The Golden Arm, and other *ahem* well known folk tales make for uninspiring viewing in Quibi’s horror anthology 50 States of Fright.
This review of 50 States of Fright (Quibi) contains some spoilers for the first three episodes.
If you’ve been surfing the net as much as I have these past few weeks in quarantine, you’ve probably stumbled upon this clip. What looks like a cutaway gag from Bojack Horseman or 30 Rock is actually part of a new Quibi show by Sam Raimi (yes, the Sam Raimi of Spider-Man and Evil Dead fame).
50 States of Terror is supposedly an anthology horror series, with a story from each state spread across two or three “Quibis” (those Sufjan Stevens fans among us are probably groaning at the prospect of another project aiming to cover each state).
Each story begins with the disclaimer “every state has its folklore, tall tales of legends — but sometimes there is a darker story, a tale not so much told, as whispered.” I’m assuming the last part is ironic, given not only the amount of screaming that occurs but the willingness with which each episode’s narrator blurts out their state’s story.
It’s an enticing premise and one that’s most interested in its commitment to providing a showcase of emerging directors. Yoko Okurmura and Ryan Spindell are clearly talented and seem to be having fun with the material (out of the three stories provided with Quibi’s free trial, the first is directed by Raimi himself), it’s just a shame that the material itself isn’t of higher quality.
The first story of 50 States of Fright, entitled “The Golden Arm (Michigan)”, is so ridiculous that it feels like an extended bit conceived to meet the terms of a contract.
The plot concerns a couple of high-school sweethearts; the wife (Rachel Brosnahan, who I hope bought something nice with her paycheck) is described as “expensive” and vain, while her husband (Travis Fimmel) is a lumberjack who looks at diagrams of chairs when he thinks his wife isn’t looking.
Tragedy strikes when he makes his wife help him cut down a tree (as marital obligations frequently compel one to). She loses her arm in the process, and thus enters the titular prosthetic.
“It was like a drug,” says the narrator who is seemingly obligated to force what little subtext and subtlety the story has to the surface (the narrators of the following two stories are much more interesting). When the doctor prescribes her with “Pulmonary Gold Disease” (a very real ailment) the woman would rather die than give up her golden arm.
There’s a lot more to this story than I could fit into one review (so I’ll expand in my blog), but if 50 States of Fright’s game plan was to be so weird it would have to be talked about, “The Golden Arm” more than succeeds.
“America’s Largest Ball of Twine (Kansas)” is a tad more successful, if only by tapping into the undercurrent of weirdness that exists within small-town America (something many others have done before, and much better), rather than creating a morality tale that turns into an anti-graverobbing PSA.
Susan (Ming-Na Wen) is on a road trip with her daughter (who blurts out character exposition like it’s her life’s purpose), when they see a sign for the titular attraction. They’re greeted by an incredibly creepy and casually racist Karen Allen (yes, star of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Karen Allen) who encourages the daughter to visit the twine ball.
When she disappears, Susan has no choice but to question the townspeople, who (I am not making this up) are made of twine, and want to make Susan and her daughter into twine as well?
There’s a neat idea about homogeneity buried beneath the surface, but the racism metaphor never has time to develop. Nor do many of the aspects that would make the story actually scary.
When did twine gain sentience? you might ask. Why does it need people to inhabit, rather than, say, the earth? Are they all one consciousness? These are all good questions, none of which 50 States of Fright has any interest in explaining. The motto the show wants you to have is “Don’t ask questions; Watch the next episode.”
With that in mind, “Scared Stiff (Oregon)” is probably the best of the bunch, striking the right tone between incredibly stupid and having fun with that. The plot concerns the incredibly named “Sebastian Klepper” who was voted “Taxidermist of the year no less than 10 times.”
One night a man arrives at his door having run over a mysterious beast. After explaining his opposition to the town’s rival taxidermist (probably the funniest scene in the series) he agrees to stuff the creature.
A fun little taxidermy montage ensues. Comparing the final product to the diagrams in his convenient book of strange animals, he realizes that the creature is a baby Sasquatch. Of course, that means that the mama or papa Sasquatch is out for blood.
It’s cute and well-executed and doesn’t overstay it’s welcome. Crucially, “Scared Stiff” gives the series an exemplar from which to emulate. But after having watched the first eight episodes of 50 States of Fright, I can’t say it’s all too great.
Worse, I can’t quite see its purpose for existing. There’s nothing new or interesting that would appeal to horror fans, but the show is too gory to entice those opposed to the genre. And if Quibi is advertising its shows as content to consume on your commute, 50 States of Fright is a poor choice.
It’s not quite witty enough to be tongue-in-cheek or camp, but too goofy to be actually scary. For now, it just exists as a novelty. An item of intrigue where the existence and synopsis of the show are more enticing than the show itself. At least we’ll all have that clip of Emmy Winner, Rachel Brosnahan refusing to give up her golden arm.
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