I Got A Lot to Think About: Travis Stevens’ Jakob’s Wife

Stagnation can last years, but the dead travel fast.

If I can summarize Jakob’s Wife, directed by Travis Stevens, and written by him, Kathy Charles, and Mark Steensland, it would be that bite-sized sentence above. I’ve been looking forward to seeing — and writing about — this film. Not only did Travis Stevens direct the brilliance of what misogyny leaves behind in Girl On The Third Floor, Kathy Charles write the Lovecraft Mythos remake of Castle Freak, and Mark Steensland co-write a twisted version of male sexual fantasies, addiction, and consequences in The Special, but this movie stars the renowned Barbara Crampton who plays Anne Fedder: an unhappy woman and wife of a small-town preacher who gains something that can be seen as both a curse, and a blessing.

I just want to say, as many other reviews, articles, and interviews have stated — including and especially in Meredith Borders’ “Waiting to Exsanguinate” as well as Barbara Crampton’s own “Scene Queen: The Journey of Jakob’s Wife” in Fangoria Vol. 2, Issue #11 — that the element of vampirism is only part of the overall theme of the film: which is that of a woman seeking to change her life in a stale relationship, and attempting to negotiate the boundaries of love while seeking her own freedom. 

Perhaps there is a better way to phrase it. Certainly, vampirism being besides the point in a vampire film is nothing novel. Joe Bego’s 2019 film Bliss comes to mind, if only because I said something very similar about it. But there is a difference between that psychedelic nightmare of drugs and self-denial, and Anne’s sudden thrust into a reality that is terrifying, but all too clear: something that, in some ways, has always been around her: and she’s only seeing it now. It’s poetic that takes Anne dying to actually realize that she wants to live. But does Anne actually die?

I am getting ahead of myself. If you want to actually watch the film — and I highly suggest you should — our fangs are out, and from them are dripping spoilers. You were warned. I would suggest, as Anne says to another in her film, that you run while you still can.

This whole film is nuanced. It’s true that Barbara Crampton’s previous horror roles in the 1980s — in Re-Animator, and From Beyond — were not always subtle, but in addition to the way she portrays those characters her skill has evolved. Certainly, by the time we get to her role in Andy Collier and Tor Mian’s Sacrifice, we see she can play a character who straddles the line between different sides of morality, and someone who struggles with their place in society, and their own desires. 

Barbara Crampton goes specifically into the correlation between herself having returned to acting later in her life after marriage and raising a family, and Anne being an older woman seeking to fulfill dreams she put on hold to find love and stability. However, unlike Barbara Crampton — who never really stopped working or chasing her own goals, despite the ageism towards women in the film industry — Anne let herself become subsumed by the doctrine, but mostly the routine of married life with her husband the Pastor Jakob Fedder: a seemingly unassuming man played by veteran actor Larry Fessenden. 

I’m getting back to my point about nuance. This film could have easily gone a few ways, and I found myself being wrong with almost every prediction I had. When the film begins, Jakob is preaching to his congregation in their small town, and after — when he’s approached by a young woman named Amelia — there is almost this red herring in the way it’s portrayed playing on your expectations that the young girl is trying to flirt with the pastor, or there is something illicit business going on. A part of my mind even considered the possibility that Anne had already become a vampire, and is the presence stalking the girl later: her sympathy towards the young woman’s alcoholic mother being an excellent mask.

But that’s not what this film is about. It also isn’t about Jakob, however mundane he seems at the beginning of the story, being a terrible or a violent religious fanatic, or being completely ignorant of what happens to his wife right towards the end of the movie. He doesn’t immediately turn on her, and he also isn’t killed by her as a plot point to liberating herself from him. These are all heavy-handed, easy plot solutions, but Jakob’s Wife never takes the easy way out.

It’s true that the town, in the middle of seeming nowhere, is ruled by a patriarchal system and social expectations towards women: something we see in the attitudes of Anne’s brother and sister-in-laws, and even her husband during their dinner scene when talking about whether or not Amelia ran away “due to a boyfriend,” as opposed to something having actually happened to her. There are certainly some class and even possibly racial connotations in those deliberations and gossip given that Amelia is Black and she and her mother live in a more rundown part that town, and definitely some of that is mirrored in the way that Jakob confiscates marijuana from two younger people of colour. This is the setting that’s seeped into Anne throughout the years, an ebb and flow: a sluggish pulse of inertia that Jakob can live with, complete with the expectation of having a dutiful wife that you can see in the implicit chauvinism of his brother of his brother’s wife, but not someone like Anne whose always sought to travel, to innovate, to just … do something more with her life.

Again, it would have been simple to have Anne leave her oblivious husband to have an affair with her lost childhood love come back to town, while renovating the old abandoned mill that is apparently a town landmark. Hell, having Tom — Anne’s mischievous rule-breaking former flame — be the vampire that turns her is another place that could have gone. But it doesn’t go there. Instead, Anne breaks off the moment’s indiscretion, despite her unhappiness, because we realize she actually still loves her husband: or at least feels loyalty to him. 

And then, everything begins to go to hell. Tom is consumed by rats, unsurprisingly, found in some crates the size of … coffins. They’re coffins, complete with earth and all of that Dracula and vampire Eastern folklore goodness. After that, Anne is attacked by what we find out is an old vampire called “The Master.” No, not the Master from Buffy: The Vampire Slayer with his collared leather jacket, and snide sarcastic remarks.

