This Is A Take: Ernest G. Sauer’s New York Nights

Read this at your own peril as there is, arguably, X-rated material in here, but it’s the plot that might destroy you first. Reader’s discretion is advised.

New York Nights makes me truly wish for the reality of a Midnight Meat Train, though I wonder just how palatable Barker’s founding ghouls would find this trio — and this actor-population — of borderline Ken and Barbie dolls: somewhere between tasteless and bland, I would wager. 

So why am I going to write a scene by scene summary of Ernest G. Sauer’s 1994 softcore pornographic drama on a horror site, you might ask? Well, it should be a horror film for the viewing experience alone, an existentially vapid nightmare that occurred when somehow even extreme tit-annihilation wasn’t enough to prop up the thin pretext of a plot that could have been decent porn. Read that again ladies, gentlemen, and other beings of the night: the story is so bad, that even boobs — and simulated sex — weren’t enough to save it. But more on that later.

But there is another reason I’m doing this. You see, several years ago a horror personality who I’ve talked on here named Joe Bob Briggs created an award called the Iron Man Certification: in which someone watches a truly terrible movie and, after proving that they did so by outlining it scene by scene, got this particular and infamous recognition. According to Diana Prince, or Darcy the Mailgirl on her Patreon, Joe Bob had placed New York Nights on this roster of bad movies. So, in honour of the upcoming return of The Last Drive-In this coming April, and my own lack of sanity as a mad Doctor of Horror I am doing this so that you can laugh at my suffering — and I can also cackle at yours as I share it with the world. 

So let’s begin. 

We start off, after a stylized “York” emblem with an animated PS reminiscent of a cover made illustrated by Gray Jolliffe: except the cartoon figure isn’t a weird messy cat, but a man named Barry who apparently regrets his life’s decisions in the shower: getting drunk, and stupid, going home with someone whose name he doesn’t know, worrying about getting an STI, and remembering that he is only a cartoon character that doesn’t even need to shower. Apparently the whole sequence is a Public Service Announcement that can be summed up in the login “Get high. Get stupid. Get AIDs” from the Ad National Institute on Drug Abuse affiliated with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Suffice to say, this is the most disturbing part of this entire film, like a fear-mongering zombie that did not rot well. 

Then, we get into a preview of something “coming to Home Video this December” from Grown International Pictures played to an generic-sounding set of instrumentals more at home in an old Western Saloon or Keystone Cops films depicting unconvincing actors depicting producers, directors,pretentious artists and critics, and actresses scheming into the porn business. It’s apparently called Almost Hollywood with “Playmate of the Year India Alan.” 

But this is not what you’re here for, is it? No. I’m just showing off, or setting the tone of what this production will be like … or really, just procrastinating in print. Let’s get to it. 

Private Screenings presents … Baywatch

No, in all seriousness it is a scene with Julia Parton as Jessie running in slow motion, her breasts bouncing up and down, alongside her speedo-wearing boyfriend Buddy as they stride across the beach together. They go to a secluded spot with the remnants of white picket fences, perhaps illustration the erosion of the American Way of Life as he takes off her bra, makes out with her, kisses her as the introductory credits roll, and then they leave together with her bathing suit back on as if nothing happened.

Then, Jesse and Buddy are in a cabin the woods where he continues to make out with her in a bedroom surrounded by candles as if to enact some kind of ritual to grant life to this artificial depiction of erotic coupling that doesn’t happen before she slaps him half-heartedly across the face and tells him to “Cool your passions, I’ve changed my mind.” She is apparently “saving herself for a rich man” and “aspirations.” This North Carolina woman plans to go to New York to improve her fortunes. 

The next scene is another character, one Vicki — played by Susan Napoli — is definitely “down to clown” with a boy-toy in her suburban home until they hear her father come in. The young man, like Buddy, is a muscular Ken doll, though manages to vanish out a window with some of his clothes, and teleport to his car and immediately drive off. Her father immediately comes in, somehow hearing that she had company, trying to ground her at twenty-one for being promiscuous, forgetful and clumsy, and her deciding to go to New York to become an actress despite him. My …. “favourite” quote: “No daughter of mine is going to act like a whore. No daughter of mine is going to be an actress. And no daughter of mine is going to live in New York,” and in that order.

Finally, we have the third woman in our ensemble cast this time in a mansion: former model Barbara Lowery as played by Marilyn Chambers. This fine lady is looking at a portrait, knowing that her husband is “late at the office” again — which we see with some detail — giving a secretary or a coworker some … dictation. Then, after some sinister music where we see the infidelities, and bear in mind throughout this whole film we have not — and won’t see any — penises, Barbara takes off her gown, looking in her glamorous mirror as she pushes aside her photographs onto the floor and says “It’s time to punch out this time clock.” In the next scene, we see her husband come home with his shoes in hand before she stabs him in the neck to collect his insurance — no, just kidding. He comes home to find a “Dear John” letter in their bed with her not there. 

Now that these Three Little Pigs references, with a cottage, a suburban house, and a mansion — Straw, Wood, and Brick — are out of the way, cue in an airplane transition scene, some transitional montages of places that are supposed to be in New York, and then a taxi where Barbara gets out. Then we see another scene with a bus as Vicki comes out to see more New York scenes. And, of course, last but not least we have Jesse coming out of either a train station or an airport with a big hat and her bags. This feels like the beginning of a “Three women walk into a bar” joke. 


Jesse has plans. She goes to Cross-Town Realty — not Reality — Luxury Accommodations to get a job, which her prospective boss gives her because she is pretty, and he thinks she can sell with pretty much borderline sexual harassment observations about her “Bottom-line business” and her “top not being so bad.” He calls her his “premiere shower,” a word I think he is getting confused with other terminology as he sends her to show his most expensive properties to rich men to invest their blood money and keep the bodies hidden — I mean, in which to set up residences. He then gives her money to get rid of her perfectly good pink top and shorts to look “less like Dolly Parton” and more like “Ivanka Trump” (a statement that has not aged well and an insult to Dolly Parton). 

Now we are at a place called Phelps’ Hotel for Women. And look at that: Vickie happens to be Jesse’s next door neighbour. It’s starting to come together now. The Coven only needs a third member now. Anyway, Jesse’s come in with a variety of clothing and Vickie’s advice to her — after admitting she herself hasn’t found a job yet — is that she could sell more apartments at her new job if she “showed her body.” So Vickie not only reiterates that sex sells, after she asks with some disdain if Jesse is an escort, but she tells her that she “could land a rich husband”: totally reminding us of the entire plot of this film. You know? Three women come to New York to find rich husbands … Anyway, Vickie says she is going to a lingerie store to look for work and, very subtly, says she might be “a shower” now too.

Now Barbara is in the next scene putting on a fine business wear shirt, disguising herself after killing her husband and being on the run across state lines. But in all seriousness, she is really admiring herself in the mirror to follow up on returning to modeling. Another transition scene later, we come to follow Barbara to Borghese Models. A few of the younger girls there think she’s lost because she looks “experienced” — experiencing in the arts of seduction and witchcraft — but aside from an awkward and painful reference to her being older, she meets an old friend of hers with a mullet for work after being gone having raised a daughter and left her husband after twenty years. Nevertheless, her friend can’t help her and she leaves, heading to the lingerie store where Vickie actually works now. Time is plastic and fluid here.

After Barbara informs Vickie, who tries to sell her some spicy lingerie that her “spicy marriage has left a bad taste” in her mouth, for which no amount of pineapple will ever cleanse, she is told talk to one Mr. Tyler to get a job there. For his part, Mr. Tyler is attempting to get a woman to strip naked for him and when he touches her breast, she grabs his balls and teaches him a lesson about consent that he won’t remember the nex time. Vickie is right about one thing, it does “take him a minute,” which the joke about a man’s stamina and endurance aside, I wish was the whole length of this film. Not long after this, Mr. Tyler doesn’t learn his lesson and crowds into Barbara’s personal space as she backs away from him to perve-y — to look her up and down — and after realizing who she is, or was, and barely just saying he masturbated to her back in the day, he gives her the job.

So this grossness aside, we come back to Jessie who is showing a man a pretty apartment. The man, of course says he has no wife and makes comments about the “view” and nothing “artificial” in … the apartment. After offering to take her lunch, he immediately escalates it to wanting to grow old with her in the apartment, and commitment, which instantly gets her affections. Just instantly, you know? Now we have slow motion sequences with out of synch video of Jesse taking off her top, and what will become the first in a long line of half-naked leg humping scenes that are supposed to simulate sex, and I think may have influenced Tommy Wiseau’s understanding of erotic cinematic sequences. 

After these sequences are over, Jesse goes back to her employer only to find out that the man who seduced her in all of a few minutes wasn’t sincere about buying the apartment, but surprise oh surprise, he really was married all along. Then, back at her apartment, Jesse is furious about the fact that she was lied to, even though every adult worth half a brain cell could tell it was a ploy. I suspect that, as they go through this, Wiseau may have borrowed some plot points from this film and others like it as well. Anyway, Jesse tells Vickie that she will never take her advice again, that “after they made love” (geez, somehow that makes her even creepier than he had been, having been pretty much a fling to any other adult), she found out he was married and “probably not even rich.” That … kind of really says it all, and I wish it would have ended here. But it doesn’t.

Then, Jesse sits on her bed and finds Vickie’s lost glasses there. Vickie, if you recall, is supposed to be forgetful, but this would have made an excellent subplot or an eventual tie-in where they realize they have more in common than any of the superficial relationships they’ve been seeking. After all, the real treasure are the friends we’ve made along the way. As Vickie herself says, it would have “made life interesting.” But Vickie leaves to go to her lingerie modelling job alongside Barbara. We now know what is really at stake as Vickie admits she needs a second job for her acting classes, and Barbara is attempting to create more modelling photographs for her portfolio. Oh, the challenges of living. 

So now a man and a woman come into a vacant apartment to grope each other and make out, only to become “mice in the wall” as Jesse brings an old gentleman from North Carolina to check out the place. The man, like Vickie’s father, also seems to have excellent hearing and senses as the two simulate sex silently in the closet. Now, the older man Mr. Griffith — who is still mindful of the “mice” — offers Jesse the position of being housekeeping for this second apartment while he and his wife are away. Totally no strings attached.

No seriously. We never see Mr. Griffith again. Basically, Jesse gets a free high-rise apartment for being from the same State as this older man, and he warms up to her paternally and just practically gives it to her. The American Dream, the American New York Dream, am I right? Oh, and the couple that went into the closet leave, with a nice back shot of the woman too as she does so. Yeah. I am trying to find as many positives here as I can.

Now we have the next scene. It’s still coming together for the dark ritual of perpetuating this movie. The apartment looks like a storage room for antiques from the 20s. Jesse moves in. Time means nothing as it is all filled up. Just like that. In the scene after, Jesse seems bored and lonely. Then, looking like a bored young housewife from Days of Our Lives, she switches between television channels and the “Home Shopping Club” is mentioned. Remember that. It will come around again.

Finally, Jesse phones Vickie to move in with her, and start their relationship. But really, Vickie comes into the apartment, nearly knocks over a vase, and Jesse tries to explain how she got the place. We are almost the point where our Coven will form, I assure you. And, sure enough, we come back to Barbara, who is back at her modelling friend’s firm with new photographs of her latest portfolio. She attempts to seduce him, this man with the mullet, and seems far more into it than the other two girls, even showing off her naked chest until she changes her mind. She leaves and he basically makes it clear after she’s gone that “this was the only way she was ever going to make it in this business again.”

There has, and there still is, going to be a lot of this sexism, don’t you worry.

Now Barbara is thinking about going back to Michigan, only for Vickie to invite her to Jesse’s apartment to help her save money. She gets brought into this fine apartment, where Jesse agrees to have her stay so that Barbara — a far more “experienced” witch — can tutor her in the Black Arts. But really, she wants Barbara to teach her how to look more attractive and get a rich man for herself. 

They all return from a shopping spree. And then Jesse puts on a variety of dresses that are never as good as her first “Dolly Parton” one until she settles for the black and white striped Beetlejuice number. Then, Jesse’s education by Barbara begins as she shows her how to sacrifice — how to look more “sophisticated” to rich men. Aside from the fact that “billionaires don’t like to talk about tractor pulls,” Barbara seems to indicate that they do like to talk about art, the ballet, and classical music and go to museums, theatre, and symphonies because they like to be “patrons of the arts.” And, don’t get me wrong, a Renoir painting is ethereal and a Van Gogh creation is even better — as Barbara references — due to its elemental shape and inner vibrancy, but somehow as we will discover soon enough, I don’t think this is what rich men are into with regards to their taste in women and “the finer things.”

Sure enough, Jesse — with a scowl still on her face — goes through a brief montage of these precise elements: of Mozart banners, and museums and the like, as though being forced to drink some of George’s Marvelous Medicine before a nice transition to a strange club in the nightlife that looks like a drab, “Fish Under the Sea Dance” complete with a man pouring alcohol down a woman’s open and willing throat. This is totally not suggestive or anything, and we will get back to that later, I am sure. The three women are hunting for sacrif — right, I said that already, I mean rich men. Apparently, according to Barbara “hunky men” are poor and should be avoided. They then find themselves in the company of some businessmen who, as it turns out, aren’t at all as sophisticated as Barbara led them out to be. As the older man in the group says he “hates symphonies” and prefers “the spectacle,” which would be true for me in this film if it weren’t so utterly shallow and banal, but one thing at a time. Needless to say, Barbara tries her own terrible advice by telling Jesse not to try so hard and be herself, and Jesse almost — almost — calls her on the paradoxical advice, before Vickie realizes she’s lost her address book. Forgetful, absent-minded Vickie: totally not a subplot at all.

Now we are back at the apartment the next day. A handsome cab driver named Eric finds Vickie’s book and delivers it to Jesse, who has a conflict of interest in seeing an attractive man who is not rich. She feels bad for not being able to give him a reward, but he doesn’t want one, so it’s not a completely pornographic situation. But, that almost changes in the next scene with Vickie and Barbara who are totally into each other, plotting to — they are at their lingerie job with Vickie warning Barbara not to go into the backroom where Mr. Tyler is getting humiliated by another model, convincing him he has a chance with her if he tries on lingerie, only for her to steal his clothes and leave, with everyone else already gone for the night. I think it was supposed to be funny. 

