As we set course for this review, alas, I am here to lament the cursed fate of the television series that is forced to exist beyond its storytelling sweet spot. That bleak space where a premise is already feeling a bit threadbare, like a sail patched together, but the winds of the episode order demand the narrative be stretched so taut that no one is surprised when it’s eventually ripped asunder and runs aground.
[Cue a sad sailor’s sea shanty…]
So enters the fate of Epix’s new 10-episode series, Chapelwaite. An adaptation of Stephen King’s short story, “Jerusalem’s Lot,” first featured in Night Shift (1978), Chapelwaite writers/showrunners Peter and Jason Filardi were tasked with deeply expanding the original epistolary tale into a broader story focused on whaler Captain Charles Boone (Adrien Brody) and his three children. What hurts most is that they get it so right at the start, gifting audiences with a beautifully mounted period piece, grounded in excellent performances by the entire cast. But by the series’ mid-point, it’s becomes abundantly clear that there isn’t enough necessary story to fill the last five hours. The pace and momentum of the episodes then proceed at a glacially-slow pace, with far too much wheel-spinning and obvious delay tactics to hold back for a climax that is content with just leaning on what horror fans have already seen before—many times—while delivering only tepid scares and mythology revelations.
Set in 1852, the premiere episode introduces viewers to the troubled history of the Boone family of Preacher’s Corners, Maine. In particular, young Charles Boone is faced with the terrifying madness of his father, which in turn sets the young man to escape to the other side of the world. Adult Charles (played by Brody) becomes a whaler, husband, and father. He’s happily married to a Japanese wife and they have raised three intelligent and empathic children: Honor (Jennifer Ens), Loa (Sirena Gulamgaus) and Tane (Ian Ho). When Mrs. Boone contracts an illness, before she dies, she tells Charles to take the children back to his familial land and give them a new start on dry land. Heartbroken and reticent about returning to his complicated family legacy, Charles honors her wish. If only she knew….
Of course, the ancestral home willed to him, Chapelwaite, ends up being creepy as hell, with the local townspeople entirely distrustful of Charles’ recently deceased cousin, Stephen (Steven McCarthy), who ran the local mill and made everyone uneasy after his daughter, Marcella, mysteriously died. As if the family reputation wasn’t enough, most of the Puritan townsfolk don’t know what to make of Charles’ mix-race children, one of whom is also crippled, which makes them double “others” in this new land they desperately want to embrace and make their own.
Only Rebecca Morgan (Emily Hampshire), a college-educated writer and townie just starting her career, welcomes the family and offers her services as a nanny for the children. She initially sees the Boones as fertile inspiration for a potential magazine story, as well as a way to find out what happened to her missing father, who had ties to the Boone business. (It’s delightful to see Hampshire embodying another character so unlike Stevie Budd of Schitt’s Creek, as she makes Rebecca’s otherness as a forward-thinking woman the thing that connects her organically to Captain Boone’s family.)
Overall, the Filardis’ adaptation excels in the first five hours, as Charles does his best to create a home for his children while trying to get to the bottom of the mysteries that are extremely present within the walls of Chapelwaite. They and director Burr Steers (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), create an unnerving vibe to the house, environments, and integral set pieces featured throughout. And they expand the essentially two-character short story into an intriguing ensemble of characters fleshed out by residents of the town, each with their own secrets and sins that are slowly revealed.
Unlike other gothic tales that love to present emotionally detached parental figures, Brody’s Boone may be cut from the Byronic hero cloth, yet he is also a very good father. And while the family is certainly grieving, which casts a melancholy tone across the whole piece, Charles clearly respects and loves his children. Even problem-child Loa, who has chosen not to talk since her mother’s passing and harbors much resentment towards her father for her death and uprooting them to hostile territory, is treated with patience and empathy. It’s a refreshing turn in general, but coming from Brody—whose looks, countenance, and raspy voice are a perfect fit for the era—it also makes his character feel especially unique and worth rooting for throughout.
The Boone children are just as impressive, with the trio of relative unknowns giving earnest and sympathetic performances that help anchor the emotional heart of the story. Each masterfully convey a true innocence, especially Ho with his expressive face and eyes, which makes you all the more terrified for them as the darkness inside and outside of Chapelwaite encroaches. The children also flesh out an interesting subplot regarding their mixed heritage which, for the first time in their lives, is used against them by the insular townspeople. It plays out in their trips to town with Rebecca and when they start school, giving time to an authentic narrative rarely explored in most Gothic stories. Unfortunately, that thread is all but forgotten in the latter hours.
The biggest sin of the series is that when the curse of the Boone family is finally revealed, and it gobbles up all focus in the second half of the season. What should have been an opportunity for the creatives to really embrace presenting something interesting and subversive with existing mythology, makeup, and scare setups, instead comes across rather lazy and often boring. Only the eighth episode, “Hold the Night,” tries to really bring the tension and terror, but it’s still intermittent and constantly undercut by overly talky scenes that quell any sustained fever pitch.
The most interesting mythology ideas are saved for the finale, “The Keeper,” which manages to surprise in a few places. However, it does so at the expense of logic which will leave some in the audience likely more frustrated than entirely moved. Mercifully, there is an actual ending too, but comes about rather abruptly which is a bit shocking when you think of the story minutes wasted on nothing of consequence in previous hours. In a more judicious world, Chapelwaite would have been better served as a six or eight-hour series, forcing the narrative to be more concise, imaginative, potent and worthy of the cast who work so hard to hold the whole piece together.
Chapelwaite premieres August 22 on Epix, with new episodes airing weekly.
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and the official history of Marvel Studios coming in 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett.
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