‘Brand New Cherry Flavor’ Takes a Page from ‘The Monkey’s Paw,’ and Gives Back a Finger
If you’re a fan of cute and cuddly kitten clips, Netflix’s “Brand New Cherry Flavor” is not for you. Yes, there are precious furball babies all over the series, but you won’t feel like snuggling them close. You might feel a bit peckish, actually, because the witch who feasts on the blood of these feline newborns does so with such relish.
Lisa N. Nova (Rosa Salazar), the aspiring filmmaker at the center of “Brand New Cherry Flavor,” lays out more than just the premise of the movie she wants to make in her opening pitch. The story she’s selling is called “Lucy’s Eyes,” and it appears she uses them in the initial meeting with producer-director Lou Burke (Eric Lange). The main character in her film has an innate gift she has to learn to use in order to save herself. “That thing she does with her eyes,” Lou says. Lisa leaves that restaurant with a contract and a check.
The eyes have it. Lisa hooks up with an old friend Code, played by Manny Jacinto, who has learned almost nothing about ethics since he played Jason Mendoza on “The Good Place.” She gets a place in Hollywood. It’s haunted and has a coyote problem, but it’s cheap, and surprisingly plant-friendly. Her producer becomes a mentor and she rocks art openings with killer introductions. The new-on-the-scene, promising newcomer sees nothing but green lights ahead of her. And then pukes up a cat. Yummy.
That’s because, in the very same opening pitch, Lou, who hasn’t had a hit since 1986, tells Lisa to start presenting herself as the new Cronenberg. This series is set in early-’90s Hollywood, and the prevailing winds of the time carried an air of foreboding, obsession, occult and body horror. Lou goes from knight in a dull turtleneck to poisoned toad in two moves, one in the front seat and one on the hood of his muscle car.
Occult fans and practitioners will bond with the witch Boro (Catherine Keener) quicker than the evil binding she casts for young Nova. Boro doesn’t think Lisa is ready for things like blood and sex magic, or the particulars of her wild family-hopping, body-swapping youth or zombie good-boy harem. Adapted by Nick Antosca and Lenore Zion from Todd Grimson’s 1996 cult novel, “Brand New Cherry Flavor” tastes more like dark magic than “Hocus Pocus” smelled like children. The team which also created “Channel Zero” makes it look, at least, like they did their homework for some of more psychotropic aspects of the magical parables at the series center. The title of the series sounds like something you might drop on the tip of your tongue before binging. Prepare to enjoy the hallucinogenic fun.
Both “The Love Witch,” directed by Anna Biller, and Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” were designed as spells. The new Netflix show, and the novel by Grimson, almost work the same kind of dark magic to capture the feel of a curse, but stop short in the name of traditional horror. The serial setting gives it room to breathe, and much of the more unsettling imagery might feel redundant as the story moves. But some magical workings require repetition, and most take some time to come to fruition. The only problem is the inherent judgmental tone of the show. Black magic is presented as innately bad, practitioners are invariably selfish, and karma is a bitch.
The pilot was shot by Arkasha Stevenson, and other directors include Gandja Monteiro, Matt Sobel, Jake Schreier, and Antosca. Each of them mixes things up a little bit, but all know how to build suspense. The series is consistent in its perilous tone, and knows how to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. Happily, much of the humor of the series comes the same way. After a particularly queasy incarceration incident, the most imposing cellblock bully throws down with “This bitch puked a cat.”
Salazar is hypnotic. You really can’t take your eyes off her, especially when you most want to. The special effects and gore are amazing. From gooey rat stews through wormy lines of cocaine to dinner-table lobotomies, revulsion is power. Beautifully horrific and satisfyingly stomach-turning, they are still no match for the subliminal horrors which lurk in the shadows. Peripheral vision is almost a recurring character; it adds so much to the overall tone.
Keener underplays everything exquisitely, embracing her otherworldly presence, and cosmic balance. Salazar commits to the rabbit hole. Lisa may come off a little privileged. She’s within breathing distance of a major studio movie deal on the basis of one student film. But Salazar doesn’t only make you root for her, she makes it feel like it would be a pleasure to be just an extra in one of her movies. You barely notice that Lisa turns the movie star Roy Hardaway (Jeff Ward) into a zombie of her own.
Lou’s journey from skivvy movie producer to rudderless ghost-chaser is equally compelling. You think he hits his low point when he bugs out, but once he finds the one person who can help him get a grip on himself, his trajectory stumbles onto a new freefall. Mary (Siena Werber), who played Lucy in Lisa’s original film, plucks the audience’s attention from the moment she shows up, during the second half of the series.
Lisa’s short student film reveals itself in snippets throughout the series, and should probably be shown in its entirety as a featurette somewhere. It is amateurish, sure, but stylistically engrossing, with a nod and far more than a wink to Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel’s silent motion picture classic “Andalusian Dog.”
“Brand New Cherry Flavor” exists in a self-contained universe, and the standard laws of nature don’t necessarily apply. Supernatural laws, however, can burn loopholes into the most iron-clad Hollywood movie contract. As revenge stories go, Lisa’s is a timeless classic which is just as relevant in a #MeToo world. But hers is less black and white than magic itself, and Boro is the ultimate hero. The soundtrack is excellent, but missed an opportunity by omitting any version of Little Willie John’s “Leave My Kitten Alone.” Boro has her own big, fat bulldogs, who can howl harmony.
“Brand New Cherry Flavor” is a fun twist of trippy, gory thrills, and one of the best Netflix horror offerings yet. It is intelligent, disproportional, skewered and measured. It’s not quite as scary as it is unnerving, but it is absolutely satisfying on every level of fright.
“Brand New Cherry Flavor” begins streaming Aug. 13 on Netflix.