Don’t Fear the Tempter: A Review of 666 Park Avenue
- Monday, October 22, 2012
Comedy is hard, it's often said, as witnessed by the many so-so comedies on television and film. Horror, on the other hand, seems to work well, at least for a young-skewing demographic looking for a date movie, judging by how well so many middling, but cheap-to-make horror movies score at the box office.
Television hasn't had a huge collection of horror programs, as I discussed in an earlier review. But for every classic, like The X-Files, or a recent cult favorite like American Horror Story, there's something like last spring's The River, which tried hard to capture the creepy scares of the Paranormal Activity films but sank after its short run. It's really hard to capture and hold an audience for fearsome content every week, especially on network television's 22-episode seasons. As we approach Halloween, ABC's new would-be scarefest, 666 Park Avenue, is demonstrating just how hard it is to make us gasp and shudder.
Based on a book series by Gabriella Pierce, the series' premise looks cobbled together from sources such as Rosemary's Baby and The Devil's Advocate in which ordinary people are drawn into diabolical scenarios where they must confront terrifying threats. Jane Van Veen (Rachael Taylor) and Henry Martin (Dave Annable), are an unmarried couple looking to get ahead in the Big Apple, but New York's competitiveness and housing prices are formidable. So it looks like a real blessing when the owners of the Drake, a classy hotel, built in the 1920s, Gavin Doren (Terry O'Quinn from Lost) and his wife Olivia (Vanessa Williams), offer them the job of managing the Drake, a large and stately hotel that has been converted into a condominium building.
We discover that the place is evil when, in the opening teaser a desperate man, having signed a contract with Gavin that would make him a great violinist at the cost of his soul, forces his way through the Drake's front entrance. But then a small panel opens on the building's ornate wooden doors and some force yanks him back inside where, in a flash of light, he disappears forever. When Jane and Henry sign the contract for the new job, O'Quinn flashes his patented Bad Locke sinister smile, and we know he's thinking, "Welcome to Hell." Henry works for the mayor's office and is an earnest stand-up guy, but he lacks the strong leading man aura to suggest he is anything like a match for this diabolic duo. Taylor, looking like a young Nicole Kidman, is the focus of the series, appropriate to ABC's female-leaning programming. As an architect, she's curious to investigate the hotel's history. She learns that "Drake" is derived from "dragon" and uncovers a mosaic of the creature in the basement floor, just one of the discoveries she will make that suggest the structure has plenty of secrets. And she has bad dreams that end horribly and suggest something of the evil resides in the Drake.
Meanwhile, Gavin goes about his business of enticing residents with their deepest desires. A playwright working on his laptop, keeps looking past it to the beautiful blond woman living in the apartment across the street. She knows it and acts the siren, keeping her curtains open. Then his wife, ignorant of his lustful behavior, hires the blonde as an assistant and the temptation grows. Another resident, promised the return of his deceased wife, agrees to kill a man to get her back. Of course, like the famous tale, "The Monkey's Paw," we should be careful what we wish for. To sustain the re-animated wife's life, Gavin demands another murder. And so on. Gavin seems to have the easiest job in the world. No one refuses his offers and most are dispatched to the underworld quickly. Gavin and Olivia seem to have special plans for Henry, who is ambitious to rise in the Mayor's office, and they think they can get to him through Jane.
Meanwhile, Jane continues looking into the dark corners of the Drake and here is where the show trots out the horror tropes even a non-horror fan like me is familiar with. Like so many heroine's of Gothic horror, Jane goes where the audience knows she shouldn't, the only difference is she uses her smartphone light instead of a lit candle. Eerily flickering fluorescent lights in the basement? Been around since at least Twin Peaks. Askew angles suggesting a world awry? At least as far back as 1949's The Third Man. Unsettling stone angels? Dr. Who. The impressions of the hands and faces of tormented souls, pushing outward against wallpaper? The Frighteners. Ghostly figures suddenly revealed in the background? Maybe half the horror films of the last ten years. The show has twice used the classic scare shot from The Sixth Sense, where a main character in a dark room is in the background with their back turned, when a figure suddenly crosses the screen in the foreground. When you pepper your scenes with a list of what was scary the first five times, it's simply not effective in evoking dread or fear.
When dealing with characters who sell their souls for something, there should be some level of drama, as this is a plot of many great tales, from Faust to "The Devil and Daniel Webster," to even the classic Simpsons episode, "Bart Sells his Soul." Just as there is drama in good redemption stories, so cautionary tales of gaining the world only to lose one's soul should create characters we can relate to before sending them down the elevator shaft to hell. With such shallow characters with low sales resistance, there is no sense of loss or tragedy when Gavin collects on his contract.
We aren't cautioned by watching the deliberations of a soul because we never get to know them. Similarly, I didn't really care about the plot to claim Henry's soul because he has no inner life. He and Jane are simply cogs in an unscary spookhouse. Maybe disbelieving in the reality of the devil undercuts this attempt to horrify television audiences. And is this a world with no representatives of the forces of light? Spiritual warfare without God is pretty one-sided storytelling and has always been a problem with these types of Satan-as-leading-man stories that started when Milton's Paradise Lost made Lucifer more interesting than the Almighty, evil more compelling than goodness.
So, boo! And also hiss! to a missed opportunity. The only scary thing in the Drake's basement are the declining ratings for 666 Park Avenue.
*This Review First Published 10/22/2012
**Watch 666Park Avenue Sundays on ABC
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