Instead of based on a true story,” these anthology tales are based on a “true” object. Each episode takes its inspiration from exhibits collected in the spooky Las Vegas museum curated by Discovery Channels’ resident paranormal investigator, Zak Bagans. He doesn’t claim the stories really happened, but they are consistent with the artifacts’ purported powers. For horror fans, the museum collection has a vibe similar to Friday the 13th: the Series and the Warrens’ occult collection in The Conjuring franchise. The concept still works pretty well in Discovery+’s rare foray into scripted drama, The Haunted Museum, produced by Bagans and Eli Roth, which premieres this Saturday.
Naturally, Bagans introduces each episode and provides some colorful background on the evil item viewers are about to witness in action. The dramas that follow have the sort of low-fi look that we have come to expect from reality show re-enactments, but they are definitely self-contained stories in their own right (at least this is very definitely true of the first three episodes provided to reviewers). In some cases, the grungy look actually serves the stories well.
Frankly, the series premiere, “Doll House of the Damned,” might even be scarier if viewers have not already seen Creepshow’s thematically similar (and even creepier) “The House of the Head.” Nevertheless, screenwriter-director Justin Harding pulls off some clever sequences and the satanic imagery the grieving father finds in the titular doll house he unwisely purchases will definitely raise the hair on the back of your neck. However, the tone of this excursion into family madness and terror is more than a bit depressing.
The back-to-back premiere night also includes “Monster in the Machine” (directed by Ethan Evans and written by Evans and Jesse Bartlett), which is probably the best of the series, so far. It follows Esther Levin, a somewhat discredited academic, who has devised a series of machines (now in Bagans’ museum, of course) that can contact spirts from other dimensions. Initially, she believes she has reached a guardian angel, but when its voice falls silent, she starts to suspect she also contacted something much more sinister.
There is a bit of a Lovecraftian dimension to “Machine,” but it is more grounded and ultimately more disturbing. Evans masterfully controls the mood, milking tension from eerie settings, weird noises, and images half-seen out the corner of viewers’ eyes. Lawrene Denkers is also terrific as the brilliant but tragically flowed Levin.