TV Capsule Reviews: Chernobyl, The Haunting of Hill House, Castlevania, Watchmen

I’ve been watching some kickass TV shows lately. Let’s talk about ‘em. Beware of spoilers.

Chernobyl

HBO

HBO’s Chernobyl is five episodes of utterly gut-wrenching television. I missed it when it aired earlier this year and recently watched it on Blu-Ray, and I was blown away. A show about a devastating historical event that took place in another country doesn’t automatically sound like a surefire hit, but it ended up being yet another hit for HBO, and with good reason.

I’m not remotely qualified to talk about the series’ technical or historical accuracy, but I can say that writer Craig Mazin and director Johan Renck did an amazing job of turning an incredibly complex series of events into riveting television. Craig Mazin’s previous screenwriting credits are mostly screwball comedies such as The Hangover and its sequels, so he’s not necessarily the writer you might expect to create such a traumatizing series. The third episode shook me so badly I took a week to recover before I watched the last two.

The horrors this show presents are many. People suffering from horrific radiation burns are only the tip of the iceberg. There’s also the now-infamous sequence where a trio of soldiers are tasked with hunting down and killing every animal in Chernobyl. If you have ever had a pet, this sequence is particularly grueling. I forced myself to watch it, but when I watch this series again I’m going to skip that scene.

But on top of the more visceral images, there’s the omnipresent danger of the radiation itself, the knowledge that all of the show’s characters are being slowly poisoned by it. Throughout all of this, the acting in the show is top-notch. Jared Harris is absolutely terrific, between this and The Terror on AMC, he’s been doing amazing work recently. Stellan Skarsgard is also great as a politician who initially butts heads with Harris’ character, and the friendship that slowly develops between the two men is genuinely moving.

There are many other characters and subplots throughout the series, and it is remarkable that the five episodes don’t feel overstuffed despite everything going on. The pacing is excellent and the series is very watchable, despite the harrowing subject matter. I can see myself eventually watching it again (minus the animal-killing scenes), but not for a while. It is often very difficult to watch, but it is made with skill and incredible attention to detail, the acting is excellent and perhaps most importantly it never forgets the incredible human cost of the Chernobyl disaster. It’s a remarkable piece of filmmaking and if you can stomach the more gruesome scenes, it’s a very rewarding viewing experience.

The Haunting of Hill House

Netflix

Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat: writer/director Mike Flanagan’s Netflix series of The Haunting of Hill House IS NOT the same as the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. It shares some thematic similarities and character names, but the show is very much its own beast. It’s more inspired by the book than based on it. If you’re a big Shirley Jackson fan who expects the show to be a direct adaptation of the book, you’re going to be disappointed.

In my opinion that’s a good thing, since (and I realize this is a potentially unpopular opinion) I think the book is tremendously overrated. The book is, in a word, BORING. You want to know what happens in the book? Here’s a synopsis: some people spend a few days sitting around a weird old house talking, and then one of them dies in a car crash. The end. The book is often held up as a masterpiece of horror, but I did not find it remotely frightening.

Now if you’re still reading this and don’t hate me for expressing my dislike of a well-regarded novel, let’s move on and talk about the show. The show is great. There were scenes in this series that scared the absolute hell out of me, and the fifth episode shook me so badly I took a week to recover before I watched the rest of the ten episodes (sound familiar? Man, I followed up Chernobyl with something equally as intense, albeit in different ways). And the eighth episode has the most effective jump scare I’ve ever encountered in a movie or show, it damn near gave me a heart attack.

Mike Flanagan is a well-regarded filmmaker who I’ve heard quite a few good things about, although before I watched Hill House I hadn’t seen any of his work. And the hype about the guy is legit: he is a very, very good director. The sixth episode of Hill House is composed almost entirely of very long tracking shots and is one of the best episodes of television I’ve ever watched. If you have the Blu-Ray, I highly recommend watching this episode with Flanagan’s commentary, his eloquent and passionate description of the technical challenges of filming the episode is fascinating, and his appreciation for every member of the cast and crew who worked on it is really touching.

But I’m getting ahead of myself a little bit. Let’s back up and talk about what the show is about. The show is about the Crain family: parents Hugh and Olivia, and their children Steven, Shirley, Theo, Luke, and Nell. This family, to put it mildly, has ISSUES. Many of these issues stem from the summer the family spent in a haunted house –the titular Hill House. You see, Hugh and Olivia were attempting to restore the house over the summer and the entire family ended up having various paranormal encounters, which scarred them all in different ways.

