An Outsider’s View of Castle Freak

I’d been curious about Castle Freak for a little while.

Part of the reason I’ve had interest in the film is because I am still catching up on the first official season of Shudder’s The Last Drive-In series, and then I heard that Barbara Crampton is involved with its remake. It’s strange, for me, being a Lovecraft fanatic that I never made the connection that, aside from being given a poster of concept art from which to work, director Stuart Gordon and screenwriter Dennis Paoli had been inspired — at least roughly — to make the 1995 film Castle Freak by H.P. Lovecraft’s extremely short story “The Outsider.”

I didn’t know what to expect from Castle Freak, beyond knowing it takes place in an old Italian Castle and expecting there to be a ton of gore and brutality: possibly by a group of monsters on an unsuspecting American family. At the time, I didn’t even know that Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton were even in the film, never mind its central stars: though knowing Crampton was being interviewed on The Last Drive-In episode of Castle Freak became another impetus in me having a look at it.

I’ll admit that watching Joe Bob Briggs’ segments did spoil aspects of the movie for me, but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the film. I’ve heard that many fans of Gordon’s work don’t think as highly of Castle Freak as they might Re-Animator, and even From Beyond. A lot of it, from my understanding, is that while the latter two films — created in the 1980s — have heavily goofy and “camp” overtones, drawing close to comedy in horror, Castle Freak itself is played out seriously, and without laughs. Unlike the science-fictional and paranormal elements of the former two films, Castle Freak is a mystery horror film with obvious Gothic influence: complete with tropes such as family secrets, hereditary sins, a long lost, deformed and/or insane family member, and a scene of crumbling beauty and the price of pride turned into madness revisited on unsuspecting descendants.

Another element I can also argue is that while Re-Animator, and to some extent From Beyond — which I have written about and attempted to experiment on in this mad laboratory that is my Blog — are very clearly based from Lovecraft’s works, Castle Freak uses “The Outsider” as just a stepping stone, or a foundation to create an entirely different work. Re-Animator still follows the resurrection of the dead and the hubris of Herbert West, and From Beyond does illustrate what happens when you attempt to view and interact with dimensions beyond human perception, but Castle Freak? It isn’t like “The Outsider” in that the “creature” involved isn’t the protagonist or some possibly undead monstrosity that was once a human being realizing what he is, and fleeing from that knowledge.

Giorgio Orsino — the titular “Freak” of this film played by Jonathan Fuller — is a tormented man whose death was faked by his mother the Italian Duchess D’Orsino and, blamed for the sins of his American father in leaving her, spent the rest of his life chaining him in a dungeon and flaying him with a barbed whip. He is five years old when his death is falsified and forty-two years pass before his mother dies from a heart-attack after beating him one last time. He is practically a feral being by the time he manages to escape his bonds, though he seems to have a grasp of some rudimentary Italian when he does occasionally speak. However, unlike the protagonist of “The Outsider” who seems to be quite intelligent and has “many antique books” Giorgio is not only driven by a sense of loneliness — more visceral than existential — but hunger and fury over his torment and neglect. If anything, his skittering manner of moving through the corridors of the Castle, is reminiscent more of Lovecraft’s :”The Rats in the Walls” than anything else, and for more reasons than one when you realize just how famished he is. Giorgio is a living being that wants what he thinks is owed to him, and he literally wants his pound of flesh.

Lovecraft, of course, is no stranger to Gothic themes and tropes, especially considering how “The Outsider” and its narrative style is influenced by the prose of Edgar Allan Poe. The story of Castle Freak, however, follows not just Giorgio who is the monster — and I would argue one of the true victims of this entire film — but also the American Reilly family and in particular its patriarch John Reilly.

John Reilly, played by Jeffrey Combs, is an alcoholic and an unemployed professor. His father abused him during his early life, and it the echoes of it affect him all the way until the end of Castle Freak. He inherits the Orsino Castle after the Duchess, his aunt, dies and he takes his family there to claim and potentially sell the property. John’s wife, Susan (played by Barbara Crampton), despises him. There is really no other word for it. Due to his alcoholism he lost his employment, and because his five year old son J.J. dropped his video game in the car and tried to reach for it, the boy loses his life in a car accident when John tries to stop his son and simultaneously keep his eyes on the road: failing at both. This same accident blinds his daughter Rebecca, played by actress Jessica Dollarhide, and it leaves his wife to blame him for everything that’s happened to their family.

I think one element of this film that needs to be discussed is its use of connections, and how they all pay off. And when I mention connections, what I am really talking about are relationships. From the police officer who has a relationship with the sex worker that John takes him when his wife spurns him again, to the child they’ve had together, to the amoral Italian Orsino lawyer being the sibling of the housekeeper that warns the Reillys of the Castle and what her death causes, and John’s own tormented relation with Susan, the memory of J.J., and his attempts to protect Rebecca, Susan’s own resentful bond with John, and her over-protective and even obsessive relationship with Rebecca, and the Duchess’ own malicious and petty need to torture Giorgio, and Giorgio wanting to belong to this new family that he can somehow sense as his kin … it all fits together in a patchwork like the scars on Giorgio’s body, and the worn stones of the Castle that is their heritage.

