We’re deep into spooky season, and for those of us who observe, seeking out new horror movies and TV shows is the equivalent of quaffing your pumpkin-spice beverage of choice. Naturally, the go-to for many viewers is Netflix, and the big red streaming behemoth has plenty of scary stuff to choose from. But there comes a point when you’ve exhausted the collected works of Mike Flanagan and need something new, something different, something a bit more hard-core to scratch that horror itch.
My horror-loving friends, it’s time to take a taste of that Brand New Cherry Flavor.
Created by Lenore Zion and Nick Antosca, BNCF is an early-’90s period piece that feels like it fell off the back of a truck driven by every nightmare-slash–wet dream you’ve ever had.
To summarize BNCF, which debuted in August, is to sell you a bill of goods — the show holds far more tricks up its sleeve than you’d guess from its opening episode. But for the record: BNCF stars Rosa Salazar as Lisa Nova, a visionary but troubled young filmmaker who flees to Hollywood after an unspecified traumatic incident occurs during the filming of a (by all accounts brilliant) short film. Upon arrival, she’s taken under the wing of producer Lou Burke (Eric Lange, a superlative character actor who keeps taking on roles a world away from his stint as drama teacher Sikowitz on Nickelodeon’s Victorious). Burke is a onetime hotshot who hasn’t had a hit in years, and he sees Oscar gold in expanding Lisa’s short into a full-fledged feature.
Before long, though, it becomes apparent to Lisa that Lou’s vision of their professional and personal relationship is painfully different from her own. When things go sour, as they always do in Hollywood noirs, Lisa turns to a mystery woman and literal witch named Boro (Catherine Keener, never better) for help. In a party scene straight out of David Lynch’s Lost Highway, Boro promises Lisa that she can hurt people for her — but the price proves steeper, weirder, and bloodier than Lisa could ever have imagined.
Initially, the appeal of BNCF lies in its influences, which it wears proudly on its sleeve. The sphere of Los Angeles art, film, wealth, and squalor into which Lisa enters is, at least at first, of a piece with the worlds Lynch constructed in his L.A.-based horror masterpieces Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. As Lisa burrows deeper into Boro’s domain, body horror of a decidedly Cronenbergian bent takes center stage, with gross-out parasitic infections and bizarre new orifices galore. A heaping helping of the Coen brothers’ Hollywood satire Barton Fink is thrown in as well, and some images seem drawn from William Friedkin’s neo-noir masterpiece To Live and Die in L.A. and John Carpenter’s underrated California apocalypse film Prince of Darkness.
All of this, it needs to be said, is well aboveboard. More than any other genre, horror exists in conversation with itself; the goal of a horror film or show is to frighten you, horrify you, and gross or freak you out, so the genre’s evolution is a continuous process of refinement with filmmakers constructing new terrors out of material that proved effective in the past. BNCF’s debts to Lynch and David Cronenberg are obvious but perfectly legit.
Zion and Antosca have ample pedigrees as well. The pair first worked together on Antosca’s near-peerless horror anthology series Channel Zero, a four-season wonder that adapted internet “creepypasta” into some of the most innovative and straight-up scary TV horror this side of The Twilight Zone. Antosca went on to create The Act with writer Michelle Dean, and its true-crime tale of murder and Munchausen syndrome by proxy was a worthy follow-up to Channel Zero’s more supernatural terrors. BNCF fits neatly into that lineage.
Yet there’s a rawness to the series that isn’t apparent in Antosca and Zion’s previous work. In part, this is due to the often extremely sexy nature of the supernatural shenanigans in which Lisa & Co. — especially Hollywood megastar Roy Hardaway (a terrific Jeff Ward), her kinda-sorta soul mate — participate. If you’ve ever wondered how explicit a sex scene can be if the orifice involved is an imaginary one, BNCF is here to tell you it can be very, very explicit indeed.
In addition to its eroticism, the show is often, well, gross. I mean disgusting. Mutilated animal carcasses. Impromptu brain surgery. Tadpole milkshakes. Human-ear omelets. Eye trauma up the wazoo. Zombies eating dog food out of the bowl. Lisa puking up kittens. (No, seriously: She repeatedly vomits up kittens.) I consider myself a pretty salty dog where gross-out stuff is concerned, but BNCF turned my stomach over and over. Between the disgusting, the frightening, and the arousing, starting a new episode of the show has an Okay, let’s strap in and go for it feeling every time.
And there’s no way to discuss that feeling without mentioning Salazar’s star turn. As another character references, she’s on that “Isabelle Adjani in Possession” shit — a fully embodied performance in which every nightmare vision of a faceless woman, every drink of a hallucinogenic poison, every barfed-up kitten feels lived in and raw. It’s one of the most demanding performances in recent television memory, as riveting as it is extreme.
But the most compelling aspect of BNCF is its refusal to hold the audience’s hand. Tried-and-true TV tropes such as, you know, likable characters and relatable protagonists are largely swept aside; in their place are people who grow and change and run wild like the overgrown vine that gradually takes over Lisa’s apartment. Characters lie, they obfuscate, they hide their true origins and intentions. The “good guys” are difficult and often dangerous; the “bad guys” reveal hidden depths of genuine emotion; innocent people live or die — well, they mostly die — for no good reason at all. Lisa and Boro are the trickiest of all: The former shape-shifts from a wronged ingenue into a bloody force of nature, while the latter seems to follow none of the codes of behavior that typically govern witches in fiction. It’s impossible to predict what either will do from one moment to the next, let alone from episode to episode.
And everyone — seriously, everyone — is amoral when amorality suits them. That amorality, that sense that deep down in its bones BNCF is decidedly sleazy, is a breath of fresh fucking air. We live in a cultural climate that increasingly demands that its fiction be easy-to-grasp morality plays with protagonists who model good behavior and antagonists who get what’s coming to them. BNCF devotes far more time to watching characters vomit up kittens than learning lessons.
Maybe that’s the real magic of BNCF: All the characters do things that make them “deserve” comeuppance, but when the comeuppance comes, it’s virtually always worse than what they deserve. You can’t make sense of it because, in its hallucinogenic horrors, there’s no sense to be made. There’s no moral to the story beyond what you make of it. During this spooky season, that’s a flavor worth savoring.