Now, this is where things get convoluted a bit. Vickie has another job as a cocktail waitress, which she just got recently to Barbara’s concern over her “balancing liquids.” Dirty thoughts aside, she spills some on the suit of a patron named Stuart who she invites to their apartment to have his clothing “dry-cleaned downstairs.” This apartment building, affluent as well, is convenient to have in New York where even a minor room costs a soul of a philandering man like Barbara’s ex-husband that she totally didn’t kill.

Speaking of Barbara, she’s there and thinks Stuart is an intruder in an undershirt and boxers before he mentions Vickie inviting him there. As he says, he is totally not “a thief,” never mind anything else. He is invited to stay for dinner after Barbara lowers her pepper-spray, but he needs to meet his business associates. But, both Vickie and Barbara invite all of them there for the meal instead. 

Next we see, Stuart again, Kurt, and Gene who are all in “the oil business.” It is never mentioned whether or not they have a vested interest in the Middle-East, or just American soil — presumably Texas — and it remains that way. The cab driver Eric phones in the middle of it, to talk to Jesse, to ask her to dinner to which she casually says she has new plans, and hangs up on him. After we continue to see Jesse staying classy, with all of its connotations, all three men and women are awkwardly close dancing with each other, with Gene not really being able to keep his hands off an uncomfortable Jesse. Frank and Barbara hit it off well, with her not wanting to kill him, and Vickie and Kurt seem very friendly, while Jesse invites Gene to a Van Gogh exhibit at Sotheby’s. 

Later, all three women are scantily clad and calling upon the powers of — they are talking about their romantic plans. Jesse plans not to sleep with another man again until she knows more about him (read: whether he’s rich and single, or not). Vickie ends up having an encounter, complete with awkward naked leg humping simulated sex, and a parody of Vanilla romance, at the Fleur-de-Lys Hotel with Kurt which I suppose he would have called “taking her to Paris.” She wears a nice layered pearl necklace too that, I assure you, is merely suggestive the entire time. 

After a few more scenic transitions, which are interspersed to make us totally believe this is New York, Jesse is showing another apartment off but, as it transpires, the person meeting is Eric. She is quick enough to point out that he is “just a cab driver” and can’t afford it. Like I said, class: very much class. But, granted, he does collect on that reward by asking her to join him for the lunch he’s brought with him: which seems to be composed of alcohol which, if I were a drinking man, I would be indulging to get through this film twice. He then moves in to kiss her, and seems interested and then she rebuffs him by saying she is “seeing somebody” and that seems to end that for the moment.

After that, there is an obligatory aerobics scene between Barbara and Jesse where it turns out she keeps getting flowers from who she thinks is Gene. I guess more time passed again. Meanwhile, at the art exhibit, Vickie sees Kurt again who, as it turns out, is actually married to a stuck-up woman, which annoys her to no end. And even though I get Hogzilla flashbacks from when Jesse says they are in “Hog-Heaven,” we run into Gene again who totally takes credit for those flowers to Jesse. Now, Vickie meets a bartender named Chris who turns out to be an actor, and gets the chance to tell Kurt to “go to hell.” Jesse continues to bullshit about knowing art composition and interest, before Gene wants to take them to the back room.

Chris’ comment about saying he’s “like Columbus” definitely didn’t age well. Meanwhile, as they go to the bar table, Gene manages to be … more classy — read: classicist — as he laughs at hearing about Chris being “a bartender who is really an actor” before taking Jesse to the back room. This is where the music gets more sinister, and you think that something bad is going to happen. Gene is clearly overstepping his bounds, and Jesse tells him to back off repeatedly, but he doesn’t and she stabs him in the neck — No. She slaps him and leaves. Outside, Vickie is getting poured shots down her gullet and between her and Kurt, they peer pressure his wife into doing the same thing to “show Vickie” I guess. And, in tears, with her Beetlejuice dress all disheveled, Jesse leaves the chat — the party. I suppose she sees now, more than ever, just how superficial and hollow the society she wants to join truly is: or some moralistic realization like that. Don’t worry, we aren’t done yet.

So back at the apartment Stuart and Barbara are continuing to “just be friends” with, presumably, their genitalia or romantically as the case may be, but Jesse comes back and tells them what Gene tried to do. Barbara explains “It’s men like Gene who treat women like possessions,” when really Jesse wanted men like Gene for their money, which she actually seems to recognize. But then Barbara says something else which I feel encompasses this whole story: my favourite line in the film, the thesis statement of this piece of cinematic narrative:

“Sometimes we have to learn lessons in life .. the hard way.”

I feel that it not only captures the spirit of this fine film, but my own experience and goals in watching and writing about it. I keep this in mind as the next thirty-three minutes continue. Jesse is having something of an existential crisis as well as she realizes a rich man isn’t necessarily an ideal or perfect candidate for being a husband, and actually feels bad over repeatedly rejecting Eric time and again. In the next scene, Jesse tosses her Beetlejuice dress — the dress that apparently attracts billionaires — into the water under a bridge. 

Chris, in the meantime, takes Vickie to a movie shoot to which he’s gotten her a part. The topless couple before them kisses briefly before being called away, but it isn’t Vickie’s time — this erotic shoot within an arguably erotic movie meta-commentary or … something — just yet. Vickie finds out that the actor she is going to have a sex scene with in this production isn’t some stranger, but Chris himself: which really seems to do it for her.

Then, by the next scene, Jesse phones Buddy and is ready to go back to North Carolina, seemingly giving up. She then gets a flower delivery that she ends up throwing in the garbage, which is a nice smooth transition to Barbara throwing her portfolio into a dumpster as she gives up on returning to modelling. 

Vickie and Chris, on the other hand don’t waste time waiting for their movie scene as they kiss up and down their bodies, complete with softcore stripping and — you guessed it — awkward leg humping, though the body kissing almost makes up for it in what seems to be romance complete with harps and jazz trumpets playing in the background. By the time they get to the filming, they continue this chemistry. 

And then, we get a conga line going on at the popular nightclub with Barbara and Stuart as they start to have a serious relationship talk. It turns out that Barbara was with her ex-husband since they were teenagers, and Stuart lost his wife the year previous. But he seems to have a child in New York as well, who Barbara wants to meet sometime. Totally not foreshadowing. Suffice to say, Vickie and Stuart go back to the apartment together with so much more softcore porn and the leg-humping again, with some stylized slow motion for emphasis. The next day, Stuart and Chris meet each other in the apartment, with Stuart patting Chris on the arm. 

Jesse is telling her boss that she’s leaving and invites him to the farewell party. Next, Barbara sees Vickie and Chris together in the kitchen and finds out the two of them are already engaged, because time might be strange in this place but it is not wasted when marriage is on the line. Now, both Vickie and Barbara discuss Jesse leaving and they know that one man — only one man, of course — can convince her to stay with them.

Meanwhile, Eric asks Jesse’s boss to see the space he was looking at under the pretext of seeing Jesse again. Unlike Jesse, her boss doesn’t seem miffed or put off by Eric or “Mr. Tucker’s” appearance. If New York is a city that doesn’t sleep, and it’s the central theme of this film, it is easy to see all of this foreshadowing in so much gaudy light. Eric finds Jesse and tries to convince her to stay, only for her to realize that the person sending her the flowers without cards was him and not Gene. Jesse decides to “reward Eric’s persistence” by inviting him to her farewell party.

The women themselves, all three of them, are bonding before their party. Barbara and Vickie are trying to convince her to stay, and with Eric. Barbara finds a letter that fell out of Jesse’s pocket that she knows is a goodbye letter to Eric, which is an interesting callback to the one she left her philandering husband but with the contrast of it being a relationship to which Jesse is supposed to give a chance. 

And now, the end game: known also as the party. There is a lot of room in this apartment as a scantily clad woman plays the violin and more than a few people attend. It is gradually revealed  that Chris has something to say to Vickie: the truth. The good news, for Vickie, is that he isn’t already married. The … bad news, for the viewers, is that he is actually a secret billionaire financing his own activities and Stuart himself tells Barbara that Chris is his son. Yeah. It was already a thin plot as all get out, but this is where it just doesn’t pretend to be ridiculous anymore. How neat and tidy, huh?

But we can’t end this without Jesse and Eric meeting and having their moment. And this is where another revelation happens after Jesse throws away her “Dear Eric” letter as she wants to be with him, and Eric gives her a ring she thought of getting herself a ring from the Home Shopping Channel. Yet we find out it is the original ring, because … wait for it … Eric isn’t a cab driver. Eric is a secret billionaire, who tested Jesse to see if she would love him for more than his money.

Yeah. I know. I have made terrible life decisions too. .

Even as everything comes full circle, and like a comedy — even one that doesn’t work — it all ends in a wedding as Vickie and Chris do get married, Stuart awkwardly proposes to Barbara who doesn’t want to get married, there is no dramatic interruption of the wedding vows. But it is also a double-wedding as Eric and Jesse get married too. This sugar is making me rot faster than any zombie virus. 

Now, towards the end, we see three scenes interspersed of the couples “making love” all dramatically, in slow motion, topless, and with leg humping and stomach sitting between scenes of New York. By the time we get past Jesse and Eric, and then Vickie and Chris, we finally get to Barbara and Stuart: who are just talking at first. Stuart doesn’t propose marriage to Barbara, but rather intends to fund and support a modelling agency led by her. She likes this, and then they have their own sensual, simulated sex scene.

And then, with lit candles in the background summoning Satan, the film is over: with callbacks and credits. 

That is New York Nights. I watched this twice, once to say I did, and the other time to write this scene by scene summary in the old tradition of Joe Bob Briggs’ Iron Man Certification. I feel like I lost a part of myself, something I will never get back after seeing these depictions of romantic love and a slice of life from what you would expect from New York City at any age. Now that it’s over, that it’s finally over, I feel … bereft. Empty. 

I think about what this film could have been in another place, and another time. I consider what would have happened if it had been more hard-core, with characters that had living experience and different lives and backgrounds, and ethnicities. If the three women did live together and three wasn’t a company. If Stuart was a war profiteer, or Chris a serial killer, or Eric a stalker. If the film had been divided into different stories or vignettes, more clearly, and each female protagonist had her arc that could have been great too. Like, for instance, Jesse calculating her way to the top and realizing she’s losing her soul only to trade it for freedom and liberation, or Vickie having fun being sexually promiscuous and finding herself, or Barbara continuing to escape the murder of her cheating husband. I think they would have made a great Coven together, especially if they got to the point where they were sacrificing their messed up male partners to gain immortality, or something. Perhaps Anna Biller could have made a better commentary from this material about the artificiality of American social and romantic interactions than I ever could, which she already did through Viva

I think there is a lot of potential in reshaping these kinds of movies to fit your dark will. But, in the end, I think that it served to show me that as bad as my writing can get, there are worse things. And sometimes, you just have to laugh at how ridiculous some things are. The filmmaker that Chris hires in a way that isn’t grandiose or manipulative says “This is a take,” and he’s right. And this is my take. I hope you appreciated my suffering, and I hope that we got the opportunity to agonize together like stereotypical bodies rubbing up awkwardly, like contradictory ideals never sitting well, against each other, forever. 

Consuming the Sublime: Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man

I almost didn’t watch The Wicker Man.

Unlike Cannibal Holocaust, which I thought would be too extreme even for me, I didn’t watch The Wicker Man for a long time because of not only my ambiguous place in horror media, but also because later I’d seen Ari Aster’s Midsommar — and I loved that film so much, that I was afraid that if I saw The Wicker Man I would end up seeing the former as something of a pretentious bastardization of the latter.

Luckily, my love for Midsommar remains intact as it that is a different story. And while Ari Aster’s movie revolves a remote choreographic Nordic communal culture in which the protagonist faces the demons of her grief and gains a twisted form of resolution, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man is ultimately a folk horror musical film about a man who finally gets the chance to become a contemporary Christian saint in on an island ruled by a form of Celtic paganism.

I think about this film on the surface. Imagine: a movie that utilizes musical tropes to complement and institute the philosophical quandaries, a murder mystery, and the final psychological horror of the entire thing. I don’t think I will ever be able to get any of it out of my mind: not the folk songs the children sing when talking about the cycles of reproduction and nature and the harvest, not Sergeant Howie literally being made a fool of — and unlike Punch, the costume he takes, the Devil didn’t make him do it, just his own sad sense of self-righteousness, not the brilliant Lord Summerisle’s (played by the towering Christopher Lee) monologues and observations of human nature, nor just the way that the entire story reaches its peak. And I can say, with certainty, that if the innkeeper’s daughter Willow sang to me like that, I would definitely have not been the sacrifice that the inhabitants of the Hebridean island of Summerisle would have been looking for.

So much can be forgiven, really, when you look at the quality and the build of the film that so many other critics and scholars, far better than I — a dabbler student in horror — have already dissected and spread across the world like a glorious, beautiful, terrifying harvest. Certainly, you have to suspend your disbelief to consider that anyone on that island would have known that Sergeant Howie was a virgin at all, and gone through the machinations through the “kidnapping” or “death” of a child of theirs to bring him there. But when you look at all those cheerful, awe-inspiring songs almost pulling you back into English folklore, the elemental rituals of dance, and music, and copulation also reminiscent of the free love spirit of 1973 in some parts of the world, and just watching Howie’s own Puritanism — which in the Final Girl trope would have saved her — become his complete, and utter undoing, it is a perfect bloody film.

