Circle of Eight Sells You Some Dew, But Still Pulls You in

[show=circleofeight size=large]Embedda-Scare-A-Thon continues! Four days left until Halloween!

It’s the oldest trick in the book, but starting your story with a flash of how it will end still makes for a helluva opening scene. And that’s how Circle of Eight, a MySpace exclusive series produced by Paramount Pictures and sponsored up the wazoo by PepsiCo’s Mountain Dew, begins — with a fire, a countdown, and a falling body to pull in the curious and intrigued.

Circle of Eight, launching today with three episodes, is more puzzle than narrative, deliberately obtuse and confusing but still compelling. The story’s beginning is a simple one: A young woman moves to the big city from a land consisting mostly of “cows and churches,” taking a creepy furnished apartment in a creepy building where the creepy landlord keeps his office in the elevator. But as Jessica (Austin Highsmith) begins to meet her fellow tenants, and as viewers take in some of the clues dropped like breadcrumbs along the way, it becomes apparent that whatever goes wrong might not be the fault of the obvious sources. It might even come from Jessica herself.

Well-produced and well-acted by a largely unknown cast (the only member I recognized is DJ Qualls from Road Trip and Hustle and Flow, who plays a supporting role), Circle of Eight is a studio-level production on several levels. I mean, Mark Mothersbaugh is the composer. He was in Devo!

The series’ MySpace page proudly boasts that the player is powered by Adobe Flash, and they’re right to be proud. Each episode includes embedded interactive elements within the video, and a separate trivia game component encourages viewers to rewatch and pay closer attention. The site’s combination of passive and active interaction is clean and relatively easy to navigate.

There are some discordant elements scattered throughout the experience, especially the choice to hide clues from the in-video sections in the label of a bottle of Mountain Dew. Because it’s worth saying out loud that a beverage most closely associated in my mind with adolescent skateboarders living extreme might not be the best product fit with a spooky puzzle mystery. Not to mention the fact that you shouldn’t bother trying to be clever about doing things like dialing the number on the bottle label — you just get connected to the PepsiCo customer support line.

As protagonists go, it’s hard to connect with Jessica, who’s clearly running from her secrets and deliberately avoiding any sort of interesting connection with her fellow tenants. But the third episode ends with enough of a bang to make me want to come back for more, and two more episodes of 10 will be released next week, followed by a weekly release schedule to be followed by a DVD re-edit sold by Blockbuster. Part of me would have enjoyed plowing through the entire series today in an experience similar to the HBO Imagine project. But for today, at least, I’m definitely hooked.

Scare-o-meter: 4 — only one real scare effect, and the overall ambiance could be more eerie. But the first few minutes definitely pack a punch.