WATCH CLOSELY: “Red Rose” is Teen Social Media Horror
By Peg Aloi
Technology-driven horror narratives are ubiquitous these days: Red Rose has an authentic look that makes its creepiness distressingly plausible.
Not to sound cheeky, but Red Rose feels a bit like Black Mirror meets Sex Education. In particular, it evokes the memorable Black Mirror episode “Shut Up and Dance,” which starred Alex Lawther as a teenager whose computer spies on him in private moments and then blackmails him. All three of these shows are British and extremely well produced: Red Rose combines the best elements, both in tone and theme, of the others. The technology-gone-awry motif is examined throughout Black Mirror (the title being a play on those ubiquitous screens we use all day every day) and that fear clearly inspired the plot of Red Rose. But this eight-episode series infuses its suspense with intricate and involving character arcs. Red Rose also creates a realistic and plausible setting, which is something Sex Education, a hugely popular comedy-drama, has been criticized for failing to do. Its location is some odd netherworld that doesn’t resemble a typical English town (the surrounding hillsides look more like North Wales) and the secondary school tosses “pep rallies” and indulges in other Americanisms. By naming and being filmed in the town of Bolton (near Manchester), Red Rose locates its spooky events very squarely in reality.
The cold open shows a young man (Jacob) having an online chat via his computer. Then we see Alyssa (Robyn Cara), a young woman stumbling about rooms that have suddenly gone dark in her modern but remote-looking home on a snowy night. She is calling out to her mother and yelling at Alexa to turn the lights back on. It’s frightening enough to lose power during a storm, but it’s also clear that’s not quite what’s going on. For unknown reasons, Alyssa ends up jumping off the roof. This disturbing event sets up the show’s spooky trajectory before the opening credits. It will be revisited and unraveled later.
Just finished with their A-levels, a group of students heads to the hills (literally) to drink and celebrate during a break from studying. The scene is breathtaking: shot in a hilly valley (a sly nod to Sex Education‘s rolling hills?), the gathering feels like a quintessential high school senior party. Despite the dreamy setting, the vibe is authentic: partying students whose current life decisions are mostly driven by momentary impulses and social media pressure. Smart and feisty, working-class Rochelle (Isis Hainsworth, who was also fantastic in Wanderlust) is best mates with Wren (Amelia Clarkson). They both like Noah (Harry Redding), but their friendship is stronger than their crushes for now. It’s clear that this cadre is made up of a clique of popular trouble-makers. Rochelle’s tough exterior is partly a shield borne of her family’s troubles: her mother died by suicide and her father struggles to find enough work to support the family. Rochelle is a caregiver to her young twin sisters. She must navigate social services for their basic needs, such as going to the local food pantry, a necessity that fills her with shame and annoyance. The script places a lot of emphasis on the intricacies of the students’ lives and how they intertwine. This kind of character-driven writing is a welcome change from the all-too-common horror tropes of clumsy exposition and random occurrences.
When Rochelle doesn’t get invited to the birthday party of a wealthy, popular girl at school, she’s crestfallen. But she puts on a brave face and crashes with her friends anyway. Just before they arrive, Rochelle receives an invite, from the host of the party, to a social media app called Red Rose. She assumes the snub is an oversight, but the party-giver denies having texted her the app invite. Still, Rochelle, more fragile than she looks, welcomes any form of validation. The app features a glowing red rose logo and asks yes or no questions that become increasingly personal. The production design also includes a haunting use of red light to punctuate the scenes when Red Rose is active. This lighting conceit is just one aspect of a well-realized artistic vision helmed by show creators Michael and Paul Clarkson (both of whom also worked on The Wheel of Time and The Haunting of Bly Manor). Technology-driven horror narratives are ubiquitous these days: Red Rose has an authentic look that makes its creepiness relatable.
Somehow, the Red Rose app knows things about Rochelle and her friends and family. She is persuaded to act in ways that cause rifts with her friends, including Wren. Red Rose seems most active when Rochelle is feeling particularly anxious or lonely. When the app tells her to write three wishes on a mirror, the first one seems to come true almost instantly. After that, Rochelle becomes obsessed with using the app to change her life. This obsession does not end well. She tries to tell her friends she’s in trouble, but it is too late. Things spiral out of control. Rochelle’s friends ignore her warnings about Red Rose — until their own smartphones start glowing red.
The fact that the Red Rose app’s main purpose is to hound young people into making harmful choices is a scathingly powerful metaphor for techno-nihilism (seen throughout Black Mirror). The app’s ability to control people is only partly rooted in their addiction to social media, reinforced by the spellbinding allure of their devices. There are nefarious forces at work and Rochelle’s friends are determined to ferret them out.They bring in a student, Jaya (Ashna Rabheru) whose computer skills are off the charts; previously they had teased her for being too nerdy to hang out with them. Red Rose’s dangerous game begins to challenge their reliance on that shallow surface impressions (the currency of young adulthood) that dictate an arbitrary social order. People, and feelings, exist beyond how they serve an algorithm. Laying down their smartphones — and trusting in each other — is the ultimate act of defiance and self-preservation. The humanistic message may seem corny, but it is delivered with a depth and dexterity that made for some of the most entertaining horror TV I’ve seen in a while.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Critics Choice Awards, and the Alliance for Women Film Journalists. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Time, Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found on substack.