Television

Review: Netflix’s haunted horror show ‘Chambers’ may be Uma Thurman’s ‘Stranger Things’

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Sivan Alyra Rose plays an Arizona teenager whose heart transplant comes with unwelcome extras in the Netflix horror mystery “Chambers.”
(Ursula Coyote / Netflix)
Television Critic

In “Chambers,” a fine new supernatural horror mystery dropping onto Netflix at midnight Friday, Sivan Alyra Rose plays Sasha, a Native American high school student in a working-class Arizona town who suffers a massive heart attack while trying to lose her virginity to her boyfriend TJ (Griffin Powell-Arcand). A transplant is miraculously immediately available — “For four hours the entire universe had to conspire together to save your life,” her uncle Frank (Marcus LaVoi), with whom she lives, tells her later.

By and by, they are paid a visit by Ben (Tony Goldwyn), whose deceased daughter Becky was Sasha’s heart donor. At her uncle’s insistence, Sasha accepts a dinner invitation to meet the rest of his family in neighboring upscale Crystal Valley, so near and yet so far: son Elliott (Nicholas Galitzine), Becky’s twin brother, who listens to terrible music terribly loud and is on drugs, and wife Nancy, played by Uma Thurman in attitudes of agitation and exhaustion. (Is this Thurman’s “Winona Ryder in ‘Stranger Things’” moment? Anyway, she’s good.)

For the record:
12:00 AM, Apr. 25, 2019 An earlier version of this article credited the cinematography in “Chambers” to Dana Gonzales. Although Gonzales was the cinematographer on three episodes, Pepe Avila del Pino was the cinematographer on the first two episodes of the series, creating its look with director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.

By and by and by, Sasha is drawn further into the late Becky’s world, accepting a “scholarship” to not-quite-all-white, fancy, spa-like Crystal Valley High. Instead of struggling to keep up, Sasha — who has declared herself “not good at school” and whose life plan is to open a nail salon with her friend Yvonne (Kyanna Simone Simpson) — aces her statistics test. She fences like a state champion, left-handed, though she is right-handed. (You see where this is going.) Someone else’s face looks back at her from the mirror; there is a ghost crying in the next bathroom stall; she hears music when there’s nothing there. The spooky stuff is handled well, without undue underlining.

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Uma Thurman and Tony Goldwyn play grieving parents in the Netflix transplant-horror series "Chambers."
(Ursula Coyote / Netflix)

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Ben, who listens to guided meditation tapes (“As a highly sensitive warrior, you are an energy sponge to everything around you”), hangs out at a cultish place called the Annex Foundation, which Elliott disparages as a “new-age country club where you cleanse your soul and your colon at the same time.” Between that and a neighbor (Lili Taylor) surreptitiously placing crystals on the stairs during a “releasing ceremony” at Ben and Nancy’s, one might detect a faint scent of “Rosemary’s Baby” wafting in, 21st-century style. But though the word “demon” gets thrown around a bit, Satan himself does not appear. (He has so many other television commitments nowadays.)

It’s almost impossible to create a genuinely new story in horror fiction, and the fact that “Chambers” doesn’t is far from fatal. The idea of the haunted transplant goes back explicitly at least to Maurice Renard’s 1920 “The Hands of Orlac,” while stories of ghostly possession must go back before anyone had the means to write them down. This is not the last of its kind.

Happily too, “Chambers” doesn’t serve up that warmed-over meal, a serial killer by demonic proxy. (There will be blood, but relatively little for an eight-hour horror film.) It mocks the ego-driven spiritualistic pretensions of the well-to-do, but it is not out to make any large, metaphorical points, except perhaps about the way that old people are willing to sacrifice the young in their search for power.

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Kyanna Simone Simpson and Sivan Alyra Rose play best friends whose ordinary lives are upended by extraordinary events in the Netflix series "Chambers."
(Ursula Coyote / Netflix)

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The dialogue has a lifelike flow and the production is unusually naturalistic for a scary story; the small-town scenes, with Sasha and Yvonne and TJ and Frank, feel only a step or two away from documentary. Indeed, those characters are vivid enough to sustain a series on their own, without the hocus-pocus, just getting on with school and life in a place where no high school student drives a sports car they haven’t bought second-hand and restored on their own. I would watch that.

Yet even when “Chambers” moves onto an astral plane, it is (with some less successful exceptions) not so different from regular life, just blurrier, with colored lights. (The special effects budget has been put largely toward creating weather.) The cinematography by Pepe Avila del Pino and Dana Gonzales does some lovely things with dawn and twilight; their work feels informal (of course it isn’t), and drinks in detail in a way that reminds us, helpfully, that the world is not all, or even mostly, monstrous.

The series’ deliberate pace works best at the beginning, when we are being shown the lay of the land, and less well toward the end when one might want it to hurry up and get where it’s going.

Still, there is some satisfying Scooby Gang action around the climax, as chums unite to solve a mystery. (They even have a van.) Some of what they discover is a little gimmicky, in that it becomes specific about the ways and means and ends in order to supply a practical (if paranormal) answer to All Your Questions. That the ending is a variation on a familiar theme is almost unavoidable — but it is a variation. Mozart did a lot with “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” I think it’s fine. In any case, it’s not what I feared.

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‘Chambers’

Where: Netflix

When: Any time, starting Friday

Rated: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd