There is a balance to strike with a horror series: You need to be able to subject your characters to unspeakable terrors, and to trap them within torturous multi-episode nightmares, but offer enough of a glimmer of hope to keep them fighting. The world around them cannot descend into such unmitigated hell that no one would choose to stay alive in it. The new Epix series From gets very close to the latter, where trying to stay alive at times seems like a fool’s errand, but it mostly walks that tightrope without tipping over into an unrelenting misery.
This effective blend of sci-fi and horror comes from John Griffin and Jack Bender, and is produced by Anthony and Joe Russo. From is handsomely set in a town with all the classic signifiers of decaying Americana: a diner with a flickering neon sign, broken down pick-up trucks, and peeling paint on wooden houses. But from the opening scenes, it is clear that something beyond an economic downturn is amiss.
As the afternoon draws to a close, Sheriff Stevens (Harold Perrineau) walks through the town ringing a bell, letting all the residents know it is time to go inside. Everyone is inside with the curtains drawn by nightfall, and From wastes no time in letting us know why. The dark streets are quickly filled by sinister figures, knocking on doors on windows, asking to be let in. An unfortunate little girl is persuaded to open the window just a crack and a flurry of fangs and claws leaves two unlucky residents torn to pieces, leaving behind a grisly display of exposed ribcages protruding from piles of blood and and sinew.
The Sheriff takes this event personally and blames the family patriarch, shoving his face into what remains of his family, screaming that “a man protects his family!” Perrineau elevates each moment of this broadly written anguish, alluding to some unresolved issues he’s keeping a tenuous lid on.
And while being terrorized by nocturnal beasts would be bad enough, it turns out things are even worse. When a new family arrives—Tabitha (Catalina Sandino Moreno) and Jim Matthews (Eion Bailey), their moody teen daughter Julie (Hannah Cheramy) and cute but creepy Danny Torrance-esque son Ethan (Simon Webster)—we discover the extent of the hell they are trapped in. The family is taking one last vacation together in their RV before Jim and Tabitha separate. Unfortunately for them, in this town you can check out anytime you like but you can never leave; it exists in some sort of dimensional fold, where all roads lead straight back to the centre, trapping all the residents with the many fanged creatures. But, as young deputy Kenny (Ricky He) tells us, “Every new person who comes here just assumes it’s the monsters they have to be afraid of but that’s not the hardest part. It’s what this place does to you, what it makes you think and feel.”
While at first the show has a sort of B-movie familiarity, it becomes more intriguing, and specific, as the story goes on. The townspeople have split in two: the group in the town who pledge to “live by the rules, for the good of the community until we find our way back home,” while a hippy-ish alternative lies on the outskirts at Colony House, where they are dedicated to “live for today because tomorrow is not guaranteed.” Both sides make sense of their nightmare in different ways, and within those communities, people also cleave into those who adapt by trying devoting themselves to their families and community, and those who fall into hedonistic spirals of booze and sex. It has hints of COVID satire about it, which is an intriguing layer atop of the sci-fi mysteries and schlocky horror fun.
Just as intriguing is any moment when Perrineau is onscreen, selling his tortured anti-hero on the brink with every ounce that he has. The show also has some striking moments of dark comedy, with some editing flourishes that add fun burst of energy. And the relationship between Sheriff Stevens and Father Khatri (Shaun Majumder) contains more than meets the eye. The two are equally compelling in their intense wrestling over what punishments should befall rule-breakers—the biggest question being if should they lock them in a box in the middle of town and let the monster have at them—and in their light comic sparring, where Perrineau deadpans, “You’re a terrible fucking priest, you know that?”
The world of the Colony House is also stocked with strong performances. Several of the characters have decided to live apart from their parents in a sort of free-love commune run by the formidable Donna (Elizabeth Saunders), whose monologue about watching her sister’s face ripped off on her first night in the town is a harrowing show highlight. But there’s also humor in the toxic positivity and jarring lack of boundaries that such idealistic communal living situations bring.
Less engaging are the journeys of many of the supporting characters, some of which, by the end of episode four, remain too bland to invest in. The new family aren’t given much more purpose than to serve as our tabula rasas, allowing the others to spell out the details of their collective predicament. But worst of all is Jade (David Alpay), another new resident who refuses to believe that any of this is happening, insisting it’s all a prank, or an escape room, with increasingly implausible denial. His scenes are painfully tedious and feel plucked from a lame horror parody.
While there is far more about From that works than doesn’t, it’s not clear by the midway point if it is building to much more than an impressively gory massacre or two. Mysteries are added, some townspeople turn sinister; others start seeing visions of creepy children or have violent visions of the future. Few characters seem to be trying to save themselves, or triumph over the forces of darkness in a way could ramp up the action. The town, and the show, are relying heavily on the skills of Sheriff Stevens (and of Harold Perrineau), and that’s almost too much of a burden for anyone to bear.