A space planned for rewriting some obscure horror films as stories. Sometimes, I review them as well, or think about what works and what doesn't, or what I would instead with the material given. Updated whenever a terrible epiphany strikes.
The place for everything else that doesn’t fit: the Schrodinger’s space between the Freak that Speaks and, Dissections and Speculatives. Here be the Horror Doctor’s undead creations. Here be his ghosts.
The thought grows like the branches and roots of The Halloween Tree, nebulous and almost lost to time, but something always cycles back every year in the Fall. Ray Bradbury’s “Homecoming” was a short story I discovered by accident. As a child, I had this anthology called Alfred Hitchcock’s Monster Museum: one of the many hand me down books that my aunt would give me over the years. I didn’t realize, in the Eighties or Nineties, that Hitchcock hadn’t actually written those stories, nor had any hand in them really. All he’d done was written an introduction to the book itself, where he posits that anything can be a monster.
And this sentiment applies well to “Homecoming.” Ray Bradbury’s story is situated at the very back of the anthology, where I didn’t even look, until one day, in my parents’ third house, in the basement, near the family computer, I did. It must have been October, close to Halloween. I remember having no plans; I had only the memories of All Hallows’ Eves that I would never have again (many of my old friends had moved on, and most of the people that I knew were gone). I was feeling sorry for myself in that basement: sitting in front of my parents’ old Windows Vista computer, I looked at the nearby bookshelf, and discovered this old friend I’d barely even read as a child, sitting with the likes of the abridged and complete version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
But I did know Ray Bradbury. Fahrenheit 451 was required reading for high school, which is where I was introduced to his writings, and it just so happened to fit part of my goal to read all the dystopian literature I could find. I also continued on with Bradbury due to Neil Gaiman as he is also a tremendous fan of his, reading some of The Martian Chronicles he loved. I had tried – and failed – to write a story called “The Man Who Forgot Neil Gaiman,” in the vein he did for Bradbury before him. But in order to potentially forget something, you need to find out what it is. So I had to check out this story. And it is a tale about monsters and what they can be; Hitchcock describes the anthology’s publication date of 1965 as “the Age of Monsters,” and refers to someone starting a “Monster Pen Pal Club.”
The above is an appropriate choice of words when you consider the idea of a group of monsters coming together, acting like people even though they are clearly not human, but something different – though it doesn’t take away from their sense of solidarity with each other, or with the reader and viewer. Take the 1981 film Monster Club, for instance, with Vincent Price’s Eramus introducing John Carradine’s version of R. Chetwynd-Hayes to a whole underground social club world of different beings, and species, and cross-species with their own rites and rituals, after saving him with a bit of his blood. There is this sense of an old world of (if you will pardon the quotation from James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein), “gods and monsters” coming to an end; these beings no longer have the same level of fear or respect they once enjoyed.
There will be Spoilers. Reader’s discretion is advised.
Ray Bradbury published “Homecoming” in the magazine Mademoiselle back in 1946, and I found it ages later, reprinted in my weathered copy of the Monster Museum anthology. The story itself deals with the Elliot Family that has come to dwell in an old house in the Midwest, specifically in Illinois, who is preparing for an annual reunion. The main character is a member of the family, a boy named Timothy Elliot, who desperately wants not only to be part of the festivities, but to be accepted by his relatives.
It’s hard for Timothy to fit in. He’s been led to believe that he is ill or deformed: with “poor and inadequate teeth nature had given him,” and, as he tells his pet spider, appropriately called Spid in the Alfred Hitchcock’s Monster Museum reprint, and in later versions included in From the Dust Returned and The Homecoming apparently named Arach, “I can’t even get used to sleeping days like the others.” Despite this, he enjoys the prospect of his family’s nocturnal existence, “He did like the night, but it was a qualified liking; sometimes there was so much night he cried out in rebellion.”
In this, Timothy Elliot shares a lot in common with someone like Marilyn Munster: just as the latter has always been considered the “uglier” or “more unfortunate” member of the Munsters, the former is tolerated for his deficiencies, as he is always on his family’s side. The Elliots, a family “of ghosts and monsters,” are a lot like the Munsters, both supernatural beings living in modern America. In fact, they also have a lot in common with the Addams, who also attempt to coexist with American society. Indeed, Bradbury wrote a letter to Charles Addams wanting to make the equivalent of a Halloween Christmas Carol novel with Addams’ illustrations and collaboration; while those plans fell through, they eventually led to a fix-it fantasy novel called From the Dust Returned that links older Elliot Family stories with new ones to create a sense of continuity.
But while the Munsters have Lily, Herman, Grandpa, and Eddie – vampires, a Frankenstein’s creature, and a young werewolf, who are all kind – and the Addams Family have Gomez, Morticia, Wednesday, Pugsley, Uncle Fester, Cousin It, and Grandmama, also largely benevolent, with a few naturally violent tendencies here and there, their “creepy and kooky, mysterious and spooky” selves, the Elliots are more traditional monsters: more alien and predatory, and less inclined to interact with humans beyond bloody necessity.
If we go purely by “Homecoming” alone, the Elliots don’t have as many defined personages as the previous fictional supernatural or eccentric families. Even so, they have the following kinds of family members: Grandmère who is a thousands years old mummy and ancestor who barely moves, a Niece Leibersrouter who changes into a mouse and back, Timothy’s siblings: Ellen who seems to do something with collecting body parts, Laura “who makes people fall in love with her,” Samuel who likes to read eldritch books, and Leonard who “practices medicine,” and a host of uncles, aunts, and cousins. Aside from Timothy’s unnamed vampiric parents “Mother” and “Father,” the most notable members of the Elliots are his Uncle Einar and his sister Cecy, or Cecilia Elliot. Timothy’s Uncle is a large, bat-winged man that always favours his nephew, taking him on various flights, while Cecy is a girl who sleeps most of the time, and possesses the bodies of various beings throughout space and time. Cecy has one of the most inhuman mentalities: just as willing to change the life and abandon a woman she’s “living through” to drown in mud pits as she is to enter the body of a bird.
There are a whole host of beings in the Elliot Family, but Timothy has exhibited no powers of any kind like theirs. He goes as far as praying to “the Dark One” to “Please, please, help me grow up, help me be like my sisters and brothers. Don’t let me be different.” In a family of diverse supernatural creatures, Timothy is an ordinary human child.
He sees himself in a disquieting, disassociated manner: “Something huddled against the flooded pane of the kitchen window. It sighed and kept and tapped continually, pressed against the glass, but Timothy could make nothing of it, he saw nothing. In imagination he was outside staring in.” It is reminiscent of the unnamed protagonist of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” escaping from their tomb, seeing the living celebrating, and wondering why everyone is scared of them. In this case, it’s a mortal boy knowing he’s different; in an All Hallows’ Eve family party of the undead and unnatural, a child wants desperately to belong, feeling like no matter how hard he tries, he will fail.
It is an interesting existential juxtaposition here. It isn’t just Timothy being terrified that he doesn’t fit into this familial multitude of witches, ghouls, and goblins, but there is a sense of impermanence within what should be an immortal tribe of nightmares. As the Elliots observe: “Dawn grew more apparent. Everybody was embracing and crying and thinking how the world was becoming less a place for them. There had been a time when they had met every year, but now decades passed with no reconciliation.”
It makes me think about what Ray Bradbury writes in “Afterward How The Family Was Gathered” in his From the Dust Returned that fleshes out “Homecoming” and other Elliot stories: he mentions that his inspirations for the family came not only from his own childhood Halloween experiences, but those with his family members now long gone. It is no secret that most beings, most families, are mortal; as older relatives will eventually decline, younger members potentially scatter. It is a spectre most of us face. As time marched on through the faded leaves of this world’s Fall, Bradbury dealt with this inevitable sense of loss and memory by writing about the Elliots, and other fictional characters.
