'NOS4A2' Pilot Review: AMC Brings Joe Hill's Horror Novel To The Small Screen With Creepy, Emotional Results [SXSW]

Joe Hill's NOS4A2 is a dense, twisty, unlikely tale, so it feels exactly right that the pilot episode of AMC's adaptation should be so stubbornly unwilling to explain itself to viewers unfamiliar with the source material. Nothing is spelled out here; nothing is synopsized or tidily introduced. Unlike so many pilots – that act as a string of bite-sized quotes built in service of future "Previously on..." segments – NOS4A2 is interested only in telling this story at its own pace, with an admirable confidence that the audience will eventually catch up to where it's going.

But even for those new to the world of Christmasland, to Charlie Manx and his Rolls-Royce Wraith, this first episode is deeply compelling, hooking viewers on an emotional, visceral level well before the plot fully reveals itself.

Ashleigh Cummings plays sky-eyed teenager Vic McQueen (genre fans may recognize Cummings as another Vicki in the excellent Hounds of Love), forced to play peacekeeper to her perpetually combative parents. Vic wants to go to art school; her mother (Virginia Kull) scoffs that college costs money the family can't afford, while her father (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) supports Vic's dreams. But there's a gradually revealed complication to this conventional good cop/bad cop dynamic, made even more complicated by Vic's apparent ability to locate lost items by riding her dirt bike over a covered bridge that, by all accounts, was torn down decades ago. Meanwhile, a ghoulish old man named Charlie Manx (Zachary Quinto) abducts a lonesome young boy and grows shockingly less decrepit as his unwilling ward begins to wither. Oh, and there's also a librarian named Maggie (Jahkara Smith), who seems to intuit the future thanks to a bottomless bag of portentous Scrabble tiles.

So yeah, NOS4A2 isn't too arsed with making sure you can follow the dangling threads of these weird, separate yarns just yet. Nonetheless, the first episode is almost urgently engaging, with pilot director Kari Skogland (The Handmaid's Tale) offering an impressionistic, deeply felt hint at a story very much already in motion. It's strange and scary, mysterious and human. In the post-screening Q&A, Hill defined horror as being "about extreme empathy," and it's a turn of phrase that's rattled around in my brain ever since. The best horror isn't inhuman. It isn't senseless. We're truly terrified by the stories that we relate to, that resonate deep within our most unthinking and instinctual places.

NOS4A2 – showrun by Flesh and Bone and Fear the Walking Dead's Jami O'Brien – understands this. Before preoccupying itself with plot intricacies or horror money shots, the series weaves a suggestion of intrinsic dread, giving us a character that we immediately care about – Cummings' hopeful, resentful, powerfully plausible Vic – and convincing us, without a word, that she'll soon be in danger, and that we'll really hate it when she is. There's plenty of other interesting stuff going on: Kull and Moss-Bachrach are fascinating and heartbreaking as Vic's parents, and there's a knotty townie classicism thing going on with Vic's wealthy friend Willa (Paulina Singer), whose house is cleaned by Vic's mom. And all of that's before we even get into Quinto as Manx, a villain who starts out in uncanny valley territory before aging down into a far more familiar bad guy, one who's uncanny in a whole other, more sinister, way. But the crux of this pilot, of this story, is Vic herself – how much we care about her, how much we want her to be happy, and how certain we are that NOS4A2 is going to put her through the wringer long before she'll ever make it to that art school.

In short, Hill and King Constant Readers, here's what you want to know: beautifully sketched title cards and narrative maps place NOS4A2 firmly in the universe of ItHornsLocke & Key and other familial fictions. We see no glimpse of Vic as an adult just yet, but we were told that Season One will cover about a third of Hill's novel, so there's plenty more to come. And yes, this feels like a fair and generous adaptation that "gets" the marvelous book it's adapting.

As for those of you who have never read the book, and who just want to know if it's a good show: based on the strength of this first episode, yeah, it's that, too. It's inscrutable and unnerving and almost scarily propulsive. And it's too bad we all have to wait until April to see any more of it.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10