When troubled novelist Patricia Phelps (Courteney Cox) moves to small town Connecticut with her husband (Greg Kinnear) and kids, she’s hoping for a fresh start. But when Patricia learns that her new house is haunted, she soon realises it’s not just her personal demons that pose a threat to her family’s happiness.
If you’ve seen one story about a troubled family/person/writer moving into a creepy old house/hotel/mansion, you’ve seen ‘em all, right? But in Shining Vale, Starz’ new horror comedy co-created by Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe) and Jeff Astrof (Trial & Error), that’s the point. Leaning into clichés in order to answer the question “What if The Shining was a sitcom starring Courteney Cox?”, this eight-part series (served in bingeable, thirty-minute morsels) juggles jump scares and jokes at a rate of knots, whilst trying to dissect the ways in which women’s trauma is so often either demonised or dismissed out of hand. It’s not as funny as BBC’s Ghosts, as scary as Netflix’s Haunting duology, or as clever as either, but it has got some spirit.
Flexing her formidable comedic chops while keying into a wounded vulnerability we’ve not really seen from her before, Cox stars — and shines — as Patricia Phelps, an erotic fiction author who’s been struggling with writer’s block and depression since going teetotal after her smash debut novel’s release 17 years ago. Having nearly destroyed her marriage by bonking a handyman, we meet Patricia just as she’s moving with put-upon husband Terry (a dutifully over-chipper Greg Kinnear), rebellious daughter Gaynor and VR-obsessed son Jake (a spry Gus Birney and deadpan Dylan Gage) from Brooklyn to small town Shining Vale, Connecticut, hoping to salvage their relationship.
Lo and behold, the 200-year-old mansion left unoccupied for years and sold over $200,000 below asking price that the family moves into — a looming presence lovingly filled with references to Changeling (yellow ball), Hereditary (model house), The Conjuring (creepy swing) and, naturally, The Shining (Overlook carpet curtains, secret bar, great big axe) — is haunted. Shocker! Before long, things start to go ‘Dutch angle, smash cut, sharp music cue’ in the night and Patricia finds herself entangled with Rosemary (Mira Sorvino), an alluring yet unnerving 50s housewife who’s happy to be Pat’s spirit muse in exchange for a few somewhat disturbing favours. As the house’s dark past bleeds into the Phelps‘ present, Pat’s left fighting to prove to her family, her therapist, and herself that she’s not crazy — she’s possessed.
When Shining Vale takes a break from making you do the Leo DiCaprio pointing meme at nifty horror callbacks and lampooning possession/haunted house tropes to get reflective — “A man gets depressed, and he gets to work through it, but a woman has an emotion and she’s treated like a mental patient” Pat zings at couples’ therapy — it’s very good.
A soul-bearing confrontation between Pat and Terry in the second episode about the ways workaholism and the affair have ravaged them is so raw and brilliantly acted you can’t help wishing there was a little more of that to counterbalance the escalating silliness of later episodes. Pat’s mother Joan (Judith Light) shows up later in the series, and the dynamic between them and Gaynor — whose chastity club subplot is a ray of saucy Horganian light — hints at an exploration of how trauma passes between mothers and daughters that’s dropped as soon as it’s raised. Alas, for every pearl of wisdom or insight to be found, there must also be a dog turd in the woods to trigger the next jump scare.
Bolstered by a star turn from Cox and some fun throwbacks pitched alongside new takes on horrors past, this messy but fun genre mash-up makes for entertaining viewing.