Cinematic Nightmare Candy, True Crime Trifecta: The Staircase, Candy & Under The Banner Of Heaven

Welcome to Cinematic Nightmare Candy. Providing your horror sweet tooth its (hopefully) terrifying fix.

For me, as a lover of various genres, some of the most terrifying viewings are the ones that are based on true crimes. There are many real-life situations that have made me cringe, and curious and exploratory. Mostly, it’s the psychologically fascinated part of me that wonders, why? What happened? What caused this? Well, there are three recent cases to hit streaming for me to evaluate. Each of these had a lot of attention, and some tales were relatively unknown. Until now.

One I was very familiar with (The Staircase) but in the other cases, I was unaware. With all, I was able to scratch that itch for truth, and I was digging. Mostly. All three proved that true horror exists in the depiction of real-life monsters. For all three, go in blindfolded and wait until after if you’re someone who likes to do research, make your own assessment. Truth can be in the eye of the beholder. Yeah, it’s scary.

source: Hulu

Candy (Nick Antosca, Robin Veith)

While, personally, the most disappointing of the three series I’m about to cover, Candy, I’ll admit, has its disarming charm. I say this with a definitive level of ickiness because it leaves the ultimate bad taste, but the performances keep it engaging, and the fact that the main character is named Candy is very ironic. This is not the kind you want to try. This limited series has the makings of a shocking, strange real-life story, but ends up losing some of its flavors as it goes.

Sweet than Sour

Candy (Jessica Biel) seems like the perfect housewife, mother, and community member. She’s attentive to her children, and active in her local church all with a pleasantly deceiving demeanor. She and her husband Pat (Timothy Simons) embody the perfect 80s household.

Meanwhile, on the other side of things, Betty (Melanie Lynskey) is having a harder time. Her husband, Alan (Pablo Schreiber), is away a lot on business and her career has taken a sideline as she raises her kids. Betty seems like she is just trying to get through each day, even as she feels unseen, and the always fabulous Lynskey captures her pain with sincerity; the idea that Betty could just disappear at any time.

These two women seem extremely different but remain on a similar trajectory as they are both mothers and their paths are inevitably crossed as their daughters are close friends. What occurs on this particular day though, is one of speculation, and one that even by its end, never fully feels answered.

Each feels isolated in their own ways, but Betty’s character, doesn’t get as much exploration, but still feels more understood (mostly because of the talent at hand), By the end, I didn’t really feel I knew Candy or what exactly was going on inside her brain. It does feel like these are real women and not parodies, and that sensitivity helps ground this series. I just wish I knew them both more.

This five-part series starts with a bang when a visit to Betty’s for a simple and innocent purpose: to get a bathing suit for her daughter who stayed the night at Candy’s house, ends in a bloody and confusing event. We don’t know quite what has happened yet, but give it time. The series calculates its reveal purposely, shifting from the before, to the future, and even the eventual trial, as a way of illuminating what exactly happened. Turns out, this suburban housewife has her secrets.

Candy has a very exaggerated feel, especially in its waning final two episodes, but it doesn’t fully deliver on the real psychological element at the center. What makes someone who seems relatively level suddenly snap?

Something I loved about the series, besides the performances, was the 80s vibe. This includes the perms, home decor, and costumes. Undoubtedly conventional, Candy is a true-crime series that doesn’t break the mold. It’s a gruesome event that becomes an unspooling of “truths” as it turns into a courtroom procedural.

source: Hulu

Biel shines as the oppressed housewife, that we watch slowly become the opposite of what we and her small community know her to be. It’s a nearly unbelievable case, and the series handles this story with respect and care, which can be a slippery slope for many trying to recreate events as horrifying as this. Candy tells the story of two housewives, seething internally amid their unhappiness until one of them bubbles over. Is what really happened what is displayed in the trial?

Who can say?

Narratively the writers are able to give us sizeable portions to keep us sustained but still, I remained hungry. I wanted to know what happened and what became of Candy enough to follow the breadcrumbs to its finale. But, overall it’s an intriguing project that doesn’t totally stick the landing. As always, it seems like things come in pairs (sometimes more) as it looks as though another series on HBO will follow this story as well. It’ll be interesting to see how that one goes.

Candy is currently streaming on Hulu

source: Hulu

Under the Banner of Heaven (Dustin Lance Black)

All of these series are packed full of star power, so it’s rightfully mentioned that the acting is never the issue.

Religion extremists can be some of the most terrifying portrayals of abuse of power, and a misconstruing of faith as a right to do horrific things. Much like within a true crime story, anyone who is an extremist, of any sort, is truly creepy.

When Brenda Lafferty (Daisy Edgar Jones) and her child are brutally murdered, the community is at a loss. The series starts with Detective Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield) a fellow Mormon who is investigating the heinous murder of a woman and her infant child. This happens in a generally Mormon community and its trajectory leads to an intro into some unfortunate and outlandish perspectives of the religion.

