Brow Beat

The Most Terrifying Show on Netflix Is a Children’s Cartoon Called Larva

Its heroes freeze to death in urine and drown in snot. It gets worse.

Red and Yellow in Larva.
Larva. Netflix

If you’ve booted up Netflix recently, you’ve probably noticed its dedication to Halloween. It’s replaced its Law and Order–esque guh-glunnnnng with a startling upward string glissando and swapped the boring black background for a distorted found-footage image of a church and graveyard. It’s also rolled out two high-profile series, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House in an attempt to woo chiller fans young and old. Yet these attempts to terrify pale in comparison to another offering on Netflix, a hit South Korean children’s animated series called Larva, which may be one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen in my life.

In its first season, Larva takes place entirely in a small space under a street grate in an unnamed metropolis. Each wordless short, usually about two minutes in length, features the misadventures of Red and Yellow, two id-driven larvae that look a lot like Jerry’s Mytholog in Rick and Morty. Frequently something falls through the grate that gets their attention. Sometimes predators stalk them. Sometimes they are the predators themselves. Often, they slap each other around. And no matter what, nothing they do gets them out of their little garbage heap or improves their lives in any measurable way. Red and Yellow’s existence is that of Hobbes’ man in a state of nature: obsessed with competition and violence, living out lives of humiliation and savagery that are nasty, brutish, and short.

The only hallmark of horror cinema missing from Larva is the Final Girl. Larva has monsters. It has viscous fluids. It has baroque deaths. It has the supernatural. It has occasional long tracking shots. It takes place in a surreal world in which the protagonists never fully understand what’s going on and have very limited agency, and nothing turns out to their advantage. In one episode, Red opens a mummy’s sarcophagus, only to discover that the mummy is the desiccated—but still alive— body of his father. His father tries to follow him but cannot go into the sun. Yellow tries to get the father food, but his efforts to do so dislodge some garbage, causing the sun to reflect off of a spoon, roasting Red’s father into ashes and bone. The episode ends with Red’s wails of despair as he gazes at the heavens, wondering why he has been selected for special punishment by the almighty. Ball’s in your court, Channel Zero.

Red and Yellow are like clowns in a Samuel Beckett play: two idiots trapped in a prison that is also the totality of a world that punishes them for attempting to find any pleasure or meaning in life. There’s even an episode where they get buried up to their waists in cement, just like in Happy Days! Unlike in Happy Days, they’re trapped in the baking sun, slowly dying. A red liquid starts to dribble from above and they frantically work to draw it closer to them. Finally they drink it, briefly satisfied. It turns out to be hot sauce. They burn to death.

Red and Yellow die a lot on this show. In just the first few episodes, they die from mosquito bites. They get stung to death by a bee. They shit themselves to death after eating poisonous mushrooms. They get eaten by much larger, horrific monsters. They freeze to death in urine and drown in snot. The Christmas episode ends with them being incinerated by fireworks. In later seasons, the world of Larva expands but gets no less terrifying. One season takes place entirely in New York. Red and Yellow manage to survive to the end of more episodes in that season and make a few friends, but they still routinely die in elaborate accidents, or get beaten to death, or lit on fire. Even when there’s an upbeat ending, it comes by sheer luck, and only after a great deal of slapstick violence, screaming, and body horror.

So, if you’re looking for something terrifying this Halloween, and you’re avoiding the slog of Suspiria and the hollow Halloween, Larva may be the show for you. In each 20-minute installment, you’ll get 10 shorts, each one featuring a more inventive, surreal, loopy, and grotesque setup and payoff than anything at the multiplex. You’ll be disgusted, and chilled to the bone. Or, if you’re like my 4-year-old daughter, you’ll be laughing hysterically while your father looks on, grimacing, worried he’s turning into the kind of old fogey who complains about the content of the TV shows aimed at his child.