This unity, or this twisted rhyme, can be seen in the form of J.J. J.J. is the child that shouldn’t have died. Giorgio, whom everyone believed dead, once looked the spitting image of J.J. Two dead children that are blood-related, and practically doubles or doppelgängers of each other: the former’s death indicative of an emotionally absent father whose alcoholism led, in part, to the car crash that took his life, and the latter whose father’s physical abandonment led him to having his very identity destroyed in all the ways the matter are central to this film. Families and children, unhealthy dynamics between spouses, siblings, and parents and children are what make Castle Freak.

And then, there is the matter of karma. We find out, and it becomes clear especially after Joe Bob’s talk with Barbara Crampton, that Giorgio and John both have the same American WWII soldier: the former being the Duchess’ son, and the latter being the bastard child of her sister that ran off with him, unmarried, to the United States. The Duchess dies before any justice or vengeance can be carried out on her from the boy whose life she ruined out of a sense of pride and, presumably, the American soldier is also long dead and gone.

Giorgio is John’s Shadow, another popular literary trope. He has abusive and neglectful parents like John, except taken to the nth degree. He was flagellated by a mother for his perceived sins, and tormented for things that were — unlike John — literally beyond his control. Even John’s sexual frustration as punishment by his wife and her anger, and inability to connect with those of his blood, or a disconnect from the sexual relations he has to have with the sex worker are mirrored horrifically in that Giorgio seems to be castrated, but his mother left him his testicles and the frustration of loneliness and an animal fury he can’t express in any other way: as we see with what he does to the poor sex worker. But mostly, there is a grief there. While John grieves, and is guilt-stricken by J.J.’s death, Giorgio mourns even the death of his tormenter and that fury needs somewhere to go.

And Giorgio, after killing the sex worker and the housekeeper sister of the man who could have saved John from being blamed for their murders, finds this outlet: in the form of the scourge that his mother used on him his entire life. It is this whip he uses on John who, in a way, represents the reason Giorgio had been rendered into a tortured being. To Giorgio, if he can think that far, John is the brother that his father left him for, and abandoned him to the cruelty of his insane mother. In a way, John’s existence is the reason his life is so ruined, and that madness is taken out on his hide.

Giorgio, his mother’s whipping boy, makes John his own. And Giorgio, who John once saw as resembling his dead son — the child dead by his own negligence — is something of a gross magnification of his own guilt flagellating himself. And yet, something happens with John that Giorgio is incapable of understanding, or undertaking. For all of John’s selfishness and self-absorption, he still loves his family. Perhaps, at this point in the film, after contemplating suicide, drinking, and undertaking actions that further hurt his family, John doesn’t want Giorgio — both a psychopathic monstrosity of his aunt’s torment, and a symbol of his own guilty conscience — to damage his family anymore. And with a noble moment of self-sacrifice, John tackles Giorgio and the two fall to their deaths: united in death in a way they could never have been in life.

At the end, Susan Reilly sees this — him having saved her and their daughter — and seems to forgive him, perhaps even seeing her own part in the torment that led to all of John’s own actions as they exchange their last words with each other. The Reillys live on, with perhaps the cycle of abuse and pain and recrimination broken by John and Giorgio’s deaths, and the understanding of what led to where they are now: and perhaps after mourning they can find a way forward.

The sins of the family, in this case, are not a blood related curse or a result of eugenics as Lovecraft’s stories and those of his Victorian predecessors often go, but of generational abuse and trauma. But there is one thing that bothers me in this otherwise relatively immaculate film.

Where is Giorgio’s coffin?

At the end of the film, we see John’s coffin being taken to his funeral, or his funeral endings, but we never see what they do with the boy who was supposed to have died decades ago. John is a sufferer of terrible familiar trauma, consciously or otherwise, but Giorgio himself is an even more obvious victim. What happened to his body at the end of the film? Did he even get the dignity of a burial? A real burial?

It gives me inspiration: to try something else.

I always try to say something in this Blog that is more than just a rehashing of something already said and done. So, in light of the upcoming remake by Tate Steinsiek and its more overt and cultish Cthulhu Mythos influences of which I’m curious to see unfold, I started to think to myself — and this was the only reason this article even happened — what if we went back to the roots of “The Outsider?”

There are obvious issues. “The Outsider” is a short story that functions well from a first-person limited perspective. The readers are limited by what he knows and perceives. It is hard to translate that into a film narrative, even with voice over narratives: though it would make for perhaps a good experimental short film, or animation. And I am sure it’s been done already.

