Ash Vs. The World

Ash has had it. 

Between the Book that nearly sucked him into itself almost as hard Sheila’s enthusiasm, and the Book that’s bitten him also far less pleasantly, he’s narrowed it down to the one on the top of the rocky altar. He curses the Wise Man again for making him try to remember the ridiculous stuff, simple things, about “the words” and neglecting to tell him about which Book was which, and hopefully without any more fucking witches. 

He’s about to take it. But then, he does remember. Right. 

Ash clears his throat, throwing out his hands, perhaps getting points for dramatic gestures. “Klaatu, barada …”

And then, it fails him. No. No, this isn’t a thing. He knows this. He’s got this. He told the Wise Man. He’s a college student from Michigan State University. He’s good at memorizing useless trivia. He intones the words again. “Klaatu, barada, nick …”

Nick? Nick? Nick what? He recites a few words under his breath, each one with the letter “n.” But he isn’t sure. No. This is ridiculous. Ash said he’d get back to the Book that bit him, but the truth is, he’s done with this. He’s done with howling winds chasing him, with trees trying to eat him, broken bridges, with cutting off Linda’s cackling head, and the dead wanting to fuck him up. He’s sick of being bled on, black bile spewing on him, and getting torn apart. He’s definitely up to here with being possessed by demons, Deadites, or whatever the hell they are, and being thrown into a past of primitives, even if those grapes and those girls, and Sheila — kind, beautiful Sheila — are the best things after losing Linda, and barely knowing Anne, and his job at S-Mart, and trying to remember if he’s lost Cheryl too, and Scott and Shelly, or if it was LInda, then Anne and those other chuckleheads, and if any of this is actually real. The words are driving him just as crazy. He feels like he should know them, that they’re familiar somehow. Maybe he should have paid more attention in that Film Class elective. Right now, though, he wishes this was like he was in the fucking Wizard of Oz, because what could be simpler than tapping together some ruby slippers?

As it is, he’s tired of double-tapping these Deadite bastards. Ash just wants to go home. 

There’s no place like home, he thinks to himself, focusing on what he’s going to do when he gets back, thanking whatever isn’t insane in the universe and reminding him with that ghostly tingle in his stump that at least he didn’t lose his sexing hand. This bullshit ends now.

“Klaatu, barada, nic –” he coughs the rest of it out.

He looks around. Nothing’s happening. Just a creepy graveyard with three fucked up Books in it. He did it. It’s done. He reaches out for the Book of the Dead, ready to get this over with, taking it off the cold, rough stone. No problem. 

And that is when he sees it. It’s lightning, in the sky. No. It’s a shape. It’s coming closer. It’s …

*

Storm clouds gather in the darkening skies. Lord Arthur shouts orders to the men over the terrified screams of horses, and the cries of the people. In the middle of the turmoil of lightning and the thunder crashing, the Wise Man comes out. He looks around in the chaos, the wind whipping into his hood, and sweeping back his long grey hair and beard.

“Something is wrong!” He calls out, perhaps more to himself than to the rest of the people. “Something’s amiss …”

And that is when he looks up and sees it. The light …

*

There is something shining in the darkness of the firmament. It’s silvery, and round. It looks down from beyond the skies, from beyond the clouds, and the ozone. Only the stars are farther as it orbits the planet. 

A port forms, a dark rectangular shape opening into something not unlike a crypt of its own. A form stands in the black gateway of the hovering ship. It sees the electro-magnetic disturbances on the island below. It is not surprised. There had already been anomalous signs. Extra-dimensional, and temporal fluctuations had been occurring at an alarming rate. They weren’t due to directly visit this world for another six centuries. They were only to watch. To listen. Safeguards had been put in place as the proper protocols to prevent extra-dimensional incursions, these ones localized on another continent of this world millennia ago, were compromised: sending the signal to the ship. 

The figure’s head inclines. Its visor begins to rise. These extra-dimensional parasites, the servitors of their non-Euclidean creators, could not be allowed to spread: not on this world. Not on any other. An eerie light pulsates on the horizontal line of the figure’s face as a beam fires out, piercing the starry darkness … and making contact with the rotating blue and green sphere below it. The planet glows brighter than all the celestial bodies around it for a few moments before it disappears: completely and utterly vaporized. 

Gort stands at the entrance to the ship as it begins to close. Then, he turns around, and makes his way back in. His visual and audio receptors recorded everything. Even with the generations of Wise Men and the commands entrusted to them, this species could barely follow ritualistic instructions to protect themselves, never mind have been trusted to develop more power resources of energy, or making their way into the wider galaxy. This incarnation of the anomaly — what this world’s natives called the Naturom Demonto, the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis — has been destroyed. The potential incursion has been contained. For now. 

It’s a pity.

That human. 

He should have said the words. 

Made Family: Clive Barker’s Nightbreed

I bought the Director’s Cut of Clive Barker’s Nightbreed in the latter days of Suspect Video’s existence: a unique Toronto movie store, and cultural landmark. 

You know, to this very day, I don’t know why I bought it. It wasn’t the discount, at least not completely. It wasn’t even because it had been directed by Clive Barker. As it was, I’d only read Barker’s Books of Blood, and I am almost ashamed to say that I’d not watched any of his mainline films: not Hellraiser, nor even something based on his work like Candyman. Seriously, I’d only watched The Midnight Meat Train, and Dread

But I bought Nightbreed, long after I read about a contest in which fans of that world were to write stories set in Midian. And I had no idea what any of it was about. All I can remember, like a half-unmade dream, is that the title, and the premise of a community of monsters against humanity stood out at me. Or maybe this is only what I remember in retrospect. I know that there were a few cuts of this film, and that its initial release had been compromised by many studio decisions, and that “Occupy Midian” was all about restoring Barker’s original vision of the film to its audience. 

I’m not going to talk about that, except for the fact that I am glad I got this DIrector’s Cut, and watched only this version. What I will tell you is that it was only far after I watched the first Hellraiser, and before Candyman, during the height of the 2020 Quarantine that I opened up my copy of Nightbreed, put it in my portable DVD player, and saw it in its infinitely dark and glittering world-building glory. 

I saw a protagonist suffering mental trauma, never really quite finding his place in the world, and getting gaslit by someone he trusted, and then slowly realizing after running from the woman he loves that his delusions about a city of monsters free in the night, hiding underground, were all true. Madmen became his allies, and his brothers. Humans reveal themselves to be the ignorant monstrosities they really are. And the monsters that the main character always feared kinship with, yet secretly yearned to be a part, were complex, beautiful, terrifying, and so very vital and alive. And there were so many different creature designs, and mysteries, and a story that felt like both an ending, and the begijnning to another. I think what really got me was that throughout all of it, as the protagonist progressed, it wasn’t all about him, even as he navigated his way between two worlds the woman he thought he had to leave never abandoned him. Not once. 

And I watched this film all the way from the late insomniac night to the wee hours of the sunlit summer morning during a time of earthly purgatory. Yet, somewhere, I knew the monsters — the Nightbreed — were still dancing their labyrinthine, Dionysian dances of which no mortal could ever truly be a part. 

Monsters. Creatures. Outcasts. Dreamers. Beings of the night. All of them live in the city of Midian. Just think about it for a few moments. This film was released, such as it was, in 1990 and had antecedent in the late 80s. This was a movie about monsters where humans invade them, where the greatest murderer is a man, and the man who becomes one of the Breed is the hero: or at least, an exemplar of sympathetic beings that just want to maintain, and then be reunited with their home. During a time when markets were inundated with generations of films about evil monstrosities, things not human, things being different as threats to the humans that eventually destroy them — or are destroyed by them — I can see why executives couldn’t deal with that concept: even if they had read Barker’s 1988 novella Cabal from which it was based. 

I’ve read Cabal recently. And it read like an expanded story from The Books of Blood, all tight third person limited thoughts, otherworldly descriptions of monstrosity, sex, fear, and desire, and the petty parts of people warring with the melodrama, and the messy, hopeful life inside of them to show what they really are. I recognized Boone in this story, and his girlfriend Lori, and the tormented Narcisse, and the sadism of Decker. Certainly, the perspective on Decker himself — the psychologist who is both Boone’s gaslighter, and a secret serial killer with his “murder-hard” — was disturbing, and fascinating in turns. And it was particularly intriguing to see the psychic link that the young Nightbreed Babette made with Lori, and what they shared together. 

But honestly? I prefer the film version of this story: Nightbreed itself. Much of the plot is the same between both novella, and film. But there are differences. Lori has many more doubts about reality in the novella and has a distinct and instinctual revulsion of the Breed that she encounters when looking for Boone. We never see the strangely alluring spined beauty that is Shuna Sassi which we are introduced to in the beginning of the film. Rachel is more reticent and distant from Boone and Lori, even when the latter had saved her daughter Babette from being killed by sunlight. The priest Ashbury, who is a crossdresser blackmailed by the small-town Albertan police captain Eigerman, isn’t rendered into a mutilated, maddened torso by the scattering of Midian’s god Baphomet, but becomes a twisted version of Cecil B. DeMille’s Moses: killing the bigoted police officer to pursue his obsession on the Breed. Eigerman doesn’t survive to get petty revenge. In the novella, we see that Midian is a ghost town, but that the real Midian is established under the town’s cemetery, and Boone is first shot down in an abandoned house by Decker, getting the police to follow suit instead of claiming Boone is going to shoot him in the woods.

