After you watch Red Rose, you’ll probably hesitate before installing your next app.
The British teen horror drama series follows a group of school-leavers terrorised by an evil app, which makes demands of its users with deadly outcomes. First aired by the BBC(Opens in a new tab) in August 2022, the series has now made its way to the U.S. with Netflix. It’s made by the same production company as Sex Education, but let’s be clear, this is not that.
Written by Paul and Michael Clarkson, who co-produced Mike Flanagan’s horror series The Haunting of Bly Manor, and boasting a talented young cast, the series goes beyond its Skins meets The Ring meets Black Mirror premise. Red Rose takes the time to examine serious themes of grief, death, class, family, friendship, and early adulthood, all while our protagonists endure a tech–fuelled nightmare that will make you want to throw your phone in the sea.
What’s Red Rose about?
Isis Hainsworth as Rochelle in “Red Rose.”
Credit: Eleven Films
Set in the town of Bolton, in north west England near Manchester, a group of teens celebrate finishing high school, waving goodbye to their GCSEs, and embracing a summer stretching ahead of them, ready to fill with casual jobs, burgeoning crushes, and generally getting pissed. But the series has other plans in store for the group, who individually begin to be ‘haunted’ by a mysterious app called Red Rose. The app makes caring, strange, then unsettling demands of its users, and as the requests become more threatening, you’ll start dreading the notification sound as much as the characters.
The 20 best horror movies of 2022
Spread through smishing with a dodgy-looking link sent via text, the Red Rose app initially seems like a supportive chatbot, offering a “welcome to the new you,” as AR beauty filters akin to those on TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram present an idealized, smiling image of the user. But as complicated protagonist Rochelle (Isis Hainsworth) uses the app more and more, it’s clear providing comfort isn’t its main functionality — it’s deadly control.
Red Rose explores the dangers of being constantly connected.
We’re living in a tech-obsessed reality, so technology-based horror has long established a foothold as a subgenre, with some releases better at making us want to ditch the digital life than others. From Rob Savage’s Host and Mr Harrigan’s Phone, Unfriended to Cam, and of course, Black Mirror, directors have been dabbling in the scariest ways they can use digital interfaces, tech devices, social media, livestreaming, apps, chat rooms, and video calling software in their work.
Chuck the phone. Right in the sea.
Credit: Eleven Films
In Red Rose, directors Lisa Siwe, Ramón Salazar, and Henry Blake wield various forms of tech as the vessel for scares in the Clarkson Twins’ well-woven script, with our ever-precious smartphones being the main culprit. Characters cradle their phones in every scene, doomscrolling with the screen six inches from their face or lazily checking social media mid-conversation. In particular, the series uses augmented reality to chilling effect, as a key means for characters to see presences on their beloved devices that may or may not be there. It’s a tool that terrified the hell out of us in Host — if you can forget the scene in which an AR face filter attaches itself to something we can’t see, good for you. In Red Rose, characters hold their smartphones up to reveal figures they can’t see IRL, and it’s genuinely frightening; a sequence involving a YouTube-assisted, Bluetooth-enabled exorcism, in which an unseen form slowly creeps behind a character on a phone screen, had me pacing the room.
In the series’ tightly edited opening scene, a terrified girl clutching her phone, Alyssa Penrose (Robyn Cara), is tormented by a creepy AR presence on her smart TV before she’s menaced by her
Alexa Electra-connected smart home, with a cacophony of lights and music making a horror show of her home. It’s an established horror technique, recently utilised in the smart home setting of the BBC and HBO’s The Girl Before, and it’s not without risk. You can’t just flick a few smart lights on and off to scare us. But tech-based scares in Red Rose feel closer to home at times, and it may have something to do with the basic design in the app’s UX — there’s something in the app’s sans serif font that makes it seem believably sketchy. It looks like the type of unregulated app you’d download and immediately think, yeah, my personal data is gone. But it’s the sheer desperation of the characters who use the app in Red Rose that makes them easy targets for its manipulative trap.
Credit: Eleven Films
Not just keeping things within the app, however, Red Rose‘s twisting narrative and all-encompassing online mystery conveys the pure horror of being hacked, the sinking feeling of having your reputation smeared by something out of your control on social media. And though, as a tech-horror fable, the series feels like an elongated Black Mirror episode, the 10 episodes allows more time for the characters to individually resonate with the audience.
As they drink crappy booze and play Guess Who? together, each member of the fondly named “Dickheads” group is holding onto secret dreams, desires, and shame, whether it be their insecurities in the social hierarchy, their sexuality, or their home situations, thanks to believably understated performances from the young but accomplished cast. Through talented Metal Lords star Isis Hainsworth, protagonist Rochelle’s deep grief, sense of isolation, and bravado-shielded shame over her family’s low-income home is a focal point. The Last Kingdom‘s Amelia Clarkson brings stoic adolescent earnestness to Roch’s best friend Wren, whose tempestuous family situation is a constant stress. As the group’s most level-headed member, Natalie Blair keeps things focused in perilous times as Princess Diana-obsessed Ashley Banister, echoed in logic by Ashna Rabheru as the group’s best chance at beating the evil tech, Jaya Mahajan. Meanwhile, Ellis Howard as Antony Longwell, Harry Redding as Noah Royston, The School for Good and Evil’s Ali Khan as Taz Sadiq, all get moments to shine.
Holding onto each other is the group’s main aim.
Credit: Eleven Films
You’ll either love or hate Red Rose‘s anachronistic soundtrack.
Among all this evil app business, Red Rose sports a large number of needle drops — it’s a requirement in a teen Netflix series, remember? Whether it’s coasting on Gen Z’s obsession with unlived nostalgia for the ’90s and ’00s or the result of the production team’s own decision on what the kids are listening to, Red Rose‘s soundtrack seems somewhat anachronistic. Despite being set in 2022, the teen characters play a constant stream of ’90s bangers, raving on the moors to dance classics like Faithless’ “Insomnia,” to Robin S. and Sandeville’s “Show Me Love.”
If you’re pretty over horror movies using creepy or sad choral performances of popular songs(Opens in a new tab), the rendition of Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” (yet another ’90s hit) in Red Rose might feel like just another attempt at this. However, the sombre piano version of Alice Deejay’s 1997 trance track “Better Off Alone,” lands hard, as the series presents themes of suicide loss.
As our main teens scramble to unravel the mystery of the Red Rose app, it becomes clear there’s something bigger and more sinister than they’d imagined at play. The Clarkson Twins’ teen horror drama could have easily been a film, but instead chooses to look deeper into the lives of its characters, significantly raising the stakes. The series makes smart decisions on using tech to terrify, enough to make you slightly worried about the device you’ve been watching it on.
Red Rose is now streaming on Netflix.(Opens in a new tab)
This piece mentions suicide loss. If you’re feeling suicidal or experiencing a mental health crisis, please talk to somebody. You can reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988; the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860; or the Trevor Project at 866-488-7386. Text “START” to Crisis Text Line at 741-741. Contact the NAMI HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI, Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m. ET, or email [email protected]. If you don’t like the phone, consider using the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline Chat at crisischat.org(Opens in a new tab)(Opens in a new tab)(Opens in a new tab). Here is a list of international resources(Opens in a new tab)(Opens in a new tab).