Taking Laughter Away From Slaughter: Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead

Imagine you got the Naturom Demonto, and use its pages of finely cured human flesh to go back in time to 1981. A year later, New Line Cinema acquires the distribution rights to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead, but even as it makes the film successful, it denies him and his crew the rights to make a direct sequel: one Evil Dead and the Army of Darkness.

But the Book in your hands is a Monkey’s Paw, and the mere existence of you here at this time in history changes everything. Evil Dead is released in fifteen theatres, but all the people that saw it in the original timeline do not see it. Or Stephen King doesn’t write a review of the film, and someone else creates an article that attracts another distribution company. Or producer Irvin Shapiro didn’t help screen the movie at the Cannes Film Festival in 1982. Maybe the film goes underground and builds a large following over time. Or it becomes a rare oddity horror fans talk about in small viewings: pondering just how something that looked like The Exorcist piggybacking on The Night of the Living Dead just could not have caught on? Perhaps if you told these hypothetical film students and watchers that it might have been different had there been a sequel, and some Three Stooges elements – which is hilarious as Raimi directed a short film in 1978 called Shemp Eats the Moon – injected into the high energy, insanely paced cinematic monstrosity, with more of a callback to his proof of concept work of the same year Within the Woods

Yet there is a demonic force, a demented genius, in Evil Dead that could not be ignored. It wouldn’t just end with one weird, incredibly gory, disturbing high octane aberration. Certainly, the Necronomicon Ex Mortis, if it were called that, would not allow it to be so, and that Kandarian Demon is restless as fuck once you mess with that Book in general. Yet if that first film had a different set of reviewers or critics, another distributor, or if Raimi and his crew gained more capital in those early years, could the Evil Dead franchise have evolved differently?

I think about what would have happened if Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn hadn’t existed and we simply gained a direct continuation from the first film. Maybe Raimi attained the fame and influence needed to convince New Line Cinema to let him make the film he planned, or simply produced and distributed it himself that early on. What would we have seen?

It’s more than possible that we might have gotten Army of Darkness almost immediately, placing Ash in a medieval era surrounded by Deadites. Whether or not Army of Darkness would have had different production scale, or practical effects in 1987 instead of 1992 is anyone’s guess as temporal manipulation goes, but perhaps Ash would be a different hero entirely. 

When you look at Ash Williams in Evil Dead, he is fairly toned down from the loud-mouthed ultra-masculine chainsaw wielding badass that we all know in popular culture. He genuinely seems to care about his friends, and especially his sister Cheryl and his girlfriend Linda. Ash isn’t the one that turns on the tape recorder in this movie, but it’s his obnoxious friend Scott that does it just out of some morbid curiosity, or to freak out the rest of his friends. Ash is a young man that wants to do right by his girlfriend, and his sister: and even after being forced to do horrible things to the bodies of his possessed friends and loved ones in order to survive, the magnifying glass necklace he gave Linda keeps him going. He destroys the Naturom Demonto and the Deadites boil, sizzle, and die away in putrefaction. Everything is horrifying in this film, and there is no respite: and even at the end, when everything seems finally put to rights, the Kandarian Demon – whose perspective we’ve seen as it violated Cheryl with the trees and attacked the others – lunges at Ash, and ambiguously kills him.

But what if the Kandarian Demon, without the anchor of the Book – which isn’t called the Necronomicon at this point, the name borrowed from H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, but rather the Sumerian version of the Egyptian Book of the Dead – uses the last of its waning power, which had been latent in the Knowby cabin and its grounds even before Scott played the recording along with the energies of the Book’s destruction to send Ash back in time to kill him, and therefore save the Book and continue its reign of terror on humankind?

What I’m trying to get at here is what if a serious Ash, without the Three Stooges comedy of Evil Dead II, went back to this medieval era in what might be a version of Kandar Castle? What would the characters look like? What would the franchise look like going forward from that?

I do not have the Necronomicon with me, sadly, to tell me about the dark pasts and futures that could have been. But it is possible that there could have only been two films as a result of this lack of comedy, or very little of it. On the other hand, this version of Evil Dead II might have been a major hit of a darker Ray Harryhausen variety, and inspired the need to make more of itself, and gain more profit. It is also possible that, like most popular horror franchises that start out with darker and grimmer tones, that so many sequels would have resulted in the work eventually parodying itself. You don’t have to look far when you consider Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. So it is possible that Raimi may have led the series to the camp and black comedy it was meant to go into itself, or someone else directing the future films would have begun that process with varying results of quality. 

Yet Raimi, when he did get Stephen King’s aid, along with Dino De Laurentiis, did something truly amazing. Not only did Raimi make a soft reboot of his original concept, removing or not mentioning the existences of Scott, Shelly, and Cheryl, and take a cue from Within the Woods where Ash actually gets possessed, he takes the comedy and ridiculous parody that might have happened to his franchise anyway, and institutes in the second movie. It’s almost as though he, and his crew, anticipated this change in tone, or mythology. Horror, more than a lot of cinematic genres, loves to reinvent its own continuity if only to create and propagate more of itself. Ash becomes more belligerent and arrogant, even absent-minded. There is an aggression there that is exaggerated as opposed to the PTSD-fuelled fight and flight of him and his companions in the other film iteration. The chainsaw arm, of course, its utter madness makes its appearance. The other companions that come in afterwards are all antagonistic until they work together, and then they don’t.

And Henrietta Knowby, played by Ted Raimi, changes the relation of the Deadites not only to Ash and his companions such as Annie Knowby, but to the audience as well. Before this, we saw a group of friends turn on each other as the invisible turned tangible and monstrous through their bodies. And while this does happen in Evil Dead II, we have the presence of the tangible malformed evil of Henrietta locked in that horrible cellar. The Book is now called the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis as well, and more about Kandar itself is revealed through missing pages, and the Dagger. After this, we see Ash sent through a portal into the medieval period: even though by the time we get to Army of Darkness, the beginning is different from the Evil Dead II ending. 

The change in continuity would not have phased Raimi and his crew either, or even the tone of the series. Raimi himself had background in comedy films, and it is more than possible that he not only paid attention to Friday the 13th and A Nightmare, but also Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm: a franchise that constantly reinvented its own mythology in hallucinogenic, dreamlike ways.

But I keep on thinking about what would have happened if Evil Dead II had been made the way Raimi originally intended, or if the comedy simply hadn’t entered into its sequels. I wonder about which film I like more: Evil Dead, or Evil Dead II. The second film does add a lot more to the Evil Dead Mythos: with the Book, the Dagger, the Pages, a terrifying being in Henrietta who we don’t see transform into a Deadite like the others but is well into her advanced stages, Ash facing his own dark self through possession and also his severed hand, the chainsaw prosthetic, the portal into the past, and the whole iconic insanity of this world.

Yet there is a simplicity in the first film that I greatly appreciate. It is straightforward horror with suspense, and tension. Evil Dead II has us laugh at the hijinks that happen, helping us with moments to release the tension that has been wound throughout every mad action and gore scene while wincing at the weirder moments, but the first Evil Dead makes us sympathize more with the people in that cabin. The sequel lets Ash survive, while the first one seems to kill him off, and it just hits harder in my opinion. 

