Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 2: Skeletons in the Closet/ Familiar
Spoiler alert. I … you know how you see a teaser for something, and there is a flashy moment, a scene that you think is really excellent and promising, and you want to see how it plays out? And then it doesn’t?
“Skeletons in the Closet” is a story written by John Esposito, and directed by Greg Nicotero. That title already had a great deal of promise to it, and the whole premise of a film buff opening up a museum display, only to have a rival collector threaten all of his plans, really intrigued me. Were we going to see them try to outbid each other on an auction? Were we going to see some weird, colourful horror collector characters, and a murder mystery amid gory practical effects memorabilia? Hell, were there even going to be some special guest stars?
No. Not really.
The murder weapons were all there. The effects were, well, in effect. We had so many Easter-eggs too, but you can’t make an entire story that is completely made from the bones of other works. My skeleton pun aside, I’m not talking about inspiration, or playing off a trope and finding your voice in it.
There is a homage, and then there is something completely derivative. And being derivative multiple times. It doesn’t even bother to hide it. It is a fairly predictable plot once it gets rolling. The film buff, Lampini, is actually the son of a former magician and movie memorabilia owner, and he is in a feud with a man who almost dated his mother before his father got him.
The collector, Bateman, wants the prop of a zombie from George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, and is blackmailing him into giving into him as one of his displays is actually a body that the film buff guy had dug up. So when things escalate, his girlfriend — Danielle — kills the man with a shoe that has a knife in it. And this is after she doesn’t believe her film buff boyfriend would dare be a ghoul, and dig up a corpse that was already used as a prop in a film before being returned to that grave.
Yeah. She is a pretty one-dimensional character, in both senses of the word: constantly snotty, a horror elitist, kind of arrogant, and hanging on her boyfriend’s every word until, you know, she finds out he dug up a skeleton. To be fair, the commentary on horror fandom here — art house and grindhouse snobs alike — is so on the nose it’s probably broken some facial bones on impact. And then he preserved his own father’s bones to do them like one of Ray Harryhausen’s Spartoi skeleton warriors. By the way, I love animated skeletons. They are light-weight, agile, they move insanely fast, and if you are a necromancer they are cheap to make. And it is a bonus if they cackle.
I will say this. Bateman’s body, once the dynamic duo stripped him down, and put his remnants into acid, did deliver on the laughing skeleton part. I think one of the things that makes me sad is that we saw, in the preview of Season Three of this show, one of The Tall Man’s spheres — a Silver Sentinel: you know, from Phantasm. And I was hoping, I just hoping Don Coscarelli would write or direct or even have influence over this episode, and make it a tiny one-off Phantasm story even if Angus Scrimm can’t be with us. Hell, they did it with “Public Television of the Dead,” though minus Sam Raimi. Unfortunately, that was not to be, but that prop did get to be Chekhov’s sphere.
And at least Danielle died, which almost made it better except for the fact that it was a clear parody of the Psycho shower scene, and it was perhaps supposed to be funny but it … just fell flat for me. I did like how the film buff’s father’s skeleton, and his rival’s bones got into a fight, and the father won. I think of Lampini as kind of like Lovecraft’s Pickman except his “magic” — as is bandied about in the story — isn’t painting, but collecting props, and when he can’t he makes them from the dead: including from the bodies of everyone he loves. It just comes across as more weird, and silly than anything else. But hey, at least we got a skeleton battle out of the deal, and a Silver Sentinel fulfilling its true purpose. And that callback to the original 1982’s Creep’s model was great.
I’ll take it, I guess. I agree with Karina Adelgaard of Heaven of Horror when she says this should have been the first episode of Season Three, if it was going to happen in this way. It would have been a great transition from Season Two’s “Night of the Living Late Show.”
But then we have the other story. “Familiar” is a story written by Josh Malerman and directed by Joe Lynch. It is harder to talk about this one. Whereas “Skeletons in the Closet” is mostly made of references and doesn’t have its own character so to speak, “Familiar” has a clearer vibe. One thing both episodes have in common is that the female characters are profoundly dismissive, but whereas the one in the former episode was practically singing her boyfriend’s praises, Fawn in “Familiar” teases Jackson a lot.
They go to a fortune teller named Boone after a night of drinking, to celebrate Jackson’s growing career as a promising lawyer and while the man tells Fawn her fortune, he passes a piece of paper to Jackson telling him that brought “something bad in with him.”
It makes you wonder, especially from the title of the story, if Jackson already knew about whatever this is. I actually thought that he was becoming successful because he had contracted a familiar — binding a demon — to do his bidding, but its presence was becoming intolerable, and soon he would have to pay the piper. That didn’t seem to be the case though, and he tries to dismiss it as if it’s nothing.
But when this creature seems to appear at random times, and then it goes all Brownie-Poltergeist on his office, and the restroom, he confides to his … girlfriend? Wife? He tells his partner Fawn, and she makes fun of him and his fear. She doesn’t see it and worse, when she’s not acting like the stereotypical white character in a horror film thinking something supernatural is cool and should be investigated or purchased for a lark as opposed to avoided like the plague, she is pretending to know it, and ignoring her partner’s obvious discomfort. Nevertheless, she doesn’t seem to mind him looking into it, but … You see, this is an interesting story for a few reasons, and one of which I hadn’t really thought about.
