A neon-soaked pastiche for the VHS generation, Graves is the web series you didn’t know you needed.
The 1990’s were my formative years. But like many millennials, as I enter my thirties, I’m flabbergasted that my foundational decade was almost 20 years ago. That’s just the nature of growing up though, huh? We’ll always feel young, trapped in an ever aging body wondering what the hell happened to all that time.
But luckily for us who grew up on the likes of Blockbuster, Tamagotchis, and Nickelodeon: the 90s are back! Well, sort of. From fashion to our music, it’s the natural progression that our recent enamoration with 1980’s nostalgia would eventually give way to the 1990’s, rooting for a new well of creative inspiration in the Day-Glo decade. And our films and television are taking note.
Between taking place in the 90s (The To-Do List) to being inspired by the nice-core entertainment of the time (Brigsby Bear), the nostalgia for the decade of our youth offers us something we so desperately crave in tumultuous times: security. Whether it’s a political administration causing global tension to simply the stress and anxiety of accepting the new adulting normal of bills, rent, and 401k’s, the reflection that 80s/90s inspired film and television gives us is like a digital Xanax.
These emotional recalls, be it a catchphrase from a lovably geeky next door neighbor or the soothing buzz of VHS tracking adjusting, give us an opportunity to relive moments when life felt less weighed down. Which is why we find ourselves attracted to new shows that try to capture that essence. The world may be burning, but with stylish lighting, a synthesizer, and some gnarly practical effects, it all doesn’t feel so heavy.
And it works! From Stranger Things to GLOW, nostalgia-laden comedies and dramas have grabbed audiences attention over the last decade and have shown no sign of stopping. Most likely because creatives who grew up in these decades are now behind the camera and are wanting to project their childhood passions finally on screen. And that’s where Graves comes in.
Directed by Dan Fox and Terence Krey, Graves intentionally owes a debt of gratitude to Buffy The Vampire Slayer. What would happen to the Scooby Gang, years after defeating apocalyptic evil, as they approach their thirties? Would it give their lives purpose, or forever stunt their growth leaving them in a state of arrested development? And what would happen if, at their lowest, evil finally returned?
Graves follows Jane Stevenson (Christine Nyland) on the cusp of her 30th birthday. A decade prior, while still in high school, Jane and her stable of friends encountered and fought an unspeakable evil. With the quick thinking of their friend Lilith (Pamela Mitchell), helped in no small part by a magic spell Jane casts, they vanquish the evil but lose Lilith in the conflict, changing the group forever.
Swimming with PTSD, depression, and a general sense of displacement caused by the friction of transitioning into adulthood, Jane spends her days aimlessly working at a comic book store back in her hometown, toiling away her Art Degree. She lives with Rich (Rich Vience), Lilith’s former lover, who fears that he will be teaching gym at their old high school for the rest of his life.
What Rich doesn’t know is that Jane has been getting nightly visits. Not from Jacob (Jacob A. Ware), her former high school flame, but from Astaroth, crown demon prince of the underworld. Limited by his non-corporeal form, Astaroth is a constant figure reminding Jane that they may have been defeated once, but the time has come to right their perceived wrong and send this new Scooby Gang to their, well, graves.
How Fox and Krey utilize their demons is the first nod to the larger Buffy influence. Like Joss Whedon’s classic series, Graves demons are like fearsome buffoons. Astaroth (played by composer Hugo Lopez) may send chills down your spine as he promises total destruction, but he can’t help but be diminished by his lack of physical form, humorous neurosis’ and insecurities bubbling to the surface. They are as much of a nuisance as they are creatures of the night.
Graves is most notable for its constant visual style, which feels like the creatives fell asleep and left Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond on repeat. The images are intentionally blurry, sharp edges bleeding with reds, blues, and purples evoking memories of the slow degradation of a VHS that has become well-worn from decades of use.
Also while the VHS effects are obvious, they don’t necessarily feel like they are pulled from one piece of source material. In other nostalgia media of this ilk, it can feel like a patchwork of different visual gags that you can trace back to reels of horror trailers and scary After-School Specials.
With Graves though, it’s more inspired by a collective memory of how we perceived these shows to have looked, which gives it its own unique feel. While we may remember most vividly the moments of stark stylish splashes of color in a show like Are You Afraid of the Dark, they were rarely used so consistently as they are here. Graves may take inspiration from our 90s memories, but visually it’s in a class of its own.
And while Graves may pull in its audience with promises of a grainy VHS quality, it doesn’t allow itself to be defined by it’s visual flourishes, or to cheapen that aesthetic with forced kitsch. In films like Dude Bro Party Massacre III the style is so heightened that you can feel the creators relying on it to motivate the audience and action, seeing what new tracking glitch will hit our nostalgia button next.
Graves feels more kinship with the nostalgia dipped film WNUF Halloween Special. Both use a 90s inspired color pallet and has a lost on VHS appeal, but unlike other media that attempts a similar look, usually, they are tarnished by not being tethered to reality. In Graves, the style doesn’t supersede the plot. While the visuals are heavy, they don’t work against the stories emotional core. It really does feel like it could have been a forgotten show you missed in Junior High.
Graves is at its best when it’s pulling the rug out from underneath us. While the whole series wears its lighthearted spirit on its sleeve, it cleverly attunes its sound design to counter that with reverberating synthesizers that strikes moods over atonal chords. The snap into the title card at the end of each episode, music swelling to a cliff-hanging final stinger, is a perfect hook to guide your binge-watching hand to the next episode.
The only thing fully holding Graves back from its full potential is the format. As a web series, with episodes typically under 10 minutes, the show is all killer and no filler. The action is fast and the pace never lets up, which is perfect for engaging attention spans in an age when 10 minutes may still be too long for some audiences. But it stumbles at giving us the time to fully invest in what’s happening. We don’t have the moments to just live with the characters. But while that makes Graves pull its punches ever so slightly, that doesn’t stain the achievement Krey and company have made: a fully realized send-up of 90s era paranormal entertainment that feels both familiar and fresh.