But if the franchise continued without the comedy, what would it look like? The closest thing I can think about, when I consider alternative paths, is The Evil Dead remake directed by Fede Álvarez, but also produced by Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, and Robert Tapert. It is, arguably, another soft reboot of the original but there is no comedy in it whatsoever, or tongue in cheek references – popular-cultural or otherwise – and it is genuinely unsettling, and upsetting. David Allen is an Ash Williams analogue, a throwback from the first Evil Dead film, who actually dies at the end. And Mia Allen, a drug-addicted artist, is like a darker version of Cheryl Williams who actually survives and is freed from her possession in a ridiculous but clever way, as well as some mutilation on her part. The other characters are almost different versions of the ones from the first film, and the Book is called The Naturom Demonto again. Mia does take that chainsaw, but she doesn’t make it into a prosthetic, and I can’t help but wonder that even with the Ash Williams cameo at the end, what a sequel to this film would have been with that evil Book of the Dead still in existence. In some ways, I think a sequel to this 2013 remake would have answered a lot of my speculative questions.

As it is, Evil Dead Rising, written and directed by Lee Cronin, with our usual suspects as producers might provide another possibility: with a girl named Beth going back to her sister Ellie and her family, and finding that damned Book. The funny thing is: Ash’s love interest in Within the Woods was called Ellen. And maybe Mia Allen’s journey, this Cheryl WIlliams analogue that survives, is continued at least spiritually by Beth in a world of Deadites and Kandarian Demons without laughter for humans, but plenty of slaughter for their enemies. 

Annie, Ok: Rob Savage’s DASHCAM

This is one film that I’m actually glad I went into cold. In fact, I ended up watching the wrong movie by accident, Christian Nilsson’s Dashcam, also released in 2021: which is also a product of the Screenlife (computer screen) film subgenre, and a good film, which I write a little bit more about elsewhere. As it was, when I was reviewing the former, I’d come across a summary of a movie that didn’t match the one I initially watched. Luckily, I turned away from it just in time: only knowing about the main character Annie, her political leanings, and that she is a traveling musician that goes to Britain. And that was it.

Then, I found Rob Savage, Gemma Hurley, and Jed Shepherd’s DASHCAM. I’d known about, and looked forward to, it for some time after reviewing their previous film Host two years ago during the height of the Pandemic and Quarantine: created during this new golden age of fear and paranoia. But while Host is a short movie filmed and put together to emulate a Zoom séance gone horrifically wrong and very much an artifact of its time of terror – not unlike a contemporary Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast, or Stephen Volk’s BBC special GhostwatchDASHCAM is another creature entirely, albeit related. 

DASHCAM’s format, just like Nilsson’s otherwise unrelated film of the same name, and Host, is a piece of Screenlife – or computer screen art – except unlike it being conveyed to the viewer from an actual screen, a messenger program, files shared, or the Zoom platform, it is something being live-streamed to us through a camera and a phone through some kind of undisclosed generic looking platform.

As such, we have two elements at play here: the protagonist, and her own viewers. Please turn your metaphorical wifi signal off as there are going to be Spoilers. You know, you would think that based on these past couple of years DASHCAM – both Savage’s and Nilsson’s films of the same name – would refer to the surveillance equipment police are forced to carry to record their dealings, and racial profiling and hate crimes. But while Nilsson’s movie does deal with a police officer’s footage of his interaction with a former political white appointee, Savage’s movie focuses on a female, live-streaming, right-wing, Trump-loving, anti-vaxxer American song artist. The way Annie Hardy portrays herself in DASHCAM is something that, frankly, might happen if Eric Cartman from South Park had a lovechild with Robot Chicken’s Bitch Pudding: with an entire childhood of learning how to use an indoor voice from the fun figure of Jar Jar Binks. Oh yes. In DASHCOM, she is this obnoxious.

And the thing is, everything that happens in the film is her fault. All of it. She violates Quarantine to travel from America to Britain because she hates the restrictions in her country, breaks into her friend and former bandmate Stretch’s home, proceeds to make his girlfriend Gemma incredibly uncomfortable with crude remarks, insults, and not even wearing a mask. She even licks her hand and slaps the man in what she calls “a Silverlake Handshake” to wake him up after coming into his place unannounced, and creating a major Fight or Flight reaction in him and his partner. And this isn’t even going into disrupting his Uber delivery work by not wearing a mask at one of his pickups and getting into an altercation with the proprietor, and then stealing his car to take some food from a pickup call. But it’s when she takes on a passenger for a large amount of British notes, a confused and seriously ill elderly woman named Angela, that we finally see the results of what happens when Annie ultimately fucks around, and finds out.

It feels as though, as the film – already carried by Annie’s frenetic energy – descends into pure, blurry, almost ridiculous levels of chaos: with death, destruction, sickness, and madness that can only be the result of the unholy force of nature that is the human disaster called Annie Hardy. Oh, and Angela is possessed by an entity referred to in the credits as the Parasite that kills two other people as well.

DASHCAM is a spectacle of special effects, gore, feces, vomit, and grossness with constant action, and so many events happening all at once: making Host look sedate and insidious by comparison even when you consider the destruction that happened in that film. But every spectacle needs spectators. Remember how this is supposed to be a live-streamed situation? Well, if you suspend enough disbelief in considering that Annie still has her head-camera and phone recording her throughout everything going to hell even when she loses her wifi connection – and somehow Stretch has a recording device as well as we follow his perspective for a time as he tries to help Annie clean up the mess she’s picked up – and not just the excrement that Angela’s left in his car – we see on the left-side of the screen legions of users offering advice, demands, swearing, making political statements, sexual come-ons, anti-Vaxx conspiracies, and all of the sundries. These people, voyeuristic, anonymous entities themselves, don’t try to alert the authorities as to what is going on, and only one or a few attempt to figure out where Annie, Stretch, and Angela even are. On the contrary, for the most part these fans are either egging Annie on or condemning her, making slurs at Angela, or doing about the same to Stretch.

Basically, the users watching Annie’s livestream enable her behaviour and want to see how everything unfolds. In a lot of ways, they are the stand-ins for the viewer-audience – for us – with their cries to leave Angela alone, to run, to rescue her, ascending from the lower left hand part of the screen to the ether. We see emojis: of praise, sickness, terror, and love rise from the lower right hand on the screen as a form of positive or negative feedback. And you’d better believe the viewer count on the upper right hand side of the screen increases as things become even more extreme. This isn’t a few friends getting together to talk to a spirit that was a joke gone wrong, but an entire Internet of faceless people contributing to, but ultimately watching and gaining entertainment from the suffering brought about by one person’s thoughtless hubris.

However, as I talk about the structure of this film, it does make me think about how it has been presented: or aesthetic considerations. DASHCAM is supposed to be a livestream. There is a part of me that adores not only Host, but also the Internet phenomena of Kris Straub’s Candle Cove archival discussion thread creepypasta, his Local58 web analog horror work, and even Martin Walls’ The Walton Files YouTube videos. The electronic epistolary format of all of these works, in how they present themselves as other media, is something I truly appreciate. In fact, I think Host was stronger than DASHCAM in a lot of ways because despite being on Shudder, it could easily be seen as a legitimate Zoom conversation.

