That spooky season is upon us. If there’s some compensation for the shorter days and darker evenings, it’s the onset of that sense that the veil between worlds truly is beginning to recede. Or maybe it’s just the evocative plastic pumpkin displays at Target — either way, it’s the time of year when our thoughts turn to horror.
The peak TV phenomenon hasn’t limited itself to courtroom dramas and star-powered single-camera sitcoms: there’s also some genuinely impressive stuff going on in the world of TV horror, even beyond usual suspects like The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, Black Mirror, and Stranger Things. Since horror isn’t so much a genre as a broad umbrella, there are some incredible recent shows that fill just about every niche. Toss your own recommendations down in the comments.
Creepshow (2019 — , two seasons)
There are good reasons for my love of TV anthology horror: If one story or episode isn’t great, there’s always the next one; plus, at under an hour, you’re not committing a huge amount of time. This new Creepshow, though, is something surprising: It’s consistently good. Sometimes gross, sometimes funny, each episode has two stories that are very much in the style of the movies for which the show is named (or Tales from the Darkside — that kinda vibe). Producer/director/special effects guy Greg Nicotero, best known these days for his work on The Walking Dead, is running the series. He got his start on Creepshow 2 from way back in the day, so there’s a real appreciation for old-school practical effects here, as well. The show is a Shudder original, so that’s where you’ll find the newest episodes (the third season is coming this month), but earlier seasons are available elsewhere.
Brand New Cherry Flavour (2021, miniseries)
Hollywood is hell. That’s almost a horror genre unto itself, and there’s a David Lynch/Mulholland Drive feel (with what appear to be nods to Eraserhead, as well) to this limited series from Lenore Zion and Nick Antosca (Channel Zero). Rose Salizar plays Lisa Nova, a newcomer to LA who’s determined to direct her first feature film. She’s betrayed by someone she ought not have trusted, and her course for revenge sees her enter into a weird, trippy, and gloopy world of zombies, curses, and freaky cats. It’s a show that’s clearly proud of its own weirdness, and that translates into a lurid, almost giallo-esque horror vibe. The two earlier Channel Zero miniseries, to which this feels like a new iteration, are also worth a look if you like the feel.
Dark (2017 — 2020, three seasons)
A simple-seeming, if disturbing, case of missing children in a German town quickly grows into something that involves four families over multiple generations. There’s a mystery in the cave system that runs beneath the local nuclear power plant, and it ties into dark secrets that each family (and the town as a whole) has been concealing for decades. Without spoiling too much, the show’s characters don’t just visit the past metaphorically, but literally, as well, a time-travel element that only adds to the show’s impressively twisting and creepy delights. It was Netflix’s first German import, but don’t let the subtitles steer you away.
Servant (2019 — , two seasons)
This one’s bizarre, no question: Following the death of their 13-week-old son, a couple (played by Lauren Ambrose and Toby Kebbell) acquires a lifelike doll as a therapeutic tool — based on a real-life technique that, presumably, doesn’t typically lead to horror. Something’s not quite right about the doll, to which mum Dorothy becomes rather more attached than is intended; the couple eventually hire a live-in nanny to care for baby Jericho, and something’s definitely not right about her. Or maybe it’s just the kind of weird stuff that happens to people with enough money to pay for therapy AND a special helper just for a doll. M. Night Shyamalan is one of the executive producers, which gives you a sense of the disturbing, creepy vibe that the show is going for. It’s been renewed for a third season.
Lovecraft Country (2020, one season)
A Black family sets off on a road trip across Jim Crow America — there’s potential for real horror in that premise, alone. Matt Ruff’s novel, on which the show is based, is one of a handful of impressive books written over the past decade or so that attempt to reconcile the unabashedly racist outlook of horror writer H. P. Lovecraft with the power and appeal of his creations, and so the series unearths some of the darkest terrors of 20th century America, and places them alongside and inside a Lovecraftian universe of elder gods and dark dimensions. Jurnee Smollett and Jonathan Majors are tremendous in the lead roles, and the series, as well, features a great turn from Michael K. Williams in one of his final performances.
30 Coins (2020 — , one season)
There’s a bit of the monster-of-the-week format to 30 Coins, but in other ways the Spanish import from cult director Álex de la Iglesia isn’t like anything else on TV (the opening episode sees a cow giving birth to a human baby). A priest, a veterinarian, and a mayor (not, in this case, the setup for a joke) become embroiled in the supernatural mysteries in their town of Pedraza that seem to have to do with a strange coin that might have been one of the 30 pieces of silver paid to Judas for betraying Jesus. The feel is closest to Lovecraft-meets-The Exorcist, with Christian mythology subbing in for eldritch horrors.
