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NEIL GAIMAN’S LIKELY STORIES Are Lush Campfire Tales Made to Stream

A storyteller with the power to make you lean forward in your seat as their voice gets softer. There’s one in every family, usually it’s a grandmother or grandfather. Neil Gaiman’s Likely Stories is the anthology version of that enchanting relative, coaxing you to the fire’s side with a long gaze and an eyebrow-lifting opening line.

The four-part anthology directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard takes its name seriously, finding a tone that dances through the gray area between possible and supernatural. It’s just enough to make you fear the stories are biographical, with a dash of shock and a pinch of exaggeration to make you question.

The episodes (almost all presented as stories-within-stories) include the treatment of a young man with a curious, painful STI (“Foreign Parts”); a young apartment tenant explaining his elderly neighbor’s taste for raw hamburger meat (“Feeders and Eaters”); a haunting childhood memory told ’round a pub table (“Closing Time”); and a veteran erotic photographer confessing an obsession about a nude model that’s followed him in magazine pages since youth (“Looking For the Girl”).

Every entry in Likely Stories invites you to pull up a chair and stay awhile. It’s about spending time in these nooks and crannies of a cafe, or pub, or loner’s apartment and stewing in a state of general unease. In that sense, the show also takes its namesake seriously, adapting Neil Gaiman‘s ephemeral tales into tiny baskets of rich, familiar visuals and an enveloping sense of dread. Pollard and Forsyth pull out the whole toolbox for that job, forcing us through searing white light and high pitch static to feel the genital burn of Simon’s (George MacKay) infection, and injecting gag reflex-triggering sound design when Effie (Rita Tushingham) stuffs squishy red hamburger into her mouth.

The shots from DP Erik Wilson are slick and add heft to tales already told in hushed tones. The look of Likely Stories is largely cold and dark, forcing you to focus on whether you worry about what’s lurking in the shadows. Likewise, Adam Biskupski’s editing (which is saddled with a ton of shots of actors listening to other actors) puts us in the fireside circle waiting for the next twist.

The anthology employs a small stable of recurring actors–Montserrat Lombard, Monica Dolan, Paul Ritter, Johann Myers, and more–to play different roles in each story, adding to the disorienting feel and the suggested reality that everything we’re seeing is taking place in pocket universes connected by a shared alleyway. Not exactly overlapping, but still connected.

That’s where the only genuinely annoying element comes in: an interview with Gaiman that plays in snippets throughout all four stories that takes you right out of everything. The careful blend of truth and fiction they’ve built like a house of cards comes crashing down when you see Gaiman himself pontificating about storytelling. His face is also used in a poster at one point that, sure, is cheeky, but it also steals intensity from the tale.

All four stories are also effervescent in a way that relaxes the intense horror stress as soon as they’re done. The endings frequently shrug, as if to say, “And that’s what happened, yeah?” before moving matter-of-factly to the credits. One even resorts to pure bathos by teasing another intriguing story just before ending. In several instances, it is subtle almost to a fault.

It’s this wispy quality that makes Likely Stories solely about the feeling each entry crafts inside its 22 minutes. Unlike raw cat meat, they don’t stick to your ribs.

Where Black Mirror practically shouts its point at you from a megaphone attached to concert speakers,  Likely Stories is happy to have your attention for a short while. To relish in the pure joy of old timey storytelling and the challenge of making it cinematic, which it more than achieves. The production value is aces, and the magnetic cast carries the heavy monologue load with deftness and gristle.

The anthology, executive produced by Gaiman and written by Pollard and Forsyth and Grabbers‘s Kevin Lahane, is creepy and unsettling like the best whispered campfire tales that dissipate along with the smoke as you head back to your tent. Then again, there’s a chance that its imagery will creep back into your mind once everything outside goes quiet and dark, and you try to close your eyes.

Neil Gaiman’s Likely Stories is available on Shudder.

3.5 out of 5 Creepy Burritos

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Images: Shudder

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