Friday, September 29, 2017

Two Sentence Horror Stories, from Vera Miao and the Internet

If Poe had been forced to tweet, he might have produced something like two-sentence horror stories. The minor internet phenomenon is exactly what it sounds like. Generally, the longer first sentence evokes a situation of dread and the shorter second sentence is the kicker. Some of the best have been adapted for the small digital screen by writer-executive producer Vera Miao, who shares directorial duties with three emerging genre talents during the five-episode first season of Two Sentence Horror Stories (trailer here), which premieres this coming Tuesday on Verizon’s go90 streaming service.

The first episode, “Ma,” is about twenty minutes long, which really isn’t much shorter than a classic Twilight Zone episode. Poor mousy Mona has lived with her domineering mother so long, she has abandoned all hope of an independent life, until Erica moves into the building. Even though they are complete opposites, their mutual attraction is undeniable (despite a slightly rocky introduction). However, this is a horror film, so Ma is not likely to give up her hold over Mona without a struggle.

Wei-Yi Lin is compulsively watchable is tragically poignant as Mona. Even at her squirreliest, she makes us feel for the under-socialized woman. It is also nice to see Mardy Ma (who made her second career-acting debut in SundanceTV’s One Child) quite chillingly portray her not really-namesake. Ayesha Harris develops some compelling chemistry with Lin, while providing a grounded connection to the outside real world. Horror fans may already have a pretty solid notion of what is going on here, but Miao’s moody execution is still impressive.

Danny Perez (who made a bit of a splash with Antibirth) takes over the helm for “Snap.” Fittingly, it is a very new media story about Donny Dante, a scummy celebrity blogger who is getting some of his own public-shaming treatment after driving an unstable starlet to commit suicide. Someone is definitely out to deliver his comeuppance, but how are they leaving those disconcerting videos of Dante sleeping on his own phone? Arguably, “Snap” is the most conventional installments of the series (perhaps owing a small debt to Stephen king’s The Dark Half), but Perez keeps the tension cranked up.

“Guilt Trip,” directed by JD Dillard (best known for the promising Sleight), is probably the weakest of the batch. It feels like Miao started with the topical takeaway and reverse-engineered the narrative from there. The tale of a woman who picks up a victim of police brutality, but soon feels compelled, rightly or wrongly, to ditch him, never generates much tension and the big twist is glaringly predictable.

The series rebounds when Miao returns to the director’s chair for “Singularity.” Even before she gets into the horror elements, the unsettling practice of “body hacking” will creep out many viewers. Basically, Nala is trying to turn herself into a wifi zone through weird, back alley implants. Why is she trying to do that, you might ask? Her old friend George asks the same question when he patches her up. Originally, it was all about open source idealism, but when she starts to pick up on the uncanny entities all around her, she starts to have second thoughts.

“Singularity” is scary as heck, but there is a danger the Social Justice Warriors will start crusading against it on the grounds it equates the disastrous body-hacking with Nala’s transgenderism. That would be a completely unfair reading of the episode, but deliberately taking things out of context is what Social Justice Warriors do. Regardless, both Jen Richards and Bobby Naderi (who co-starred in the smart and challenging Persian horror film, Under the Shadow) are terrific as Nala and George.

The first season wraps up with “Second Skin,” directed by Ryan Spindell, which features some decent body horror, somewhat in the tradition of Starry Eyes. Luna, our down-trodden, scuffling coat check attendant, gets comped by a well-heeled client to the wrong hipster day spa. Without question, Carolyn Hennessy is the main attraction as the flamboyantly evil and well-accessorized Mare.

Easy the binge, four out of five Two Sentence Horror Stories are quite entertaining. Miao and Guy Pooles, who serves as cinematographer on all five stories, maintain an eerie atmosphere and a mounting feeling of dread. They seem to understand the things we can’t see are always more ominous than that which we can. Worth checking out for fans of horror anthologies and shorts, Two Sentence Horror Stories starts streaming this coming Tuesday (10/3) on go90.