So, let’s Frankenstein this fucker, my solution to almost everything in this mad lab. Think of it as following looking at the lives of two children traveling different paths through Castle Freak. First, let’s take Giorgio Orsino from Stuart Gordon’s film. Let’s say that he isn’t the only freak in the Castle, that Giorgio was used by his mother and her family to seal the rest of them away: namely, the ghouls from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and Dreamlands Cycle respectively. Imagine John and Susan Reilly as being completely unsympathetic or clueless and it is Rebecca who focuses on finding her way into understanding how the Castle works: on discovering that it is a weak place between reality and the Dreamlands. Consider that John was supposed to be the original sacrifice, but his father and mother left with him: perhaps even unknowing, and it was up to Giorgio to be offered as a perpetual whipping boy, his blood sealing the other creatures below the Castle into the Underworld.

But then the Duchess dies and Giorgio is freed. A lot of the events of the film continue, but Rebecca is more proactive and bitter about not only being blind, but having her mother constantly attempting to control her. I also like the idea that something comes of her learning some Italian, as she attempts to do in the film, and begins to understand Giorgio: even sympathize with him after she realizes how damaged he is. It may even be that there is something in his hoarse voice that reminds her of her lost brother J.J. I’d also be fascinating if we saw the film from Giorgio’s perspective, and there is a part of him that still thinks he is that golden-haired five year old child until he looks at a mirror, or he does something particularly feral and vicious: almost making him like two different characters and making the audience wonder who that strange child is who also resembles J.J. until the end.

I would have it that it looks like John is attempting to save his family, but he fails. Perhaps he and Susan kill each other, or the other beasts get them instead. Rebecca goes insane or perhaps begins to think that there is another way. It is Giorgio who after his killings of the housekeeper and the sex worker that actually opens the Gate and unleashes the beasts fully: taking Rebecca with him. It’s with Giorgio pledging himself to them that we realize the Reillys and the Orsinos they came from, have ghoul blood. And Giorgio and Rebecca become ghouls, slowly changing, mutating: with Giorgio eating the corpse of his mother who tried to consume his life and keep him in a stillborn stone womb of a prison, shedding the illusion of the child he used to be and wished he still was and the mutilated husk of a broken human to become something more. And Rebecca ends up devouring her own parents: those who controlled hers and emancipating herself to a whole new existence. They then leave with the ghouls — the last of their line here — to live in the depths of the Dreamlands and feast on the dead forever.

So, in this way I am marrying together “The Outsider” with “The Rats in the Walls” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” thereby adding a supernatural or low-key Cthulhu Mythos element into it — though not to the apparent extent of Tate Steinsiek’s work with something of a gross and twisted “happy-ending.” Instead of John’s redemption and reaffirmation of family and society, it could be a story about Giorgio, and even Rebecca’s dark salvation from the ruining influence of a mortal world, and the freedom of a bloody, supernatural one beyond human morality.

Conversely, there is the other “child” of my Mythos thought. We make a cinematic story with “The Outsider” traveling through his grave, to his ancestral castle and shying away from the truth of his undead nature, with only snippets of memory and perhaps he — and the audience — see him as a whole being like the youth of “The Quest of Iranon” as he travels through places like “Under the Pyramids” and even through a “Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” to finally realize what he is, and to come to peace with it as he joins the ghouls and night-gaunts in their revels. This would have more of a dark epic fantasy cinematic horror feel to it: a saga that expands out to a glorious Lovecraftian cosmic ending: romantic in the sense of it being sublime in unearthly Nature.

Even though I like the 1995 Castle Freak, and my original intent was to not attempt to alter films that I feel work in their own way, I also love the idea of an Outsider, of a supposed monster or a disabled female character — who is actually the central character in the upcoming Steinsiek remake — being the protagonist of their story and challenging a world view in being so. There are opportunities there, perhaps being taken in the remake to an extent. We will just have to see.

Creepshow Commentaries: Season One

This is something different, even though it might not look that way. Before creating my little laboratory here, before truly coming to The Last Drive-In that consumed me during the summer, but after I stopped writing for GeekPr0n and during a lull in writing about some horror films and comics for Sequart, I began watching the new Creepshow serials on Shudder.

At the time, this creative descendant of Stephen King, George Romero, and Greg Nicotero reminded me of the time I watched the very first Creepshow with my late partner, and when I heard this series was being created I commented on each episode as it came out. But eventually, I wanted to keep my comments. Part of it had to do with the fact that for a while I couldn’t leave comments on Shudder and even when I did, after a time, they would become lost, and I found that I actually liked what I was writing. What complicated it even further was, like I said, I really had no place to put it. It’s true that I had my Mythic Bios Blog but it just … didn’t fit.

As it is, they are comments, but even as such they began to coalesce like the rendered pieces of some dead eldritch god coming together, gravitating and mutating towards each other in something that others might call … themes. In a way, you can think these early prototypical samples of Dissections and Speculatives for the formation of the Horror Doctor Blog itself much later on. As such, they are rough, down, and dirty. I could clean them up, but honestly? I like how elemental and honest they are. This is some early work, including the dates in which I wrote them if not seen the episodes, ,and I’d like to think someone can glean something from this, or at the very least see the place of horror from whence I am still learning. Or, you know, before my descent into madness.

