Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Haunted Museum, on Discovery+

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.

“Chair of the Beast” (directed by Roxy Shih and written by Stephen Scott) is also quite effective, especially if you are a fan of
The Conjuring-style of possession horror. In this case, a rocking chair Bagans that now owns, allegedly still carries bad mojo from a demon, or demons, that once possessed a young boy.

Nick Biskupek memorably anchors the episode as Father Sully, a parish priest, who is not equipped or empowered to perform exorcisms. However, he embodies the decency of his working class, Middle American parishioners (which is very much in keeping with the
Conjuring films). To further cement the association, Susannah Spearin (who is also quite good as the desperate mother, Jackie Hanes) looks a bit like Lili Taylor in the original Conjuring film.

So far, it is all pretty scary, even if you take Bagans’ segments with a massive block of salt. If he really believes these items are infused with evil power, perhaps he should keep them in a vault, like in
Friday the 13th rather than on public display in the Museum. Regardless, the hype never over-sells the horror of the first three episodes, which is definitely saying something. Recommended with a good deal of enthusiasm for fans of horror anthologies, The Haunted Museum starts streaming Saturday (10/2) on Discovery+.