Riverdale brought a new identity and dark exploration to the characters of the Archie comics, creating an entirely different world steeped in deceit, secrets, murder, and tantalizing mayhem. While it has formed its own identity, it was heavily inspired and continuously pays homage to Twin Peaks among many other murder mysteries and horror classics. Like Twin Peaks, the story of Riverdale begins with a body washing up on shore, causing the mystery and whirlwind of fragile secrets in this seemingly sleepy little town to be unleashed. While part of the show’s charm is how it has achieved genre meshing, creating an infectious tone and style all its own, the show is at its most enthralling when it embraces its sinister roots and honors horror films that have come before. It offers self-aware horror with characters commenting on the parallels and perspective the twisted events that fall on them hold to horror films. Many of the episodes are even named after iconic horror films and shows. Riverdale has featured an array of human evil from cult leaders to drug-fueled hypnosis to vigilante killers, even revealing the dark potential of the most seemingly caring and pure of hearts. In turn, it also honors the fight and determination of our characters who repeatedly uncover and face this evil down, refusing to let it defeat them or take their home away from them. Riverdale has continuously offered sensational, enthralling, and telling horror that has greatly added to the appeal of the show and the character’s journey.
Season 2, Episode 14: “The Hills Have Eyes”
This episode oozes horror movie homage from the title itself to small details like the pillows sporting the iconic pattern from The Overlook Hotel’s rug in The Shining. “The Hills Have Eyes” gives us a chilling atmosphere and foreboding setting that slowly builds the suspension. Jughead (Cole Sprouse) even fittingly offers a tongue-and-cheek comparison to The Last House on the Left upon arriving to their desolate destination. Like most of the best Riverdale episodes, it offers the right amount of serious and fun, balancing love life and personal drama with a demanding dark escalation.
While it isn’t as bloody as many episodes of the teen scream coming-of-age drama, it begins with the classic vacation from hell formula with Archie (K.J. Apa), Veronica (Camila Mendes), Betty (Lili Reinhart), and Jughead heading out for a romantic couple’s weekend at a remote cabin in the woods sprinkled in with underage drinking, sex, and secrets revealed. While they don’t encounter any Jason Voorhees-types, danger does seek them out, ripping away any sense of safety when the episode escalates to home invasion horror. Admirably, the teens hold their own and are smart and fearless in the face of danger. Of course, there is always deception and personal vendettas at play in the Riverdale world, making the attack and lingering threat more threatening.
Season 2, Episode 18: “A Night to Remember”
Riverdale High does Carrie: The Musical in this episode, which offers the best of the show’s signature style, full of teen drama, musical numbers with plenty of vengeful spirit and sass, and a classic horror homage reflecting on dark psychological terror that becomes all too real. Originally meant to be the show’s Carrie, Cheryl (Madelaine Pesch) is forced to drop out of the musical at the mercy of her vindictive and controlling mother. Cheryl, much like Carrie White, is threatened and controlled by a domineering and cruel mother. She walks into the musical blood-soaked and cloaked in rage. She demands to be freed from her mother and retain her home and legacy if she doesn’t want to be the next Blossom’s blood spilled.
The true horror comes at the play’s opening night performance, offering a surrealist art display of brutality, slaughter, and a seemingly dead-and-gone threat rising as the true dark phoenix. In Riverdale High’s production, Carrie is left stabbed into the set wall as a sacrificial warning. The threats written in her blood proclaim the return of the relentless vigilante serial killer, The Black Hood, that is about to unleash a new reign of terror.
Season 3, Episode 22: “Survive the Night”
“Survive the Night” amps up the sadistic ante even by Riverdale standards, giving us revenge-fueled reckonings, twisted ‘survival games,’ and exposing the terrifying hypnotizing power and carnage of one charismatic cult leader. Cheryl is now awakened to the horrors of the cult of “The Farm” and their trusted leader, Edgar’s (Chad Michael Murray) sordid activities ranging from human organ harvesting for profit, to using her dead brother’s corpse to manipulate her mind and make her dependent on him. She tries to warn her friends who are still under The Farm’s spell, expose Edgar, and escape before they meet a gruesome end. Mass suicide disguised as salvation is in store for all who stay in Edgar’s reach.
