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Tricks (killer dolls) and treats (Archie in spandex) abound on a very Riverdale Halloween

Photo: The CW
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Though the lyrics to “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah” would suggest ‘spooky’ and ‘scary’ as roughly equivalent concepts, nothing could be further from the truth. Scariness sparks fear and inspires nightmares, the currency by which horror movies are generally appraised of worth. It’s an inbred feeling, an innate terror with which we grow intimately familiar within our first years of life. Spookiness is scariness within extra-scary scare quotes, the idea of scariness made palpable and harmless and fun. An actual witch is scary; a kid in a witch costume is spooky. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is scary, The Monster Squad is spooky, and Scream is miraculously both.

Tonight’s episode of Riverdale expertly underscores the fine yet significant difference between the two, shifting registers from the scary to the spooky. The town of Riverdale is a pretty scary place to live even during the weeks not dedicated to seasonal frights, what with all the death cults and homicidal dads and demonic tabletop roleplaying games. “Chapter Sixty-One: Halloween” makes a lark out of that status quo, painting the normally chilling a shade or two hokier. On a normal week, a serial killer of some sort will most likely slink through the episode. On Halloween, the serial killer has been modeled after the urban legend of The Hook, more of a wink at the trope than a played-straight example of it. It often feels like the one thing that showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa doesn’t do ironically is suspense, but for one week only, he’s willing to play dress-up.

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From the episode’s title right on down to the typeface informing us of each scene’s proximity to October 31st, director Erin Feeley and writer Janine Salinas Schoenberg are aping John Carpenter, particularly his signature triumph Halloween. There’s an unsavory night stalker on the loose, and though the calls may not be coming from inside the house, everyone’s worried. Betty in particular, as she’s the first of many to receive an eerie Lost Highway-esque videotape containing hours of surveillance footage of her own house. She’s going to get to the bottom of it, and figure out why he decides to use outmoded media. (“Why so anachronistic?” she asks, as if the drive-in movie theater and vinyl records and sock hop hangout fit right in with the year 2019.)

Via her chosen costume, Betty literally assumes the persona of Jamie Lee Curtis’ unkillable final girl Laurie Strode for a classic game of “freak out the babysitter,” fielding menacing calls from an unseen creep while she looks after Jellybean. That turns out to be an enjoyable bit of misdirection, however, obfuscating the eventual reveal that the real threat here is Charles. Not so difficult to see that one coming — when a guy enters Betty’s life out of nowhere, it’s never because he’s got good intentions — though where it goes from here is anyone’s guess. Like Betty, I too am dubious that FBI 4 Kidz! is a real thing, and the cut to Charles eavesdropping on her phone call from a remote van suggests one of two things. The FBI is doing something unsavory, or he’s with some other clandestine wiretapping agency. Eager to find out which.

Veronica inhabits her own self-contained entry from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark over at Pop’s, where a weary lone drifter has rambled in for a hot home-cooked meal just as she’s closing up shop. Seems like a nice enough guy, having mentioned the very real family he can’t wait to get back to, until the radio announcement warns her that the Family Man Killer has escaped from a local facility and remains at large. The buildup works, due completely to the sparse cinematography and economical dialogue that both recall The Twilight Zone for me, and it leads to a phenomenal payoff. The suspended moment when she realizes the stakes of the scene and he realizes that she’s realized bristles with real tension. The next bullet point on my running .doc of notes just readsIMMOLATED AT THE IMMACULATELY MANICURED HANDS OF VERONICA.” Speaks for itself.

