Review: When a podcast becomes a series; Amazon’s ‘Lore’ is just in time for Halloween
In his popular, prize-winning podcast “Lore,” Aaron Mahnke tells tales of real-life horror and strangeness. Six of its 70-some episodes have now been turned into television shows by Amazon Prime, where they will be available to stream as of Friday. Podcasts are cool now, and in the way of the business of show, other forms are out to get a little of their mojo.
Although much of “Lore” involves the paranormal, it is not meant to leave you with questions like, “Was it really a ghost?” or “How could A be at point B when I just saw him at point C?” Mahnke’s interests are historical and behavioral. Specifically, “Lore” concerns ordinary people and the point where the limits of human knowledge give way to superstition and mythmaking. It’s about illness taken for possession, and independence mistaken for sickness.
The first episode, “They Made a Tonic,” about what came to be known as the Mercy Brown Vampire Incident, a farmer (Campbell Scott) is persuaded to dig up his dead daughter to find out whether she might be undead. Scarier though, is the prologue in which Mahnke catalogs 19th-century contraptions and practices designed to test whether the apparently deceased were the factually deceased – beetle in the ear, hand-cranked tongue pulling machine – and coffins with alarm systems on the very real off-chance that you were buried alive.
The pleasure of a podcast comes in listening, and “Lore” is at its best at its most podcast-esque, when Mahnke is speaking, his delivery confidential yet dry and neutral in that School of Ira Glass way. Animations or archival photos or drawings, many highly disturbing, accompany his words. (If I were commissioning a second season, I would ask for more cartoons.)
Throughout, it’s the corners Mahnke wanders into and the connections he draws that make “Lore” appealing. In “Black Stockings,” 19th-century Irish cooper Michael Cleary (Cathal Pendred) believes a fairy changeling has been substituted for his wife -- well, you can almost guess the rest. And because Bridget Cleary (Holland Roden) was unusually independent for her time, Mahnke brings in 19th-century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, who pictured women as “strong, independent seductive, empowered… qualities that could be threatening to the men in their lives,” and sharpshooter Annie Oakley and husband Frank Butler, who was man enough to love a woman who could outshoot him. (Here’s a sweet fact: After Annie died, Frank stopped eating; 18 days later he followed her out of the world.)
The dramatic portions are generally a letdown. Where the podcast “Lore” is packed with information, observation and philosophy, the re-enactments that dominate each television episode can feel overlong and tedious even at – or especially at – their most overwrought and hysterical. They have some of the flavor of the cautionary films you have seen in a high school health or driver’s education class, or TV’s “Unsolved Mysteries,” which Mahnke has cited as a formative influence, along with “The X-Files.” The cheesiness may be to some extent intentional.
That does not mean “Lore” isn’t frightening – indeed, I had to look away at times. Especially disturbing is “Echoes,” an episode about Dr. Walter Jackson Freeman (Colm Feore) and his “icepick lobotomies” – an outpatient procedure, if you can believe it. Set in the 1940s and ‘50s, it’s presented in black and white and take its visual cues from thrillers of the period.
And although it is comically overwrought at times ( “Christmas cards! From my lobotomized patients! How many other doctors get Christmas cards? Do you think anyone is going to send the makers of Thorazine a Christmas card? I changed lives!”) it is also plenty discomfiting.
Where: Amazon Prime
When: Anytime, starting Friday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd
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