We are talking about — what we find out later — is a Master that’s like Count Orlok from Nosferatu in the perpetual, final stages decay … who likes to play with her food. Or, in some cases, her toys.

A few vampire film inspirations are referred to in various interviews, one with Coming Soon’s Larry Fessenden on Unique Role in Horror Pic Jakob’s Wife, and Meredith Border’s Fangoria article as well. Films such as Ganja & Hess, Nosferatu, Salem’s Lot, Let the Right One In, The Hunger, and Possession are mentioned, but Dracula has also left its toothy mark on the vampires in Jakob’s Wife.

I really want to look at how vampires function in this world. At first, I thought Anne was a throwback to the way vampires used to be before Nosferatu: beings that are simply weaker, or less tolerant of sunlight, but can otherwise move around. However, what we find out is that she is — figuratively and literally — going through a transition. It’s like a less severe version of what happened to Lucy Westenra, or Mina Harker when they were being fed on by Dracula, and given his blood. However, Anne is already manifesting the hunger. At first, it’s just for animal blood but eventually she can’t even tolerate that. She already can’t eat solid food anymore, and she’s become photosensitive, but she’s changed more than this. Her physical strength has vastly increased, as have her five senses.

And, perhaps due to these new stimuli, Anne expresses a certain directness, with some coldness, that might have remained under the surface: with a fire that Barbara Crampton notes in her “Scene Queen” column. By not having to eat anymore, she also doesn’t feel the need to cook for her husband, who has taken all preparations for him as something for granted: an extension of that casual chauvinism that his brother expresses to him on the possibility that Anne is having an affair. 

But it is not a perfect, nor a permanent state. Eventually, Anne can’t feed off animal blood anymore without being violently ill, focused ultraviolet light becomes damaging to her, and the hunger begins to take its toll. It’s also clear that when she kills a human being — and she only kills one when the hunger becomes too much for her — that if she doesn’t finish off the body, even with its head partially torn off, it will reanimate as what seems to be another vampire. This is something I recall from, of all things, Blacula, where all a vampire like Prince Mamuwalde needs to do is feed and not give their blood to the mostly drained human. 

Yet it’s still more than that. Anne is not, apparently, a full vampire. And Amelia, the poor girl who hears “the Master” calling to her as well, is mostly a twisted, hate-filled bloody revenant of her former self. Even the poor man Anne kills in a frenzy comes back as a relatively mindless thing that she has to wrestle with, and it becomes hers, and her husband’s first kill together. 

Oh yes. That’s right. Remember how I said that Jakob doesn’t remain ignorant? Well, after he goes to, reluctantly as he isn’t a confrontational man, tell Tom to leave his wife alone he realizes that the old mill is home to vampires, and very nearly dies there due to the pitiable, terrifying thing that used to be Amelia. 

He returns, realizing that “the Master” is after his wife: to find his wife feeding off of her unintended victim. It might as well, in his mind, be him catching his wife with her pants down with the Devil in his kitchen.

And this is where the film gets interesting as we see, essentially, a priest and a vampire, a husband and wife, team up to hunt other vampires: to hopefully deal with the curse laid on Anne. On the surface, this is fairly bad ass: not just because we realize that Jakob’s holy items — communion wafers, cross, and water — actually work on vampires, and he even knows instinctively how to dispose of the remains of Anne’s aborted creation in the grave in their garden, but Anne has a new kind of ruthlessness in dealing with “the Master’s” other creations. The way she kills Amelia is a counterpoint to all the sympathy and compassion that she expressed to her earlier in the film: to a point where her husband, the priest, is horrified. He actually wanted to save Amelia, probably in his mind by killing her dark creator … if that’s how this species of vampire functions  of course, right?

But it’s here where their conflict really begins. This is where Jakob has to admit that Anne has changed, and not just because of her transformation. She is more independent and willful than she had been before: or maybe she had been that way before her mother died, Tom left, and all she had was good old solid Jakob and the never-changing faith of the church. But he is angry at her admitting she kissed Tom, and … basically blames her for “the Master’s” attack on her: like a spouse blaming their partner for their own rape which, given what “the Master” is like, and how Anne staggered up to the washroom to hide herself, blood-stained, violated, and screaming while her husband remained ignorantly downstairs, is more or less my read on that situation.

However, Anne is having none of it and actually calls Jakob out on his behaviour. Yet this is a fight between two people who don’t know each other anymore, who hadn’t for a while, but still at their core fiercely care for one another. Even when Jakob drives away, and goes to bed, he can’t quite stop himself from going after her, and when “the Master” uses her power to take control of Jakob, to make Anne feed from and kill him, Anne forces herself to save him instead, having come back to their home on her own. 

“The Master,” played by Bonnie Aarons, is twisted. It’s more than just her appearance. She has the ability to control and change herself into multiple rats. “The Master” also seems to have the power to fly, or at least move almost instantaneously from one place to another. She can even move objects without touching them. But more than that, she has great powers of mental domination: which she uses to not only control Jakob as a thrall, but Anne herself. There is something horrific about how “the Master” manipulates Anne like a puppet, moving her with her body’s movements. She plays with her, and she knows it, and Anne knows it. She can kill Jakob, or anyone Anne cares about on a whim. Amelia is just a plaything, perhaps a prototype to what she seemingly wants from Anne. 

“The Master” provides a lot of voice to what Anne is feeling, about being in the thrall of men, and what they have constructed. She claims she wants to help liberate Anne from being a “scurrying church mouse” as she had been when she had drunk of her own Master’s blood ages ago. This is apparently the thing: drinking your creator’s blood, in this world, liberates you from the hunger of the transition between human and vampire. This is the choice that “the Master” offers Anne.

