The pleasure viewers get from watching horror flicks and suspense thrillers often comes from the cathartic reassurance that, while everything we see on the screen seems real, it’s the type of temporary terror we can run as far away from when the credits finally roll.
The 12-episode horror anthology “Room 104” returns to Cinemax and HBO Go on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. with two back-to-back stand-alone episodes, each about 30 minutes long, that mirror the different fears and anxieties we need to overcome in our daily lives.
The series’ “Black Mirror”-channeling second season utilizes the same hit-or-miss approach as it follows a motley crew of discontented protagonists who passes through a room in a New York motel.
The single-room setting has its storytelling restrictions, but the show wisely uses this “limitation” to generate claustrophobic fears, thrills and chills—with diverse episodes that are unlike the contrived cookie-cutter tales fielded by many slasher flicks on the big screen.
The first episode shows what happens when possessive Karen (Jennifer Lafleur), who’s still licking her wounds from the breakup of her marriage, gatecrashes the 30th birthday party of her adopted sister Gracie (Charlyne Yi), who doesn’t want to have anything to do with her.
In Episode 2, Rainn Wilson figures in a comedically bizarre but refreshingly unpredictable tale about Jim (Rainn), a middle-aged trumpet player who confronts his former music teacher (82-year-old Frank Birney) in third grade about “something” that happened 40 years ago, after the charismatic teacher introduced his impressionable young ward to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” It’s a four-minute exchange that changed the course of Jim’s life—and sanity!
Even more compelling to watch are the thespic sparks generated by the stellar partnership of Michael Shannon and Judy Greer in Episode 3, in which veterinary nurse Darla Andrews (Judy) grudgingly agrees to meet Nathan Ivanovich (Michael), the “Hamlet”-obsessed Russian novelist she meets in cyberspace.
The couple’s unconventional date begins pleasantly. But, just as Darla notices a “game-changing” wedding ring on Nathan’s finger, her attention is suddenly drawn to a kitschy rap-and-groove production number performed by Nathan with a cross-dressing transvestite, two strip-teasing bodyguards and a marching band!
Other fascinating episodes: Mahershala Ali, the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar (for the gay-themed romantic drama, “Moonlight”), is cast as a hustler fighting over the “spoils” of a gambling match with his cousin (James Earl).
Catherine Strauss (Dolly Wells) talks to a singing and proselytizing voice inside a wall as she attempts to rise above a series of what seems like “self-inflicted” maladies.
In Episode 8, Natalie Morales plays a woman who struggles to face her fears every time her debilitating nightmares recur—but, does she have the courage to stand up to the omnipresent faceless man with a knife, and beat him at his own game?
In another creepy story, grief-stricken daughter Al (Abby Ryker Fortson), with her doting mom (Stephanie Allynne) in tow, revisits the motel room where her dad died of a heart attack 157 days ago.
But, things take a hair-raising turn when the young girl starts casting a spell—to bring her dead father back to life!
The second season asserts its pertinence even more by fielding an episode that seems to pay tribute to feminism and the #MeToo movement.
The 12th episode finds the series tackling date rape, sexual abuse and what constitutes “nonconsensual sex” as it tells the story of playwright Josie Donovan (Mary Wiseman), who is having difficulty shaking off the lingering memory of her traumatic “run-in” with John (Joel Allen) during a wild frat party back in college.
It’s the kind of “ghost” or “monstrous creature” that does not need fangs and horns to haunt a self-respecting woman for the rest of her life!
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