We see the brutality of human systems in the film, and their joy in it. Boone is brutalized by the police after they capture him when Decker frames him for another serial killing. And for a small Canadian town, we see that the police have a large armoury of weapons that would make some soldiers in the military envious when Decker mobilizes them to exterminate the people of Midian. This fervour reminds me so much of Barker’s  “Skins of the Fathers,” it hurts. And we see that this isn’t the first time. Indeed, in the film Rachel telepathically shows Lori the systematic genocide of the Nightbreed over the millennia by various human holy crusades that couldn’t bear their physical differences, and practices. It is graphic and upsetting, especially when you see how humanized they are, when you look at the Breed living their lives in the catacombs of Midian. It is the moment where you see the mural on the wall showing their history, and their underground markets, and rendez-vous that you realize what is at stake with this coming purge. 

And, like in the novella, Boone decides to save Lori’s life over the vows he made to keep Midian a secret: and it not only costs him the home he long sought, but even that place and people’s safety. However, when he returns and accepts what he is, and what he has done — like a more active Robert Olmstead trying to save the people of Innsmouth — he helps create a defense for his people. He even encourages Lylesburg to release the Berserkers: terrifying Breed not in the novella that are contained by their fellows because of their violence, just to allow women and children a chance to escape. 

But what gets me is that Boone isn’t alone. Lori never leaves him, and indeed goes back to save him from the jail, but unlike the novella it isn’t just Narcisse who aids her but both Rachel and Babette. There is this sense of comradery, this bond going deeper than a predatory bite turned into a supernatural rebirth, or baptism by the blood of a sundered, burning god. You see a disparate people, rejected by the world, or at least misunderstood by it, coming together to free one of their own: an outsider from even other outsiders, and they all return to where they belong: for as long as they have it. Narcisse’s death, after he sought Midian for so long and gained such power, to be killed by a psychopath like Decker is still heartbreaking, and there is something fearsome in Decker — in the film — having searched for Midian through the delusions of his other patients, just so the human monster can kill all other monsters that aren’t human. He is a counterpoint to Boone, especially in how he massacres families of both species, and I am for one glad that in the Director’s Cut Boone kills him for good. The tormented Boone dies with Decker, and after he encounters Baphomet one more time — with Lylesburg unfortunately dying in the film — he is re-baptized Cabal: to work towards gaining his people a new home that he lost them … no matter how long it takes. And meanwhile, Ashberry is a throwback to that terrifying Moses — chosen or marked by a deity beyond his understanding — to destroy these beings as so many so-called holy men had tried before: and all for a purpose beyond his understanding, and those of our own.

At the end of the film, we see the Breed did escape — though many also died — and they dwell in a farm. And the mural that we saw at the beginning shows both Cabal and Lori as Breed who will lead their people to a new home. 

When I think back to Nightbreed now, it reminds me of an older story I read years back. In Ray Bradbury’s “Homecoming,” we see a young boy named Timothy who is raised by the Elliotts — a family of ghosts and monsters — attending an All Hallow’s Eve family reunion. He keeps hoping that his powers will manifest, or he will start drinking blood but he never does. He ends up realizing that one day, he will grow old and die like an ordinary human by his monster family, and it breaks his heart. Yet the poetry of it is that this story is part of a larger one where the Elliotts themselves begin to decline as humans stop believing in them, as their homes are obliterated and appropriated, and Timothy — the human among them — helps them survive by carrying their stories onward: even recording them for the new world. I wonder, now, if Cliver Barker read Bradbury’s story at one point as it has a few beats with itL but while Timothy never becomes a monster, he is part of that family that took him in, just as Boone for all of his mistakes, becomes Nightbreed as more than merely being an outcast, or vampiric: but in continuing to wander, and help his family search for home.

There are a few subtexts here. It is no coincidence that Barker created this film in the 1990s given many LGBTQ+ events such as the AIDS activism, and anti-homophobia marches occurring for a vibrant people and subculture trying to survive a world that wanted them dead or buried. Also, the intersectional addition of Hugh Quarshie as Detective Joyce as a Black officer who sees the atrocities of the police on the people of Midian is no accident either: as you can see the evil of what happens when one diverse or historically discriminated group is silent the poor treatment of another. At the same time, I can see how many queer-adjacent spaces of kink, and polyamory, and geekery and — yes — horror fandom can relate to this film. We that glorify in watching blood, and sex but also justice, and the search for a new home, and even as we sometimes hurt and reject each other too, those that remain and remember what’s important will bust each other out of the jail cells of our personal despair, will band together, and celebrate what we love in macabre and beautiful dances in the night. It means a lot, to think of those late night revelries — dancing spirits — finding where you belong all the way past the twilight.

And some of these things are why Nightbreed is important. Many of them are why Nightbreed is important to me. 

A Tell-Tale Heart

I said it a year ago, on the first Halloween of The Horror Doctor, that this is the time when the veil between worlds is thinnest. It’s a time of costumes, candy, and contemplation. 

A year ago, it was the first Halloween everyone spent in Quarantine from the grim harvest that was COVID-19, before we had a vaccine. It was also the first Halloween without my partner Kaarina Wilson: an avid horror lover. 

So I wanted to enjoy my Halloween twofold, for the two of us, since she wasn’t here anymore to celebrate with me, or her family, or on her own. So I decided that from September to October would be a Grand Halloween, and I would do my damnedest to enjoy it all before I’d have to deal with a reality that I’d rather not.

And I did well. I went to my friends’ virtual horror viewings. I attended some Lost Drive-In Watchalongs, and even interacted with Joe Bob and Darcy, and the fine folks that also love them. And I watched as many of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, having returned and being all online this year, that I possibly could. 

So I’m not sure what this was going to be, this latest October 31st post, before the events of a week or so again, when my grandmother passed away.

My grandmother and I used to talk a lot. We were close. I was a demanding child, somehow to counterbalance the extreme introversion and shyness. I had her make me things all the time, when she could, and I was exacting. I wish I could tell you what I had her make for me, but it’s all lost to time now. 

During that time between my childhood and adolescence, I was a nervous being. In retrospect, a lot of my maladies were probably the result of anxiety. And my grandmother played cards with me, we watched television — usually Early Edition, or Keeping Up Appearances, or Are You Being Served? — to calm down.

But then, she also read to me. A lot of the time it was from books she already had like Little House on the Prairie, but sometimes I wanted her to make stories. To create them. I was fascinated, and scared, by horror. My parents wouldn’t let me watch 1980s or 90s horror, so I wanted as much of the classical stories as I could get away with. Now, my grandmother was many things, but she didn’t make stories. But she did retell them. I remember being in the basement of a house that saw at least four generations of my family on my Mom’s side, a dim place with crackled red and white checkered tiles with a bar that never saw much use anymore, and a fireplace that did. I recall, like my horror, being fascinated and terrified by that fire place. We would put in wood, but mostly white paper birch that we used to write on from a tree in the front yard, to burn. I’d stay away from that old grate as it would barely contain the crackling embers that spit out, as my grandmother would nudge it with a poker, as she would tell me about the heart buried under the floorboards, and the man that put it there: haunted by his crime of murder: committing it, and hiding it from everyone except himself.

It didn’t take long to realize that she was retelling Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and possibly conflating it with “The Cask of Amontillado,” but it did the trick, and it made me want more. And to do more.

I made all kinds of weird clay creatures from Magic Model plasticine and Play-Do in that house that she displayed for a while. I would create men out of Silly Putty, give them Lego armour, make vehicles, and crash them down the long stairs into the basement into a million pieces just to reassemble it all, and do it again, and again. And again. I am pretty sure she knew I did it too, but let that slide as I had some aggression to work out, those dual forces of creation and destruction that are so intrinsically part of my character. 

There were always woods where she and my grandfather lived, in her own parents’ house. I was always exploring, and contemplating the many ghosts that could be in the area from my late relatives alone. It was a bubble of time that also managed to make me very aware of it having passed. 

Sometimes, my grandmother let us get away with some things. For instance, while my parents didn’t want my brother and I to watch horror films, she would rent us movies, and some of them fell under that umbrella. I am pretty sure we watched Anaconda and Mimic under her watch while my parents were busy dealing with adult matters. And this isn’t even going into when we could get away with staying up a little later. I recall one time, at night, when there was a TVO horror movie with a woman affected by a love potion by a man, who dies, and her ghost haunts him still from the obsession he gave her. It was probably the first time I’d seen a simulated sex scene in a horror movie. There were many other times as well, and this didn’t even include when I could sneak snippets of Tales From the Crypt on Fox 29 when we were over for Passover Seders. 

Things were not always easy between us, especially as I got older. I was questioning a lot of my parents’ beliefs, and therefore those of the family. My grandmother was noted as being a peacemaker, but sometimes what that meant was that she would strongly advise something “for the good of the family,” even if you didn’t like it. Even if, sometimes, it was kind of tone-deaf. She couldn’t help it. It was probably socialized into her, her whole life, being a matriarchal force in a patriarchal family and culture. She would always side with my parents when I just wanted more freedom, and less structure, and her spoiling only went so far. 

Poetically enough, it all came to a head one summer when she blamed my first girlfriend for my rebellious behaviour. It should be mentioned that my first girlfriend wasn’t Jewish, but that I was rebelling far before I met her. She literally took me aside, and chewed me out over it, and essentially told me to tow the line. Never mind the fact that I’d missed spending more time with my friends at this time in my adolescence, at one point being dragged out before I could finish watching Fright Night with them, or not going on cottage trips despite my good grades, and academic behaviour. It was an unfairness that struck me, and those phone calls I used to make to her talking about new ideas, and my days, stopped. I didn’t feel like she was on my side, which I needed her to be — just once — but in a choice between me and my parents, it was kind of inevitable where that decision would land. As it was, it drove me further into my own rebellion, and alienated me a great deal. Years later, I would talk about this incident in Pornsak Pichetshote, José Villarrubia, Aaron Campbell, and Jeff Powell’s horror comic Infidel: which was funny, as my own father once called me a heathen, so there in a symmetry in the miniseries published two of my letters. Infidel is a comic about differences, and how in attempting to overcome them, sometimes they tear us apart. Sometimes, as Stephen King notes, the monster wins. 