That’s a vast oversimplification, but I don’t want to give too much away because if you’re a horror fan who hasn’t seen this show yet, you should really check it out. I’m going to sound a bit like a broken record when I say that the acting in this show is tremendous across the board. Many of the actors were previously unknown to me, and I was impressed with all of them. The show is structurally similar to Stephen King’s IT, in that the show weaves back and forth in between two time periods: the past, in which we see the family’s fateful summer in Hill House, and the present, where the kids are all grown up and the family is dealing with the many scars left by that traumatic summer.

I found all of their stories very compelling, and the show gives every character time to develop so that the viewer knows and cares about each one of them, which makes the scary scenes even scarier. The scares are psychological rather than gory, and Flanagan knows exactly how to get under the skin of every character, and by extension the viewer. The show is a harrowing tale of lingering trauma, and is a family drama as much as a horror story.

But make no mistake, this is a horror story. Just ask the ghosts hiding in the backgrounds of every episode. Mike Flanagan has confirmed that there are ghosts hiding in the background of every episode except the sixth, since that episode was so technically complex that they didn’t have time for Easter eggs. I missed the hidden ghosts in the first few episodes, but once I read about them online I started to pay closer attention to the backgrounds, and noticed quite a few of the creepy bastards in the later episodes. I LOVE how Flanagan incorporates these hidden ghosts, there’s never any loud noises or sudden music cues to alert the audience that the ghosts are there. But they are. Watching. Waiting.

I always love it when filmmakers put the extra effort into adding details and then letting the audience figure it out for themselves. I don’t even know if internet sleuths have found every ghost yet. The house itself also looks amazing. Somehow Flanagan and his crew managed to design the house in a way that pays homage to the source novel while still feeling like its own original creation.

If I have one problem with the show, it’s the ending. As good as the show is, Flanagan doesn’t quite stick the landing. The last episode isn’t terrible, but it is somewhat unsatisfying given how good the buildup to it had been. The uneven final episode doesn’t tank the entire show, but it is too bad that it doesn’t go out on a higher note. Flanagan is currently in production on a sequel of sorts: The Haunting of Bly Manor, said to be loosely based on The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. I’m looking forward to seeing what Flanagan does with another famous ghost story.

Castlevania

Netflix

Castlevania is an animated Netflix series based on the classic video game series by Konami. It has everything I like: swords, skeletons, castles, vampires, winged creatures of the night, a cranky badass hero, and lots of blood and gore, all wrapped up in a thoroughly gothic atmosphere. What’s not to like?

But the amazing thing about this show is that you actually care about the characters. I was honestly surprised by how much time the series spent with each character in the second season. The first season was only four episodes and while they were four good episodes, the first season couldn’t help but feel like a bit of a tease. But it’s a tease that pays off in the eight-episode second season. Season 2 introduces several new characters, and at times the pacing can be a bit slow. But the show rewards the viewer’s patience with several action-packed episodes in the second half, which include some of the best animated fight scenes it has ever been my pleasure to witness.

The main antagonist is Dracula, the most famous bloodsucker of all time. But the show’s portrayal of him is very different from other portrayals of the famous vamp. This version of Dracula is not bent on ruling the world just for the hell of it.

This Dracula just wants his wife back.

Wait, what?

Yes, this show’s Dracula is primarily motivated by his grief over the cruel death of his wife, Lisa. In the first scene of the first episode, we meet a young woman named Lisa who wants to be a doctor. She seeks out Dracula for his scientific knowledge. He is impressed by her and agrees to teach her, and she in turn helps him regain some of his humanity. Eventually they marry.

Fast forward twenty years, and Lisa is burned at the stake by a power-crazed bishop who falsely accuses her of witchcraft.

This turns out to be a Very Bad Idea.

Dracula unleashes his hordes of nightmare monsters as punishment for his wife’s death, and the results are spectacularly gruesome. This show is animated, but you probably shouldn’t let your kids watch it. The gore is quite copious, as is the profanity. Every episode was written by Warren Ellis, a well-known comic book writer. His scripts are peppered with f-bombs, which do seem a bit unnecessary at times but the story he’s crafted is excellent so I can give him a pass. And it always amuses me when animated characters say bad words, I don’t know why.

The protagonist is Trevor Belmont, whose family has spent generations fighting Dracula and his minions. When we first meet Trevor, all he wants to do is get drunk. He gets pulled into the escalating conflict and turns out to be a badass monster-killer. He is soon joined by Sypha Belnades, a powerful magic user, and Adrian Tepes, also called Alucard, who is the son of Dracula and Lisa (hint: read “Alucard” backwards). Trevor, Sypha and Alucard are a terrific trio, they bicker and argue at first but soon become friends and grow to rely on each other. Trevor is voiced by Richard Armitage, who played Thorin Oakenshield in the Hobbit movies, and his deep baritone is perfect for Trevor, a cranky badass with a heart of gold.

