South Of Hell is the latest debut in horror television with a WEtv binge-model, 7 episode premiere over the 2015 Thanksgiving weekend. Moving in slightly under the radar with a healthy backing from names like Eli Roth and Jason Blum (and the majority of episodes thus far directed by women), viewer engagement was modestly neutral to positive, but reviews haven't been too kind. South Of Hell has been described as "an easily digestible piece of horror froth that's totally enjoyable, if entirely facile." The former part of this is more than fair, the tail-end latter, not so much.
The show establishes itself dipped in a visually alluring 'southern charm' with a well-paced mystery that entangles very distinguished and likeable characters. Even from the pilot, there's an awareness that it has a meaty story to tell that will keep viewers guessing. But more pertinently that rebuffs this idea of the series being a hallow shell is its ability to do what horror does best: expose and complicate the range of human emotions and positing social anxieties.
On South Of Hell examines the insidious capabilities of organized, philosophical and religious orders with a whimsical supernatural tale. Instead of hearing the compound raid stories in archival footage or Oprah exclusives with a survivor/ex-member who didn't drink the Kool-Aid, we are allowed intimate access into the internal struggles of how those experiences haunt those once tied to the infamy. Additionally, South Of Hell has done a satisfactory job of letting their supportive characters of color become aligned notably with the main players.
The show centers around Maria (Mena Suvari) and David (Zachary Booth) Abascal, siblings with an unconventional but reasonable dependency on each other that have currently taken root in Charleston, South Carolina from Memphis, Tennessee. Like many in their young adult age bracket, they look for legal yet outside-the-box strategies to pay the bills. Akin (if only slightly) to Ed and Lorraine Warren before them, outside of fortune telling at flea markets and street symphonies, they're in the exorcising demons business. Using the demon inside of Maria, a rebel from hell named Abigail, to feed on the evil spirits out of other unwilling vessels.
Filled with disdain for this ability, Maria hopes that the missing pieces of her past in Charleston will provide her with a way to rid herself of the burden of Abigail for good. But the person responsible for her condition, her deceased father Enos (Bill Irwin), an ex-cult leader who has long ago set his own nefarious plans in motion, makes this task extremely difficult. His poisonous influence riddling the town, even from the depths of damnation.
As someone in their thirties, I'm not unfamiliar with Dianetics commercials and the name Tony Robbins. For as long as people have roamed this planet there has been endless avenues, schemes, doctrines, and dogma that have proposed a way out of life's consistent unpleasantness. The Self-Help Movement of sorts that got its contemporary footing in the late 1960's made an even grander impression in the 1980's. Many divisions including The Order Of The Solar Temple or the climatic story of the Branch Davidians mirrors the amalgam of a cult checklist and the supernatural, critical to South Of Hell's overarching story.
A&O Life Success Seminars are the cover for Enos' doomsday cult, The Order Of Everlasting. They are presented as a life transformative haven with carefully constructed mediated promises of happiness and freedom from emotional negativity and self-destruction. The attraction borders and relies so much on the simplistic, it's hard to imagine they're actually real. The ads tie in brilliantly throughout the series, creepily blurring the dimensions of where the living and the dead exist. Is what's being seen on the television real? Or is it each character's own susceptible state talking to them?
Jonestown left me sleepless, the stories from those who are ex-Scientologists have made me ill. I find cults deeply terrifying. As a horror fan, I enjoyed South Of Hell's supernatural aspects while one of my deepest fears juxtaposed much of the action in front of me. "To be human is to be weak," David says in one of his voice over narrations. The vulnerability we all harbor can very easily be manipulated. That is why these institutions and the many people that follow them exist.
In order to truly purge themselves from the stain Enos has left on their lives, Maria and David are forced to align themselves with others. Secondary yet on the front lines, the people of color in this universe are as much a part of enhancing the growth of Maria and David as they are to experiencing their own growth on their terms.
Reverend Elijah Bledsoe (Lamman Rucker) first appears at Maria's fortune teller table by calling out her scheme to a gullible, would-be customer. Clearly irritated with losing the income, Maria's patience with this guy is matched well with his bold, prickly demeanor. He's a man with a steely focus, willing to be unpleasantly direct in order to magnify the time sensitive seriousness of Enos' budding strategy. The mystery of Elijah and the secrets he keeps is what drives the plot forward.
One of Enos' repentant ex-members turned Bledsoe ally Tetra (Lauren Luna Velez) serves as a moral compass. She takes to serving as Grace's guardian with the knowledge of her unique position in the grand scheme. Although Tetra's screen time is brief, it is weighty. As the sacrificial figure, Tetra's own backstory is riddled with guilt and remorse, matching up with the decisions she makes. She cannot save her own soul, but she does all she can to make sure Grace and Elijah have a hope that they can save theirs.
Certainly South Of Hell is at times a bit silly, a few minor performances are almost unwatchable, and the dialogue will make you cringe at certain points. It's far from perfect, but an earnest and spirited mark in genre television. It feels like those early Saturday evening shows that use to air on channels similar to the CW back when you still needed antenna adjustments for clear reception. It's probably not gonna break into the mainstream imagination or even harness a cult following. However, no one can take away South Of Hell's solid attempts at commentary and ambituous casting.