I know I didn’t win, then. And this was a powerful experience from my grandmother that I carried with me for the rest of my life, for good or ill. Sometimes the people you love, that might even have good intentions, make mistakes. Sometimes, they simply come from a different place, and they will not see your perspective.

Sometimes, they will fail.

Our relationship was changed. I buried my part of it in the floorboards when I could. I moved as far away from it as I could, which I began to do with other relationships that failed as well. 

Of course, she was always there. She would be invited over to my parents’ and I made token appearances: and made them as brief as possible. I drew her birthday cards. And when COVID-19 hit, I wrote her letters: especially when she sent me birthday money, which she always did without fail. Eventually, over time, what was anger became just awkwardness, and distance, a gap of age and time. I knew she was never going to change who she was, and I wasn’t going to do so either. I didn’t go to many family functions. I still don’t as they aren’t really places for me anymore, unless I have the will and the lack of anxiety to do so. 

When she was sick, it’d not been the first time. I guess a part of me, just like with Kaarina, thought or hoped that she would pull through. Despite our differences, I still loved her. She was stubborn, you have to understand. So am I.

So, one day, I was told she didn’t have enough time. And, despite missing Kaarina’s passing and others, I made my way with my Dad to the house. It’s hard to see someone you saw so independent and strong, and stubborn, even when you disagreed with them, even when you remember all the times you spent with them, tired and worn away. She wasn’t speaking anymore. It was like she was in between dreaming states on that easy chair in the Den. The following morning, she passed. 

It was as though the darkness in the halls of that house I always walked through consumed the dimming light, and it grew throughout the entirety of the week of the services and the funeral. And I realized, with her being gone, that all of it was gone: the childhood, the house that was a part of my reality — even on the fringes — the anger, the disappointment, her distinctive chuckle, and all of it. She loved mystery novels, she always read them and got them from my Mom, and I can see how Poe came to her mind all those years ago when she retold those stories to me. 

And I suppose the mystery is how it all came to this point, which is life, and the horror of realizing one day I would be lying down like that in my own home surrounded by people that knew me: if I was lucky. If I am lucky. 

Reality sucks. I wanted to stave it off for just one more month, but these Twenties evidently want to suck as much as their twentieth century counterparts. And I have been angry, hurt, sad, and terribly tired. 

But this is something I have to write, something real, as autumn becomes fall, and Hallow’s Eve passes to the Morning. It was my grandmother’s house and the land that helped nurture the horror inside of me. It was those stories that made me want to know more, in addition to the remnants of old pulp comics she kept, and books that were collected. It was the little moments of grace where I got to see, and gained things I probably shouldn’t have but she let it pass. 

So maybe I did bury that old part of me. But perhaps, through seeing what was important at the end, I don’t have to have it drive me mad. I don’t have to have it beat through my conscience for the rest of my life. I got to see her again, for at least one last time. 

Rest in peace, Bubby Rose. You were almost a century old, and you saw wonders and horrors I can’t even begin to imagine. I am going to a Halloween Party with friends today as of this writing: where we will participate in a roleplay game as monsters attacking some heroic antagonists coming into our Dungeon. Maybe it’s not what the family might be interested in, and I know you would have hated even the idea of me hurting simulated lives, but it interests me, and I intend to have as much fun for as long as I can.

A funny thing though, before I end this post. When we used to eat at her house more often on weekends, when I stayed up late I would sometimes see some other television shows. And on a channel called TNT, far after Dinner and a Movie earlier that evening there was a strange man in a cowboy hat sitting on a lawn chair that was always hitting on a red-head that viciously never gave him the time of day. I never understood the point to all that, or the weird movies that played … But I do now. It was great meeting you that first time, Joe Bob. And thank you again, Bubby, for that little indulgence. 

Next time, on The Horror Doctor, I think we will talk about something else. Something else to do with family.

Creepshow Commentaries Season Three – Episode Six: Drug Traffic/A Dead Girl Named Sue

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 6: Drug Traffic/ A Dead Girl Named Sue 

So, despite my reservations from my look at Episode Five being equaled or topped by this  Season Three Finale, Creepshow delivered. And it delivered with power.

Literally.

There is a bit to unpack here, thematics aside, and I can’t promise that I will be able to talk about everything. These Commentaries, like most of what I write, focus on what truly stands out to me. Certainly, many other articles and commentators will examine exactly the elements that I want to look at here, and I feel like — at best — I will just look at the impact that it has on me as a viewer, and a student of horror. That is the best you will get here, and all that I am willing to promise. 

First, we have “Drug Traffic”: a story by Mattie Do and Christopher Larsen, with the teleplay written by Larsen, and the entire segment directed by Greg Nicotero. I just want to talk about the monsters here, to be frank with you, but the only way I can do that is to go a bit into the context: into the situation with which we are presented.

An American politician is riding what seems to be a Greyhound bus with various people, many of them ill, across the border to Canada so that they can get proper medical treatment. This fact, in and of itself, is a commentary on America’s terrible medical care system for those who are not upper-middle class, or generally privileged ethnically or racially as well as a look at how people will use this issue — under the guise of moral outrage — to gain power, or reinforce their own sense of moral superiority while not giving a single damn of the people truly affected by these forces. 

The politician, and the border guard symbolize both of these aspects. The politician running for higher office wants everything recorded, including him making a show of using his power to challenge this guard and his systemic discrimination. But the guard is intelligent and has his own left-of-centre views: calling the politician out on quoting Karl Marx, and blaming his posting on this outward border on his own views. Further, he does perform his job to the letter of the same system in which the politician wants to elevate himself, and he will detain and go so far as to handcuff someone in order to prove a point: whether someone else’s life is at stake, or not.

I am not sure which one of these people I dislike more: the politician is at least honest or transparent that the ordinary people he is escorting to the border to make a point about the terrible condition of the States’ medical program that they have to leave the country — claiming to want to make reform should he get his votes — are tools to that end. The border guard goes out of his way to say he is an ordinary man, and has the audacity to moralize to a woman he handcuffs and denies her daughter seemingly life-saving medication: claiming she is carrying more than the allotted amount of unknown drugs out of the country to another, and that her taking her daughter to another country for treatment is just a short-sighted solution for the greater problem that is America.

Meanwhile, that Asian-American woman is giving her visibly and chronically ill daughter Mai pills to keep her stable. And by stable, I mean in her body, and not detaching her head and neck to hover, and feed off the flesh of human beings.

And that was when I realized, I’d seen this before. The Far East Asian woman with the head that either elongates, or detaches all together is something you would see in, at least within Japanese folklore, as a member of the yokai or youkai: specifically a Nukekubi. Yet I also wondered, when I saw this, especially when I realized the medication the mother was giving Mai had information in a Chinese dialect. And this made me look up more information: to see if these beings existed in other places aside from Japanese mythology. And, as it turns out, there are beings called hitōban, or rakutō: though the former already has a line around its neck, and the latter’s body remains resting in its bed while its head roams. They feed off of blood and human flesh, but they also need to ingest vermin and lamp oil of all things. There are many different depictions of these beings in Far East Asia, and South-East Asia, but one interpretation states that if you move their bodies, their heads can’t reunite with them, and they will die accordingly. 

Mai seems to be, based on her entrails remaining under her hovering neck, a Laotian variant of this kind of being: a Phi Kasu: at least according to Ryan Thao Worra’s article Japanese yokai: The Rokurokubi on his Blog On the Other Side of the Eye. She doesn’t have to sleep for the condition to manifest either, but she does require feeding or a bloodbath will happen. 

My personal thought is that those pills Mai’s mother was feeding her, to suppress her hunger for human flesh and blood, contained specialized animal matter, or even something like lamp oil though there are issues with this concept because neither of these are illegal, or potentially illegal substances. There is also the possibility that it is brine in those pills, which is used apparently to reduce swelling in the organs so that their heads can safely return to their bodies, again according to Worra in his article The Phi Kasu: Supernatural entities of Laos on the above Blog. Certainly, Mai doesn’t need sleep for this condition to happen, though it tends to manifest at night: which seems to occur as she and the other passengers are detained by customs, and her body expels her — or her head leaves it — explosively, with only gore behind. 

I am not a cultural expert in this field, though it fascinates me to no end, but there is a folkloric antecedent for the brilliant practical effects rendition of the being that is Mai, this cross-cultural counter on a border between the East and the West, but there is an even greater precedent for how she, and her mother are being treated in this story: especially with regards to American land border crossing. I’ve taken Greyhound Buses before, and there have been a few instances where families or groups, usually non-white, are detained for a while as customs officials question them: delaying the bus from going further. Profiling exists in the system. Mai’s mother is Far East Asian, perhaps Laotian, but neither the politician nor the border official seem to bother to want to make these distinctions. Certainly, she has every right to take offense when she’s asked to read the Chinese on the packages of the medication involved that even she doesn’t know the contents of: as if just by being Far East Asian, even Asian American, she should automatically know the language. 

It’s true that Mai does look suspiciously sick — perhaps in withdrawal, or overdosed — and her mother is carrying a lot of drugs beyond the allowed amount, but I suppose I thought that the politician’s campaign was more publicized, and there was this implication that Mai was chronically, or terminally-ill. But the system is a failure: there are no Asian-American representatives at the border facility, no medical experts or even First Aid apparatuses. The guard is the only personnel there that day, and there is some obvious understaffing and underfunding going on despite the really fine waiting room everyone else sits in which I have never seen at a border station before. And, as i said, the official immediately wants to make an example of Mai’s mother just to spit in the politician’s eye. 