His partner Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham), doesn’t share his beliefs, and the two work concurrently to discover, the who, the why, and what has occurred. The biggest suspect? The husband Allen (Billy Howle), whose story seems plausible, and whose own family may be at the crux of the crime.

Under the Banner of Heaven is what a true-crime series should be (another from Hulu too) that’s not to say it didn’t have its faults, but it is aware of its own nature. I was intrigued and visibly disturbed from the opening murder to its ultimate truth. The show often traversed time and perspective giving us varying points of view ranging from early Mormon history to recent extremism and implied righteousness.

The story focuses on the Lafferty family, primarily: Ron (Sam Worthington), his wife Dianna (Denise Gough), Dan (Wyatt Russell), and his wife Matilda (Chloe Pirrie), Robin (Seth Numrich), Samuel (Rory Culkin), and many others. It focuses on this family in Utah, and the behavior and belief that separates many despite blood relations.

I am not to say what is true (I’m not knowledgeable enough in this religion, so I stake no claim) but I am coming from what is portrayed in this series. The truth is that people were murdered, and regardless of the reasonings, it’s a fact. Life was taken, and that’s a hard pill to swallow.

source: Hulu

Andrew Garfield is excellent in his performance as the lead, often facing scrutiny from his community for his involvement, but ultimately, always, heartfelt in his endeavor for justice.

The performances are truly spectacular, some of the cast were next to unrecognizable which made this series simultaneously easy to breathe in but excruciating to exhale. Not only does the show tackle the murder, and the ideals of some members of the Lafferty’s, but also the undeniable and discomforting imbalance within marriage and home (specifically the lack of voice a woman has).

There are some stretches when the show gets tangled up too much in its backstory and history. However, it is able to recover with a vast amount of in-depth characterization, and a focus on the struggle with faith, and the laws of man. It’s unique, even if it is something too detailed for its own good.

Under the Banner of Heaven is a riveting series, with an ambiance of a character-driven narrative, and a realistically horrifying tale, that makes this series ultimately hard to take. This is a tough watch, but it’s important. It’s done with deft hands and a creative perspective that makes you realize the dangers of fundamentalism.

Under the Banner of the Heaven is currently available on Hulu

source: HBO

The Staircase (Antonio Campos)

This is one of those cases that is quite well known and having seen the documentary, I was unsure if this would bring much more to the table. With a combination of stellar performances and intricately discerned dramatic retellings, The Staircase is another HBO hit. If there’s already been a documentary, what else can be said? Well, let’s see.

Author Michael Peterson’s (played here by Colin Firth) wife Kathleen (Toni Collette) died at the bottom of the staircase in their luxurious South Carolina home. There are a lot of potential motives for murder, many odd coincidences with his past, as well as some curious answers that seem like a freak occurrence. The fact that this series acts out all three, portrayed in painful realization from Collette, makes for a visceral experience. All of these seem reasonable in how the creators master it, and the performances included.

But, I Regress

What really happened? What’s interesting is the dive into all of the possibilities, regardless of how obtuse or unbelievable they are. To this day this hasn’t been a case truly tested. Much like the Paradise Lost series, another I’d suggest to anyone interested in true crime or a look at the justice, and injustice system, this is a perspective that varies. What really happened? Do we know? That particular case is one I’ve studied a lot, and while I have my hypothesis, you don’t really know. It’s one of the struggles. It is also one of the intrigues.

In this series the star power is palpable. The family is portrayed by a variety of talents including Margaret Ratliff (Sophie Turner) and sister Martha Ratliff (Odessa Young), Dane Dehaan as Clayton Peterson, and brother Todd Peterson (Patrick Schwarzenegger). Rosemarie DeWitt as Candace Zamperini sister of Kathleen, as well as Juliette Binoche as Sophie Broussard, and Parker Posey as Freda Black. It’s a powerful group of talent that makes the storytelling and direction influences that much more impactful.

With The Staircase, this is a dramatized version of a story that has already had hot headlines and a full documentary devoted to it. What’s intriguing here is that it capitalizes on terrific portrayals, and the differentiating “possibilities” and also includes the documentary with an almost meta feel.

source: HBO

The series takes place from the initial tragedy and then 15 years later as the case and family deal with this circumstance that most should never have to navigate. It’s at times a family drama, a courtroom experience, and a retelling of potential scenarios. In all ways, the show goes the distance. What I appreciated and also felt most empathetic for was the extended family and how they dealt with this trauma. This is a truly untenable event, and those involved dealt with it as best they could. Everybody involved gives it their all, and it dismisses any hesitancy that I had when I first heard that they were making this series.

I was waiting with bated breath for the finale, and while I enjoyed it, it made me realize that some of the episodes did sag a bit, and the momentum had faded. That’s not to say it takes away from the performances or the immense dedication a show based on a true story and a documentary while remaining unbias requires, I just felt it lingered longer than needed.

