For all our technology, we’ve kinda gotten worse at making nightmares come alive. Horror movies are slick things, thanks to aesthetics refined into CGI gloss.
But there’s something about the ghost of the near past, so familiar and so foreign, that’s a special brand of chilling.
“Brand New Cherry Flavor” understands. Eight episodes of the new series created by Nick Antosca and Lenore Zion are now streaming on Netflix.
Set in early 1990s Los Angeles, “Brand New Cherry Flavor” brings single-minded new filmmaker Lisa (played by Rosa Salazar) to Los Angeles. She’s trying to get her unsettling college short film — with an indelible, horrific final shot that we don’t see right away, which characters wonder how she got — made into a feature. With her in the director’s chair, of course.
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She links up with skeevy producer Lou (Eric Lange), a sexual harasser who soon cheats her out of her own property. Not at all by chance, Lisa soon crosses paths with a decidedly bohemian witch named Boro (Catherine Keener), and looking for revenge, she sets about the bloody, sweaty, oozing, visceral, messy work of enacting a revenge curse.
Though experience will vary by generation, the era of basic cable and Blockbuster seems not far off, even three or four decades later. Content-wise, the mid-1980s and early ‘90s unleashed the nightmares of David Lynch into the mainstream, like “Blue Velvet” and “Twin Peaks.” Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman” comic books refracted one of DC Comics’ old World War II-era properties through the darkest gothic dreams; Death herself was a main character. “The X-Files” was a hit — hard to imagine that they could have gotten away with things like the remora-lipped Flukeman on network TV even 10 years earlier.
The Satanic Panic reigned in homes across America, but as a kid forbidden to watch plenty of things, I can tell you that anything could seem just Not Quite Right. This is the era of kids shows like “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” and “Eerie, Indiana,” and even the surprisingly sophisticated and macabre “Batman: The Animated Series.” At the school library, the Stephen Gammell-illustrated “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” series was in hot demand, though not from me.
Need I list off all the VHS covers that made me avert my gaze when I walked past them at the Blockbuster on Brodie Lane, lest the very image invade my eyes and take root in my immortal soul?
(OK, fine, an incomplete selection: “Dead Alive,” “The Bad Seed” and “Devilman” come to mind.)
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Mass-market schlock with practical effects that you could almost feel, demonic possessions imagined by a film auteur for prime-time TV, bad dreams you could take home and rewind. It’s no wonder that our appetite for nostalgia has also led us to revisit what scared us most not so long ago.
“Brand New Cherry Flavor” nails a certain feral quality of its chosen era. The L.A. of Lisa and her friends is seedy and shiny. A witch can bring a corpse as her plus-one to a Hollywood party, and no one will notice. A wannabe starlet traipses around a loft apartment in full mummy-style facial bandages, waiting for her plastic surgery to take, and it’s par for the course.
Every episode contains at least one image truly grisly or foul, usually involving a body in some state of bloody distress. Things squirm out of eye sockets; orifices appear where they should not be. Memorably, as part of her deal with Boro, Lisa regularly vomits up kittens — really — and it’s not nearly as whimsical as that even halfway implies. It’s also one of the many arcane goings-on that are hardly explained, which makes the horror feel all the more real.
Think post-irony David Cronenberg, like if a millennial directed a folk-horror remake of “Videodrome.”
Salazar and Keener work a charisma curse. The former is spiky and single-minded, an often unlikable protagonist who eases the viewer into strange waters with wide eyes that never wink at what’s happening. And Keener is a marvel. She’s a performer who always picks the right part, usually coolly confident women with something sinister under the skin. Here she’s an immortal ghoul; she’s a warm shoulder to cry on, too. Her power is as assured in demonic realms as it is in the City of Angels.
The series made me realize how many exciting new works of horror have dipped into the era immediately pre-internet age, in order to unearth not-so-ancient evils. Prano Bailey-Bond’s “Censor,” a fave from this year’s Sundance Film Festival, took the VHS route literally. In that film, a U.K. movie censor reviewing “video nasties” — low-budget, high-shock slasher flicks — discovers new footage that seems to echo the disappearance of her sister as a child. She becomes haunted by the grainy images on the tape, which seem all too real, and then they are.
And Jacob Gentry’s “Broadcast Signal Intrusion,” an entry from South by Southwest in March, takes inspiration from spooky real-life hijackings of television broadcasts in the late ‘80s by a figure in a Max Headroom mask. In that film, a man who’s suffered great loss unearths tapes of disturbing pirate broadcasts from that era. What he sees becomes an obsession that consumes him.
That’s what “Brand New Cherry Flavor” gets, too — before social media rotted our minds (and our democracy), the things we watched left stains. The darker ones, perhaps, were harder to get out back then. The idea of a haunted video tape, or an unbidden intruder on the glowing box in front of the couch, or a cursed student film — maybe we were a little less used to devils coming out of our screens. Now, we know how scary they really were, and are.
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