Available on Apple TV+
Some horrors are universal. Some horrors aren’t. And you can probably tell a lot about someone not just from what they’re frightened of, but also from what they think others will be frightened of.
Some of the most important classic horror movies are illustrative of this. Godzilla was about Japanese fear of atomic weapons. Alien has an obvious fear of rape, with various crypto-rape scenes throughout, but it also features the (male) fear of childbirth. The Stepford Wives has some obvious female fears about conformity and marriage. John Carpenter’s The Thing embodies the fear of other people, as well as the fear of isolation.
The Exorcist has some very obvious religious concerns about the nature of evil and secularism. But it’s very important to the movie’s creators that it’s a universal concern. Yes, it’s about a movie star, but the movie is at pains to make her just another concerned mother living in a house who could be living just down the round from you. Indeed, she could be you. What would you do if your child behaved like that?
However, not all horror need aim for empathy. Indeed, you may get a vicarious thrill from watching people suffer. How else to explain the popularity of Saw, for example?
Very specific horror
Apple TV+’s latest series is Servant, a horror series exec produced and occasionally directed by M Night Shyamalan (Unbreakable, The Sixth Sense, Glass) and written by Tony Basgallop (Outcast). And it’s a legitimate question to ask about it: whose fears are being targeted by this, are we supposed to care about the characters or enjoy their suffering, and what can we tell about the creators from the horrors they’ve chosen?
Set in Philadelphia, the show asks to be worried about Toby Kebbell (War Horse) and Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under), whose baby died a year previously. TV journalist Ambrose had a complete mental breakdown but her therapist suggested a good coping mechanism would be to give her a realistic baby-like doll to care for temporarily – something ‘bon vivant’ Kebell reluctantly agrees to.
However, it’s when Ambrose decides to hire an odd, quietly Bible-bashing nanny (Nell Tiger Free) to look after the doll that Kebbell begins to think that maybe it’s not such a good idea, something with which Ambrose’s brother Rupert Grint (Harry Potter, Snatch) also concurs. But it’s when Free takes it all seriously and treats the doll like a real baby that he begins to think it’s really not such a good idea at all.
And then, one day, he finds it’s a real baby. WTF?
At your service?
Let’s start by saying that Servant is at the very least pretty creepy. Largely, however, that’s down to M Night Shyamalan’s direction (picked up in style at least after the first episode by accomplished TV director Daniel Sackheim), the acting by a whole bunch of accomplished Brits (Kebbell, Tiger Free, Grint) and Ambrose, the cinematography, the design and the situation itself.
The scripts, on the other hand, are a bit less scary. When Basgallop’s Boy George biopic Worried About the Boy aired, New Statesmen reviewer Rachel Cooke wondered if he intended the script to be as funny as it turned out and there’s a certain quality to that here – Servant seems funnier than it’s supposed to be.
Apart from anything else, everyone is loathsome. We barely have five minutes to feel sorry for the bereaved Ambrose and Kebbell before we’re hating them. They’re rich and entitled. Ambrose is a TV journalist with very low evidence-thresholds for her stories. She’s mean to Kebbell, ungrateful and humiliates him whenever she can.
Similarly, Kebbell doesn’t really have a proper job. He’s a ‘bon vivant’, which means he can somehow afford to have a vast wine cellar, a vast house and dedicate his days to not much at all, other than mutilating eels, in exchange for every so often cooking for a dignitary and maybe writing something. They can also afford to have a servant and they’re dicks to Christians.
Let’s not get started on Grint’s character, who’s a bit of a dick with issues with young women.
From a certain angle, they are the stereotype of upper middle-class liberal East Coast Apple customers, so does Apple imagine that’s who the audience are? Are these the everyman audience they’re going for? Is this supposed to be the Apple audience’s worst fear? Or are we actually supposed to be hating on them?
All I can say is that I was hating on them for most of the three episodes.