But even Ray Bradbury himself is gone now. His memories of tricks and treats, and fun aunts and uncles only exist now in the words he’s left behind. “Homecoming” is written as a children’s story, depicting an old House and trees in constant motion, along with leaves, along with the darkness. The prose is poetic. Sad. Mirthful. It is transitory. Like the autumn wind it references, like another Halloween, another year, this story is magical, existentially scary, and all too brief.
Like Timothy’s life.
Imagine being that child who realizes not only is their family going to be gone one day- the same people they know deep down they are not a part of, and that even if they continue to exist, you are going to die. You won’t be there for Salem of 1990, or there is a good chance you won’t. And all your mother can say to you, in words that still haunt me, is this: “we love you. Remember that. We all love you. No matter how different you are, no matter if you leave us one day […] And if and when you die, your bones will lie undisturbed, we’ll see to that. You’ll lie at ease forever, and I’ll come see you every Allhallows’ Eve and tuck in the more secure.”
There is a reason why this story ends with Timothy crying all the way upstairs to his room. This part hits hard even as it inspires, in a terrible reversal of Robert Munch’s I’ll Love You Forever – where this time the mother is inured to her mortal child’s inexorable death. Certainly, the lyrical childlike prose combines with cold adult truth under the soft, dry, rasping blanket of dark fantasy, making “Homecoming” unique.
I also suspect this story inspired others. The Nightbreed from Clive Barker’s 1990 film of the same name, and its 1988 original novella Cabal, find beings hiding from humanity to keep themselves alive, originally under a cemetery called Midian. While the Breed have been persecuted for centuries, there are others – such as an old man tortured by a psychopath – who desperately want to belong to a people of such difference. It takes an outsider by the name of Boone, who becomes Cabal, to cause a further diaspora of his own people, already scattered from their former lands and holdings, to attempt to find something more, to gain something new.
Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book features a male child named Nobody Owens who is raised by ghosts in a cemetery along with a vampire, and a Hound of God, has shared traits with Timothy, who we find out in Bradbury’s other stories was adopted by the Elliots. And then there is the fact that while Charles Addams never collaborated with Bradbury on the Elliots, one of Neil Gaiman’s collaborators, Dave McKean of Sandman and Vertigo Comics’ medium fame, as well as his independent work, used his trademark abstract and Expressionist pastiche or collage art style to adapt Bradbury’s story into the illustrated novel The Homecoming.
It would be easy to leave this story on a downer note. However, Timothy Elliot has more stories to tell, and a bigger role in his family as time goes on: in From The Dust Returned, he is found helping others to maintain their beliefs and through keeping them in existence, becomes a storyteller in his own right, solidifying the idea of Timothy as an Elliot, despite his differences. I’ve already mentioned how the Elliots are parallel with the Monster Club, the Addams, the Munsters, and even the Nightbreed. Perhaps they can also be referred to as “the October people” in one Elliot story of the same name, or “the autumn people,” as Ray Bradbury described the carnival folk in Something Wicked This Way Comes, those who essentially live and breathe the Fall and Halloween.
But even without eternal life, how many horror lovers can be said to be similar? To be the same? Diana Prince, also known as Darcy the Mailgirl on The Last Drive-In has said that Halloween never ends (which is great for this article I’m writing in November). The show she co-hosts with Joe Bob Briggs identifies its viewers with the Nightbreed – with Mutant Family – and I’d argue even the autumn people. Blood, breasts, and beasts is the creed of that viewership; the acceptance of grisly death, darkness, alongside glorious celebration of childhood and the past.
While Timothy Elliot isn’t biologically immortal, as his mother said, in his heart he is part of the Family, and their stories that he tells will keep them alive. He even goes as far as to help save some of them: especially their central ancestor. Timothy remembers them, and we, as the readers, remember him. Family becomes more than blood; more than magic. It’s a place that never goes away. October Thirty-First ends, but will always live on in those that cherish it. Halloween, horror, and the stories we tell, will last forever. While Timothy and the rest of us are all mortal, autumn children who will one day be ready to be tucked into our cold, silent graves, we have some remembering, believing, and partying to do in the meantime. Our stories will live on, in the deep, colourful, and shadowy places that wherever we are, we will always call home.
I need to take a breather. It was an eventful night — both that fateful frightful Friday of Fuck, as the Angry Video Game Nerd would so eloquently put it on a good day — and the subsequent weekend where I rewatched Sledgehammer on the Ad-ridden Tubi as Shudder took its considerable time uploading Week Eight onto itself. As frustrating as that was, I can understand. I, too, would procrastinate before having anything to do with these artifacts deep from the bowels of the Iron Man Vaults, where the Necronomicon and the Lament Configuration would fear being held.
Just as I am procrastinating right now, as I’m writing this.
I can’t help but think that — by the standards of what I’ve gleaned from the standards of the old Iron Man Certification (or as I like to call it after going through a similar experience, the Broken Man — I would have been done by now. I would have been more than done. I summarized an entire terrible movie. I paused one movie, increment by increment, to write sometimes one or two lines. It’s amazing how you can spread an hour and twenty seven minutes into an eternity. This isn’t even covering the commentary segments, where I went back — once Shudder did post them — wrote shorthand notes, and tried to polish them into cohesive thoughts. That is the painstaking methodology that has formed, and we will be dealing with hereafter: minus Tubi.
I am inept in a lot of ways. I have never gone to film school, or studied film in an academic or professional setting. There is much terminology I don’t know, and words and descriptions for things and cinematic phenomenon that I can barely — and frustratingly — grasp.
Oh, I know what you’ve said about that before Joe Bob. You’ve called upon filmmakers towards the end of your One Cut of the Dead episode from Season Two, told them that Hollywood isn’t the place to develop your new work anymore, that there is far more accessible technology, and all one needs is the inspiration, and the drive to keep going: to keep learning on the way. Isn’t that part of what this infernal exercise into VHS Appreciation Night is about? To hit that point home? I remember what you said. I remember you said you wanted people to send you their films.
Just as you want people to send you these Iron Mutant Notes.
I know. I’ve had to learn along the way, adapt as much as I can with the resources that I have. I’ve written movie reviews before, in my own way. And in the end … sometimes you have to go to the greatest lows to achieve the most glorious heights. Sometimes you have to pursue damnation before you can achieve enlightenment. Sometimes you need to go into the depths of Hell to find your way to Paradise. And sometimes, the greatest obstacle to achieving what you want is your own procrastination: your own terrible freewill in which you realize that the only thing holding you back is you.
I remember what you said. I also remember what I said, at the beginning of my account, and testament.
I am not an Aspirant.
And I will prove it. Right now.
Part II: Things
If Sledgehammer, both narratively and cinematically, had issues with space-time distortions, Things is an exercise in a fragmented dimensional singularity.
Sanity Check: A Casio keyboard soundtrack. Thank you, Joe Bob. I didn’t have the words to begin to describe this bizarre soundtrack. But my question: there was a father looking the same age as his daughter in this film, never mind a father and daughter period? And were those good cheese sandwiches? I’m lactose intolerant. Also, with regards to the reason we watch bad movies, by the analogy Joe Bob uses, I will be a god after not only exercising the muscle that watched these terrible movies, but in writing about them — and this — as well. And on that note …
We get to it. What Joe Bob said about lighting generally being an issue with camcorder-made films comes back to me as Things appear on the screen.
