Epix becomes the latest streamer to dip into the Stephen King adaptation well with Chapelwaite, based on the epistolary short story “Jerusalem’s Lot” from the collection Night Shift. Unlike some other recent entries into the King TV universe, the prolific author’s writing services aren’t offered here. Jason and Peter Filardi spin their own tale that deviates from and expands on the short story while borrowing its tone and scope. This makes for a suspenseful and thrilling viewing experience for even the most devoted readers of King, who recognize that “Jerusalem’s Lot” and the more widely known Salem’s Lot are different things entirely.
The Filardis take the premise of a family’s curse from the original short story and dial it up a few notches, yielding a haunted-house-meets-folk-horror tale steeped in intergenerational trauma and grief. At the heart of things is Charles Boone (Adrien Brody), who in the original work navigates a mysterious mansion with only his manservant for company. Here, he’s given a family. After a disturbing prologue, Charles’ wife dies at sea, shattering the lives of her husband and their three children. The surviving Boones move to Preacher’s Corner, Maine, where a massive house has been left to Charles by his dead cousin. Things quickly go awry.
Early on, Chapelwaite’s source of terror shifts and evolves as if viewed through a wicked kaleidoscope. Neither the viewer nor Charles is quite sure exactly what to fear in this seemingly classic haunted house setup. Are the phantom scratches heard throughout the house really rats like Boone first suspects? Are they a hallucination born of his own grief? Or is it something much more threatening? Readers of the short story know to an extent the answer to that question, but there’s enough of an evolution in the narrative to still surprise. Chapelwaite keeps all viewers guessing in its first stretch. But there isn’t an over-emphasis on being withholding, either. Answers come—slowly at first, then crashing all at once. The story moves between slow-paced mystery and supernatural thriller wildly, but there’s method to its madness. It’s multifaceted without being convoluted, grotesque without pretension.
In the first few episodes, Charles reconciles with his wife’s death and an old family curse, which has haunted him ever since his father nearly killed him before ominously stating “Blood calls blood.” He must care for three children, who are all handling their mother’s death in their own ways, middle child Loa (Sirena Gulamgaus) refusing to speak for a while. There’s a “Turn Of The Screw”-like angle to Charles’ increasingly tenuous grasp on reality. There’s also a playfulness, but this remains also a deeply sober show: period horror that’s not at all concerned with magnificent set pieces or eye-catching costumes; supernatural horror that’s mostly unconcerned with sex. Its spectacle hinges on the mundane and the dreary. The haunted mansion is no sprawling gothic beauty like Hill House or Bly Manor. The characters wear the same rumpled clothes for multiple episodes. Everyone looks tired. It’s unfunny and unsexy throughout. Instead, Chapelwaite writhes in the muck, serving up straightforward body horror that cuts to the quick.
The camerawork remains restrained and stripped-down; in a horror television landscape so saturated with stylish Ryan Murphy-backed shows, Chapelwaite’s drab colors and gloomy tone stand out. The American Horror Story extended universe brims with body horror, but it so often happens in a screaming moment; here, it’s a whisper. The Boone curse and the threat that looms over the entire town slices at the body and the mind in equal measure. A mundane act like shaving suddenly veers into a bloody nightmare. This is a show where there are multiple instances—some successful, some thwarted—of filicide. Actual sickness and a condition of the more occult variety intermingle and overlap. There’s little levity and little opportunity to pull back, its characters in a constant, wearying grind.
The moments of levity that do exist here are actually some of the weaker points of the story. Chapelwaite attempts to inject some romance, as horror often does to provide emotional stakes. But the emotional stakes are already there in the fraught family dynamics. The most interesting romantic relationship is one that’s well established before Charles arrives in Preacher’s Corner: The town constable (Hugh Thompson) and his wife Mary (Trina Corkum) are featured in a subplot that deftly plays with various horror-romance tropes at the periphery of the main story. But a preacher’s (Gord Rand) crisis of faith is actually a lot more engaging when it’s rooted in the more paranormal challenges he faces rather than those in his personal life.
Adrien Brody is a very strong lead here, portraying Charles as the sort of brooding man found often in gothic tales, but also bringing a layer of fatigue to the character that makes him deeply human and fallible. He cannot always perfectly protect his children. He’s strong but not indestructible. During one of the various climaxes, it’s Rebecca who has to save him. Brody makes Charles an easy character to root for, but he also appears, not unlike the house, rundown throughout. Emily Hampshire makes for a curious casting choice as Rebecca Morgan, the governess Charles hires to help out with the kids. The scenes between Rebecca and Charles lag, and their arc feels like an afterthought; the tension that emerges when the children discover she has ulterior motives for moving into Chapelwaite lands better. The child actors are all capable, and Gulamgaus in particular has to do some heavy lifting in the back half that she nails.
Chapelwaite’s supernatural side emerges in full force in its second half, and even though it maintains its simple style and grim tone, it almost feels like it switches gears into a different show entirely. The style and effects remain simple, but the pace quickens, and the action ramps up. Its most thrilling episode has a premise so straightforward it almost feels like a game: the good guys have to secure the house as the baddies try to get in. Here, the movement remains simple and even a little clunky, but also so well orchestrated. It’s suffocating and exhilarating, contained to a house but bringing so many storylines to a head all at once. There are some elements especially present in this second half—including goofy makeup and prosthetics and a red-toned filter—that look a little early-seasons-Buffy, which might put off anyone looking for a cleaner, more modern look. The images most likely to linger are understated, like when one villain slowly ascends a staircase, carefully lowering the oil lamps as he encroaches on a child.
It’s not that the show is necessarily restrained; it indulges in overt horror images and tropes and occasionally goes over-the-top with its folklorish devices. Genevieve DeGraves, who plays a stock-type pretty but terrifying girl who devotes her life to the resident Big Bad, is borderline otherworldly in how broadly creepy she is. She dwells with others in the supposedly abandoned encampment near town known as Jerusalem’s Lot, and the whole vibe there is vaguely cultish, ghoulish in the unsubtle style of a scary story told around a fire. Even at its pulpiest, a drippy, visceral sludge of dread and despair courses through Chapelwaite’s veins.
Chapelwaite is undeniably bifurcated: a quiet tale of psychological horror within a family at others and a folk horror about a town turned topsy-turvy by tangible evil. But the series twists its horror kaleidoscope well. It falters in places when it comes to character motivation and overwrought relationship drama, but Chapelwaite manages to be both uncomplicated and surprising.