Just imagine this, as a special viewing. Consider if Blumhouse Productions had allowed DASHCAM to be viewed on a livestreaming platform: and when Annie or Stretch’s wifi connections fail, we could have gotten an entire gap of time where we could have seen the chat explode into speculation. This is not a perfect idea, you understand. If we could only see what gets streamed to us, there are many scenes and beautiful effects that would be missing. At the same time, this also isn’t a perfect movie. Between the suspension of disbelief that Stretch is also streaming for the audience at times, and the blatant supernatural effects of Angela, it can get a bit much. Still, considering the twenty-five minute gap that one of the users in the chat mentions between Annie running away into the woods after Angela kills her mother, and then her in a car soaked in demon ichor without Stretch, as realistic as it would be not to see anything it’s just as well we still got to view the entire length of time between the abandoned amusement park, the house, and the basement. Otherwise it wouldn’t be as entertaining.

As such, despite how you might see Annie, as a viewer you are also one of her spectators to her exhibitionism. Even if she annoys you, infuriates the hell out of your existence, you do get invested in what is going to happen to her: if only because, as an outwardly unlikeable protagonist, you want to see her reap what she’s sowed. But there is genuine comradery between her and Stretch. After they accidentally crash into a car from a wedding, setting the groom on fire and killing the bride instantly due to Angela attacking them, Annie holds the groom’s hand as he dies. She puts her Anti-Liberal T-Shirt over the face of the deceased bride, apologizing to her. Annie gets Stretch to beat-box or rap with her as he is distraught by deaths his car caused, and the terror of dealing with the possessed woman that is Angela. And when Annie slams the arm of Angela’s psychotic mother with the car door after she hunts after them with a shotgun and abuses Stretch, you feel a certain sense of satisfaction as Annie gets revenge on the person that attempted to kill them: as petty, and spiteful, and as human as it is.

It doesn’t take away from the fact that because Annie took on Angela, to drive to that house from the restaurant, that two people lost their lives as she crashed Stretch’s stolen car, or that Stretch ultimately dies due to Angela herself: lasting longer than I actually thought he would, to be honest. And even her killing of the Parasite itself, which is wisely obscured for the most part – though out of the corner of one’s eye resembling a refugee from Pan’s Labyrinth – doesn’t absolve Annie. DASHCAM makes it fairly clear that this iteration of Annie Hardy at least is the true monster of this film: this selfish, raging, being that destroys everything in her path simply because she can’t, or won’t, control her own self-centred impulses. I’d posit that the true horror of DASHCAM is that Annie survives when everyone else around her doesn’t: a reckless force that doesn’t suffer the consequences of her own actions. If that isn’t a metaphor for Anti-Vaxxing, or fascism, I don’t know what is. And even that isn’t entirely accurate, as she does begin to cough at the end of the movie. It’s poetic: that Annie manages to live through several car crashes, drowning, being psychokinetically thrown, death cultists, the death of her best friend, and a demon only to contract COVID-19. 

Of course, the figure of Annie can’t have it end like that. No. Annie Hardy actually goes as far as to shunt aside the fourth wall, to interrupt the generic credits to bring herself back to the spotlight. As the names of DASHCAM’s creators stream down the left side of the screen, she proceeds to make a scatological, seemingly improvised rap for each and everyone of them as she drives around to the very end. And you know what: the song is excellent. You truly get an appreciation for Annie Hardy’s skill, and talent as she keeps up the pace and her own sense of rhythm. There is something admirable about her extreme confidence, and passion. It shines through: burning madly, defiant, childlike, playful, and with obvious love. 

I read up on Annie Hardy after watching DASHCAM, and I wondered if she was anything like the personality she portrayed. As I did so, I came across an interview with Rob Savage and DASHCAM’s producer Douglas Cox by Perri Nemiroff of Collider where he defends using Annie Hardy as the film protagonist. Savage explains they had seen Hardy’s performances, especially her Band Car show where she improvised music and talked about topics while driving around, and considered finding an actor that could imitate it: even help them adapt it to the found footage model to which they were going for. What Savage and Cox both realized was that not only did her level of creativity mesh well with theirs in a manner reminiscent of the collaborative effort behind Host, her personality shone through. She was, and is, literally the persona they were looking for turned up to an eleven.

And I can see why this choice is controversial. Promoting someone who has Anti-Vaxxer views during a Pandemic, amongst other sympathies, is not good optics. I can see that some people might view this as legitimizing perspectives that could be harmful to vulnerable people. At the same time, the film doesn’t lionize Annie Hardy’s depiction. It doesn’t make her, her views, or her actions to be good things. Even if her persona doesn’t die at the end of the movie, even if she survived her own disasters, this isn’t a good thing. I think this is a case of showing someone, a personality, taken to the nth degree, and how it leads to terrible consequences. At the same time, we also see that there is a legitimate humanity behind all of these instants, and that what we are looking at – and who we are looking at – is real, or as close to that idea as possible. Annie Hardy exists, and the people and forces she represents and these aspects are not celebrated, but acknowledged, and used to tell the mad-cap, brutal story that the creators set out to do. And whatever else, I feel this decision creates art and horror has often gone to this place of transgression: with Cannibal Holocaust’s story, and production, coming to mind for starters. 

But while there is a mythology behind this film, even for the monster or Parasite foreshadowed in Stretch and Gemma’s apartment as Rob Savage discusses with Rosie Fletcher of Den of Geek, Annie Hardy makes the soul of this DASHCAM, and I don’t know if it could have been as effective with anyone else. DASHCAM has been an experience. I give it three and a half crabs out of five. I say check it out. 

At a Fork Between Space and Time: Phantasm and Doctor Who

It took me the longest time to realize where Ghostwatch came from.

In Russell T. Davies’ era of Doctor Who, during the time of the Tenth Doctor, the term was used by the British media to refer to the manifestation of strangely humanoid apparitions that appeared everywhere in the 2006 episode “Army of Ghosts.” Of course, these “ghosts” were actually Cybermen from an alternate reality attempting to come into this world: or that of the show itself. What I didn’t know, then, was that “Ghostwatch” was a reference to the BBC 1992 pseudo-documentary that terrified British television watchers everywhere by using their actual media spokespeople and staff to stage an elaborate tongue-and-cheek televised haunting turned bad. 

I could write a lot about Stephen Volk’s Ghostwatch in its own right, as it falls into my whole found footage and epistolary cinematic fiction kick, but it was another reminder of that intersection not just between fantasy and comedy with horror, but science-fiction – especially weird science-fiction – and the horror genre. And when you have something like Doctor Who, a particularly weird science-fiction series running from 1963 and onward, stopping for a time in 1989 and 1996 respectively, only to be resurrected in 2005, it is a bizarre and zany patchwork that has covered a few genres, and stories, and story concepts in its time. I used to talk about this series a lot. Hell, I once spent years at an online magazine covering entire episodes of the show, and speculating on all of its elements before truly digging into the horror genre full time in these latter years. 

And then, one day, I encountered Phantasm.

It wasn’t a direct path. It never is, with me. A lot of my interests, and discussions, result from a series of geeky tangents, kind of like my Horror Doctor Blog: which bears no relation to Doctor Who in any way, just to be clear. But one day, I was on the Angry Video Game Nerd’s channel, and James Rolfe and Mike Matei were playing an unofficial game called Terrordrome: Rise of the Boogeymen: a Mortal Kombat-like simulation where you could fight as your favourite characters. And they were all there, these horror icons from the late seventies to eighties and nineties: Michael Myers, Jason, Freddy, Chucky, Candyman, the different Ghostfaces, goddamn Herbert West, and of course freaking Ash Williams. But there were some others too. I’d only known of Leatherface in passing back when I first watched this, and Pumpkinhead. I had no clue that Maniac Cop was a thing.

