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Two Sentence Horror Stories - Bagman/Elliot - Review


Please note: The CW actually aired these two stories as separate episodes. Since they are both 1/2 hour each and aired back-to-back with each other on the same evening, I am considering it one episode. As always, please don't read without having viewed the episode first. 

There WILL BE SPOILERS!

I am quickly discovering how difficult it can be to write reviews for an anthology series like the CW's Two Sentence Horror Stories. This is a horror series that, like SyFy's much missed Channel Zero series, was directly inspired by viral fan fiction on-line and created by Vera Miao. 

Although I enjoyed the first season (which I did not review on this site and only viewed for the 1st time last summer while browsing my streaming apps in quarantine), the episodes themselves proved to be as slight as the title would suggest. Usually about 20 minutes each, plus commercials. For those that haven't viewed a single episode yet (season 1 is currently on Netflix, Fubo, and Direct TV, while season 2 episodes are currently on the CW and CW Seed apps), every episode is a short, usually culturally transgressive stand-alone story, each derived from a different horror sub-genre and theme, with no connection to the other stories whatsoever. 

Unlike recent anthology series like Shudder/AMC's Creepshow series, there is no wraparound element except for, well, the two sentence horror stories that inspired the episode, the second of which which is revealed at the end of every episode (the episodes always start off with the first sentence against a blank background). Strangely, they end up being more bleak and mesmerizing than anything that came before it. 

I was considering revealing the rather short tales as part of these reviews, but some of them are just too clever to be spoiled without having viewed the episode, so I'd rather give you, the curious viewer, every reason to watch the episodes on your own. So, please don't complain in the comments that I won't write the stories out verbatim. You should be able to discover them for yourselves. 

What usually sets these stories apart from the "conventional" horror format is that the producers have chosen to focus in on "everyday," yet marginalized groups of characters, from different minority groups, or suppressed LGBTQIA+ individuals, that other genre shows usually ignore. Keep in mind that this season (it started off as five short films before the CW acquired it for the CW Seed, though eventually airing the first season of nine episodes on the main network) is originally being aired on the very broadcast-friendly CW channel, which has typically been apt to keep those types of characters in supporting roles on their series. That fact alone makes this critically acclaimed, yet low-rated, series unique and notable in a sea of more heavily hyped horror shows right now. 

 Episode One: Bagman 

Considering that this is, at the end of the day, a CW series, it shouldn't surprise anyone that they decided to start off season two with what initially appears to be a Breakfast Club homage with a group of sociologically diverse high school students sitting in a weekend detention, being punished for an incident involving a cherry bomb (I wasn't even aware that those still existed). Obviously, no one wants to be there, even the unfortunate teacher. We see, "Be cool, stay in school" as the first sentence a the beginning of the story, so I am guessing this set-up was meant to be ironic. I have to say that viewing this episode during the COVID-19 pandemic where most children are still being forced by the government to attend public school in-person in close quarters against all logic and reason, gave this set-up an extra layer of creepiness.   

Of course, while the attention being given to character identities while still acknowledging that they are embodying the "jock," "princess," "wierdo," etc high school character archetypes is admirable, what we are here to see is a monster, which will be attacking these not-so trouble teens and the faculty soon enough. What surprised me in this story was how mysterious and ominous they managed to make the monster in such a short amount of time. There is no time for exposition or explanation as to the origin of this monster on this show and that ends up working in its favor since the less you know about the situations here, the better. 

The strange twist here is how it ends on a commentary of school lockdowns. I understand a lot has changed since I attended high school back in the dawn of the 21st century, but the lockdown misc-en-scene here makes a typical high school look like the equivalent of an underground government testing facility from a sci-fi film. However, that might be the ultimate point of the story, as brief as it is.

A strong dose of diverse character development that both honors and subverts the typical high school show clichés while delivering effective and socially conscious horror/sci-fi tropes? Not a bad start to what might be a fascinating season. Not a typical thing I feel about a CW series, BTW. 

 Episode 2: Elliot 

Now, before I begin discussing this episode, knowing the name of the titular character here gave me pause after remembering the announcement of the Academy-Award-nominated actor formerly known as "Ellen" Page now being known as "Elliot." Was this episode inspired by his story in some way or was it just a coincidence? I wasn't able to find an answer for that, but the similarity took me out of the episode a few times, probably unintentionally. However, it did not detract from my enjoyment of the episode. 

In this story, a transmasculine high school character named, of course, Elliot, is bullied at school relentlessly b/c of his gender identity, which is not embraced by even the teachers at his small town high school. Looking for refuge, he retreats to a very creepy-looking basement/boiler room setting where he encounters a disheveled-looking female janitor who turns out to be a witch of some sort who grants him a magical way of dealing with his pain...for good! Of course, there is a slight catch Elliot wasn't expecting. 

First off, without a transmasculine character at the center, this story would've been a horror episode 101 cliché-ridden wash-out. This seems to be both the strength and weakness of Two Sentence Horror Stories that they are celebrating cultural diversity while still being beholden to well-worn horror clichés. Most of the time watching this, I kept having to remind myself that this was not an episode of Nickelodeon's recently re-booted Are Your Afraid of the Dark? series. Tonally, it reminded me more of the 1990s shows than anything being produced in this decade. Of course the janitor would have a dangerous hidden agenda, which is never fully explained due to the short episode duration. 

However, it's not too difficult to guess the gist of her spell upon Elliot and the previous repressed students she has spent her custodial career (how on earth does she even still have a job at this school with multiple students vanishing is never explained either) victimizing. This school is littered with monsters, and the janitor is simply one of them, not the only one. The editing and sound effects editing here top notch for a broadcast series, I felt. I actually felt shocked by a few of the cuts here and I was not expecting that from a short episode like this. I also enjoyed the concept of the dark side of playing music to cast a spell over one's tormentors, even if the ending was way too "been there, done that." 

Despite the overreliance on horror tropes, what sets this episode apart is that Elliot is a complex character who is defined by more than his pain of being marginalized for being openly trans. Recently, I watched Terror Train with Jamie Lee Curtis and David Copperfield for the first time for a New Year's Eve horror film. The trans and homo phobia proudly on display in that film is shameful by today's standards. Even something like Carrie doesn't quite cut the mustard in terms of representation now. Contrast that with the more evolved representation here. Nearly every horror viewer worth their salt is well aware of how LGBTQIA+ characters have been treated and misrepresented in the genre until recently (and actually still are in some ways). Being queer in horror has been shown traditionally as just an easy excuse to enact revenge on a repressive society, which is a hurtful stereotype in and of itself. Queer people normally just want to feel safe in their communities, not enact cold-blooded vengeance upon everyone who has ever wronged them. 

Though this episode was too short to really deal with the issue, the fact that the writers had the foresight to realize that Elliot needed to be a more activated and evolved representative of his community is one of the major reasons I continue to watch and be fascinated by Two Sentence Horror Stories beyond the clever second sentences that end every episode.