By Jason Sawyer – Feb. 16, 2019
Released Nov. 15, 2018
Created by Graham Reznick
Starring Hannah Gross, Evan Gamble, Ted Raimi, Tracy Perez, Dohn Norwood
Etta Pryce (Gross) is a go-to tracker and dealer in the fanatical world of rare vinyl collecting, where wealthy individuals will pay top dollar for one-of-a-kind albums and she’s not above committing a few felonies to get her hands on a desired copy. A client puts her on the trail of the fabled ‘Lytton Lacquer’, an album that can reputedly drive a listener to madness, if it doesn’t outright kill them. Her search crosses paths with Len (Gamble), a police detective and her ex-bf, who has encountered the cursed record while investigating a mysterious death, and having heard a small portion of it, may be living on borrowed time. Joining forces, they attempt to hunt down the violent vinyl, uncovering a sinister underworld that surrounds the legendary lacquer.
Deadwax is a neo-noir cursed-object detective mystery, not unlike Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate or John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns, with some grisly horror and fringe science elements thrown in for good measure. The series itself is short-form, with a couple episodes clocking in at as little as ten minutes long – in actuality, the show is a 90-100 minute long feature film cut into seven parts with a 15-minute backstory featurette in the middle (Part 4). It’s a quick watch.
Narrative: This is probably where Deadwax shines the brightest. A successful mystery needs a compelling plot, and this delivers that well. The story beats occur right where you would want them, and that keeps everything moving along at a brisk pace. Good thing too, because obsessive vinyl collecting is both a pretty dry subject and a rather niche world, so the propensity for a boring presentation was quite high. Instead, despite the presence of some extremely unlikely coincidences – the upmost being that the record tracker and the detective are a former couple both put on the album’s path at the exact same time by totally different circumstances – my interest was grabbed and held throughout. Also, without spoilers, the ending warrants some discussion. It’s neither open-ended nor conclusive – instead opting for a hybrid finale, presumably so that the series could exist as either a one-and-done or could return for a second season. Considering that’s a difficult approach to execute, it’s pulled off in a satisfactory way – a couple plot threads are left dangling, but the main story is wrapped up enough for proper closure. Honestly, that’s preferable with these streaming binge-watch shows that can be consumed in a single evening with subsequent seasons sometimes taking up to two years or so to transpire.
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Acting: It’s pretty flat. These aren’t, by any means, very complicated characters with sprawling ranges. In the noir style, everyone is pretty muted and low-key most all the time, which occasionally clashes with the extraordinary elements of the premise – there’s a couple of immediate acceptances of some fairly far-out occurrences that don’t exactly contribute to a feeling of authenticity, but everything gets back on track with little difficulty. In other words, the cast does a fine enough job at pushing the story of Deadwax forward even if they aren’t particularly challenged along the way. The standout performance would have to be Chester Rushing, who really carries Part 4 – the backstory episode – in a mostly solo effort as a radio DJ whose discussion of the killer album on air lands him some unfortunate attention and a regrettable offer. Disc jockeys are difficult screen roles, as they literally do nothing but talk while seated, yet he manages to keep things interesting.
Direction: As with the acting, the emphasis here seems to be on keeping the story moving along at an engaging pace, so writer/director/producer/showrunner Graham Reznick favors a substance-over-style approach with the presentation. There are moments when the framing, panning, or the use of color or close-up is notable, and they make for nice touches when they occur. It’s probably safe to assume that the budget for Deadwax was not on the high end of the spectrum, and for that, everything looks really good, and that would speak for a talented and capable crew behind the scenes. So, everything here is solid.
“Hey! It’s a pretty lady! I’m in a band! Listen to our demo! We cut a special vinyl printing – it was a limited run, of course. Something special for the fans. Hey! Where are you going! You haven’t even listened to it! Come back! Please!”
Horror Elements: It needs to be said that mystery is at the forefront here genre-wise, with horror blended into the mix along with some light sci-fi flourishes. Most all the violence, of which there isn’t much, occurs offscreen with the gruesome aftermath on display and there’s not much in the way of straight-up scares either. Instead, the horror in Deadwax is built around sinister atmosphere as the narrative moves the characters closer to the cursed object they seek, the mythos that is developed around that object, and the possibility for terrible consequences along the way. It has something of an X-Files vibe going on.
Music: With a premise built around rare vinyl albums, there’s an expectation to hear some of them, and when you do, it sounds like either early electronica or vintage garage rock, which seems pretty authentic to me. The score itself is on the subtle side – mostly a standard collection of deep ominous synth swells. It’s well done, but neither obtrusive nor particularly memorable.
TL;DR: As far as TV shows go, Deadwax has an intriguing premise and is a rather short commitment, and it does well on both counts with a fast-paced mystery that makes good use of its punctuated runtime. It’s not without some scratches on its surface, but they’re not deep or numerous enough to compromise what is a solid viewing experience. I would definitely be up for seeing the saga of the deadly record continued in a second season, and if that doesn’t happen, it’s still a positive indicator of what to expect from Shudder’s fledgling lineup of original shows.