It Came From the Movies: The Best Horror on TV

Well folks, it’s Halloween season. Who am I kidding? It’s been Halloween season all month long. That means its high time that we addressed that here at The Chaotic Neutral, and so let’s get to it.

Rather than talk about horror movies, which we could do all month long, believe us, I’m going to tackle television. What’s been on my mind is that I realized recently that the best horror shows out right now are all retoolings and sequels of film franchises. It’s strange that A) there are that many horror series’ adapted into shows at the same time and B) they are all so good! How did this happen? Do the people know that these great extensions to some damn fine movies are out there? The people need to know!

What’s fascinating is how these shows turn films into successful long form storytelling. Rather than strictly adhering to the plots and stretching them out, they each take what the source material did perfectly and spin that out into a yarn.

Spoilers for films released between 1960 and 1996.


bates_bannerThe film Psycho is a strange beast. It’s known as one of the best horror films of all time, yet it’s not quite a horror movie. Hitchcock is known as the “master of suspense” and Psycho isn’t so much of a departure as just another evolution. The Birds is closer to a slasher film than anything else he’s done, so what is it about Psycho?

What the movie does to absolute perfection is the  deconstruct of a sympathetic character. Norman Bates starts out as more than likable, he’s downright charming.  A bit bumbling, perhaps, but handsome and gentle and nearly a male Manic Pixie Dreamboat. Janet Leigh’s character seems much less compassionate as a thief. As the movie progresses the suspense builds, as does the body count, but it’s not a gore fest. In fact, other than the famous shower scene, it’s not really even a slasher prototype. The tension all comes from the investigation that takes place around the murders. A horror film where the deaths are the incidental MacGuffins? Yes, and that’s the brilliance of it all.

So that thread is what was teased out and spun into Bates Motel. We know that Norman is going to be a killer. We know that his mother, Norma, is a terrible person that drives him mad. All of that is preordained because of the film. What the show does is give us the suspense of their journeys. We see Norma in turns as both cruel abuser and victim. We see Norman struggle with himself and his family, trying to keep his sanity in what we know is a losing battle. And all the while these characters are made likable to some extent.

Bates Motel actually takes a lot of risks, as well. From the exposition in the movie, the events that occur before the film are pretty explicitly laid out. The show diverges quite a bit. There’s the addition of Dylan, a sibling for Norman. That alone is a huge change. Since the entire plot depends on Norman’s relationship with his mother, putting that big of a change in the show could have derailed everything. It doesn’t, though. Dylan is used as a foil, often siding against Norma and standing up for Norman’s self interest. His voice is one of reason, looking out for the best interests of Norman even when Norman himself doesn’t seem to want that.

The town of White Pine Bay is also a big addition to the cast, in its own way. The town that the motel is located in becomes a sinister force in everyone’s life, though not in a supernatural way. Seeing Norman  and Norma in a situation where there’s an external force causing trouble is another change in power dynamics. The film plays with power between Norman and his mother, and Norman and his victims. Seeing the two of them not acting as the highest in the pecking order changes the perspective of the entire world they inhabit. What turns out to be glorious about that choice is that the Bates family shows up in town somewhat far along in their fall from normalcy. The town doesn’t break them and shape them into the people they become, but instead we see the Bates’ vs the town , two malevolent but functional forces at odds with one another. Again, it’s taking that thread from the film, of seeing likable characters dismantled and laid bare, but on a grander scale.

It’s a dark and twisting path, and there are moments that are just crushing as these people are punished by the world and each other. You want the members of the Bates family to make it through everything they’re subjected to, even when that’s each other. And knowing the inevitability of the events in Psycho, that will most likely end the show, creates a line of suspense and tension through all five seasons.


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If suspense is what Psycho and Bates Motel does best, what does Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2, and Army of Darkness nail? Why, gleeful production. The plots of these movies are not the strongest aspects of them. It’s the practical effects, over the top direction, and overacting that make them great. Sam Raimi has declared that a huge influence in these slapstick-gore movies (especially the first two) were the Three Stooges, but there’s also a lot of expressionist styling in there. And that’s what the foundation of Ash vs Evil Dead is made up of.

AvE is an amazing production. The sheer quantity of blood used is delightful. The makeup effects are great. Think of the great work on Walking Dead and then add in that slapstick aesthetic that Sam Raimi is so fond of. After all these season, sometimes the tone Walking Dead can feel a bit oppressive and unrelenting. When the zombies first showed up everything about them was fresh (literally, as they have gradually putrefied as time has progressed). Now it often feels like a mandatory cast shakeup or plot device. With Ash, it’s more like a celebration. The deadites are funny and crude and their scenes inevitably end in a font of blood. When walkers show up it’s like the party is over. When deadites arrive the party begins. And Sam’s style permeates the whole production. Dutch angles and melodramatic zooms abound, giving a sense of fun to all of the fights. In essence, what made the movies great also makes the show familiar and yet fresh in the age of grimdark gritty reboots.