Choice is a main component in this film. For years, Anne felt her choices taken away from her. Now she has agency again, or a new vital sense of it. She wants equality and a say in her life from her relationship with her husband. She wants to have a role again in their mutual decision making. It’s clear, when the two work together, they are a force to be reckoned with: when they kill the vampire in the kitchen, when they dispatch Amelia, and even taking that poor deceased old woman’s body for Anne to slake her hunger for a time while Jakob hunts for “the Master” during the day.

There is even one scene, after their fight at the mill, where we find out — hilariously enough — that pot takes the edge off of vampiric hunger as Jakob takes his confiscated drug and shares it with Anne. It’s here that they have a heart to heart, and she tells him that she didn’t feel valued, and he apologizes. That is the gist of their conversation. And there is this moment, where Anne seems to feel validated, and get her say in all of this: in her own fate. 

But “the Master” keeps escalating the situation. “The Master” claims to want to liberate Anne from her husband. She asks her “Were you ever really you, or were you just Jakob’s wife?” The film title drop aside, she has some valid points. Certainly, the discussion about Amelia at the beginning of the film is predicative of Jakob’s go-to behaviour along with the victim-blaming element of Anne’s current situation. He has taken her for granted for years, fulfilling her role as her sister in law does. Hell, he doesn’t even consider that “the Master” is a woman: just another man that his wife let take advantage of her, like Tom. And he’s only cooperating with her now to make her “normal” again: to make her “back the way she was.” 

Jakob’s sermon at the beginning of the film, which is Ephesians 5:28: “In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself,” and in the middle, which is 1 Corinthians: 7:16 “For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” speaks volumes about how he views marriage, and his relationship with Anne. Anne is just an extension of him, as Eve comes from Adam’s rib.

Oh, and “the Master’ gets to that. Even while the latter proverb is almost a rebuke to Jakob about not knowing his wife anymore, mirroring his own fear of her changes, “the Master” talks about how Eve was deceived well before Adam by the Serpent, and how she deserves better. And here is where I begin to disagree with the sentiment that “the Master” is trying to “liberate” Anne.

You see, she is still using the metaphor of Eve, Adam’s wife, comparing Anne to her, and her relationship — or dependency — on Jakob. It’d be so easy, again, if this film — as Meredith Borders puts — had been stereotypical and about Anne as Jakob’s extension, as his wife. Or perhaps, to make another Biblical reference, Anne or what she represents now can be the angel that Jakob has to wrestle with to get his life back. That angel has been referred to as Lucifer, as the Devil, but in the Old Testament that angel still works for God: to test Jakob’s resolve. 


But while their relationship is central to the film, this story isn’t about Jakob, or angels. It is about demons. You see, if we go into apocrypha, Adam had two wives before Eve. His second wife had been constructed, from the bones and ligaments up, to being a full human being: an act that horrified Adam so much, God had to remove her. The parallel between a being constructed, all bloody and messy and imperfect, to a man realizing a woman has bodily functions and needs — and indeed possesses growth reminding him of his own imperfection — is not lost here. But perhaps Adam’s first wife, Lilith, is more appropriate in this theological discussion of sorts:  being not made of filth, but the same mud and dust that Adam was created from, and who refuses to be subservient to her husband. 

Lilith discovers the powers of the world, she is embolden by them, and she leaves her husband to ascend to Heaven, and descend to rule in Hell. I think this is a lesson that Anne might have taken more to heart. The problem is “the Master,” as Amelia worshipped her as a god, or a god-surrogate — being her creation — is petty. She likes to play with humans, tormenting and hunting them. Amelia is a diversion, some poor girl who just wanted to take care of her sick, alcoholic mother, for “the Master” to manipulate: even as she preyed on her the same way she did Anne. And what she does to Anne: not just killing Tom in front of her, but also attacking her, and then controlling her body — even going as far as to make Anne masturbate in front of the window — does not look like the independence she promises.

Here is a possibility: what if Anne had chosen to drink “the Master’s” blood, it solidified the older vampire’s claim over her instead of liberating her. What if Anne is just an extension of “the Master” just as she claims Eve had been of Adam, and Anne of Jakob, or her town? What if the choice had already been a false equivalent and Anne had almost been tricked into exchanging one Master for another. Indeed, even if all of those acts were sadistic lessons to give Anne a taste of potential freedom and more supernatural example of the slavery with which she already labours and can escape, either way I think the Master is a cruel, bloody mistress.

What is the ultimate tragedy is not that Jakob kills “the Master,” it’s that he takes that choice away from Anne. She doesn’t have time to make it. “The Master” is — seemingly — gone. A stake through the heart is enough. She is muck and dust, and one rat on the ground. Instead of reverting to a human, Anne is stuck — supposedly — as a bloodthirsty ghoul. Perhaps she could have been liberated, even gaining the shapeshifting, telepathic, and telekinetic powers of her creator. We don’t know. Neither does Anne. And this seriously pisses her off.

It’s fitting: that the man who hesitated in killing, who hated what he believed his wife made him become in destroying her own vampire in the kitchen, who didn’t want his wife to kill a young woman, doesn’t even hesitate to destroy a monster — but that’s not the point. It’s that the divide between them is too great. It’s more than just mortal and immortal, vampire and human. It’s a fed up woman and a clueless man too steeped in his ways.

