On paper, Shudder’s new original series Deadwax (premiering Nov. 15) sounds like The Ring but just with a different object that kills its user. While that isn’t untrue, the series expands that initial premise with intriguing world-building and lore. And of course, the music is great, otherwise what is the point?
The opening scene shows a man meticulously taking out a plain red vinyl record, treating it like a mythical thing of sinister beauty, like the music version of the Lament Configuration. He places the record on a turntable, as the needle slowly goes down, looking more like a guillotine about to chop off a head. He sits down and smiles as the record begins to play, the camera closing in on his face. Then a quick and horrible sound interrupts the man as the screen goes black and then reveals the same man, dead, with his skin gray and mummified, his eye sockets empty and black as the void of space.
It’s an eye-opening start to what accounts for about two hours of TV. If you are the type to complain about shows and films being too long, then Deadwax’s 15-minute-long episodes should be right up your alley. Graham Reznick uses his extensive background as a sound designer, which includes The House of the Devil, and In a Valley of Violence, to craft a show where sound is essential. While good sound design is important in horror (look at this year’s A Quiet Place), there’s usually not a lot of experimenting with it. Reznic bases his entire premise on the idea of sound as a beautiful yet menacing thing, capable of horrible damage. The electric 70s giallo-inspired music, the eerie burst of static noise in the background and the audio cues before the jump scares elevate this beyond its comparisons to The Ring.
In the span of eight episodes, Deadwax follows Etta (Hannah Gross) a vinyl collector and hunter hired by rich people to track down rare records. She will do anything to get her hands on the rarest of the rare, even breaking into people’s houses at night. Her latest score includes a unique record from legendary sound engineer Lyle M. Lytton, part of a series and one of only three pressings in existence. This leads her to hearing about one of the other two records, one with weird markings on its deadwax (the space between the grooves and the label), said to be haunted. Meanwhile, a police officer while investigating the death of our mummy guy from the beginning will get more than he gambled for when he comes across the record.
Inspired by the concept of backmasking – hidden messages in vinyl records that can be discovered when playing backwards – and the Satanic Panic of the 70s, Deadwax treats its acetate subjects as mythical, almost magical objects. Reznick constantly uses close-ups and lingers on the turntable, the needle, and the turning of the vinyl as if it was otherworldly. Those who collect vinyl are portrayed not as hipsters or tinfoil-hat-wearing nutjobs, but as protectors of a sort of ancient art that the rest of the world doesn’t know about. Most of episode 4 is devoted to a college DJ alone in his booth talking about how special the format is. The show manages to also expand the lore of its universe without the need to show everything, as little pieces get added to the mystery and the mythology of Lytton’s killer record, specially around the idea of frequency resonance manipulation, and the notion that sound waves can make the human body react in invisible and sometimes deadly ways.
In the four episodes of Deadwax I saw, the series managed to create an eerie atmosphere that doesn’t shy away from gory and practical deaths like the mummified body or exploding heads. The mythology of the show is intriguing, and the characters have enough development to make you care, but the real winner is the short episode runtimes, which are laser-focused and will leave you wanting to binge the whole thing in one sitting.