Someone once pointed out that Howie could have saved himself if he had just given into Willow, into fornication, into living, into feeling beyond a set of ancient, strict, patriarchal guidelines. This is no Golden Calf, but a flesh and blood woman who actually offered him genuine connection and tenderness beyond the bounds of socially and religiously accepted marriage. But Howie just couldn’t do it. And, in a way, there is almost this tragedy there: that he had one moment where he could have had this, had this link to the earthly joys and the here and now, and it’s lost to him forever because of his sense of duty. In a Christian paradigm of some kind, he passed a test and resisted temporal sin, but fittingly enough he also passes the standards of the Summerisle villagers and their pagan roots by proving himself worthy to be sacrificed in The Wicker Man.

The Wicker Man itself makes me so tempted to make a bad pun of the strawman argument, where something is argued against but not properly represented. It is a scarecrow, made to scare off things that would devour it or refute it but is ultimately just empty clothes and bails of straw. In this sense, Lord Summerisle believes his people can make a harvest happen again through animal and human sacrifice based on their Celtic belief-system, believing the faith of Christianity and science and mainland civilization to have failed them. But another way of looking at it is Howie considering the ways of the villagers immoral and wrong because they abandoned Christianity, and believing that the death of a girl is clearly their fault because they are “heathens.” The straw man is the Wicker Man for both whereby it is an object ritualistically destroyed in order to prove one side, or the other right: a sacrifice to the gods, and an eventual martyrdom for Christianity.

It’s too simple, though, and perhaps not a great analogy in its own. The fact is, Howie is a terrified man being burned alive cursing the villagers for tricking him — the fool and the trickster, the outsider and the stranger — to this fate for dying for their “sins” while Lord Summerisle believes that the harvest will happen despite all logic, and that he will not one day be called on by his people and “volunteered” should it fail again.

Perhaps, again, the Wicker Man isn’t so much a strawman as it is the scarecrow I mentioned: created to placate the villagers’ fears of the harvest not happening, of starvation occurring, while allowing for the nominal civil and spiritual independence of the island. At least, this is what Lord Summerisle seems to believe.

When I look back on the film now, one issue I actually have with it has to do with Lord Summerisle. I just don’t see him as being afraid of the sacrifice. If the man had been raised through two or three generations on the culture, even with his education, he would see it as his own duty: as his own sense of noblesse oblige, to give his life to protect and better that of his people. To me, this faith — or fanaticism — should be bones deep and unshakable. Of course, there is the fact that by the paradigm of his people the man is also not a virgin — whatever that ultimately means — but that is almost irrelevant. I just don’t see someone as composed as Lord Summerisle being rattled by one setback, or the threat of his own life in the balance. He would understand the cycles of the world. He would know it was his time when the gods decreed it. It’s just that simple me, as real to me as Christopher Lee’s other character in Star Wars — Count Dooku — not begging for his life which ultimately doesn’t do in that film.

Lord Summerisle should be an ideologue with absolute conviction, and that should make him more horrifying than any blood-starved monster, that behind all the colourful pomp and circumstance is a man who is willing to serve the gods and the natural order at all costs: including murder. But, let’s play the Devil that doesn’t kill our Punch-wearing protagonist Howie, and say that perhaps it’s not an effrontery of his beliefs being insulted, but actual arrogance or pride masking a fear of failure and death motivating our friend Lord Summerisle. Aside from the fact that it makes him, and his belief as hollow as a straw man, consider what he tells Howie at the beginning of the film: that his Victorian grandfather revived the local pagan practices and rituals of the people of Summerisle to convince the people that his new strains of fruit trees would prosper in the climate.

But what if it was Lord Summerisle’s grandfather who was fooled, or ultimately fooled himself? What if, deep down, he did believe or it was the people he “led” that convinced him to reinstitute pagan elements that already existed in Summerisle, and just brought them to the surface again? What if these Lords of Summerisle really don’t lead using the name and acts of gods, but they are just figureheads for the people who are truly in charge? Lord Summerisle still operates from the monotheistic mainland order of rule, for appearances sakes, but what if the people just let him believe so long as he is useful? You know, until his role has to change? We see in Midsommar that there are a variety of different sacrificial rituals, so why couldn’t that be the case in The Wicker Man’s community of Summerisle? Lord Summerisle himself has, to an extent, realized that what began as a tool in his grandfather’s arsenal has become real, but what if it had always been real, and the Lords only deluded themselves into thinking that they could control it: this act of human sacrifice and growth and sex and primal renewal?

Howie believes this impulse needs to be denied, while Lord Summerisle thinks he can embrace it, but perhaps both want to control it: one through rejecting it entirely, and the other through indulging, and directing it. .But I don’t know if either particularly understands what it is they fight for or against: certainly not Howie who realizes he had been playing a whole other kind of game, and maybe not even Lord Summerisle or the villagers to think they will get what they want by following this belief and instinct to kill and burn to have their conception of Nature give them what they want.

In the end, the fire that burns through Howie consumes the hearts of the villagers and Summerisle, and there is something beautiful in that destruction and the all-too bright joys depicted in that place and site. What is it that Lao Tzu is supposed to have said: “The flame that burns Twice as bright burns half as long.”

Right now, as of this writing, Spring has just begun — however it will look — but when you look past the literal and go into the metaphor, at the nature of what happens when you release something from the constraints and strictures of security and fear, of a structure that fails its people, what do you have left to do with that passion? Does it go into a resurgence of spirituality, of land-based beliefs, into a renaissance of sensuality and sexuality? Does it challenge the status quo and grow into something else? Or does it run rampant, become chaotic, and self-destructive beyond the sight of those who first the light the fire, or carry the spark? It’s almost romantic: in the old eighteenth century terrifying and sublime sense of the word, but somehow still beautiful for it.

These are some of my thoughts as The Wicker Man continues to smoulder in my thoughts. Forever.

She Will Always Be There: Travis Stevens’ Girl On the Third Floor

A long time ago, I was at a man’s place that had seen a great many wild and passionate parties. At the same time, I also knew that there were some … less than savoury, sometimes even gross things that happened beneath the surface. Lingering hugs on women, someone watching people and being surreptitious about their activities, and a great deal of emphasis on a whole lot of feminine art throughout the entire place along with a great deal of … moisture that you could slip on, and break your neck. I always wondered, if places can record memories — or if people and actions can imprint energy into spaces — just what a building haunted by erotic energy, and intrusive or even predatory behaviour, would look like.

These weren’t just all negative thoughts, of course. At another time, after reading references to Wilhelm Reich’s concept of orgone energy — of a hypothetical universal life force generally generated or manifested by sex and erotic actions — I’d often muse about how that affected another favourite establishment: one that used to be a nineteenth century mansion before it was changed to an adult entertainment hub and night club. What would such a manifestation look like, especially when you consider how it would ride the gamut between lust, love, joy, despair, anger, anxiety, fear, excitement, and all the rest of it? And this was a place focusing specifically on making a comfortable space for women and LGBTQ+ individuals to explore while also making a profit, and still navigating a lot of the patriarchal land and social scape — with men’s desires and expectations — around it.

And this place also had a third floor. And there was always a girl on the third floor.

I was utterly fascinated when I found out about Travis Stevens’ Girl on the Third Floor, and its premise. The Girl on the Third Floor, directed by Travis Steven, and written by Stevens, Paul Johnstone and Ben Parker, is about less about a morally flawed man attempting to renovate an old house for him and his pregnant wife, and more about the house itself, what it has come to be, the forces that shape it, and the girl within it. At least, these last facts are what interest me more than anything else. I recall, when Fangoria #3 came out and I was greedily looking any information on this film before it had come out, wondering where I was going to see it at the time, with only little trails of marbles through an old house and the specifics of cinematography and filmmaking to tide me over before finding … the Girl.

I mean, a horror story that takes place in a house that used to be a brothel. Not only is that an awesome premise, but indeed: what could possibly go wrong?

Well, a lot goes wrong for our initial protagonist Don Koch (played by Phil “CM Punk” Brooks) — whose last name is more than suggestive about his personal traits and failings — and all of it is pretty much his own fault. It isn’t just the terrible things he did in his past, how he put his own personal advancement and desires ahead of the lives of others, and the constant transgressions against his long-suffering wife under the guise of claim to change, but what he does to the house. He comes into this place, with its pastels and pink interior, noticing the black secretions coming out of the wall and instead of asking around about its history, or talking with Ellie Mueller the pastor who actually seems to know more about this situation, he pounds holes and nails into the walls, not paying attention to all indicators that something is different about this place. Essentially, Koch doesn’t ask for help, his pride keeping him from even telling his wife what’s going on, and this toxic masculine attitude — of wanting to make a feminine place his own instead of recognizing it as something that is not what it seems — tells you everything you need to know about where this is going to end. .

Certainly, the house isn’t healthy of course. Aside from its black discharge, its marbles appearing like mobile little growths, this house used to be a high-class brothel for some upper-class society men that viewed women like their playthings. On the third floor, bricked up and concealed, is a viewing platform looking into what is now the bedroom. But it wasn’t always a bedroom. Instead, it used to overlook a platform or a stage where the sex workers involved — all young women — were used in kink and BDSM scenes where an bird-headed man would sadistically whip them, among other things, for the viewing pleasure of other men. It is heavily implied that these women, from the nineteenth or turn of the century, are there under duress or were trafficked as well, and the presence of a little girl there who constantly draws pictures, and plays with marbles — that the bird man gave her — is not reassuring in the slightest as to what this place had been really like. Eventually, at least one sex worker is murdered there, followed by a missing body, and the place is closed down, and passed on to several different generations of families with varying results.

Koch is warned, by some men at the bar he’s not supposed to be at as he is an alcoholic, that the house despises “straight men” and will actively attempt to do terrible things to them. And when you look at the history of the house, you can probably see why that might be the case. Koch is a man who has an affair with a woman named Sarah Yates (played by Sarah Brooks) and then coldly attempts to brush her off and pretend it never happened. He also drinks when he’s not supposed to do so, and when all else fails he will resort to violence to get his way. He is pretty much a spiritual descendant of the men that ruled this town and society, and an extension of patriarchy. It’s not going to end well for him.

But strangely enough, as far as malicious female ghosts go, these are surprisingly fair in that they only react to what is brought to them. They’re not fair to his dog, of course, who did nothing wrong but there is a point where any empathy or discernment is erased by the pure rage that is left behind. But it’s more complicated than that, as it always is. We find out that Sarah is actually the ghost of the woman that was killed in the brothel, and that she reacts to people — as an extension of the house — depending on how they treat it, and anyone in it. Sarah kills Koch’s dog to hurt him for rejecting her and treating her like an object. She kills Koch’s former coworker and friend Milo because despite the fact that he is the friend of both Koch and his wife Liz (played by Trieste Kelly Dunn), he goes along with hiding the affair the other man had due to some sense of reluctant homosociality, essentially being complicit in all men’s behaviour.

And then there is the spectre of what is called, outside the film, the Nymph (played by Tonya Kay): a being that resembles a deformed blond-haired woman with a ruined face that is constantly leaving, and shooting marbles throughout the house. At one point, towards the end of the first part of the film, she manages to insert marbles under Koch’s skin that writhe around and, ultimately, seem to possess and kill him.

I’ve thought about Sarah and the Nymph a great deal since I watched this film a while ago. I also read an article that I can only barely recall was on Fangoria’s online site, when it was owned by Cinestate, that focused on the critique of the patriarchal elements of this film, and the nature of the Nymph herself. Unfortunately, I can’t find the article now but I do have my own conclusions and elements that I want to focus on which might not have been completely discussed to death by many other pre-existing reviews.

It is fascinating that Sarah can manifest physically, and be seen by those she chooses. Her being able to manipulate people’s perceptions isn’t as surprisingly, but being capable of materially interacting with the living is impressive, and quite possibly the result of all that tormented, oppressed, sexual energy and anger inside the house itself giving her that strength. Sarah is a result of what happens to a woman used by men, degraded, and killed by men. What’s worse is that she seems to have been the mother of that little girl, Sadie, who had been making all of the drawings throughout the house. So it’s possible that something happened to her daughter, or herself by the brothel owner.

But it’s the Nymph that gets to me. It isn’t clear what she is. I think I read somewhere that she’s essentially the spirit of the house itself: of all those broken desires, and brutalized women by the brothel-owners, and society manifested into some kind of composite entity. Think of her as some kind of twisted genius loci that guards the place where she was generated by the sexual energy of exploited women, and twisted men’s fantasies. I originally pondered over her being a brutalized sexual sacrifice or experiment of a lodge or cabal of male magicians and occultists — especially with the almost ritualistic practices in that place, and the bird-masked man — but I think it is more effective that she and Sarah have become manifestations of rich men’s debased desires of women.

Of course, there is another interpretation of the Nymph that is equally horrifying, if not more so. While Sarah does utilize the marbles as well to lure the dog and distract Koch and his friend, it’s the Nymph that uses them more. She acts skittish, awkward, and almost childlike: like the effigy of a person, or a doll. Victorians used to call a woman the “angel in the house:” like they are some kind of delicate ornament, or a pretty toy. But angels can fall, along with pedestals, in the dichotomy of female virgin-whore. It is as though she is, or was, almost innocent until something changed her into a parody of what men want. If you watch the film, her body is that of an young adult woman, but her face is warped: as though it had suffered repeated blunt trauma … or it had been drawn by a child.

Think about a little girl being in a place built to contain women for rich society men’s pleasure. Perhaps she died in there, or maybe it was just a part of her soul that died when her mother didn’t come back, and the bird man who gave her the marble bag. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to consider that she was being groomed, or that the loss of her innocence created this apparition. Maybe it is Sadie’s spirit, or Sarah’s lost innocence made incarnate and corrupted over time, or just an entity that represents a woman abused to the point of inhumanity, not allowed to grow or rest, and wanting to play in the horrible ways she’d seen in that place, and in how she sees the world around her.

