A few days after enlisting enigmatic witch Boro (Catherine Keener) to put a curse on a director who’s wronged her, young filmmaker Lisa Nova (Rosa Salazar) is sick of throwing up slimy, mewling kittens as a consequence. “No!” she practically growls, staring Boro down. “No more throwing up kittens!”
Boro shrugs, less than bothered. “Fine, no more throwing up kittens,” she says as she steps back into the shadows, disappearing into the lush jungle that’s overtaken her Los Angeles home. Lisa’s temporarily mollified — until she experiences the bodily result of that request, which is, to say the least, far worse than any of her previous retching. Resigned, she sighs. “Tell her I’ll go back to puking,” Lisa says to Boro’s stupefied lackey (Mark Acheson), who can only grunt in response as he shuffles away.
This sequence of events is only unusual in the world of “Brand New Cherry Flavor” insomuch as it demonstrates something akin to a sense of humor about its gross-out surrealism. Otherwise, the limited series is moreso impressed with its own daring to Go There, or to be as disgusting as the freedom of a streaming service will grant it. A dark and twisty series that delights in getting truly gross, Netflix’s newest tells a scattered tale of vengeance and ownership that’s lucky to have a stellar performance at its center.
“Brand New Cherry Flavor” — adapted by “Channel Zero” producers Nick Antosca and Lenore Zion from the novel by Todd Grimson — feels like an R.L. Stine book come to visceral life, if Stine’s “Goosebumps” series were rebooted for the adult David Lynch devotees his imaginative kid audience eventually became. The series takes place in a neon-tinged, pulpy version of early ’90s Los Angeles that owes more than a little to horror B movies and paperback books that historically have existed in media’s margins. To this long avowed horror wimp, though, the show isn’t particularly frightening so much as unsettling (though I wouldn’t recommend that anyone follow in my footsteps by trying to eat lunch while watching it — a huge, if obvious, mistake).
Lisa’s thirst for revenge is aimed squarely at Lou Burke (Eric Lange), a predatory horror director who takes advantage of Lisa in order to steal her short film for his own material gain. Lisa, focused and furious, quickly takes up Boro’s offer to destroy his life without fully realizing how that choice might affect hers, too. Keener is clearly having fun embodying the malevolent spark that is Boro, but it’s the reluctantly symbiotic relationship between Lisa and Lou drives much of the show, and both actors quickly lock into that particular dynamic to the show’s benefit. Other actors such as Manny Jacinto and Jeff Ward do their best in supporting roles, but few are fleshed out beyond the core trio of Keener, Lange and Salazar.
Salazar is the show’s clear star, making it plain why experimental shows and films like “Undone” and “Alita: Battle Angel” have depended upon her magnetic performances to keep them somewhat grounded. Even when the series loses track of who Lisa is as a character, Salazar rarely does. No matter how hyperbolic a scene gets, she imbues every one of them with vivid emotion that almost — almost — grounds the show’s self-consciously weird reality. Any time “Brand New Cherry Flavor” gets specific about Lisa’s pain, it comes close to working. Too often, it loses her personality and motivation to Boro’s jungle, Lou’s ego, or the omnipresent viscera of her own blood and guts betraying her along the way. For those curious about getting lost right alongside her, perhaps proceed with a bit more caution than Lisa on her rapid descent into a hell of her own making.
“Brand New Cherry Flavor” premieres Friday, Aug. 13, on Netflix.