That last scene between them is so telling. I think … I could have seen it going another way. I can picture it, after they discuss selling the house, with Jakob having an epiphany and realizing that it is not his place to dictate to his wife anymore: that it never was. He can’t help her anymore, but he won’t stop her. He has to trust that she will find her way. And Anne has to let him go. I think what Jakob robs Anne of is something I anticipated so much in this film: that she would face up to her would-be creator, and utterly defy her: to break her bond with her, and make her own way as a vampire in her own right, and not a tool with the illusion of freewill: unbeholden to anyone, or anything.

But Jakob killed “the Master” and took that choice away from her. She’s stuck in transition, a frustrating and angering process indeed, for anyone to be in. This could have ended with them going their separate ways, kind of like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, except the Girl and Arash leave each other.

Yet this is not what happens. It is left, like life, ambiguous. Did Anne want to destroy or refute “the Master” herself? Was she going to be liberated? And will Jakob the priest, and Anne the vampire destroy one another? Is it their last spat, or just the beginning of another conflict that will lead to something more?

I think it all goes back to that glorious scene, when Anne realizes it’s blood she needs, and after pouring herself a cup, she dances to a remix of Concrete Blonde’s “Bloodletting”: also known as “The Vampire Song,” one of the most epic moments in this entire film. I think whatever happens, Anne has a better grasp of herself now, and she knows where she stands — in this moment — as Barbara Crampton did in her role in this film, a penultimate achievement, with more accomplishments — in acting and production — to come, I’m sure. 

Creepshow Commentaries Season Two: Episode 3 – The Right Snuff / Sibling Rivalry

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 3: The Right Snuff / Sibling Rivalry

I keep thinking to myself, that there is no way the writers and directors of Creepshow will outdo themselves. And then you get something like Episode 3. I’m just going to say it, right off the bat that Joe Lynch, Paul Dini, Stephen Langford, and Greg Nicotero’s “The Right Stuff” is yet another reminder that horror can be — and has been — created in space which, given the social media debates of last week, a lifetime ago as space-time goes, bears repeating. 

I love the setting design. The gravity generator that plays such a key role in the story reminds me of something from a vintage science-fiction movie: a device from Doctor Who, or technology extant in Forbidden Planet: the latter of which my mind has been finding itself these days. There is always that age-old genre debate over whether or not something is purely science-fiction if it involves space travel, science, and technology though there are some who forget that multi-genre media does exist: especially when you have something like horror that can cover a whole wide swathe of human endeavours. As such, I got some major EC Comics Weird Science vibes from this tale, though it is so much less about the science and more about the human — the sentient — interactions, and volatile emotions building to that inevitable conclusion.

What does jealousy and resentment and a lust for fame lead you to within the vacuum of space? The answer is in the void around you. Nothing. Nothing good. The characters of the captain Alex Toomey — pilot of their ship the Ocula — and the inventor Ted are fairly one-dimensional and exaggerated as these old style parodies of humans go, but the tale is captivating even as — for the most part — you see where it is going to go. That little quirk where Toomey leaves his coffee cup on Ted’s machine, as a small, petty, and ineffectual way to assert dominance for something he almost had nothing to do with, does speak volumes about where this is going to go even before he hallucinates his father — an astronaut before him — constantly belittling all of his achievements, and how only “being first” matters. 

It may sound weird, but for all of what Toomey does in the narrative — murder out of pure jealousy — I can somewhat sympathize with him. It doesn’t take much to consider what happens when you spend your whole life training to be better, to live up to the example of someone else, to have that person or force constantly sideline you, and then always seem to get slighted every time you accomplish something for someone — or something — else. I think most people can relate to that. But I didn’t hate Ted either, and he tried — he genuinely tries — to make Toomey feel better. 

You know, it’s kind of cool to see how Toomey and Ted work together — even with Toomey’s inferiority complex, or before it truly manifests — and avoid some spatial collisions. At first, when they turned on the gravitational field, I thought they would be stranded or time dilation would put our intrepid protagonists into a science-fictional “Survivor Type” for two situation. Or, maybe, the aliens planning to do something terrible — even indoctrinate or devour — the Earth representative sent to them. But neither of these red herrings happen.

I want to say that I love the overall morality tale of the story, even though what complicates it is one Alfred Hitchcock moment. Basically, we find out that the American government has been in secret contact with aliens — the Gorangi — apparently through the probes that the two astronauts barely avoided, which they thought were asteroids. The Gorangi had been part of a galactic or interstellar alliance attempting to convince their peers that humanity was worth saving and helping, having one of their own — an agent who turns into their ambassador — give them gravity technology to see what would develop from it. That agent is Ted, of course. 

You know, the man Toomey kills out of jealousy and whose place he takes. 

It kind of makes you wonder what would have happened if the government, and even the aliens just told the two men what was going on from the beginning instead of keeping it all a secret. Perhaps their ambassador might have lived. Or maybe an advanced species — who looked amazing and whose effects were reminiscent of Mars Attacks — would be intelligent enough not to judge an entire group of people by the actions of one individual. Of course, Toomey should not have murdered his coworker with his own gravity device, this absolves him of nothing, but I feel that both Gorangi and human dishonesty — seriously, an undercover Gorangi agent being masqueraded as the first human to make contact with “other species” instead getting another human as an actual ambassador — played as much a role in the tragedy in this abortive “first contact” as Toomey’s own inferiority complex, and misplaced ambition. If there is one thing worse than aliens wanting eat, corrupt, or kill you, it’s moralizing hypocritical aliens.

