Screen Test: Innocent children do evil things in drama The Whispers

In The Whispers, Kylie Rogers (above) and Kyle Harrison Brietkopf play children who are being manipulated by their imaginary friend to do evil things.
In The Whispers, Kylie Rogers (above) and Kyle Harrison Brietkopf play children who are being manipulated by their imaginary friend to do evil things.PHOTO: SONY CHANNEL
In The Whispers, Kylie Rogers and Kyle Harrison Brietkopf (above) play children who are being manipulated by their imaginary friend to do evil things
In The Whispers, Kylie Rogers and Kyle Harrison Brietkopf (above) play children who are being manipulated by their imaginary friend to do evil thingsPHOTO: SONY CHANNEL
Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson plays a retired footballer who is struggling as a finance manager.
Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson plays a retired footballer who is struggling as a finance manager.PHOTO: HBO

A group of kids commit evil acts instigated by their imaginary friend in The Whispers

Children are a powerful plot device in the science fiction and horror genres, where their vulnerability and openness to suggestion make them excellent conduits for the creepy and unknown.

The television series The Whispers thus channels a long and established tradition - think Damien in The Omen franchise (1976 to 2005) and Carol-Ann in Poltergeist (1982 to 1988) - when it uses a group of children and their imaginary friend, Drill, as the engine of its eerie tale.

The audience never sees or hears Drill but it is soon apparent that he is not imaginary at all.

  • View it

  • THE WHISPERS

    Sony Channel (mioTV Channel 316)

    Sunday, 8.50pm

    ***

    BALLERS

    HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601)

    Debuts on Monday at 10am, with a same-day encore at 10pm

    ***

And it looks like he is up to no good, convincing one child to detonate a homemade bomb and another to download classified government material from her father's computer.

The first grown-up to start piecing it together is FBI child specialist Claire Bennigan (American Horror Story's Lily Rabe), who is called in when another child, Harper, is suspected of premeditated murder after engineering her mother's near-fatal fall.

But the doe-eyed girl says she was just playing a special game introduced to her by Drill, who has sworn her to secrecy about its rules.

What Agent Bennigan does not realise is her own son Henry, who is deaf, is conversing with Drill too.

And like him, all the other children have parents with strategically significant jobs in and around Washington D.C.

Adapted from a 1950s Ray Bradbury story and produced by Steven Spielberg, The Whispers borrows heavily from other tales in this tradition, including Spielberg's own Poltergeist (1982), with one scene involving Henry and a staticfilled TV screen.

The plagiarism can be as heavy handed as it is shameless, especially with the flickering lights and stereotypically spooky score, which employs the musical equivalent of all-caps to keep you on the edge of your seat.

It is pretty effective nonetheless, and after two episodes aired - despite the fact that there are surely only a couple of plausible theories as to who or what Drill might be - his end-game is still uncertain, as is the link between all this and the downing of Agent Bennigan's husband's plane in the Sahara Desert.

With the show's creators promising to tease out the mystery until the end of the first season, the full verdict will have to wait, but for now, there is enough mystery and suspense to keep you coming back.

Another new drama, Ballers, will also invite comparisons - in this case, with Entourage (2004 to 2011), which, like this series, was executive-produced by actor Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson and Rob Weiss.

It is set in the world of American professional football but goes for the same behind-the-scene, warts-and-all feel as it imagines this rather different set of celebrities beyond all that big spending and partying they are known for.

The central figure is retired player Spencer Strasmore (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), who is struggling to make it as a financial manager - in part because he is reluctant to exploit his friendships with other current and ex-players, a few of whom he still mentors.

The fact that the National Football League is not very popular outside the United States, however, limits the international appeal of this milieu, unlike with Entourage's instantly recognisable Hollywood settings.

If you do not care about the NFL, it is hard to see why you would give two hoots about the players' contract negotiations that take up a good chunk of the first few episodes of Ballers.

Sports dramas can work without specialist knowledge, of course - Brad Pitt's Oscar-nominated 2011 baseball movie, Moneyball, proved that.

But then you need compelling characters and a decent amount of dramatic tension.

That is somewhat lacking in the first four episodes reviewed, especially with a thinly sketched supporting cast that includes comedian Rob Corddry as Spencer's boss Joe, and little-known actors John David Washington, Donovan Carter and Omar Benson Miller as the current and ex-players he tries to help.

The one saving grace, however, is Johnson, who is having a bit of moment right now as the star of both the blockbuster San Andreas and this, his first TV drama.

The former WWF champion has probably taken on his most demanding role ever here. And frankly, his limited acting range is not entirely up to the task.

Spencer needs to be more of a conflicted soul than the earnest, try-hard good guy that Johnson portrays.

And yet he is utterly believable as a washed-up former athlete, and the sheer sincerity that emanates from that hulking frame is hard to resist.

His character also appears to reach a breaking point of sorts mid-way through the season, so there may be hope yet.

stlife@sph.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2015, with the headline 'Innocent children do evil things'. Print Edition | Subscribe