And then, I saw him.

I saw this giant of an old man in a formal black suit. And he was strong. Insanely strong. He could use telekinesis as well, but he also summoned creatures that looked mysteriously like Jawas from Star Wars to do his bidding in battle.

And he also summoned silver spheres. 

I had no idea who this gentleman was, and it bothered me. It especially concerned me whenever he got hit and, instead of bleeding red blood, yellow fluid came out of him instead. This wasn’t right. How could I not know who this fascinating, terrifying character was? I read up on him after the fact and saw that he was just called The Tall Man. 

And that was it. But this is where I also found out that there was a horror series called Phantasm: created by the architect of Bubba Ho-Tep – coincidentally one of my favourite films – Don Coscarelli. And yet, this wasn’t enough to get me to watch them, or i didn’t have access to them at the time before I encountered The Last Drive-In, again through James Rolfe and Diana Prince – or Darcy the Mailgirl – and found out there had been an entire Christmas event where most of the films had been shown. 

Why did I watch these films, and hunt down the illusive Phantasm II regardless of being a completionist? It’s because not only did this Tall Man, who as it turns out also inspired the creation of the memetic Slender Man, intrigue me as it looked like an extremely unlikely iconic villain, and one I didn’t know about, it’s that something about him vaguely nagged at my senses like Slender Man would people’s collective nightmares. I had seen him, or something like him, before – and not Angus Scrimm, the actor that portrays him. 

It started with the silver spheres, I know that much now. In 2007, still under Davies’ tenure as showrunner, the Doctor Who episode “The Sound of Drums,” has The Master – The Doctor’s Time Lord archnemesis – working with, or possibly having engineered the Toclafane: a race of silvery sphered aliens that are supposed to help humanity, but actually serve him in decimating it in an event called The Year That Never Was. And, as it turns out, these creatures used to be human beings from a far distant dark future that all but had their brains regressed and changed to fit into their metal carapaces that possess blades capable of cutting many people apart. They are said to also be mostly ruled by their baser instincts, and to attack from those impulses. 

Now, Phantasm watchers, what else has blades that come out of them and attack people directly and have human brains inside them obeying – or working with – a terrifying potential alien antagonist? Of course, the Silver Sentinels are more direct and will drill into a victim’s skull, and they are removed from the skulls of the transformed dead by the Tall Man to serve him directly and, as far as I know, only the Giant Sentinels from Phantasm V are capable of firing lasers instead of the Toclafane with their own energy weapons, and their hive mind, but the parallels are hard to ignore: to the point where I wonder if Davies had been inspired by Coscarelli’s films. However, science-fiction has its own share of strange and bizarre creatures, especially cybernetic humans gone wrong, and Doctor Who itself from which Davies could have more than easily been inspired. 

Of course, now that I’ve seen the Phantasm films I’m also thinking again about the Lurkers: those Jawa-like beings I mentioned earlier. These particularly strange and outlandish things are the result of the Tall Man mutating dead bodies, those he is supposed to be caring for in his guise as a mortician, into his own mindless servants: their brains taken specifically to power and pilot his Sentinels. They, like the Tall Man, have yellow blood: an ichor that slightly resembles the reagent used by Herbert West in the later Re-Animator films, except that solution is a light neon green instead. It is fascinating to note that, at one point in Phantasm IV: Oblivion, the Tall Man exists in the American Civil War injecting fallen soldiers with needles filled with the yellow substance in a manner not unlike something the good Doctor West would do.

But then there is the idea that the Tall Man attempted to access the realm of the dead, or a mortal incarnation of him tried to do so, that resulted in his creation, and the creations of the Lurkers, the Sentinels, and his other undead monstrosities. Years later, in Steve Moffat’s run as showrunner in Doctor Who, he introduces the concept of the Nethersphere where, as it turns out again, Missy – the female incarnation of The Master, having survived death once – downloaded the consciousnesses of all the recently dead into a Gallifreyan Matrix data slice, or hard-drive to upload into Cybermen obedient to her will. Essentially, she hijacks the deaths of countless humans to make her army of the dead: engineering an afterlife in the form of the Nethersphere to do so. It is reminiscent of something The Tall Man says to the priest in Phantasm II: ““You think that when you die, you go to Heaven? You come to us!” The Tall Man’s afterlife, or homeworld or dimension, is a dark place of endless storms in a black desert and binary sun mocking the landscape of the Jundland Wastes of Tatooine, and more like a purgatory or hell in itself of his own creation accessed through his Dimensional Fork Gates much like Missy’s Nethersphere is accessible through her own jury-rigged Gallifreyan technology. Could Moffat have been inspired by Coscarelli’s films as well? Who knows.


Yet one interesting parallel remains in my mind, or from my sense of aesthetics. Look at William Hartnell’s depiction of the First Doctor. Consider his suit, and his hair colour and style. Now think about the fact that whenever he is grievously injured, he Regenerates. He shapeshifts. Doctor Who was made in 1963, and by 1979 – when the first Phantasm film was released – we are all the way at the Fourth Doctor who has a device called a sonic screwdriver that allows him to access and manipulate certain elements. He is also an inventor and he can create things almost on a whim from pre-existing materials, and he travels through space and time. None of this is news to those who follow the series.


Now look at Angus Scrimm’s Tall Man. He is a lengthier old man with a similar suit, but whereas Hartnell’s Doctor is flippant and snappish, The Tall Man is grimmer and far more menacing, his voice rough and brusque. He was derived from the nineteenth century mortician Jebediah Morningside: a man was also something of an inventor or a scientist. Both seem to have less patience for the young. The Doctor himself is surprisingly strong, as Gallifreyans are made to be sturdy and do not have the same physiology as humans. The Doctor uses his TARDIS to explore, and The Tall Man utilizes his Gates to move around: the former primarily through Time and Space, and the other through what seems to be alternate dimensions of reality, and sometimes different time periods. However, The Tall Man also shapeshifts but not always when he dies, and even his limbs – when severed – can change into other creatures entirely. Fascinatingly enough, Davies does create a clone of the Tenth Doctor from a severed limb of his later in the series, but that is just coincidence as I feel that was an accident when it was combined with human DNA whereas The Tall Man’s mutations are all purposeful and malicious. And while The Doctor has a sonic screwdriver to help him, it seems a tuning fork in the hands of the protagonists often disrupt The Tall Man’s Fork Gates, his technology, and sometimes even himself. The Doctor does have aspects of telepathy too, whereas The Tall Man has telekinesis. The Doctor is able to Regenerate into different genders, and The Tall Man can change his shape to match different genders. The Doctor is impatient with his human Companions and the species in general but over time warms up to them, whereas The Tall Man sees them as resources, though he has a draw towards and wants to capture Michael Pearson – who he always calls “Boy” – and Reggie, who he loves to torment like some kind of multiversal pet of spite.


Interestingly enough The Doctor once said he was half-human, and as a Gallifreyan he has two hearts, and The Tall Man seems to have come from a human at one time. Also of note, The Master – who has the Toclafane and their version of the Cybermen – is seen as the antithesis of The Doctor, while The Tall Man with his Sentinels and creations, his own resurrections in the form of duplicates and even gender changing as well can be seen as another. I can go on, I’m sure, and I want to make it clear that I am not saying that Phantasm was inspired by Doctor Who, or that various eras of Doctor Who were clearly inspired by Phantasm, but the parallels are striking and I feel that creative “cyber-pollination ” is a thing.


