Hollywood horror Brand New Cherry Flavor alllllmost works as Lynch-lite noir

Travis Johnson reviews this Netflix series based on a 90s novel, where all the sex and blood and barfed-up kittens in the world can’t liven up flat storytelling. But if you’ve got a taste for deadpan weirdness anyway, read on.

Hollywood, sometime in the ‘90s: emerging filmmaker Lisa N. Nova (Rosa Salazar of Alita: Battle Angel) finds Hollywood a tougher town than she ever anticipated when she’s ripped off and shut out of her first feature by ageing auteur Lou Burke (Eric Lange). What’s she to do but consult a mysterious downtown witch, Boro (Catherine Keener), about extracting a pound of flesh through supernatural means?

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It takes a while to get there, though, and for its first episode Brand New Cherry Flavor comes across as a particularly deadpan and self-impressed film industry melodrama, all about the dirty deals and predatory people hidden in the Hollywood underbrush. It takes Salazar vomiting up a live kitten—something her character does regularly for the rest of the show’s eight episode run—for us to understand that we’re charting stranger territory. Magic has a cost, art has a cost, and success has a cost—Lisa must pay all three.

Based on the novel by Todd Grimson, Brand New Cherry Flavor comes to us from creators Nick Antosca and Lenore Zion, who gave us the excellent (but little loved in Australia) horror anthology series Channel Zero. Like that show, this latest offering draws, tonally at least, from internet urban legend—the copypasta culture that gave us modern mythic icons like the Slenderman. While it may be set before the ubiquity of the web, it still plays with the idea of individuals being caught up in the inexplicable, of second-hand horror stories that happened to a guy a guy I know knows. It’s a post-modern campfire ghost story.

It’s also a Hollywood horror, which is a small but interesting sub-genre: think Starry Eyes, Under The Silver Lake, and, most especially, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Brand New Cherry Flavor doesn’t quite live up to that last influence—how could it?—but it borrows a lot of its energy in terms of lighting choices, its deadpan performances, its very Lynchian take on the occult.

The two are not on par in terms of quality, but you can imagine them taking place in the same fictive universe. There’s also a fair whack of body horror in the mix—Brand New Cherry Flavor plays around with hidden worlds and higher geometries, secret cults and sorcery, but it connects these ideas with primal, physical pain and pleasure, all sex and blood and barfed-up kittens (it is, as I noted, a motif).

Salazar carries the series ably, and although her character is lumbered with the same deliberate lack of affect that many others are shackled to (The Good Place’s Manny Jacinto, for example, is wasted in a role that asks him to pretty much do nothing) she excels at letting us see Lisa’s internal life and contradictions. Keener has the most fun as the skid row witch who is manipulating the situation for her own ends or in service to some covert power, all wild hair and clawed talons. Eric Lange, as louche Hollywood powerbroker Lou, actually manages to make his rote scumbag character somewhat sympathetic as Lisa and Boro’s curse begins to rip his life apart.

Still, this feels like a near miss rather than a slam dunk—it almost works, and that narrow margin niggles. It’s too slow and convinced of its own cleverness, and there’s no reason this whole exercise couldn’t have been boiled down into a feature film. The ‘90s setting is an affectation; there’s no concrete thematic or story motive for Brand New Cherry Flavor to take place in that period, and although the source novel was set then, it was written contemporaneously and Antosca and Zion haven’t been shy about radically altering the original story in other ways to suit their purposes.

The story is rather flat; for a show that features copious quantities of body horror, zombies, murder, sex, eye trauma, and more, you’d expect the action to rise a little more precipitously. But Brand New Cherry Flavor is more interested in mood than action, and if you’re not tuned into its frequency you may find your attention wandering. There’s an audience for this who are going to absolutely luxuriate in its deadpan weirdness—I just don’t think it’s a very large one.