Getting darker

Getting darker

By John Winfield
June 21, 2023


Series creator Charlie Brooker joins stars Paapa Essiedu and Anjana Vasan to take DQ inside Demon 79, a horror-focused episode from the new season of Black Mirror that stands apart from the rest for one reason – it’s got nothing to do with technology.

After five seasons, a Christmas special and a standalone ‘choose your own adventure’-style film, Black Mirror has covered a lot of ground when it comes to its nightmarish, satirical take on the dark side of technology.

Originally debuting on Channel 4 in 2011 before moving to Netflix in 2016, the anthology series has won an army of devotees thanks to a host of memorable stories – from a prime minister being forced to commit unspeakable acts with a pig, android resurrections of deceased partners and swarms of killer robotic bees to a group of co-workers trapped in a Star Trek-like video game.

Bar a handful of instalments penned alongside another writer, and one written by a pre-Succession Jesse Armstrong (S2’s The Entire History of You), every episode of Black Mirror has been written by series creator and executive producer Charlie Brooker. So he could be forgiven for running out of ideas for the show.

“I was aware that there was a danger of people knowing what to expect from the show, and also a danger that I knew what to expect from the show,” Brooker says of his thoughts when he first sat down to work on season six of the series, which is produced by Broke & Bones, the label Brooker founded alongside fellow exec producer Annabel Jones.

Anjana Vasan stars as Nida in Demon 79, a ‘Red Mirror’ episode of Black Mirror

“If I closed my eyes and pictured a Black Mirror episode, it was someone surrounded by glass and chrome, staring at a transparent smartphone while their life fell apart and they were crying,” he jokes.

As a result, Brooker opted to add a fresh ingredient to the mix for the newly released sixth season, launching a sub-brand called Red Mirror, which moves away from the tech focus and instead sits squarely in the horror category.

“I sort of thought, ‘Well, I want to do something a bit different,’” he continues. “When the series began, there weren’t many other tech-dystopian shows, so I thought it was important the show distinguish itself from that. And so the idea was to start doing some Red Mirror episodes, which is almost like a sister horror label within a label.”

The resulting “film,” as Brooker and co call it, is Demon 79. It’s the only one of the S6 batch to receive the Red Mirror label, and also comes last in the running order, although Brooker says the anthology format means the sequence is arbitrary.

And while Black Mirror has had an increasingly Hollywood feel ever since it shifted to Netflix, Demon 79 features a lower-profile – but no less capable – cast than the rest of S6, perhaps indicative of Brooker testing the waters with a different format that he has suggested could yet be spun off as a separate show. Big-name actors involved in the other episodes include Salma Hayek, Aaron Paul, Josh Hartnett and Michael Cera.

Charlie Brooker on set with Bisha K Ali, with whom he co-wrote the episode

Set in the North of England in, you guessed it, 1979, the film centres on lowly sales assistant Nida (played by Anjana Vasan), who unwittingly summons a demon called Gaap (Paapa Essiedu) who convinces her she must commit three murders in as many days to prevent the apocalypse. Oh, and the demon takes the form of Boney M star Bobby Farrell. Obviously.

Living a mundane and lonely life as a young woman of Asian origin in an area where racial tensions are being stoked, Nida draws on her repressed rage to do what Gaap eventually convinces her must be done to save the world. But is it all in her head?

Brooker has form in horror, having been behind Big-Brother-meets-zombie-apocalypse miniseries Dead Set, while a significant proportion of Black Mirror episodes have had one foot firmly in the genre (see White Bear, Playtest, Metalhead, Black Museum). So it’s no major stretch for him to go the whole hog with Demon 79. And in true 1970s horror style, the episode doesn’t hold back, with a healthy splattering of gore before Gaap even struts into frame in his platform boots, as Nida daydreams of committing violent acts against unpleasant colleagues and customers.

In the director’s chair was Toby Haynes, who previously helmed multi-Emmy-winning S4 episode USS Callister, starring Jesse Plemons and Cristin Milioti. “I wanted it to not have an obvious model but to just feel very 70s, that 70s horror,” he says of Demon 79’s visual style. “I’m a huge fan of 70s horror anyway… but I don’t think we directly ‘quoted’ anything. It just feels kind of Kubricky. Especially when we were in the edit, adding the music and stuff, it really pulled together and gelled at that point.”