But let’s talk more about Dracula, since I’m such a big fan of villains. Dracula spends most of the second season moping around his castle while his generals conspire behind his back. It’s a totally unexpected way of portraying Dracula. You actually feel sorry for him. Losing Lisa robbed him of his ability to feel any kind of emotion at all. He is ostensibly the villain of the series, but he’s ultimately a deeply sympathetic and even tragic figure. He’s like the reverse of Batman: Bruce Wayne suffered a terrible tragedy, so he fights crime to prevent anyone else from having to suffer the same kind of loss that he experienced when his parents were murdered. Castlevania’s Dracula does the opposite: He suffered a terrible loss, so everyone else is going to have to suffer too.

It’s not until Dracula’s final battle with the heroes that he is able to feel anything again. During a truly epic smackdown, Dracula and Alucard pummel each other viciously and smash each other through walls repeatedly, until Dracula inadvertently tosses Alucard into Alucard’s childhood bedroom. Upon seeing the room, Dracula stops.

“My boy…” he moans. “I’m killing my boy. Lisa…I’m killing our boy!”

He stops fighting and allows his son to stake him in the heart.

It’s a surprisingly poignant moment, a potrayal of a man unable to feel to any emotion until it is far too late, at which point he welcomes death.

Damn. I was not expecting anything like this when I started watching Castlevania. I was expecting to be entertained (and I was) but I was not expecting the characterization to be so good.

I am a big fan of this show. Despite Dracula’s demise at the end of Season 2, Netflix recently gave the green light to a third season and I’m very excited to see where the story goes.

Watchmen

HBO

This show. THIS FREAKING SHOW.

I LOVE IT.

Yet another hit for HBO, Watchmen is a direct sequel to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal graphic novel. The book was made into a movie by Zack Snyder in 2009, but the show ignores the changes the movie made to the story and is a direct sequel to the book. As such, if you’ve seen the movie but haven’t read the book, you might be confused by certain things, like why everyone is so obsessed with squids and beings from other dimensions.

I had no idea what to expect from the show, but being a fan of the book I decided to check it out and I have been consistently impressed. HBO’s Watchmen is one of the most bizarre, provocative and just plain fearless shows on TV. It’s utterly batshit insane, but in the best possible way. Through the first seven episodes, I’ve lost track of the number of times this show surprised me, shocked me, moved me, and just generally kicked my ass.

That being said, if you try to watch the show without having read the book or seen the movie, you’ll probably have no idea what the bloody hell is going on. The show is packed with references and Easter eggs, and I’ve read a bunch of discussions online where people speculate and theorize and comment on little details they noticed that other people might have missed. I love seeing this kind of reaction, it makes me so happy to see people actually having a dialogue instead of just pissing and moaning. The show seems to have really resonated, and I am absurdly excited to see what surprises the final two episodes have in store.

It’s also a reminder of just how great Moore and Gibbons’ original graphic novel is. The book was published more than thirty years ago, and its story, themes and characters are every bit as relevant today. There are actually two Watchmen sequels currently going on. The other is Doomsday Clock, a DC Comics series that combines Watchmen characters with current DC continuity (Batman, Superman, etc.). As a comics fan, it’s a real kick to see Watchmen characters like Ozymandias and Rorschach on the same page with Batman and the Joker. But just to be clear, Doomsday Clock and HBO’s Watchmen are completely different and not related at all, aside from both being sequels to the original book. It all just goes to show how the book’s influence hasn’t diminished in over three decades.

Another great thing about the show is that it captures the spirit of the book. Alan Moore has long since disowned any adaptations of his work, so who knows if he’s seen the show or not. But if he hasn’t, he should: the show genuinely feels like it’s part of the same universe. It is shockingly bizarre but always compelling. I love the new characters the show adds to the Watchmen universe and it finds fiendishly clever ways to incorporate some of the book’s classic characters. The reveal of one of these characters at the end of the most recent episode left me utterly gobsmacked, but in the best possible way.

Oh, and I have to mention Peteypedia (hbo.com/peteypedia). If you’re as nuts for this show as I am, check out Peteypedia ASAP. It’s a collection of documents assembled by Agent Dale Petey, a minor character on the show, that flesh out the world the show takes place in. New “files” are uploaded after every new episode, and they are full of all kinds of fascinating tidbits for fans of Watchmen lore. This is also a callback to the book, which featured excerpts from fictional books, magazines, newspapers, etc. that added to the backstory.

HBO’s Watchmen is far stranger and more awesome than I ever could have expected. It’s utterly unpredictable and an absolute blast to watch, although it certainly helps to have some familiarity with the story beforehand. I might revisit this series after the first season ends to talk about more specific spoilery stuff, but until then, bring on those last two episodes!! I can hardly wait.