British and cultish.
There’s been a resurgence of the folk horror genre in the past several years. One of the most iconic movies in the genre remains 1973’s The Wicker Man, and other subsequent movies have roughly followed the same template. including Netflix’s The Ritual (2017) and 2019’s Midsommar by Ari Aster.
The less spoken about 2006’s The Wicker Man starring Nicholas Cage, the better. However, what about HBO and Sky Atlantic’s latest effort in the genre? I was given the opportunity to watch five out of the six total episodes of the miniseries, and it may be a tad too drawn out if you’re into the usual 2-hour-or-less horror stories.
The story in The Third Day is split over several (literal) seasons, featuring a different cast of characters. Told over the first three episodes, the ‘Summer’ arc stars Jude Law as Sam, a man who is drawn to a mysterious island off the British coast where he encounters a group of islanders set on preserving their traditions at any cost (read: a pagan cult).
Isolated from the mainland, Sam is unable to leave the idyllic and dangerously enchanting world he has discovered, where the secretive rituals of its inhabitants bring him to grapple with experiences of loss and trauma hidden in his past through the distorted lens of the present.
The following ‘Winter’ arc unfolds over the latter three episodes and stars Naomie Harris as Helen, a strong-willed outsider who comes to the island with her two daughters Ellie (Nico Parker) and Tallulah (Charlotte Gairdner-Mihell), but whose arrival precipitates a fractious battle to decide its fate as the lines between fantasy and fact are distorted.
The first half of The Third Day, namely the Summer arc with Jude Law’s Sam, is extremely dull. While it’s not as ridiculous, these three episodes remind me of 2006’s The Wicker Man. Some parts are more unintentionally funny than they are creepy or scary.
There’s even one scene where a character ominously says to Jude Law’s character: “The darkness. The darkness is coming.” I truly can’t believe that the writers inserted such a cheesy and corny line into a show that takes itself too seriously most of the time.
The worse part of it all is the feeling that we’ve seen it all before. If you’ve watched other folk horror movies like The Wicker Man and Midsommar, The Third Day will be all too familiar. There’s nothing new here; expect the same protagonist entering a strange rural town with people that exhibit suspiciously bizarre behaviour, with the same sprinkly of cultish imagery and symbols to add to the creepy atmosphere.
Things start escalating, and when the protagonists realize it, it’ll be too late, and they get swept up by all the craziness. Oh, and don’t forget some inane twists along the way. That’s the gist of most horror folk stories, and so applies to The Third Day as well.
Fortunately, the second half of the miniseries, namely the ‘Winter’ arc featuring Naomie Harris’ Helen and her daughters. The family dynamic, combined with the incredible performances of Harris and the two younger actresses, make for a much more compelling watch, even though it essentially follows the same basic template.
That’s probably because the plot pacing in the Winter arc is so much superior and faster than the frustrating and crawling pace of the earlier Summer arc. While they both take place on the same island, the second arc is better in almost every way, which is unfortunate for viewers since they will be starting with the first one when it debuts.
And it’s not like you can just watch one arc independently, as all the arcs and stories are interconnected with each other. It was only during the Winter arc that I started becoming engrossed in how everything is connected, but that will probably be a little too late for some viewers.
Oh So British
The plot notwithstanding, The Third Day doesn’t lack in things to like. The picturesque and lovely rural setting is beautiful, especially the causeway linking the island to the mainland. The causeway isn’t just there to simply be scenery, as it even plays into the plot, and provides a solid reason why these people can’t exactly just leave the island at simply any time.
Another notably great aspect was the music, which sounds ominous and creepy as it should. It’s not something groundbreaking or instantly memorable, but it accomplishes its job of creeping viewers out. The music is composed by Cristobal Tapia de Veer, previously best known for the music in the original Utopia TV series and Amazon Prime’s Hunters.
A Better Film Perhaps?
There’s a reason why most horror folk content is movies and not TV series. It’s to avoid stretching the narrative and risk losing the delicious mystery that is the reason why viewers watch these in the first place. The Third Day suffers from this problem, as a story that could have been a concise two hours, has instead been overdrawn into over six hours of TV.
FINAL SCORE: 50/100
The Third Day is slated to premiere on 15 September 2020 exclusively on HBO GO and HBO (Astro Channel 411 HD), with a same-day encore at 10pm on HBO. New episodes premiere weekly.
In the meantime, check out the trailer below.