Make TV Scare Again: where everybody knows your name

Few shows in television history cast as long a shadow as Twin Peaks. It made networks more amenable to serialized TV stories. It showed that television can have cinematic production values. And it set the stage for the now familiar notion of strange, insular, isolated communities as the setting for creepy television shows. What is it about small towns? When did Mayberry get so weird?

After the jump, what do you have after a damn fine cup of coffee?

Tom Chick: The Kettering Incident
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It’s no coincidence that The Kettering Incident is from the same country as Picnic at Hanging Rock. Peter Weir’s seminal “yikes, Australia sure is creepy!” movie from 1975 is also based on the unsolved mystery of missing girls. Australian horror screenwriter Everett De Roche kicked off his career with a 1978 movie called The Long Weekend, which presented the Australian wilderness as a malignant intelligence waiting to devour unsuspecting people who wander out into it. Yep, Australia sure is creepy.

But The Kettering Incident isn’t as elliptical as 70s cinema. It flirts with the kind of horror thrills Australia produced in the 80s, and specifically UFO abduction thrills. For instance, a 1988 Rolf de Heer movie called Incident at Raven’s Gate. What is it about the word “incident”? It’s so vague. It offers so much leeway. It implies much more underneath the surface. You only call something an incident when it would sound too crazy if you called it what it actually was. Incident is never not a euphemism.

About halfway through the eight-episode run of The Kettering Incident, I got out a pencil and paper. I started making a list of the stuff that needed explaining. I didn’t want to forget any of it. It comes at you fast and furious and sometimes dreamlike. Why is that in there? Why did that just happen? Wait, why did that just happen? The density of mystery is staggering. Within a few episodes, I had to turn over the sheet of paper to continue on the back. I gave up shortly thereafter. With too few episodes left to explain my sheet of paper, and with no sign of a second season in the works, I realized this probably wouldn’t be a show that answers all the questions. And although I was right, it is a show that answers the important questions. It resolves what I wanted to know, and leaves me to ponder what I don’t know. Without feeling cheated.

In that it comes down to one character’s realization and decision, the Kettering Incident reminds me a lot of the TV show I’ll be talking about for Friday favorites. It also reminds me of Oxenfree, which we’ve covered here and here, for various reasons. One of the reasons is character design. Here are a few of the main characters in Oxenfree:

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Which reminds me, here is the family from Edward Gorey’s Doubtful Guest:

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And here is Elizabeth Debicki, the lead actress in The Kettering Incident:

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She’s a long girl. Not just tall, although good lord, she is. 6’3″ in case you’re wondering (I know I was). But she’s just so long. Nevermind that’s she’s otherworldly gorgeous. She’s got an amazing amount of neck.

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She’s got more leg than any human being should have. In one episode, she has to get through a waist-high window. She steps through it as easily as I would step over a stack of Twin Peaks DVDs.

The rest of the cast is full of striking forms and faces of all ages. The scenery is as beautiful and otherworldly as Debicki. This is, after all, Australia. When characters talk about Antarctica, it didn’t occur to me until it was laid out on a map that Australia’s Antarctica isn’t America’s Antarctica. When Lovecraft wrote about Antarctica in At the Mountains of Madness, he was writing about someplace all the way across the world. When John Carpenter made The Thing, he was making a movie about an outpost at the edge of the Earth. But when Australia talks about Antarctica, they’re talking about someplace right next door. Antarctica is nothing more than their Cuba. That’s where Australia fits into the world. And a place that close to a place that far can’t be normal. A place that close to a place that far is exactly where incidents happen.

The Kettering Incident is on Amazon Prime.

Chris Hornbostel: American Gothic
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Were it possible to drive through the small town of Trinity, South Carolina, it’s likely you’d notice nothing amiss. Cute kids playing on playgrounds, people strolling from store to store in the downtown area, well-kept lawns and an understanding that you were in the same part of the country as Mayberry. That’s the smart setup at the base of American Gothic. It takes something so comfortable and then dares to ask “What if Andy Griffith was the devil incarnate?”

Watching American Gothic’s only 22-episode season from 1996, you can’t help but wonder what might have been if creator Shaun Cassidy (yes, that Shaun Cassidy) had waited ten years and pitched this to a cable network. This was one of the first deliberately serialized TV shows to arrive in the wake of Twin Peaks. Unlike X-Files or other series that had interconnected stories across multiple episodes, with American Gothic you absolutely had to watch each previous episode to know what was going on.

That was both its blessing and curse. This was before the era of streaming services, on-demand video, or even widespread torrents. If you missed an episode of American Gothic and forgot to program the VCR, you were sort of screwed. It didn’t help matters that CBS was befuddled about what to do with this kind of show back then and comically mismanaged it. Episodes were bumped or replaced with reruns and there were months without any episodes at all, despite critical acclaim. Most egregiously, the network aired episodes out of order, seemingly not understanding that this was a serial narrative show. It rendered the story of the show incoherent and obviously spoiled key plot twists. How bad did the network screw the show up? Get this: three episodes never aired at all, the tenth episode (of a 22-episode season) aired third-to-last. Good luck following that story.

All of which is a shame. Although American Gothic is far from perfect, (the symbolism can get a bit thick at times, and the special effects seem horribly dated now), nonetheless this has a lot going for it. Not least of those assets is a tremendous performance by Gary Cole, as the demonically placid sheriff, Lucas Buck. You can see some of the elements of his Office Space manager role in the quiet, sinister way Cole plays him here. The show also features a young Sarah Paulson, given a fairly challenging acting task and handling it with the sort of aplomb she’s shown most of her career since. If the actress playing the little girl, Rose Russell, looks a bit familiar, that’s because it’s eight year-old Evan Rachel Wood.

The story is quite good too, now that you can make sense of it with all episodes available. At the center of everything is a struggle between good and evil in a tug of war over an orphaned little boy. Weird and horrible things happen all over town. Murders. Mutilations. Ghosts. You can see the smart concept here: What if Twin Peaks had real demonic and supernatural forces lurking within the town? That’s a solid formula, and for the most part the show executes it.

For years, American Gothic was in a sort of limbo, with no physical or digital media versions available. That’s been rectified, and you can now catch it streaming. There’s one problem with that: Hulu lists the episodes in the order they aired, rather than their intended running order–and then slaps the three unaired episodes onto the series after the series finale. That won’t do, and thankfully you can now retrieve the intended series running order from IMDB here. If you dive in, you’ll find one of the most interesting and well-executed horror-based TV shows to ever air on network television.

American Gothic is on Amazon Prime and Hulu.

Tomorrow: variations on a theme
Here’s the Make October Scare Again hub.

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