Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Canadian horror story

The jokes are too easy. A Canadian horror series, even one called "Slasher," conjures up images of a polite serial killer courteously asking potential victims for their consent before he slices them to ribbons. If the rampaging murderer has a snappy catchphrase he utters right before bringing down the knife, you can bet it'll end with "eh." Right? Because Canada. Also, somehow there's gotta be a Timbits reference. There's just gotta be. Killer's favorite snack?

As it turns out, the more interesting story about "Slasher" is that it revives a genre that came roaring back in 2011, with FX's "American Horror Story," but has at this point gone seriously to seed. After the daring, emotionally gripping, at times deeply unsettling second season of "AHS," Ryan Murphy's gory, over-the-top anthology series drifted into gratuitous blood 'n' guts, borderline-tasteless exploitation of topics like slavery ("Coven") and disabilities ("Freak Show"), and, worst of all, a near-fatal lack of scares.

I gave "Roanoke" a try after giving "Hotel" a hard pass, and you know what? Four episodes in, Murphy & Co. couldn't resist a graphic disemboweling, just 'cause. Doesn't help when the disembowlee is one of the season's most entertaining characters. Sure, dead people often come back as ghosts in the "AHS" universe, but I don't need my "Murder House"/"Blair Witch" knockoff mashup with a side of "Saw," thankyouverymuch.

"Slasher," despite its forehead-slappingly dumb name, feels fresh much the way "Murder House" did, though showrunner Aaron Martin doesn't bring the funny, or the provocative, or the downright weird, as reliably as early-run Murphy did. But hey, "Slasher" uses one of my favorite TV premises of all time -- person takes job as editor of small-town newspaper, paper serves as convenient vehicle for all manner of snooping and gossip-mongering and ethical dilemmas -- and combines it with the tried-and-true "Scream" formula (young woman returns to small town where parents were brutally murdered, looking for answers). Almost can't lose with that setup.

"Slasher" doesn't have the wildness of "AHS" seasons one and two, but it has likable-enough characters and is willing to surprise us from time to time. For example, not everyone stalked by season one's killer, the Executioner, ends up expiring. This keeps us guessing in every scene about who's going to make it and who's going to croak. Gore isn't overused, and the show's casual racial diversity puts to shame American TV, which is aimed at a considerably more ethnically diverse population. Are Canadian small towns really this Benetton-colorful? Who cares! This is fiction; give black actors some work.

After the pilot, I was uncertain about whether I'd keep going. But as in Britain, Canadian TV seasons aren't obligated to hit some arbitrary 12-episode mark. Season one of "Slasher" has eight episodes, and partway through ep No. 2, I'm hooked enough. Katie McGrath is compellingly tenacious and tough as Sarah Bennett, whose parents the Executioner did away with so viciously so many years ago, and "Being Erica" alum Erin Karpluk is well cast against type as the homophobic town loon who may or may not be capable of murder. As Halloween recedes in the rearview and the holidays beckon, one could do a lot worse than to quest along with Sarah as she turns over every last rotten rock in Waterbury in search of the horrible truth.