One episode was provided prior to broadcast.
WEtv isn’t exactly known for its scripted programming, and South of Hell is sure as hell not about to change that. The series is airing all of its seven episodes back-to-back over the course of a Black Friday marathon, a decision that might be perceived as ambitious until one actually watches the show, at which point it becomes obvious that the strategy is more intended to burn the series off quickly and quietly.
With The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, Penny Dreadful, The Returned, Bates Motel and iZombie all doing different (and mostly good) things for horror on the small screen right now, it could be argued that audiences are currently basking in a golden age of terrifying television. But such a deluge of quality always leads to a parallel stream of derivative and cheap knock-offs, and South of Hell stinks of recycled storytelling and stock scares.
Set in the swampy, misty backwaters of South Carolina (the title, like most of the writing, is painfully literal), South of Hell centers on Maria Abascal (Mena Suvari), a dark and troubled young woman who suffers from demonic possession, splitting control over her body with a demonic entity known as Abigail. In order to keep money flowing, Maria works as an exorcist-for-hire, letting Abigail take over and pull other demons out of their host’s bodies and satiate her literal hunger for other supernatural creepy-crawlies. Her brother David (Zachary Booth), meanwhile, sticks around to keep Abigail in check, even as he struggles with a nasty heroin habit.
But when a reverend (Lamman Rucker) with a tie to Maria’s past comes asking for her help, it’s not long before all hell threatens to break loose, with a relic called The Eye of The Everlasting in the mix that could hold the key to breaking Abigail’s hold over Maria.
So far, so standard – South of Hell, at least in its premiere, wants to play like a sort of Southern-fried Supernatural, though its sinister entities are only demons (for now). Where it falls miserably short is in the execution. Everything in the pilot’s script is overwritten to the point of hilarity – characters spell out their relationships to one another ad nauseum, and Maria’s spooky dream sequences are bogged down her unnecessarily repeating, over and over, that she’s dreaming. “I just want my family back again: you, me, and your brother, David,” an apparition of her evil, long-dead dad calls out at one point in said dream, apparently overlooking the fact that Maria knows full well what her own brother’s name is.
Similar, equally cringeworthy instances abound; not once do the writers trust audiences to be paying attention to what’s unfolding on screen, and the show’s consequent inability to break from constantly explaining itself, or even utilize simple subtext, is absolutely infuriating. But what might be even worse is when the series strains for eroticism. In one scene, a comely neighbor tries to flirt with Maria by – brilliant! – explaining to her directly that he’s flirting with her. In another, Abigail “sensually” strokes Maria and whispers into her ear as she sleeps, but the writing is so howlingly silly that, in that moment, the show crosses the line from horror into all-out camp comedy.
South of Hell is also failed by its dismal effects and shoddy direction (by Eli Roth, inexplicably failing to utilize any of his considerable talent). There’s one sequence in the pilot – a knock-out, drag-down fight between Abigail and another demon-possessed woman – that could have been really spectacular if done right. The pair brawl inside a padded room, rolling around on the ceilings, walls and floors while trying to rip one another limb from limb. But instead of capturing the intensity of these two supernatural creatures at each other’s throats, the sequence is hacked to bits, with way too many fast cuts and close-ups that render it not only fright-free but straight-up confusing in places. In another moment intended to be scary, a possessed child rips into an evangelist’s cheek during his spiritual cleansing sermon, but there’s something unintentionally cartoonish about the way it’s executed that saps it of any scares.
Other scenes drag, and there’s nothing even moderately inventive about the way in which Roth chooses to approach the episode. That the digital effects work is well below par (just how low was this show’s budget?) also doesn’t help matters, especially given how frequently it’s implemented – whenever Abigail reveals herself, she just looks like Maria with a little makeup and an unconvincing glowing-eye effect that could have been thrown together in Adobe After Effects at the last minute.
There’s a nifty Southern-tinged horror story lurking in South of Hell‘s setting, but this isn’t it. While Suvari just about holds the screen, the other actors are all agonizingly wooden, and the dialogue they’re forced to wrestle with does them no favors. Moreover, nothing in this story seems even remotely intriguing – South of Hell is cut from the same cloth as countless other demon-hunter shows, and there are dozens that have done much, much more with the material. In its pilot, the show makes a horrifically bad first impression – it’s never scary, often laughable and completely oblivious to the concept of subtlety.
Small-screen horror is not as tough to pull off as some claim it is – there are multiple shows doing it very, very well on the air right now. But it takes far more than riddling a script with horror-movie clichés and some dopey digital effects to make a truly scary series. Actual horror requires suspense, personality, visual imagination and a basic raison d’etre – all things this series fails to offer. As it stands, South of Hell should elicit more derisive hoots of laughter than shrieks of terror – that is to say, you’ll snort a handful at times at the stupidity of the writing, but it’s near guaranteed you’ll jump not once.
The only real scare in South of Hell's premiere is the prospect of persevering through another six episodes as unremarkably acted, laughably scripted and lifelessly directed as its first.