Even so, I admire his punishment. He wants fame and to be first. So the aliens, after they leave, let Earth know that he murdered one of their own … and they don’t bother to save Earth as its own gravitational experiments pull the moon into its crust: destroying the entire human species. The fact that Alex Toomey, who could have asked the aliens not to condemn his world for his own crimes and ask to be punished instead, is left alone on the Ocula — the last human being in all existence — to contemplate what he’s done, with only the shadow of his disapproving father as company is utterly beautiful in its brutal, stark poetry.

There is another conflict in the episode as well, though it is situated in high school. However, this one turns out differently. Rusty Cundieff and Melanie Dale’s story “Sibling Rivalry” begins with the freshman Lola — funnily enough, there is a Hula spring toy on the dashboard of the Ocula in the previous story that I kept calling Lola — telling her guidance counsellor, Mrs. Porter, that she thinks her brother Andrew is planning to kill her. Her story meanders a lot and you can see that Mrs. Porter is definitely not taking it seriously, though we the viewers get little hints of what might be going on. It’s clear that everything isn’t as straightforward as Andrew wanting to murder his sister, and that the “monster” is something, or someone else. 

It didn’t take me too long to realize that whatever this was, whatever made Andrew act this way, what made their family dog terrified, and even the disappearance of their parents isn’t due to Andrew, but the oblivious Lola herself. It turns out her friend Grace, whose brother she’d been oogling with more than a suggestive bit of ice cream in and on her mouth (I mean, come on, she was fantasizing about him pouring milk on himself, can we be any more subtle about this, especially given that Lola’s already asking her teacher if you can pregnant from handjobs, see her meandering story has gotten me off on a bracketed tangent as well), bit her neck while she was sleeping. This is played off as her friend tried to kiss her while she was sleeping, which is a whole other non-consensual boundary issue, but we see that Lola has blocked a lot of what she’s done out of her head.

So Lola is a vampire. She resembles more of a vampire from before the advent of Murnau’s Nosferatu, those that can actually walk out in the sunlight and not die: but she more resembles the terrifying demonic face of Grace Jones’ Katrina from the film Vamp when she feeds, with even more teeth. In the end, her brother is trying to kill her in order to keep her from murdering again: perhaps even protecting himself. But after a confrontation in their kitchen, where they just laugh at the ridiculousness — as horrible as it is — the terrible madness of the whole thing, in a very human moment they realize that they can’t live without each other. They are all they have left.

And yes. As I thought, Andrew plans to kill Grace — who turned her friend and his sister against her will, which resulted in the deaths of their parents — but she stops him as she tells him he isn’t strong enough to deal with Grace on his own. This leads to her … adding him to her new family. A rivalry doesn’t completely destroy a family, but helps to construct a new alliance. And then, Mrs. Porter calls Lola into her office on the suspicion of Grace’s disappearance. At last, it seems as though Lola agreed to “eating” with Grace, but not in the way she intended. It really shows you that Mrs. Porter didn’t take Lola seriously when she was telling what happened, but it was only when Grace goes missing that she immediately suspects her: as a culprit and not a victim.

But then Lola is joined by Andrew, in Mrs. Porter’s office and … well. Mrs. Porter is played by the renowned Molly Ringwald and if there is one thing aside from high school drama that she should be used to now, it’s being made part of a “Breakfast Club.” 

And I have to say, while “The Right Stuff” made for a good meal of grim morality, “Sibling Rivalry” was just the bloody dessert needed to cleanse the palette for the next episode of Creepshow.

Creepshow Commentaries Season Two: Episode 2 – Dead & Breakfast / Pesticide

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 2: Dead & Breakfast / Pesticide

I love how the beginning of this episode began with an animated bit, with the Creep taking a fly from his eye, and placing it into a spider’s web to eventually … die. There was an old lady, am I right?

And there was. Let’s look at “Dead & Breakfast,” directed by Axelle Carolyn and written by Michael Rousselet and Erik Sandoval. It begins in an old boarding house in 1939 where a guest is killed with an axe by an old woman named, fairly inaccurately, Spinster. For, as it turns out eighty years later, her adult grandchildren now run the house with which she committed her serial killings. 

Unfortunately, for all her granddaughter Pamela’s — the name and obsession of which reminds me of Jason Voorhee’s mother — pretensions to her grandmother having been the greatest American serial killer alive, she and her brother Samuel barely keep the boarding house running as a tourist attraction. And it’s too bad, for even as they encourage an influencer — a young social media personality by the equally pretentious name of Morgue — to stay at their property for free to get more exposure and potentially more bookings, even the Winchester Mansion-labyrinthine characteristics aren’t enough to keep her entertained or engaged, and Pamela decides to take rather drastic measures more out of a sense of twisted pride than common sense. 

I like how this one plays out. Morgue plays with the word “Spinster” as she makes fun of Pamela, as the older woman dresses up as her grandmother to scare her with an axe, only to seriously lose her already tenuous sanity, and kill the young woman after a lengthy chase and fall down the old stairs. And then Samuel, seemingly incompetent, always browbeaten, wanting to give up on the whole scheme altogether, constantly dressing up in a headless costume, kills his sister — revealing that he is just as much a grandchild of Old Lady Spinster as she is — to profit from the amount of social media Views and Likes that their “performance” of killing Morgue would bring. I have to hand it to him: making it look like it was staged, combined with the idea that an influencer can in fact disappear off the grid, or retire out of publicity reasons and making it look like his sister committed suicide really did add to his scheme: as convoluted as it is.