Right now, as of this writing, it is Friday November the 13th of 2020. If there was any appropriate time to release these, it would be this night. And to all the people watching a reanimator student at work in this twisted horror medical theatre, allow me to introduce you to my almost epistolary, “found commentaries” on Shudder’s Creepshow.

*

September 27/19

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 1: Gray Matter/The House of the Head

I like the spiritual influence of the film on the first episode and its two stories so far. The Creep is so much less … communicative than his Crypt Keeper television cousin, at least in this early episode.

“Gray Matter” was an interesting story. You could go very far, to say, that it talks about the dangers of alcoholism and that sometimes it might take a hurricane to quench the thirst of an addict … or not. The dispersion of scenes between the cafe owner and the boy, and the sheriff and the doctor served to add a little more tension to the piece. That tension and suspense making your stomach clench as the boy’s story slowly continued, combined with the gross out factor did fairly well, though it might of gotten a little out of control towards the end. 

“The House of the Head” was my favourite of the two, to be honest. Carl Jung always used the house as a symbol of one’s subconsciousness, or the collective unconscious. Combine that with the premise that if you can have haunted dolls and toys, you can also have haunted dollhouses. And dollhouses have often been literary metaphors for girls exploring their identities in socially accepted ways to become women. You can make an interesting reading of what the protagonist, the little girl Evie, does in attempting to deal with that malign influence, working in that system of the house … before realizing it is the house itself with which she needs to deal with: perhaps more than the thing in the house that no one outside of herself sees. 

It’s a creepy thing, to think you have control over your surroundings, or a place of your arrangement and there is always something there implicit in that place, or space that you just can’t get rid of. It’s actually similar to the mould, or the organic matter in the Harrows beer in “Gray Matter”: something that should have been dealt with by an authority — like a sheriff or the girl through the policeman figurine, or the caricature of a First Nations spiritual symbol of the shaman (talk about an “Indian in the Cupboard” fuck you) — but it is a child that has to deal with it. 

The boy in “Gray Matter” dealt with it one way, by attempting to surrender to it and get away himself. The girl, Evie, in “The House of the Head” got rid of the thing … which might go on to haunt, or infect, or manifest in other’s experiences: not that she had a choice. Not that anyone would have believed her. Not that anyone believed the boy … until it was already too late. 

The themes are good together and complementary. I think the latter story was the stronger one, but they both have merit. I can’t wait to see what the Creep has lined up for us in the next episodes that follow. 

October 4-8/19 

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 2: Bad Wolf Down/The Finger 

What can I say? I really liked this episode. “Bad Wolf Down” was something to which I was very much looking forward. I mean, Werewolves killing Nazis? Where can you go wrong? I also recall the episode in “Love, Death, and Robots” called “Shape-Shifters” where you had werewolves serving both the American Army and what seemed to be an Arabic militia, and it was a case study in character development on the American side. I will say, that “Bad Wolf Down,” which had been advertised for a while with the above premise of Werewolves killing Nazi scum, was sillier than I thought it would be. But it fits into ‘Creepshow’ which also is a homage to ‘Tales from The Crypt’: in it being something of a morality tale in war. It didn’t quite go the way I thought it would. I actually thought they might make it a lot like “Secret War” where the WWII Russians are fighting the forces of hell, but I like how they kept the Nazis evil, but at the same time they also demonstrate how the American soldier characters, who are good people who regret killing, or try not to kill civilians, are willing to embrace the monster to destroy their enemy: a metaphor for war if I’ve ever seen one. Also, Jeffrey Combs as the SS commander was really awesome to see, and made me feel like not only was looking at a 1950s rendition of a Nazi villain, all outlandish and over the top evil, but he brings a ‘Re-animator’ antagonist vibe to the thing. And also, that ending right? War changes a man indeed. 

But I knew nothing about “The Finger.” I like how in both stories, you see comics pages strewn throughout the scenes — tying into the central theme and aesthetic of ‘Creepshow’ and especially how the protagonist of “The Finger” collects them like the old discarded relics that some people used to think them to be. I really like how he’s depicted like what some people might believe to be an “ordinary, normal man” — or a “nice guy” in our time: a millennial adult who feels abused by the system and society, and neglected by everyone around him while also feeling a certain degree of self-entitlement. It was so cool to see the Finger itself grow and become, well, Bob. Bob is pretty much anyone’s best friend who feels discarded, lonely, and has a whole set of petty grievances. 