When I finished watching this episode, I looked at other articles to see if I could understand the ending. Yeah. That is never really a good sign, I even watched the ending again: to see I’d missed something.
Of all things, there is a Decider review of the episode by Walter Chaw which is profoundly also self-referential, highly full of itself, and eventually it descends into a kind of contradictory word-salad. I don’t generally get this critical of another piece of writing, but I have to call it as it is. But there is something he says in that article about Jackson being Black, and how the Familiar — the really cool antlered humanoid creature following him around — is subtext for, if you will pardon the borrowing from Forbidden Planet, “a creature of the Id.”
It is telling that the couple brings this thing into a room in which fortunes are told, that this is an unspoken, unseen dark force, a burden that they are unconscious, or subconscious about. Fawn is fairly dismissive of Jackson seeing this creature afterwards, and just goes about making fun of him. And what seems like mutual ribbing becomes a little one-sided. Other articles have said that the geriatric dog, Randolph, is Fawn’s but that was not the impression I got: that Randolph is in fact Jackson’s dog of many years.
These are all details that will be important because, after a while, Jackson goes back to Boone to get help to deal with this Familiar. Now, the story itself says the Familiar is a creature that is bound to someone and will do anything: lying, cheating, stealing, and even killing to stay with the person to which they are bound. The thing is, though, I know that familiars in folklore are summoned by magicians and witches to fulfill bargains, and carry out services. Certainly the book Jackson picks up seems to hint on this, and you’d think a lawyer that constantly prides himself on his knowledge of legal loopholes and the language of the law would be more interested in the symbolism of the magic circle and mage in that book.
How Boone presents this as, however, is that Jackson must take an object of innocence, in a binding circle, and trap the Familiar under a “magical crate.” Because this is, you know, all Loony Toons now, right?
So we can already figure out where this is going to go. It’s the Lambton Worm all over again. He has to take the crate, the magical crate, and dump it into a pond and get away from it as far as possible. So first, taking Boone’s suspect innocence sky pendant made by his sister, he traps the thing: only for it to mimic Randolph. You see, Familiars can actually possess the bodies of the dead and the dying just to masquerade as one’s friends, and stay by you because they are — again — bound to you. But when he lifts the crate, Randolph isn’t there, and the pendant is gone.
So no dog-killing today, just as it didn’t happen in the Lambton Worm story. Those poor, loyal hounds.
Right. So Jackson realizes he needs a replacement for the not-suspicious amulet … err, pendant. And so he visits his partner, and yes, Fawn is a sculptor. He realizes after talking with her that her gift for him, which is a lamb figurine I believe, represents innocence and love. He uses this to trap the Familiar. It … seems to mimic Fawn’s voice, begging to be let out, but he doesn’t check, and she is not answering her phone.
Then he dumps the crate in the lake, and seems to feel better … even though we hear Boone laughing like a madman in the background.
So, at the end, we find the Familiar with Fawn’s drowned corpse. It fades, and Fawn’s body is reanimated. It croaks to Jackson, as it embraces him, that “I believe you now.”
He does fulfill the Lambton sacrifice. But instead of freeing him, it costs him everything.
See, Chaw in his article takes pains to show that one Black man — Boone — is showing another Black man — Jackson — that his white partner isn’t good for him, or the dynamic isn’t healthy. There is a grain of salt in this that wasn’t actually used in a protection circle, but the idea of a successful Black man or person dealing with an issue that a white woman or partner or friend can’t see, possible gaslighting, the Familiar — in more ways than one — being that resentment, and anger, and the idea too that it might be Boone’s Familiar that he is using to attack Jackson and pass onto him so that he can free himself, and that it takes his dead partner’s form in a creepily Shakespearean Desdemona fashion is something that is intriguing, and disturbing.
But I was really unclear as to what happened. Did Boone trick Jackson all along? Did he have that Familiar follow him because he wanted to be rid of it? Did he resent Jackson’s success? Did he make Jackson aware of the social and cultural inequalities around him? Was Boone just a dick? Is the Familiar in Fawn essentially the dream Jackson always thought he wanted, in a career in law that he didn’t really take seriously, or care for, made manifest?
I went online — specifically on Twitter — to try to find an answer. Luckily Joe Lynch, the director himself, was in a generous and charitable enough mood, and he weighed in on the subject in the following exchange.
So, there you have it. But that matter aside, I feel sometimes I’m not as well versed in the horror genre as I should be, and there are references to other works and pieces that would help me get a better context. I will say that “The Familiar” was far more interesting, if sometimes vague, than “Skeletons in the Closet,” but while the former does have some charming, ridiculous moments, the latter definitely makes you think.
CORRECTION as of January 30, 2022: It was pointed out to me by Mike Smith, under the Twitter handle @bladeoffire1 that what actually was Bateman wanted the original Creep, in exchange for not telling the police that the original Dawn of the Dead skeleton had been dug up illegally by Lampini. It was a mistake on my part as both skeletons had white shrouds, and it was a bit convoluted. Man, if only Bateman knew the extent of Lampini’s ghoulish practices. He was no Pickman, artist or Dreamlander himself, but this observation actually improves “Skeletons in the Closet” a bit more for me.