But at first, there is some light. It’s Left Field Productions Presents being ushered in by an extremely appropriate nuclear explosion. It kind of blurred together from the beginning of Sledgehammer, but this is the real atrocity: the one that’s about to begin.
There are already screams, heralding the credits as “An Andrew Jordan, Barry J. Gillis Film.” You know, because it isn’t confusing enough that is shot on video in 1989 and I kept calling Sledgehammer a film interchangeably, but now this fine specimen is mixing its putrid metaphors together too. Right. Let’s get to the point, please.
It’s just as well it started as brightly with thermonuclear fire because after light, there is always darkness. Things shimmers and wavers into view, obscured by fluid shadows. Then, the title is clear with a gunshot to the head, putting me of my mis — No. Now, we are in a dingy basement. There is a woman in a white dress, and a devil mask hanging up laundry, presumably also ironed if we look at the implement behind her. There is tacky, weird synthetic music and reverberating laughter as a man who resembles R.L. Stine comes through a door.
Basically, he tells the woman he wants her to have his baby, because he and his wife can’t. And hell, he will even “Pay for love.” The lines sound like they are just read off a piece of paper with the enthusiasm of a corpse. But then the lady starts to slowly take off her dress, and undergarments as our bespeckled protagonist watches lecherously. That eerie faint giggling echoes through the background as this stripshow continues. She has a gorgeous, lithe beautiful naked body under her moustached devil mask. Hell, she even fits the Drive-In requirement of breasts all too well. Unfortunately, as with the aforementioned New York Nights, neither beautiful naked women, or great titties, or dark bush is going to save this movie: or our souls. I am just getting crude because my brain is melting, and I am already regretting my life.
Anyway, she almost goes into the shower, and the man says she doesn’t have to. The dialogue is … He insists on her having his baby. And it sounds like he’s having a stroke when he says this line. “I want you to have my bab-y.”
She bends down, laughing, and out of the shower takes out a carrier and states that she’s already had his baby. So now the man is going “Coochie coochie coochie …”
Shakespeare. I am going to be saying this a lot, throughout this film. I am afraid you will just have to deal with it. Something in the carrier, pink and indistinct — the lighting problem Joe Bob mentioned possibly — bites his annoying man’s hand. And he screams.
Then, he wakes up from his nightmare, but ours continues. Now, I have to say that this terrible and off-rhythm dubbing exceeds a lot of Kung-Fu and Dub-Fu films I’ve had the experience of watching, and this movie manages to do it in not even a funny way. It even translates to the sound abruptly disappearing as he screams and writhes silently. I am waiting for that Oscar, man.
Discordant music that’s supposed to sound domestic and comforting plays, but it is more of a cacophony than all the annoying teenagers in the world. Don’t worry, I will get tired of these smart remarks as the despair sets in again, but I wouldn’t bet too much on it. He gets off the couch, and presumably takes some crazy pills from the kitchen cabinet while walking to the bedroom. It reminds me of a silent film in muddled colour, and a demented musician or track playing in the background. The lighting keeps changing. Reality is fluid here. It’s like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari on technicolour drugs, and surrealism gone unironically wrong. I …
Right. So he gets to his wife in the other room. She is bedridden and in pain, and she tells her husband that “I hope they work. I feel like I’m going to die.”
Me too, lady. Me too.
So she takes them, the door closes for some reason, and she says she feels better already. Then we … see another title screen — THINGS — but this time it’s surrounded by darkness, and on fire.
That sounds about right. And we even see the “Things” theme and music credits displayed which, apparently, is created by STRYK-9. Two title screens, and now credit for a score that seems to have been made by the pipes of the Blind Idiot God Azathoth in pandemonious celebration. And … more credits. I am having a Sledgehammer flashback, but at least they did it at the beginning of the film and not after two scenes. So, there is also Familiar Strangers, and one Jack Procher. Did they all make the music? And we are also told that Andrew Jordan and Barry J. Gillis wrote the script for this movie. And they produced it too. It’s the Shot-On-Video miracle that Joe Bob has been talking about in action.
Now we see a train going by, reminding me of how we watched the van driving down the road in Sledgehammer, but more credits are happening, starring: Barry J. Gillis, Amber Lynn, Doug Bunston, Bruce Roach, Patricia Sadler — and also starring as we go down the road to grainy hell, Jan W. Pachul as Dr. Lucas. And this is all directed by Andrew Jordan. Then, thankfully, the credits are far less lengthier than those of Sledgehammer and we travel with the camcorder down the roads, into the woods where all modern horror seems to originate from Evil Dead, and its short film predecessor Within the Woods: that had a similar grainy quality but a straightforward, if simple story about violating a Native American burial ground and a young Bruce Campbell getting possessed, and killing his friends.
We will not be so fortunate tonight.
It turns out we have been following a car’s perspective, where two men — Wally and Doug — exit, allowing the driver to leave.
And now, a news segment with anchorwoman — and totally not pornstar — Amber Lynn, and also some man named Johnny Scott. They are the hosts of “today’s broadcast.” Amber Lynn is actually staring right at the camera talking about Cold War politics and thermo-global nuclear war. I am going to try to tie in these segments later as we go on with this, to see what the art of it is. There is also an oil truck crash that messed up electricity in an area that will not have power for up to three hours. Will this be where the shenanigans of this movie take place?
Doug and Wally are walking in the blurry darkness, perhaps in this place and a great excuse for terrible lighting, towards a house. What is weird is that they are looking for someone named Doug in this house with a barking dog. They talk about breaking in if he doesn’t answer the door. And then, they open the door like it was already unlocked after calling his name at the door and confusing me because isn’t Doug already with Wally, or was that a scene from before and Doug was the driver who was “the goof.”
Right. So the two men are looking for Doug in his house, who might be wasted out of his mind and if he’s a reality warper it would explain this film, as one of the characters claims that what they need is “a couple of hot women and a few beers.”
I hate to break to you, dude, but like I said: I don’t think that either women, or alcohol will save this movie.
So they raid the fridge and it turns out that one of the men is Doug’s brother. He reaches in and finds a book called Horror of a Thousand Ugly Brutal Cuts. Well, that sounds like a more interesting story. That book cover also looks like something you would find in the Bottom Feeder Section. I also didn’t realize it was a book until they pointed it out. And Don — which is Doug’s brother’s name, who also found the book in the fridge — finds a tape recorder in the freezer with a weird echoing recording stating “Get your hands off me.” Wally, the other man, jokes that he should turn it off as it could be possessed. No, no Evil Dead references please and thank you. That also won’t save this abomination.
But I take back what I said about the book being interesting. After all, did Aleister Crowley actually kill anyone? Historical inaccuracies for the sake of misusing occult references aside, and being told there are “sick diagrams” in the book well, what can I say. As this movie suggests by its very existence “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.”
Anyway, I am really hoping the “weird movie with the weird things” they are talking about, that starts with a Satanic tape recorder isn’t Evil Dead. But it’s hot in Doug’s place so Don decides to put his coat in the fridge, maybe to make it cooler, or because of a lack of space? Or, really just reasons. So finally someone — maybe Wally — takes the tape recorder playing Satan stoned out of his mind and turns it off, claiming that Susan — presumably Doug’s sick wife — is sleeping in the other room. Wait … weren’t they going to break in if Doug wasn’t home or available? How did they know Susan was there? Was that even Wally?