This story felt like such a ‘Tales from the Crypt’ or ‘Twilight Zone’ episode, and the first-perspective and retelling of the story from the protagonist was chilling in that he is actually so relatable while, at the same time, there is something disquieting and even creepy about him. Certainly, his perspective — which is the axis from which the story is shown — is biased, and we never know whether or not he took that blowjob from his stepdaughter so long ago. I actually hope that — one day — Bob comes back to the protagonist. I think the strength of both stories is how we see the moralities of the characters in how they embrace the monstrous to undertake what they believe to be justice. It is still horrible, but there is a relatibility to it all. Here, the monster isn’t an antagonist but humans are, and if anything the monstrous is to be pitied, or even loved. And Bob, I mean: can you imagine having a friend, someone that would love you, like Bob? And just how far you would feed his love if you had one? And just, for all of the morality you think you have, what you really do with a case of lycanthropy … or Bob? I actually am surprised, but I really like “The Finger” *more* than “Bad Wolf Down,” though I like the former as well. I find that the second segments in these episodes tend to be stronger. I wonder if the trend will continue. I look forward to watching more. 

October 11-12/19

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 3: All Hallows Eve / The Man in the Suitcase

What can I say: this episode has been for me, unequivocally, the best one ever so far. I’m trying to find a central theme here, but I’d say it would be something like vindictive justice, or karma coming, coming, coming to get you. 

“All Hallows Eve” reminds me of an “Are You Afraid of the Dark” episode, or the film version of “Scary Tales to Tell in the Dark” with far more of a tight, controlled, storyline with elements of gore. It’s one of those *in media res* situations where you gradually discover what those trick or treating kids really are, and what happened to them. I loved their tree house, and the D&D session they had — a 23 is a good total, it’s too bad it didn’t translate into luck in their real lives — and the ‘Goosebumps’ poster on the wall was a nice touch. At first, I thought it was going to be each of the adults they terrified being the culprits in what happened, like in a Toronto After Dark short film I saw years back where a group of adults are terrorized by the ghosts of vengeful children whom, as it turns out, they killed as a serial killer swingers group of sorts. I knew there was something about those children, especially the one dressed as a ghost — because we all know what sheets were made to cover — and I like how when they accomplish their final goal, dealing with the bullies that accidentally but cruelly ended them, the boy was restored under that sheet. It was so poignant. I am glad they got their justice and that they can sleep now, perhaps having better dreams and only treats, like they should have done years ago.

And then, we have “The Man in the Suitcase.” I should have seen it coming in retrospect — especially with the cartoon shown during the college kid Justin smoking up — and it was only towards the end that I knew what was going on. I felt bad for Justin having to deal with a complete bitch like Carla, and his asshole roommate Alex. I didn’t know to expect until I saw the description about the coins coming out of the contorted man, in pain. The ethics and horror of it … it got the point where the college kids were just torturing him for the pleasure of it, in addition to the greed and the aphrodisiac of Mammon. But Justin was the only one with qualms as the other two lost their humanity, which was the point. 

I don’t know, I feel like there is some racial, post-colonial statement to make about what are presumably a bunch of North American college kids profiting off of, and even taking pleasure from, the suffering of a subaltern like a brown, Arabic or Persian man in a bag. In a way, I think it the whole story and situation was more like a morality tale or a cautionary one — an echo of a 1001 Arabian Nights tale where a supernatural force arranges a lesson and it may well have been Justin’s lesson, or infernal intervention as opposed to divine: one he ended up learning at the very end. Really, both stories are about emotional baggage in addition to vicious supernatural justice. The Golden Dragons, the D&D kids that were burned alive by the bullies that believed they were mainstream and the parents that backed them from being punished temporally, finally freed themselves from one last quest of vengeance, and the man that turned out to be a djinn — an evil genie traveling on a plane in his suitcase of a lamp — destroyed the two people that walked all over Justin, and because he actually had a conscience at the end, even rewarded him. Maybe mixing it with the post-colonial resonance might confuse the narrative, or make it problematic, and perhaps Justin didn’t deserve mercy, but all I know is that his ex and former roommate deserved everything they got. They failed the supernatural test, the one foreshadowed in Justin’s nightmare, and everything they visited on what they thought was a helpless force condemned to make them rich was visited right on them. 

But damn. This episode was so utterly satisfying. Five out of five skulls. 

October 18/19

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 4: The Companion/Lydia Layne’s Better Half

I will never get used to the Creep not talking like the Crypt Keeper often does at the beginning of his own shows, even if he does play narrator in the facsimile of comics pages at the beginning of each ‘Creepshow’ episode.

You know, one of these stories is called “The Companion,” but in reality both of them are about companions, and companionship, and how it can be used to one’s advantage, or gone horribly wrong as a result. I actually didn’t know where “The Companion” was going at first, even though the scarecrow seen as the graphic, hanging on a cross in a field on its own, reminded me of the story “Harold” recounted in Alvin Schwartz’s ‘Scary Tales to Tell in the Dark’ and its recent film equivalent. However, the only Harold in this particular story here is Harry, who runs from his abusive, drunken, psychotic older brother Billy into an abandoned field where he releases the unnamed scarecrow from a cane stabbed through its heart. 

