Series Review: SPOOKSVILLE

Remember the Hub Network? It was a joint venture between Hasbro and the Discovery Channel to rebrand the ailing Discovery Kids extended cable channel into a contemporary children’s network. Hasbro handled programming while Discovery handled everything else and that schism really showed. While the starting programing line up consisted of Hasbro Brand based shows like Transformers Prime and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, the rest of the family friendly shows really didn’t do enough to bolster the Hub Networks ratings. Things got so dire, The Hub Network had to syndicate cheaper series like Blossom, ALF, and SheZow in order to keep a full 24-hour programing day. The Hub Network was eventually rebranded as Discovery Family in 2014. Hasbro programing still has some sway with the network’s daytime lineup but Discovery filled the primetime line up with its library of non-fiction series and has control over its content. While The Hub may not have reached the success of its competitors, its original programming slate is a buried treasure trove of riches like G.I. Joe: Renegades and Transformers: Rescue Bots. But in the twilight of the Hub Network was a live action series that ended too soon. A series that delivered chills for children of all ages while also being emotionally intelligent. That series is Spooksville.

Based on the novels by Christopher Pike, Spooksville is a live action horror series. In terms of style and tone, Spooksville bares some similarity to popular 1990’s series like Are You Afraid Of The Dark? and Goosebumps. But what sets Spooksville apart from its processors is the premise. The main character of Spooksville is Adam Freeman (Keean Johnson) is the new kid in the town of Springville after his father George Freeman (Steve Bacic) decided it was best for them to start over in order to move past the grief caused from the mysterious disappearance of Adam’s mother, Laurel Hall (Erica Carroll). On the surface, Springville seems like an ordinary town that milks the famous old witch trial of Madeline Templeton (Kimberly Sustad) from hundreds of years ago. But once Adam touches down, he befriends local teenagers Watch Waverly (Nick Purcha) and Sally Wilcox (Katie Douglas) who inform him that the idyllic town of Springville is not what it appears to be. For all the supernatural phenomena that regularly occurs, Watch and Sally dub their hometown as “Spooksville” and request Adam’s help to investigate said phenomena. Adam initially ignores the pairs claims of paranormal activity but after engaging in spooky encounters revolving around the stone in his mother’s necklace, Adam decides to help with Watch and Sally’s efforts. Together, they uncover a plot by the evil witch Madeline Templeton who wants to use Adam’s stone to return to present day Springville and unleash her vengeance on the world.

Despite the cool episodic nature of the series premise, Spooksville plays out like a traditional “monster of the week” show where the main characters fight a supernatural threat and the whole story appears to be self contained. But much like Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated (which I also reviewed before leaving and now owning Periodical Media) elements from each episode either thread back into the overarching mystery or display some form of character growth. The dynamic between Adam, Sally, and Watch is easily the highlight of the series as their problem solving and individual rationale stem from the Freudian Trio. Sally represents the Id as her brash impulses are balanced out by her compassion for her friends. Watch represents the Superego with his constant need to use intellectual reasoning for every supernatural encounter. Watch is so much like Spock, he even went so far as to mock the bamboo cannon from the Star Trek episode “Arena” before constructing his own makeshift monster trap in the episode “Fathers and Sons”. And then there’s Adam who’s the Ego that keeps the other two ideals/characters in check. All three leads have great chemistry together but then there’s Ann Templeton (Morgan Taylor Campbell), a reoccurring character who throws a wrench in the trio’s dynamics whenever she’s on screen. As a descendant of Madeline Templeton, Ann is groomed by her family’s trusted manservant Moorpark (Peter Bryant) to become a powerful witch but she later finds out that all her training is for her body to serve as a vessel for Madeline’s reincarnation. Throughout the series, Ann’s helps and manipulates Adam, Sally, and Watch on their investigations either out of her feelings for Adam or for her own self preservation. This complexity makes Ann stand out as a three-dimensional villain in a series full of one note monsters. 

Along with the supernatural occurrences that go on in Spooksville, the titular town and townsfolk lend plenty of creepiness to the table. The children attend a high school named after Lizzie Borden whose principal just so happens to be a descendant of Van Helsing. The local cafe serves up delicacies  fish bones instead of anything edible. And the local librarian is REALLY into human bones. All of these give a tow a kind of Twin Peaks vibe which holds especially true when certain episodes balance between melodrama and actual drama. In the Christmas (or Holiday if you prefer) episode “The No-Ones”, the townsfolk perform weird variations on yuletide traditions like singing Christmas Carols about “Sinterklaas” turning bad children into his slaves as extra-dimensional beings invade via body snatching. At the center of all of this is Watch’s struggle to be himself without isolating those around him as his genius intellect and anti-social tendencies are the result of being on the autism spectrum. Not only is it impressive to see a show balance out all these emotions, but it’s also rare to see children’s show explore autism in a way that doesn’t feel exploitive or saccharine.