Anyway, it’s just Don and Wally, as Wally is looking for a “delicious cockroach snack” in the cupboards, and can’t see any of the critters. Is this … foreshadowing? In any case, they decide to watch some television: which according to Don has access to underground murder television networks and such. Another plot point, or an attempt to make this scene with the weird disjointed instrumental music more tense? You decide. Apparently, the television gets off the air stations, or they are from places that Doug doesn’t know.
Then we get back to the mainline news, totally undercutting everything these two chuckleheads were just talking about. Now Amber Lynn, looking perpetually to the right, is explaining how Dr. Lucas of Grizzly Flats has learned that the exposure of ultraviolet light to the human brain can double one’s lifespan: feeling like they are paraphrasing and just barely altering the plot of H.P. Lovecraft’s, and Stuart Gordon’s adaptation of, From Beyond.
Meanwhile, we see Dr. Lucas — who was introduced in the credits — torturing the hell out of a rotting skeleton man. We hear an echo of the words “I want you to have my bab-y” as he is doing so, making us think that Doug — and it is Doug at the beginning — and his experience with the devil woman is tied into this devil doctor. Perhaps the devil woman is simply a metaphor for the technique that Dr. Lucas used to artificially inseminate Susan … and, in retrospect, and if we borrow elements From Beyond, it might explain the end results later. Perhaps the Devil is supposed to be Susan or an amalgamation of her corruption and Susan in Doug’s drunken or fever-dreaming mind at the time. I like this explanation. It’s kind of cool, and probably not what they were going for. But it helps me, in a traumatic situation, to create order from chaos where none exists.
But seriously, the sequence with the woman in the Devil mask seems very surreal and dreamlike, and Doug does wake up. Perhaps it is that nightmare logic that gradually infests the entirety of this fragile, barely held together soggy cardboard reality that is this movie.
So there are some gross effects as he removes parts of his medical subject, the rot on his arm, his tongue, his hand, and then his eyeball. It’s kind of cool. The sound effects when he removes the eyeball sound like a deflating ball or water gun, and there is another man trying to hang himself, and there are decapitated heads everywhere. And the mad doctor snickers like a child, going “Nyeheheheeh …” which is as intimidating as a Cheeto. It’s a whole montage of Lucas and his female assistant cutting this man apart, her sawing at his throat, and him taking out his intestines. He even gets two more assistants in past the one that killed himself with a stretcher containing a severed head that he picks up, turns to the screen, and laughs.
Sanity Check: Where do we start indeed? One actor — Dr. Lucas — got arrested for soliciting and recruiting a sex worker for a role the porn actress didn’t want to be nude for because they didn’t pay her enough.
Does that sound about right? A nudity required application could have helped them. And her wearing the mask was to protect her identity or something to that effect. But like I said, no amount of women could save this.
So we get back to the two men. It turns out Wally isn’t the man’s name, but the driver that wisely left as the character I thought was Wally mentions. He does look at what he calls the infamous Salvator Dali’s The Devil’s Daughter painting, but it doesn’t seem to exist outside this film, or I can’t find it. It was “supposedly burned years ago,” and the clearly intellectual Doug somehow got a hold of it. But that leads us back to the imagery with the Devil mask woman and Susan at the beginning of the movie itself and all the dime-store occult hints here. Don tells his friend that Doug simply stole it when he was living in “a house on the left.” The left position is traditionally associated with the Devil. Yes. Yes guys. We get it.
Don’s friend is nosing around for a long time. He is always asking questions. He nearly burns his fingers on matches as he wants more light, and only seconds later turns on a nearby lamp in the living room. Genius. Don explains to him there is one weird painting that Doug apparently got from the Queen of England. Don’s friend gets the TV to work and tells him there is something interesting on. The dog makes her appearance.
Then Don insults the beer he is drinking and says something incredibly racist and xenophobic about how it “must have come out of a well in West Africa,” and then pays the US a backhanded compliment in saying he’s adding some “pure American water” to that. Yikes, dude. Even in the eighties, that’s pretty fucked.
Let me note, as we go on, that this movie so far and at many other points feels like a silent film, or a previous one that got dubbed over with murmured, drunken, almost incoherent commentary from people buzzed or stoned out of their minds. Keep that in mind, as I can’t cover all of that, and I won’t, but I will let you know if some parts in the continuing scenes stand out. Don is just humming now here, and it totally feels fake: like everything else. This is why I felt compelled to say something.
Now, what happens next? Well, the dog is lying down — and then promptly runs away — feeling me with nothing but sympathy. So Don and his friend are watching television and he says — and I fuck you not — “I saw this before. What a bunch of trash.”
Is Things … self-aware? Is there some metafictional winking going on here as they look at the blank hallway on that television screen playing a bad movie within a bad movie? My mind is blown. Look at it. Hell, Don even says “this company puts out the cheapest crap I’ve ever seen.” I mean … I didn’t say anything this time. Honestly. But interestingly enough, it could be a dig at the industry that looks down at DIY filmmakers: how they will generate complete garbage with more resources and it’s never original. It’s always derivative. Is Things saying it is derivative while at the same time making fun of the fact it is, and paying attention to how it uses the camcorder by “reliving old memories” and drawing from the power of nostalgia? That is ahead of its time given what we do with the eighties and its art — especially horror — nowadays. Or, like an augur, I am just trying to find meaning in the guts of dead … things.
So, the movie in the movie plays out with a knife attack and I wonder if this is actual film or something the creators of Things made? Oh, it’s called Groundhog’s Day Massacre (without the apostrophe). Let me see … oh wow. It apparently exists! It was directed by Harold Olminsky in 1986. It was SOV — Shot on Video. And I can’t find anything official about it. But it’s cool that Things used, and maybe homage to another SOV movie.
A lot of this is good to write about as a lot isn’t happening in the movie. But then the two men start watching porn. And I guess Doug was the one that came out earlier to tell them not to bother Susan, as he lives his … very red room, and goes into the kitchen. And I think we are coming to an interesting point. I’m serious.
Doug’s brother and friend — who after going back to the Joe Bob Commentaries I now know as Fred (what am I doing with my life) — didn’t bring any food. So he finds some six month old bread, and sets to work on … a sandwich. His brother Don is surprised that Doug isn’t more pissed off by them not bringing food. But he makes them cheese sandwiches. And after Fred wants more beers — and I imagine everyone did at this point if I didn’t make that clear, or Joe Bob didn’t already — Don gets up to get the drinks and complains about Fred’s laziness, stating that: “The next time you come with me, you’re staying home.”
Yes. This paradox, or koan aside, Fred sees a bug on a suddenly red table and squashes it. Foreshadowing?
Then Doug takes the bug — saying with “he might still be alive” and, “it will be crunchy for his tummy.” Shakespeare, my friends. Doug ends up putting the bug in a sandwich, sits down after some spectacular flatulence, just in time for Don to come back and eat it.
Doug and Fred find this hilarious, but then Don is bitten by a mosquito.” Foreshadowing again? Can I also mention that when Don drinks his beer he makes an obvious fake glugging sound not unlike what my great-uncle used to do to make my dad laugh? Yeah. Pure art. Don then compliments Doug on the sandwiches and Doug goes on about how he used to work at a restaurant.
Now, an interesting thing about sandwiches: both Sledgehammer and Things have sandwiches in common. Both are simple and crude to make and establish a basic function: to feed or be wasted as John in Sledgehammer eats a massive ham one and spits it out on a dare, and the cheese ones in Things are cheaply made: one even getting a bug put in it for gross spectacle? Perhaps it’s not creatures, or tools that are the central symbols of both movies, but working class honest-to-god sandwiches as metaphors for Shot on Video movies and production: on simple and direct messages often lost in messiness. Yes, I know. Order in the chaos. I should really be writing these meditations in my Sanity Check columns, but fuck it: just as reality is melding together in Things, it’s doing so in my mind from pure inspiration, and utter insanity. I hope you enjoy your semiotics, Joe Bob. Maybe put some “the medium is the message” in there too, by Marshall McLuhan while we’re at it, and it all goes back to your thoughts on SOV capturing working class thoughts on, and perhaps fears about, life and DIY folk art.
