“Dead of Summer” and the second season of “Scream” are big reasons why 2016 has become the year of the slasher TV series, but the aptly named “Slasher,” which aired in the spring on Chiller and is now available on home video and streaming, deserves credit too. Coming from Aaron Martin, who created “The Best Years” and wrote for “Being Erica,” this Canadian series doesn’t reinvent the wheel (actually, it does reinvent the “breaking wheel” in one episode), but it serves up a fun whodunit alongside an amount of violence, sex and swearing that goes beyond what you’d find on an American cable series.
The biggest thing that sets the eight-episode “Slasher” apart from “Scream” is the variety of killing methods and the fact that the Executioner’s motive is clear from the get-go: He’s killing people for committing one of the seven deadly sins. In the Bible, we’re told (and I’ll just take their word for it), each sin corresponds with a punitive method of killing. In the first episode, for example, the Executioner punishes a woman for the sin of anger by hacking her limbs off.
Whereas the “Scream” franchise (the movies and the series) often has a past family drama factor into the killer’s motive, it usually doesn’t tell us those details up front. But “Slasher” does: On Halloween 1988, Sarah was born when the Executioner murdered her parents and sliced her out of her mother’s womb with a machete. In present day, Sarah (Katie McGrath, who was eaten by a pteranodon which was then eaten by a mosasaur in “Jurassic World”) and fiancé Dylan (“The Best Years,” “Harper’s Island” and “The Killing” veteran Brandon Jay McLaren) move into the murder house of Sarah’s origin in Waterbury, Ontario, as it had stayed in her family in the intervening years.
“Slasher” has a healthy share of clichés. Some are annoying, like when Sarah leaves her front door open while investigating faint screaming from the neighbor’s house. C’mon, close the door so you don’t let the mosquitos in. Other clichés I found more humorous. I love the ol’ standby of a soon-to-be-victim talking to the masked killer, thinking it’s a costumed friend rather than the killer. Also, hats off to the costume design department for the Executioner’s garb: a robe and full hooded mask that covers everything but his (or her) eyes.
In series like this, it’s always somewhat of a problem creating likable characters when you’re supposed to suspect all of them of being a vicious serial killer. Almost everyone is a suspect; even if there’s no obvious motive, they’ll give a sinister look every now and then. A particularly chilling performance comes from Dean McDermott as the sheriff, and Steve Byers – somewhat bland in “Falcon Beach” – is surprisingly good as the lead deputy. “Being Erica’s” Erin Karpluk is also on hand as a frazzled mother of a girl who went missing five years ago – with the classic missing-white-girl name of Ariel Peterson.
Part of what keeps “Slasher’s” plot going strong for eight episodes is that Waterbury has so many dark stories in its past that filter into the main storyline of the Executioner’s killings. Indeed, this seemingly peaceful town is a horrible place to live for anyone who values their life, but possibly a great first stop in a budding crime reporter’s career. Indeed, Waterbury Bulletin editor Dylan and publisher Alison (Mayko Nguyen) look to get their big breaks by covering the Executioner killings. This leads to some tension between the newlyweds, as Dylan is in the odd position of reporting on a cycle of violence that dates back to Sarah’s parents murders. Indeed, there’s no such thing as being too close to the story at the Bulletin, which makes “Slasher’s” portrayal of newspapering a bit shaky; the paper seems like a trashy big-city tabloid rather than a cautious small-town rag.
I successfully predicted the culprit after six episodes, so I would’ve liked a bit more of a surprise at the end. And sometimes things play better on paper than on the screen; the grand commentary on sin, particularly from 1988 killer Tom (Patrick Garrow) and pastor Alan (Rob Stewart), can get clunky. But overall, “Slasher” is a welcome addition to the stable of horror/mystery miniseries that have become popular in the last few years, with shocking methods of killing, expert staging of scares, woodsy Ontario scenery and strong performances helping a viewer to keep their disbelief suspended.