'Lore': TV Review

Dull re-enactments leach the horror from real stories.
10/13/2017

Amazon's adaptation of the popular true horror podcast has some big-name producers, but doesn't do much to capture why the podcast is a phenomenon.

We're only beginning to see the inevitable onslaught of podcasts turned TV shows, the latest evidence of a medium that continues to believe in the power of IP branding to the point of distraction. The challenges of transferring an audio-only format to a video medium can be seen in Amazon's Lore, based on the popular and award-winning podcast from Aaron Mahnke.

Boasting a superstar team of producers including Gale Anne Hurd (The Walking Dead), Ben Silverman (The Office) and Glen Morgan (The X-Files), Lore is a lackluster advertisement for the podcast for non-listeners and rarely distinctive enough to stand out as a TV show in its own right.

For those unfamiliar with the podcast, Mahnke delves into the real-life backgrounds of horror stories, superstitions and cautionary folklore, using actual historic cases and a modern perspective to show how many of the creatures, characters and tropes of genre fiction are based on human nature and our flawed attempts to understand the unknown. This is hardly a shocking observation, but it can be interesting.

The Amazon take on Lore premieres appropriately on Friday, Oct. 13, and the three episodes sent to critics are based on the podcast episodes "They Made a Tonic," "Black Stockings" and "Echoes." Those episodes deal, to varying degrees, with an origin for bits of vampire mythology, changeling stories in Irish culture and astoundingly misguided approaches to curing mental illness.

The episodes have all been expanded for TV, and most of the show's flaws rest in the dull attempts to flesh out the material. While each episode has occasionally evocative animated sequences and a mixture of pictures, illustrations and occasionally film from the past, they're driven by really, really flat re-enactments that somehow attracted actors of reasonable stature to do very little.

The best of the re-enactments is in "Echoes," with Colm Feore playing lobotomy innovator Walter Freeman with a nicely off-kilter zeal. Those re-enactments are shot in a handsome black-and-white that mirror the post-World War II Hollywood style, and they're viscerally effective if only because the lobotomizing process is harrowing to even readable and becomes more so when you can watch and hear somebody driving an icepick into a patient's brain.

The re-enactments were less engaging in the other two episodes, lacking both the decisive style and performance energy. Despite playing the patriarch of a family preyed on by either consumption or demons, Campbell Scott barely emotes in "They Made a Tonic," and the re-enactment's choice to occasionally detour into a style emulating grindhouse or degraded video cheapness makes little sense. "Black Stockings," featuring Teen Wolf star Holland Roden, is awash in bad accent choices and even less gripping drama.

Since the podcasts build their arguments around multiple cases, the re-enactments shift the focus onto a single case, which messes with the narrative flow of the entire episode. In an episode like "They Made a Tonic," the re-enactments drag on and I wanted more analysis of how medicine in the late 1800s lagged behind other scientific advancements, rather than watching a Rhode Island man meekly mourn his family. In "Black Stockings" the concentration on the overwrought telling of the Bridget Cleary changeling possession makes it really weird when Mahnke interrupts the flow to talk about Annie Oakley, who doesn't seem to have had any interactions at all with changelings.

Also in "Black Stockings," Mahnke talks about how the British used Irish belief in changelings as a justification for maintaining their rule over an island that was made to seem backwards, but Mahnke is just as often taking a condescending look at the ignorance of the past himself, treating the extreme as typical.

It's annoying that if one of the premises behind the podcast is the many hours of research Mahnke puts into it, the Lore TV show feels so frequently intellectually loose, if not flimsy. The first few episodes are littered with pronouncements that are only occasionally wrong — the expression "saved by the bell" simply doesn't refer to the 19th century trend of "safety coffins," though it's fun to think it might — but are more often based on poorly substantiated leaps or speculation presented as truth. In debunking or explaining folklore, Mahnke sometimes seems to be falling into the trap of creating or reinforcing the urban legends he chooses to want to believe.

This won't drive many people seek out the podcast, but it should warn future adapters of podcasts for TV that this is not an easy task.

Lore premieres on Friday, Oct. 13, on Amazon.

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