So Doug remembers he has a wife, and goes to check on Susan. And … oh man. Here we go now.
Susan is bleeding awkwardly in different frames, her screams out of sync with her mouth and reality. As Doug gets Don and Fred, freaking out, a bloody bargain bin xenomorph comes out of Susan’s body, and by the time they get back into the bedroom … She’s dead, Jim.
No. I will not confuse these names further. I apologize. Doug starts screaming, and then muttering like he’s lost his morning paper. And Don asks him: “What are you talking about?” I mean … Doug was talking? All right, so now we get the closest thing to straightforward plot that we will ever have in this disparate movie. Soon. He takes his brother, and presumably Fred aside and says he’s going to tell them … about it. Whatever that is.
The dog meanwhile is running through the hall and going behind a curtain. The place is all red and glowing. The dog whimpers and wails, and then growls and snarls. We see blood spray on the curtains. And even though we see a mutated bug afterwards, I choose to believe the dog went to another dimension after killing one of these creatures, barking the equivalent of “Fuck this shit.”
Sanity Check: Chris Jericho is this night’s guest and considered the show’s expert on bad movies. His high school-made Don’t Go to Uncle Earl’s Cabin For the Weekend with the Bag Man serial killer sounds bad ass for The Last Drive-In. I love how Things was shown in Montreal, and broke down twice. And the no drugs on set, but a lack of a no-alcohol policy says a lot about what happened.
Now back to the lovely Amber Lynn. Speaking of the dead rising, Amber Lynn is talking about George Romero — as the director of Dawn of the Dead and Creepshow, works light-years ahead of this construct, which isn’t so much the radiant of a dead star so much as it’s a blackhole — while explaining that he is taking his copyright claims to the Supreme Court of America: and Night of the Living Dead is getting pirated. I think the film is even playing behind Lynn.
I am trying to put these news segments together in my head. Is the area Doug in suffering from a blackout? Obviously we are going to get the tie-in with Dr. Lucas. But is this reference to Romero the creators of Things criticizing the establishment, and the common citizen, for ripping off independently made and produced movies? I told you my thoughts about meaning would bleed into Things. Literally.
Meta-commentary aside again, we get to the freaking plot. Basically, Doug explains that he and Susan wanted to have a baby, and they couldn’t naturally do it. They didn’t have the money to do it officially, and they couldn’t get money from Don as he was going to college. So they went to this experimental doctor, Lucas, for her to get artificially inseminated. It … didn’t go well. I’m assuming she was enveloped in pain and then these mutated insects came out of her body instead due to ultraviolet light, or some insanity like that. This could have been truly horrific, in a captivating way, as a man’s dream to have a child becomes a nightmare of mutated proportions … but instead, like this movie, like this whole VHS Appreciation Night it becomes a nightmare of unintentionally reality-bending proportions.
Don’s not happy about this. There is supposed to be a dramatic musical moment, and silence but it’s shrill like every sound in this production. And then, somehow, Don starts telling a story — a supposed weird science-fiction story — that is more captivating than this entire movie: all because it sounds like what’s going on in the movie, even though it only tenuously does as some teenagers bully a child named Harold in a small town, and then they kill him releasing some “serpentine bees” or something from his body to kill them and the town. Doug looks puzzled, like we all are, and says “This is really no time for stories.” You know, much like in this whole movie.
And what the hell, Doug? Your wife just died, consumed by your demonic children that might be yours, or not? You’d think you would be a little more distraught, and have no time for your brother’s inane recollections of a science-fiction he probably made up on the spot. Well, Don was only trying to “eeeeeazzzze the tension.” Yes, that’s exactly what it sounds like. This sound quality, my friends.
Yeah. Even Joe Bob acknowledged this, that VHS Appreciation Night. It must have been this, or another time that this horrible realization came upon me that they were very serious about this entire thing. I was, for a time, able to just think it was a mass hallucination happening and I would just get past it. But I think this part is what began to make me feel like I could qualify for a Broken Man Certification.
So they talk about what to actually do about this, the three of them. Fred suggests getting the police, but Don tells them they not only can’t let these insects spread, but they are in the wilderness, the phone isn’t working even though none of them have tried it — and if it’s electricity that’s the problem why are the television and the lights functioning? Also, Don has to point out that “This is a real creepy place, you know?” No. No really? So many excuses just to keep this trainwreck happening, and yes I remember the train at the beginning of this whole movie too.
So they plan to go to Grizzly Flats — after Don says he didn’t think he’d ever “have to live with the dead” when Fred asks what to do with Susan’s body, an attempt at a profundity that just doesn’t work — and use Dr. Lucas’ phone to call the cops the next day. You know: the man that made all these monstrosities, this swarm we barely see, possible. Someone mentions that the doctor is evil and should be dead, and I guess it was Don because Doug’s mouth isn’t moving, and it is just confusing. It is all confusing.
Oh but now the lights go off, and everything is red. Our intrepid friends need to find a light source after several excuses about the fuses in the house being messed up, and the gas lamp the other two needed to get to Doug’s house almost being used up. How convenient.
And back to the lovely Amber Lynn. Now it’s weird. It’s apparently been fourteen days since Don Drake and Fred Lewis — presumably two of our protagonists — by Brooklyn residents? What the fuck? Are they trapped in a singularity? Is my tongue in cheek coming true? A woman saw them apparently get killed by bikers though. And then we get the news anchorman Johnny totally going into gossip on Cher’s boyfriend being with ex-pornstar Tracy Lord — and then a woman goes in to sit on Johnny’s lap: not realizing they are still on the air. I guess some people are just plain lucky, because I know this fractured reality is still ongoing.
And speaking of singularities, Fred gets sucked into a mousehole in a cupboard. Just like that. All right then. This leaves Doug, with blood on his shoulder from the ceiling, and Don to face the horrors of this house alone. After the two brothers wish the blood off of Doug’s body, we have a jumpcut to some infernal-looking Kindergartner art on a door that the two have discovered for the first time. They are still trying to find the fuse box. Someone makes a joke, maybe Doug, about how he put up those sinister symbols and whatnot before “we tortured and ate her” and I have no idea what is going on with that.
Right. Okay. They don’t go down there as Doug says “it’s too dangerous now.” Then Don and Doug ruminate about how there is no beer in the house. But Don finds whiskey, and then Doug tells a joke. He asks how do you get paper children? The answer: you fuck a bag lady.
Hey, you two, while you’re telling jokes in this hell house with the cheery music going on, stop me if you’ve heard this one. What happens when you give a bag lady a crown from Burger King?
You get yourself a Paper Bag Princess.
See, I am trying to cut the tension now, and I don’t have the gracious Amber Lynn to help out with that either. They don’t have her either, or the Devil woman, so I guess Doug begins to flipout thinking he hears footsteps — or Don does — and while Don thinks Fred has escaped to get help, we get cuts to Doug in red light cackling and crying about how Fred is dead. Then Don pours whiskey on his head. My unintentional rhyming poetry aside, here we can hear dialogue dubbed over previous dialogue as Don realizes he has to go to the washroom, and is afraid of the bugs. Doug ventures towards the washroom in the dark, for some reason, but it smells bad apparently.
