This NOS4A2 review contains no spoilers.
“Don’t you want to come to Christmasland?”
Boogeymen are a fascinating concept because they’re both real and they’re not. They can exist in horror films as undead monsters like Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees, or they can be an abusive spouse or neglectful parent at home. Fictional boogeymen are a reflection of what we’re afraid of in the real world, but they can also help us come to terms with the real monsters that are out there hiding in the shadows. N0S4A2 crafts a powerful new boogeyman that’s a danger to both children and adults alike, yet in horribly different ways, that’s even able to make candy canes elicit terror.
Joe Hill is steadily making a name for himself in the field of horror fiction in a way where he practically already rivals his father, the prolific Stephen King. Hill has put out a lot of good work, but N0S4A2 is one of his strongest stories. It’s such an amazing, sprawling novel that is kind of like Hill’s equivalent to It in a lot of ways, both in terms of scope and how it uses horror to warp a beloved, sacred idea. Thankfully, Jami O’Brien’s television adaptation of N0S4A2 not only respects the novel, but also finds ways to make this story even more frightening.
N0S4A2 tells the story of Charlie Manx, a twisted, deluded child abductor and Vic McQueen, the powerful teenager that somehow gets caught in his path and might be able to stop him. Yet at the same time, Manx is concerned about this growing power that can maybe put an end to his plans and what he has to do to get ahead of it. N0S4A2 is a whole lot larger and more complicated than that, but at its core it’s this extensive tale of good versus evil.
The series really leans hard into the horror angle of this material. This is certainly present in Joe Hill’s text, but this adaptation turns it up and makes it the show’s priority. The opening scene of the series is so brutal for instance that you’d think you were watching a slasher film. The series continues this tradition and most of the episodes’ cold opens operate like mini Christmas horror movies. I’m all for this heavy tone, as long as the show doesn’t go out of its way to be gratuitous with the violence and it comes at the expense of the series. N0S4A2 is fairly careful with this and all of the more grandiose moments feel earned and deliberate.
N0S4A2 does its best to turn Christmas and all of its cheerful iconography into foreboding totems of terror. The series mostly succeeds in this department and it should manage to make people a whole lot more anxious come December. Some seriously grotesque things go down during Charlie Manx’s trips to Christmasland.
There’s also a supernatural thread that’s very important to this story. N0S4A2 understands that this can be hard to sell, so it starts to seed both Vic and her friend Maggie’s abilities (as well as the toll it takes on them) as early as the pilot so they can slowly develop and not seem as jarring. The concepts of “incscapes” and “creatives” still might be too much for some people, but the show tries to approach them in as grounded a way as possible, even if they are outrageous concepts. It’s nothing crazier than the “shining” ability. “We’re all magicians with different tricks,” Vic is told.
For those familiar with Hill’s novel, it’s appreciated to see that this series really takes its time with the material in a way where it actually gets to breathe and grow. There are plenty of examples where loving attention to detail gets paid to the source material. The series also does an impressive job with how it introduces its varied cast. However, it sometimes gets a little too invested in certain relationships that would be better suited for the background. This is a big story and it takes some time to get all of these pieces in place, but once everything comes together it makes for such a thrilling experience and it really starts to move along.
The show’s heroine, Vic McQueen, is your typical tomboy sort of character who’s caught in a chaotic family and smarter than her meager surroundings. She tries to hold it together and still strive for more. N0S4A2 establishes early on that her love for motorcycles and bikes has a lot to do with how they give her the ability to get out of the house and outrun her negative thoughts and problems. A lot of her situation at home and the prejudices that she faces feel fairly rote, but it still works for the character. They’re real problems that people face.
The season’s earlier episodes spend a lot of time with Vic’s family and show how important her dad is to her. A lot of this family drama is definitely the weakest component of the series, but it feels more like a concession that’s necessary due to the structure of this season. The first few installments are a slog for this purpose (especially the pilot), but hang in there and the family and school drama definitely take a backseat to the more pressing deadly terror that’s moving across the country and kidnapping children. Ashleigh Cummings’ powerful performance is also able to rise above the character’s shortcomings. She really brings it with this role and it’s as much an emotional journey about Vic cutting out the toxic relationships in her life, as it is a supernatural journey against a devil of sorts.