It could have been a completely avoidable situation, but instead it escalates, everyone else dies, and the politician and border official end up hacking Mai’s body up with an axe while her mother screams out for her, chained to a table, helplessly. And the sad thing is: Mai isn’t a terrible being. She doesn’t immediately try to feed on someone. She isn’t mindless. She is willingly taking the medication, and she almost loses her inhibition only when her mother is taken from her: and even then, one of the politician’s guards scares her away. She then tries to get candy from the vending machine, and looks in the official’s fridge to find food of any kind, and fails. 

Mai can’t help her hunger. I have no idea what kind of aid she expected to find in Canada compared to America for her condition, which is what it is in folklore: she isn’t part of another species, but rather it is an affliction, or a curse … or at least another state of being. Maybe her mother wanted to get her better medication that she doesn’t throw up, or a food she can safely ingest. We will never really know, unfortunately, as her mother cuts off her own head with glass so that Mai can take a new body.

And what happens at the end? What happens when the official destroys Mai’s body “for her own good,” and the politician admits he isn’t going to change the system, says racist shite about immigrants, and callously doesn’t seem to even care about his dead and eaten wife as they both drink some beers? Does Mai kill them?

No. Mai takes her mother’s broken body and staggers back to the bus … to be let on by the Creep. He does this sometimes, in some of the segments. He will interject himself at the end of stories, and break that fourth wall, and in this case — despite the animated skit of him holding her head joyfully out of the window — he is actually the good guy here. Mai is given the chance to live. She chooses to live despite everything that happened to her, and her mother, and the Creep takes her out of a narrative where she is doomed to make other minorities and sick travelers from the States suffer, to hopefully a better one with no further loss, and perhaps somewhere where she can get help, and be accepted. 

It’s like what they say about Frankenstein: the Monster isn’t Frankenstein, but Victor Frankenstein is the monster. And the Monster isn’t a monster, but the Creature. And Mai is only a monster in a system that hates sick people that can’t pay for their right to live, and placed in a system that is actively hostile towards her in a kyriarchal manner: for being disabled, female, and Far East Asian. At best, she is like what I’ve read of the rokurokubi magic tricks in Japan: where she is a minority token of exoticism to prop up a white American male politician’s career, and at worst a foreign abomination that needs to be exterminated, and an example of what “not to let into the country.” And I find it fitting that while the politician barely mourns the wife that Mai killed, she grieves for the mother who sacrifices her life so that she might live: an exchange of heads, of glances, on the floor of sterile governmental bureaucratic brutality in a parody of that Japanese magic trick that allows her to live, and flee the land of the free and the home of the brave that claims to want the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, and the wretched refuse of another’s teeming shore. 

I intimated that the politician and the border official are cynical and exploitive, and well-meaning and self-sanctimonious monsters respectively but they are just symptoms of a greater social justice system twisted and horribly wrong: creating disasters. And it is a theme that continues into “A Dead Girl Named Sue.” 

It is a black and white production, with a few exceptions. At first, I thought what we would be seeing is a homage to Serling’s Twilight Zone, or Hitchcock’s Psycho. But the clues are there. It is all black and white, and the date is 1968 during a time of upheaval. “A Dead Girl Named Sue” is written by Heather Anne Campbell, and directed by John Harrison. A small town police officer is confronted by a group of citizens, Black and white, who want to find a young man who has been committing atrocities, the son of their Mayor who has been escaping justice, and take the law into their own hands.

The segment has a slow creeping reveal of events worthy of George A. Romero’s ghouls. And at first, I wondered: were they really going to go there?

And they do.

By god, they do.

In the background, we hear about attacks. And it’s clever. At first, you think it might be Race Riots. Certainly, the timeline as when Romero’s creation was released, would line up with that. But then you hear reports of half-eaten victims, and news reports. And then went there. By god, they go to that place. I recall being disappointed by “Skeletons in the Closet” and wishing that Sentinel from the previews would be used in a story that was an outlier set in the dreamscape of Phantasm, just as the Deadites and the Necronomicon were flat-out introduced in “Public Television of the Dead.” Certainly, Night of the Living Dead” was also referenced towards the end of the Creepshow Season Two finale segment “Night of the Living Late Show.” I never even considered it. 

Yet here we were. Here we are, for that matter. We have basically something like a “Times is Tough in Musky Holler” situation, but I would argue it is more immaculate as you aren’t sure at first where it will go. The officer denies vigilante justice, even as they claim “the law won’t matter tomorrow” which is another clue as to what is going on. He instead goes to find the young man who has been committing these crimes, and arrest him again. This is where, at his place, he finds an old woman with parts of her gnawed off and the back of her head blown off as well. 

At first, you might think that the officer and the criminal have to band together and fight off the legions of the undead in this isolated place. But this officer isn’t Ben, and he sees something on the floor: a blue ribbon in this black and white world. He also notes the bed and the chains and the blood stains around them, which the criminal claims to be from “breaking his dogs in.”

What we see is something truly beautiful. 

The officer arrests the criminal. The young man is belligerent. He thinks that his father will just bail him out again, that he will just escape another trial, and the officer will be punished. It is methodical, much like Romero’s ghouls using tools to bring into a house, or slowly take some bodies apart from which to feed. The police station is still whole. The officer’s subordinate is still there. The townspeople are alive as well.

By the time a large, silent group of people walk down into the cell where the criminal is being held, you almost think they are — if you will pardon the reference to a spiritual descendant — the Walking Dead. But they are not. They are all the townspeople that this man wronged: everyone who lost someone they loved to this madman who has Daddy protecting him.

He is given a chance to admit to his wrongs, but he refuses. This is when the sack is brought downstairs: the squirming, shrieking sack. You see, there was a girl named Sue who had gone missing, and had been killed. This terrible person did it, but the coroner who could have done forensics on her body conveniently went on an all-expenses paid vacation to a resort courtesy of the criminal’s Mayor father. The problem is that standard procedure was to remove the brain, and put it in a jar: something that didn’t happen as the coroner was already gone. Sue reanimated, and well …

Sue and the criminal are reunited. You see a brief flashback, as you look at her very red ruby ring as she crawls towards him in that cell, of how he lured her to him, chained her … and let’s just say, I strongly suspect that her viciousness towards him, biting chunks out of him was more than just the ghoul need for flesh. 

By the time it is over, the officer admits to everyone as they ask him why he changed his mind, why he gave into vigilante justice, that if these are the End Times, where the dead are rising to plague the living, they probably deserved it. I would had him say something along the lines of:

“If these are the End Times, then let this be Judgment Day.”

The story ends with the officer and the others going to get the Mayor, to let him join in his son’s fate as society crumbles all around them. So fucking satisfying.

As I finish this write up of the Season Three of Creepshow, I have to note the following. The finale comes almost right before not only Halloween weekend, but Joe Bob Briggs’ Last Drive-In Walking Dead Special on Shudder, and it couldn’t have been timed better. We live in uncertain times of socio-political unrest, of chaos, and this episode hits harder than a double-tap to a zombified skull. And I am all for it.

Perhaps Season Three started out ambling, but it finished off strong: with the power of a broken system that needs destroying. And yet, that is the question: when this is done, what will we see after it? The Horror Doctor doesn’t know. But we will continue to find out. We will continue to write about it, and with both dread and anticipation, I intend to do so. And I need to watch more of Romero’s ghoul movies. All of them. 

Creepshow Commentaries Season Three: Episode 5 – Time Out/The Things in Oakwood’s Past

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 5: Time Out/The Things in Oakwood’s Past

To be honest with you, I wasn’t sure if I was going to write this Commentary this early morning during my nocturnal hours. I finished most of the films of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, even as my grandmother was fading from almost a century on this Earth. Frankly, I just didn’t know if I had time.

Time.

If there is one thing this episode of Creepshow has in common it is literally the theme of time. Remember when I left off my last entry wondering what surprises this show would have for us next week? Well, they weren’t exactly surprises. When you study a literary or cinematic trope for a while you identify beats and patterns. You can generally see where the story is going when you are practiced enough, or you’ve seen a fair bit. 

It’s like knowing people are born, they live, and they die: just as you have, you are, and you will — or that there are cycles to events that will always come around again. Sometimes you might forget the particulars, or lose yourself in the moments — and those are the places and situations that stand out from what is otherwise a predictable existential framework. 

“Time Out” is a story written by Barrington Smith, and Paul Seetachitt, and directed by Jeffrey F. January. A young man named Tim gains an inheritance from his grandmother Catherine, who recently passed away. I can’t begin to tell you how that hits close to home due to the fact that as of this writing two or three days ago my grandmother also passed. But unlike The Complete Works of Shakespeare that I was given, Tim gets a wardrobe that his grandfather — a World War II veteran who also apparently had a monkey’s paw (and thank fuck it wasn’t going to be a repeat of that episode, or the story from which it was derived) — got in Germany. Tim had also been at his funeral when the segment starts, and his grandmother warns him away from the wardrobe before he can go in there with the key he discovers in the drawer.

That wardrobe is no gateway to Narnia, however, and the key is no Silver Key back to some halcyon childhood, or dreams, or other planes of existence. Instead it contains a pocket of time outside of the main flow of linear time. And Tim takes advantage of it. He does much of his academic and legal work, spending hours in that wardrobe getting it all done just come out without even a second of external time passing. I’m not going to lie: as a writer, and creator I would have abused the hell out of this artifact. Imagine how many works I could create in there: though whether or not I’d be able to get a wifi signal based on the different flows of time is a whole other matter.

No, the wardrobe has two drawbacks: the first is that time does pass for you, and you will age more quickly. The second is that you must keep that key on you. Otherwise, the doors automatically close, and they will not open.