The deadites aren’t the only characters on the show, though. Whereas Bates Motel is a prequel of sorts, Ash vs Evil Dead is a direct sequel. It takes place about thirty years after the films and Ash has aged in multiple ways. Not only is the character (and actor, thank goodness for Bruce Campbell) older, but his personality is just as pompous, macho, and blowhard-y as ever. In the film franchise, that comedic take on what is needed to blow through seeing one’s friends die and come out alive seemed functional as well as funny. Now that things have settled, Ash seems more like a relic than a hero. That “shoot first, think never” style served him well in the heat of battle but relegates him to a bumbling retail clerk edging up on his 60s. With the return of the deadites, it’s not that he falls back on his old ways, but his old ways finally become useful after three decades of holding him back in the world. The show embraces this and it adds a new layer of comedy to the splatterfest. Watching Ash go from chauvinist throwback to effective leader and back, depending on the scene, is great. We get to see both the Ash of old as well as the punchline he’s become and both are incredibly entertaining.

That is what the Evil Dead franchise is all about. Having everything you want. You get blood and gore as well as comedy. You get gross effects and great acting. The parts of the films you love as well as all new aspects to the world. It’s fast (each episode is a half hour so it’s edited down to a razor-sharp installment), fun, gory, and crude. And it’s all made with a clear love of the genre.


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Perhaps the most surprising show to make this list is From Dusk Till Dawn. The original 1996 film, penned by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Robert Rodriguez,  has become a bit of a cult film but is neither as masterfully crafted as Psycho, nor quite as B-movie as Evil Dead1. Here’s what makes the movie work, though. It’s fun, and ridiculous, and lives in that sweet spot Rodriguez works best in with big ideas and a small to medium budget. The movie gives you enough absurd mythology to do some solid world building and then, just as it brushes up against dense soap opera, collapses into a bloodbath of action. And that is what the series adopts.

First of all, I’d like to say how much I appreciate a dark fantasy series that doesn’t fall back on Christian mythology2. As bastardized and modified for television as it is, the metaphysics, monsters, and mythos ogecko_handf
From Dusk Till Dawn is of Mesoamerican origin, told to us by latinx characters. Just the fact that the show doesn’t eventually boil down to heaven vs hell is refreshing. That freshness permeates the whole series. Vampires aren’t just the generic corrupted humans we’ve become used to. They’re part snake demon. As the show rolls on, more and more backstory, mythos, and bizarre magic make their way into the world. Things show up that would make no sense in the film, but fit in perfectly because the world is so much larger.

If you’ve seen the original film you’ll probably remember the closing shot. The bulk of the action takes place in the Titty Twister, a strip club that turns out to be a haven for vampires. After the sun comes up and the survivors drive away the camera pulls back from the rear of the club and we’re treated to the following parting image:

fdtd_templeYup. The club is actually situated on the top of an ancient Aztec temple, occupying the sacrificial altar. It’s a perfect cinematic shorthand to let you know that there’s far more going on than you’ve been privy to.

That’s where this show lives. Bates Motel is a re-imagining/prequel and Ash vs Evil Dead is a direct sequel. From Dusk Till Dawn is a flat-out reboot. The first season recreates the film, which is a crime drama for the first half and a supernatural horror film for the second. Those two styles are then woven together in the second season, as the world of the vampires and demons is shown to sustain itself in modern times on the framework of a criminal underworld (accent on the under). That’s how the Gecko brothers manage to insinuate themselves into the bigger picture that the movie only hints at. The structure is familiar enough that they believe they can work the system, even if the denizens of said system are not human. And they’re not completely wrong.

Going back to the film, the two parts could be taken either as a mid-film twist or an unevenness in direction. Once these two aspects are connected in the first season of the show, the story utilizes tropes of both genres to move the plot forward, while adding to the other. The crime aspects are given higher stakes because there’s usually something more important at the center of it all than cash. The supernatural aspects are grounded because there’s a method to how all the characters work.

 

These aren’t the only horror shows on TV, and they’re not even the only good horror shows. But remakes and adaptations from screen to smaller screen usually don’t get a lot of respect. These three managed to make the jump and do an incredible job of it. Whether you’re in the mood for gore, suspense, or deeply set up world-building, there’s something airing right now. Feel free to comment with what horror you’re watching, and others should be too.

Notes   [ + ]

1. It stars George Clooney so Rodriguez’s B-movie aesthetic feels more like a concession than celebration.
2. Off the top of my head…

  • Supernatural
  • Sleepy Hollow
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel
  • Constantine
  • Lost
  • True Blood
  • Lucifer
  • Dominion
  • Leftovers
  • God, the Devil, and Bob
  • Brimstone
  • Reaper
  • Ghost Whisperer
  • Hex

Adam

About Adam

Adam is a Jewish American who's sick of the white Christian male being America's "default" setting. For money he works in a public library because free books and information access is wonderful things. For love he writes here for his pet project, The Chaotic Neutral, which is always looking for more writers. You can follow him on Instagram, Goodreads, and at his oft neglected Twitter where he will try to post more, and probably live-tweet the Eurovision Song Contest.

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