Of course, we find out that Old Lady Spinster had indeed been a successful serial killer. The problem, of course, with being a truly effective killer is that — even with her deathbed confessions — she was just too good at her job: at hiding the bodies. At the end of the day, there had been nothing to even prove that Spinister had even been a killer: that is how good she was, until Samuel goes back to the sealed room with the sewing machine and spindle. It turns out, Old Lady Spinster had a certain liking for either Sleeping Beauty, or Rumplestiltskin in that when he accidentally touched the mechanism of the machine, it opened a trap door for him to fall through: surrounding him with the old bones of his grandmother’s victims. He was pleased by this development too until, in EC Comics karma fashion, the trap door closed in on him: killed by a device his own grandmother installed ages ago. Even as Morgue gets to truly be involved in a serial killing she’s always investigated, as Pamela notes before killing her, Grandma Spinster’s whole line is destroyed by her own murderous legacy beyond the grave. I will say, however, that my only complaint — the only thing that took me, briefly, out of my immersion — was the fact that Morgue reconnected the modem Pamela unplugged that was she was so quick to get her Wifi connection back. That is just unbelievable, but in my mind still forgivable as I was entertained by this twisted circle of life in a story commenting on an America profiting off a history — and a reality — of murder. 

And then, speaking of murder and profitting off countless exterminations of life, we have “Pesticide,” as written by Frank Dietz, and directed by Greg Nicotero. This particular story reminds me of a story in the first Creepshow movie, “They’re Creeping Up On You!” Like that protagonist, we have the exterminator Harlan that calls himself the King — who despises insects, though he also enjoys killing other beings that are considered vermin — and, unlike the callous rich man in that 1982 story, he doesn’t have money until it is offered to him for … undertaking a whole other kind of pest control. 

His guilt, however, does plague him like Upson Pratt — or some kind of supernatural delusional event anyway — and the creature effects are fairly impressive,and gross. I do think that people living on the streets would be able to figure out that there is something off about their stew being poisoned, especially as the King — for all of his expertise in chemicals — isn’t particularly subtle, especially in how he kills that one homeless man with the knife. Street-smarts are a real thing, and the whole story makes me wonder if it truly happened at all, or if the exterminator just lost his mind. It has a whole dream-like quality to it, including another EC Comics karma ending that draws on a Kafkaesque “he found himself transformed into his bed into a monstrous vermin” moment. But The Metamorphosis reference aside, I truly appreciated Keith David as one Mr. Murdoch — the devil in the King’s ear — and that deep, baritone voice filled with casual satisfaction over the exterminations he received. I had some major Goliath from Gargoyles flashbacks hearing him speak again, and him appearing as an exterminator the end brought the whole Creepshow reference to “They’re Creeping Up On You!” full circle, which was the concluding story for the 1982 film as well.

I also enjoyed seeing Ashley Lawrence appear in her role as a psychologist and — just like her work as Kirsty Cotton in Hellraiser — she plays both victim and killer, with fear and disdain — extremely well. If anyone would see a blubbering would-be killer as beneath her, as someone on the other end of the counselling sessions this time, it would be Lawrence, and while the story itself is a bit disjointed at the end it is fitting that she ends King’s pathetic little life, with Murdoch offering to help her with “further pest problems.” 

Two stories, one with the descendants of a killer hoping to profit off of her deaths, and the latter of a killer of insects making the choice, foreshadowed by his uncle in jail for some unspecified crime — who taught him how make poisons, to kill “larger vermin” —  the legacies and actions come back to take them full circle, back to the spider and the fly at the beginning of the episode. And, after all, aren’t these stories just a microcosm of the horror cycle of life. Doesn’t death always come back to death? And isn’t that, ultimately, how these stories will continue, when everything is all said and done? 

Either way you look at it, I look forward to seeing more callbacks and familiar horror faces in the episodes that are still to come.

Friend? Lucky McKee’s May

It’s funny to re-watch May in April.

The last time I saw Lucky McKee’s 2002 psychological horror film, I was beginning to live with my partner Kaarina Wilson in our apartment under the stairs. It must have been 2010, a whole other lifetime ago. At the time, I was still into what I considered to be serious movies, until Kaarina decided to inundate me with various independent horror films. It’s something I should have seen coming from the beginning given her own yearly participation in the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, and its variety of cinematic fare.

So we sat downstairs, with her various model heads — that she called, appropriately enough, The Heads — and her Alice in Wonderland drawings on where the stairs used to be as she popped in a new film into her system, and I got to meet May for the first time.

It’s hard to remember what it was like seeing May, then. Angela Bettis plays this small, slight, almost elfin young woman who barely “passes” in society as whatever a normal adult is supposed to be. She is supposed to be that diminutive, that hard to notice, that easy to pass over, or dismiss with something of — if you will pardon the wordplay — a lazy eye. When her strange quirks, her halting speech, her quietness, her shy smiles, her love of blood isn’t seen as a weird novelty, she’s treated like some kind of doll that can be played with, and put away whenever someone else is done with her. Or not seen at all.

May wants to be seen. She wants someone to notice her, to treasure her, to know how weird she is, and to not only tolerate that weirdness, but share and even revel in it. But she’s trapped. She’s trapped in a perfect glass case like her mother’s doll Suzie, and she can’t get out. It is perfect. Transparent. Polite. Awkward. Her whole life, because of her lazy eye and onward, she’s considered herself imperfect. Fragile. Delicate. Frail. People laugh at her when they don’t ignore her altogether. May has never fit in, not once, and while most of the film is beautiful, almost sunny and bright, she is always on the outside looking in with people that either want to use her as a young pretty woman, or socially distance from her weirdness that she can’t handle.

