AMC’s ‘NOS4A2’ brings horror novel to creepy life

Los Angeles Times
Published: 6/3/2019 8:50:20 PM

If you sound out the title of the new AMC show NOS4A2 letter by number, you get something like Nosferatu, as in the vampire. And there is indeed a character here, named Charlie Manx (Zachary Quinto), who stays alive by siphoning the life force from children as they ride in his old Rolls-Royce toward Christmasland, “a very special place where every day is Christmas Day and unhappiness is against the law.” It won’t be as good a place as it sounds, and actually, it sounds pretty horrible.

The series, which premiered Sunday, is based on a novel by horror writer Joe Hill. By the evidence of a detailed Wikipedia synopsis (yes, I cheated), the book is even weirder than the show, which is weird enough. Hill is the son of Stephen King, and his book shares with his father’s books a Massachusetts setting (cue the accents, and also grinders). The Rolls-Royce — the series title is its license plate number — seems to have been texting with King’s Christine. And there’s an element of The Shining in the snow approach to Christmasland. There is also a big fat nod to Poltergeist right at the beginning and slier references throughout the series, developed for television by Fear the Walking Dead producer and Hell on Wheels writer Jami O’Brien.

Ashleigh Cummings plays Vic McQueen, a postmillennial working-class small town art punk who has exactly two friends — Willa (Paulina Singer), who is rich, and Craig (Dalton Harrod), who is the male version of Vic. (She is liable to say she has no friends, but that is just the teenager talking.) She is also friendly with a janitor at her school (Olafur Darri Olafsson), who will be used as horror stories often use janitors.

Vic, who draws, is coming to the end of her high school career and wants to go to art school. Her father (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) encourages her dreams, without any practical sense of how to help her make them real; her mother (Virginia Kull), with whom Vic sometimes cleans houses and who is intensely conscious of how much money they don’t have, would prefer she not dream at all. Arguments between her parents send Vic racing away on her motorbike, even as their mutually accusing dialogue continues to ring (a little cornily) in her ears.

On one of these flights, she discovers an old covered bridge — demolished years before, she learns — which proves to be a portal to take her where lost things are. This leads her, by and by, to Maggie (Jahkara Smith), an Iowa librarian (like The Music Man’s Marian), who can tell the future with Scrabble tiles. Maggie and Vic, it transpires, are part of a rare breed of “strong creatives,” which sounds like something they say on Madison Avenue, who can harness the power of imagination, which sounds like something they say at Disneyland. Vic waking up to her uncanny gift creates something like a disturbance in the Force, which is picked up by Manx, another strong creative. He is Darth Vader in this analogy.

The spooky stuff is what will sell the show, but what makes NOS4A2 interesting is the amount of time it spends on the ordinary daily drama, which apart from Vic’s family, includes a classic (though tentative) teenage romantic triangle and social-class story lines. The friends and family scenes, which operate for the most part independently of the horror story, are well written, if not stunningly original, and acted with subtlety and commitment. (A singalong Here Comes the Sun is lovely.) You could slice the horror elements right out of the series and still have a pretty decent story about an arty girl with flawed but loving parents coming of age in a town too small for her.

At the same time, with its attention so divided, the series can move pretty slowly. There are 10 episodes (I have seen six), and you are primed early for a decisive rumble between villain and heroine. (Temporarily decisive, if other seasons follow.)

It’s not that the series is dull at any particular moment — it’s silly sometimes but usually interesting — only that one wants to see the villain stopped. This will not apply to everyone, to be sure; series run for years on the back of seemingly unstoppable villains audiences love to hate — or just love.

Cummings is 26 but makes a convincing teenager under her dark mop of hair, sometimes surly, sometimes sweet. Her Vic joins an ever-longer line of young women forced to grow up by supernatural circumstance, but incrementally, so you don’t notice her turning into a heroine. (The especially perceptive may recognize the actress as Dot from Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.)

Arguably best known as Spock in the rebooted Star Trek films, Quinto has a rich history in genre television, having famously played a skin-obsessed serial killer in American Horror Story and a brain-draining serial killer in Heroes. He’s on familiar ground here, playing Manx — who introduces himself at one point as “CEO of Christmasland Enterprises, director of Christmasland Entertainment, president of Fun” and considers kidnapping children from their parents as “a matter of rescue and retrieval” — with trademark understatement and a kind of creepy kindliness.

So if you like your Zachary Quinto psychotic and evil — but also sort of nerdy and polite — you will be happy here, if such a word may be allowed.

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