Quibi wants to change the way you’re being entertained. Striving to be the Netflix exclusive to your phone, the service produces episodes of its shows in segments of ten-minutes or less. Having now seen a couple of things on Quibi I can honestly say the content is rather good. Earlier this year I saw Veena Sud’s The Stranger, which was mostly enjoyable albeit slightly annoying, mostly because The Stranger felt like a 100-minute movie broken up into segments. The content had some redundancy in its transfer to the super-small screen of cell phone viewing, especially when we’ve grown accustomed to film structure and binge watching. This past week I was able to see six episodes (two stories) from one of Quibi’s newest ventures, Sam Raimi’s 50 States of Fright.
50 States of Fright is an anthology series featuring urban legends and folklore from every state in the country and is a far bigger win for the streaming service looking to engage the binging viewer. The episodes I was treated to, “The Golden Arm” and “Almost There,” were well-produced, fun, and unlike The Stranger, didn’t feel like it kept having to explain itself after in the first few minutes to wrap up the others. The anthology aspect works far better for a service offering quick bits while also intriguing the viewer to see what happens next.
The Golden Arm (Michigan)
Sam Raimi opened the screening by introducing the two stories I was about to see, explaining the show’s local legend aspect and revealing he had directed its first story, “The Golden Arm.” Raimi, a Michigan native, and brother Ivan Raimi tell a story tracing back nearly 200 years and not inherently unique to Michigan, but placing it there in the modern era.
Breaking “The Golden Arm” down to its roots, this is a tale of a corpse coming back to claim their property. Every culture in the world has a version of the story and it is a documented and cataloged as folktale type ATU Index 366 (Arne-Thompson-Uther). Specific to this incarnation, however, are its roots in American literature, Mark Twain having written down a version and how to tell it.
This version places happily married couple Heather (Rachel Brosnahan) and Dave (Travis Fimmel) on a farm in the middle of logging country. Dave, a lumberjack and woodworker, attempts valorously to provide and adapt to Heather’s expensive tastes. When a tragic accident occurs leaving Heather amputated and resentful, the guilt Dave feels over the accident overtakes his need for financial practicality.
The couple sell off most of the equipment on the farm in order to afford the engineering of a golden prosthetic. Utterly in love with her new appendage and the beauty that glistens through it, Heather refuses to take the arm off… ever. Since gold is a heavy metal, Heather winds up in the hospital because the gold being absorbed through her skin is slowly and painfully poisoning her.
Heather’s extreme vanity results in her refusal to discard the arm, even for a brief period to get well. The hospital scene is classic Raimi and reminded me of a similar scene in Spider-Man 2, when Doctor Octavius is brought to the hospital to have his experiment surgically removed, causing a horror scene to take place within the superhero film. Things go similarly for Heather, causing Dave the heartache of claiming Heather’s life. Dave honors Heather final wish to be buried with the arm, but when the recession hits Dave runs out of options to pay the bills and opts to pick up a shovel to reclaim the arm.
I always get a kick out of the digging in a graveyard sequences in movies, I don’t care what time of day it is, someone is going to see the lights of your car on in the cemetery and a figure going to town on the plot. Even if you start at 2 a.m. its going to take you until morning to remove six feet of dirt in a rectangular 8ft (or greater) hole. Anyway (thank you for coming to my Ted talk), Dave takes on the task and retrieves the arm in a campy, creepy fun manner as Heather’s dead eyes pop open and the arm refuses to detach.
When Dave returns home, Heather follows dragging the axe Dave uses to finally get the arm off. Sam Raimi taking the reigns here creates something so signature Raimi that fans will love how the result is equally Evil Dead and Drag Me to Hell. The cast is also brilliant, I’ve been a fan of Brosnahan since Manhattan and think she continues to knock it out of the park on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Fimmel’s work I’m less familiar with, having not seen Vikings but really noticing him on the recent Raised by Wolves. The two here are well directed in the horror craziness Raimi throws at them which makes for an anthology treasure that I do hope others will try to see at some point if not on Quibi, then eventually (hopefully) through VOD or DVD.
Almost There (Iowa)
“Almost There” opens on a group of Amish children following an older woman onto a bridge in the middle of the night. Committed in their beliefs, the older woman puts a noose around each of their necks and one by one pushes them over the bridge as a train approaches underneath. Just before the train can hit all of them, one of the ropes break and free a little girl who runs off the train tracks just before seeing the train hit the others.
