Horror is a genre I’ve only recently gotten into. It’s not something I ever particularly liked growing up, seeing as going out of my way to get scared was never something I found to be enjoyable. Hell, I still don’t, but I can at least now appreciate the adrenaline a little bit better.
I’ve also come to appreciate the incredible amount of genuinely good filmmaking required to make horror work.
I know that sounds incredibly naïve and dumb but, considering my cultural awareness of horror came from a childhood through the late 90s and early 2000s, I didn’t exactly have too many examples of genuinely good horror movies to go off of. I grew up in an era where the films coming out that my friends would have been seeing were The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, all the Japanese horror remakes, The Ruins, and Devil.
Since then, I’ve been enlightened to the genuine skills behind the art of making a good horror film. Some of the best filmmaking tricks and practices I’ve seen in recent years come from horror movies and tv shows.
And now I can say anime, too.
This year there are many an anime I am hyped to watch, but I’d never heard of The Promised Neverland before. Not until I logged onto Funimation a month ago and found it on the app’s equivalent of “Front Page Recommended” things to watch. I saw the promotional photo: three very serious looking kids on a clock whose hands resemble dining utensils; everything is dark and in the background you see clusters of more children, their backs facing the viewer, and what looks to be an open gate reflected in a large round thing behind the protagonists (it turns out that thing is a kind of pocket watch). I was intrigued. I read the blurb describing how three friends discover something sinister about their home and devise a way to escape. Pretty simple, as plots go, but I was in the mood for something new, and decided to try it out.
I don’t think I’ve ever fallen in love with a show as quickly before in my life.
I’ve found shows that have intrigued me and made me want more before. Plenty, actually. But I’ve never really felt this immediate desire to consume anything and everything regarding a show. That is, except, for maybe Hazbin Hotel, but that’s not out yet.
I was immediately obsessed upon watching the first episode, and that’s because it does horror so well.
There are very few horror things I’ve experienced that have succeeded in causing a visceral fear response from me, and I’m not sure a single one of them until now has been animated. Could just be that I’m not as immersed in the genre as some, but I know nothing that’s meant to be intentionally scary and animated has given me the chills like this show.
Actually…there was one. I forgot Tales from the Crypt Keeper was a thing. A couple of episodes of that wigged me out as a kid…
Considering the plot and setup for The Promised Neverland was so simple, and I’m so familiar with horror and general story beats by now that I was able to pretty accurately predict what was going to happen in the first episode and what the reveal was going to be, that didn’t stop the show from very effectively causing chills to run up and down my spine whenever it wanted. And I think, because of this experience, I’ve discovered what it is that I love about horror.
The best horror experiences I’ve had come from simplicity, be it a film, a book, a comic, or even a haunted house/maze. The overly-done, extravagant, in-your-face things might get a natural reflex reaction from me, but my heart won’t flutter. I won’t get chills.
A simple set up with a terrifying payoff, however. Now that is what I think horror is all about.
Without getting into spoilers, I’m going to discuss just one scene from the first episode of The Promised Neverland.
So far, in the show, nothing has really happened. This makes sense, it being the first episode and all. There have been moments of unease and tension, where our protagonists Emma, Norman and Ray look quizzically at their environment and wonder if there’s something more going on in their Eden-like pasture. The tension is usually dropped without any actual scares, immediately diffusing the sense of unease with some happy banter between the small children of the orphanage.
Even when the tension breaks, however, the distinct lack of any ambient music or noise of any kind leaves the viewer feeling wrong. I mean, here are all these happy kids talking about their futures and their dreams, and there’s none of the usual whimsy or happiness emphasized with music. I mean, we’re all so used to that kind of thing in media now that it’s really noticeable when it’s missing.
One of the youngest characters there, an adorable little girl named Conny, never seen without her stuffed bunny, is the first character we see actually adopted. Earlier in the episode the kids, after coming across the fence in the woods their Mom has told them to avoid, all mentioned how no one ever hears from the adopted children once they leave the Home. Some of the kids are worried by this, others assume the kids who’ve left have either forgotten them or are trying to be considerate of their new parents. Conny promises, however, to write when she leaves.
The kids all say a tearful farewell to Conny, and Mom takes her to the front gates to be picked up by her new family.
Somehow, though, Conny forgot her treasured bunny behind, and protagonists Emma and Norman decide to make a run for it to try and get the toy back to the young girl before she leaves.
There’s some tension in this from the get-go. It’s been well established that the kids will face punishment if they go where they’re not supposed to, and the buildup of clues throughout the rest of the show has more than conveyed the danger Emma and Norman will be in on this excursion.
Blissfully unaware of how dangerous it is, assuming they’ll be scolded later for going to the gate when they’re not supposed to, Emma and Norman reach the front gate and go looking for Conny.