Tim is a man that wants to make up for the lost time of his father who died prematurely in a car accident before he could finish law school, or spend time with him. The poetic cruelty is that while he accomplishes tremendous amounts of work in shorter periods of time — relatively speaking — he accelerates his own physical decline, and doesn’t spend time with the family he’s making. The man even has a mini-stroke at a younger age: with the doctor going as far as to say he has the health of a man ten years older than he should be. 

It’s the same challenges someone would have in a high-pressure job, and having a family: in the workload always being on you, and the people you love wanting to spend time with you whether you are in your own mind a success, or not. But as Tim’s grandmother Catherine puts it, “you can’t cheat time.”

Tim almost backs off. He almost listens to his wife in saying that she doesn’t care about his position, but that she just wants him to be with her and his son. He should have listened, right? But Creepshow is about more than retribution, but also morality tales. In the end, he goes into the wardrobe one last time, and his key falls out of his pocket: outside. We already saw what happened to the cat at the beginning of the segment, and poor Kitty didn’t make it to Ulthar. And what makes it worse is after Tim turns into dust, his son goes into the closet — too — and the door shuts. That is how the story ends.

Tim’s grandfather had done the same thing. His father died in a car crash. And both Tim and, presumably, his son will follow them. There is always just that one more thing, you know? That one more task. Then you can rest, right? Then you can replenish yourself, or heal. But it’s always that one more thing, that becomes many more, and even when you see it coming the pressure, and the expectations on yourself keep accumulating … until it is inevitable. Until it’s too late.

This story hit me hard, and it would have done so even before the events of this week as I write this Commentary. Even now, I’m writing this extremely late when I should be sleeping, when I’m mindful of the habits that I kept when I was younger not necessarily serving me now that I am getting older. Imagine if Tim had pre-existing medical conditions, and he used that wardrobe. It’s grim, either way you look at it. But damn, did that story deliver. Damn, did I want Tim to make other choices. 

And sometimes, as I said earlier, you don’t see it coming: though there is this nagging feeling that you should. History repeats itself, or at least human arrogance dooms us to a cycle of events. In “The Things in Oakwood’s Past” we find ourselves in a glorious animated feature as directed by Enol and Luis Junquera, written by Daniel Kraus and Greg Nicotero, and directed by Nictero and Dave Newberg. Unholy hell a lot of work went into this production. And Mark Hamill is a voice actor in it too: playing Oakwood’s self-serving Mayor Wrightson.

The story begins in a news segment obliquely referencing a Carpenter Arctic Expedition Collection: a reference to John Carpenter’s classic 1982 horror film The Thing, and perhaps even Lovecraft’s novella  At the Mountains of Madness.

But then we have the actual story. Two hundred years ago, the people of Oakwood disappeared and left that mystery behind them. Now Marnie, the town librarian, found the journal entries of the previous librarian even as the town has discovered a time capsule in the form of a chest that doesn’t look ominous at all.

Apparently, the cycle of disappearances is older than merely 1821. They occurred in 1621, and even 1421 with the Mi’kmaq First Nation. Marnie discovers all of this in the journals, and the realization that the people weren’t killed by plague or war, but by a demonic monstrosity that slaughtered them. And, fairly soon, this iteration of Oakwood will be having its two hundredth anniversary. Marnie wants to stop this from happening, and according to the journal, the original townsfolk believed that the key to preventing their destruction is in the capsule: which, conveniently, has the date “1821” on it. It is also found under a particularly friendly tree that has the same markings in the journal and chest of not a Jack-o-lantern from hell. She and Mac, the news reporter interviewing her, have a great and wholesome attraction as they seek to solve this mystery: especially after the terrifying slides of villagers being massacred and flayed alive.

But Marnie’s father, the Mayor, has them stopped and they can’t open the box prematurely. You can already see where this is going, of course. It turns out, the chest contains the evil that they desperately seek to stop. It’s Pandora all over again. An added twist to it is that the historian Marnie is reading lies about the chest containing the salvation of the town: that an elder killed his daughter, and was then exonerated, and he told the people about the chest to make them open it, and slaughter everyone.

The monsters are grotesque and Lovecraftian. I thought there would only be one, but Hell is generous. We watch as the Oakwood people of 2021 are flayed open, cut in half, amputated, and murdered. Marnie barely escapes, with her father charging the sheriff in getting her — barely — out of town. A demon has a camera strapped to it as they all return into the chest, probably to wait another two hundred years. Why they do this, I don’t know: and it almost doesn’t matter. Demons always have rules, which I’m sure they hate but they will do whatever they can in the meantime within them to get their full of flesh and blood. No one else survives.

It’s sad as you see that these people had lives, and even the historian from two hundred years ago had his very human reasons to make that lie. We see what hell looks like as the demons not only don’t care, but they revel in showing it to viewers. The newspeople attempt to shrug it off and mention something about Rider’s Lake, and I don’t know if that is a reference to anything else. No one really learned a thing about history. The story will live on. It will continue on.

Creepshow outdid itself with this episode. Time comes for everyone involved. And seriously? If this were the last episode of the season, I would be all right with that given its strengths in making us relate to the characters, have empathy for them, dealing with the consequences of hubris and greed, and also telling some good stories, and creating even better art all around. But there is another episode, and I have to say: this one will be harder to live up to … or die for.

Creepshow Commentaries Season Three: Episode 4 – Stranger Sings/Meter Reader

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 4: Stranger Sings / Meter Reader

I’ve been busy, watching the return of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival and a whole slew of Canadian and International Shorts. After watching these short films, this time on a laptop screen as opposed to the larger theatrical view, and also being away for a day or so having attempted actual sleep during the night, returning to Creepshow is something of a breath of fresh air, or at least a sea breeze.

“Stranger Sings,” directed by Axelle Carolyn and written by Jordana Arkin, has a cute title which is a play off a popular Netflix nostalgia horror series that has nothing to do with this story whatsoever. Right, so the conceit of the story is that a recently divorced gynecologist named Barry meets with a seemingly equally awkward woman named Sara at a bookshop, and she invites him back to her place … where he finds out that her roommate Miranda is a man-eating Siren. Literally. Now, they don’t want to get him in order to devour him, in the ways he does not want. No, Miranda is tired of being an immortal being luring men to their deaths to fulfill her dietary habits, and Sara wants the Siren’s voice to attract, control, and kill any man she wants.

Basically, Miranda and Sara want Barry to switch their voice boxes: rendering the former mortal and human, and the latter immortal and supernaturally powerful. There is a little riff on the Siren mythos in this segment. Sirens technically are bird-legged, perhaps even bodied women that lure sailors to their deaths with their songs. Mermaids are a different form of mythological being preying on male sailors, but in this episode both are called Sirens: they just have different animal parts. So think about the Sirens of Homer’s Odyssey: they aren’t mermaids, but these bird women instead.

You got it? Good. A lot of that isn’t really important to the story. But it’s clear Miranda’s voice has absolute power over a man, and can make him stab his own eyes out, or worse. The eye-rolling practical effects we see when Barry gets affected are impressive. As for the plan though? Well, it is fairly risky for both women to attempt this. For example, they want Barry — who has no medical background or experience to do this procedure — to put one of them under while the other watches: so that there will be no funny business. And Miranda goes first.

I mean, if Miranda is knocked out, Barry could overpower Sara, kill her, and then slit Miranda’s throat. Or, he wouldn’t even need to do that. Think about it: Barry doesn’t have the background to transplant voice boxes or vocal cords. All Barry has to do is fuck up the vocal cords, Miranda is helpless. But Barry is a relatively bumbling, and well-meaning man: who in the beginning of the story says he should be lucky that Sara likes “weird things.” Like him. He just doesn’t have the nerve to do anything of that kind, even the surgery without being threatened. I suppose I can also see why Miranda just doesn’t take over his mind, and make him do the surgery: as she would have to be quiet in order to have that power taken from her, and a man only remains ensorcelled by the Siren’s song if she is singing. It won’t last if she stops. 

It’s an interesting dichotomy looking at Sara and Miranda’s dynamics. Miranda is ancient, at least five hundred years old, young looking and beautiful with the power of her song. But from my understanding, she has difficulty pretending to look innocent, or not-threatening, and this is why Sara is used as a lure to bring ease to men, pretend to need help — such as books and coffee carrying, and door-opening — so that Miranda can do whatever she wants to them, and even feed off them. What’s also fascinating is that Miranda started off as a Siren, and was getting tired of eternity and feeding on human flesh. She couldn’t, as she mentions later, help what she was: which is why she needed someone to “help her die,” and free her from an existence that’s become a burden to her. But Sara is different. Despite her seemingly innocent and awkward mien, she is vain, petty, and cruel. She thinks that a lifetime of being passed over as “the fat or dumpy woman” by men gives her the right to take away people’s freewill, and therefore entitle her to their lives. She makes no bones about wanting to kill Barry once he’s done, and even makes fun of the fact that his ex-wife found him worthless in complete contrast to their sympathy from earlier.

The thing is, Miranda might be a monster but Sara is a genuinely terrible person. In the end, however, as Sara gains Miranda’s voice box and is about to kill Barry, Miranda murders her with a blade bathed in the blood of her last human victim: which can actually kill immortal Sirens as it so turns out. I’m not sure why she killed Sara. Perhaps Sara had always been just a means to end: to allow her mortality. Maybe she didn’t want Sara to potentially kill her one day, or she knew too much about what she used to be. Or perhaps Sara was just that unpleasant a person that even an inhuman being like a Siren couldn’t stand her. Or perhaps, to make another Odyssey reference, Miranda is to Scylla as Sara is to Charybdis.