And it all comes back to those marbles, doesn’t it. Not only do they have a phallic resonance, in terms of gonads, but there is the idea of them being pretty little baubles: just like women, and women’s bodies. In some aspects of Islamic culture, feathers left behind in a space denotes a haunting by restless spirits or demons. But I think that the marbles go well with the imagery of the house being the interior of a vagina: made unhealthy by sexual abuse. Maybe they are like ovum, especially in how they implant themselves into Koch, but they can also be seen as lesions or lumps: as disease. Something natural can also become sick. I can definitely see a sexually-transmitted disease metaphor in there, but also I think what’s important to consider beyond the literal is that Koch sees the house as a distortion of how patriarchy views female sexuality: as something dirty, unclean, even disgusting. It is his perspective that determines the house and how it treats him. Of course, there is also the fact that marbles — as small reflective spheres — can stand-ins for eyes, for intrusive looks that can be anywhere, where not even the sanctity of personal space or the body is safe.

They are like extensions of the mirrors with their over-ornate frames in the house, making Virginia Woolf come to mind when she mentions that to men women are mirrors that show themselves written large. Yet the house’s mirrors turns the male gaze against itself, and shows it what it really is: a wall with a dark hole stuffed with paper.

Indeed, Ellie Mueller — who Liz actually talks with when Koch disappears in the second half of the film — tells her that the house isn’t always malicious. Sometimes it just tests someone, or it doesn’t bother them at all. Couples had lived there, even straight ones, their entire lives without incident. It’s only when someone brings with them these power imbalances and hypocrisies, self-entitlement and forcefulness without facing them, that the house seems to react badly. Of course, it also challenges Liz. But Liz pays attention to details. Liz sees the newspaper article — from the scrunched up papers in the wall socket behind the central mirror no less — about the origins of the house, and she consults with the pastor about it. She knows Koch’s toxic masculine behaviour all too well and is, frankly, tired of his macho and emotionally-stunted excuses. But she is not intimidated by Sarah’s presence, and the ghost and the house seem to want to show her what happened: while testing her the entire time. It gets into her head, or tries to, while it succeeds with Koch: who is just a skin-suit for Sarah now. He got inside of her, and she — and the house — are now in him, as he is also trapped in it. Liz doesn’t forgive him, or his actions that have endangered her and their unborn child. Like a man having an affair and potentially getting his spouse infected by something he caught, Koch has brought Liz to this point but she confronts this distortion of the feminine on her terms.

Liz ends up being let go by Sarah, told she passed the test for not forgiving her cheating and terrible husband again, rejecting a man’s control over her with his false promises, saving herself and her child. But she does more than that. She ends up confronting, and killing, the Nymph. This act actually hurts Sarah. It hurts Sarah more than seemingly being killed by Koch. She ends up holding the Nymph’s broken body, this being that could have been her daughter, or part of the person she used to be, or a representation of Woman twisted and used by men to point of being unrecognizable, or even as a symbol of the house’s hate: of a form of internalized misogyny. And she’s genuinely crying over it: this thing that she loved, that she despised, that was her friend, and her jailor. And now, she’s gone.

Perhaps both Sarah and the Nymph began from a tremendous sense of injustice, but eventually this anger — however justified — turned into something that caused pain for not only those related to their tormentors and murderers, but became collateral damage for everything else in their way. In the end, Liz — after being told by the pastor that each person that enters the house needs to choose to go in and face their own actions — goes further. She ends up going back into the house, finding Sarah’s body, and giving it a proper burial. Liz claims the house for her and her daughter. It is now a place without Koch, and has seemingly made into her own space. And yet … at the end, Koch is still there. Or the house now uses Koch as its new host. It is offering their daughter a marble, a beautiful promise, a terrible lie, a thing to ensnare, a toy to play with, a lesson perhaps to learn, or the hint of the cycle of exploitation and recrimination happening all over again for the next generation.

Like I said, I think about Sarah. I think about the Nymph. I consider the women, and girls, damaged by society around them, its microaggressions, and the weight of a history of trauma influencing who and what they are. I remember that some ghosts are seen in the places they’ve been long after they’ve died. Sometimes you know it. Sometimes, you don’t. So many forces shape them. And sometimes, they come to you. They approach you, and take you to the third floor, like the one at the club I loved. Sometimes, they will offer you something. And you should always pay attention to what is offered, how you accept it, and where you stand.

For What It Is: Steven Kostanski’s Manborg

They say that when you dissect a joke, it just isn’t funny anymore. And in my mind, “funny” comes from “fun.” That is the best adjective I would ascribe to Steven Kostanski’s 2011 film Manborg.

I’ve taken on the guise of a mad, false doctor and scientist as a writer of this Blog. And in the vein, if you will pardon the pun considering that the movie is all about rendering infernal, fascist vampires into pulp, of such — and in remembrance of the late and lamented Doctor Scorpius — I would like to put this cinematic creation on the table, and look at it in the following manner.

Imagine a pulp film utilizing a combination of early Mortal Kombat digitization and Ray Harryhausen claymated monstrosities created by Troma Productions, and you might get something like Manborg. Maybe. You can also make a compelling argument that it also feels like a spiritual bootleg version of the id software Doom game universe. Seriously, I almost wrote this entire article just to have an excuse to make that sentence, but there is more to it than that.

The main protagonists themselves look like they can belong in a Mortal Kombat game: the awkwardly cybernetic Manborg himself, the sassy Aussie-accented Justice, the incongruously voice-dubbed #1 Man, and the short-tempered Mina (and clearly no relation to Mina Harker) are all fighters in an arena where Hell’s minions — having conquered the Earth — force humans to fight one another, and their technologically-augmented demons. You can even, loosely, argue that this film is a Dracula-based creation in that the leader of the forces of Hell is a monstrosity named Count Draculon who kills Manborg’s brother and himself as a human soldier at the beginning of the movie and during Earth’s War against Hell: which it loses. And hey, one of the female protagonists is Mina who is lured by the Count back to the arena to rescue a former friend or … sister of hers (totally not Lucy Westenra) who has been made into a demon-human hybrid, I guess?

Right. I am being very generous.

But I really like this film. The jerking, even janky movements of the camera and the figures against the Chroma key backdrops makes this world truly nightmarish, and unrealistic. It’s like watching someone dreaming various composites of characters and situations, and making it into a narrative. The sound effects sound like something from Power Rangers or the 8-bit era of video games. There are various skips in logic and character development, but the film knows that — and it knows how lampoonish and parodic it truly is.

The characters are all true to what they are. Manborg is a former soldier wanting to avenge his brother’s death, and has no idea how to survive in his altered state until a hologram of his creator — or his soul, or something — finally does so. #1 Man just wants to makeup for his cowardice in saving his own life and training the Count’s minions in martial arts to fight for something more. Justice wants to protect his sister Mina, and battles either illiteracy or dyslexia to do so, and Mina desires to fight, and save Shadow Mega from being a slave of the Count. Even the antagonists are straightforward: the Count wants a challenge in fighting Manborg, Shadow Mega desires to defeat Mina, Doctor Scorpius seeks to recant his past mistakes and aid Manborg, and the Baron — another vampire and general asshole — has a crush on Mina, his prisoner, and awkwardly attempts to flirt with her.

What you see is what you get, and yet those little touches show genuine love of the story and characters. A long time ago, I used to only want to read and watch serious works. I didn’t know what to think of something that was just strange, and campy, and over-the-top, and weird as all hell. But then I went to the Toronto After Dark and watched RoboGeisha for the first time, and even before that was Bubba Ho-Tep. And there is just something about watching these silly elements at play that still manage to manifest genuine feelings and a story that is just … inspiring. It’s like high school or college friends sitting down, and making a narrative they want to see and be as ridiculous as ever, and very clearly demonstrate a knowledge of the craft they parody even if it’s for the first time. It’s just … inspiring to see someone through stuff at that wall, like explosions, Nazi vampires, weird cyborgs, martial artists, arenas of doom, and just … ridiculous moments that makes things fun.

Manborg is fun. It is one of the things that I look at to see what is possible, and it’s something I genuinely enjoyed watching. I bought the comic back at the Toronto Comics Arts Festival years ago, and I always meant to watch this movie. In fact, as fun as the film is, I love the comic as it makes fun of its own nostalgia. Think Ninja Turtles comics that were adapted into cartoons and the films, or hellishly faded and septia-coloured dystopian G.I. Joe, He-Man, and She-Ra stories except Manborg‘s adventures are fleshed out, and actually continue with his group of friends.

Also, Bio-Cop, the “preview” Astron-6 has at the end of the film — whose quality is already made to look faded and grainy like it’s an old VHS tape rental — is utterly hilarious. Again, think The Toxic Avenger, but in chronic agony and body horror and seriously to die … in a buddy cop parody.

I mean, someone calling themselves the Horror Doctor has to have a twisted sense of humour.

A Cosmic Joke: Tor Mian and Andy Collier’s Sacrifice

I’ve thought about horror before: about what it is. Sometimes, I’ve considered it to be a throwback, or a continuation, of the old tragedies that invoke pity and fear in their audience. Other times, I looked at the genre as something that creates suspense and spectacle, and creates an adrenaline and endorphin rush in everyone that reads, or watches it. Horror, for me, had been twist endings, gruesome effects, strange creatures, and a love of being scared: of seeing that your life is better compared to those of the sufferings of fictitious people who might — or might not — be like real people.

These days, I think horror is elastic. Plastic. I’d argue that it has the most flexibility out of many of the genres in their different media. And, in this case, I’m reminded of a piece I wrote for Kris Straub’s horror comic Broodhollow where I focused on how horror is often similar to a joke.

Oh, we are all about dissection here with The Horror Doctor, and learning from what we take apart and put together in weird arrangements. But I think both the form of a joke — the idea of wordplay or the pacing of a story brought to a fitting end that makes fun of itself or laughs with, or at, its subject — and the ever-adapting form of a genre works when you look at the shoggoth build-blocks that are H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and its mutations that arise. In this vein, I thought I had some idea as to where Tor Mian and Andy Collier’s Sacrifice would go, and for the most part I wasn’t particularly surprised: even as the Devil — or entity — is in the details, and the punchline.

And in a vast School of Spoilers. Reader and dreamer’s discretions advised. 

For me, the details seemed simple enough. Isaac Pickman (played by Ludovic Hughes) and his wife Emma (Sophie Stevens) return to his family home on an island in Norway that he and his mother escaped from at least two decades before: trying to solve the mystery as to why they left at all. 

There are already a few details here. Isaac’s last name, for instance, is a callback to “Pickman’s Model” and the Salem family that exists in the Cthulhu Mythos in general. As Barbara Crampton, who plays the local police officer and community leader Renate would be familiar in another film that she produced — the remake of Castle Freak — like the Mythos surname Whateley in Romania, Pickman isn’t exactly a Norwegian or a Nordic last name: and what I love is the fact that the townspeople actually call Isaac on that when he attempts to tell them that he came from this place: something I felt needed addressed, or didn’t sit right in the otherwise brilliant and Mythos-loyal Castle Freak

But there seems to be no resonance with Richard Upton Pickman with Isaac, or his mother, save for the tiny little issue of the fact that she murdered her husband before fleeing with her child so many years ago. The name, however, is useful in showing a Lovecraft-familiar audience that this world does, indeed, take place in the Mythos. 

Isaac’s paternal last name is Jorstad. Jorstad has a few Nordic meanings. Mainly, the word refers to, apparently, seven common farmsteads, but is also derived from older Norse words for “battle,” “winner,” or “victor,” and “wild-boar helmet” or “wolf.” There are no Mythos meanings or interpretations, but the name tells you a lot about what Isaac sees himself as, or what he wants to be. He comes to this island, with his pregnant wife Emma, to claim the property of this lost house but you begin to see that he is profoundly unsatisfied with his life: with a middling desk job, and superficial relations of friends and family. There is something … missing inside of Isaac, a part of him that he can’t quite grasp, and he hopes for answers on this island. 

And he gets them. Renate, at first quite inquisitorial, asks him if he knows what happened to his father. And it becomes apparent, if it hadn’t been in the first scene of the film with its opening credits, that not only is Isaac’s father dead but his mother killed him. Later, we realize that Isaac had actually known many people in the community and partook in some of their rituals too. He is profoundly disturbed by this revelation, and it continues to affect everything he does thereafter. 

Emma comes to this island to help her husband find these ties, not knowing what their jurisdiction is here, very pregnant and morning sick, not liking the water — not at all — and wanting to settle the house’s affairs, get some money, and go back to America and their normal life. She is profoundly stubborn and clear about that, while Isaac himself is passionate and gets carried away by his temper even from the beginning of the whole film. Their arguments, in the beginning are playful banter, but this changes as the house and the whole land around them begins to affect them. 

I thought this would be straightforward, as I said before. I’ve written about Dagon, and The Deep Ones — films that adapt the Deep One Hybrids, and their god Dagon, and Lovecraft’s Innsmouth. And what I was anticipating, even hoping, was that what we would get was that Isaac’s family and community were Deep One-Hybrids that existed in Norway instead of America or the Pacific as they had in Lovecraft’s stories. Instead, we find ourselves in a cinematic narrative ruled by a murder house, an insular cult not unlike the one in The Deep Ones but with many families and children, lots of water — water everywhere — sea creatures, and the Slumbering One. 

The townspeople are, well think of them if you’ve seen Ari Aster’s Midsommar, as less friendly versions of the Hårga commune except they don’t seem to use drugs, they live on an island, and the couple have not been invited to their shores until they realize who they are. In fact, as the directors and even Paul Kane — whose short stories “Men of the Cloth” and, arguably also, “Thicker Than Water” inspired the creation of Sacrifice according to the Luna Press Publishing interview Paul Kane: Writing The Colour of Madness — were all, in turn, influenced by the folk horror elements of The Wicker Man. Interestingly enough, the film was moved from its original location from England in “Men of the Cloth” to Norway, not unlike Aster setting his film up in Sweden, to avoid too many comparisons to The Wicker Man according to an interview with the directors and Gig Patta from LRM Online. So you can see how all of these elements play off of one another. 