Maggie Leigh (Jahkara Smith), Vic’s medium friend, initially feels the least developed and tangential as the show begins, but she adds an important driving force to the larger mystery at hand before Vic gets involved with it all. Her friendship with Vic becomes a very important dynamic in the series, especially as Vic tries to better understand her “gift.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Zachary Quinto really goes for it with his portrayal of Charlie Manx. He’s over the top, but gleefully so in a way that’s demanded of the character. He plays him with a deranged, evil excitement. I’d say it’s like if Dracula became Santa Claus, but that’s basically exactly what’s going on here. It’s a performance that conjures the necessary fear for this character, even if it does draw a little too much attention to itself at times.
He’s largely a caricature, but one that would stab you in the face for laughing at him for that fact. Some moments with Manx definitely work better than others, but he becomes more complex over time. The most important thing with Charlie Manx is that there’s a perverse psychology to his actions where he truly believes he’s helping these children. To him, Vic is the villain of this story.
If N0S4A2 feels like anything else that’s been on television, it would be HBO’s criminally underseen Carnivale. That was a supernatural-laced series that took its time and had its hero and villain far apart at opposite ends of the story as they built they own worlds and slowly inched closer towards one another. There’s a tremendous payoff when two radical characters who spend the whole series apart finally get to meet and N0S4A2 conjures a lot of that same energy and suspense between Vic McQueen and Charlie Manx. Long before the two characters cross paths, the series hints at this unusual connection between them and effectively builds this up over the course of the season as they enter each other’s orbit.
Working along Manx’s side is Bing Partridge. The way in which Manx manipulates Bing into his weapon of destruction is also simultaneously horrifying and heartbreaking. He’s a complicated character that in many ways is caught in the worst situation out of anyone here. The show makes you care for the guy, but the transformation that he goes through is also dreadful. Olafur Darri Olafsson nails the role and carries a certain inherent sadness and simplicity through everything that Bing does, even when he’s being threatening. When he and Manx are an efficient terror machine, they’re great, but some of their more bumbling moments do kind of reduce their scenes to feeling like they’re Dirk Dastardly and Muttley.
N0S4A2 occasionally employs a bit of an ‘80s aesthetic to the show’s look, even though the series is set in contemporary times. It’s never too distracting and, if anything, it compliments the series’ subject matter. There’s some really stunning cinematography present that knows how to get the creepiest angles out of these scenes as well as display Manx’s Wraith Rolls-Royce with the eerie reverence that it deserves. The same can be said for Manx’s nightmarish haven, Christmasland, which is an extremely surreal and disturbing place full of haunting visuals.
N0S4A2 works hard to make this place live up to its expectations and they really triumph in creating an awful hellscape that’s dressed up as an amusement park. The segments that utilize the frightening Gas Mask Man also really resonate and look like they’re right out of a snuff film that you shouldn’t be watching. There are also some great editing tricks at play to help bring “The Shorter Way” and other unworldly areas from the series to life. There are many talented directors at work in this series, but John Shiban directs some of the most disturbing sequences from out of the season’s first six episodes.
N0S4A2 is a very mixed bag of toys, but it’s definitely full of more candy canes than coal, especially the deeper that the show gets into its mystery and further away from Vic’s humble beginnings. There are certainly issues of padding throughout this ten-episode season, but the story still jumps forward in significant ways with each new installment. There are elements of this show that are chilling and fantastic, but also others that may generate cringes.
It takes a few episodes until everything really starts to click, but it begins to feel like this is an epic tale. It seems like AMC is also aware of this to some degree and how this is a show that’s stronger as a whole than the sum of its parts by the fact that it’s making the entire season available to binge after the premiere. It should be interesting to see how N0S4A2 parses out Hill’s story over the course of the series. There’s a whole lot of crazy ahead.
The fact that N0S4A2 begins with Vic and Manx at such opposite ends of the story and that there’s a slow, gradual build to their meeting may not come together quickly enough for some people (the aforementioned Carnivale was cancelled because it took too long in this very area), but the payoff when it happens is so grand that this is a series that’s well worth the investment. It’s clear that AMC hopes that they have a new horror hit on their hands with N0S4A2 that can proudly live alongside The Walking Dead. This may not be exactly that, but it’s a strong, unnerving story with a fascinating world that deserves the time to grow.
The horrors of Christmasland are only getting started and there are many more rounds of “Scissors for the Drifter” to play.
Daniel Kurland is a published writer, comedian, and critic whose work can be read on Den of Geek, Vulture, Bloody Disgusting, and ScreenRant. Daniel knows that the owls are not what they seem, that Psycho II is better than the original, and he’s always game to discuss Space Dandy. His perma-neurotic thought process can be followed at @DanielKurlansky.