For someone who's never seen The Twilight Zone, Tales from the Crypt or The Outer Limits, The Unknown may seem like exciting stuff. Unfortunately for the show, no such person exists. The 6 part anthology of the mysterious and the macabre streamed on Crackle (the digital network owned by Sony Pictures Entertainment) in 2012 but has been edited together into a single 129 minute piece for your home viewing experience. While the show has high production values (especially for a web series) and features engaging performances, the quality of its writing proves to be its undoing.
Standing in for Rod Serling and the Cryptkeeper here is Dominic Monaghan who plays a curious blogger named Mark. Mark is searching for the truth out there (although the show never really explains what he intends to do with it other than make a pithy post on his website). As you may expect, he attracts all sorts of weirdness. Some folks drop in to tell him their strange tales while others mail him curious trinkets and cryptic notes. These serve as triggers for the actual stories that comprise the bulk of the show.
To the show's credit, the stories are hugely varied. We get murderers, demons, reanimated corpses, witches and even a bit of cannibalism. I appreciate how much ground the show tries to cover but it often comes at the expense of each individual tale's depth. Predictable setups give way to predictable payoffs. The execution is never anything less than competent but it also hardly ever quickens the pulse. This often left me staring at the screen wondering "Is that all?"
For all my apathy directed at this show, there are a few segments that left their intended mark. Prime Cut is a nasty little piece about a chef (Jay Ferguson) who can't seem to impress the local food critic until some of his sweet, sweet blood makes its way into the critic's meal. Pretty soon, the chef is the toast of the town and looking for new ways to spice up his menu. I won't spoil the big finish other than to say that this episode successfully blends dark comedy into the horrific (and gory) premise. The parting zinger goes out of its way to defy any semblance of good taste and is all the more memorable for it.
Another episode that works for the most part is the closer called Privacy Settings. In this one, an uppity talent agent has her life turned upside down by someone who decides that she has to pay for slighting him. The premise may have been done before but at least the attacker's M.O. is interesting. Rather than launching a physical offensive, he goes after the agent's digital entity. Text messages, social status updates and online purchases become part of the increasingly aggressive set of tactics employed against her. The climax feels a bit abrupt but features a great performance by Taryn Manning in the role of the beleaguered victim.
Beyond those bright spots, The Unknown vacillates between ho hum and wait, where's the rest? A tale about a prisoner who may or may not be surrounded by demonic beings will feel a bit passé to anyone who has seen Bill Paxton's superior Frailty. Similarly a story about modern day witches, Relapse, builds up a nice head of steam but doesn't give itself the time to luxuriate in the repulsiveness of its big finish. The less said about Yesterday and Spare the Child, the better. Both stories start in familiar places, follow well-trodden paths and then end exactly as you would expect them to.
2 decent stories, 2 frustrating ones and 2 that can safely be skipped…that kind of ratio of hits to misses doesn't exactly make this anthology a must watch for me. Even the wraparound segments with Monaghan feel perfunctory and unnecessary. Other than drawing on a bit of his star power (that is his mug on the cover art after all), the show essentially wastes him. On occasion, his closing scenes after certain tales actually work against them. His reaction after Prime Cut is baffling enough to take you out of the show for a moment. In any case, the fact remains that there are plenty of anthology junkies out there who crave this format in their genre entertainment. The Unknown has just enough promise to keep them hanging on but not enough of a payoff to make the show feel like anything special.
The show is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. All things considered, this is a perfectly acceptable image. There is a bit of moiré here and there with some banding in dark scenes but otherwise the skin tones are even and black levels are decent with a reasonable amount of shadow detail.
The audio is presented in an English 5.1 Dolby Digital mix with optional English SDH subtitles. The surround mix isn't terribly assertive but it certainly gets the job done. All the creaky doors, witchy cackles and generally spooky musical cues come through with clarity. There are no obvious defects to ruin your viewing experience here.
The show is presented on a single disc with just a handful of extras to speak of. A short Behind the Scenes (3:29) featurette gives us a peek at how reasonable production values were applied to a high-concept web series. There is also some coverage of the special effects work and a discussion of what a challenge it is to shoot so quickly (one episode was shot in 3 days!).
This is followed by a set of Cast and Crew Interviews (9:08). Besides Dominic Monaghan, we get sound bites from Kevin Connolly (who directed Prime Cut), Jay Ferguson, Taryn Manning and Martha Coolidge (director of 4 of the 6 episodes including Privacy Settings). They speak enthusiastically about their love of the genre and anthologies in particular along with their desire to shock audiences. Monaghan also makes a point of highlighting the fact that the show is on the forefront of a new wave of media directed explicitly at an online audience.
We close things out with an Extended Trailer (1:52) and a Digital Trailer (0:43). It is worth noting that for some reason, the menu offers no way to directly access specific episodes. You simply have to skip chapters which is quite annoying if you just want to watch your favorites.
For a show that first aired online, The Unknown successfully carries all the hallmarks of a series that could have legitimately aired late at night on cable TV. It has reasonably high production values, a capable and enthusiastic cast (including a charismatic anchor in the form of Dominic Monaghan) and a willingness to toss in splashes of nudity and gore that would please genre fans. Unfortunately the one thing that it is definitely lacking is consistently great writing. Other than a couple of fun episodes, the rest fall victim to clichés, rushed climaxes and general sloppiness. None of it is offensive enough to make you want to turn it off but at the same time it isn't of a high enough caliber to grab you by the throat. Even if you're a fan of genre anthologies, you should probably Rent It first.