How many other movies dare us to laugh at our fears?
…because sometimes all it takes is a few good actors and smart genre writing. Although it unfortunately shares a title with Nick Nolte’s newest cable drama, Terence Krey and Daniel Fox’s web series "Graves" twists the teen horror genre into a clever quarter-life dramedy. The main performances from Christine Nyland and Kate Dearing update the cynical 90’s slacker persona into a more sincere – and perhaps even more honest – take on the disappointments of adulthood. And while below-the-line talent doesn’t usually make or break a web series, the makeup design for the demon Astaroth stretched well beyond the show’s limited resources.
More on Graves
In the history of film, TV and web content, there probably haven’t been a lot of projects that were able to overcome bad performances and weak writing. Sure, occasionally one can compensate for the other’s deficiencies: good actors can salvage a bad script, smart writers can stay within the range of the cast’s talents. And when that fails, Michael Bay just blows shit up. However, most online content creators are working with limited budgets and don’t have the ability to distract audiences with CGI pyrotechnical mayhem. It might seem way too simple to say "Graves" succeeds because the actors are good and the writing is smart. Creator/writer Terence Krey understands the genre conventions and the character types he wants to work with, drawing on nostalgia for a series like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" without imitating or trying too hard to recreate the source magic. Similarly, Christine Nyland’s Jane and Kate Dearing’s Kate both allude to the 90’s slacker characters from movies like "Singles" and "Reality Bites" while also understanding that their stock cynicism isn’t even retro cool these days, especially for streaming audiences. "Graves" may not be reinventing the wheel, but it’s also not giving us the spinning wheel of death that afflicts most web series.
The series also does a lot with its limited technical resources, or at least applies them where it really counts. Yet not all below-the-line talent is created equal for every project. A series in the horror genre can go a long way with a talented makeup effects artist – or an entire army of them, as with "The Walking Dead." In this regard, the creative team behind Graves was smart to hire a talented makeup effects artist on the rise in Beatrice Sniper, even if this meant sacrificing in other areas like the quality of camera or lighting (but not sound – remember, that’s always more important than we like to think). But again, in supernatural genres, demons and monsters are characters too. Sniper’s excellent work adds a dimension to Astaroth that contributes both to his character and also the visual element of the show. So in a sense, the makeup effects are going twice as far on this project as they might on another. And without decent makeup effects, Krey and his co-director Daniel Fox would have to sacrifice a heavy degree of quality, or come up with an alternate way to portray the demon. Remember what the demon from the first "Paranormal Activity" movie looked like? Nobody does, because it was off-screen the whole time.
While "Graves" is refreshing compared to a lot of web series and content, there’s still a sense that Krey could have done something more. Many web series often feel like they are just TV pilots hoping to make the jump to the bigger screen or at the least the bigger distribution and budgets of premium cable and the top three streaming services. While "Graves" breaks up its episodes into bite-sized 5 minute chunks, these don’t necessarily correspond with the natural structure to the story or the emotional arcs of the characters. Perhaps it was originally conceived as a half-hour horror-comedy pilot like "Ash vs. Evil Dead," with the “first season” really just the bait for a wider pickup. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this at face value. No one would hold it against Krey and the team if they simply wanted a real distributor so they wouldn’t have to worry about petty life details such as food, shelter and medical care. However, there is a real question about how much story they may have ultimately sacrificed by tailoring the project so specifically to a 6-episode/5-minute time structure. Would it ultimately have worked better as a 3-episode/10 minute series? Or what about a 4-episode/8-minute series? One of the nice things about the web is that there really are no conventions. Even if the final running time of the first season had been some absurd number like 47 minutes, no one really cares how that time is structured for each episode so long as the narrative works and leaves the audience wanting to watch the next episode. Maybe they will retool their model for a second season, since web creators have the opportunity to think beyond the traditional narrative structures when it comes to run time.