Again, the scene is quiet. The only noise comes from the children and the drip drip dripping of a pipe overhead. The kids notice the dripping and see water pooling on the floor, making a loud plopping noise in the cavernous gate.
It’s incredibly dark, and outside of the few lit lamps in the redbrick walls, there’s no sign of life anywhere.
They call out for Conny, but there’s no reply.
Emma and Norman approach the car waiting there. It looks kind of like those old school trucks the explorers in Atlantis: The Lost Empire use. Kind of military-looking, and dark green. Norman goes to look in the driver’s window and finds it completely empty.
Assuming she must be with her new parents, still going through introductions, Emma says she’s going to leave the bunny in the back of the truck. Conny should find it there, and if Mom asks how it got there, they can just apologize.
Norman decides to look around a little, taking in the fairly complex pipe system and walking over to where there’s a large green door when he hears Emma drop the bunny.
And the music starts.
Emma takes several steps back from the back of the truck. A close up of her face shows how terrified she is. Her breath is rough and she’s whimpering. Norman sees her reaction and visibly steadies himself, making his back straighter before walking up to the truck.
He approaches, Emma’s head obscuring the viewer’s line of sight towards whatever is in the van. Norman leans his head in, and we cut to a droplet of water as it slams into the puddle.
We see Norman’s eyes, wide and terror-stricken, as he looks down at the cargo in the truck. We pull back to see both kids looking into the truck, and then a sudden close up on the cargo itself as the music begins to screech.
We get a better look at the cargo, taking in many gruesome details, when a voice breaks through the silence. The kids panic and hide. Emma snags the bunny and she and Norman decide to hide under the truck as the male voices draw closer.
The men say some pretty ghoulish shit, that gets the kids curious, and Emma and Norman decide to inch closer to look at who they are.
And here we get some of the best terror I’ve seen animated. Actually, it’s some of the best terror I’ve seen portrayed in any visual medium.
We see the kids as their faces contract in horror at what they see. We see the lines of their bodies grow jagged to show how their skin is crawling. Their eyes bug out and they both begin to hyperventilate. Emma has to cover her mouth to stop from screaming and she begins shaking her head.
We, of course, get to experience what they’re seeing as well, and though the animators do a good job of presenting the object of their fearful responses as horribly as they could, what makes this scene so haunting to me is the reaction of the children. Norman and Emma are only eleven years old, and they’ve just been introduced to something they could never have imagined or expected. The realistic, yet simple way their terror is expressed really just gets my adrenaline going and my skin crawling.
The mix of the animation, the angles, the music, and the performances of the voice actors come together and make this extraordinarily simple set up with kind of an obvious pay-off still engrossing and utterly eerie. Even when I know it’s coming, watching this episode still gives me the creeps and I love it.
I really can’t convey in words how phenomenal this scene is, or how satisfying it is to watch both alone and with friends. By now, I’ve introduced this anime to both Pinkie and another good friend of mine, and delighted as I watched their reactions to this scene. My friend was unnerved and agreed that it was pretty spooky, and the fearless Pinkie was just impressed that the show managed to subvert his expectations. Even with such an obvious pay off with a predictable outcome, there are enough details missing that the true reveal is actually very well concealed.
I’ve come to gauge how good twists and surprises in media are based on whether or not Pinkie can see them coming. He’s terribly good at being able to see where a story is going before it happens, so whenever I get to see him look genuinely surprised and impressed (and sometimes even a little frustrated that he didn’t see it), then I’m satisfied.
There is plenty more to The Promised Neverland to like. The animation is gorgeous, the music is great, the characters are fantastic, and the story is compelling. I’ve grown so attached to it so quickly, and the way the world is set up in the first episode leaves open so many storytelling options, so despite the somewhat predictable plot of the first episode, I genuinely can’t tell where the show will go in the future.
I don’t know if it will be a show about triumph and friendship or if it will set up the protagonists for failure and I’ll have to sit and watch as they succumb to horrifying circumstances one-by-one. Waiting to see whether I’ll be cheering or crying by the end of the season is a major factor of why I’ve gotten so hooked.
I can’t recommend this show highly enough. If you’re looking for an intense, compelling, beautifully animated show to watch, check out The Promised Neverland. There’s no English dub for the show as of yet, and if subs really turn you off, I would implore you to try it. This show is entirely worth it!
I’m hoping that when the season ends, I’ll be able to give a full review, potentially with spoilers, but seeing as it’s so new I’d rather just encourage you all to go and enjoy the show for yourselves!
Coming this week will be the long-awaited review of Dark Nights: Metal issue #4 as well as a review for Alita: Battle Angel.
Until next time!