Saturday, March 5, 2016

Pilot Review: Slasher

Slasher (Fridays at 9:00 on Chiller)

Until a few days ago when I first saw a commercial for the premiere of a new series called Slasher, I had no idea what Chiller was. Imagine my surprise to find out that not only is it a specialty cable channel catering to scary movie fans, but it's one I've received for years and have scrolled past countless times on my FiOS TV guide. I'm kind of glad I know of its existence now, because Slasher is an ideal addition to Friday night viewing: familiar but weird, creepy but fun, and cheaper than going to the movies to see whatever fright-night crap is being unleashed any given weekend.

Designed as an anthology series in which each season would tell a full, self-contained story by creator Aaron Martin (Degrassi: The Next Generation), Slasher follows Sarah Bennet (Katie McGrath, Merlin, Dracula) as she returns to the idyllic town of Waterbury nearly 30 years after her parents were murdered on Halloween and she was ripped from her mother's womb by a psychopathic killer known as The Executioner. Sarah and her husband Dylan (Brandon Jay McLaren, The Killing) are starting over: she as the owner of a new art gallery in town where she will display her paintings, and he as editor-in-chief of the local newspaper, where Sarah is the town's biggest story. Soon after they arrive, though, a new string of murders begins, with a man dressed in a black robe and hooded mask stalking the town and punishing them for their secret sins. Feeling a need to confront her past, Sarah takes it upon herself to solve the mystery of the killer's identity.

If all of this sounds familiar, congratulations, you have seen a slasher film. And that's what's so great about the overall conceit of Slasher. It takes tropes and plot points we're all familiar with (just looking above at that summary, you can deduce connections to Halloween and, most prominently, the Scream franchise) and uses them to both meet and subvert our expectations. Like Scream did in the 90s, Slasher is playing with the conventions of the genre it fits into. It's what MTV's Scream show should have been. That show pointed out how "slasher TV shows" haven't been done before because they burn fast and bright, and that's exactly why Scream was a slog in the end. But Slasher, despite its title, isn't just a slasher or horror film on the small screen. It's also a mystery (on multiple levels), a family drama, and even a little bit of a soap opera.

Martin's script is often smart (though the dialogue does tend toward the banal), flipping the norms of the slasher genre mostly through the characters. Dylan, for example, is the leading guy here, and he's black. Two major characters, including one who becomes the "attack survivor" archetype, are gay. The original Executioner, who Sarah visits for help figuring out the motive for the recent attacks, is quick to note that the killer could be a she. They're small things that really bring Slasher into 2016 without differentiating much from the classic mold. Moments in the first two episodes also flip viewer expectations back on us; the opening of episode two, for example, seems to be a standard, "teens kissing in the woods are about to be killed" set-up, but the scene ends surprisingly (and, as I watched it, with me spilling the bag of jellybeans I had in my lap). I love moments like that, because they're so rare in contemporary, low-budget horror films. Make no mistake, Slasher delivers on the gore and hack-and-slash you'd expect, but it's still exciting to have Martin and director Craig David Wallace occasionally doing something fresh with tired material.

Because, let's be honest, Slasher isn't exactly original. It makes no qualms about being an adaptation of a dozen other more famous stories, and there are times when it falls into a comfortably dull rhythm of telegraphed reveals or slow build-ups to fake scares. And the characters are all pretty one-note (despite their racial or sexual differences what may be typical), most frustratingly Sarah herself. She's nothing more than the "final girl" through the first two episodes, and that girl is never the most interesting. McGrath plays her as a wanderer, moving quietly from scene-to-scene letting things happen rather than making them happen. The Man in the High Castle's Steve Byers plays his cop character in the same vein as David Arquette in Scream, which is to say like a dimwit, but he's outpaced by a hilariously stupid turn from Dean McDermott (AKA Mr. Tori Spelling) as the clueless sheriff. It's all very boilerplate stuff, except for a fun scenery-chewing, Bible-spewing performance from Patrick Garrow (Bitten) as killer Tom Winston. He's the one who uncovers the modern-day killer's pattern of punishing sins biblically, which leads to an intriguing if not wholly unique throughline for the show's remaining episodes.

Maybe it's because I had absolutely no expectations for a show on a network I didn't even know existed, but I still ended up having fun with Slasher. It's like comfort food for people like me who are suckers for a good horror movie (or even a bad one). There's nothing that's going to light the world on fire, but it's just different enough to be interesting and written/directed/acted just well enough to keep me coming back. Plus, it's only eight episodes, which feels like the perfect amount of time to commit to a show like this. Hopefully the plot can sustain itself for six more weeks and not burn out before reaching a conclusion (like Scream) or bloat itself with filler (like American Horror Story). Based on the first two episodes, Slasher is a creepy, cool, brainless weekend diversion.

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