A mysterious psycho only seen in silhouette with a penchant for black leather gloves and the almost supernatural ability to see and hear everything you do? Deeply buried family secrets that seem to link you directly to the masked lunatic? Elaborately convoluted motivations that hardly make sense upon first viewing? And dolls – lots and lots of creepy dolls? It must be a 70’s Italian giallo picture…or ya know, the formerly known as ABC Family hit drama series, Pretty Little Liars.
The show tells the tale of a group of friends besieged by a highly resourceful madman who has no problem sneaking nasty messages into the gang’s fortune cookies or alphabet cereal. A stalker who seems to have the eye of God on their side who can send perfectly timed texts and build elaborate underground torture bunkers. Granted this psycho’s identity has changed over the years, the baton being passed from one slighted foe to another, but the method is always the same: a barrage of threats, blackmail, and manipulations relying upon the type of hacker skills that would make even the NSA envious.
The series has just returned from hiatus to begin airing the final few episodes detailing the cyber-stalker nightmares of Aria, Spencer, Hannah, Emily, and Alison along with their various beaus, weekend girlfriends, wine moms, lecherous fathers and, of course, Mona! As the show’s creators and advertising have proclaimed, “This is #EndGame!” PLL (as its known to its ravenous fans) is a bubble gum slasher with all the stalk and very sparse slash. There have been several deaths throughout the series’ 7 years, though a lot of those murders were in self-defense. Deaths that are in majority enacted by the hands of the liars (our heroes) more so than that of the various incarnations of the show’s villain, A (or more recently “A.D.” or “Uber A”).
While the mystery has always been the driving force, who is behind the endless texts and torturous games aimed at the liars? There is more than plenty “Will They/Won’t They?” relationship drama to constantly break up the suspense. Are you Team Spoby or Spaleb? Amidst all of the soap opera theatrics, the occasional bit of bloodshed and gore is all the more shocking. Let us not forget the fatal car crash that took the life of Rollins or the absurd decapitation from this past fall finale. However, despite the shows 90’s horror aesthetic, it shares more in common with antiquated giallo films than anything that sprang from the post Scream cycle. The show has always straddled the line between teen drama and outright horror, “back door horror” if you will.
Much like the classic gialli of the 70’s, we get plenty of obstructed views of the tormentor “at play”, snipping out paper dolls or enacting their own twisted puppet shows. Every episode involves at least one POV shot lingering outside the liars’ homes, through their large suburban windows, as they gather and hypothesize about their would be attacker. There are whispered conversations just out of earshot of our heroes who believe that every interaction will bring them one step closer the truth and the end of their nightmare. There’s the aforementioned fetishising of dolls and masks, and some truly top notch cinematography for what must be a lower budget TV production. These guys have never met a colored filter they didn’t like. Now if only A would get busy hacking their way through the cast with a straight razor in these final few episodes, we’d be cooking with gas!
While that probably won’t happen, the many call backs to the genre’s past is one of the reasons this grown ass man and avid horror fan has no problem plopping down in front of the TV every Tuesday for an hour-long visit to the sordid town of Rosewood. Yes, at the end of the day it’s a show made for teenage girls, but it’s always been just a bit smarter than that. PLL isn’t afraid to aim higher than the expected “Teen Beat” worldview of its target audience, from incessant allusions to classic literature in the first handful of episodes to the stylish black and white season 4 installment, “Shadow Play”. The younger viewers of PLL were given their first dose of film noir with that take on the classic, Laura.
These horror tropes get even more specific and extend beyond simply being integrated into the show’s style. The homages abound from productions of The Bad Seed to the infamous “Red Coat”, a mysterious blond-haired girl in, well…a red-hooded coat that appeared to be ripped directly from Don’t Look Now. There was even the shows’ first Halloween special that featured “Zombie Baby Doll Stalker”. While the villain’s look seemed stolen from the underrated slasher Hills Run Red, he was really just a stand in for any number of masked-faced slashers from the 80’s.
In the earlier seasons it was commonplace to find numerous nods to the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, especially during the epic finales. From the town’s local coffee shop, Rear Window Brew, to fatal showdowns at the top of bell towers. More to the point, an entire episode was filled to the brim with homages to Psycho centering around the discovery of A’s lair at the Lost Woods hotel. That ep included its own take on “the shower scene” and a chilling shot that slowly pushed in on the first unmasked A of the series, Mona. She sat, bound by a straight jacket, her inner monologue clued us into her master plan, “Loser Mona’s going to the nut house and those precious liars are going home to sleep with their windows open and their doors unlocked. Don’t they know that’s what we want?” Echoing Norman Bates’s final moments in Hitchcock’s proto-slasher opus, Mona cemented herself as the series most complex and compelling character.
There are some fans who make it their mission to obsess over and pick apart each and every detail. Trust me, search YouTube for “PLL Fan Theory” for some doozies, but at the end of the day, it’s breezy fun that no one expected to become the breakout hit that it has. Certainly, I can’t in good conscience recommend PLL to just your average horror fan. It is, afterall, a teen soap. However, for those who don’t mind their chills with a side of sass and a parade of stylish and sometimes questionable fashions (there’s that giallo parallel again), Pretty Little Liars might just be worth a spin on your Netflix queue. Hurry up, with only eight episodes left until the series finale, time is running out to be there with the rest of us for the final reveal of Uber A.