The fear that screen-based technology is stealing our children’s souls is real. It’s been exploited by horror films ever since the five-year-old Heather O’Rourke crawled toward her family’s haunted television in Steven Spielberg’s 1982 classic Poltergeist.
Back then parents fretted that MTV (launched in 1981) was making zombies of their kids. The threat posed by 21st-century smartphone use is much more sophisticated. And the Bolton-born Clarkson twins press all our buttons in Red Rose (BBC Three), their chilling eight-part drama about a sinister app that offers to grant teenagers’ wishes. You want sex, money, popularity? Just click: “yes”. If you click “no” the app knows you’re lying and will punish you by posting on your social media or deleting messages from your friends. It channels all the wickedness of the online world, tempting kids into narcissism and bullying, isolating them from friends and family and driving them to apparent suicide.
Paul and Michael Clarkson (two relative newcomers who were among the writers and producers on Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor) have given the series a real, gritty contrast to the fake-pretty app graphics by setting it in their Northern hometown, with its abandoned industrial buildings surrounded by moorland.
The kind-hearted group of kids who download the Red Rose app onto their phones are all struggling to fit in. We meet them as they finish their GCSEs and the summer holidays stretch ahead. Rochelle (an electric Isis Hainsworth) is grieving for her mother and trapped at home minding her younger sisters while her father struggles to make ends meet. She resembles the ghost of a medieval monk queuing at the food bank in her hoodie.
Meanwhile, her best friend Wren (a wide-eyed and enjoyably unpredictable Amelia Clarkson) has just begun dating the boy Rochelle likes, and meets her estranged dad in a Victorian graveyard. But unlike the teenagers in vintage horror flicks (used to enforce religious morality), these kids aren’t punished for acting on their sexuality. More distressingly, it’s their more innocent yearning for their mothers that the app twists against them in the first three episodes that were made available to critics.
I wasn’t sure that modern teenagers would turn to the church to fight the app’s supernatural powers, as they do in Red Rose. Surely they’d have tried digital hacks before holy water? But then it’s fun to see them pit old magic against new in this engaging clash of Ken Loach/Stephen King worlds.