Something that The Staircase is terrific at is the real emotion and empathy displayed. This family goes through so much, and the death of Kathleen Peterson is one of those mysteries that so many feel unable to move on from. This doesn’t necessarily give any indication or insight, it merely paints a few of the scratched-away corners in color, allowing us to see more of what may have been. Truth or not? Who knows.

Kudos to the final shot, it was chilling.

The Staircase is available to stream on HBO

All three of these have their highs and lows, but none of them are without their curiosity. Isn’t that why many watch things such as this? Sometimes the most unbelievable is reality. Regardless, even with the amassed amount of talent through these three, Under the Banner of Heaven definitely felt the most comfortable in its shoes. And let’s be fair, none of these was anything more than adequately discomforting. This is reality dissected, diluted, and ugly.

Have you seen any of these? What are your thoughts? Let me know!

Shining Girls S1: A Dark, Loopy Sci-fi Mystery

Created by Silka Luisa Shining Girls (based on the book by Lauren Beukes) follows the mind-bending reality of Kirby (Elisabeth Moss) as she tries to navigate life after a devastating near-death attack. This series, which may very well only be one season (or at least I hope) can be head-scratching, nearly anxiety-inducing at times, but remains an intriguing, immaculately performed story that interweaves sci-fi elements with real character-driven drama.

source: AppleTV+

In part, this series focuses on Kirby and her frequently changing reality. She takes notes each day reminding her of her place and where she is within this world as it shifts unexpectedly. One day her desk is moved; another it’s her apartment, her lifestyle, her hair, her pet – you name it. After surviving a nearly fatal attack, she becomes aware of a recent murder that may be connected to her assault. This starts her on an investigative hunt for the truth, and for the assailant, played with expertly portrayed malice, by Jamie Bell as the elusive Harper.

The show takes place in Chicago in the 90s and while there is an element of time travel, it also believably lives in the world of journalism at the Chicago Sun-Times. As someone who wanted to be a reporter, but after her attack worked in the archives, Kirby is a character that embodies a woman you root for. Moss, who has proved she can really portray any role, does it again with a performance that doesn’t leave anything behind.

The case grabs the attention of struggling writer, Dan (Wagner Moura) whose career has taken some hits after dealing with addiction. The two form a unique team, discovering many grisly murders that point to a serial killer. Shifting realities often derail Kirby, and she is an unreliable narrator at times, but one who is also committed to figuring out the connections with these deaths. There are a lot of plotlines at work here, one of which is a very enthralling murder mystery and a psychological thriller. Even though we know the who, early on, the why and the telling of the events takes time to be discovered.

Harper’s character is really, truly despicable. He doesn’t generate much empathy; a clear villain. Yet, and kudos to the writers and Bell’s performance, he’s quite curious. What are his motives? Even if we don’t get all of the answers, like the novel delivers more of, we can’t help but wonder about all of the questions.

source: AppleTV+

What’s ultimately frustrating but somehow simultaneously stimulating is the constant differing realities. This is where the science fiction aspect becomes especially prevalent. You feel as if you are with Kirby, understanding her confusion and her relentless perceptions of what her life is. She has all of her memories, but her surroundings and the people involved, including her mother Rachel (Amy Brenneman) and her sometimes husband Marcus (Chris Chalk) make for an overly sympathetic protagonist that truly captures the damage and struggle of someone dealing with a traumatic event. The supporting characters are as equally important as they present a level of both sustainable empathy and disconnect. Shining Girls is nothing if not a vestibule for contemplation. At times, you may feel on par with Kirby, unsure of what you are seeing.

A Mysterious Take On A Serial Killer

While most of the victims are already gone, there is one that can potentially be saved, with a riveting performance by Phillipa Soo as Jin-Sook. The relationship with her and Kirby is one I could have used more of, but it provides a sense (much like her and Dan, but varied) of recluse from her loneliness. The pain and healing of such an event can make someone feel like they are on an island, and we get to see Kirby’s resurgence which is (by its end) is as satisfying as you could hope for.

Shining Girls may not be for everyone. It is an acquired taste because, much like the lead, you’re traversing a difficult situation. The fact that this series personified this so definitively is admirable. Personally, it took me a couple of episodes, but then I was hooked.

There is a lot to potentially spoil, and I won’t. Much like many of this genre, the value is in the experience. It also is a series that earns your approval, your investment, and in its end, proves to be worthy of it. AppleTV+, I feel, has been a streaming service that has very rarely let me down. I’ve had several I’ve written about admirably here and on my other site (filminquiry.com) and some I haven’t but appreciated all the same.

source: AppleTV+

Shining Girls mixes investigative mystery with science fiction in a way that never feels exploitative and it gives a voice to trauma and an inventive story to boot; an avenue for imaginative storytelling that still somehow feels grounded. Come for the intrigue, stay for the performances; everyone is at the top of their game, and Elisabeth Moss, again, proves she is one of the best actresses on television.

A perplexing series with no shortage of hard-to-watch moments, Shining Girls is an enthralling, bold tale.

I dug it.

Shining Girls Season One is available to stream on AppleTV+.