I recall the first time watching her slowly begin to understand what she has to do. It was like seeing her find different pieces of cloth and fabric to stitch together, or doll parts to fit together as the cracks in the glass of her façade — of barely passing as neurotypical and “perfect” — begins to spiderweb outward. She can even hear the grinding of those imperfections grow, the language of the doll, the fragile little angel that she can only look at and envision, but never touch, screeching softly, insidiously, into her mind.

And throughout everything she does, that she inevitably realizes she is going to do, there is an odd sweetness about her, almost an innocence that really gets your heart. At least, before May does.

After over a decade, I still appreciate how May takes to her heart what her mother tells her at the beginning of the film: that if you can’t find new friends, you need to make them. Now, as the Horror Doctor here — an imperfect student of horror and creation of grafting nightmares (I wanted to be a Mad Scientist when I grew up and here I am) — I can truly empathize with wanting to understand and construct glorious creations to express one’s art, and will. But May does it out of loneliness, out of a sense of isolation, of wanting to be seen by the cardboard cut-out flat two-dimensional, shallow and insincere people around her, and realizing that only parts of them had intrinsic value.

It is a slow burn, an elaborate dollhouse setup of a film, of someone barely understanding social conventions finally breaking down after constant humiliations, and when she does … I think the most frightening thing about May is when she gets serious towards the end, she acts neurotypical. She takes on the appearance of Suzie, of the doll, of the little girl told she needs to be protected her whole life, isolated from understanding socialization and sexuality, thrown into it like a toy without any care for her very human emotions — and takes direct, cold, command of situations, and gets the things that she needs. There is something heartbreaking, but also impressive in watching her shed that gentle, awkward exterior for that hard beauty that takes what she wants, whose sadness for a moment turns into anger and hate, but back into that need for companionship and touch: for understanding.

To be seen.

Sometimes I wonder, even now, just what would have happened if someone truly attempted to talk with May beyond a surface interaction, to engage on her level. To actually be her friend.

Just seeing her frustration and sadness, but that determination as well despite everything she does — or because of it — makes me ache for her. Because I think when it’s the right audience, we see her. I see her. I appreciate the alchemy, the strange combination of her sewing, dollmaking, and veterinarian assistantship skills, and the placement of the broken clay ashtray with her name rearranged into the name of “Amy” like the inscription of “life” for her version of a patchwork doll-like golem made of human and animal parts, as she sacrifices her eye — the source of her stigma, physical and social — not for wisdom like Odin, but to infuse the parts of her creation: with the hands of a man named Adam, the body of a punk with a Frankenstein’s Creature tattoo on his skin, and female neck and legs into something of an androgynous being.

But now, years later, I see May’s transformation. The way that Adam, played by Jeremy Sisto, plays with and pretends at understanding her weirdness just to reject her, and Polly (Anna Faris) sees her as an interchangeable toy for sexual play, both rendering their friendship with her invalid — adult relations that she understands only initially in an abstract, almost childlike fashion — leads her to the case holding her doll literally shattering, and releasing the rage and primordial need for creation within. And yet, even her killings aren’t sadistic. They are mostly accidental at first, from the cat onward, and even when they become purposeful there is a gentleness in the way she slits Polly’s throat, and a surgical precision, the directness in which she maneuvers Polly’s casual lover Ambrosia to her doom, and the overall one hit K.O. in how she kills the rest of them.

There is something vulnerable, and powerful in May with which I can relate and, throughout the twistedness of the entire film, in how just keeps … trying so hard, and there is something truly moving about how she finally gets her wish at the end.

I’ve never forgotten May. She is far more sympathetic than the protagonists from Tragedy Girls. I almost feel this need to protect this young pretty serial-killer Frankenstein. Perhaps it’s the mad scientist who’s also had trouble relating to flawed, superficial human beings around him. Maybe it’s because she is reminiscent of my lost Kaarina in her own struggles, in dealing with so many conflicting parts of her life, in just wanting “best friends.” In wanting to be seen. It’s no coincidence she showed me that film, so many years ago. It’s one of the few things of hers that I have left. Perhaps it is both of those things that I see, now.

I will say this. This film wandered toward me, like the Creature did in the woods towards the old man in the cinematic Frankenstein. And when it did, when she came then, as she did now, as blind as I am in other ways, when she asked the question, I gave the same answer then that I do now.

Friend. Best friends. I will see her forever.

Creepshow Commentaries Season Two: Creepshow Episode 1 – Model Kid/Public Television of the Dead

So after my Iron Man Certificate Challenge escapade, I had a lot of a mess to clean up in my Dissections and Speculatives room. Certainly, I needed more energy and inspiration after such a self-inflicted punishment. Ominously enough, the next season of Creepshow has landed on Shudder, and I had the occasion to watch it. I’ve thought about what I would do once the Creepshow seasons started up again, as I had written a whole series of summaries and thoughts — micro-reviews — of the series’ episodes before I even began the Horror Doctor. What I have decided is that, instead of waiting to have them all compiled, I am going to do one a piece. I think that is fair, and digestible. As such, most of these Creepshow entries are my thoughts and impressions of the episodes with their twinned stories grafted together complementing and contrasting with one another. In other words, I will be horror geeking out most of the time, and hopefully something of substance will be said or gleaned from it. As such, here we go with the first episode. I hope you will enjoy it ladies, gentlemen, and other beings of the night.

