Two episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
It’s more fitting than frustrating that Slasher, horror network Chiller’s first foray into original scripted programming, unspools as an unabashed amalgam of horror movie tropes. After all, the NBCUniversal-owned channel has carved out a funky little niche for itself broadcasting “scary good” films and TV series, from classics like Kolchak: The Night Stalker to little gems like Harper’s Island, not so much curating its content as airing it all as a bloody buffet for horror hounds.
That approach has kept the lights on up until now, encouraging Chiller to think bigger with original features like Animal and (excellent) SXSW entry The Boy. And so, despite the creative energies of director Craig David Wallace (Todd and the Book of Pure Evil) and writer-creator Aaron Martin (DeGrassi: The Next Generation), it makes sense that Slasher is also guided by the techniques and twists of the biggest names in its chosen subgenre, the kinds of movies Chiller has been presenting since it opened its doors in 2007.
Things kick off (as they must) on Halloween, with trick ‘r’ treaters out in full force throughout the sleepy suburb of Waterbury. A goofy husband makes cutesy small talk with his heavily pregnant wife in the foyer on their idyllic home. It’s the kind of blissful scene masked killers were made to upend – so it’s not much of a surprise when the doorbell, that innocent harbinger of impending carnage, rings out to mark the arrival of a figure in an executioner’s costume, eerily silent and suitably menacing.
Invited inside by the fatally guileless husband, the ill-intentioned guest simply looms – until it becomes clear that they’re not a family friend playing a practical joke, at which point said husband is cut practically in two by a machete and (in an unexpectedly brutal turn of events) the killer slices a baby from the mother’s womb.
Fast forward a few decades, and that same baby (rescued shortly after by investigating police officers) has grown up into a steely yet still traumatized woman named Sarah (Merlin‘s Katie McGrath), who decides to move back into her old house with husband Dylan (Brandon Jay McLaren) in order to get on with her life – yep, there’s that old horror movie logic for you. The small community is still somewhat shell-shocked by what took place in the house, but Sarah soon discovers there’s as much much malice as melancholy directed toward her family, courtesy of a fiery neighbor (Mary Walsh) whose shrill condemnations of Sarah and Dylan making out on the lawn feel like witch’s curses.
Figuring out why some townsfolk still resent Sarah’s slain parents becomes the least of her worries, though, once it’s made clear that another masked killer, dubbed The Executioner, is out for blood, creatively carving up citizens who in some way personify each of the seven deadly sins. Given the small-town-with-big secrets setup, a new wave of butchery seems imminent – but with the original Executioner (Patrick Garrow) rotting in jail, no one can tell her who would have a big-enough ax (or a machete, as Slasher would have it) to grind.
Scream is the most clear-cut inspiration here, with McGrath’s protagonist hewing rather closely to Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott, and the copy-cat killer angle largely unfolding in a similar fashion. But there are glimmers of Friday the 13th and Halloween in Wallace’s very efficient handling of the requisite kills, and more than a few flashes of Se7en and Silence of the Lambs in scenes where Sarah, desperate for answers, seeks counsel from the glowering, pretentious psychopath (Patrick Garrow) responsible for her parents’ murders. Agatha Christie-style theorizing is also front and center, less because of brilliant characterization and more because genre-honed viewers will quickly jump at the chance to put their heads together to figure out which of the innocuous supporting characters could be harboring a deadly grudge.
And yet, for all its familiar threads, Slasher coasts by on strong execution alone (pun intended). Wallace and Martin strike a clever balance between unnerving tension and bloody mayhem, and the series’ best scenes are those in which the Executioner hunts down their victims with deadly efficiency. One trope the series appears to have left by the wayside is that of the bumbling baddie – when this psychopath closes in on a target, the results are usually as perverted and petrifying as they are coldly professional. Horror aficionados will likely take great pleasure in finding out just how cruel and merciless this Executioner can be.
Alas, the series doesn’t command nearly the same attention whenever said psycho is off-screen. Martin’s experience working on teenage soaps is on full display in scenes involving some of the Waterbury residents, and the writer’s attempts to bring texture and complexity to each of them comes up a little short given how performances generally fall across the sudsy spectrum of horror movie clichés. Even McGrath, as the leading lady/scream queen around which the Executioner’s second reign of terror revolves, only fleetingly achieves moments of real dramatic depth, and her character isn’t all that easy to buy into. Nevertheless, those loyal to the slasher genre will likely find that this latest addition to the increasing lineup of small-screen horror more than satiates their appetite for bloody thrills – even if it’s content to lurk in the long shadows cast by its more cinematically fulfilling predecessors.
Chiller's first stab at original programming is satisfyingly brutal and bloody - even if its reliance on horror tropes executed better elsewhere keeps it from ever reaching truly terrifying heights.