Or it may be even more banal, as Miranda seems to have a thing for Barry herself. And, after all, she said she “might” let him live if he did as she asked. Certainly, she gave him way more chances to obey her without hurting him too much. Meg Shields, in her Film School Rejects review of the story, examines a lot of its narrative flaws, including the Karmic Houdini aspect of Miranda getting what, and who, she wants despite centuries if not millennia of consuming men. I don’t know. Personally, I was more confounded that Sara wasn’t already a Siren, and I believed there might be a third one as per the mythological trope of mystical, monstrous women. Really, though, I’m glad nothing bad happened to Barry — who seems like a genuinely good person with terrible luck in relationships — and that Sara pretty much got what she deserved. As for Miranda, well can you judge a monster by human standards, and when a monster becomes human and wants to be better — even killing another monster, albeit by their own design — can they be judged by what they once were? Or am I just overthinking this, and would I have made another story with some more depth that Creepshow episodes don’t always allow time for? I like the ending, for what it is, so I will take it. Besides, I absolutely loved the Siren’s lair — their home I mean — and their costume was so ancient Achaian.

But speaking of a lack of consensual control, and a title’s poetic rhythm we have “Meter Reader” to consider. “Meter Reader” is a segment written by John Esposito and directed by Joe Lynch. So imagine The Exorcist: except instead of it just being Pazazu possessing a prepubescent girl to destroy humanity’s belief in a benevolent Creator and Creation, think of a whole slew of demons taking control of millions, if not billions of humans all over the world. There is debate as to whether it is an infernalist attack, or a plague. The episode is narrated by a periodic voice-over from Therese, played by Abigail Dolan, as she explains that less than 10% of the human population is unaffected by the contagion, and of that number a few have created green crystalline wands called meters that can detect possession: and that the people who go out to deal with demonic infestations are called “meter readers.” I absolutely adore the rhyme.

The story, at first, seems to be about a meter reader named Dalton: who visits a mother whose daughter is affected by the plague. Apparently, in this world there is a point where a victim can still be saved if you intervene fast enough, but barring that the only known way to stop a possession is to kill the victim: usually by decapitation. This fact is why there are garbage trucks that come along to pick up heads, and burn them. Also, if someone comes back from the worst demonically-affected territories after three days, they are to be considered infected and quarantined until a doctor can test them. To get it out of the way, the COVID-19 parallels are incredibly on the nose in this story except, I would argue, for one thing.

There are people with natural immunity to this infection. Not so much in our world, and this doesn’t count vaccines: of which this world does not seem to have the equivalent.

When you are first introduced to Dalton, he seems like a lone demon hunter: intervening in the worst places he can. He even carries a mirror, and knows he can spot a demon on its victim through it. He also seems to know that they have names, or true names, and that after conferring with the girl he is supposed to help, he doesn’t seem surprised that her tormentor doesn’t share its name willingly.

I did see that twist coming about her mother, or the adult woman claiming to be so. It was well-played, and even more narratively clever when you realize this isn’t Dalton’s story: but that of his oldest daughter Theresa. She and the rest of his family are waiting for him to return, and realize he is past the time of being safely uninfected. He ends up coming back past that time, and they get him to stay in the cellar: with Theresa wanting to kill him, by his own previously standing orders, because she believes it is too late for him, and he is already possessed. It’s a bit confusing: some people have immunity, but through perhaps intentional exposure to the demons, they can get affected. Or perhaps it isn’t immunity that they have, but greater resistance: which would track more with the COVID-19 parallel.

These parallels keep going. You have people wondering if it is a religious reckoning, or a scientific phenomenon: though in the end, it doesn’t seem to matter how it began, just how it is dealt with. Theresa’s mother wants to let her husband back in the house, downplaying his potential possession and the danger he could pose to the rest of the family, as does her younger brother who her mother keeps encouraging. Theresa also has a bad ass colourful and artistic machete, as Meg Shields also points out. And to think I almost believed it was just blood on the blade.

Now, of course, you know the family are going to break for that cellar. And Theresa has nightmares of her father slaughtered their entire family. She had a younger sister named Maddy who had been taken over, and Dalton had been forced to cut her head off. I knew there would be another twist somewhere. See, I wondered if perhaps that 10% of initially unaffected, or resistant people, were the ones that created the plague or summoned the demons. Maybe they were demons, and they tricked humans into hunting down others of their kind. I mean, those readers look like mystical staves or wands: not something scientists, or even conventional monotheist mystics and theologians would forge. I was just imagining Theresa realizing, or remembering, that she is a demon herself as is the rest of her family.

I was kind of right? It turns out her mother and brother were both affected by the plague, and Dalton didn’t get home in time to deal with it based on what happened to him on his last mission. Dalton is dying in that cellar as Theresa is forced to kill her mother and brother. Maybe they had gone out and been exposed to someone else, or it had already affected them and Dalton had a method of keeping their possession at bay — I keep on wanting to say their “assent”: that point where a human and demon soul bond forever, a concept mentioned in Pearry Reginald Teo’s The Assent. Theresa has inherited her father’s immunity or greater resistance, and isn’t affected by demonic possession as others might be. She ends up taking his reader, and going out on her own to continue his work. Basically, as Dalton said on his last mission, he isn’t a priest: most of the reader’s aren’t. Instead, they are just an everyday working Joe or, as Therese says, Josephine. That hoky last comment aside, I how Therese starts off the segment saying how this incident is something “putting humanity on trial,” and it just hits home.

I love the world-building here and, of the two stories, “Meter Reader” with its “Stranger Danger” subversion — the idea that anyone can carry this disease, or be a monster — carries through. Both segments are about monsters in human form, regardless of whether or not they stay resembling the latter, and the little cruelties we can do to each other. And, as such, hopefully we will see what other surprises might be waiting for us in Creepshow

Creepshow Commentaries Season Three: Episode 3 – The Last Tsuburaya/Ok I’ll Bite

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 3: The Last Tsuburaya/Ok I’ll Bite

I was hoping for a stronger episode of Creepshow this week, and after an autumn evening excursion to Stormcrow Manor in which I watched the show the following day, I wasn’t disappointed.

It is beautiful to make something. It’s also satisfying to help something grow. And when it’s arbitrarily destroyed, or ruined, it is equally edifying to see that revisited on the parties that have done it: or seeing from that destruction something newly created. 

“The Last Tsuburaya” is a segment directed by Jeffrey F. January and written by Stephen Langford and Paul Dini. The title itself keeps you guessing for a little bit. At first, you might be thinking that it’s the story about the last descendant of Ishido Tsuburaya receiving the final painting of his ancestor found in a monastery under Mount Fuji.

They make a great deal about Tsuburaya himself: claiming that he was one of the greatest artists of the Meiji Era: namely, the time of the Emperor’s Restoration after the fall of the Shogunate. None of that particularly matters, though, as Tsuburaya — the contemporary of seemingly also fictional luminaries such as Beguwa and Yoshi-Doshi — has a painting style very reminiscent of pre-Meiji Era Japanese art renderings of yokai: of spiritual beings and monsters in folklore. When you see samples of his work in the beginning of the episode, they remind me of something Utagawa Kuniyoshi — a master of ukiyo-e style of woodblock prints and painting — would have made if you’ve ever seen his “Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre” depicting the summoning of a Gashadokuro: a giant skeleton. Combine that with the disturbing and bloody manga work of Ito Junji and the darkness of Francisco Goya, and you seem to get the composite character of Ishido Tsuburaya.

Basically, before we can even look at the man’s descendant, or look at more the yokai that the man painted, or even hear about the “notorious art collector in Moscow” that the lawyer says is fascinated with this lost piece (who may actually be real-life collector and artist Alexander Ivanov), along comes in the aspiring Elon Musk known as Wade Cruise. This particular billionaire gets his jollies not from buying everything, or collecting art and women, but feeling the power of the destruction: specifically holding it over another person, or thing. He is a terrible human being. At least Tsuburaya, for all of this misanthropy, had been an artist and did something creative with his hatred for humanity. That is inspiring. Cruise is a consumer that finds life cheap, and destroys something unique, or threatens to do so to give his small, petty heart something to feel.

And this is what he does when he hosts a party at his penthouse, just to open the crate and look at the last painting of Ishido Tsuburaya: making sure he is the only one that sees it, so that he can burn it into ashes right in front of everyone. He thinks this illustrates power: his power.

What we end up getting is an inevitable lesson in karma.

Oh, I suppose I am a cheap date when it comes to horror and retribution, because maybe a petty part of me is like Cruise: except I like to see small, arrogant, snobby creatures passing themselves off as human beings get obliterated by their own actions. At first, I thought his artistic girlfriend would reconstruct the painting: that it would memetically take her over. But this isn’t her crime. It’s his.

Only Cruise can see — by his own design and sheer arrogance, his hubris if you’d like — the beautiful creature that very much resembles an oni. At first, you’re led to believe it is just in his mind, and perhaps it only manifests there as he is the only one that can see, and interact with it. It hunts him, stalking him, terrorizing him no matter where he goes. Finally, however, he realizes that not only can it affect him, he can damage it.

Cruise had the site of the painting’s destruction in his private gallery of culturally appropriated Japanese art, adding another layer of sliminess to this detestable man. He uses the weapons he has there, one of which being a sword, and a pistol, and even a bo I believe to eventually kill the demon … which turns out to be our friend Ishido Tsuburaya: whose hatred had transformed him into a monster, and trapped him in his own painting. For all that vision of Cruise’s girlfriend said that he and Tsuburaya would have been best friends, it seems to be the opposite. Tsuburaya may have had a long time to think about his hatred, and the place where it traps him, but as he dies he tells Cruise that while he freed him, his own curse is just beginning.