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Jughead’s trapped in a work of grim short fiction as well, though it’s a more direct interpretation. After arguing with the Big Horse’s Ass on Campus known as Brett over whether Lovecraft or Poe is the superior weaver of horror, he gets roofied by Donna (who I so liked last week!) and nailed into a coffin, a la the invoked-by-name “The Cask of Amontillado.” Feeley utilizes the constricted space inside the coffin with an ingenuity meriting comparison to another reference point, Rodrigo Cortés on the surprisingly gripping six-feet-under thriller Buried. She forces us to share in Jughead’s claustrophobia, even as we know he’s going to get out. Though we only know this because his death has been clearly scheduled, a reminder of which closes out this episode. Jughead laying on the slab seems like a pretty straightforward marker of death, the sort of thing that can’t be explained away with the revelation of its context. But there’s no way... Right?

Who could be better suited to a Halloween episode than Cheryl Blossom and Toni Topaz, their domestic life inching closer to an episode of The Addams Family with every passing day? Something simply must be done about the preserved yet off-putting corpse of Jason, and after Toni Topaz finally puts her foot down, they re-bury him in the Blossom family plot. Making a relationship work is all about compromise.

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But his final departure coincides with a series of odd and inexplicable occurrences at Thistle House, most of which revolve around a doll possibly possessed by the malevolent spirit of the triplet that Cheryl Blossom devoured while in utero. The delirious kick into high gear from the possibility of Jason’s ghost messing with them to the possibility of an evil fetus’ ghost messing with them is, in a word, druglike. Between the gaslighting, casual mentions of a “blood moon” making the infants exceptionally cranky, a blissfully shameless makeout between Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, and the comedy of eventually staging a re-re-burial for Jason made this the highlight of the hour. I’d watch an I Love Lucy about these two dealing with demented squabbles in the home.

They most confidently embody the tacit principle of “Chapter Sixty-One” that all things wicked and vile should have a sense of humor to them, or a good-natured jolliness about their own artifice, at least a more antic sensibility than usual. It’s a lovely if subtle tonal departure that captures the spirit of Halloween, a holiday made out of cheap plastic and foam and rubber. To Riverdale, these might as well be finer textiles than silk. 

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Stray observations: 

  • Kevin wants to go to NYU to study dramaturgy, which means that he’d attend the Tisch School of the Arts — the alma mater of Camila Mendes and Cole Sprouse! Will this show last long enough (and go meta enough) to send Kevin off to Manhattan, where he’ll encounter fellow students that bear an uncanny resemblance to his best friends from home? Will this universe bend itself into the Möbius strip of my dreams?
  • Don’t worry about it, Veronica will just take an Uber. Been a while since we heard about anyone going on Tinder, guess the product-integration money has moved elsewhere. Veronica strikes me as one of those people who gives rideshare drivers a one-star rating when she’s feeling particularly vindictive.
  • Believe it or not, both Pureheart the Powerful and The Shield were actual characters from classic Archie Comics. Pureheart was Archie’s superpowered alter ego during the ‘60s, while The Shield might seem to be a cheap knockoff of Captain America, when in actuality the character was introduced a few months prior to Marvel’s unveiling of Steve Rogers. You owe Archie big-ass royalties, Feige! (Or, uh, ghost of Stan Lee!)
  • The Cheryl Blossom one-liner of the week actually belongs to Toni Topaz, who busts out the never-gets-old joke of stating the current insane circumstances in plain, matter-of-fact language: “I know you’re upset that I made you bury your dead brother’s corpse, but this is messed up.”
  • Jellybean likes Minecraft. I have never played Minecraft, but I did once play Fortnite, which I think of as The Other One. I spent about five minutes trying to figure out why I’d been trapped in a spontaneously materializing room with no doors, until my friend asked the Chinese teens with whom he plays online video games to stop cyberbullying me. Edifying experience!
  • Is Archie going to be a vigilante superhero now? Didn’t we kind of already try that, with the whole Red Circle thing? Whatever, fine, let’s do this. [Pours finger of bourbon.] [Pours second finger of bourbon.]
  • Kevin and Reggie vandalize Principal Honey’s office, for no other reason than they need something to do. The actors’ contracts probably have a clause mandating that they get to do things at least once every four episodes.
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