As a genre fanatic, it’s a dream come true to be able to bring together this Top 10 of horror series without exhausting every current example on TV. Opinions are only worth so much, of course, but I’d wager that there are only one or two really, really abysmal horror shows on TV and streaming right now, which is about as good of a ratio as one could hope for. And I’d rather watch a shitty scary show than a shitty hospital drama any day of the week.
So let’s kick off the year's best with dickhead Sean Astin unwittingly unleashing an apocalypse upon the world.
10. The StrainOne’s enjoyment of FX’s moody and theatrical series The Strain will be in direct relation to one’s enjoyment of Guillermo del Toro’s work, though it woefully lacks his playfulness for the most part. (Kevin Durand’s Fet is one exception.) Adapted from the novel trilogy written by del Toro and author Chuck Hogan, this modern-day vampire (Strigoi) tale is steeped in shadows, with danger literally around every corner at times, and centers on CDC higher-up Dr. “Eph” Goodweather and Strigoi-fighting Holocaust survivor Abe Setrakian (David Bradley) leading a small group through a New York City teeming with dead-eyed bloodsuckers whose aim is more terrible than 1980s action villains with automatic weapons. The atmosphere and bonkers special effects make up for the abundant self-seriousness, and that first episode in the airplane was one of the TV highlights of 2014 for me. Here’s hoping Season 2 is even better.
9. Z NationZ Nation is exactly what one would expect from a zombified horror-action Syfy series produced by The Asylum. Eschewing layered drama for a barrage of heightened catastrophes, Z Nation is like a season’s worth of The Walking Dead in each episode, which comes with an equal number of faults as championable qualities. Tom Everett Scott leads a squad of post-plague survivors across the country in transporting this total dickhead to a California medical facility, for they’re the only ones who can use his cure-all antibodies to save the world! And because traveling isn’t hard enough, this squad also has to deal with a cult, cannibals, DJ Qualls and bizarre weather-related zombie phenomena like a zombie tornado. (!!!) Because it wears its gore-loving goofiness on its chewed and bloodied sleeves, Z Nation is more enjoyable than it probably should be, especially with the right people and the right atmosphere. Or while doing the laundry.
8. The First Few Episodes of American Horror Story: Freak ShowOctober doesn’t really seem so far back, but it feels like forever since American Horror Story: Freak Show had a forward storytelling thrust that meant anything. The first few episodes, introducing Jessica Lange’s sideshow act with fun prosthetics, zany musical sequences and an antagonistic clown with a penchant for balloon animals and grunting. All episodes since have been melodramatic mishmash, with oddball performances doing much more to carry the weight of Ryan Murphy’s plot treading than the shocks and scares. But those first few episodes were as exciting as those from Season 1, and I truly thought Sarah Paulson’s conjoined twins Bette and Dot were going to be a TV revelation of sorts. Novelty TV at its finest.
7. In the FleshOne of the most intelligently written zombie stories out there, In the Flesh’s more horrific situations aren’t filled with blood and guts but with society’s narrow-mindedness. The double-length (six episodes) Season 2 series keeps the focus on Kieren Walker (Luke Newberry), a former zombie who has been rehabilitated and introduced back into the normal world via a government cure, and his relationships with those around him. But this season also broadens the story to show how not all of the human population can so easily allow Partially Deceased Syndrome (PDS) survivors back into their lives without some ultimate penance to be had. Not since George Romero’s early Living Dead films have zombies and political messages mixed together so frightfully well.
6. Penny DreadfulPop culture crossovers and mash-ups are as popular as they ever were, and Showtime’s Penny Dreadful is a surprisingly realized take on horror literature’s most iconic characters. The wraparound thread of Season 1 involved a search for Mina Harker, believed to be taken by vampire creatures. Hunting for her are adventurer father Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton), demon-conjuring best friend of sorts Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and American sharpshooter Ethan (Josh Hartnett). Along the way, they cross paths with Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and his creature, the egotistical sex addict Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) and more. With the use of flashbacks (particularly in one focused episode) and monologue-ish scenes, Penny Dreadful is thankfully far more invested in these characters and their relationships than the task at hand. Created by Skyfall screenwriter John Logan and produced by Sam Mendes, this series mixes sex and bloodlust with dark literary fiction for a bitingly fun time. Bring on Season 2!
