Cannibalism Dramedy 'The Horror of Dolores Roach' Serves Up a Bloody Good Twist on 'Sweeney Todd'

After starting out as a one-woman play, then becoming a podcast, this tale about empanadas with gruesome fillings hits streaming.
Sarah Ward
July 07, 2023

It takes place in New York, not London. The era: modern times, not centuries back. Fleet Street gives way to Washington Heights, the demon barber to a masseuse nicknamed "Magic Hands", and pies to empanadas. There's still a body count, however, and people end up in pastries as well. Yes, The Horror of Dolores Roach namedrops Sweeney Todd early, as it needs to; there's no denying where this eight-part Prime Video series takes inspiration, as did the one-woman off-Broadway play that it's based on, plus the podcast that followed before the TV version on Friday, July 7.

On the stage, the airwaves and now via streaming, creator Aaron Mark asks a question: what if the fictional cannibalism-inciting character who first graced penny dreadfuls almost two centuries back, then leapt to theatres, films and, most famously, musicals, had a successor today? Viewers can watch the answer via a dramedy that also belongs on the same menu as Santa Clarita Diet, Yellowjackets and Bones and All. Amid this recent feast of on-screen dishes about humans munching on humans, The Horror of Dolores Roach is light yet grisly, but it's also a survivalist thriller in its own way — and laced with twisted attempts at romance, too.

That knowing callout to Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street comes amid an early banquet of knowing callouts, as The Horror of Dolores Roach begins with a play based on a podcast that's wrapping up its opening night. Newspaper clippings in actor Flora Frias' (Jessica Pimentel, Orange is the New Black) dressing room establish that the show takes its cues from a woman who got murderous in the Big Apple four years prior, and helped get unwitting NYC residents taking a bite out of each other. Meet the series' framing device; before the stage production's star can head to the afterparty, she's face to face with a furious Dolores (Justina Machado, One Day at a Time) herself. The latter isn't there to slay, but to haunt the woman spilling her tale by sharing the real details.

Two decades earlier, Dolores was a happy resident of Lin-Manuel Miranda's favourite slice of New York, a drug-dealer's girlfriend, and a fan of the local empanada shop. Then the cops busted in while she was helping her beau, who was conveniently absent, with The Horror of Dolores Roach's namesake refusing to snitch and getting a 16-year sentence in return. When she's released after serving that entire stretch, gentrification has changed the neighbourhood. Also, her other half is nowhere to be found. Only Luis Batista (Alejandro Hernandez, New Amsterdam) remains that remembers her. His dad owned and ran the empanada joint, Luis was the teenaged delivery boy with a big crush on Dolores, and he couldn't be keener on letting her stay with him in his basement apartment below the store.

After the best part of two decades inside, Dolores only dreams of the straight and narrow, and of putting the massage skills that she learned from her cellmate — which were quite a hit, hence the new moniker — to use in a legitimate job. Getting a paycheque isn't easy, but when Luis says that she can operate an unlicensed setup out of their flat, customers flock to get their shoulders kneaded. While it isn't the future that gave her something to look forward to behind bars, it'll do; however, the upscaling trend that's sweeping the community soon poses a threat. When Dolores offs her first victim, she's reacting; The Horror of Dolores Roach takes eating the rich literally.

There's about as much subtlety to the series as slathering an empanada in whichever sauce takes your fancy, plus a mix of clashing tones on par with the guava and cheese variety that Dolores adores. But a show about turning people into pastries Sweeney Todd-style isn't aiming to be nuanced. Neither is a program that also namechecks producer Jason Blum, or heavily uses its narration to adapt its play and podcast roots for the screen. When Marc Maron (To Leslie) gleefully plays an uncaring landlord, and 80s music icon Cyndi Lauper a grey-locked private detective who could waltz out of this and into Only Murders in the Building, no one is going for understated, either. That's one of the reasons that The Horror of Dolores Roach proves tasty and entertaining: it's actively and openly trying to be a lot, and it sinks its teeth in hard.

"I'm not the monster you're making me out to be," says Dolores to Flora, though, a statement that The Horror of Dolores Roach doesn't just give lip service to. The series knows that its protagonist is a serial killer, makes it plain from the outset and doesn't excuse it. And yet, it also knows that that can be true, and that Dolores can be a victim herself. Indeed, the show has the many horrors that are splashed her way firmly on its plate. She's betrayed and taken advantage of to land in prison, then judged and cast aside afterwards; she suffers for America's fondness for mass incarceration; she's robbed of a huge chunk of her life for weed only for it to start to be legalised while she's doing her time; and she's among the Washington Heights residents pushed out by the well-to-do. Again, none of this justifies Dolores' choices, but it adds flesh to the cutthroat world that The Horror of Dolores Roach constantly sees as it is.

Having the always-great Machado play Dolores also helps ground the series. Much around her may get cartoonish, but the Six Feet Under, Jane the Virgin and Queen of the South actor always anchors the story in a woman seeing her life spiral in the worst possible ways. She's as adept at mining darkly comic laughs as she is tragedy, boasts pitch-perfect reactions to the series' gore, and makes a great pair with the lively Hernandez. Actually, she's stellar opposite everyone — Maron, Lauper, Pimentel, The Rehearsal's K Todd Freeman as the usual meat merchant and Dispatches From Elsewhere's Kita Updike as Luis' sole empanada-slinging employee included — and, like The Horror of Dolores Roach itself, bloody great.

Check out the trailer for The Horror of Dolores Roach below:

The Horror of Dolores Roach streams via Prime Video from Friday, July 7.

Published on July 07, 2023 by Sarah Ward
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