And, in a sequence that is beautiful, Cruise sees himself changing into the demon and runs himself through on the weapon he used — at least from his perspective — on Tsuburaya. It is so much more satisfying than if he had hallucinated his girlfriend as the demon. Later, we see his dead body — all that wealth and perceived power taken away by fear — and it may be that he had just gone mad: except one of the paintings has changed outside of his death. It looks just like the demon.

If any of the above names of Tsuburaya’s contemporaries are real artists, please feel free to let me know. I absolutely love learning about these elements, and I wonder what would have happened if Tsuburaya’s descendant had actually gotten, and seen the painting himself. I was tempted to think of Tsuburaya as a kind of Japanese Richard Upton Pickman: and though after all of this I suspect that the only ghouls he viewed as references were human beings, he did become a monster just him: though far less accepting of that fate.

I do like creative and innovative figures, but speaking of predators that are hard to see, and those that take advantage of the callousness of the bluster and carelessness of others, let’s talk about the spiders and their keeper Elmer Strick in “Ok I’ll Bite.”

I have to admit that this story, written and directed by John Harrison made me pause by the title alone. It seemed silly. Even the premise reminds of something of a combination between the Bird Man of Alcatraz and Willard. But the karma is dark and heavy, and Fall is an especially excellent time to reap it all.

Elmer is in prison because he committed euthanasia on his cancer-ridden mother. He’s been in the system for a year, and he almost gets parole: until a guard vouches for the fact that he attempted to poison another inmate. You see Elmer — not to be confused for Aylmer from Brain Damage — is something of a lover and expert of arachnids: spiders. He is a fairly gifted chemist, whether professional or amateur initially, that works with the prison’s doctor as an assistant. Before he was put into prison, he was working on a way to synthesize from specialized venom an agent that would kill someone quickly, and without any pain whatsoever.

See, this conceit for a character would be a good story in and of itself. But it doesn’t go there. Instead what we see is a man who is being exploited by a prison guard, who lies about his poisoning, to get him to work on creating opium for his shady side business. Now, you might already think that what this will lead to is Elmer realizing he has nothing left to lose with the loss of his parole and, combined with the guard’s prisoner lackeys making his life a living hell, unleashing a swarm of pet spiders all over the prison system itself: or just for his tormentors.

Yet Elmer doesn’t seem to have the right ingredients yet. I read, not too long ago, a short story by Neil Gaiman called “The Case of Death and Honey”: where we find out just why Sherlock Holmes undertakes beekeeping after supposedly retiring from solving life’s great mysteries. Elmer seems to also be engaging in a form of alchemy with his pet spiders: each one different from the other. He has five official spiders: Min (named after the Egyptian god of fertility), and his “harem” members Grace (for her delicate webs), Azrael (for the angel of death), Izanami (the Japanese goddess of the underworld), and Hecate (the Greek goddess of witchcraft). He also has a larger spider hidden behind the lower part of the wall who I believe he comes to call Sakhmet (after the Egyptian goddess of war and the destroyer of Ra’s enemies as well as a goddess of healing).

Sakhmet is only mentioned after he receives a letter from an Egyptian peer, who respects his work as a fellow scholar and scientific innovator, giving him a hieroglyphic spell that will apparently allow its user to be transformed: to be resurrected into perfection. This research and performance is accelerated after the guard’s criminal lackeys break one of Elmer’s fingers, and kill his beloved Min — a cute, furry spider — right in front of him: crushing him under his foot. Combined with one of the spiders attacking the prisoner trying to kill it too, and forcing the warden to order their destruction that Elmers: sketching glyphs on the ground, letting Grace, Azrael, Izanami, and Hecate pin his limbs as Sakhmet consumes his face.

Yet this isn’t end for Elmer. At least, I don’t believe so. If the spell is what it seems to be, it transforms hm — or transfers him — to Sakhmet: resembling a large spider with the face of the person whose victim fears to drain their life force away. This is what the spider does to the guard who comes into Elmer’s cell with the intention of beating him: only to be trapped by its webs, and consumed by the being wearing perhaps his mother’s face. It is also further implied that this being is still alive, and waiting behind the wall where Elmer had been feeding it initially. It might come across as a little corny, but revenge is juicy enough, in conjunction with the idea of Egyptians believing spiders can provide the means for immortality, to pay it off. Also, one of Elmer’s books, Bugs: The Miserable Philosophy of Billionaire Upson Pratt, is an excellent reference to “They’re Creeping Up On You” segment in the classic 1982 Creepshow. There is just something vintage and EC Comics about this story, complete with an obsessive but sympathetic protagonist, and his lovable spiders that just gets me right here.

I think I had a harder time writing about these stories because I like them a lot. When I do look at works I like, I generally focus on my favourite parts, and want to know or explore more about them. And I just can’t say this enough: you can never get enough karmic retribution, especially from the destruction of art, or a beautiful creature … least of all in the horror genre. 

Creepshow Commentaries Season Three: Episode 2 – Skeletons In the Closet / The Familiar

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?

Yeah.

“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.

Creepshow Commentaries Season Three: Episode 1 – Mums/ Queen Bee

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 1: Mums/ Queen Bee

It’s been a long time since Season Two, and even the Specials, but after the Christmas Special we are now going into autumn, and the grim harvest, and everything that falls from there.

Chrysanthemums. In Japanese culture, they apparently symbolize death, but also immortality. Violet or purple ones also represent the wish to “get well,” while pink are all about “longevity.” I’m not entirely sure, but even if these aren’t the plants, or flowers, that feature in Rusty Cundieff’s “Mums,” the first Creepshow story of Season Three, adapted from a story by Joe Hill, these aspects can definitely be seen.

The story is a variation of what we’ve seen in karma-based stories that were ever-present in EC Comics and its spiritual successors such as Creepshow. A woman is abused by her husband, and a child — Jake — is forced to watch it all happen. His mother is murdered, and she is buried in the flower garden that she loves.

But the details are fascinating. Jake’s mother wants to take him to see his great-grandmother, his Meemaw, which is an interesting term as I didn’t know it was a common one for grandmother, and the rest of her family. She’s taking him away from what turns out to be a man, and his friends, attempting to create a “two-bit terrorist” cell that is both secessionist and Confederate-based. Later, we see them referring to a book called The Pale Horse’s Cookbook: which presumably is a compilation of American terrorist ideologies, and home-made explosive designs — the latter of which they are planning to apply to a building. Whatever the situation, in Creepshow death is always in season.

It is a well crafted cinematic narrative. At first, it almost makes you wonder if Jake’s mother — who plans to run away with him — is actually a good person, and if his father is necessarily a terrible one. There are  a lot of references to how bad his mother’s family was to her, and some “strange ideas.” The fact that Jake’s “Meemaw” is over a hundred years old, perhaps older, made me wonder if they were a family of witches, and his father was actually keeping him — or thinking he was keeping him — safe from them.

Even when his father murders his mother elsewhere, and he discovers the seeds in the packets — in the suitcase she packed for the both of them — and the emphasis on blood, I was thinking that both Jake’s mother and father were terrible people, just one in a supernatural sense and linked to her family, and the other in a more banal, abusive, “red-neck” terrorist one.

I really appreciate, however, the variation of abuser to which Jake’s father is actually depicted. He doesn’t smack his son around, or have incoherent rages. He gaslights his wife. He makes it clear that she is an alcoholic, though according to Jake she quit a while ago. But even if she didn’t, her illness and genuine pain is being used by his father to excuse his actions. He wants to keep Jake as his heir, his property, to indoctrinate into his whole idea of personal sovereign land, and make him read that terrorist cookbook. It’s your basic toxic masculinity with more than a side of guns, and explosives.

But Jake’s father fucks up. He kills Jake’s mother. And then he smoothly lies about it, pretending that she is in a “half-way house” and that she will choose “drugs and booze” over Jake any day. He also buries her in her garden, on his land, thinking the law won’t dare trespass. He is an overall terrible human being, who — as it so happens, and as also transpires — doesn’t know as much about the land as he thought he did.

Jake learns about blood. And when I say that, it’s not that he embraces the legacy of murder that his father sets for him — at least not in the way his father intends. He plants those seeds in his mother’s garden, which he doesn’t know is her grave. It’s your basic Cain and Abel situation of murder all over again, where the ground tells. But it gets told through pretty flowers. I began to wonder if Jake’s maternal family were, again, witches, that used blood magic to create plants that obeyed their will: feeding off life essence to do so.

I had it in my mind that the seeds Jake plants are like “dragon-teeth” as per the ancient Greek custom of Thebes, or in this case, his Meemaw’s teeth. Certainly, the humanoid face that appears from the ground could have been  his mother’s altered corpse, but also his ancient Meemaw who lives in the ground. But the story doesn’t go there, even though Jake and the floral entity he nurtures from his mother’s death, gain retribution on the woman who pretended to be her friend and betrayed her, the man who helped his father kill her, and his father who was ultimately going to kill him. And as Jake drives the van, with four of those plants with tiny skulls in them, to see his Meemaw, I wonder if she will ultimately be proud of the boy, and the kind of man that he can become: perhaps even under her tutelage.

Of course, we can’t talk about flowers without considering the bees that pollinate them. I mean, in the hellscape that we’ve made our world bees are an endangered species, and their extinction will mean our own. The honey they create is a byproduct of what they truly do, as is the growth of the plants that will become fruit and such to keep our ecosystem going. They do, however, prefer human aid in continuing to build more secure colonies, and reproduction is their main goal.

Greg Nicotero is the one that creates the story “Queen Bee.” It feels like that would happen if Are You Afraid of the Dark, or Goosebumps, attempted a … B movie. Three adolescent children want to see their favourite singer, Regina, give birth. She actually goes as far as taking control of an entire hospital floor to have privacy. There are so many references to “not having a father,” the name “Haddonfield,” and pregnancy in a secret place, and even a reference to the end of the world that made me thing: “Oh yes, this is going to be another Anti-Christ.”