They have to go back to the kitchen to get a flashlight first, and that’s when we see another lazy monster bug motherfucker: this time roaring like the parody of what a child would think an antlion is on the stove. Don kills it with a meat cleaver — or “him” as Doug puts it — “real good” (in several awkward jump cuts between swinging and the bug just sitting there). Damn, Sledgehammer and Things use similar implements if you recall.
Unfortunately, the half-dead creature just so happens to be right on top of the flashlight, which coincidentally is on the stove. Don slowly reaches for it twice, as the thing twitches at one point and gnashes its needle-sharp teeth. Then, he snatches it and washes his hand of all the blood: suddenly having the tremors.
Sanity Check: None of the actors were there at the same time the scenes were filmed. Fred’s actor was not available the day they filmed the scene with the mouse hole, which explains his adventures in space and time. Oh yeah. Scarborough. It really is known as a skid area. As someone who lives in the GTA (The Greater Toronto Area), I have heard the stories. A funny thing: Barry J. Gillis responded to my thread on the Joe Bob Collective about Things, though I love Joe Bob’s take on Things being a filmic version of dementia. I also appreciate how Chris Jericho hopes it was intentionally made bad, and I respect his utter loathing of the … thing. And I agree: Winnipeg as a film production Province would never make something like Things, but it would embrace something like Phantom of the Paradise once again.
The brothers begin searching around the house, and soon get to the bathroom. Then, Don goes in to use it, and forgets he needs the flashlight. Doug has to knock on the door to remind him, and he takes it. Sometimes, and I think Joe Bob said this at one point, it’s like they tried to do a horror comedy sequence — or a series of them — and they just failed miserably. The prime example here is where Doug is clutching his throat and sticking out his tongue like a cartoon character choking as the room turns red, and he’s just joking: trying to prank his brother. Like, dude: your wife just died, your friend is missing, and there are monsters everywhere. What the shit?
So then his brother comes out again and after wandering around more, Don just shoves him ages later. Then they go to the bathroom again, I think, and there is a bug on the toilet. Doug starts wheeze-laughing like he’s a kid imitating a cartoon monster’s voice, and Don is losing patience with him. Maybe Doug is finally going insane. In the end, Doug goes back into the bathroom and … flushes the thing down the toilet? Then he comes out with a manic grin on his face and goes: “Eeeeeee …”
Seriously, this is just obnoxious now. But now everything is going red. There is a brief jump cut of Doug making that sound and it’s gone as someone is checking a drawer. They are looking for items to use as weapons and … oh man. One of them has a tiny sledgehammer! Well, damn.
Finally, they venture into the basement past the hellish mural art that says “Love Tessie,” or some weird shit like that. Now, in the basement and the piano playing a melancholy tune in the background, the creatures are coming down from the ceiling “like spiders in a haunted house,” as Don says. The brothers are trying to get to the fuse box, but apparently the creatures are everywhere as the camera pans around and sees a few scattered plastic insect toys made — and failing — to represent a swarm.
Then as Doug is looking towards the direction of the fuel box, some insectoid legs wrap themselves around his neck. Don smashes the insect with … the sledgehammer, but ends up knocking Doug in the back of the head. He falls on the ground, bleeding out of his mouth, a pool of blood gathering on the floor. He’s dead.
But he’s not dead. Somehow. Don tries to lift Doug, and the latter doesn’t bleed out. He reaches over to stab a bug, and blue ichor flows out. Then he finally finds the fuse box. He’s “not very good at electricity things,” though. The creatures just happen to be sleeping over in the corner, though, and he has time to replace wires and circuits and such. For some reason, Don imitates a “zapping” noise: though whether it’s him, or his attempt to make a legitimate sound effect on the movie’s budget is up in the air. I am not expecting much either way.
Then he bashes another bug with the sledgehammer — or is it a mallet — and takes his brother away up the stairs again. We get an almost Nineties action flick pun from Doug that this is not really how “he wanted to get hammered, man.” There is a cutaway to a man with glasses laughing, unconvincingly, on a television screen. Then, back to Doug, we see that he gets attacked suddenly by another bug that eats his hand as he’s trying to get some alcohol.
So playground Keystone Cops antics aside, Doug is pretty fucked up now. Not when he got smashed in the back of the head with a hammer, mind you. And this is where we see that, in an attempt to cauterize the wound by Don, an amputated stump gets set on fire. Then a brief flash of a television screen. But hey, we get Canadian representation — a shout out to the fact that this is a Canadian film — when Don says that the blood coming out of his brother “is just dripping like maple syrup.”
We stand on guard for thee.
Reality is melting as words from the past echo about what the three men were going to do, and Don’s whole statement about living with the dead are the last words Doug seems to hear as Don doesn’t get the morphine, in the toolbox, in the basement, And he finally dies.
Don is distraught and takes his body and puts it in a closet. He begins sealing doors with a drill or something. He then finds the remains of the dog, who didn’t escape I guess and proceeds to be sick on the floor for far too damn long a sequence. I could have seriously done without that.
He begins drilling the remains of a bug or something, I really can’t see in that light but he goes too far and the extension cord unplugs, and he gets fed up with it. Yeah. Riveting stuff. That pun was unintentional.
Don goes into the other room, where he sees Doug sitting in a chair, and he realizes he is hallucinating. He sees him laughing out of the corner of his eye, but it’s just in his mind. Then he falls onto the couch. This whole time, there is a drinking bird set at the beginning of the film still dipping into a glass of water. Then a closeup of the washroom and a dripping sink.
Sanity Check: The close ups for all the doors and facets struck me too. At least in Sledgehammer, it is all to set up the scene and the atmosphere of the killer’s house, the tension of the stillness accidental or not. I love how Jericho remembers Darcy’s birthday and not only wants to show Sleepaway Camp II, but Halloween III on The Last Drive-In. Joe Bob wants Jericho to be the show’s recurring Canadian and Bad Horror Movie expert. I agree with this idea as his presence would be an excellent complement to the Mangled Dick expert that is Felissa Rose. And on the subject of Andrew Jordan: him not considering Things a horror film, but a “postmodern film about filmmaking” is pretty asinine, but I can see him making this argument from the stereotypical view of post-modernist art as relativistic and without inherent meaning as well. I also appreciate the explanation about the dubbing: Jordan said they had to overdub the background noise of the movie. But to return to someone I don’t mind listening to …
Back to Amber Lynn. She basically states that after being missing for fourteen days — time dilation I suppose — Don Drake and Fred Lewis might still be alive. Is this an attempt at pacing? To show how much time has gone by? How fluid it is? Is the use of different media Jordan’s attempt to deconstruct and destroy sensical cinematic narrative? I feel like I had something profound, but exhaustion is dogging me now. I need to go on. The mission must be completed.
Don is surrounded by bugs. But we hear a chainsaw as Fred comes back from the ether and begins destroying some bug motherfuckers. Maybe he isn’t so useless after all. Don is bashing bugs as well, one even crawling from the ceiling. Fred is screaming with the chainsaw as a bug creeps up on him, No, dude. You are not Leatherface, but you get points for enthusiasm. I can honestly believe that scream of maddened rage. I want to make one like it right now. He does kill the bug though, and after saving Don they flee.
Now Amber Lynn really makes us question the nature of reality and not in the way one might like if you know what I mean, and I think you do. She says that Don and Fred were surprised to find out they were being sought after in a nationwide manhunt. They were apparently in a hotel in Dallas and an off-duty security guard found them. According to Lynn, they were going across the country to visit a relative. So did this happen before the events of Things, as they drove to see Doug, or is this in another timeline? I feel like there is a death of the author involved here as this starts to make so much less sense, and that is impressive given how little sense it already has.