Paapa Essiedu plays Gaap, a demon who takes the form of Boney M’s Bobby Farrell

Like other Black Mirror episodes, Demon 79 makes powerful and unexpected soundtrack choices, in this case being bookended by Art Garfunkel’s 1978 classic Bright Eyes, which was originally written for the soundtrack to seminal animated feature Watership Down. It’s also the second show in recent memory to make pointed use of Boney M’s Rasputin, after the song featured in Jodie Whittaker’s last Doctor Who episode.

The score in general, meanwhile, is straight out of the 1970s horror handbook, creating a sense of dread throughout.

Featuring a sinister right-wing politician and looking at anti-immigrant sentiment and escalating fears of nuclear conflict, the episode certainly has parallels with current events. But Brooker says he didn’t want the story to have a heavy-handed message.

“I’m old enough to remember 1979 – it wasn’t quite like that,” he says. “Rather than setting it now, it was an interesting thing to do and you could talk about all sorts of things, but you’re not just talking about now. You’re sort of echoing now but with the past.

“I never like to say what people should take away [from a Black Mirror episode]. It’s a bit of a fever dream. And hopefully it’s slightly unclassifiable as a Black Mirror episode – it starts out one way and it becomes kind of a love story by the end. It’s riffing on all sorts of things. There’s a lot of nuclear paranoia in there, with riffs on [1984 apocalyptic TV film] threads and things like that.

“I think it’s down to the viewer to decide [on any message]. That’s me sitting on the fence.”

Nida is the only character who can see Gaap, who tells her she must commit three murders

As well as being S6’s only Red Mirror episode, Demon 79 is also the only one of the new crop on which Brooker shared writing duties, having collaborated with British-Pakistani comedian and screenwriter Bisha K Ali, the head writer of Disney+ series Ms Marvel. Part of their development process included acting out various murder ideas over dinner in a restaurant.

Discussing how the pair decided on the story, Brooker says: “We were talking about another idea, which is what often happens, but it was too difficult. [Then we started] thinking about whether you could do a story where you’re not condoning a serial killer, but you’re sort of on the side of a serial killer, and could it become a sort of love story?”

Indeed, while Nida is initially frightened by Gaap and believes his appearance means she must have lost her mind, she comes to accept him and even feel for him. This is helped by the fact Gaap, as demons go, is somewhat wet behind the ears and has to check in with his superiors by calling 666 on a rotary phone.

“I was intrigued by the dynamic between Nida and Gaap and finding that with someone,” Vasan (We Are Lady Parts) says of her reaction to the script. “I love that relationship. And when I was reading it, I had no sense of how it was going to end. That’s why I wanted to be in it and be a part of it. I was just so excited that Paapa got be Gaap, because I think we found that relationship together, and it was very special making it.

“They’re an odd pair to begin with – a demon and a sales assistant – but there’s a friendship and banter. She’s terrified of him to begin with, so for it to start there and end where it does is crazy. I really didn’t know how we were going to get there. I didn’t know how we were going to make that journey believable, but I think a lot of it we found together in the moment.”

Black Mirror’s sixth season landed on Netflix late last week

Meanwhile, when The Lazarus Project star Essiedu first came in, the Gaap he auditioned for was a very different character, with Brooker and Ali having envisaged him as a “1970s punk, kind of skinhead character.”

“I tried to do my best at that in the audition, but obviously [the creative team] saw something,” the actor says. “We had a chat about what could be a parallel word [compared with Nida’s] that could unlock something, and Bobby Farrell is certainly a very interesting character.

“It was nice to have an opportunity to collaborate on something that felt very unique, because there’s not much precedent for a likeable serial-killing demon, and there’s also a childlike quality to him.”

However, Essiedu did regret one thing that came with basing Gaap on the Boney M star – his footwear. “They put me in this pair of platform shoes that I actually really campaigned to be put in, and then got bored with after about four minutes,” he says. “Then with every single shot we had, I was like, ‘Can I do it without the shoes on? Is that alright?’ So most of the film is actually me in a pair of slippers.”

tagged in: , , , , , , , ,