“Riverdale” Episode 404 Recap: City in Fear

It’s Halloween in Riverdale — let’s have a freakin seance!!!! With a cursed puppet!!!!

Anytime Riverdale leans all the way into one particular part of its style, it usually yields magic, and this all-horror Halloween episode is exactly that. Genre magic. Canted angles, a sinister score, and dark lighting abound. The show cobbles together horror tropes and tricks with references to Scream, Halloween, Edgar Allan Poe, and more.

The arrival of video tapes on the porches of Riverdale fractures the town leading up to Halloween. Most of the main characters all receive one: a VHS containing footage of each of their homes, silently and inexplicably being watched by whoever is on the other side of the camera. It’s unsettling precisely for the reasons Jughead outlines. There’s no explanation. There’s seemingly no end game. The tapes aren’t even signed. Someone in Riverdale is watching, and we don’t yet know what they want.

From there, the episode then fractures into a series of interlocking horror shorts that separates our main characters into a scary story of their own. Each has its own distinct look, feel, and stakes, but each stokes fear effectively and speaks to some larger narrative for the character. There’s Veronica, who finds herself in the most overtly terrifying but also formulaic scary story that would fit well in Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark. But the formula actually works very well here. Her scenes are muted and with very little stylization outside of the costumes and set. The camerawork remains naturalistic as she lets a stranger into the diner after closing time. It’s clear right away that something is off, although the suspense starts understated before the snap into the reveal that this man claiming to just want to get home to his family is really an escaped serial killer from the local psych ward.

Veronica letting a strange man into the diner when she’s by herself is the exact kind of bad decision-making that horror movies often feature, but in this particular case, it actually makes sense that she would be this trusting. Veronica wants to believe in the idea of a man who cares so much about his family that he’s willing to drive overnight to get home to them. She’s sincere in her appreciation of the photo he shows her of his wife and kids. Veronica’s own concept of fatherhood is poisoned. It’s significant, of course, that this serial killer is known as The Family Man. In a way, he’s a horror movie rendering of her own father, a man who playacts as the great patriarch but ultimately is driven only by violence, power, and manipulation. Not family.

Cheryl Blossom and Toni Topaz, meanwhile, continue to live in a gay gothic horror family drama that hits a whole new level of pulp trash — and yes, I do mean that as a compliment. Toni’s exasperated delivery of “I’ll get the shovels” in reference to finally burying the corpse that has been hanging out in Thistlehouse for weeks now embodies the humor and camp of their story, but there’s also a whole lot going on within the walls of Thistlehouse that makes this, beneath the surface, one of the more complex scary stories in the episode. At first, it’s easy to see the symbolism of the creepy doll, the sourceless cries, the general hauntedness of the house that peaks when Cheryl and Toni finally (re)-bury Jason. Cheryl’s reluctance to let go and really accept her brother’s death has morphed into a haunting. She manifests these ghosts by refusing to let her brother be dead. And Toni meets her girlfriend’s denial with generous affection, a little too nice about the fact that Cheryl wants to keep a dead body at the table with them.

Then it turns out that something even darker is going on. Cheryl isn’t just causing this haunting on a metaphorical level; she’s literally causing it. She admits to gaslighting Toni in order to get what she wants: Jason back in the house. It’s appalling behavior for a partner, but it’s also not out-of-character for Cheryl, who not only has a track record of using elaborate schemes to get what she wants but also was raised to believe that’s just the way things are done. Her mother literally crafted a death game for all the local teens to play last season. Riverdale does need to engage a bit more with the dynamic between Cheryl and Toni, which is getting increasingly darker and more toxic. Toni is the real victim of this horror short, trapped in her girlfriend’s manipulations but also the ripple effects of all those aforementioned denial issues Cheryl has. Because even after she’s done pulling the strings, the haunting continues at Thistlehouse. These walls still hold dark family secrets.

Over at Stonewall Prep, Jughead gets quite literally trapped in a nightmare situation when his fellow students think it’s a cute prank to drug him and stuff him in a closed casket. The sound, lighting, and camerawork here do the heavy-lifting in crafting fear. His scenes do excellently convey the isolating, suffocating terror of being buried alive. At one point, his lighter loses fuel, and we’re left in darkness with just the sound of his breathing. It’s scary, and it also gets at the larger threat at play: Jughead is once again a violent group’s target. It might not be an actual gang this time, but they pretty much function like one. Jughead often leans into his outsider status, but there’s true danger in isolation and also in the way he and Betty both feel so compelled to solve every mystery that comes their way.

Betty does get my favorite horror story of all here, because she gets to channel great scary movie final girls like Sidney Prescott and Laurie Strode. Though dressed like the latter, Betty more embodies the former, accessing a specific kind of rage that Neve Campbell so incisively brings to her iconic Scream role. Like Sidney, Betty has experienced a lot of family trauma. Throughout the episode, she’s destabilized by kids dressed like the Black Hood and the Gargoyle King. Her trauma has been turned into a joke.

When someone calls her house repeatedly pretending to be the Black Hood, Betty makes it very clear she’s not to be fucked with. Her moment with Jellybean is significant, too. Jellybean thinks she’s just doing a funny prank, but it is not at all outside of the realm of Betty’s reality to walk in on someone bleeding out on the floor of her childhood bedroom. Betty falls for the prank for the same reason she bristles at the Black Hood/Gargoyle King costumes. For her, this is all far too real. And when the Black Hood impersonator turns out to be her own sister Polly, it’s just further proof that Betty’s biggest demons are still her own family members. Charles has something to hide, too, listening in on her phone call with Jughead. The Cooper family is cursed.

Archie has the least overtly horror storyline of the episode, though there are touches of 80s grunge thriller to it, made extra goofy by Archie and Monroe’s superhero costumes. Dodger is the latest villain in Riverdale, painted in broad strokes, but “Halloween” emphasizes that he does pose a genuine threat to the youth in town. He literally shoots one in the leg.

Riverdale ends its horror stories here on a disorientingly soft note, which is almost forgivable since the episode really does function as this sort of self-contained exploration of genre and style. But it is a little too absurd that Veronica and Archie are found just waking up together in bed being like “wasn’t last night wild?” when Veronica literally lit a man on fire after he tried to serial kill her.

But despite its too-neat ending for most of the characters, one threat remains. We never do return to those VHS tapes, leaving a disturbing unclosed parenthesis at episode’s end. These individual scary stories are technically over (though their zoomed-out implications remain), but someone is still watching. Riverdale’s “Halloween” taps into all kinds of fears and mixes tones and styles brilliantly. But its most unsettling story is the one that’s left just hanging there.

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is a writer and critic currently living in Orlando. Her pop culture writing can also be found at The A.V. Club and The Hollywood Reporter, and she wrote the webseries Sidetrack. You can catch her on Twitter and Instagram.

Kayla has written 237 articles for us.

2 Comments

  1. This is an awesome review of the episode! So well written and precise. You pointed out things I hadn’t even noticed. I agree that Cheryl and Toni’s storyline is quite concerning. I already did like how it seemed like Cheryl was saving her from poverty or whatever. Now Toni barely has any plot independent of her gf. Every scene between them is either manipulation or sex. Just awful.

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