The scarecrow itself was created by an old farmer named Raymond Brenner from straw, ancient bones under the soil of his property, and a heart embroidery made by his wife Mavis — his beloved companion — who died, and left him lonely. He made the creation to help him deal with that loneliness, and all went well until it killed a Girl Scout coming onto his property to try to sell some cookies. The scarecrow is different from the depictions of Stephen Gammell’s Harold in ‘Scary Tales,’ with its tusks, and almost organic parts on its chest. It looks truly macabre and terrifying. One might also think that the scarecrow is a lot like Bob from ‘The Finger,’ except while it does what its creator says, it will protect its creator — or the holder of the cane that the creator stabbed it with — at all times, or is jealous of the creator’s time, and will act accordingly. I also love how not even the scarecrow’s creator knew what animated it: the bones, or the heart that Mavis wove independently of this. It was inspiring. 

In the end, Harry uses the cane that Brenner stabbed it with all those years ago after the death the girl, to stop it from killing him, and then entrap his brother, and kill him instead with its tendrils of roots and death. At first I thought Harry was trying to make his own scarecrow, as we see him weaving something after reading the suicide letter of Brenner, but why do that when he can just sew his bedsheets around him, and get a perfectly good, ready made companion to do the job for him: to use a greater monster against a pettier one. 

Speaking of greater and pettier monsters, I’ve not forgotten about ‘Lydia Layne’s Better Half.’ It is an age-old story about greed and power, and fear and burying guilt and the evidence of a crime of murder and blood. It has a very feminist theme, or at least it uses the popular language of such. Lydia is a high-powered executive that passes over her lover Celia for a position in Switzerland, to keep her as a trophy-wife, and under her heel while paying lip service to the power of women advancing in a patriarchal world and the destruction of a glass ceiling. It is, ironically, her glass achievement award that impales itself through Celia’s brain after she attacks her, when Celia plans to tell the press about both the passing up of her for the position in favour of a man, and the result of a physical attack.

Lydia pretty much falls under the crooked archetype of the hypocrite that deserves retribution in the style of EC Comics’ ‘Tales From the Crypt’ as she attempts to hide her crime, to protect her reputation and power, and reveals that Celia had just been a plaything the entire time, while moving her body and attempting to make it look like she died in a car accident. Instead, she gets stuck. In an elevator. With a rotting corpse of the woman she claimed to love. For 24 hours. 

You don’t know if what happens to Lydia — who has no real remorse for what she has done to her jilted lover — is the result of insanity, or supernatural justice. All I know is, when she climbs on Celia’s body to attempt to escape, to continue her literal climb to power, and her place at the top it has social and gender connotations there that are painful to see, and what happens to her afterwards — as her erstwhile companion seems to get her revenge — is poetic. 

Both stories are incredibly strong, and I look forward to seeing where ‘Creepshow’ goes beyond this. Five skulls. 

October 28/19

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 5: Night of the Paw / Times Is Tough in Musky Holler

What can I say, both of these stories in this episode feel like homages. I’ve just come fresh off the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, and its showing of Ryan Spindell’s ‘The Mortuary Collection’ — which is an anthology of tales told through the frame of a creepy narrator done right, and its story “Till Death” an eerie parallel to ‘Creepshow”s “Lydia Lane’s Better Half,” elevator and impaled head of a murdered partner’s body and all, but this latest showing has callbacks to specifically literary sources.

I mean, look at “Night of the Paw.” At first, I didn’t know where this was going until — inevitably — the Fakir of Mumbai’s Paw is introduced: a relic borrowed from the classic “The Monkey’s Paw” written by W.W. Jacobs. Interestingly enough, the old man who has saved the woman he found at his doorstep is called Whitey: a parallel to Mr. and Mrs. White of the aforementioned story. And like the couple, both he and the woman he summoned with the Paw attempted to resurrect a loved one from death … and unlike the short story, it doesn’t shy back from the gory, horrific consequences. I will admit, having the woman be a murderess who killed her husband to euthanize him with a gun was a little heavy-handed, a bad pun when you consider both the fact that she loses two fingers in her hand, and the Paw itself, and I am confused as to why the Paw resurrected all the corpses in the morgue including her husband’s, but the theme of doing something gruesome and horrible in the name of good names, and receiving one’s poetically ironic fate as a result is something that carries over to the next story. I will also state I like how this story utilized the comics panels segments more, and made you read them and see them to fill in some of the blanks between the live action sequences. 