It’s not. Instead, what happens is the stupid antics of these three kids reveal as they infiltrate the hospital to invade their idol’s privacy, that Regina is actually a … not even vaguely humanoid giant Queen Bee, who is mind-controlling staff with green eyes to facilitate her transformation into her real form, so that she can give birth. She controls them through the sounds she creates, which makes sense given how she’s also a musician.

Eventually, at the end, one girl betrays her friend — even after they are nearly killed by Regina’s drones, and one of their friends is murdered by her — because she is her “biggest fan” at all costs. The fanatical girl, Debra — as played by Hannah Keple — has an absolutely smackable look on her pouting lips. You seriously wish, at the end of this story, that she and her snooty attitude of fan-worship would be repaid by her becoming a meal for her Queen. Seriously, I didn’t love to hate her. I just hated her, though it is in keeping with some stereotypical teenage — and even some narcissistic adult — selfishness. But this is one story where treachery, and even hypocrisy as it was Debra who had them go into the hospital and knew about the whole situation because her mom was a nurse there, is rewarded. Or, perhaps, it’s safe to say that her loyalty above friends and family to her idol is what is recognized.

It’s funny. Jake’s mother, the gardener, in “Mums” is named Bloom and she tries to save her son’s life: and in an indirect way she succeeds: the archetypically feminine power of flowers consuming blood, making it, and freeing him from patriarchal control. It even helps him realize that Beth, the woman who betrayed his mother for his father, isn’t the matriarchal figure that he wants. Whereas in “Queen Bee,” even though I feel like it is the weaker of the two stories, Regina also cares for her children and kills and controls anyone and everyone to nurture them: while taking those loyal to her under the hive-structure in which she creates: her musical production linked to her own reproduction. These are some fascinating feminine themes either way you look at it: the story about a flower and her seed, and about a queen bee recruiting another drone for her hive.

And as with “Mums” — which as of this writing is misspelled as “Mumms” on Shudder — and “Queen Bee,” the journey will continue deep into the ground, where the dead go and their spirits rise, and covetous, green-eyed fans will continue to do anything to make sure that their stories continue on: and they get their pound of sweet, sticky, bloody things. 

Pat Mills’ The Retreat Bashes Back

I wrote this response to Fangoria back in June, and I thought I would share my thoughts on Pat Mills’ The Retreat with the rest of the class, with spoilers.

As a disclaimer, I’m not an expert in the exploitation genre, or any of its subgenres. As of this writing, I haven’t even seen I Spit On Your Grave. However, after reading Phil Nobile Jr.’s “I Spit On Your Gatekeeping” on the Terror Teletype I watched Pat Mills’ The Retreat at the beginning of Pride Month, where a lot of other discussions about respectability politics, and some resurgent controversies about marginalized identities in horror itself were — and perhaps still are — taking place.   

In particular, I’ve been thinking about queer exploitation, and if a slasher revenge subgenre has a place within it. I personally think it does, and I think that The Retreat is both — to paraphrase Phil Nobile  — something that portrays “queer folks fighting back against hate and violently fucking up some bigots,” and also has “nobler goals.” One thing I’ve learned in my crash-course in the exploitation genre is that it has the potential to subvert the very subject that usually gets maligned by mainstream society, even if sometimes the piece of art that results is made problematic by doing so. 

The Retreat addresses itself. It doesn’t sexualize its characters. Scott and Connor at the beginning of the film, and Valerie and Renee are in loving relationships and attempting to live their lives: the former wanting to celebrate their coming nuptials, and the latter trying to figure out just what they are as a couple after some time together. The tension is there from the start of the film, and not just because of what happens to Scott and Connor. It’s stated by partners of both couples that they feel uncomfortable out of the city, which tracks with many LGBTQ+ experiences of ignorance and fears of violence and discrimination. Moreover, in the midst of the rural convenience store with its knickknacks joking of putting putting a bullet in your ex’s head, and a man very micro-aggressively coming onto a clearly uncomfortable Valerie while waiting for Renee in the restroom, we see Renee herself going out of her way — awkwardly — trying to downplay their romantic relationship to this imposing heterosexual man, and the toxically masculine environment around them. . 

Those tensions are symbolized the most in Renee and Valerie’s relationship: where the latter wants to be open, and know where they stand as an official couple while the former — having her own experiences growing up as a rural hunter, feeling bad for the deer her family killed and not answering Valerie’s question about whether or not she had a choice in that, or indeed any questions about where their relationship is headed. Fear is already a factor there, and The Retreat goes out of its way to illuminate this trait in an otherwise loving LGBTQ+ relationship. What if they are seen? Who is watching them? 

The surveillance screens shown in the convenience store, and in the house of the extremist snuff-film homophobe hunters, are no coincidence. Nor is the deer stand Val and Renee come across on the “Gay BnB” retreat property, or even the painting of a stag being beset on all sides by a pack of wolves in the dark of the wood. This place screams of the masculine gaze, of LGBTQ+ people being objects of violation, violence, and entertainment, and as such prey to be hunted by anonymous killers of an “Alpha-male” quality. Even the one other woman in this whole film is homophobic, perhaps consumed by internal misogyny, and all of this contributes to the hunting ground outside of the safety of a more accepting city that the protagonists must escape. There is nothing titillating about it. What should have been a safe space, a place of joy between friends, brothers and sisters — of family of the made-kind — is, literally, a trap.

But perhaps some of this is the wrong perspective to take. Maybe the titillation is not sexualizing or objectifying the LGBTQ+ characters in this film, but rather the cathartic element of watching the protagonists escape their predicament, and turn the rules of the twisted game against their homophobic kidnappers and assailants. There is certainly a historical precedent for it. Documents like the Queer Nation Manifesto, Michael Swift’s “Gay Revolutionary,” and even the Queer Nation banners of “BASH BACK” — along with other bodies of thought — advocate retaliating against systemic violence with its own methodology: going as far as to take back the slur of “queer” to make it mean an outside agency or power that puts the tool of the oppressor in the hands of the oppressed to destroy the entire structure. 

Of course, the label of queer — taken back or not —  is still contentious among the LGBTQ+ crowd in and of horror. Certainly, Kirk Cruz — from The Mutant Fam fan-run community — discusses these details, and his own experiences growing up LGBTQ+  and dealing with the horror genre and scene on Twitter, but I feel like The Retreat not only covers a need for burgeoning — and veteran — LGBTQ+ people to vent their frustration and fear against social structures that still persecute them, but it comes from the very spirit of Pride and the Stonewall riots that led to the former’s creation. Sometimes, talking and reasonability — respectability — can only go so far. Even Renee attempts this in the beginnings of the film, and actually hesitates in killing the homophobic wife while she’s down. She and Val consistently beg, even plead, for the hunters to let them go, as did Scott and Connor before them. It’s only when Renee tells the leader of the hunters that she doesn’t even know what he looks like, that he can just let them go, and he takes off that dude-bro macho camouflage skull mask — perhaps a shot at homophobic anonymous elements online, especially given that he and his buddies make snuff executions of LGBTQ+ people for online consumption — and when his wife proves to be just as sadistic as he is, that’s when Renee realizes she has to survive at all costs. That’s when she, and Valerie — who deliciously mixes chemicals together into something acidic against the toxically masculine man who cornered her at the store, and killed her friend in front of her (I just love poetic justice) — realize that the only way they will live if they kill the people trying to murder them. 

The pay-offs are beautiful. Not only is there the aforementioned getting his face burned — albeit not as much as I would have liked — the wife, who likes to watch the violence voyeuristically through cameras gets a screen smashed onto her head, turning it into pulp, while the man who orchestrated the whole thing is shot by a bullet from the deer stand he used to hunt, and his throat slit on camera by the lesbian women he hunted. The tools of the oppressor are turned against him, and the spectacle of ending lives — Scott and Connor being portrayed as more than victims or casualties of cruelty in this film, but as human beings that love, and are loved — is thrown back in the face of the silent, cowardly, unseen spectators and enablers of the Dark Web as love lives. 

I also love the fact that there is nuance in the film. We see the leader of the hunters kill another kidnapper, who doesn’t want to go along with the murders — who just wanted to “scare the queers.” Toxic masculinity and homophobia turns on itself too. And even at the end of the film, Valerie and Renee make it out. They get to that pick-up truck with those two male passengers. You are expecting something horrible, for these men — whatever their sexuality — to turn on them. It gets even more tense when Renee finally, after that entire ordeal, kisses Valerie in the back of that car in full view of the driver’s front view mirror. She feels no need to hide, or be afraid anymore. She’s faced the demons, worse ones, she and Valerie. They’ve fucked fear, and now they want to embrace love. And then, the film ends and as far as we know the protagonists are safe. 

It was a nice, straightforward revenge slasher film with a solid LGBTQ+ theme. No twists. No honey-pot subversions like you had with Get Out, and the women live at the end. I’ve watched short films such as Blake Mawson’s Pyotr495, and Bears Rebecca Fonté’s Etheria Film Festival 2020 entry Conversion Therapy with similar themes, but while the former has supernatural elements and the latter has twists and focuses primarily on the torture and punishment of a high-profile homophobe, Pat Mills’ The Retreat fleshes out its characters in the trap of what should be a safe place turned violent — a microcosm of social factors against LGBTQ+ people — and shows that despite terror loss, they survive, and persevere. So, I definitely think that while The Retreat  has that “cathartic homophobe bashing” element, it uses its own self-awareness of exploitation to comment on exploitation and use it against itself while telling a story about love and survival, and that is a story that is — and will always be — relevant.