I feel like I might have managed to offend two fanbases in two different genres in writing this piece such as it is, but it all comes back to horror and science-fiction: especially weird science fiction again. Things like Doctor Who are almost ridiculous. In a few other writings, I’ve talked about how The Doctor is the sublime and silly answer to the malevolence and apathy of a Lovecraftian universe: a dream that delves into nightmare to emerge, sometimes with some loss, triumphantly to face alien bees, vampires, and B-List foes like Cybermen, and Daleks once again. But Phantasm, with the Tall Man? He is on that other road. He represents that place where reality is never fixed, always changing, always shifting, a dream from which you can’t awaken, and yet the fight and the struggle keeps going. Doctor Who is the madcap insanity that laughs in the face of cosmic madness. Phantasm is the horror that keeps coming back throwing dwarves, mutants, robots, and undead in your face. Neither should work, these chimerical juxtapositions, but they do because in the end, both are strange stories that constantly reinvent themselves. And both are different sides of the Weird. 

Mamuwalde, Screaming: The Two Films of Blacula

I’d watched Shudder’s Horror Noire documentary back in 2019, and it introduced me to many films I’d heard about, and some that I did not. 

For instance, Ganja & Hess was one of the movies I’d never heard about: this experimental, almost lyrical dreamlike piece about vampires made by the Black filmmaker Bill Gunn and starring Duane Jones from Night of the Living Dead fame. And then I also got around to watching Candyman, and while I still love Clive Barker’s “The Forbidden,” Tony Todd brought him to life in a whole other way that I’m glad I got myself to see. I was never a true horror fanatic, and all the permutations, and so I came into looking at some of these films starring Black actors, and created by Black filmmakers from a fresh perspective: looking at art that I wouldn’t have considered back when I was younger. Certainly Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us helped me along the way to this fascination, with both the dread of seeing how racism would be incorporated into horror – especially from the relationship dynamic of the former film – and the pacing and fine social commentary inherent in both. 

And then, you have Blacula.

I admit: I would have slept on it in my old, dark, subterranean coffin if it hadn’t been for Horror Noire. I’d heard of it in passing, along with a ton of other Blaxploitation films of the seventies, and had my preconceptions about what they – and it – would be like. Just as I feared Get Out and watching someone from outside a family background get his humanity and freedom taken away – the notion guest-friendship turned into a thin veneer to cover a distrust and injury of the outsider and knowing he will always be so in certain places, which has overlap with me on a personal level that I might go into in another post – I was thought something by the name of Blacula would take that racism to the nth degree and make a spectacle of it.

A little while back, I was saying to someone that if Get Out had been created by anyone other than Jordan Peele with his understanding of pacing and punchlines, the brain transplant element would have been what it’s always been portrayed as in popular culture: a B movie curiosity at best, with little contemporary fear, or resonance, involved. But Get Out had Jordan Peele and his crew, and Blacula had William Crain, and William Marshall. 

Imagine a man and his consort sent by their elders to stop the slave trade in their land, perhaps even on the entire African continent, and they go to a powerful European statesman: who happens to be Dracula. Consider the man, a prince of his people, urbane and educated watching as this fiend turns him into a monster – infecting him with his own systemic imperialist and white supremacist curse – and locking him into a coffin for over two centuries while his consort starves to death helplessly next to him. He is named by this elder monstrosity, derisively, Blacula. Perhaps that’s a bit of a stretch given that they are in Transylvania and they would be speaking in Romanian, or possibly Latin as nobility, but this is entertainment and English is the accessible language of most films from America. But with that aside, just think about this prince waking up, having only the hunger, being in an alien land and world, finding the person who seems to be the reincarnation of the woman who died separated from him by a box, creating other monsters from needing to feed, losing her again, and then taking his own life when he realizes he’s pretty much done. 

That is Blacula. And it is a good movie. I like that William Marshall, who plays him, named the vampire Mamuwalde and gave him the entire backstory of having come from the Abani Tribe – while smacking of some exoticism – making him his own character independent of Dracula, and giving him a whole other world as his foundation. It isn’t perfect. Certainly the homophobia directed towards the gay couple – Bobby McCoy and Billy Schaffer – by both Mamuwalde in casually killing them when they release him, and even his eventual hunter the L.A. Police Scientific Division specialist Dr. Gordon Thomas calling them a derogatory term is something other reviewers, such as Kevelis Matthews-Alvarado in her guest post on Horror Homeroom Blacula (1972): Flawed But Important, have pointed out, and criticized. Those sentiments were a part of the seventies, of course, especially amongst the higher echelons of that society and the police that guard it. 

I read a few articles on Blacula after I saw the first film, and there were a few in particular that focused on how he became a vessel for the racist white heterosexual hegemony’s or kyriarchy’s demonization of women, and other minorities.  Daisy Howarth, in her essay Monster to Hero: Evolving Perceptions of Black Characterization within the Horror Genre, focuses both on Get Out and Blacula: and particularly on Mamuwalde embodying a “black hypermasculinity” to compensate for being enslaved or having racist white European prejudices internalized into his very being. Howarth also makes a comment about Mamuwalde reflecting a critique of a facet of Black 1970s counter-culture when she states that his “victims tend to be those that compromise his masculinity, which seems to be an advertence towards an effort to regain a form of power, whether that be over women in dominant positions or homosexual black males. The expectation of macho masculinity is also reflected through the Black Panther movement of the 1970’s that sought for a ‘discourse of recovering Black manhood’, and thus Blacula’s choice of victims emphasises his pursuit to become less of a monster and more of a man.” The fact that a powerful movement like the Black Panthers had issues with the white-controlled police, but also dealt with internal politics and gender issues is an interesting parallel with how Mamuwalde deals with the first gay couple – the first interracial couple defying the patriarchal system to which is implicit in his blood now, as kinkedsista points out in their Blog post “Blacula”: A Commentary on Vampirism, Slavery and Black Male Identity

Kinkedsista’s article, specifically, is one of the first works I’d read on Blacula immediately after watching it the first time. She examines further how Mamuwalde was already affected by European biases when she looks at how he is European-educated and dressed in a Western style, compared to his consort Luva who is dressed in the aesthetics of their people the Abani, or the Ibani Tribe. Matthews-Alvarado mentions in her article that the Africa – or African group – described in Blacula is fairly exoticized, even perhaps Orientalized: and that by telling Tina Williams that they had come from a Tribe of hunters, along with his bestial appearane when he needs to feed, it hearkens back to some “primitive” imagery. So again, we have Mamuwalde as embodying a force of European imperialism, and the racist stereotype of “the beast or the savage.” 

At the same time, as Howarth explains with regards to Tina Williams’ – the seemingly reincarnated Luva – struggles, Mamuwalde represents an idealized link back to a culture from which Black Americans had been separately from – by force, and time. She states “In this sense, the duality of being living and dead or monster and lover, forms a disparity that reflects on the greater issue of being black and American. Therefore, if Tina chooses to pursue her love for Blacula she must also choose between existing in ‘a compromised contemporary black community’ and ‘an African idealised civilisation of the past’. In order to obtain a sense of her lost heritage Tina must enslave herself to Blacula and thus ideologically she can no longer be both contemporary woman and inherently black, highlighting a struggle to obtain black pride in 1970’s America.” 

