Once you figure out just what to make of the title NOS4A2 (pronounced like “Nosferatu,”) you might expect some classic vampire lore from AMC’s latest horror offering. And indeed, you will find a vampire of sorts, but the new series based on Joe Hill’s celebrated novel of the same name avoids the classic tropes and familiar monsters of the genre, offering instead an immortal man by the name of Charlie Manx (Zachary Quinto) who feeds on the souls of young children and discards the husks of their souls in a terrible Christmas village in his mind called Christmasland. Certainly not your average bloodsucker!
That unusual, genre-bending mythology speaks to Hill’s strength as a horror writer, and that shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, as Stephen King’s son, Hill had the unique lifelong experience of learning from the best. But Hill proved himself one of the greats in his own right long ago, and NOS4A2 is considered by many to be his best work yet. Which is what makes AMC’s new series adaptation such a frustrating exercise in almost getting it right. Plenty of Hill’s dark magic lives on, with moments of inspired menace, but too often it gets weighed down in inert moments of drama.
Like the book, NOS4A2’s title refers to Charlie Manx’s shiny 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith, his prized vehicle in which he shepherds around his little human meals. Eventually, that car and the dastardly deeds he commits therein cross paths with Vic McQueen (Ashleigh Cummings), a working-class teenage girl getting by in a small Massachusetts town, who has a gift for finding lost things. The series premiere finds Vic fleeing domestic strife in the home, where her alcoholic father and embittered mother are constantly duking it out, when she stumbles upon the long-destroyed Shorter Way Bridge. Soon after, Vic realizes that when she hops on her bike and guns it across the should-be-missing road, it works like a portal that takes her directly to whatever lost thing she’s looking for — and that extends to missing kids, a fact that leads Vic to a dangerous psychic connection with the soul-sucking Charlie Manx.
Where Hill’s novel spans from Vic’s childhood to her adult years as a mother, the series from showrunner Jami O’Brien simplifies the narrative, honing in on Vic’s teenage years and all the ripe social and familial drama that comes with the territory. It’s an understandable storytelling decision given the demands of the TV medium, but there’s no denying it robs the story of a richer, more nuanced texture. Unfortunately, it also saddles the show with familiar teen drama, from her struggles to get into college to a tepid love triangle between Vic and two classmates from opposing sides of the tracks. It’s hard to care too much about financial aid when a vampiric child murderer’s waiting around the corner, and it’s impossible to invest in the romance when either love interest gets any discernible personality beyond their labels as Option A and Option B.
Vic’s domestic perils are more interesting, if again not as compelling as the supernatural forces at work, bolstered by compelling performances from the actors playing the parental units (though the accents here are laid on thick and no one is nailing it.) The Punisher’s Ebon Moss-Bachrach does a fine well-meaning and utterly unreliable father, and he’s frustratingly likable as the disappointing patriarch. Likewise, Sneaky Pete’s Virginia Kull elevates her drab material as a mother beat down by circumstance who doesn’t have the stomach for flights of fancy. However, Cummings provides the live-wire in any given scene. The Australian actress delivered a criminally under-seen stunner of a performance in the eviscerating 2016 kidnapping drama Hounds of Love, and here she completely transforms into another whip-smart teenage heroine, depicting Vic with a lovely, understated strength and natural charisma. Jahkara Smith also makes good work with what she’s given as Maggie; an instantly likable medium mixed up in Charlie Manx’s tragic mess who is unfortunately saddled with regular bouts of exposition.
Performance can only take you so far though, and ultimately NOS4A2 hamstrings itself with flagging momentum and disjointed narrative that leaves you struggling to invest, and worse, jars you away into the mundane the moment you do find something you want to hook into. There are moments of striking imagery and immersive world-building — the Graveyard of What Might Be chills and intrigue in all the right ways, and a quiet moment between Charlie and a frail, wizened old friend is downright shuddersome — but the series’ misaligned priorities rarely give you enough time to soak in the horror before dropping you back into drab dramatics about campus visits and mismanaged taxes.
Drab, unfortunately, is the operative word when it comes to NOS4A2‘s flaws. In a world of would-be horrors that boasts a demented Christmas land, there’s abundant opportunity for vibrant imaginings and invigorating weirdness, but NOS4A2 settles into a visual malaise of blue-grey washout that most often feels flat and distant but for an occasional pop of color. It’s chilly, but not chilling.
Likewise, while Oscar-winning makeup effects artist Joel Harlow does impressive, close-up ready aging makeup on Quinto—Manx cycles through decades after his vampiric form of nutrition comes and goes—Quinto’s performance is so muted it gets buried in it. Quinto brings a strangely lovely weirdness to Manx, often making refreshing, understated choices in his interpretation on the character, but too often the prosthetics seem to be wearing him rather than the other way around. The result is a surprising, softer villain than you might expect, but it’s effective in stops and starts, occasionally so subdued that Manx lacks bite. Even a vampire of the soul-sucking variety isn’t too scary without some bite.
But NOS4A2 has a whole lot of potential going for it. The performances are enough to hold onto for the especially sluggish first two episodes, and in the six episodes provided to the press, the series improves with each passing hour. The pace picks up a bit as the collision-bound characters inch closer to their inevitable confrontations and the nuances in the relationships start to reveal themselves more readily. And there is no denying the charm and intrigue of the world Hill cooked up. Sure, it could use some more zazz in the show, and I sincerely hope the flashes of inspired imagery only intensify and deepen as the show wears on, but even without the on-screen spectacle they deserve, the idea still jingles around in your mind.
In keeping with the story’s cheeky title, I’ll sum it up by getting behind the wheel of a bit indulgent metaphor. NOS4A2 will put you on a magical road, brimming with possibilities for terror and wonder, but takes so many detours into dull territory, you’re left with the impression you’re going nowhere at all. But if it ever figures out where it’s going, there’s plenty of gas left in the tank.