Meanwhile, Penelope Blossom (Nathalie Boltt) is in full blood-thirsty vengeance mode in what she calls “The Grand Hunt”. She has kidnapped Betty, Archie, Veronica, and Jughead; the children of those she felt most wronged by. There is no question there are horrors in her past that have shaped her from being sold as a child bride to losing her son. Still, this isn’t a sympathetic hour for her as she forces children through deadly games testing their character, pushing them towards their own darkness, and forcing them to jump through hoops that have a high chance of only ending in their immediate bloody executions. Among this, the true gargoyle king, the man who has been pushing many children to their death and wreaking havoc, alongside another murderous Riverdale madman, adds deadly stakes. The dark examination and relationship they have to one of the game’s contestants sends the young captive headfirst towards her demons.
Cheryl is at her prime here, tackling so many core horror archetypes in one episode. She’s a fighter from the beginning, looking for proof to extinguish the toxic reach Edgar has had on them. She finds something far more haunting, personal, and eye-opening in the process, sending her in full-on scream queen mode. Still, she doesn’t let herself break down. To the contrary, she enters bad-ass final girl mode like a ferocious, vigilante Red Riding Hood, escaping one evil and saving her friends from another. As sick as the games were that Edgar played, she does see the appeal in keeping her twin around, even if he is nothing more than a rotting corpse, leaving us with a Norman and Norma Bates scenario.
This episode reflects on both old and new evil at work. The never ending relationship between the two creates this hellish landscape that has become so embedded in their town. As Jughead comments, it’s like an ouroboros of wickedness, reflecting on how there always seems to be a new sinister power brewing in Riverdale. We are left with a look at how far that darkness and deadly consequence can reach as we fast forward to a bloody Betty, Veronica, and Archie, about to burn their clothes, vowing to bury this ghastly secret forever.
Season 4, Episode 4: “Halloween”
“Halloween” is perhaps the most horror-fueled episode of Riverdale to date, packed with homages ranging from Edgar Allen Poe’s nightmarish visions of terror to haunting films such as Halloween and When a Stranger Calls. This episode includes serial killers slowly closing in on their prey, Ouija board terror, evil spirit-controlled dolls, human corpses, and wicked pranks galore, constantly playing with the fine line of reality and fiction.
This episode offers a fun, mischievous tone with characters embracing the trick side of Trick or Treat, mixed with very real terror and bloodshed that immediately sobers all in its wake. While the episode is packed with nods to previous horror films and stories, everything that occurs is only build upon existing fears, threats, loss, and the dark past of these characters and the macabre town of Riverdale. Thus, it builds upon important storylines and dark journeys these characters must face in a wonderfully fun and chilling setting. The ending teases a death of one of the main characters, leaving a shocking cliffhanger.
Season 4, Episode 18: “Lynchian”
“Lynchian” honors the core inspiration and lifeblood of Riverdale – Twin Peaks. It also heavily honors David Lynch’s entire body of work and the surrealistic, macabre style he mastered. The episode opens on Jughead defining Lynchian, “An adjective to describe something inspired by the noted American filmmaker, David Lynch, and/or to describe something that is both incredibly macabre and incredibly mundane.” There are Lynch references throughout, including the throwback video store being called “Blue Velvet,” and nods to Twin Peaks, such as Betty reading from her childhood diary. The Scarlet Suite featured in the episode serves as an homage to the ever captivating “Red Room” of The Black Lodge.
Riverdale’s dose of Lynchian material comes in video tapes that have been dropped off around the town, showing the recipient’s house for hours on end. These tapes are a warning that they are being watched, taunting that the attack can come at any moment. Nothing happens in these tapes until suddenly two actors appear, sporting masks that reference the original Archie comics, only here that have a much more sinister edge. The Betty-masked actor slaughters the Jughead actor. Someone is playing a twisted game with them. If they can’t find who is behind this before they strike, it could have dire consequences for them and many innocents in Riverdale.
KEEP READING: Ashleigh Murray on Making the Move from ‘Riverdale’ to ‘Katy Keene’
Those looking for a simple origin story will likely be overwhelmed by the film’s scathing indictment of nostalgia and myth.
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