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 1: Model Kid/Public Television of the Dead

I wasn’t sure how Creepshow was going to top its first season, especially with its Animated Special. And so, here are the first two stories to start off the second season and … what can I say?

They tell us to think about the children when creating or enjoying controversial things. 

And they did.

That isn’t entirely accurate, of course. In fact, I would say that both of these stories, directed by Greg Nicotero and written by John Eposito and Rob Schrab respectively, are about nostalgia and the power of that sentiment even against the forces of darkness, and abuse.

Eposito’s “Model Kid” reminds me of all the old Universal and Hammer movies made in the early twentieth century that I would watch in my childhood, especially those involving Abbott and Costello. We even see a bit of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein as a young boy named Joe and his mother watch it on what the latter calls “their time machine.” And she even explains why she calls their projector a time machine: as it is a device that takes you back to a time, a fictional piece of space-time preserved forever, a silver piece of moving eternity, and simpler, perhaps even better times. It’s nostalgia all over again. I also love the fact that Joe creates a fight between the Gill-Man and the Mummy, his action figures, and especially when you consider that as of the release of this Creepshow episode, Godzilla Vs. Kong has just been released. These monster mashups and cinematic attempts at shared universes have existed for a long time, especially when you consider that Meet Frankenstein has “the Monster,” Dracula, and the Wolfman all in one film, whatever grief films like Batman Vs. Superman might have possessed for having more than the titular characters. 

You really feel for Joe, especially when you realize that his nostalgia takes the form of his “friends”: who are essentially the monsters in all the vintage horror films, some before his time in the 1930s and some contemporary Hammer — as he lives in 1972 and talks about Christopher Lee being the relatively new Dracula compared to Bela Lugosi, whom he dresses up as and imitates. For me, it had been the eighties and nineties where I would watch these tapes over and again on VHS, even renting them repeatedly, or recording them from Cable. I could relate to not having many friends, and consistently watching those films to remember the events in my life that happened around those films — my fleeting childhood, my grandparents, uncle, and time just getting away from me. But with Joe, the loss of time is even more poignant, and the people that don’t understand it far more cruel.

I could, as you can see, truly relate to Joe: especially in how even the most well-meaning people in his life didn’t understand why this “time-machine” and its assorted toys and posters were so important to him. And while the plot was fairly predictable, the way those monsters come to him, proving to be his friends, and the karma he delivers through some less than sympathetic magic with a figurine — a model — he orders, is fairly satisfying. 

Nostalgia and karma somewhat bleed out into the next story by Rob Schrab “Public Television of the Dead.” However, the nostalgia doesn’t centre on the early twentieth century, but rather the latter part of that epoch. We open up with a children’s show that reads like a combination of Lamb-Chop’s Play-Along and Reading Rainbow who has a character called Mrs. Bookberry teaching kids about “karma”: about how good deeds — and terrible actions — revisit themselves back on their doers. 

It continues on, with an Antiques Roadshow analogue, and even — honest to the happy little trees — a Joy of Painting homage to the point of plagiarism called The Love of Painting starred by a man named Norm. Norm is about to, unfortunately, lose his show due to the greed of Mrs. Bookberry, who is not nearly as benevolent as she appears to be on television, especially not in how she treats one of the few African-American television production members on staff. That last little detail about that element of racism, glossed over during that time, really added a gravity to the awfulness of that character.

But there is another aspect of horror nostalgia. We see Ted Rami, yes that Ted Rami, on the antique show — one of the three programs run by one WQPS along with the reading show, and the painting one — showing a book he … found in his fruit cellar. I admit: I was swearing, goodnaturedly, at the screen as this went on. And I thought: there was no way they would mention its title. I believed they would just mention it in passing, and have a whole other story. But …

They went there.

They went there, and they went there hard. Not only did the motherfucker have the same twisted cover of flesh and screaming faces, albeit with a lock on its pages, but … it had the same effects. And they named it. They actually named it. 
And … I will just say it. Deadites were there. Fucking Deadites. Deadites somehow manifested, along with the Necronomicon Libre Ex Mortis, outside of Evil Dead into Creepshow.

And Norm, the Bob Ross analogue who is balding in contrast, shares the artist’s former military background and … I was so glad he wasn’t killed in the first part. He, the producer, and his assistant band together to fight the Deadites and keep the Necronomicon from being read on television. It was beautiful, this strange fusion of different aspects of my childhood that played in the background that … works, so well.

I still can’t believe they had the balls, or ovaries, or sheer metaphorical gall to introduce Deadites into another world, though given where they come from, and the other stories involved, it makes a lot of sense. After all, the Necronomicon gets around. Of course, the story has an … open-ending, as you would expect from an Evil Dead homage, that makes me glad I took the time to watch the core films this Pandemic. So while the monsters are not friendly in the latter story, they are a hearkening back to another time that, mixed with an earlier period of reassurance, shows us that the past was not always pleasant but like the past and its conflicts, the present will find its own equilibrium as well: or the very least, the stories will never end. And if either story in this first episode of the second season of Creepshow demonstrates anything, it’s that its stories have only just begun.

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

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

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

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

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

So let’s begin. 

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

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

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

Private Screenings presents … Baywatch

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consuming the Sublime: Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man

I almost didn’t watch The Wicker Man.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For What It Is: Steven Kostanski’s Manborg

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

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

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

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

Right. I am being very generous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dream well.