And this brings us to “Times Is Tough in Musky Holler.” At first, I thought the former Mayor Barkley and his inner circle were in hell, going to be judged by the people they had betrayed and killed. But as the story continues, you realize that it is taking place after a major event: namely, a zombie apocalypse. It turns out, Barkley and his cronies used the chaos of the dead rising to seize power in the town of Musky Holler and in a ‘Battle Royale’ or ”Hunger Games’ fashion they created arena games where their political opponents would be fed open, publicly, by the dead. What we get to see is an extension of a EC Comics Horror ethos — think the story “Foul Play” from ‘The Haunt of Fear’ except with a zombie, or a series of crimson-hued undead resembling Nathan Grantham from the first ‘Creepshow’ film’s “Father’s Day” of so many decades ago — play out, and all of the war criminals get their … just desserts in a game — the last game of its kind to punish its creators — called, fittingly enough, “Hot Pie.” 

You can argue that both stories utilize the theme of people rationalizing to themselves undertaking horrific actions for a greater good — to reunite with a deceased loved one, or to help a town survive an undead invasion, though the latter was far more self-serving — or that they both have the undead rise to deal karma on the protagonists, or that fate cannot be avoided one way or another, but whatever the case it all entertained me. Greatly. 

October 31-November 4/19

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 6: Skincrawlers / By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain

Halloween came early this year in the form of this final episode of the first season of ‘Creepshow’ being released on Shudder one day early. I find I don’t have as much to say about this one. Both stories utilize the idea of hidden animals or creatures in Nature that can benefit humanity, and that those that hunt or seek them often find more for which they could have bargained. 

I wasn’t sure about “Skincrawlers” at first, though I knew based on the comics panel art it would be a body horror situation. It could have been that the fat-eating leeches were already controlling their human hosts, or they had laid eggs inside of the people seeking to lose weight. It was pointed out to me that throughout time people purposefully ingested tapeworms for a similar and grotesque reason. The protagonist looked like a man who unlike the others volunteering for the program realized he was actually happy with who he was, and how he looked, and that the leeches were too high a price to use. You kind of knew what was going to happen when the eclipse was mentioned on the news segment right before the leech demonstration was supposed to occur with the protagonist. I don’t know if there is really a moral here aside from the price one can pay when they try to skip steps, especially with their health, but the irony of the protagonist pushing a vending machine down on the larger leech, and being the only one of a few to escape it speaks of a particular karma or ethos. And for a man who wanted those creatures nowhere near his body, he really shouldn’t have eaten a candy bar coated in the remnants of the creatures and their horribly dead human hosts.

Now, “By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain” seems like a much longer story. Written by Joe Hill, and directed by Tom Savini, the story is about Rose: the daughter of a man attempting to find a mysterious and elusive beast called Champ in the lake, whose obsession kills him before the story begins. She has a younger brother, and a mother who lives with a greedy, abusive alcoholic Vietnam veteran named Chet who always needs to be the Alpha Male in the area. Rose’s boyfriend looks like Rambo thanks to his bandana and knife, but resembles more someone from the old Kobra Kai dojo in the ‘Karate Kid’ days. Rose keeps records and clippings of any Champ, or Champy sightings. She ends up finding proof that Champ exists, and that her father wasn’t insane, only to have Chet threaten her boyfriend (I was totally waiting for someone to tell her boyfriend to “sweep the leg” — I just can’t get that Kobra Kai 1980s martial arts image out of my head) and herself when they believe they find the dead body of Champ … and realize that they are wrong. The karma is served here and Chet is devoured, but it is clear that Champ — this analogue to the Loch Ness Monster as an aquatic dinosaur-like being — isn’t good or evil, but is an animal that reacts to hostility, and may well have devoured all of them including Chet if she hadn’t been distracted by the death of her progeny. The mystery as to what killed Champ’s offspring, as claw marks are seen on its side, remains — and Rose’s boyfriend’s attempt to carve hers and her father’s name into the side of the dead creature, which is seen as sweet, becomes horrible and sad when you realize it is the real Champ’s child, and is just another example of humanity trying to mark something from nature that it doesn’t understand for itself. But the mother at the end finally believes in what her late husband sought and with the death of her abusive partner, everything has closure and feels sweet and almost saccharine, until Chet’s severed foot arrives on shore.

This episode was all right, but it just didn’t feel like a strong episode or duo of stories to end off the first season of ‘Creepshow.’ It does make its theme clear: of this is what happens when humans meddle in elements of nature and the unknown that they don’t understand, and that your actions have consequences in a moralistic vintage horror ethos fashion, I feel like the previous stories might have been more solid to end on, especially on All Hallow’s Eve or Halloween. Certainly, the “All Hallows Eve” story from Episode 3 might have been better here. Nevertheless, they were solid stories, and I definitely look forward to knowing that there will be another season of ‘Creepshow’ coming up.

October 30/20

Warning: Potential Spoilers for ‘A Creepshow Animated Special’: Survivor Type / Twittering From the Circus of the Dead

When I first saw this, I was taken aback. I already knew that this would be a special episode, but what I didn’t realize were a few things. First, it didn’t hit home that it would be its own entity: not an episode, but a Special in, and of itself. And second, when the Creep began drawing his pages, scarring them with his black ink quill, I found my mind awaiting the transition from the comics pages to the live action as I usually do … and I almost forgot that this whole Special is, like an undead construct powered by necromancy, an animated production. 

