Macabre satire Shining Vale juggles horror references and gleefully off-colour gags

Courteney Cox and Greg Kinnear relocate their family to a spooky setting in new comedy series Shining Valestreaming on Neon from March 15. It’s a horror-comedy about family, depression, sex, and demonic possession, writes Amelia Berry, one that illuminates how bloody terrible it is to be a woman.

Straight from the get go, Shining Vale is a TV show with pedigree. Even setting aside the star-studded cast, which features Courteney Cox, Greg Kinnear, Sherilyn Fenn (Audrey from Twin Peaks), and Mira Sorvino (Romy from Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion), the fact that its creative team features Sharon Horgan of iconic British comedies Pulling and Catastrophe is reason enough to get very excited.

Co-created by Horgan and Jeff Astroff (Trial & Error and The New Adventures of Old Christine), Shining Vale is a horror-comedy about family, depression, sex, and demonic possession. Well, sort of. Really, it’s a macabre satire that plays with the tropes of horror to shine a light on one of the things that horror has always been best at illuminating: how bloody terrible it is to be a woman.

Pat Phelps (Courteney Cox) is a mess. She’s a novelist who hasn’t written a novel in seventeen years, her mum’s psychotic, her kids don’t like her, she’s profoundly depressed, has a history of substance abuse, and because of a brief affair with the handyman she’s moving to Shining Vale, Connecticut to save her marriage (finally, a relatable protagonist!). But when she stumbles on dark forces beyond her control (demons and/or benzos), Pat’s fresh start takes an unexpected turn. “Whatever was in the house had entered her like an icy finger”, as she writes it.

While the title makes an obvious nod to one horror classic (and Pat is a struggling writer with a strained home life after all), Shining Vale isn’t afraid to draw from all corners for its references. The Phelps’ home is at least as much Resident Evil as it is The Overlook Hotel, and references of varying subtlety to classic films like The Omen, The Exorcist, and Rosemary’s Baby sit cosily next to homages to trashy 2010s found-footage cinematography. For the more literary-minded among you, Shining Vale confirms its ‘madwoman in the attic’ status with a shout out to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper.

The soundtrack too is a loving patchwork of classic horror tropes, with ethereal wordless vocals, burbling 70’s b-movie synths, and the memorable theremin-led credits theme, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with some fantastically sinister needle-drops of 50s and 60s pop classics. Truly, the best use of Twinkle’s 1964 ‘splatter-platter’ Terry in years.

In most horror-comedies, leaning on references and tropes like these would be the show’s bread and butter, but thankfully Shining Vale’s interests run a little deeper. Instead, the show plays with pulpy storylines and the tonal malleability of its genre to bounce with fiendish glee between gags about dildos and cutting satire about gendered expectations in the 2020s.

And the show really does have some interesting things to say about it. The move to Connecticut is explicitly so that the family can become normal (“We’re gonna be so fucking normal, you’re not going to recognise us”). Pretty soon Pat’s husband Terry (Greg Kinnear) is leaning into his masculinity, chopping wood, growing a horrendous beard, flirting with his co-worker, and becoming emotionally unavailable to his family. Their son Jake (Dylan Gage) takes a different route, retreating into a sinister VR metaverse (The Zuckerberg Option).

But the really interesting stuff is what’s happening with the Phelps women. Daughter Gaynor (Gus Birney), goes from short-skirts and swearing, to full born-again, chastity-club Christianity. Maybe so she can get with their hot neighbour, maybe to mess with her mother, or maybe (perish the thought) because she’s genuinely invested in it. And for Pat herself? Well, she’s finding it difficult to remember. But between the (possible) possession by a demonic 50’s housewife and all the Clonazepam she’s popping, it seems like the less herself she is, the better a wife, mother, and author of grubby romance novels she becomes.

But aside from examining the ways in which feminine social roles demand the dissolution of the self, Shining Vale is also just damn funny and packed with memorable performances. Courteney Cox playing jaded and dishevelled is immediately compelling, turning on a dime from cool and cavalier to cursing and casual. Greg Kinnear brings a lot of softness and heart as the cuckold just trying to keep the family together; a perfectly goofy and ridiculous foil to Cox’s acid cynicism.

The supporting cast really gets to cut loose with some outsized characters. Parvesh Cheena is wonderfully pathetic as archetypal divorced-guy Laird. Susan Park (from the Snowpiercer TV show) is a perfect ham as god-bothering neighbour and provider of ominous warnings Valerie He. And, of course, Mira Sorvino as (possibly) demonic ghost housewife Rosemary is gleefully glassy eyed and robotic like a Stepford Wife after too many Cosmos.

Because of Shining Vale’s singular tone, it can take a couple of episodes to get into the show’s groove but once it does have its hooks in you, you won’t want it to let go. For a comedy, this is a show with a surprisingly rich and fast-paced plot. But for all the twists and turns, Shining Vale never loses sight of its central conceit, approaching it in increasingly complex, heavy, and hilarious ways. While the comedy isn’t afraid to push the boundaries of good taste, because it’s always rooted in characters and relationships we care about, it never comes off as cheap.

Horror nerds will get a lot of joy from picking apart the loving film references running through the heart of Shining Vale. But even if you’re not a ‘Friend of Damien’, there’s plenty here to keep you going. Whether you’re into tongue-in-cheek social satire, high-stakes drama, genuinely heartfelt mother-daughter relationship stuff, or you’ve just got a bit of a sick sense of humour, Shining Vale will keep you on the edge of your seat right to the final moments. Who knew that losing your mind could be so much fun?