5. Bates MotelBates Motel is one of the most batshit crazy series on the air right now, adding a soap opera spice mix to one of horror’s most legendary characters: Norman Bates, played with an enjoyably immature madness by Freddie Highmore. (I would love to see where this series would go if it had complete freedom from networks, budgets and realism.) Season 2 finds the Bates Motel thriving, along with Norman’s blackouts, Dylan’s (Max Thieriot) ties to horrible people and Norma’s (Vera Farmiga) attention to keeping her son safe from himself. There are secrets to hide, others to be discovered, and a new love interest for Norman that hits a little too close to home. (That’s not even a comment on the creepy incestuousness lurking behind certain scenes.) What seemed like a gimmicky idea for A&E has become a unpredictably wacky story of murder, madness and taxidermy.
4. Black Mirror: White ChristmasEven though this special just aired on Christmas Day here in the U.S., Black Mirror: White Christmas immediately became one of the most frightening things I’ve seen this year. The U.K. series Black Mirror is technically “cautionary near-future sci-fi” if we’re getting technical, but creator Charlie Brooker is a fucking mastermind at spinning technology and human behavior into some mesmerizingly haunting stories. White Christmas presents a trio of interwoven tales shared between Matt (Jon Hamm) and Joe (Rafe Spall), two men having an uncomfortable Christmas meal together. One story features Hamm as a surrogate Romeo, guiding a shy male through a night out via camera and microphone, while another is a depressing tale of being physically “blocked” from someone’s life, similar to how social media works. But it’s the middle section, where Oona Chaplin plays a woman who gets a new form of smart technology, that sent shivers from my spine to my brain and back again in an endless loop. Had there been an entire season of Black Mirror this year, I’ve no doubts it would have topped this list.
3. The Walking DeadWhen The Walking Dead is at its best, it’s one of the most compelling series on TV, mixing terror and tension without necessarily guaranteeing anyone’s safety. The show is sadly inconsistent with moving things at a steady clip, though, without many ways to deliver interesting character development in a world without pop culture to bond over. Still, the Season 4 march to Terminus (and then subsequent march away from it in Season 5) delivered some series highs, introducing new characters like Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) and broadening existing ones like Beth (Emily Kinney), who grows close with Daryl (Norman Reedus). Some have complained about the way Season 5 branched its characters off, giving them each their own episodes, but I think that’s how the show should have been established since the beginning. (Carl doesn’t need his own episode, though.) And it’s going to be hard for this series to do something better than Zombie Demolishment by Fire Hose, because that was awesome.
2. HannibalBefore anything else, let’s take a moment to reflect on a Bryan Fuller series not only making it to a second season, but getting an order for Season 3, deserved more for critical acclaim than huge ratings. Miracles happen! Season 2 begins with Will (Hugh Dancy) still locked up, suspected of being the Chesapeake Ripper, in a story that takes up half of the season. Things then take an even more dangerous and disgusting turn when Lecter’s new patient Margot Verger (Katherine Isabelle) and her abusive brother Mason (Michael Pitt) are introduced. Anchored by exquisite performances from Mads MIkkelsen, Hannibal imbues what might have otherwise been a stale cops-and-killer drama with imagination, dense writing and the artiest horror on network TV.
1. DarknetI’m probably going to get a bunch of shit from people for putting the Canadian quasi-anthology Darknet on top of this list, but I’m willing to bet that the majority of those people haven’t experienced this maddeningly freaky series. Each of the first season’s six episodes tells different expertly interwoven tales of sadism, murder and mayhem, and there isn’t a stale short in the bunch. The connective tissue here is an underground website called Darknet, where you can find the worst videos on the Internet, including ones about a psycho phone installer, a twisted Peeping Tom victim, cyberpranking teens and a suicide hotline. With a central squad of writers and directors, including Cube and Splice’s Vincenzo Natali, Darknet is like a condensed version of every film and TV horror anthology that’s come before it, stripped of excess and delivering only the most frightening of situations. Turn off all the lights and phones and find it on Netflix here. You’re welcome.
What were your favorite horror series of 2014?