It is an interesting counterpoint to the vampires that Mamuwalde creates as a result of simply feeding on victims – not even purposefully creating them – perhaps another subversive look at racist views, sometimes internalized, of male Black virility or hypersexuality. They are ashen, discoloured, and twisted. Chris Alexander, in his article The Beauty of Blacula, states that William Crain “gives his black vampires a powder white sheen that makes them look authentically ghost-like but also adds an odd, disturbing reverse-minstrel aesthetic, as if the characters have to turn into “whitey” to exemplify their evil. This device is likely accidental, but that’s irrelevant. It’s there. And when those ghouls go for their prey, they run screaming in slow-motion. their fangs bared, like banshees from the pits of Hell.” In retrospect, their aesthetic is reminiscent to that of the undead in Sisworo Gautama Putra’s 1980 film Pengabdi Setan, or Satan’s Slave, which have ties to Indonesia’s pontianak myth: making me wonder if there was some creative influence, or if this is a case people drawing on their own folklore, or stereotypes to take “internalized evil” and make it overt for the sake of creating a statement: or using what they have in their cultural consciousness. 

Mamuwalde’s vampires are more earthly and far less ethereal or ghostly than they appear. They can eat food, and drink wine. They can even have sex. By the film sequel Scream, Blacula Scream, directed by Bob Kelljan, it’s also possible they can make themselves look more human by drinking a large amount of human blood. They can’t see themselves on a reflective surface. Crosses seem to repel them. And they can be killed by a stake through the heart, or exposure to sunlight: that doesn’t so much turn them into ashes, as it just renders them deceased, with the exception of Mamuwalde himself possibly due to his advanced age. Mamuwalde is the only one who can shapeshift into a bat, and from what we see in both films he has the power to compel his creations to do what he wants and, when doesn’t, they generally go on a mindless feeding spree and multiply. But what is also interesting is that he has the power of mesmerism or fixation: and some of his creations do as well, mainly the friend of Lisa Fortier in the sequel from which he feeds. Yet Mamuwalde himself can communicate telepathically with Tina, though it might have something to do with her being Luva’s reincarnation, and a possible bond between them.

Mamuwalde’s vampires are more earthly and far less ethereal or ghostly than they appear. They can eat food, and drink wine. They can even have sex. By the film sequel Scream, Blacula Scream, directed by Bob Kelljan, it’s also possible they can make themselves look more human by drinking a large amount of human blood. They can’t see themselves on a reflective surface. Crosses seem to repel them. And they can be killed by a stake through the heart, or exposure to sunlight: that doesn’t so much turn them into ashes, as it just renders them deceased, with the exception of Mamuwalde himself possibly due to his advanced age. Mamuwalde is the only one who can shapeshift into a bat, and from what we see in both films he has the power to compel his creations to do what he wants and, when doesn’t, they generally go on a mindless feeding spree and multiply. But what is also interesting is that he has the power of mesmerism or fixation: and some of his creations do as well, mainly the friend of Lisa Fortier in the sequel from which he feeds. Yet Mamuwalde himself can communicate telepathically with Tina, though it might have something to do with her being Luva’s reincarnation, and a possible bond between them.

So now we are the crux of it. I was surprised at how good, and compact, Blacula actually is as a film. The heroes, or hunters, are refreshingly intelligent. When Dr. Thomas wants to prove that vampires exist, after researching them extensively first, to his girlfriend and coworker Michelle Williams, and then his colleague Police Lieutenant Jack Peters, he uncovers Mamuwalde’s corpses: to let their actions speak for themselves. Mamuwalde himself outsmarts the LAPD and Thomas by luring them to his hideout, only to have his vampires waiting for them: including one who is on the police force, and hiding in plain sight. We’ve mentioned the aesthetics of the vampires as well, and honestly? Mamuwalde’s charm as portrayed by Marshall Williams: his intelligence, gravitas, and tormented state go a long way to selling this character with such a ridiculous and exploitatively insulting moniker like Blacula. His relationship with Tina, that ephemeral, beautiful, unexplained bond is portrayed well and how he reconnects with her after initially terrifying the hell out of her is clever. And that ending: where he loses her again, and he decides to go meet the sunrise is haunting and poignant. The hunters don’t kill him. The white-owned police don’t destroy him. It’s only at the end, when his reason to seriously exist, is gone – when his own arrogance and violence from the curse on himself thwarts his ambitions in addition to the death of Tina, that he decides he’s finished, and he faces his fear in the sun: to die.

And there is the sequel I mentioned, Scream, Blacula Scream.

I almost didn’t watch this one, given how well the first film ended. But it had elements that intrigued me. So imagine the plot beats to the first film by Crain, except Bob Kelljan and the writers Joan Torres, Raymond Koenig, and Maurice Jules add a voodoo element and a coven family rivalry into the mix. You have Lisa Fortier, played by the amazing Pam Grier, who seems to be the love interest of this film. And then you have her boyfriend Justin Carter – a former LA policeman and African antiquities collector – who starts investigating vampires after Mamuwalde comes back into the scene, and he has to convince his former white colleague, or boss, Lieutenant Harley Dunlop, that they are dealing with vampires. 

Lisa’s foster brother, Willis Daniels, is passed over as head of the voodoo coven after his mother – the previous leader and voodoo queen – dies. He tries to get revenge, and take power from Lisa by using a dark ritual to resurrect Mamuwalde from the bones he’s left behind from the previous movie when he committed enthunasia on himself. It doesn’t go well for Willis because, although we never see Mamuwalde reform or come back, he comes out of the room and converts Willis to one of his undead servants. And for all of Willis’ and his girlfriend’s seeming humanity even after all of that, Mamuwalde has no chill, and he immediately can take control of them whenever he wants, and is not above threatening their existences.

Mamuwalde also hunts some of Lisa’s friends, as he did Tina’s. He has a bond with Lisa, but she isn’t Luva’s reincarnation as these events seemingly happen a year after the first film. However, because she is a natural practitioner of her art, he hopes she can use sympathetic magic to “purge the curse” from inside him, and let him become mortal again so he can return to his people … somehow. Of course, despite all the vampire minions he has, Lisa’s boyfriend and his police friends interfere, the ritual is interrupted, and Mamuwalde finally loses it. He embraces his vampire slave name Blacula out of pure spite, giving up on his humanity, kills a lot of people by throwing them awkwardly into walls, and Lisa stops him with a voodoo doll she made of him: though what ultimately happens to Mamuwalde after this remains ambiguous as it doesn’t seem to have died … again.

So what it comes down to, for me, is which is the stronger film?

Right. I prefer the first one. Blacula is tight. It has a premise, an engaging fixation for Mamuwalde, a fascinating series of interactions, some terrifying sequences, and a tragic but fitting end where Mamuwalde finally realizes that his actions are almost as culpable as those of his foes, and ends himself. Scream, Blacula, Scream is a bit more disjointed, repeating quite a few plot points of the first film, somehow set in the same city with different characters and no one remembering what happened a year ago, and skimping on some special effects like Mamuwalde reforming from some charred bones in an arcane ritual. 

