Almost everything in Vernon Chatman’s shuddering body-horror of work—from MTV2’s cult classic Wonder Showzen, to Adult Swim’s ugly-as-a-point-of-pride Xavier: Renegade Angel, to the backwoods soap-opera horror of The Heart, She Holler—has carried the half-logical madness of a really great nightmare. Chatman has a unique gift for making intuitive leaps in his work, the kind that make no sense to our conscious minds, but travel exclusively along the shady in-roads of our deepest anxieties and fears. His shows make sense to the ugliest, most visceral parts of ourselves—the parts that react instinctively to the thought of insects burrowing under, and through, our skin—even as their imagery and rambling nonsense dialogue frequently revolt the brain upstairs.
That aesthetic has, perhaps, reached its “best” self in Chatman’s new Adult Swim project, The Shivering Truth, which he created and wrote, and directed with Cat Solen, expanded from a pilot they created in 2017. (Chatman’s long-time partner John Lee is also listed as an executive producer.) Filmed in lovingly rendered stop-motion animation, each 11-minute episode is a loose riff of scenes on a particular theme, accompanied by Chatman’s portentous faux-philosophical narration, and featuring some of the least pleasant images to ever grace a network that has frequently pushed the envelope on intentional viewer discomfort. At its best—as in a segment from its first episode, centered on an office worker whose boss informs him that something is living in a hollow cavity in the back of his skull, hissing at strangers and tending to its eggs—the show invokes those familiar twin feelings of revulsion and recognition. Who hasn’t poked at a weird lump on their body or a cut they don’t remember getting, wondering if it’s the home of something, lethal, horrible, and above-all-else other? In its most perfectly realized moments, The Shivering Truth makes the thoughts our minds normally skid away from seem both tangible and real.
It’s just a shame, then, about the writing: Since way back in his Wonder Showzen days, Chatman has always derived a little too much amusement at the thought of fucking around with a TV episode’s limited span of time, making an (increasingly tired) joke out of making no jokes at all. That impulse was at its worst in the rambling, often-unbearable Xavier, but there are still long stretches of Truth where the horror lets up, and anti-comedy (or even just the regular stuff) can’t carry the resulting weight. It doesn’t help that some of the show’s more comedic premises—a little girl so good at peek-a-boo that her parents can’t see her at all, a barking drill sergeant whose inner monologue is interrupted by a manipulative subordinate—feel weirdly rote. The animation still pushes itself to hideous, beautiful extremes, but the jokes being told don’t live up to the work being poured into telling them. The end result is something a bit like if Japanese horror manga master Junji Ito had directed a segment of Robot Chicken—and not just because of the puppets.
And yet, The Shivering Truth is unquestionably singular, an accomplishment, if not necessarily a coherent piece of art. It plays at fake themes of intimacy and connection, but unrelentingly makes its home in the places where we really all have the most in common: Just beneath our fragile, gooseflesh-covered skin.