A Hot Time in the Haunted House


Resembling “Rosemary’s Baby,” an apartment building in New York City with creepy neighbours and dark basement deals. Similar to “The Mist,” you’re trapped in a rural town with flesh-eating monsters. Like “The Shining,” this sprawling Connecticut mansion preys on the mind of its new resident, a struggling writer.

Three recent television dramas provide solidly made meat-and-potatoes variations on the haunted-house scenario, placing the horror genre perfectly to reflect the worldwide case of stir-craziness we’ve endured for the last two years. Screaming and being clawed by demons are necessary for troubled protagonists to get out of doors (figurative or literal). Some of this sounds very familiar to me!

For example, Netflix’s Archive 81, Epix’s From, and Starz’s Shining Vale are all examples of shows that reflect the current state of television production, not just their content. You can’t go wrong: They keep your attention; they deliver satisfying creeps and jolts; and they’ll fade from your memory the moment they’re done so that you can get back to bingeing on your next favourite show.

They would have been movies in another era. Because of this, you’ll have to become numb to plot holes, meanderings, and inconsistencies in order to watch eight to ten episodes. Let’s face it: in this era of mass-produced storytelling, our standards have slipped a bit.

Archive 81, which premiered in January, has a hushed, detached vibe and a slow, spaced-out rhythm, as though the proper machine on which to play it back is no longer in existence.

This is in keeping with the show’s nostalgia for a bygone era of recording and viewing. Found footage story stars Mamoudou Athie (Sorry for Your Loss) in the role of an early 1990s Hi8 videocassette conservator hired to restore them. Job-related events lead him down a rabbit hole of demonic possession and family grief, with parallel stories taking place in a dank New York rental building and a creepy upstate compound.

Additionally, the premise allows the show’s producers, including The Vampire Diaries’ Rebecca Sonnenshine and James Wan’s production company, to indulge in analog-era visual and audio effects. A Fisher-Price toy camera and a Fisher-Price toy camcorder feature prominently in the film’s plot and atmosphere. Teac’s decks are glowed like movie stars.

In spite of its many influences, “Archive 81” is a satisfying watch thanks to its nostalgic surface tension. Polanski, Lovecraft, Aleister Crowley and “Stranger Things” all feature prominently in the film. (Also, as you keep track of the passing seconds in the numerous shots of people’s faces glued to computer monitors.) An excellent performance by Dina Shihabi, who plays the original videotape camerawoman who has a time-traveling, dreamlike love affair with Dan is also featured in the film. Netflix hasn’t announced a follow-up to this season yet, but the conclusion sets the stage for one.

In “From,” there’s also a sense of nostalgia. Cast and crew members, including creator John Griffin and primary director Jack Bender, are all “Lost” alums. The plot of the new show follows a similar pattern: an unrelated group of people are drawn together in an unknown location with a rigid set of rules.

However, the situation has deteriorated from a Pacific island to a small town in the middle of the United States. That no one can leave is bad enough; all roads mysteriously return to town. Even worse, when the sun goes down, human-like creatures appear that, if allowed inside a house, eat the people inside. They look cuddly compared to the black smoke from “Lost,” which is a stark contrast.

Stephen King is a better comparison for “From,” which has a rural twilight feel and an undercurrent of stark violence. As a King-style morality tale, with some Shirley Jackson thrown in, the story’s focus is on how each individual responds to the “rules,” on who resigns themselves and who fights back when the story isn’t providing clues to the overarching mystery.

To be fair, “From” doesn’t have a lot of originality in its approach to world-building and character development; it would fit right in on CBS or Fox. Though its premise has so far proved to be intriguing, the show’s fifth episode, of 10, airs on Sunday, and the show’s key characters, including Harold Perrineau as the town’s reluctant leader, have all provided strong performances in key roles.

The show’s creators, Jeff Astrof (“Trial & Error”) and Sharon Horgan (“Catastrophe”), have acknowledged that the idea was “The Shining” as a comedy. “Shining Vale,” which premieres on Sunday, has no mystery about influences. It’s a woman, Pat Phelps (Courteney Cox), who hasn’t been able to write anything since her soft-core “Fifty Shades of Grey” ripoff. With her family, she has relocated to the suburbs, where she hopes her new surroundings—and her darkly panelled new house—will inspire her creative juices once again.

Mira Sorvino plays Rosemary, a disgruntled former resident who is haunted by her ghostly past. They add a humorous twist to “The Shining” by making Astrof and Horgan the protagonists instead of Jack Nicholson and Christine Palmer. Unlike Jack Torrance, Pat’s terror of her family is based solely on her emotional rather than physical threats. (She does, however, take an axe to a closet wall in a moment of straight homage). Because she’s a person, we can understand why she’s so abrasive and mean-spirited. There is no one in her family who is aware of what she’s going through. Greg Kinnear, who plays her husband, is a perfect example.

Due to her inability to write well, she feels overwhelmed. This is a minor spoiler, but it’s a safe bet that Rosemary, who gets Pat’s blood pumping but at a high price, is the answer.

Seven out of the eight half-hour episodes of “Shining Vale” were available for review, and while Cox isn’t riotously funny, he has an old pro’s comfort in the role. For its part, director Dearbhla Walsh (“Fargo”), actor Alethea Jones (“Evil”), actress Catriona McKenzie (“Mythic Quest”), and writer Liz Friedlander (“Conviction”) bring a fresh energy to the project. Being confined to this house isn’t a problem for anyone.