The animation studio Octopie succeeds in making something resembling EC Comics’ Tales From the Crypt shamble across Shudder’s video screen to a terrible and gloriously shaded semblance of life. Everything, as it was in the first Creepshow is a homage to EC Comics’ horror series. Even the illustrated Creep resembles the first incarnation of the Crypt Keeper, or some interstitial version between the robed white-haired man and the rotten, cackling skeleton that we all know and love.

But that is another show, from another time. It’s been a while since I’ve written a review of a Creepshow episode and a lot has changed in just a year. This is the year of the Pandemic. This is the time of COVID-19. I don’t know if either of these stories, adapted from both Stephen King and Joe Hill respectively — father and son of horror — were animated by Octopie and directed by Greg Nicotero before or after the Pandemic, but they have some resonances.

I have to say, these stories are gross. Both of them. But they are gross in a way that doesn’t make them spectacle, but genuine existential and even empathic horror. In “Survivor Type,” created from Stephen King’s short story, animated in a manner reminiscent of Alan Moore’s own homage to old horror comics Tales of the Black Freighter with seagulls galore, we see a doctor stranded on a desert island named Richard. Aside from the fact that he is voiced by the great horror film veteran Kiefer Sutherland, which gives him a tremendous force of personality, he is quite relatable. Despite, or because of, his ties and drive to do whatever it is to survive you get driven into his story. Even though I know what kind of story this is, I actually wanted him to survive — to live. But when you look at the price of life, in that situation, there is a point where you wonder just how merciful it would be to exist at that point.

When you look at this current timeline we’re living in, where health specialists and professionals are practically on the frontlines of the Pandemic, not knowing how they are going to stop it but being painfully aware of what the effects of the virus will be on others — and themselves — perhaps even hoping for some miracle cure, some saviour that never comes. Or perhaps you can look at it as, through survival in a time of great isolation, we can go on through compartmentalization, but by doing so we lose little parts of ourselves and our humanity each day. Or if you go into even more existential extremes based on old EC horror comics morality — that humanity’s path to consume the world out of greed, as represented by the doctor Richard, will ultimately devour itself, this cannibalistic stretch practically makes itself.

Perhaps this read would be more effective in the adaptation of Joe Hill’s “Twittering From the Circus of the Dead.” It takes a while to get to where it needs to be, and while the red herring, if you will pardon the ghoulish pun and context, is a corpse that never gets eaten, the one in the following story is a “cock-sock” which I almost hoped would be a Chekov’s condom (and probably something Richard will never need again).

It is a story that is also narrated, but while Richard is the only character for the most part and it is easy to forget that he is narrating other characters too, Blake is around her family the entire time: on what will be their last family road trip. She is constantly on a Twitter analogue social media app complaining about her family and the trip “from hell.”

There is an attempt to humanize the characters but it is a little flat. And then they get to the Circus of the Dead. I will say, there’s a part of me that thinks this was an attempt to criticize the effect of the Internet desensitizing people to reality, or their own instincts. I don’t know. I wonder if a North American family would wonder why there is a Circus that has a zombie-theme and it doesn’t seem to be Halloween in their story. 

But I appreciate how the Circus arranges itself, how it operates like some kind of grisly Grand Guignol, and the audience isn’t so much a tough crowd as it is quite rotten, and … par of the course. Crypt Keeper humour all said and done, I personally think that Blake would have made a good social media manager for them, though the Ringmaster seems to have that all in hand.

I just, again, see the art of it reflecting this current time. The disease around the family and the few living audience members that they willfully ignore, the warning that they dismiss as spectacle, even the spray of undead gore that they don’t realize has already infiltrated them due to their carelessness all has eerie resonance now beyond a simple zombie story if the Hazmat suited circus member wasn’t enough for you.

Both stories in the Animated Special both have to deal with cannibalism, and the human desire and inclination to ignore the hard facts in front of them. “Survivor Type” haunts me long after watching it because you know the horror of it will just continue until the human completely becomes inhuman, and yet “Twittering From the Circus of the Dead” has only one human element at the end: that realization that Blake loves her family even though it’s far too late, and she must take the place of the announcer before her, who also lost someone she loved, and only continued to exist out of fear. In this time, isolation is the enemy: it makes us — borrowing from the above idea I wrote about  “Survivor Type” eat the different parts of us if we let isolation get to us, and forget the connections that we actually have. Both Richard and Blake scorned their connections, one thinking he could survive in life by his … own two hands, and the other wanting to get away from her family.

Yet, in the end, both of them wanted connection: both wanted to be saved, and both lost everything … including their humanity. Perhaps, in the end, in the time of a greater horror looming over us as we huddle with others or on our own, there is a dark morality lesson here to consider after all.