It is fascinating to see how they combine Cthulhu Mythos elements with Nordic culture. For instance, Renate has a mural that depicts “The Tree of the Shadow on the Shores of the House of the Dead,” which is called in short “The Slumbering One.” They have rites of baptism called Altarisganga, and they even have tentacle-themed curtains, and a whole lot of — let’s call them what they are — Cthulhu plushies. Yes. I chuckled at seeing them, thinking: “so this is where they are going to go with this.” The towns folk also wear white robes and green amulets not unlike aesthetics the Esoteric Order of Dagon in other Mythos films, but you can see that they could be Nordic pagan garb as well: not including the very clear fact that it’s not Dagon they are worshiping. 

They also claim that they “navigate well,” which aside from the Nordic Viking implications that some bar patrons go into quite crassly, also seemed to be a great Green Herring with regards to them being Deep Ones swimming in the water. But more than that, they use a phrase as a greeting and a farewell where they will tell someone to “Dream well.” Uh huh. It took me a moment, because while Neil Gaiman loves to sign his books with that phrase due to his Sandman series, we all know what those words actually mean in this particular context, when you consider who is dead and lies dreaming in his House under the sea. The community citizens think that their deity, or patron, guards their island and that his dreams affect them. Even a child is having a nightmare that is apparently their deity’s nightmare, but their mother passes it off as just commonplace and a matter of fact. 

But Renate is clever. As the town official, and head of their cult — or religion — she actually goes as far as to compare the Slumbering One to folktales of Iceland’s elves, Ireland’s leprechauns, and even mainland Norway’s trolls. It is a well placed series of dialogue that, with Barbara Crampton’s put-on Nordic accent is delivered well. 

But there is another symbol that pops up as well: that of the house. The generations-old Jorstad family home has mythical resonances for me, as well as personal ones. It looks like something the old Nordics would have made, with their sharp angles and almost bone-white insides. The family of one of my late partners of Finnish descent built, and used to own, a house like it a few generations ago in Canada, and I delighted in making horror story ideas about it when I visited once for Christmas and the New Year: with its fairytale, almost folkloric starkness, and austere beauty. It had even been in a mining town near a lake. You could sense the history of family in there, and see the lives lived in it. I could see the Jorstad home as once having been comforting in a similar way before everything came to a head. 

The house, aside from both the strange cramped angles of it reminiscent of the home in Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch-House” and the Jungian undertones as a symbol of a person’s psyche going deep into the basement of their collective unconscious, is both a dream house: and a murder house.

It is a dream house in that it symbolizes Isaac’s lost and nostalgic childhood, and a place to properly settle where he feels he can belong, and become a part of something more due to the … lack inside of him. It is also a murder house in that his father was killed by his mother in that very place, tainting it forever even as he wants to reclaim it for himself, and his new family. And, while find out later that this home, like many others, is a part of a land that does engage in human sacrifice: which is quite the extended metaphor for the house as an individual and cultural consciousness. Clearly, Emma has reservations about this. It isn’t just the ghost of the violence that happened here, in this place that can almost be a haunted house, or the fact that there are visions and occasional sounds of Cthulhu Mythos chanting, but it’s also the oppressive weight of its isolation with the island and the increasingly aberrant psychological behaviour of her husband.

I know that in their Convo X Fango interview with Angel Melanson, Barbara Crampton, Sophie Stevens, and Ludovic Hughes do talk about the latter’s character becoming more unhinged, and the strength of Stevens’ Emma as she deals with nightmares, and the other’s actions. But I think one issue with the film’s pacing is while we do see the interplay between husband and wife at the beginning, their transition into a frayed relationship sometimes seems uneven, and how they react and deal with trauma and revelations doesn’t always come across well. For instance, when Renate tells Isaac what happened to his father, for all that Emma was showing him support in remembering his childhood at the beginning, you don’t see her giving him comfort when he realizes his father was murdered his mother when he’s being interrogated for something that happened when he was a child. 

Hell, even the two of them seem to gloss over this when going to dinner with the woman who reveals all of this. This is a Hitchcock Fridge moment where, if I found out my mom killed my dad and took me away from this village, it would genuinely fuck me up. I mean, grief and loss are processed differently, and we see Isaac attempt to do that, but I just … I would imagine just wanting answers, and then really desiring to leave. This is not the only leap in logic that happens here, though in a world of the supernatural that doesn’t say much, but I just like a form of continuity. 

The conflict between Emma and Isaac makes sense to me in that they grow to want different things. It’s no coincidence that the bar patrons refer to Christopher Columbus not even having been born before their ancestors colonized America and then later Emma calling Isaac “as threatening as a gold fish” when he tries to act violent. The man seems to suffer from a kind of trauma even though he didn’t know, or remember what happened to him in that previous life: having been raised by his mother and the Pickman family, I assume. It reminds me of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, where a British architectural historian named Jacques Austerlitz gradually looks into his past as a child having been adopted by a Welsh family from his parents that sent him away before he could be taken, like them, by the Holocaust. Technically, Austerlitz never experienced the Holocaust or the camps, or even remembered his parents that well, but that loss was still there and the trauma remains to a point where it hospitalizes him and he needs to know more about where he came from. 

Isaac has not experienced genocide, even indirectly, but he did feel the loss of his father and his world, and that community: and a sense of belonging. I feel that Emma doesn’t quite understand this, and it is hard to communicate that fact. Sometimes, I even sympathized with Isaac and found Emma’s attitude terribly insensitive with regards to that trauma. At the same time, she has seen the rites and rituals of the community, along with a very disturbingly worded prayer during the Altarisganga along with the microaggression of one townsperson touching her pregnant belly without her permission, and endless nightmares and premonitions of what is to come. 

I think the confusing transitions are inherited in some ways from Paul Kane’s original “Men of the Cloth” story: where an entire family, a mother and father along with their children trying to help their father discover his roots in a small rural English village, go from one situation into a wildly ridiculous early-Clive Barker short story scenario.  I also see “Thicker Than Water” with its nearly submerged houses in the endless moving water puns and motifs, running everywhere, a spiritual medium bringing a slumbering god’s dreams and nightmares through dream and murder houses. 

I also think some of the rather superficial characters with their shallow needs carried through as well, though the cast definitely give them more nuance. I love how Emma calls Cthulhu “the lazy one” to Renate, and I was totally expecting her to pay for it later. And then, there is another cultural element that leads to the ultimate abusive blowup instigated by Isaac on Emma: the Tupilaq. 

The Tupilaq is an effigy, almost a scarecrow figure, of the Slumbering One to show a household mourning one of its family members. Weirdly, after looking to see if it exists in real life on the Internet, I found that a Tupilaq is apparently a Greenlandic Inuit avenging monster made by shamanism or witchcraft. How this crossed over to an actual Norwegian Island, if it came from there or from the First Nations of Greenland in the film is unknown. These are tools made of animal and human parts, even from the corpses of children, to create a monster to attack one’s enemies. Most have not survived, but according to Wikipedia Inuit tribes began to carve them out of bone for European travelers fascinated with the concept. In the case of Sacrifice, these effigies seem to have their roots in Kane’s “Men of the Cloth” and they are made of people too — especially children — though in the film they just depict a death. I imagine there are some issues of cultural appropriation you can get into here. The Jorstad house doesn’t have this version of a Tupilaq, as — supposedly — their family wasn’t there anymore, but Renate and her daughter Astrid have one to commemorate their husband, and father, respectively. I will get back to this later. 

It is Isaac that starts to make a Tupilaq for his murdered father, and representing him wanting to stay on the island. But I also think it’s possible that Renate didn’t tell the couple the entirety of for what those effigies are actually used: along with the rest of their rituals, as it turns out.

I think it’s appropriate that, in looking at this film and to quote Astrid, played by a luminous Johanna Adde Dahl, and also a line used by Kris Straub in Broodhollow that “science tells us how, but not why.” And while she is using this to talk to Isaac about an emerald aurora borealis and the stars, it summarizes that I can conjecture how this film and story is constructed, but I prefer to go into questions of why, and its possibilities. Isaac is mostly focused on how to get what he thinks he wants, but Emma is concerned with why, and wanting to get away from it before that knowledge consumes her, and their child. 

And here is where the joke has its punchline. Astrid refers to the cosmos and one’s place in it. And Isaac’s pedantic cultist buddies, one in particular, likes to talk about the universe as well in a way very reminiscent of cosmicism: of Lovecraft’s idea that humanity is insignificant next to the vastness of the universe, and its infinite apathetic and malignant horrors. It seemed clear to me that Isaac and his people were Deep One Hybrids, but they are not. This isn’t Innsmouth in “Thicker Than Water.” It is more the villagers in “Men of the Cloth” pleased to fix up “lose threads” from their insular place. 
I believed that Emma would kill Isaac, and take their child away in a repeat of the traumatic pattern where his mother killed his father, but that doesn’t happen either. 

Instead Isaac, who believes he will sacrifice his wife, ends up being the sacrifice himself. It’s a little strange how they do it. Why they went to the whole trouble of knocking out Emma and tying her on the coastline altar and letting Isaac carry the sword when they could have just taken him and killed him — as they and his father intended to do to him years ago — is beyond me. I think it is for dramatic effect to have that twist. I mean, come on: his name is Isaac. We know what Isaac means in the Old Testament: a father’s sacrifice to his deity. I knew it was going to happen, I just didn’t know how … though the why is obvious. The Slumbering One is sending out nightmares. He isn’t pleased that a sacrifice had been foiled, or the community disrupted. Balance must be restored. Also, Renate doesn’t seem too upset killing Isaac, thinking it would have been better to kill him before he became an abusive self-deluded pathetic man. And Emma lives, at least until the child is born. 

But why? Well, I have a theory of my own. The cosmic joke about Isaac might begin with the fact that his mother isn’t from the island. She is an outsider. His father specifically married her and somehow got her to the island. My theory is that every couple of years or so, the island intermarries with an outsider to create a child that will be sacrificed to appease their deity who resembles Cthulhu. Unfortunately, Isaac’s mother killed his father and left with him before this could happen: while not informing him of the truth. But I wonder, and perhaps only Barbara and the directors can confirm this, if there is another, more personal reason Renate kills Isaac: and why Astrid is so utterly fascinated with him. 

Renate is visibly upset over Isaac’s father’s demise even years later. It could be because of the disruption of the metaphysical and communal balance, but I wonder if there is more. Apparently, Isaac’s mother told him that his father had “another family” and that is why they left. Now, it is probably a reference to the cult of the island, but he inferred that his father had an affair and another partner and children. What if the reason — the true reason — a Tupilaq wasn’t built for Isaac’s father is because … it actually was? We never know who Renate’s husband is, for instance. And she is keen on finding the woman that killed him: perhaps more just a police officer’s zeal for a case opened twenty-five years? 

Maybe there is more than one reason why Renate wanted Isaac dead. Perhaps that’s why she wants Emma alive: either to keep that bloodline going … or to eventually make another sacrifice. Wouldn’t that be a great cosmic punchline to a fascinating film so rich with a created mythology combined with pre-existing ones. Perhaps horror isn’t a revelation of knowledge people are not meant to know, or knowing they aren’t important. Perhaps it’s that there are other powers inherent in reality that play with lives, that are amused by such. And, at the end, perhaps the true sacrifice is no only one’s sense of self-importance, or sense of belonging, but one’s own peace of mind. A sleeping mind isn’t always a placid one.

And with that knowledge, I wish you a good night. 

Dream well. 

I Want Out of This Party: Erik C. Bloomquist’s Ten Minutes to Midnight

It is well past midnight right now, as I’m writing this post. I have a lot to think about, but I’m not in New Orleans, and this isn’t about Concrete Blonde’s “Bloodletting” or “The Vampire Song”: both fitting enough titles in and of themselves. Instead, I found myself this weekend — tired and emotionally raw — watching Erik C. Bloomquist’s Ten Minutes to Midnight.

I had this friend, once, that I used to talk with all the time: right about now into the wee hours of the morning, and beyond that. She used to say, with regards to her friends, our loved ones, and to us that we are voices in the darkness. She told me that I was a voice in the darkness: someone to speak with when everything seemed painful, terrifying, and hopeless. For thirty years at the small-town WLST radio station in which she’s been a radio disc jockey, Amy Marlowe, played by the beautiful veteran actress Caroline Williams, has been that voice: that person who took questions live on the air, and made connections with people.

Or at least, she tried.

I’ll admit that I almost misled myself coming into this film. Kreepazoid Kelly sent me a link to a Live Tweeting and Watch Party of the movie, and I fully intended on attending it but I missed the event. Luckily, I found the film and watched it. And, really, it couldn’t have come at a better time in this horror student’s opinion.

And I didn’t go to Berkley, unlike the character of Sienna whom Amy’s predatory boss, Bob, has hired to pretty much phase her out and replace her, though I suspect no one particularly just how much a “rabid bat bite” would change everything going in. That’s right. I read a description, before watching the movie, that Amy gets bitten by a rabies-infected bat, and she transforms into something. It seemed so ridiculous, and arbitrary. Even comical.

This impression didn’t last long as Amy comes in, from the storm, her neck injured pretty badly, but grimly determined to continue the job she earned years ago: to try to make a difference. But she’s tired, and cranky, and underneath all of that you can see that she’s scared: that she doesn’t really know why she’s doing this anymore, or why she’s going through the motions, or how it really all came to this.

I reviewed another vampire film, Bliss, before this movie. But unlike Bliss, where the vampire is part of the extended metaphor but almost incidental to the true beast of that narrative, the symbol of the vampire is front and centre with an almost Cabinet of Dr. Caligari surrealism, minus the non-Euclidean Expressionist geometry going nowhere. Inside, it is reality that doesn’t make sense anymore, with characters saying things that could be attributed to them complete with hallucinations and snippets of time out of space, or thoughts made visually manifest, and it’s Amy’s life that seems to be going nowhere.

The vampire, in this film, is Amy. Like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, there is is a part of her that is still holding onto her past — her humanity — but it is quickly becoming distant. There are so many vampire references in this film to the point of punsmanship. The security guard Ernie seems to keep sharpening a stake through woodworking. Aaron, Amy’s technical assistant and friend who idealizes her, gives her a red lollipop. And after she attacks, and seems to bite Sienna out of rage, she is in the washroom sucking on a used tampon: as though attempting to hold onto the youth she wasted in this establishment, the thinnest thread to her humanity, to the ideal of femininity and feminine beauty in a male-dominated establishment that drained her and spit her out, and also something defiant against that very thing that wants her to act all prim and proper against one final humiliation.