Meanwhile, Don and Fred are in the bedroom and the bugs have eaten their mom Susan. Fred gets Don out as he continues to fight them off. Don finds some bugs still eating Doug’s fingers. But then … the bugs get smart. That’s right. They eat the cord of Fred’s chainsaw.
According to Fred, they are eating him and he is begging and threatening Don to help him. The music is just terrible. I can’t even describe it, like glittering instrumentals that have no place in this bootleg cardboard box universe made a reality warping manchild and whose existence only remains now on a VHS recording.
There are two sets of screams dubbed on each other, one actual scream and fake ones. Fred is calling for one “little fucker” to “give me back my eyeball!”
Shakespeare. In the Park.
So Don does come back, but gradually and in an attempt at comedy I guess, we see Fred strewn about like a bloody Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz: just a talking, one-eyed skull. I’m sorry Fred: but no amount of spare artificial parts is helping you come back from being eaten and becoming a bunch of Things.
And back to Amber Lynn. Apparently residents refuse to leave their homes, and there is an atomic explosion.
Back to Don. And guess who’s come to visit the house? Dr. Lucas. We almost forgot about him. He’s come to pay Susan a social visit apparently. Don is not impressed. He leads him through the house to show him the carnage. They find Susan in pulp, and Lucas sniffs the blood he picks up on his hand, and confirms it’s human. He blames Don for the massacre, gaslighting the fuck out of him, while Don says it was because his experiments “fucked up.” But there are no bugs and, awkwardly as the dialogue allows — making me realize just how many brain cells I’ve lost listening to it for over an hour — Dr. Lucas builds a convincing case that Don used a chainsaw, and other implements to kill everyone in the house, despite Don’s rapid “I-I-I-Is.”
The creatures are all gone, supposedly. Don thinks they were either eaten by their fellows, or taken away. Dr. Lucas says “You watch too many horror movies, pal,” being a little too on the nose.
Don is spending entirely too much time attempting to convince the madman that his experiments exist. The doctor mocks him. He says he is going to take Don to an institution, but Don has none of it and shoves him into the washroom: where the creatures happen to be. They consume him.
“Creatures with no soul! They’re devouring me whole!” Man, I thought I was the only one rhyming here tonight.
Don leaves and goes to the closet to bury his brother properly, and then loses consciousness. Then, the next we know he’s out and running out of the house and into the woods through a ravine. He’s shouting. “Help me!”
A man helps him up on a bridge. He is ranting and raving to the man. The man wants to take him to Dr. Lucas, but Don sets him straight and he just wants to get back to Sacramento and tell the police what happened. He goes off with the man, to safety. They finally get to his car and …
“Are you sure this wasn’t all a dream?”
Only for Don to wake up, and the Dollarama Deadite form of Dr. Lucas — perhaps also a callback to George Romero and the possibility of there being a larger infestation of creatures due to the mad doctor’s other experiments — to come at him. He manages to keep the cackling monster out, tying the door closed from the inside.
He sits in there, rocking back and forth, as a creature is on the shelf behind him, muttering. “I’ll be okay. I’ll be okay.”
Well, I’m glad to know that Don. Because I don’t know if I will ever be. Ever.
And when, the words “You have just experienced Things” comes onto the screen and the credits roll, this second time around, I feel blessed relief. It’s over.
The nightmare is finally over.
And at the end, after the credits and the thanks to all their fans and supporters, we have Amber Lynn being incredibly frank about doing “Fifty-Two Pick-Up” with Vanity. She talks about how she met John Frankenheimer for a show where she and porn star actress friends came as a joke, and he wanted her to be in his movie. I have to say, her having this conversation with the crew of this movie is kind of refreshing. It is the most animated and real recording in this whole production. I’m glad she was there. She was the only bright spot in that movie. And on that note …
Final Sanity Check and Observation: I agree with Joe Bob that everything is advanced — and improved — by the presence of a pornstar.
I could go into Things being the medium and the message of independent creators attempting to show how shallow media is through the ridiculous news segments, the television sets that inundated that time, a nightmarish realization that nothing has inherent meaning, and terrible things happen — and are created — all the time, and sometimes you know you will never be okay again, pornstars or no.
But there’s something in this Last Drive-In segment that I want to talk about: that I want to focus on.
It all started when Joe Bob mentions the complete earnestness and drive — the dream — these moviemakers had to attempt these creations. And how, in an Age of Irony, it’s to forget that. And then, there came on — jump cut through his speech, a remix of the “Tail-Spin” song. And just as it had that Friday night into Saturday morning, it hit me. In the feels. It reminded me of something I can’t completely put into words. It’s sad, and beautiful, and wistful all at once.
And then, I did write something about it. And, because you’ve read this far — or if you have — I am going to share it with you.
Here is a picture of me, at 11:40 am, having not slept, finishing my Iron Mutant Certification.
I am exhausted, but I did it. And I hope you can see that.
I wrote this in a series of Tweets after the show ended on Friday. Joe Bob’s words, and the “Tail-Spin” remix stayed in my mind. And then, I gathered them together and shared them on both the Joe Bob Collective and Slasher.
This is what I wrote, and at the end of this nightmare and my engagement of it — as one Iron Mutant to another — this is how I want to end my Certification.
I wrote some thoughts tonight on Twitter after Joe Bob’s words about …. Things, or as I like to call it now, Try Hard:
It’s after the show now. And I was thinking about it. Even before tonight’s entertainment. What was different about this season up until this point?
And I think … it was because of all the good movies we saw, or at least the quality, industrial production. We hadn’t seen, even with Audition, anything weird. Anything Wtf.
The Last Drive-In is about spectacle and enjoying or cringing through aspects of those films, but also understanding their context. Where they come from. What goes into them.
It is also a space to bond around those ridiculous premises. To look at the ridiculousness on a screen that we all watch at the same time every Friday /Sunday, instead of living it around us.
And there is something that Joe Bob said at the end of tonight’s episode, after the spectacle of Things, of the creator that never made anything after this film.
I thought about them, and their crew’s utter dedication to this: to throw it all out there, not knowing what they are doing, to see what will stick, and to … make something.
Yes. It was bad. But that enthusiasm was real. And I think about my friends, and how we tried to make things. Ridiculous things. Many of them lost with time. And you know … the creators of Things … at least they tried.
They Tried Hard.
How many people can say the same thing? How many of us can say the same thing?
I had fun ripping it apart. I won’t deny that. That’s part of the kind of person I am. But at the same time, I think about how they went out there with just the sheer primal impulse to … make something, even a mess. And they did it. And that is their memory. I feel almost ashamed, making fun of that sheer need to make something, to tell a story, even if it doesn’t come out right.
Like a child making that Devil’s Kindergarten art on the mirror in the film. But they did it. They made that.
And I realize I can still dislike, or even cringe, at something badly made, but still deeply respect the creative impulse and need to express it.
And I am crying a bit.
And not for the reasons you might think.
Because, for a few moments, I could almost remember. That spark, in Try Hard — as I call Things now, is beautiful.
That spark in Try Hard — as I call Things now — is beautiful. And I may take apart everything else around it, but I won’t tarnish that.
The point is, the people behind the camcorders of Things, and Sledgehammer never gave up. And there is a lesson in that somewhere.
It was Friday June 4, 2021. The days were getting brighter. America had a President. The Great Plague had been raging for over a year, with relief in sight as vaccines for one terrible mutation had been discovered, and distributed throughout various parts of the world.
Unfortunately, another mutation was about to occur.