However …

The fact that Mamuwalde is far more vicious makes sense when you realize the peace of death was stolen from him by some young, idiot upstart. His torment of Willis is so much clearer in that light when you consider what he took from him. His disgust over his creations is a projection of his own self-hatred, and it is the thing of which he wants Lisa to help him be rid. I do think the whole Lisa and Willis rivalry element should have been played out more, or at least have Willis and Justin – who hate each other – have one last fight. But rendering that boastful, arrogant, overcompensating Willis into a broken slave has its own resonance too. And seeing Mamuwalde’s own evil come back to roost does have some beats on its own. How can he redeem himself, or be redeemed, if he took so many lives, and controlled them for his own benefit? What ritual could rid him of that? Even so, as Gregory Day points out amongst other elements in his article Blaxploitation Cinema: ‘Blacula’ / ‘Scream, Blacula, Scream’

I love how Maumwalde confronts some pimps about using their “sisters” as slaves in imitation of “their masters,”  and doesn’t – or perhaps doesn’t want to – see the mirror image of himself in them as he makes his own thralls. I do really wish they’d kept his silver-inlined cloak as opposed to simply giving him the whole red lining of Dracula. I mean, we know he has ties to Dracula. If the flashback sequences weren’t enough, we saw this in the first film. Calm down, merchandising department. 

But I think it’s his relation to Lisa Fortier that does it. Pam Grier is a popular actress in and of herself, but her character represents something interesting in everything about which we’ve been talking. Voodoo, or perhaps elements of it, has West African traditions combined with Catholicism – or Christianity – due to the slaves being taken from that region and being forced to convert by their enslavers. Voodoo, or vodoun, isn’t always Christian-influenced but the fact that both Lisa and Willis speak French when performing their rituals seems to illustrate that some Creole or other influence came into these rites: either from colonized West Africa, or in America itself. And the way that Lisa starts to seemingly purge the evil out of Mamuwalde is reminiscent, and we go back to the start here, of Ganja & Hess: where the vampires of that world can only find peace – in this case death – through prayer, and sitting under the shadow of a cross. Ganja & Hess had been released in 1973, while Blacula and Scream Blacula Scream had come out in 1972 and 1973 again respectively. I also, though, like the idea that voodoo in this world is its own power, and affects vampires and people differently despite any links it may or may not have to other religions or spiritual systems. 

Yet here is what gets me. In light of Matthews-Alvarado, Howarth and kinkedsista’s articles, and their observations of black hypermasculinity, and European influences, and a Black woman’s place in those dynamics, we find a complete opposite to what finally stops Mamuwalde: as, you know, it is the last film in the series so far since the 1970s. Lisa Fortier is a Black woman in touch with her spirituality — her roots — just like her boyfriend. The police target her group specifically, especially, the racist Dunlop who is far less sympathetic than Blacula’s Jack Peters, and defies them when they try to pin Mamuwalde’s murders of her coven. And unlike Tina who is killed because she let herself get drawn into Mamuwalde’s cycle, and the female cab driver Juanita Jones who dies because she insullts him by calling him “boy” and has no choice at all in what she becomes, Lisa is a powerful Black woman who chooses her contemporary world over Mamuwalde’s exoticized past and the infection of European racist slavery that he offers. It pains her to do it, to hurt this wounded man, a great man made a slave and part of a vicious cycle of subjugation and a treasure trove of Black history and culture – who came to her for help before giving up, and into his worst nature. He is literally going to punish Justin the way that Dracula did him: perpetuating the cycle by infecting another intelligent and educated Black man with systemic racism. And Lisa stops that in its tracks with her ties to the traditions of the past, and the power of the present: of her own mindfulness and love for a better future. She does what she does allow herself, her loved ones, and her own life to survive.

In the end, I think Blacula was a better movie but Scream Blacula Scream, while as Chris Alexander put it, was about his victims, had a better message. Even so, Pam Grier’s quiet but fierce performance notwithstanding, Blacula is my favourite of the two. As of this writing, there is currently work on a reboot to the series. And I’d like it to focus more on Mamuwalde’s character development, and that of the other characters: perhaps in a retelling in the ‘70s or ‘90s, or even in the aughts. I can only hope that whatever they make, it will capture the grandiosity of Marshall’s character, and apply the message of both films to this time because, like poor Mamuwalde, suspended between life and death, motion and stillness, hunger and despair, the enemies outside and the ones they put within, it is timeless.

Made Family: Clive Barker’s Nightbreed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Literally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they do.

By god, they do.

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

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

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

What we see is something truly beautiful. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 2: Skeletons in the Closet/ Familiar

Spoiler alert. I … you know how you see a teaser for something, and there is a flashy moment, a scene that you think is really excellent and promising, and you want to see how it plays out? And then it doesn’t?

Yeah.

“Skeletons in the Closet” is a story written by John Esposito, and directed by Greg Nicotero. That title already had a great deal of promise to it, and the whole premise of a film buff opening up a museum display, only to have a rival collector threaten all of his plans, really intrigued me. Were we going to see them try to outbid each other on an auction? Were we going to see some weird, colourful horror collector characters, and a murder mystery amid gory practical effects memorabilia? Hell, were there even going to be some special guest stars?

No. Not really.

The murder weapons were all there. The effects were, well, in effect. We had so many Easter-eggs too, but you can’t make an entire story that is completely made from the bones of other works. My skeleton pun aside, I’m not talking about inspiration, or playing off a trope and finding your voice in it.

There is a homage, and then there is something completely derivative. And being derivative multiple times. It doesn’t even bother to hide it. It is a fairly predictable plot once it gets rolling. The film buff, Lampini, is actually the son of a former magician and movie memorabilia owner, and he is in a feud with a man who almost dated his mother before his father got him.

The collector, Bateman, wants the prop of a zombie from George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, and is blackmailing him into giving into him as one of his displays is actually a body that the film buff guy had dug up. So when things escalate, his girlfriend — Danielle — kills the man with a shoe that has a knife in it. And this is after she doesn’t believe her film buff boyfriend would dare be a ghoul, and dig up a corpse that was already used as a prop in a film before being returned to that grave.

Yeah. She is a pretty one-dimensional character, in both senses of the word: constantly snotty, a horror elitist, kind of arrogant, and hanging on her boyfriend’s every word until, you know, she finds out he dug up a skeleton. To be fair, the commentary on horror fandom here — art house and grindhouse snobs alike — is so on the nose it’s probably broken some facial bones on impact. And then he preserved his own father’s bones to do them like one of Ray Harryhausen’s Spartoi skeleton warriors. By the way, I love animated skeletons. They are light-weight, agile, they move insanely fast, and if you are a necromancer they are cheap to make. And it is a bonus if they cackle.

I will say this. Bateman’s body, once the dynamic duo stripped him down, and put his remnants into acid, did deliver on the laughing skeleton part. I think one of the things that makes me sad is that we saw, in the preview of Season Three of this show, one of The Tall Man’s spheres — a Silver Sentinel: you know, from Phantasm. And I was hoping, I just hoping Don Coscarelli would write or direct or even have influence over this episode, and make it a tiny one-off Phantasm story even if Angus Scrimm can’t be with us. Hell, they did it with “Public Television of the Dead,” though minus Sam Raimi. Unfortunately, that was not to be, but that prop did get to be Chekhov’s sphere.