It isn’t so much the bite that changes Amy, I feel. It’s the slow realization, or the thought — as the details around her are dependent on her deteriorating perception — that everyone, and everything has betrayed her. Bob, who did not age well in thirty years from when he was a slick handsome man impressing a much younger Amy to a balding, grinning slimy ghoul more than a vampire, constantly has female interns in, and one more. Aaron doesn’t tell her about the fact that his high school friend Sienna is replacing her by Bob’s order. Sienna herself, seemingly innocent, knows or thinks she knows the game, and insults the woman she is supposed to replace.

Amy’s reality untethers, and we come along with her on the ride. We don’t know what’s real anymore, and what is in her head. It’s like experiencing a vampire’s perspective from Clan Malkavian — a bloodline of seers and madness from White Wolf’s World of Darkness — in that some events are even out of sequence. But the images are clear. The gaslighting is real as her coworkers seem to ignore, or not see her pain in her forced retirement, and Bob tries to make her think that her attack is all her fault, as Sienna calls her “crazy.” And you see a glimpse of the young woman Amy used to be, idealistic and vivid and kind, as Bob seduces her with his power position, and then uses her: and this is before we even see Amy looking physically younger, and it’s only towards the end that there is one moment of that: and then it’s gone.

I think there are a few images that stand out at me. The juxtaposition of the different characters in different roles shows Amy’s human mind degrading, with both hopes of what could have been, and resentment. Ernie sharpening the stake every time she sees him, is something of an inevitability. Even going off to see the sunrise has the connotation of going off into the sunset, but for a vampire we all know what means. Amy starts to see Sienna as the vampire monster usurping her, after she bites her: this creature that is both disfigured — and yet not on the surface ugly — who even in one iteration of the cinematic narrative wounds Bob: her new boss that she claims she can move on from to pursue greater dreams. This twisted Sienna probably never existed, but represents the deformed version of the ideal young and pretty, and internalized misogynist woman that Amy despises because of Sienna herself, but also because she can still see that in herself. And when she kills Sienna, she is really destroying the part of herself that at the time she thinks is separate from her, as she embraces the blood-splattered beautiful beast that she once feared, that she tried to suppress, the anger she tried to control, but has now become.

But the red phone scene, more than the ominous “For she’s a jolly good fellow” celebration at the end with the coffin, is the most heartbreaking. We see Amy lose her cool, completely, as Sienna is supposed to sit in to learn the ropes, and she uses the show she once loved to attack both the callers, and Sienna, and the radio station she’s worked at for ages. Yet the red phone — there is always red in this movie — stands out to me because I believe the voice on the other line thanking Amy for being there for her for so many years, and wanting to be her is, in fact, Amy. It’s Amy’s voice in the darkness that she’s always wanted. It’s what she was to other people. It’s what she perverted towards the end out of bitterness for what was done to her.

It is, really, the last of Amy’s humanity thanking her for being her.

I think it’s pretty safe to say I sympathized with Amy throughout the entire film. There are other aspects that might not have happened, or occurred the way they did, but it honestly doesn’t even matter. Amy ends the film, more or less, wondering if she actually did touch other people, ten minutes to midnight, three hours before the Hour of the Wolf, but so close to the end of one day and the beginning of another that she has no idea will even occur, or if she will ever see it. She also wonders if anyone is really who they say they are, or seemed to be: including herself.

It is a powerful film to consider, and made stronger because of Caroline Williams’ fierce, distinguished passion as Amy. It could have been a different film entirely. It could have been silly, like the strange descriptive summary I read with a zany vengeance-caper of blood and gore. We could have seen Aaron, who all but worshiped Amy, be the vampire that immortalizes her because he wants to preserve her beauty and keep him with her — doing what she is doing — forever. Hell, Ernie and Bob are nice red herrings — damn red again — because it almost seemed like they purposefully knew what she was, and that Bob turned into a vampire years ago as she “hasn’t seen sunlight in a while” because of the nightshift, and Ernie could easily have been a vampire hunter, or a thug to kill her by Bob after she is done.

We could have easily watched Amy slaughter everyone as a mindless revenant, or infect everybody with a zombie vampirism. But this film stuck to its principles: of a woman who defied misogyny, who had been humiliated by it, who had been seduced, subjected to grossness and disrespect, and whose mind is shaped by the forces of constant stress, gaslighting, and heartbreak but still rages into that good night, leaving a mess rivalling that of the insides of a red velvet food cake that I don’t think she ever got that chance to eat.

Instead, we see her at a party filled with people she thought she knew but never did, with others she’s never seen before, presenting her with presents of frozen time, and a vial of blood, and a coffin. And, as weird as this might sound, I feel like this film is more of a tragedy than a horror movie. Because even as she’s afraid, Amy wonders if anything she did mattered, despite her visceral defiance against the inevitable, she just wants this senseless party to end.

Perhaps sunrise will mark the aftermath of one story and the start of another.

A Messy Road to Sunrise: Joe Begos’ Bliss

It has been a while since I’ve opened the operating table, such as it is.

And tonight, ladies and gentlemen and other sentient beings, we have an interesting specimen on the table who didn’t so much die young and leave a beautiful corpse so much as leave a glorious mess of bile and beauty, blood and Diablo in its wake. I am, of course, taking about Joe Begos’ 2019 film Bliss.

I, figuratively, walked in on Bliss as one woman was vomiting up blood, and another took a chuck out of another woman’s neck in a club bathroom. Aside from reminding me of my limited clubbing days, though not in Los Angeles as this film takes place, I wondered if I had accidentally crashed one of Dionysus’ revels in the twenty-first century. I left it alone for a while, once I saw this part on Shudder TV, my brain occasionally mixing it up with Panos Cosmatos, Elijah Wood, and Aaron Stewart-Ahn’s 2018 film Mandy, and eventually decided to revisit this strange, yet beautiful specimen after the subdued revelry of the New Year.

What I found was … blood can spoil, and so can films — or people who talk about them — so please mind these Spoilers, or chase them down with a gallon of red, or paint, or your favoured kind of debauchery. Or you can follow the good example of Bliss‘ protagonist Dezzy and, in the words of Neil Gaiman, “Make good art.”

I can see why some others have compared Bliss to Mandy. Aside from the fact that they both played on Shudder, they have heavy psychedelic sequences: with the bright strobing lights, and disjointed shapes, shadows, and shrieking noises that form the basis of every seizure warning disclaimer displayed before the film even plays. But this is the only thing those two films have in common. Before I set the record straight, I had this vision of the female protagonist of Bliss being kidnapped and she and Nicolas Cage engaging in witty banter as they slaughter every human and demon in their way to escape.

This did not happen.

Bliss, on the surface, seems like the kind of film — experimental and with art-house elements — that a critic and personality like Joe Bob Briggs would despise, or at least pick apart. Dezzy, played by Dora Madison, is an artist living in Los Angeles, with a clueless boyfriend content make a moderate living, while needing new experiences to help her break her artist’s block to finish her most recent art commission: a painting that will be displayed in an art gallery. All, obviously, isn’t well of course. It’s a chain reaction of Dezzy having this creative block, not getting paid by her agent, who isn’t getting paid by her, the owner of the gallery not getting the commission she paid for, and Dezzy dealing with a rut in her own life.

So what does Dezzy do about this? Well, it’s really simple. She goes to her drug dealer friend, and his older buddies, and gets some drugs — some alternative consciousness perhaps — to break through her block, and create her painting which at the beginning of the film is almost literally an ember that will ignite into a bloody, terrifying, incredible inferno. However, it is Dezzy’s life that needs to explode out there first.

The cinematic narrative perspective of the film follows Dezzy — and only Dezzy. It’s confusing enough as it is without adding anyone else’s perceptions into the mix, and Begos does this on purpose. On the surface, it would be so easy to say that after indulging in a self-destructive lifestyle of sex, drugs, booze, and rock and roll Dezzy loses her sanity, and kills herself but not before creating her last great work. As I said, this film can easily follow the burden of artistic genius and creative block trope easily: complete with hallucinations that are very much in line with the content of Dezzy’s painting.

But this isn’t taking the vampires into account.

Those vampires, seriously. You almost miss them at the beginning of the entire thing, and it’s easy to do so. In fact, Begos seems to hope that you will. It’s hard to keep track of a lot of events, in between time speeding up, becoming fragmented, and bouts of Dezzy being sick in the washroom, or screaming in terror into a phone and punctuated, rather brutally, by frequent blackouts.

Oh, there are some … crimson herrings of course. At the beginning of the film, Dezzy’s drug dealer offers her the drug called Diablo, and it’s another clever trap: where you might think that she’s inhaling the ashes of a demon that possesses her, and every interaction she has beyond that is incidental, or integral in triggering this entity into controlling her and destroying everyone around her: something like a twisted throwback to the genius, or muse, or daimon of ancient times: the old Mediterranean paradigm of a creator being inspired or inhabited by an outside creative spiritual force that makes them make things. But it seems like this is more than a kakodaímōn that encourages a person to commit terrible deeds such as murder, even if the metaphor might actually be implicit there.

Courtney and her boyfriend have a threesome with Dezzy during a party at her dealer’s house. And it’s only after this act, that we see Dezzy getting sick. And the imagery doesn’t end there. It is complete with Courtney killing a woman in a washroom and sharing the blood with Dezzy, as well introducing Dezzy to a man named Hadrian — who suspiciously resembles the kind of businessman elder vampire we all know from current vampiric films and literature, though we don’t see much as Dezzy’s senses are distorted from alcohol and drugs to the point of passing out.

Slowly, inevitably, we begin to realize the reason Dezzy is vomiting up blood isn’t because Diablo is destroying her body, or some monster is eating her up from the inside: though those things, both physically and metaphorically do take their toll on her. It is her vampirism. It is from all the moments she feeds and kills and blacks it all out of her mind — and it’s only later — when she comes face to to face with this addiction she can’t overcome, or have Courtney take away from her, that we see her kill: this almost somnambulist, animalistic state overcoming her, and making her murder and devour all her friends, and loved ones. .

Bliss‘ vampires are different. They seem to be able to eat food, drink, use drugs, and have sex. If anything, they seem more like Maenads — again with the Dionysian imagery of reveling women lost in drink and dance and becoming enraged to the point of ripping people apart and feasting on their blood — than something undead, or rotting. It could also be that Dezzy herself is in the transition into becoming one of these beings. Indeed, after her encounter with Courtney and her boyfriend, she can still walk around in the sunlight and eat: but it’s earlier on, and as she loses track of time and events spiral swiftly onwards, we get caught up in the whirlwind of the entire time. Eventually, looking back on everything, you wonder if Dezzy is only ever out at night now, indulging in her addictions and her creativity, and her madness.

But the vampirism in this film is almost besides the point. Somehow, it gets sidelined. What is fun is realizing that Courtney and the other vampires probably told Dezzy the rules of what they are, and how they are to operate in society, but because Dezzy is so suffused with Diablo — apparently, and ironically, the only thing keeping the edge of her hunger — she might not even remember those conversations having taken place. If you look at it on the surface, it seems like Courtney just threw her friend into the world of vampirism and “fucked around and found out”: just letting Dezzy go out of control until needing to do something about like — you know — devouring her instead.

Courtney isn’t blameless, of course. She knows Dezzy. She knows how to indulge her worst traits, or enable them. She probably knew it would come to drugs and killing sprees and orgies of death in general. Perhaps she underestimated the scope of them, or the focus. Because, here is the secret of this entire time: the lynch-pin of this film if you’d like. Dezzy’s primary addiction isn’t sex, or drugs, or alcohol, or money, or power, or blood and immortality.

Dezzy’s ultimate compulsion is the creative process.

Dezzy needs to paint. She needs to create. She castigates her boyfriend or lover, who wants to settle for mediocrity, because she tells him that he doesn’t know what it’s like to make something, and it shows. It is the main part of their disconnect. It’s the reason she went on this new odyssey to begin with, but the journey becomes the destination. It might have started with needing to pay bills, or gain fame, or keep up the money she needs to maintain her lifestyle but the seeds of all of this had been planted in the ash-covered ground ages before, watered by the blood of Dezzy’s friends and enemies. She only did the bare minimum to keep living, to have outlets for her physical needs in order to continue her artistic passion: her need for freedom, and the power of creation itself.

Everything has been a means to that act of art: the drugs, the alcohol, the sex, the interpersonal connections, and even the vampirism. E. Elias Merhige’s 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire posits that its monster isn’t the vampire, or human greed, but the cold, soulless lens of the camera that wants to consume everything that it views in its mechanical gaze. Bliss‘ monster is all consuming love of creativity, and the process, at all costs. And, just like the vampire playing Max Schreck, Courtney, the inadvertent vampires made by Dezzy by feeding off of everyone she knows, and Dezzy herself are all consumed by this burning passion: culminating in a joyous, bloody explosion by sunlight, and her painting displaying a beautiful summoning of a road into hell.

The vampires of Bliss can be killed by a stake through the heart, but it’s the light of the sun — the sunset at the beginning of the film, and the red dawn at the end — that sees the beautiful disaster of Dezzy, once well-meaning but become a blood-splattered glory, to the ascension of everything she ever truly loved … and destroyed. After all, it is no coincidence that the damned souls depicted in her painting look an awful lot like the people in her life taken down with her, and the central figure surrounded by them herself.

Perhaps, like Ana Lily Amirpour’s 2014 A Girl Who Walks Home Alone at Night — another excellent vampire film and reimagining — Joe Bob and others might see this as artistic cliché and masturbation, but it hits close to home for a lot of reasons. Dezzy isn’t perfect, but despite what she inhales she isn’t the Devil, and there is something about the mentality of the creative process being all-consuming, like fire over a vampire and the release of the mess of emotional gore inside artistic expression combined with Begos’ cinematic unreliable narrative perspective, that truly speaks to me, and I am glad that after my horror writing hiatus from the last year, this is the film with which I chose to wreck it.