Awaking from the nightmare Hannah (Taissa Farmiga), the little girl all grown up, gets a call from work in the middle of the night. Now an engineer, Hannah is the only one available to help Blake (Ron Livingston) stop a catastrophe to happen at an energy windmill farm before a powerful storm hits. As Hannah goes to retrieve her things from a high shelf, we see that she’s afraid of heights during a PTSD flashback to the hanging.
Leaving for the windmill farm, Hannah opts not to take the bridge she’s feared for years and has her maps app take her around the town instead. As she arrives at the scene, Blake informs her they have to travel to the top of a malfunctioning windmill.
The two enter the windmill silo and get start climbing, Hannah informs Blake she’s only gone as high as 30 feet in her training. Blake tells her that she’s certainly going to break her record today, when they hit the first platform the lights begin to stutter. Hannah discovers an oil leak dripping down from above and Blake suggests they hurry as the storm outside rages, he says they’re going to be feeling the sway soon.
As the pair continue climbing, Blake discovers his safety clips aren’t working correctly on the line and Hannah fixes a bolt on the latter that could be the problem. As she puts her wrench away, the image of the hanging woman falls right in her sightline, causing the wrench to fall on Blake’s helmet knocking Blake off the ladder and pulling on Hannah’s connected harness. The two dangle a moment until Blake’s line snaps from the cable sending him back to the platform with a protruding bone.
I am not a fan of heights, getting on a 6ft ladder gives me anxiety and directors Scott Beck and Bryan Woods had my eyes glued in heart palpitation inducing nervousness. The world building and general character development weren’t exactly necessary at this point given the immediacy of their situation. The result is that the pair build their relationship during the climb.
Again in 50 States of Fright, the direction is fantastic, the acting is phenomenal, and the jump scares and general surprises are inventive and fun. As Hannah and Blake ascend the windmill, Hannah’s visions of her past create nightmarish scenarios in combination with the raging storm outside. My one issue is that when Hannah gets to the top the oil issue is never addressed. She generally pulls a lever back and forth during a scene that is almost similar to Jurassic Park, where Ellie (Laura Dern) gets attacked by dinosaurs trying to turn the power back on. Here, instead, it’s Hannah being tormented by a ghost hell bent on hanging her.
As the episode ends and characters Hannah and Blake meet again on the ground, Blake is being transported to the hospital and doesn’t blame Hannah for the accident. Hannah, feeling a new sense of relief, decides to take the short way home and as she approaches the bridge, the visions of her past reemerge. I generally thought the end of this tale was going to be very much that of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, a folktale in its own rite, but the tale takes a different approach which felt far less predictable.
With “Almost There,” Beck and Woods, the directors of Haunt and (in my opinion) the extremely underrated Nightlight, craft a tale I had a hard time placing the origins of. In my search, coming upon “Crybaby Bridges,” which appear throughout the United States and Polish fairytale, “The Glass Mountain,” about a boy being attacked as he ascends a mountain, though he uses mythical creatures to make it to the top. Though I cannot confirm either are the catalyst for the story, it does appear that Beck & Woods use an amalgamation of folklore to bring a new tale to life, which is kind of the point. Maybe the idea is that Iowa native Bryan Woods is telling this story and so by that measure it now becomes an Iowa folktale.
50 States of Fright is the first series on Quibi that tempts me to continue, well-suited for fans of shows like Tales from the Crypt, Masters of Horror, and Creepshow. It has a great approach mainstreaming folklores and I think it’s a great opportunity for Quibi to branch out by fascinating people from the communities portrayed. Being from Massachusetts, I’m curious myself to see what local myth might be on its way for my state’s episode as well as surrounding states I might typically visit.
I’m still very much on the fence when it comes to Quibi, but 50 States of Fright has made enough of an impression to see the value of the service beyond a daily commuter. Being that I hardly ever watch any thing beyond three or four minutes on my phone though, I think I’ll wait for Quibi to make better options available for a television viewer like me. Currently there are only phone apps available (specific to iOS and Android) and you can use a Chromecast or AirPlay to drop the content on your TV. I think Quibi is throwing a lot of focus in bridging the gap between large-screen television viewings instead of trying to take some share from the market. Their content is enticing, but as they try to carve their space outside the norm the method seems clunky and inefficient.