And at least Danielle died, which almost made it better except for the fact that it was a clear parody of the Psycho shower scene, and it was perhaps supposed to be funny but it … just fell flat for me. I did like how the film buff’s father’s skeleton, and his rival’s bones got into a fight, and the father won. I think of Lampini as kind of like Lovecraft’s Pickman except his “magic” — as is bandied about in the story — isn’t painting, but collecting props, and when he can’t he makes them from the dead: including from the bodies of everyone he loves. It just comes across as more weird, and silly than anything else. But hey, at least we got a skeleton battle out of the deal, and a Silver Sentinel fulfilling its true purpose. And that callback to the original 1982’s Creep’s model was great. 

I’ll take it, I guess. I agree with Karina Adelgaard of Heaven of Horror when she says this should have been the first episode of Season Three, if it was going to happen in this way. It would have been a great transition from Season Two’s “Night of the Living Late Show.”

But then we have the other story. “Familiar” is a story written by Josh Malerman and directed by Joe Lynch. It is harder to talk about this one. Whereas “Skeletons in the Closet” is mostly made of references and doesn’t have its own character so to speak, “Familiar” has a clearer vibe. One thing both episodes have in common is that the female characters are profoundly dismissive, but whereas the one in the former episode was practically singing her boyfriend’s praises, Fawn in “Familiar” teases Jackson a lot.

They go to a fortune teller named Boone after a night of drinking, to celebrate Jackson’s growing career as a promising lawyer and while the man tells Fawn her fortune, he passes a piece of paper to Jackson telling him that brought “something bad in with him.”

It makes you wonder, especially from the title of the story, if Jackson already knew about whatever this is. I actually thought that he was becoming successful because he had contracted a familiar — binding a demon — to do his bidding, but its presence was becoming intolerable, and soon he would have to pay the piper. That didn’t seem to be the case though, and he tries to dismiss it as if it’s nothing.

But when this creature seems to appear at random times, and then it goes all Brownie-Poltergeist on his office, and the restroom, he confides to his … girlfriend? Wife? He tells his partner Fawn, and she makes fun of him and his fear. She doesn’t see it and worse, when she’s not acting like the stereotypical white character in a horror film thinking something supernatural is cool and should be investigated or purchased for a lark as opposed to avoided like the plague, she is pretending to know it, and ignoring her partner’s obvious discomfort. Nevertheless, she doesn’t seem to mind him looking into it, but … You see, this is an interesting story for a few reasons, and one of which I hadn’t really thought about.

When I finished watching this episode, I looked at other articles to see if I could understand the ending. Yeah. That is never really a good sign, I even watched the ending again: to see I’d missed something.

Of all things, there is a Decider review of the episode by Walter Chaw which is profoundly also self-referential, highly full of itself, and eventually it descends into a kind of contradictory word-salad. I don’t generally get this critical of another piece of writing, but I have to call it as it is. But there is something he says in that article about Jackson being Black, and how the Familiar — the really cool antlered humanoid creature following him around — is subtext for, if you will pardon the borrowing from Forbidden Planet, “a creature of the Id.”

It is telling that the couple brings this thing into a room in which fortunes are told, that this is an unspoken, unseen dark force, a burden that they are unconscious, or subconscious about. Fawn is fairly dismissive of Jackson seeing this creature afterwards, and just goes about making fun of him. And what seems like mutual ribbing becomes a little one-sided. Other articles have said that the geriatric dog, Randolph, is Fawn’s but that was not the impression I got: that Randolph is in fact Jackson’s dog of many years.

These are all details that will be important because, after a while, Jackson goes back to Boone to get help to deal with this Familiar. Now, the story itself says the Familiar is a creature that is bound to someone and will do anything: lying, cheating, stealing, and even killing to stay with the person to which they are bound. The thing is, though, I know that familiars in folklore are summoned by magicians and witches to fulfill bargains, and carry out services. Certainly the book Jackson picks up seems to hint on this, and you’d think a lawyer that constantly prides himself on his knowledge of legal loopholes and the language of the law would be more interested in the symbolism of the magic circle and mage in that book.

How Boone presents this as, however, is that Jackson must take an object of innocence, in a binding circle, and trap the Familiar under a “magical crate.” Because this is, you know, all Loony Toons now, right?

So we can already figure out where this is going to go. It’s the Lambton Worm all over again. He has to take the crate, the magical crate, and dump it into a pond and get away from it as far as possible. So first, taking Boone’s suspect innocence sky pendant made by his sister, he traps the thing: only for it to mimic Randolph. You see, Familiars can actually possess the bodies of the dead and the dying just to masquerade as one’s friends, and stay by you because they are — again — bound to you. But when he lifts the crate, Randolph isn’t there, and the pendant is gone.

So no dog-killing today, just as it didn’t happen in the Lambton Worm story. Those poor, loyal hounds. 

Right. So Jackson realizes he needs a replacement for the not-suspicious amulet … err, pendant. And so he visits his partner, and yes, Fawn is a sculptor. He realizes after talking with her that her gift for him, which is a lamb figurine I believe, represents innocence and love. He uses this to trap the Familiar. It … seems to mimic Fawn’s voice, begging to be let out, but he doesn’t check, and she is not answering her phone.

Then he dumps the crate in the lake, and seems to feel better … even though we hear Boone laughing like a madman in the background.

So, at the end, we find the Familiar with Fawn’s drowned corpse. It fades, and Fawn’s body is reanimated. It croaks to Jackson, as it embraces him, that “I believe you now.”

He does fulfill the Lambton sacrifice. But instead of freeing him, it costs him everything.

See, Chaw in his article takes pains to show that one Black man — Boone — is showing another Black man — Jackson — that his white partner isn’t good for him, or the dynamic isn’t healthy. There is a grain of salt in this that wasn’t actually used in a protection circle, but the idea of a successful Black man or person dealing with an issue that a white woman or partner or friend can’t see, possible gaslighting, the Familiar — in more ways than one — being that resentment, and anger, and the idea too that it might be Boone’s Familiar that he is using to attack Jackson and pass onto him so that he can free himself, and that it takes his dead partner’s form in a creepily Shakespearean Desdemona fashion is something that is intriguing, and disturbing.

But I was really unclear as to what happened. Did Boone trick Jackson all along? Did he have that Familiar follow him because he wanted to be rid of it? Did he resent Jackson’s success? Did he make Jackson aware of the social and cultural inequalities around him? Was Boone just a dick? Is the Familiar in Fawn essentially the dream Jackson always thought he wanted, in a career in law that he didn’t really take seriously, or care for, made manifest?

I went online — specifically on Twitter — to try to find an answer. Luckily Joe Lynch, the director himself, was in a generous and charitable enough mood, and he weighed in on the subject in the following exchange.

So, there you have it. But that matter aside, I feel sometimes I’m not as well versed in the horror genre as I should be, and there are references to other works and pieces that would help me get a better context. I will say that “The Familiar” was far more interesting, if sometimes vague, than “Skeletons in the Closet,” but while the former does have some charming, ridiculous moments, the latter definitely makes you think.

CORRECTION as of January 30, 2022: It was pointed out to me by Mike Smith, under the Twitter handle @bladeoffire1 that what actually was Bateman wanted the original Creep, in exchange for not telling the police that the original Dawn of the Dead skeleton had been dug up illegally by Lampini. It was a mistake on my part as both skeletons had white shrouds, and it was a bit convoluted. Man, if only Bateman knew the extent of Lampini’s ghoulish practices. He was no Pickman, artist or Dreamlander himself, but this observation actually improves “Skeletons in the Closet” a bit more for me.