My Favourite Lovecraft Story

As I write this, it is now Yuletide.

It’s already a darker time of year with shorter days, and longer nights, but when you add into the setting a Pandemic, there is this faded almost ethereal, even melancholic aspect to the entire thing: like you are asleep, or something is asleep, trapped in a place between a dream and a nightmare — and neither of you can wake up. Or, perhaps, we are all awake and we don’t want to be.

It’s in this particular state right now, in this strange twilight of an eerie calm and sadness, but a reflective point at a darker time that can easily give away to light that I’m thinking about the stories of H.P. Lovecraft. I mean, this shouldn’t surprise anybody. If you’ve read this Blog, or seen any of my other writings on Lovecraft, you know how much I appreciate the world he created, and shared with so many others. But after the Happy Holidays and towards the time of the New Year, why would I be thinking about his work in particular?

It’d be so easy to say that “The Festival” fits into the theme of the time with its Yule-like rituals at Kingsport, Massachusetts and summoning winged byakhees, and a narrator reluctantly drawn into these family doings, and discovering — or nearly revealing to himself — what they really are. But Cthulhu Mythos holiday celebrations, and awkward family gatherings, remote through space and time, are not going to be the basis of this post. No. I’m going to answer another question.

What is my favourite Lovecraft story?

But before I do that, I want to talk about something I’ve realized: having read about it elsewhere, and truly understanding just how far it goes. H.P. Lovecraft has always identified himself, in some way, with the figure of the outsider. I know I’ve written about his early short story “The Outsider” and its influence on Stuart Gordon and Dennis Paoli’s Castle Freak, as well as the remake created by Tate Steinsiek and Kathy Charles but it goes so much further than that. You can argue that every writer has something of a literary stand-in for themselves, but some are more overt than others.

Lovecraft is no exception. He always has a character who just never quite … fits in. Be it Charles Dexter Ward, who is a young antiquarian that just wants to roam the old streets of his neighbourhood and gets in far over his head as his own ancestral history literally kills him, or Edward Pickman Derby who is a stunted young occult scholar that finds someone he thinks can understand him and takes everything from him, and even Wilbur Whateley who is seen as “a freak” and just wants to understand his purpose and bring back his father, or Professor Peaslee whose life is stolen from him for a time by the Yithian that takes his body and the Great Race of Yith always outside space-time in other the bodies of other beings: never quite a part of what they observe, or record, but desperate to keep going and keep their words and research alive.

I can go further and look at poor Arthur Jermyn realizing that something bad and “unhealthy” is in his family line, or the distant and frail Dr. Muñoz whose delicate health needs to be preserved, or Walter Gilman who is a student having what seems to be a nervous breakdown but is dealing with experiencing another reality out of the norm. Hell, I’ve always seen the Deep One Hybrids of Innsmouth as resembling the Easter Island statues who, in turn, look like Lovecraft. And if you read the stories, we all know what happened to those people.

I’m sure there are many other examples of parallels you can find as subtext of elements between Lovecraft’s own life, and those of the characters — the humans and otherwise — in his stories.

You might think, to those of you who’ve read or heard of the stories, that “The Call of Cthulhu” is my favourite story due to its epistolary makeup of accounts, journal entries, and the idea of poets and artists being sensitive to a change in the air as something ancient and powerful shifts in its undying slumber. Certainly, I appreciate “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” in which Mr. Ward finds the secrets of resurrecting the dead, and learning their secrets through an ancestor that regularly did so to gain incredible knowledge and power. “At The Mountains of Madness” is an epic science-fictional horror story where humans go to Antarctica — to a place of snow and ice much like this time of year — and uncover alien predecessors on Earth who, in turn and for all of their completely non-human qualities, are far less terrifying than the shoggoth they created that went horrifically out of control. And I definitely loved “The Shadow Out of Time” and that whole idea and reinforcement that Earth was ruled by more powerful and terrifying species in its prehistoric era, and whose effects transcend all of space and time.

There is something oddly comforting in knowing that the human species is so small, and inconsequential compared to these vast and alien horrors that makes you really appreciate that little space of safety: at least, for those who identify with the protagonists and their lifestyle and place in the society depicted. I always imagine this vast chaos, and then endless darkness, and then this bubble of academia, and books, and poetry where friends can debate and correspond together away from that terrible uncertainty: even if it’s all an illusion. In that place, which may be less Lovecraft’s and more the place in my own heart created from that writing with corresponding elements taken from those words, I found peace and a little less heartache: and even the creatures and horror were simply inevitable and the pressure to perform and exist, and fit in didn’t matter if we all are truly that small. That weight, in the middle of that terror, lessened for me, and the loneliness became just a little bit less.

I have definitely been influenced by the Cthulhu Mythos, but its the Dream Cycle that is closer to me. Dead Cthulhu may lie dreaming in his house at R’lyeh, but his dreams are only part of something far larger that link the unconscious and conscious minds of the world together, and complete planes of existence. Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle illustrates this the most, from his earliest to later works. This is where I saw the horror genre verge into the truly fantastical for the first time years ago when I was on my own in my Undergrad.

I saw “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” where the protagonist journeyed from the waking world all the way into the Dreamlands and met a whole wide variety of Lovecraft’s creatures and gods: one of the most epic and bizarre odysseys I’d ever read at that point in my life. The vistas of the entire experience still stay in my mind, and I respect the crossovers the novella had with so many of his other stories, and how it all came full circle. Then, you have “The Quest of Iranon” which I’ve written about before: where the eternal youth Iranon — apart from everyone, sometimes respected, other times laughed at — walks the world to find his beloved dream home, only to realize it is a lie, and he gives up, withering against the harshness of reality and goes off to die.

But it is the last story I’m going to talk about: featuring the protagonist from “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” “The Unnamable” and “The Statement of Randolph Carter.”

“The Silver Key.”

Randolph Carter is a scholar who has lived most of his life. He used to see the world more clearly. It was brighter. More beautiful. He knew his place in it, or at least he thought he knew it. He had the ability to effortlessly enter the Dreamlands and explore its vastness and potential. He had a family that loved him, and a forest to explore, and the potential for so many adventures. Over time, however, he got older. His family declined and he lost his childhood home. It became harder for him to enter into the Dreamlands on his own, and to see the magic in the world. Carter studied literature and philosophy in an attempt to drown out that pain of loss, of that waning connection with beauty. He became cynical and jaded, even bitter but he could never escape that longing for … that feeling back. He explored what he could of the weak places in reality, studying occultism and nearly getting destroyed in the process.

Out of all of Lovecraft’s protagonists Randolph Carter survives the longest. He doesn’t die, or go mad for quite some time, which is quite the achievement. One day, after using his resources to attempt to reconstruct his childhood home far away from the land where he was, to feel that sense of wonder again to fill that emptiness that had grown inside of him, he eventually finds out about a silver key. It turns out he finds it in the Dreamlands through the help of his long-dead grandfather, and it’s subtle how it all transitions from reality into dreams as Carter uses the key to go back to his old home, and meets with his family again, and he’s not an older man but a young boy whose life is just starting: and everything he’s lived through is a vision that he had of his own future. He’s back where he was happy — back where he belongs — away from the disappointment and heartbreak of adulthood, and ready to plumb the depths of the Dreamlands proper.

I didn’t expect this story. You can see aspects of it in “Iranon” and even in “The Dream-Quest” when Carter realizes that the place he wants to go to is his childhood home of Boston. But “The Silver Key” is something special. It broke my heart, but also reached it during a time when I was lost, or at the very least wandering around aimlessly if only in my own head.

Let me be clear. H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t a perfect man. He was a racist that believed in eugenics and had Anti-Semitic views among many other radical and unpleasant flaws. But in this story, I can’t help but realize in retrospect what many of his narrators — his characters — were really looking for. Lovecraft himself lost his beloved grandfather, and his family estate, his father and mother had mental and physical illness, he himself had terrible health, and he couldn’t deal with the outside world beyond Providence, Rhode Island. He married a woman and couldn’t support the marriage in New York, and everything he did just seemed reactionary: at least in the earlier parts of his life.

Many people claimed that he was less of an outsider and alien than the people that he discriminated against, of which there are a few writers who are re-appropriating those aspects in their Mythos stories. But one revelation I’ve had, this Yule during the darkest time in the world at the moment, is that almost all of his narrators in the midst of the fantastical and the horrifying were all looking for something. These outsiders, trapped by the ravages of time, but detached from it and almost everyone else, wandered. They roam. They are all trying to find something, to deal with a fear inside of them, or the a sensation of emptiness or something missing, or an incredible sense of longing.

And in “The Silver Key” I realized that in this inherently non-human world, this uncaring or malicious universe and the need to stay in that small, glowing bubble, Randolph Carter and so many of Lovecraft’s main characters just want one thing. They want to find, or rediscover, or return to a place where everything made sense, where they know their place in the world, where they can get away from the insanity and the madness. Where they know who they are.

In the end, they just want to go home.

Lovecraft ends up giving Randolph Carter a fate worse than death with his writing collaborator E. Hoffmann Price in “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” — his “becoming the monster or the alien” trope for his protagonists that don’t go mad or die — but it isn’t the same. It never is. You can never really return to what used to be. You can never really go home again.

You can’t go back. No matter how badly you wish you can.

The stories we relate to say a lot about the people we are, the places we’ve been, and the experiences we’ve had — or didn’t have. We change over time, much like the Crawling Chaos Nyarlathotep as he wanders the world and planes of life influencing everyone around him. Even when he attempts to trick Carter in “The Dream-Quest,” there is perhaps something of a lesson in that act.

Even if you can go back, you aren’t the same anymore. It’s something crudely illustrated through what happens to Carter in “Through the Gates of the Silver Key,” but it’s no less true. Still, what is the Silver Key but an artifact with a series of arcane symbols — or words — inscribed on it taking you somewhere else entirely, a place both familiar and different, another variation on a theme of a lived life, and so many other places besides in dreams and nightmares. And perhaps, in this place, through the gates of our imagination, as small as we are, and as strange as everything else around us is, the story that is the Silver Key can help us realize that while we are the outsider, while we feel displaced, we carry that home within us. Even as we travel. Even as we wait. As we sleep.

Even as we dream under the waters. Until the New Year.

Behind Nostalgia

In order to look at the necromantic strings holding my story “Nostalgia” together, I have to truly go back into the past, and look at Sweet Home.

Now Sweet Home, or Sûîto Homu is a 1989 Japanese role-playing game made for the Famicom: in which you, as a television crew must venture into the haunted mansion of the fresco artist Mamiya Ichirō, and deal with the malevolent spirit of his wife the late Lady Mamiya. It is, basically, an 8-bit nightmare directed by Tokuro Fujiwara for Capcom where you have to switch between protagonists who have different abilities lined up with their tools and you both have to work together and, well, split up to get things done.

Another thing to note is that it was the spiritual predecessor, or even the prototype of Resident Evil, and survival horror games in general. That almost says it all, really.

Released, or announced, concurrently with video game was a film of the same name directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and produced by Juzo Itami. There has been much confusion about which came first: the game, or the horror film. I had been introduced to the game through the YouTube Let’s Plays of Deceased Crab, and I briefly paused continuing to view them in order to play the game myself. This is no easy task, as an English version of the game was never released on the Nintendo outside of Japan, one of the possible reasons being the absolute nightmare fuel of the slow, dread-filled pacing of the cinematics, and their graphics. I mean, just look at this. Look at it.

Nightmare fuel and a rotting skeleton from Capcom’s 1989 Famicom horror JRPG Sweet Home.

I mean, what the fuck right? Imagine being a child, which the Nintendo Entertainment System had been advertised towards, and seeing this monstrosity pop out at you. As an adult, and other kinds of people, this would be awesome, right? So, it didn’t get an English translation or port, but there are fan translations and lovely ROMs that you can get online in order to play the game on your computer.

I didn’t get far. The game is a labyrinth, and it’s easy to get lost, to not know what to do, and switching between characters can get cumbersome. Also, you have a limited amount of items that you can get and your items aren’t endurable. I lost patience with the arcane mechanics of the thing, and that’s really not why I brought you all here to examine this particular experiment of mine.

The film is even stranger. It also hasn’t gotten an official Western release, or translation. It is comical at times, almost Hallmark and cheerily bizarre with the characters’ social interactions. But then, it gets dark as fuck. Seriously, the puppeteers and special effects artists that create Lady Mamiya and some of the other things in that film — especially when Ken’ichi Yamamura’s flesh boils and melts off thanks to confronting the ghost — could have easily worked on both The Dark Crystal, and some of the ugliest horror films of that time.

Many people have talked about these elements, with far more qualifications than me, and my learner’s knowledge of horror. So why did I write this story? Why did I create this scene, and incorporate it into an actual scene in the film?

For me, it all began again when I got Fangoria, and read an article in Vol. 2, Issue #1 by Preston Fassel in the column “Corrupt Signals” entitled “Sorting through the murky history of the film/videogame SWEET HOME.” This was the point where I was not only reminded of the game, and encouraged by Fangoria looking at other media in the genre — as I was interested in examining certain horror comics myself — but it hit home, or I realized, there was a film.

So, of course, I had to watch it.

And I did. I found a fan subtitled version of it on YouTube and watched the hell out of it: and those “being burned from the inside out” scenes that Fassel talked about were no exaggerations. But I think what really got, and this is something I’ve been looking at in various forms since really honing in on horror is the concept of “family horror.”

It all comes back to two characters: Mamiya Ichirō and Ken’ichi Yamamura. In the Sweet Home game, just as in the film, an old man named Yamamura helps you in your quest to quell the spirit of Lady Mamiya and gets incinerated from the inside for his troubles. He provides clues in the game, if I recall right, while in the film he is an actual character who works at a gas station near the estate, and believes fervently in spiritualism of some kind. But in the film, he sacrifices his life to rescue the girl taken by Lady Mamiya and returning the girl to her father Kazuo Hoshino and his producer the woman Akiko Hayakawa.