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From left to right: Sally Wilcox (Katie Douglas), Watch Waverly (Nick Purcha), and Adam Freeman (Keean Johnson) investigating “The Fire Inside”.

I’ve spent the bulk of this review talking about the acting and character work because it’s Spooksville’s strongest element. But you can’t deliver good scares or create great characters if there isn’t a significant amount of talented producers behind the scenes. Executive producers and co-writers Billy Brown and Dan Angel have plenty of experience from working on R.L. Stein’s The Haunting Hour and that talent shows up well in Spooksville. Other alumni from The Haunting Hour include Directors Michael Robison, James Head, and Ken Friss as well as writers Harold Hayes Jr. and Craig S. Phillips. But then there’s Supervising producer and head writer James Krieg whose writing I touched upon on in my Green Lantern: The Animated Series review. Krieg’s influence is very pronounced as his writing style balances out the spooky speculative fiction with serious heartstring tugging. Rounding out the writing staff are Nicole Dubuc, Ernie Altbacker, and Mitch Watson (whose work I’ve previously covered in my reviews of Beware the Batman) who’re all great writers in their field.

 

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From left to right: Moorpark (Peter Bryant), Ann Templeton (Morgan Taylor Campbell), and Head Writer James Krieg getting their freak on.

Your milage may vary but I think the writing on Spooksville is better than what I’ve seen from other children’s horror series. Each episode has a scary threat but there’s plenty of levity to keep things from inducing long lasting nightmares. It’s evident when watching this series that the writers wear their influences proudly on their sleeves as they lift elements wholesale from popular works of horror fiction like Dracula, Doctor Who, Predator, The Twilight Zone, and even Little Shop of HorrorsIf there’s one gripe I have with the series writing, it’s the transition between the first and second half of the season. Without spoiling any of the plot twists, the episode “The Dark Corner” ends abruptly and the following episode “Shell Shock” jumps a few weeks after that ending. The series doesn’t utilize any recaps so there’s only a handful of dialogue to explain what happened in between the time skip. It’s a cop-out that worked better when the series came back after a three month hiatus but when binge watching the series, it definitely interrupts the flow. 

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I don’t think this guy is here for the endless shrimp at Red Lobster.

The special effects and art direction on Spooksville should be commended for accomplishing so much on an extended cable television series budget. The CGI is nothing to brag home about but the physical effects and props made each set piece look imaginative and feel creepy without breaking the bank. In the episode “The Maze”. Adam and Watch explore the old Mayor of Springville’s mind in search for answers but what they find is an eroding patchwork of memories held up only by cardboard boxes. It’s the same cardboard boxes that the Mayor now resides in as what he’s experienced has caused him to lose his mind and his true love which is why he became a transient. The cardboard box maze is an awesome visual metaphor that heightens the tragedy at the center of this episode. Between the catchy Buffy the Vampire Slayer-esque theme song, the scary sound effects, and the eery background tracks, the musical suite is solid. 

After rewatching the series on Netflix, I’m impressed with how much of Spooksville has held up after all these years. It has the same kind of tone as the R.L. Stein tv series but the overall execution feels like a natural evolution of the format. Sadly, Spooksville was never renewed for a second season which makes it hard for me to recommend to parents looking to introduce their children to “gateway horror” media or anyone looking for young teen programing that isn’t schlock. The series doesn’t end on a cliffhanger but on an open ended high note hinting at more adventures to come. But the odds of seeing more adventures is slim to none considering the Hub Network is dead and all the children actors have grown up and moved on to other series. For what’s it’s worth, I enjoyed Spooksville’s bittersweet run and I think it’s one of the most criminally underrated children’s horror series. The entire series is available on iTunes and (as of writing this) is currently streaming on Netflix. Producer James Krieg also put up a series of “Commentscary” tracks in podcast form with the cast and crew. So if you want to enter the weird and wild world of Spooksville, viewer beware. You might not be in for a scare, but you will have fun.

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