'South of Hell': TV Review

Courtesy of WEtv
Eli's coming ... to WEtv.
11/27/2015

Mena Suvari in an Eli Roth-produced demonic drama that's being dumped on Black Friday? It's gotta be good!

It takes neither a TV critic nor a fortune teller to read the tea leaves on WEtv's South of Hell. If you're a network with minimal experience in the scripted space and you give a splashy straight-to-series order for a supernatural horror drama from a prolific genre producer (Jason Blum) and an established genre director (Eli Roth) with a recognizable star (Mena Suvari), deciding to release all of the series at once — trimmed to only seven episodes — on the day after Thanksgiving counts as a vote of minimal confidence.

Based on two episodes, it's easy to see why WEtv had no particular clue what to do with South of Hell. Whatever WEtv's brand is, this isn't it, nor is it likely to open the network up to a future niche. It isn't scary. It looks comically cheap at times. The performances range from inconsistent to fairly awful. And unless the Emmys open up a category for Outstanding Use of Multi-Colored Contact Lenses, it's unlikely to get any real respect.

But as a representative of a subgenre already prone to overflowing hokum draped in Spanish moss, smothered in grits and delivered with Southern accents learned from a "Hooked on Keanu Reeves" tape series, South of Hell at least gets credit for some so-bad-it's-funny silliness to go with a premise which really could have been shaped into something better.

The hook is tasty: Maria (Suvari) makes her money reading tarot cards and selling fake mystical trinkets at a Charleston flea market, but she's really a demon-hunter with a unique qualification: Maria is harboring a green-eyed demon named Abigail who enjoys nothing so much as munching on the souls of other demons. Maria can barely control Abigail, which is where brother David (Zachary Booth) comes in. David is able to keep Maria's demon under control, but he can't control his own drug addiction. See how this works? It's a metaphor drowned in metaphorical gravy and then deep-fried in metaphorically scalding oil.

Created by Matt Lambert, South of Hell also features Bill Irwin as Maria and David's crazed cult-leader father, Lamman Rucker as a priest with a personal interest in helping Maria and Dexter veteran Lauren Velez as a mystery woman presumably hiding demons, metaphorical or otherwise, of her own. In addition to Velez, the Dexter connection on South of Hell includes showrunner James Manos, Jr. and a voiceover that you badly want to slap across its disembodied face.

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See, the reason the Dexter voiceover worked was that it came from the perspective of a perpetually ironic character who was always questioning his humanity. Dexter could utter cliches and they'd sound wry and reflective coming from Michael C. Hall.  Booth, however, cannot find any way to sell voiceover such as "The world's a hard place to face alone and old habits die hard, like a tune you just can't get out of your head" in any way that doesn't just sound like bad writing. I get the desire, in a show this extreme, to have the POV be an unremarkable character, but there's a difference between unremarkable and a character who is too bland to respond to anything in an interesting way.

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South of Hell's writers and directors — Eli Roth and Rachel Talalay in the episodes I've seen, with Jennifer Lynch, Jeremiah Chechik and Ti West to come — share a general lack of interest in the non-supernatural elements and characters in the series, and Booth and his performance are only the most conspicuous example. Rucker's in-the-know reverend is a wooden bore, Lydia Hearst is amusingly uncomfortable as an alluring belle and Maria's trailer-park neighbor (Drew Moerlein) snoozes through playing a character whose name probably should just be Beefcake instead of Dusty.

While the prospect of playing both Maria and demonic invader Abigail seems like it ought to be enticing for Suvari, her more general interpretation appears to be closer to miserable discomfort, which may be related to either those contact lenses or the strangeness of playing a possessed version of someone bringing a human version of themself to orgasm while sharing a couch. Yes, South of Hell is that kind of show. It's also the kind of progam that has a possessed child, again encumbered by wacky contact lenses, informing an adversary, "Bitch, I eat souls for breakfast!" which surely would be one of the most quoted TV lines of 2015, except nobody is going to watch South of Hell. And while he may or may not be incubating a malingering spirit of his own, Irwin's character gives the Tony-winning actor the chance to be hammy at a level that exceeds his oft-hammy career norms.

South of Hell only comes to life in the exorcism or demon-related scenes, which steal from William Friedkin's genre-defining classic with abandon and seem to rely heavily on people wrestling on walls or ceilings while simultaneously wrestling with their contact lenses. More advanced effects like a soaring horde-of-insects cam and something where demons seem to speak through prisoners as static are more rudimentary, but there's a chance they could be spruced up for air.

Even at moments of peak lunacy, South of Hell falls well short of what Ash vs Evil Dead is doing on a weekly basis on Starz. Presumably WEtv is dumping South of Hell post-Thanksgiving rather than the more justifiable post-Halloween to get distance from that Sam Raimi-produced success, as if this will be the perfect time for fans of Marriage Boot Camp, Braxton Family Values and Tamar & Vince to switch from unscripted to badly scripted horror.

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