Sunday, October 10, 2021

50 States of Fright: MI, KS, OR, MN, FL

The Quibi short-bite 5-to-10-minute programming-platform folly was only in business from April to December last year, but it still managed to squeeze in two “seasons” of Sam Raimi’s horror anthology. They still didn’t have time to get to all fifty states, let alone territories like Guam. Nevertheless, if any of their series had a following this would be it, so fans will be happy to see Raimi’s 50 States of Fright will be available again this Friday on the Roku Channel.

To hook fans, Raimi himself helmed the first episode, “The Golden Arm (Michigan),” up in Hemingway’s and Nick Adams’ neck of the Michigan woods. The golden arm has nothing in common with Frank Sinatra in
Man with the Golden Arm. It is the sparkly prosthetic of the old folk tale Mark Twain and scores of others used to tell. In this case, it belongs to Heather, the vain wife of Dave, a rugged furniture artisan, following her misadventure in the forest. She intends to keep that arm with her even if it kills her and even then, she still isn’t letting go.

probably boasts the most star-studded cast of the anthology, with Rachel Brosnahan and Travis Fimmel portraying the ill-fated couple. However, it is John Marshall Jones who really makes the three-episode arc work with the way he tells the tale as Dave’s friend Andy. Old man Clemens would approve.

Yoko Okumura’s “Ball of Twine (Kansas)” should have been titled “What’s the Matter with Kansas.” Regardless, it does a nice job tapping into both the nostalgia of road trips and the uneasy feeling you get when driving through long, flat, not-particularly-well-lit states like Kansas. In this case, the scenic attraction Susan and her daughter Amelia stop to gawk at, the titular twine, seems to exert an uncanny control over the entire town. Even Sheriff Stallings is rather unhelpful when Amelia disappears, but Susan is not about to be intimidated by their cultish small-town ways.

Ming-Na Wen really makes these three ex-quibis standout with her fierce axe-wielding performance as Susan. She is pretty awesome, plus Karen Allen is quite sinister, in an unusually understated kind of way, as Sheriff Stallings. There are also some cool makeup effects going on, as an extra bonus.

“Scared Stiff (Oregon)” directed by Ryan Spindell (who helmed
The Mortuary Collection) is a shorty—just two quibbles, or whatever. It is also a pretty straightforward tale of a taxidermist and the Big Foot-like roadkill brought to him by a yokel. Right, what could go wrong? Some entertainingly gory practical effects, that’s what. James Ransone is weirdly sympathetic as the socially awkward Sebastian Klepner, while Emily Hampshire provides an amusingly ironic wrap-around as his colleague, Megan Bloom.

The most violent state of the first “season” might be “Grey Cloud Island (Minnesota),” written and directed by Brian Netto & Adam Schindler. The rural island is purportedly the Minnesota equivalent of Buckout Road. Bad things tend to happen there and they will definitely happen to the four fraternity pledges who get dumped there. They are supposed to find their way back to their hazers, but instead, they stumble across a cult that has a woman chained up on an altar, awaiting some kind of sacrificial ritual. Unfortunately, these kids are pretty dumb, so even after they take her down, they can’t unshackle her, so won’t get far fleeing the scene.

This is a pretty intense episode, involving the kind of horror in which viewer paranoia keeps compounding. Asa Butterfield adds a bit of name-recognition as the more nebbish pledge, but the real stars are the eerie locations and the creepy set design.

Arguably, the best of the first original release-batch is Alejandro Brugues’ “Destino (Florida),” written by Gregg Hale and Eduardo Sanchez, going back to their
Blair Witch found footage roots. In this case, it is dash-cam, body-cam, and CCTV security cam footage that is stitched together, in a surprisingly fluid manner. Cuban-American cop Maria Vazquez has a bad feeling about a call involving a stolen goat. She is afraid it might involve something evil from the old country—almost as evil as Castro himself.

Danay Garcia is terrific as Vazquez and the unholy business she and her partner Scott Wilke step into is all kinds of scary. Yet, what really makes the three-parts of “Destino” so effective is the chemistry between Garcia and Greyston Holt as her partner. They really look, sound, and act like cops—but cops from radically different backgrounds. In a different series, their compatibility would be a source of encouragement, but ancient evil forces don’t care about the Miami PD’s espirit de corps.

From Michigan to Florida, the quality of
50 States holds fairly consistent. “Destino” is probably the best episode and Wen probably serves up the best performance, but there are no out-and-out clunkers in these five states. Fans of the horror anthology format can certainly start 50 States of Fright with confidence, when it makes its Roku Channel debut this Friday (10/15).