Swamp Thing (2019, one season)
Some of this might hit a little close to home these days: A CDC doctor returns to her hometown in the Louisiana bayou to investigate a mysterious virus that the locals don’t want to deal with or talk about until it’s much too late. When a local biologist is killed (more or less) for helping her, suspicions turn to a local corporation. The show doesn’t reach the heady, psychedelic heights of the comics source material, but it does bring a level of body horror that’s probably not surprising given that the show is about a man who turns into a plant, but also as it has James Wan (Saw, The Conjuring) onboard as an executive producer.
Swamp Thing’s got some genuinely impressive gore effects, not only having to do with the main character but also involving the plant-based outbreak that takes over the misty, sleepy Louisiana town where it’s set. To lend the show a final bit of horror cred, the title character is played by actor/stuntman Derek Mears, also the most recent Jason Voorhees. The show was rather notoriously cancelled before it was even finished filming (something to do with lost tax credits), but it still manages to wrap up its storylines fairly neatly, if abruptly.
Wellington Paranormal (2018 — , three seasons)
2014’s What We Do in the Shadows (the movie) was, it turns out, the kick-off to a deeply unlikely franchise; it’s the low-budget vampire comedy from New Zealand that could. The TV series of the same name actually wasn’t the first spin-off from the film, nor is it the most direct: Wellington Paranormal reunites the well-meaning but exceedingly credulous police officers, O’Leary and Minogue, from the film and sends them off to investigate the various ghosts, zombies, and aliens plaguing the Wellington metro area. The show’s been popular in NZ, but has only recently gone global. Admittedly, it’s not particularly scary, but it’s an excellent parody of all those Ghost Hunters-style shows. It doesn’t have the scope of its sister series, but the standalone episodes make for concentrated blasts of creepy, goofy fun. Two seasons are currently airing in the U.S., with at least two more on the way.
Stan Against Evil (2016 — 2018, three seasons)
Drawing inspiration from Evil Dead, Stan Against Evil stars John C. McGinley as the crotchety, obnoxious former sheriff of a New Hampshire town overrun with vengeful spirits. Janet Varney comes to town as his replacement, and the two soon realise that the uneasy spirits and demons aren’t going to be quiet for much longer. The awkward chemistry between the leads is a big selling point, as are the old-school practical monster effects. The show leans more toward funny (and it’s often very funny) than scary, but the monster effects are well done, and the show doesn’t shy away from great 80s-style gross-out gags.
Castlevania (2017 — 2021, four seasons)
There are some very solid horror anime out there, but very few with a higher profile than this video game adaptation. The show’s opening episodes set it up nicely: It’s 1455, and Lisa, a human interested in studying vampires, forms a sort of partnership with Vlad Tepes, aka Dracula; the series then quickly cuts to Lisa, years later, being burned by Church leaders. Dracula sets out on a quest of bloody vengeance for his lost love, setting in motion four seasons’ worth of beautifully animated and bloody family drama. The main series has concluded, but a spin-off set during the French Revolution is in the works.
Folklore (2018 — , one season)
The conventions of Japanese horror have made their way stateside, but very often through remakes of popular J-horror movies with American directors and casts. This series serves as a tour of terror from six different Asian countries, each produced locally with different up-and-coming directors. For audiences mostly familiar with western-style horror, the show is going to be a small revelation: They’re modern spins on traditional folkloric tales (the South Korean episode, for instance, involves the mongdal gwisin, a bachelor spirit so desperate for a wife that he’ll kill until he finds the right special lady to be his ghost bride); while the characters are relatable, the takes on horror are unique. Each episode is like a small movie, so it’s an easy watch, and a second season is on the way.
Ghoul (2018, miniseries)
In a dystopian near-future, Radhike Apte plays a woman named Nida, an officer fiercely loyal to the ruling regime and appointed to interrogate a terrorist at a covert detention centre. Once inside, things get freaky, and the captive turns the table on his captors, bringing many of their darkest secrets to light. It’s appropriately creepy in the supernatural elements (the Indian import a Blumhouse co-production), but there’s also real meat here in the show’s just-barely-beneath-the-surface critique of authoritarianism in general, and modern anti-Muslim sentiment specifically.