However, that’s not necessarily an off-putting thing. Perhaps we’re supposed to feel sorry for the nanny. After all, it’s called Servant, so maybe we’re supposed to empathise with her; maybe it’s all about the rise of the under-class and a cautionary tale about mistreating those who work for us.
It’s possible, but equally the story tends to suggest that we’re more in witchcraft territory. There was some moments in the second and third episodes where I wondered if the scary Christian who makes her own scary wallhanging crosses and who’s probably also a witch was actually there to protect the couple from something more insidious. But by the third episode, when she starts to come out of her shell, the show seems to come firmly down on the “she’s a witch/demon” category.
Yet, you can tell I’m not 100% convinced, can’t you? Because I’m still trying to work out what the underlying horror is. The first episode seems to be an interesting take on male fear of being cut-out of a relationship when their partner has a child. For a while, it seems to be quite an interesting take on fear of one’s partner going mad, as well. What would you do if your wife went bonkers, possibly in collusion with a young woman you’ve invited into your home?
But it doesn’t stick with that and by the third episode, everyone seems to be buying into the idea that the baby is both real and is the couple’s baby, not an abductee from some other family. So are we now at the fear of possession? The fear of a stranger taking over your family?
Frightened or what?
Again, it’s a valid argument to ask: “What does that matter as long as it’s frightening you?” And it is pretty creepy, although nowhere near as terrifying as The Haunting of Hill House and the worse bit for me was the (seeming) dismemberment of a live eel.
But it’s not consistently creepy and often veers towards the funny because what’s a good chill at one moment is replaced by something sillier the next. I mean, it might frighten someone else, just not me.
And that’s the problem – it doesn’t really seem to know whom it’s trying to frighten and with what. Rather than be consistently frightening for everyone or a specific group, it’s inconsistently frightening because it’s trying to scare lots of different groups, usually not at the same time.
And then sometimes, it just does something I doubt scares anyone or that’s in any sense realistic. Unless employers invite their new nanny into the bathroom while they’re naked in a bath, explain they have mastitis (they don’t) and then the nanny massages their breast to cure them.
I mean creepy, yes. But WTF?
Oh the suffering
Equally, with such horrible people, it’s hard to be scared when bad things happen to them. Even something that might scare if played well doesn’t. In the second episode, Kebbell starts to undergo a coughing fit, possibly because he’s just destroyed the nanny’s wooden crucifix. He’s coughing, very badly for nearly a minute.
However, Grint and Ambrose are more annoyed with him for being so noisy. Not for a second are they concerned, consider calling an ambulance or anything. Then he coughs up a great big chunk of wood and again, no one thinks “That’s not good. He might be bleeding internally. We should take him to the ER immediately.”
And then he loses his sense of taste. And no one cares.
If the characters don’t care about a situation or even each other, is it legitimate to expect the audience to care as well?
Maybe. Think Rosemary’s Baby, and the claustrophobia that stemmed from that. But everyone was in on the plot there. Here, probably not – or at least there are no cues for the audience to think it at the moment, other than possibly Ambrose’s odd hiring procedures.
Perhaps part of the problem is Apple’s release policy. With virtually all Shyamalan’s output, there’s a twist in the tail. Three episodes in, there’s no obvious twist. How could there be? There’s the rest of the season after this and a second season has already been commissioned.
If the first season had had a full boxset release, I could have binged this and then let you know if the journey was worth it. Here, I’ve got to decide whether to tune in every week to watch it – and so do you.
And as you might have guessed, I’m not sure. It’s intermittently creepy, for sure, there’s some fine direction and good acting, and there’s one engrossing central idea at least. There’s also the central sadness of how a family copes with the loss of a child, which explores some real base human horrors.
But everyone’s a dick and I’m really not sure what’s going on – and whether I care.
I think there’s enough of a good foundation to the show that I’ll stick with it for now. For All Mankind took a little while to really get good, so it’s entirely possible it’ll be the same here. But I can’t help but wonder if maybe Apple should vary its release schedule so that we can have at least one full suit of cards laid out on the table now, and know whether any of the shows will be worth sticking with.