #456, Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), a gambling addict and terrible father who is so deeply in debt that he agrees to become a player in a mysterious game. Contestants are forced to endure schoolyard games with life or death consequences for the chance to win a fortune. As each round unfolds, so do the backstories of each player, including a North Korean defector (Jung Ho-yeon), a young Pakistani father (Anupam Tripathi) with no other options, and an investment banker (Park Hae-soo ) who is playing by his own rules.
The show is hypnotic as it entices viewers with a polychromatic set design that seems to highlight the bloodsport. The look, the viciousness of the games themselves, and the well-crafted characters keep viewers entranced, wanting to binge one episode after the next.
People are tuning in to Squid Game because it conveys a dark and twisted memorandum on society and all its ills, wrapped in a bloodbath and played out in a 1984 Colorforms playset. It’s unlike anything most of us has seen, as the optimistic color palate plays against the despair of the players. In the end, the devastation left by the game is tangible, leaving the winner in anguish and despair, while those at home are begging for more.
Squid Game and Midnight Mass, the latter from director Mike Flanagan, are helping Netflix beat the creepy competition on TV screens right now. Mass not only offers chills for the spooky season, but presents an original approach to a horror trope that revamps a classic and pumps fresh blood into the genre.
Set within the isolated fishing town of Crockett Island, the insular community is buzzing when a new priest moves in after its elderly Monsignor goes MIA. Young but filled with fire, Father Paul Hill (Hamish Linklater) quickly charms the residents with his optimistic sermons and willingness to help the downtrodden. Soon after his arrival, the residents undergo changes: old aches subside, wounds heal, and for a chosen few, a new thirst develops.
The real menace isn’t what’s lurking in the mysterious box Father Hill brought with him from his travels in Damascus, but within the residents who turn a blind eye to obvious warning signs. Their willingness to follow without question releases the bats from the belfry, allowing all hell to break loose. And my, is it amazing to watch.
Like a cross between Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot and Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In, backdropped by the dilapidated sets from Robert Altman’s Popeye, Flanagan continues to provide a bounty of homespun horror for the streaming service. Flanagan’s usual players are all present and eager to contribute to the sophisticated story. Each are given a chance to shine, from Rahul Kohli’s Sheriff Hassan, the new Muslim lawman in a Catholic community, to Kate Siegel’s Erin Greene, a former islander who returns after a long absence. Each actor pulls their weight, but the true standout is Samantha Sloyan as Bev Keane, an antagonist whose villainy and turpitude will make viewers want to throw nearby belongings at the screen.
Midnight Mass is a gut punch that takes aim at those who put their faith in the wrong hands, creating an elevated creature feature. It’s a must-watch for horror hounds, Halloween lovers, and people who just enjoy great storytelling. And Flanagan continues to build up a portfolio that puts him at the forefront and the future of horror.
Amazon Prime’s I Know What You Did Last Summer is another endeavor by a streaming service to capitalize on horror nostalgia with a reboot. The show is a small screen adaptation of the 1997 teen slasher pic, which achieved box office success but was considered by many to be a melodramatic Scream wannabe with half the fun and twice the kitsch. Almost 25 years later, the same can be said about the latest TV adaptation.
The plot is familiar: a girl returns home from her first year of college and is quickly welcomed by her loving father, a dead goat head in her closet, and a foreboding message written on her mirror in blood. Flashback to the previous summer, when an intoxicated teen (Madison Iseman) takes her buddies for a joyride before their annoying behavior causes her to accidentally crash into one of their own. The gang decide to hide the evidence, and one year later, they are forced to face their terrible choices when they are hunted down one by one.
Summer is all style which at best, offers 20% mystery, 20% musical interludes and 60% shots of people driving while talking on their phones or texting. There is a clever bit of misdirection in the first few episodes, giving the plot an unexpected Freaky Friday twist. But once it’s revealed to the audience, the show quickly returns to its two-dimensional characterizations of Gen Z and scrambled, unremarkable storytelling.
The fatal flaw of the series is characters we’re supposed to care about. Trapped by try-hard dialogue, awful stereotypes, and writing filled with pop culture references instead of character development or humor, the “teens” are annoying at best. In fact, all the characters are pretty despicable, so whether they live or die is of no consequence (but might make for a fairly fun hate watch).
In the picturesque town of Hackensack, NJ, life isn’t as serene as it appears. There’s a long history of horrific violence, thanks in part to its most famous former resident, Charles Lee Ray, AKA Chucky, a serial killer whose soul took up residence in a Good Guy doll.
After 30 years of hacking his way through Child’s Play films, Chucky returns to his hometown, and to new owner Jake, a 14-year-old with a whole host of issues. Soon, Chucky starts “helping” Jake with his problems, stabbing his way through his teen angst. In addition to Chucky’s relationship with the conflicted Jake, the show also digs deep into young Charles’ own childhood as a burgeoning maniac, who started by killing his mother before blossoming into a homicidal monster while at the Burlington Country Home for Wayward Boys.
As an adaptation, the series successfully maintains the spirited fun of the movies while creating novel characters that fit the current environment. Teens and parents feel authentic, even in the most absurd circumstances, and their genuine portrayals give the show a contemporary vibe.
Part of its success is due to Don Mancini, the mad genius behind the Child’s Play series. His involvement in the show helps create a cohesive story. Brad Dourif is also back as the voice of Chucky, giving the doll his signature cadence, which sounds like he went to work on the docks after smoking a pack of Marlboros. In general there’s a surprising depth and a willingness to grow beyond slasher stereotypes, here. Chucky not only acts as a love letter to the franchise, but moves it forward into the modern age.