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Review: 'Red Rose' Serves Teen Horror for the 21st Century

By Isabel Parigi | TV | March 1, 2023 |

By Isabel Parigi | TV | March 1, 2023 |


red-rose-cast-netflix-bolton-parigi-pajiba.jpg

All is not well for a group of recently graduated Bolton teens in Red Rose, the latest BBC drama to hit Netflix. Although the series opens on a FOMO-inducing end-of-school bash in the lush moors of northern England,Red Rose quickly makes a harsh turn from Euphoria to Squid Game when seventeen-year-old Rochelle (Isis Hainsworth) accepts an invitation to join Red Rose, a new app, the software targets her and her tight-knit group of friends, isolates them from each other and torments them in increasingly personal ways. Soon, the someone or something behind the app seems to become set on puppet-ing the group of social media savvy friends to their physical and emotional limits. The show will have you lusting over rolling moors in one instance and checking which apps have access to your Location Services the next.

Creators Michael and Paul Clarkson, also known as the Clarkson Twins (they are actually twins) previously wrote for and produced The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020) and The Wheel of Time (2021). Given their track record, it follows that the series feels like a cross between The Haunting of Hill House, Black Mirror, and Derry Girls. The first two make sense genre-wise: Hill House is an irresistibly binge-able horror series (with room for immersive world-building) and Black Mirror often leans into tech-inspired horror satire. I was not expecting, however, for the series to remind me of the location-specific charm and humor of the Channel 4 fan favorite, Derry Girls. For the Clarkson Twins, setting the show in their hometown of Bolton (a town just north of Manchester) was a deliberate narrative choice. They set out to create a distinctly twenty-first century, distinctly northern, distinctly teenage horror story and succeeded.

When I read that Red Rose was created thanks to a BBC initiative to order two-thirds of its content from outside of London, my first thought was a plot from 30 Rock: “I Heart Connecticut” (S5 E19) that features Jack and Jenna’s attempt to shoot a horror film that is paid for in-full by state subsidies and corporate sponsors. In a later scene, Jenna is trapped in front of a wall that has WWW.IHEARTCONNECTICUT.COM written in blood. Her masked captor warns, “No one’s coming to save you … Because we’re deep inside one of Connecticut’s thirty beautiful state forests.” Red Rose, however, avoids any 30 Rock-style-pandering except for a handful of random Bolton facts that ring a little unnatural coming from the mouths of our teen heroes. Unlike Jack and Jenna’s slasher flick, the Clarksons layer their horror genre piece with the geography and sensibility of their town (very Derry Girls-style). Once describing Bolton as “an industrial Mecca that became a Thatcherite graveyard”, the Clarksons balanced meet-ups in overgrown gardens with claustrophobic trips to a near-vacant mall. Red Rose is cinematic and Bolton, as a central narrative element, grounds the story even at its most hyper-realistic.

The concept of the Red Rose is hardly novel: What happens if a malicious app decides to take over your real life by threatening you with all the ugly things revealed behind the screen of our devices? The premise is reminiscent of Black Mirror episodes “Shut Up and Dance” (S3 E3) and “White Bear” (S2 E2), but presents a much more vague picture of who or what is behind the app. A foreign hacker? A vindictive classmate seeking to tear the friends apart? A tech-savvy demon? The mystery surrounding Red Rose’s creator is as horror fueled as the actual relationships between user and app, turning message boards, social media, and computer labs into settings akin to graveyards and abandoned hospitals.

In Red Rose, you are invited to “the garden” which grants the app access to everything your device does and anything your device is connected to. Banks, security, communication, privacy: in the age of Ring cameras and Bluetooth-enabled LED bulbs, ghosts don’t have to do half the haunting they used to for the same results.

The back half of the series is messy. Episodes tend to drag towards the middle in order to set up **insert teen event** as a third act mini-climax that is supposed to both satisfy one conflict and give rise to a new unexpected development (And! Just in time for Netflix’s countdown for the next episode to begin). Thankfully, the teen cast and the lovingly shot moors and industrial town more than makeup for uneven pacing. Hainsworth and Amelia Clarkson (as Wren Davis) expertly play best friends caught in a fight about everything but also nothing. In her acting debut, Natalie Blair (as Ashley Banister) gives a stellar performance, and—to my delight—only shines brighter as the season progresses.

As per usual, my favorite parts of these kinds of shows are often small and a little silly. Enter Antony Longwell (Ellis Howard). For all the series’ jump scares and horrifying notifications, there are a handful of moments that are joyful to their core. One of which involves Antony escaping an attacker by joining a group of drunk middle-aged women passing by. The women, very Northern, very drunk, and very protective, scare off Antony’s would-be attacker and escort him safely to his destination. We have then had the pleasure of watching Antony get crushed by their group hug and exchange slurred “I-love-you-s” with the women before they part ways. In moments like this, over the course of the show, the community we see by way of other students, parents, and strangers is how the Clarksons managed to hide a love letter to Bolton inside a horror series.

The series is scary but has enough light moments to pull in those too squeamish for Black Mirror. Red Rose’s horror is personal. It heightens technological paranoia to its limits and is made all the more real once you are attached to the Clarksons’ lovable characters. Is it a must see? No. But it makes for great sleepover material and will quench your thirst for Romantic moors and stone fences.

Isabel is a writer based in New York. You can follow her on Substack and Twitter.