The Horror of Dolores Roach opens on a theater marquee. Adapted from a scripted fictional podcast, which was adapted from a Broadway play, which was itself adapted from a popular character in 19th-century “Penny Dreadful” stories, this lurid tale of cannibalism and murder has been through multiple incarnations before making it to streaming TV. And each of them influences the latest version in their own ways.
The most obvious is the theatricality implied by that marquee. Within the world of the show, a new stage play called Dolores Roach has just opened on Broadway. And the “real” person it’s based on — a Dominican-American serial killer masseuse nicknamed “Magic Hands” — has arrived at opening night with some notes. Dolores (Justina Machado) then proceeds to narrate her life story to the play’s terrified star, promising to “set the record straight.”
That’s not the series’s only nod to its musical roots. Although no one breaks out into song while butchering bodies on Dolores Roach, the scenes where Dolores applies her talents to snapping spines instead of adjusting them (a skill she learned from her girlfriend in prison, but we’ll get to that in a minute) heighten the mood with Kool-Aid colored lighting and dramatic camera angles. These contrast with the aftermaths of Dolores’ murders, which are presented in horrifically gory and bloody style — one reveal midway through the eight-episode series made even this seasoned horror fan gasp.
The combination of camp and shock gives the series a pulpy appeal similar to that of Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which also gets a shoutout when one character tells Dolores that he’s onto her because “I saw that musical with the lady from Murder, She Wrote.” (ICYMI, Angela Landsbury co-starred in the original Broadway production of Sweeney Todd.) It also harkens back to the sensationalism of the cheap Victorian-era novels that gave Sweeney Todd his start — novels that were often based on true-crime stories ripped from the day’s headlines.
The Horror of Dolores Roach carries on this tradition as well, incorporating current themes of gentrification and the “War on Drugs.” As the story begins, Dolores has just completed a 16-year prison sentence for marijuana possession; the weed belonged to her then-boyfriend, but Dolores took the fall. She emerges back into her neighborhood of Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan to a completely new world, one that’s been overtaken by white hipsters and gentrified beyond recognition. The series is set in 2019, so weed isn’t quite legal yet in New York. But it’s getting there, making Dolores’ lost years feel even more pointless. And the man she thought was the love of her life has skipped town.
Dolores would be a fish out of water, except it’s more like someone drained her pond and refilled it. The last trace of the old neighborhood is an empanada shop run by Luis (Alejandro Hernandez), an old friend who lets Dolores stay in the spare room in his basement. There, she begins giving massages at reduced prices, building a clientele that includes Caleb (Jeffery Self), the clueless podcaster who lives upstairs, and Joy (Jean Yoon), the friendly proprietor of the laundromat next door. With the addition of Nellie (Kita Updike), the shop’s sole employee, and her grandmother Sophia (Adargiza De Los Santos), Dolores’ new life is beginning to take shape.
As Dolores’ business grows, however, she realizes that Luis is three months behind on rent. Enter the building’s combative landlord, Gideon Pearlman (Marc Maron), whose jackassery earns him — spoiler alert! — the first of many deadly “massages” Dolores will give over the course of the series. After performing this impulsive act, she panics and runs to the hardware store to buy trash bags and a saw. She returns home to find no Mr. Pearlman, just a note from Luis: “I M Taking Care of It, Thank U Mami =).” If you know anything about Mrs. Lovitt and her meat pies, you can guess what happens next.
But while drawing from Broadway and true crime strengthen The Horror of Dolores Roach, the final influence — the podcast from which the series is adapted — weakens it. Pervasive voiceover throughout the first two episodes narrates what characters are doing as they are doing it — a necessity, perhaps, in the audio format of podcasting, but unnecessary (and, frankly, annoying) when we can see those same actions being performed simultaneously on screen. The device is used more discerningly in later episodes, but the lack of thought in adapting the material for a more visual medium has already done its damage.
The Horror of Dolores Roach unites the odd couple of Blumhouse head Jason Blum and One Day at a Time creator Gloria Calderón Kellett, both of whom serve as executive producers on the project. The grand guignol horror of Dolores Roach is, of course, classic Blumhouse. Kellett, who’s better known for family comedies and rom-coms, is stretching herself a bit more here — although the series’s consistently delightful ensemble of eccentrics reflects her sitcom experience. Still, creator Aaron Mark combines their styles in mostly harmonious fashion, held down by Machado's performance as the title character.
A victim of circumstance who really is trying her best, Dolores makes for an appealing anti-heroine. Machado plays her as a guarded person who’s always ready for a fight, but only because the world’s full of people trying to fight her. Really, she just wants to smoke a joint, take a hot shower, and be left alone. Dolores’ relatability is what keeps the show from spinning out when it gets overtly silly — at one point, Luis says to Dolores, “can you give me a hand?” while holding a severed human hand. And although the star can't totally overcome the weaknesses in Mark's adaptation, you still find yourself cheering for Dolores Roach despite it all. Just don't piss her off while you’re on her massage table.
The complete first season of The Horror of Dolores Roach premieres July 7 at 3:01 AM ET on Prime Video. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Katie Rife is a freelance writer and film critic based in Chicago.