Yamamura is a boisterous, taciturn, scolding old man who drinks much sake but at the same time uses the power of belief to do considerable things in the film. He is also, paradoxically, humble and self-effacing. He understands, and is furious, when he hears about how the television crew disturbed the grave of a young child on the estate grounds and he always gives Kazuo Hoshino, and the director of the crew absolute hell. But he also helps them, and tries to show them the way. Juzo Itami plays the old man himself, and there is a cantankerous gravitas there, a living experience, like he’s seen something like this before … perhaps even personally.

There is also the matter of the artist that used to own the estate: Mamiya Ichirō. He is never seen in the film, but referenced as the crew is there to find lost works of his in his locked up home. It isn’t clear what happened to him, nor is this apparent in the game as the antagonist is his dead wife. What we know is that his child, with Lady Mamiya, wandered into the furnace and died: prompting Lady Mamiya to go mad, abduct other children, then when found out she committed suicide. But no one seems to know what happened to the fresco artist amid these consecutive tragedies.

The game, however, seems to intimate that Yamamura and Ichirō are the same person, especially when he still manages to communicate with the characters after he is supposedly dead. There is the matter of the fact that he vanished, and in the game there are servants who seem to know who he was. The film doesn’t go into this detail, and there are no servants in that house: trapped, as they were in the game, or otherwise.

I kept asking myself: could film Yamamura also be Ichirō? Would this make sense? I thought about it for quite some time, watching a Walkthrough of the game after I’d seen the film, and then a story began to form in my mind. I wondered what would happened, that day, if Ichirō had taken a break from the fresco he was creating based on his son’s birth — which would have gone through depicting his entire life — and helped his wife find him before he was burned alive?

The death of a child is a terrible thing. The panic Lady Mamiya must have felt in not being able to find him, and then discovering his body in the furnace must have been terrible enough. But what about Ichirō? What was he doing that day when his infant son burned himself alive when the furnace was turned on?

I considered the Mamiya could have been a merchant clan, or a Clan of craftspeople, in the early days of Japan. Perhaps I flubbed that part. But I decided the house was Ichirō’s ancestral home, and I built up a bit of a history which might have been helped by the film. I looked up Japanese terms for “wife” or “mother” or “beloved” or “child.” I imagine I gained mixed results in terms of accuracy. But those references to the sister-mother and brother-father creator gods was intentional thematically speaking, and I am proud of including them.

Sweet Home is about the agony of a mother having lost her child, while the protagonists Kazuo and Emi had lost the woman that was their wife and mother respectively and still mourned her: still affected by her loss. Akiko becomes something of a love interest for Kazuo, and a maternal figure and friend for Emi. She makes the most effort to get to know Emi, and help her deal with that grief, and when she is taken again by Lady Mamiya she puts on Emi’s mother’s garb — related to an item in the game to deal with the ghost I believe — to confront her with the power of a mother’s love.

It wouldn’t, in my mind, be an exaggeration to say that Sweet Home is about mothers and lost children, and their struggle to bring them back. But what about fathers?

Kazuo does attempt to confront the ghost, and he dies. We know that the man throughout the beginning of the film neglects himself and sometimes even his fatherly duties in doing his job, while burying his own pain in his work: however bumbling and well-meaning he is. So I thought to myself: what about Ichirō? What if Ichirō, after losing his son from absent-minded devotion to his artistic craft, buried himself further into his work to deal with the grief and guilt of losing him — despite burying him with an elaborate grave marker to placate his spirit — only to make himself ignorant of his wife’s madness. What would losing her do to him?

Perhaps, in a way Mamiya Ichirō does die, and a man named Ken’ichi Yamamura opens a gas station, after spending years wandering and studying Buddhism and Shinto. Maybe that marker on the child’s grave was his to not pacify him, but his mother. Perhaps Yamamura drinks, and works, and abandons his art — or any creative impulse he has goes into the creation of talismans to ward against evil — to forget, to let the foolish, neglectful person he was die, until, one day, a bunch of foolish television crewmembers go … back there.

Then he can’t just sit back. He can’t ignore the past. He has to go back. He has to go back to that place.

And he does. He tries to pass his knowledge to Kazuo because he sees some of the person he used to be in the man, and he wants to save him: especially where Emi’s life is involved.

Eventually, he’s forced to go into that fateful return into the incinerator: the one that took his son from neglect, and his wife from suicide. He takes Emi out of there, saving her. And the story, in which I asked myself what would happened if the artist saved his son — and hence his family — becomes less of an alternative history, and more of a vision of what could have been, a delusion of pain as he succeeds in saving at least another child’s life: not his son’s, not the children his wife killed, but the daughter of another foolish man consumed by his own artistic endeavours.

But he knows he must pay the price. Perhaps he’s always known. And he dies, and he dies horrifically. Maybe he thinks he deserves this. Maybe he thinks he has earned so much worse. But I like the idea that he had one look at Emi and Akiko, and realized — and remembered that important theme in the film about the power of a mother’s love, both in the mad grief of loss, and in saving that which she loves — and realizes that a maternal power can succeed where the paternal failed so miserably. That’s how, in my story and from his perspective, he dies: in agony, but with the hope that one child will be saved, and one mother will be united with that child despite him, or perhaps in some small way because of him.

I actually think, looking back to the film, that it would have been more powerful if Kazuo had died by Lady Mamiya as well, leaving Akiko and Emi as the only survivors: only after presenting her with her dead child to take to the afterlife. It would have been a good mirror of Yamamura if he was indeed Ichirō, and the power of motherhood in absent and redemptive fatherhood. But perhaps Kazuo, having survived in a bumbling manner benefitting his character, in hiding at the end was the levity needed. After all, we’d seen a lot of deaths and he did bravely face down a being that he should have failed to survive to save his daughter. He deserves his life. They all do.

I was actually kind of glad he survived, where the old man did not. I just like the fact that if Yamamura were Ichirō, he did in part redeem himself, and in facing his regrets and bravely facing the pain of his past and present, he gave another family another chance. Perhaps redemption isn’t a part of horror, in any culture, but there is a cathartic element in that: especially when you consider Lady Mamiya’s evil nature softening into the genuine grief you see as she holds the body of her long-dead baby, and passing on.

I hope that one day the game and film will be get official releases, and become available to everyone. It makes me appreciate both mediums where the story is told, and this necromantic experiment in analyzing and speculatively synthesizing them together gives me some insight into how the narrative works.

Nostalgia

Mamiya Ichirō wanders out of the room, his face smudged with paint.

He’s just begun the fresco for his family. For his newborn son. It will be just theirs, unlike the rest of the work he’s shown to Nihon, and the world. It will show every step of his son’s development, from infancy, to childhood, his adolescence, and his adulthood. One day, when he inherits their ancestral estate, he will see it and show it to his family. Or maybe his brothers and sisters will have other rooms. 

It’s chilly in the house now. Most old families, even modern ones, would simply bear it with blankets on futons and stringent tea. But Ichirō’s work has paid dividends: not only are his works world famous, but neither he nor his family will never want for yen in his life. His family had been well to do even before this, and he’s upgraded the furnace they had installed here decades back. He’s left the room to turn it on, but he can feel the house beginning to warm up. He smiles. His wife must have turned it on already. It does take a while to kick in, or to ventilate through an old, drafty house like theirs. That’s why he’s taken a break. The furnace and incinerator for the garbage sometimes break down, and he just wants to make sure they are all right. 

Sometimes, he gets lost in his own work. His wife, his beloved, she has to remind him to eat. And it’s different now that they have a child. He has to keep pace with his time. Painting his child growing up is one thing, but seeing him grow, and being there is another. He has to remind himself to take more breaks. 

“Tōsan!”

His wife comes across the hall. Usually, she is composed and serene. Always a gentle word, and a smile. With her long straight dark hair, and her pale skin she wouldn’t look out of place at a Heian court. Their families were said to have survived from that time, even the Mamiya that were a minor clan of craftspeople elevated by one of many courts. His wife’s family were minor nobility, and he never forgets it when he looks at her manners, and her temperament, and the beauty that she represents. They managed to even survive the Second World War through ingenuity on his family’s part, and then the frescoes he’s made from his family art and the serenity he so desperately sought and found in himself during that time. 

“Kāsan?” He takes his wife gently by the shoulders, her white yukata soaked with sweat, the same moisture glowing from her flushed forehead. “What’s wrong?”

“Thank goodness you’re here.” She holds him, then breaks away. “I can’t find find our son.”

“Oh?” Ichirō smiles wearily. “He’s … he can walk?”

“He’s been to walk for a while now, Ichirō.” Her dark eyes turn stern. He knows he’s made a mistake now. He knew even before he asked the question. Of course his son can walk. He’s learning. It’s been some years now, and it’s about time. How can he track his son’s progress with his art if he keeps getting sidetracked like this. 

“I’m sorry.” He bows. “I … where is he?”

“I don’t know.” There are tears in Mamiya Fujin’s eyes. “He likes to play on the lower levels. That’s where the servants find him too. I’ve been calling him for a while after turning on the furnace. It’s tea time.”

Something in Ichirō turns. It’s as though his centre of gravity has reversed. “Pardon?”

“It’s tea time. I turned on the furnace, it’s been chilly …”

Ichirō feels the blood drain out of his face. She looks at him with concern. “Koishī? Ichirō?”

It’s a premonition. He grabs her hand, and runs. They run. The boiler room is close. Adrenaline seems to fill Ichirō’s veins. His heart is pumping furiously. By the time his wife realizes where they are, at the door, she breaks away from him and tries to open it.

“No!” He draws her back, as she struggles with the door. 

“Aisoku!” The gentle affection behind that word is gone, replaced with panic. “Aisoku!” 

“My love.” He pushes her back. “Get the servants!” He wrenches open the door. “Get them to turn off the heat!” 

“Ichirō …” She tries to come back. 

“Get them, I say!” He roars as the heat blasts him. “Aisoku! Aisoku!”

He leaves her behind, hoping she will do as she’s asked. It is hot. Everything is blurred. He can’t breathe. But … but as tears come into his eyes, he sees … a shape on the ground. He runs over, staggering, and picks it up. He picks him up. His son. His son is breathing shallowly. But he’s alive. He’s all right. Tears stream down Ichirō’s face as he holds his son in his arms, as he walks slowly, and painfully away from the boiler, towards the door. 

“Papa …” The boy whimpers. “Papa …”

“Aisoku.” Ichirō sobs, burying his face in his son’s damp hair. “My Aisoku. You’re all right. We are all right.”

He sees the door. The red hot light is dimming. Ichirō feels his skin burning. He hurts. But he has his son. His son is alive, and unharmed. He can see him. There are soot smudges on his yukata and his face to match the paint on his. They’d been nearby. They got here just in time. Primal terror fills Ichirō when he considers that he could have still been painting that room, or his wife could have been upstairs. No one knew where his son had gone! He hadn’t known. He’d been so busy with the business, and his work. He realizes he hasn’t particularly spent as much time with his wife. He has something for her. An amulet he bought from a merchant. Something old. Perhaps a Buddhist artifact, or even a talisman from the early days of Shinto. But a trinket would have meant nothing without their beloved son. 

“I have you, Aisoku.” He says. “I have him, Kāsan!” He calls out, as the cooling shadows grow. It is the end of a long, arduous day with one terrifying moment. But it is all right. He staggers out, his carrying his son in his arms, and his wife is there, her own arms wide, ready to encompass them. He smiles. He did it. He …

*

“Emi!” 

The man, who died a long time ago, staggers out into the darkness. The halls are cool and mouldering. But he is burning. His flesh is seething. His power of concentration is waning so much now, the strength that allowed him to crush that bottle of sake gone for what seems like ages. 

He drops the girl. He can’t help it. The others … Kazuo, and Akiko rush forward to pick Emi up. Without her in his arms, he is burning in agony. The boiler still leaves its mark on him. It is charring his skin, as it had the man incinerated in half upstairs, and the woman melted on the wheelchair in another room, and Mamiya Fujin, and those children, and … and the child … 

He focuses. He has to have some concentration left. They need him. “Run!” He rasps through burning lungs. “The shadows are coming!”

“But Mr. Yamamura …”

The stupid man. So indecisive. So caught up in his work. He didn’t pay attention! He didn’t pay attention! Not to this house, not to his loved ones, or his own flesh and blood. He needs to listen. He …

“Don’t worry about me!” The man, calling himself Yamamura Ken’ichi, growls. He hurts so much, and there is no time. It is too late. It’s always been too late. But not for them. Not … “Get out quickly!”

Then, it is just the agony. They take her. He registers that. They call out her name. They call out his a few times. He feels his flesh liquefying, and his bones charring from the flames inside of him. The woman … Akiko. She is crying out for him. For a few moments … he sees her again. She is pale, like the grave, like Izanami no mikoto herself, with part of her beautiful face burned away. He is Izanagi-no-mikoto, who ran away. He thinks about the flames now, how she suffered, how the child burned, how he lost them, and the children that are now forming on parts of her neck. All of his sins, of neglect, come back for him. Yes. The man calling himself Yamamura deserves this. He is just as guilty of killing those children, and the people that came here after despite the memorial and the warnings …. these people, and those poor devils Akashi, Etsuko, Shogo, and Kenji … the servants that refuse to leave, in terror of their mistress, and the child … and Kāsan … Kāsan … 

I’m sorry. He says to her, in his mind. And for a few moments, he thinks he almost sees some sadness there on the face of the woman who killed children, because she had been abandoned in his own grief too. He reaches out with one crumbling hand. Then, it’s just Akiko and nothing more as his eyes run down his face. Just darkness. That woman. Perhaps he was wrong about her. Nothing is stronger than a mother, or a mother that has lost her child. Gods only know a father’s love only went so far. Concentration. Prayer. Regret. Redemption. 

Love. Akiko feels love for that girl. Yamamura contents himself with that, realizing in his last moments, he still feels love as well, that it’s all he has left, as the remnants of the person he used to be finally disintegrate into ashes.