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Television Review

‘Chambers’ stretches its creepy premise too thin

Sivan Alyra Rose and Uma Thurman in “Chambers.”Ursula Coyote/Netflix/Netflix

Horror is tricky, but you wouldn’t know it from the spooky state of television these days. Since the shambling onslaught of “The Walking Dead” (an unlikely ratings juggernaut) and “American Horror Story” (Ryan Murphy’s maniacal, kitchen-sink symphony of terror), networks have grown increasingly amenable to all things scary and surreal.

And with streaming services entering the fray, we’re well into what one could call a boo period. Netflix’s “The Haunting of Hill House” played, delectably, like “This Is Us” as directed by Jack Clayton; elsewhere, Hulu’s “Castle Rock” swung open the door to Stephen King’s skeleton-stuffed closet. And CBS All Access is getting into the Jordan Peele business with a “Twilight Zone” reboot.


In its early stages, at least, “Chambers” (10 episodes streaming Friday, on Netflix), from creator Leah Rachel, is a welcome addition to those dark diversions.

Pitched somewhere between “Riverdale,” “13 Reasons Why,” and “Twin Peaks” — with a hearty helping of nightmare-fuel imagery that recalls “Hannibal” without matching it — the show is introduced as a supernatural mystery, set in the world of the rich, privileged, and unaccountable.

After suffering a freak heart attack while losing her virginity, Sasha (Sivan Alyra Rose) wakes up in the hospital with someone else’s ticker in her chest. That someone else: the show’s Laura Palmer figure, a wealthy dead girl named Becky whose perfect smile hides sinister truths (as if the name Becky didn’t already make that clear).

Upon meeting the donor’s bereaved yogi parents (Tony Goldwyn and Uma Thurman), Sasha finds herself filling the void Becky left behind, accepting a scholarship to attend her across-the-tracks private school and becoming friendly with the girl’s haunted brother (Nicholas Galitzine). Predictably, something’s not quite right with this family beyond their New Age bunkum, but Sasha’s initial caution spikes into full-on paranoia once she begins experiencing Becky’s memories, not to mention taking on her more malefic personality traits.


There’s plenty happening in “Chambers,” though its most interesting conceit involves that corporeal tug-of-war, a kooky-spooky “possession” riff that stirs up ideas of code-switching and cultural appropriation. Sasha is Native American and working class, while Becky’s white and super-rich; something, if not enough, is made of how racially charged it feels to watch one literally assimilate the other, blurring out her identity in the process.

The question of nature versus nurture, too, gets a genre-appropriate kick in the teeth, with Sasha realizing the girl she’s becoming may have been something of a psychopath. And it’s equally intriguing (even if “Chambers” itself doesn’t seem to think so) to consider other forces shaping the show’s sun-baked Arizona setting, dust storms building mightily in the desert as indigenous spiritualities exist uneasily alongside the newer forms of worship proffered by upper-class enclaves.

If only “Chambers” did more than toy with all this. Rose is the weakest actor out of the bunch, and she’s working with scripts that would rather present the same concepts five different ways than dissect them once. And though what’s ailing Sasha is trickier to diagnose, “Chambers” ends up suffering from a pretty straightforward case of streaming bloat.

After a fitfully frightening start, the series falls into a kind of narrative catatonia benefiting none of the actors, even pros like Goldwyn and Thurman. Both, it should be said, do the requisite heavy lifting in scenes seemingly transplanted from a more measured show about how grief can warp the family unit into hideous shapes. Thurman, especially, appears eager to have her name inscribed in the annals of mommy-monster horror, right next to Toni Collette (“Hereditary”) and Essie Davis (“The Babadook”).


But the show’s sagging midsection sticks out all the same, pointless subplots piling up as loan sharks, cult leaders, and other red herrings crowd the frame. The scares, too, grow cheaper once Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) hands off directing duties in hour three.

“Chambers” still conjures a few eerie moments — most involving wounds reopening, gruesomely, or eyes ablaze with terrible purpose — but the show’s sluggish pace often dilutes its sense of dread. The ingredients are there for a loopy body-horror freakout, but this series’ pulse stays damnably faint, even when it should be sending yours through the roof.


Starring Sivan Alyra Rose, Tony Goldwyn, Uma Thurman. Streams Friday on Netflix.

Isaac Feldberg can be reached at isaac.feldberg@globe.com, or on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.