The Outsider (2020, one season)
The premise here is brutal, and impossible: A kid is horrifically murdered, and the evidence decisively points to Little League coach Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman). It’s an open-and-shut case…except that he was out of town at a conference while the murder was occurring, and even appeared on the news in another town. The tragedies pile up, but, being based on a Stephen King book, the threat isn’t exclusively natural. Without giving too much away, it’s among the most disturbing of King adaptations (it’s also incredibly engaging, more than enough to get past the initial distaste). There are great performances here from Bateman, as well as from Ben Mendelsohn and Cynthia Erivo as Holly Gibney, one of King’s recurring characters. HBO declined to renew the show, but it ends fairly decisively…and the producers are shopping a second season elsewhere.
Castle Rock (2018 — 2019, two seasons)
Speaking of Stephen King (who contributes to Creepshow, and so is represented here for the third time), Castle Rock was advertised to represent sort of a Stephen King omniverse, set in his fictional town and featuring characters and creatures from across his oeuvre. That slightly confusing log line probably hurts the show more than it helps…in reality, it’s a pretty impressive anthology series that works just fine even if you’ve never read a page of King. The first season sees André Holland return to his old home town at the behest of a death-row inmate, and features a powerhouse performance from Sissy Spacek. The second introduces a young Annie Wilkes (from Misery) and a disturbing cult.
Kingdom (2019 — , two seasons)
Whenever I feel like the zombie sub-genre has thoroughly played itself out, something like Kingdom comes along — previously, it was another South Korean production, Train to Busan, that reminded me that there’s still life in zombies. This one scoops up zombie tropes and places them in the middle of a period drama: specifically, a royal court of 16th century Korea. Crown Prince Lee Chang (Ju Ji-hoon) comes upon evidence of a plague that brings the dead back to life even as he fights for political survival in a rapidly changing kingdom. It’s as beautiful as it is bloody.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018 — 2020, four seasons)
The series maintains the core premise of the 90s-era staple (and the Archie comics on which it was based), but takes it to its most twisted ends. Sabrina Spellman is an old-school witch here living in a family that’s not unlike The Addams Family — at the outset of the series, she’s being forced to choose between signing her name in Satan’s book and becoming a full-fledged witch, or staying in high school with her normal, human friends. Instead, she refuses to choose. Cannibalism, human sacrifice, and blood rituals abound while sisters keep killing each other and dark forces are sometimes held at bay. By taking things more seriously, it plays as a very dark comedy. True, as the series goes on, the characters soften a bit and the soap opera elements become more pronounced, but by then we’re invested. The series concluded on Netflix, though the producers are shopping a fifth season elsewhere.
Slasher (2016 — , four seasons)
Each season of the series tells the story of a single serial killer and their would-be victims, stretching out a traditional slasher-movie story over several hours. With that time, the show manages to actually build lives and backstories for its characters, something that movies don’t always have time for, or can be bothered with (for better or worse). It works here, and each season has introduced fairly compelling characters — it doesn’t hurt that the show focuses largely on adults, rather than more typical teenage victims. The Canadian production has moved around a bit since its beginning — most seasons are available on Netflix, but the latest (subtitled Flesh & Blood) is exclusive to Shudder.
The Terror (2018 — , two seasons)
The first season of the series is based upon the Dan Simmons novel of the same name, about a polar expedition that becomes stalled in ice and is subsequently stalked by an unseen presence (even as their relationships break down in equally horrifying ways). It’s gripping and atmospheric, and it’s improved upon by its second season (subtitled Infamy), which similarly blends the horrors of the real world with the supernatural in the story of a west coast family during World War II that’s followed to a Japanese internment camp by a shapeshifting spirit. There’s talk of a third season, but nothing concrete yet.
The Haunting of Hill House (2018, miniseries)
Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Hush, Doctor Sleep) reinvented Shirley Jackson’s novel (and the brilliant 1963 film version) with this tense family drama that zips back and forth between two eras to tell a story of not just a house, but of the trauma of those in its orbit. What sounds like it might be simply a solid ghost story is definitely that, but it’s also a creepy, atmospheric, and astute horror story that absolutely burrows into the subconscious in ways that few other shows are able to accomplish. Once you’ve recovered from this one, the standalone followup: The Haunting of Bly Manor, based on Henry James’ Turn of the Screw, is equally impressive.
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