We should have seen the signs. Season Three of The Last Drive-In had been … different. It was more than just the celebrities, literally, on TV above humanoid effigies, than the new cabin setting that had been established during the Specials after the Second Season. Nevermind the presences of Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Campbell, and the others.
It was the films, you see. The films were … different. Oh sure, it started off much in the way that Season Two had done from my time tuning in: with a funny and albeit disturbing spectacle like Troma’s Mother’s Day, and the grotesque and reality-warping Fulci’s The House By the Cemetery as though in counterpoint to Chopping Mall, and Bloodsucking Freaks the year before. But afterwards, the films were … let me be blunt.
They were good.
And while the Tweet-alongs still brought that sense of belonging, and the Lost Drive-In Patreon also let us see some of the Before Times of Drive-In Theater and MonsterVision, along with more Darcy — and there is never enough Darcy — something felt strange. Off.
I’ll admit, I knew something was coming, even before Week Seven. Audition wasn’t even enough, even with that terrible vomit-drinking scene that still gives me nightmares to this very day. No. No, first it was the theme of Week Seven. It was the glory that was Train to Busan — taking us on an elevated journey into pain and suffering — all the way … all the way towards the opposite of the ultimate, the high going towards the low.
Spookies was the harbinger. I see that now. The dead were barely even trying as they, themselves wished the warlock Kreon would just let the terrible horse-beaten rotting joke of them just die. But that’s when I knew. I knew something was coming.
And then, on Darcy’s Birthday weekend, the hammer fell.
More precisely, Sledgehammer slammed down, reducing those who stayed into incoherent, broken, gibbering Things. I have evidence, screen-shots from that night: that Friday night, Week Eight of what Joe Bob fondly called VHS Appreciation Night.
Yes, Darcy. I know. I was there.
VHS Appreciation Night. It sounds so innocuous. So educational. So … fun. Kind of like when the Muppets in The Great Muppet Caper went to the place called the Happiness Hotel. And we all know how that turned out …
It turned out better than this.
They said, in that childhood film to which I temporarily and mentally escaped while writing this report and account, if they were at the Happiness Hotel they’d sure hate to know what the Sad one was like.
Well, that night — on Friday, Week Eight of The Last Drive-In — many of us found it.
The Sadness Hotel.
But that is hyperbole, and a grand understatement for what actually transpired. Because, you see, the problem with intelligence, even moderate awareness like my own, is that you know just how fucked you are going to be. And I was waiting for it. Joe Bob wasn’t being subtle. He mentioned that at least one of these films was from the days of the Iron Man Certifications.
The Iron Man Certifications. A scene by scene summary of a film that is considered an abomination to humankind, sent in to Joe Bob during the days of his previous programs to prove that you watched through all of that literal cinematic horror, to which he would send you a piece of paper acknowledging your pain and suffering, and the Iron Cast stomach and sheer will needed to survive hell on earth, and become stronger for it. The Lost Drive-In Patreon, I thought it prepared me, you see. I thought I was partially inoculated against the mind-bending insanity that was about to commence: that I knew was coming.
I did the work, you see. I saw the New York Nights post. I hunted it down. I summarized scene by scene. I did it. I watched that bastard twice in all of its vapid, terrible, empty glory. Here it is, right here, publicly done by the Old Rules on my Horror Doctor Blog and nothing else to show for it on my part but pain and regret.
Joe Bob, if you are reading this, I bet you won’t click on that link: even if I think, deep down, that if I have to suffer, so do you. But that’s wasted, isn’t it? You’ve seen it before, many times, in increments, like Iocaine powder. You laugh at my miniscule misfortune, at my own petty self-destruction, purely brought on by my own hubris as you think about the many before me who have gone through worse. And I thought I was ready. I thought I trained. I thought I’d taken enough of that powder to get through this, and know that we would have the choice to do an Iron Man Certification.
But then I forgot the Creed. Mutants. This was all about mutations. And, sure enough, going on Darcy’s Twitter Feed I saw the terrible truth. I saw what I would have to do. What many of us would have to do. For the Iron Man had mutated, transforming, twisting, into something else, into a madness I didn’t see coming despite my sixth sense screaming louder than any beautiful blood-drenched Queen.
Two movies, the aforementioned Sledgehammer to my brain, and the Things left behind in its wake. I would need to watch them again. Not only would I need to subject myself to that madness once more, but I would need to comment on Joe Bob’s commentary, take some screenshots on my laptop to show me watching the films, and email it all in.
This new horror, this monstrosity, changed the game. The Iron Man Certification was over before it began.
In its place, was the Iron Mutant Campaign.
It is a hot night, and morning, and afternoon in June in Ontario, Canada as I undertake this trial: to pursue what I would be so tempted to call being an Iron Mutant Aspirant. But as a wise, cruel man in a cowboy hat and a Silver Bolo many would kill for once said:
Part I: Sledgehammer
I am going to write this as though it is happening in real time, for posterity’s sake, as I bring the remains of this wall of sleep and sanity down. Before we begin, let’s say that each time I get to the Commercial Breaks — or Joe Bob Commentary sections of our viewings — I call them Sanity Checks.
Armed with that grim cynical sense of Lovecraftian cosmicism — of an inherent meaninglessness or maliciousness of existence itself — let’s get to it and swing the hammer down.
In retrospect, I should have taken up drinking.
Sanity Check: Especially after that statement, I agree with you Joe Bob. 24-hours, and 24 beers in a case is not a coincidence. It’s just another bit of synchronicity. Sanity Check Addendum: Here we are at VHS Night. I like the term Camcorder Revolution of the Eighties — specifically the Shot-On-Video Era circa 1982-2005 — and I want to record these terminologies here for future use. The other things I’d like to remember, here, is a thought I wrote about in my Twitter feed with regards to Shot-On-Video being something of a renaissance: not unlike the Gutenberg printing press. Camcorders — such as the PV-610 or HR-C3 camcorder for VHS or Betamovie — shot movies straight to video, they were cheap to buy, and produce, and they were placed in the Bottom Feeder Section of movie rental stores: with crude box art. It reminds me of colportage: where tracts and texts could be made and distributed by people outside a traditional ruling or elite class. I can go further, and also compare them to the DIY punk zine phenomenon of the 1970s-80s: where you take the means of distribution and production, allow classes outside of the exclusive hierarchies to record experiences beyond an elite class. Interestingly enough, it was Joe Bob’s comments about the box art for some of the videos in the Bottom Feeder Section made from magazine cut-outs and collages that gave me that DIY link — along with the folk art connection — though I know later Joe Bob will talk about class and low and high art in what these video makers emulated. It’s fascinating to consider it: that VHS tapes are making a comeback like vinyl records, even though many of these Shot-On-Video pieces suffer from bad spectrum lighting, where a lot of background illumination is required, along with sound quality and even graphics as lines appear in the displays overtime. I grew up with this, however, and it is so strange to see how far we’ve come. And what we’ve lost. Such small worlds. And thinking about how many of them didn’t make it to DVD, and how many ceased to exist, and the devices to even play them now are far more rare: there is something to that twenty-three year old moment in time gone in the blink of an eye. But are some things best left forgotten? Or can you learn from the aftermath of those lost remains?
The faded white square font of Imaz Presents on a black screen leads to the weathered mountainous building blocks of SLEDGEHAMMER: the title crackling occasionally with static, dripping with moisture, and getting smashed into smithereens with a hammer though not unlike an atomic explosion: which pretty much summarizes the soul of this whole movie.
We get into faded, off-colour credit sequences displaying a … I wouldn’t say good cast that bears repeating, but a cast that is repeated at least once now, and a second time when this is all said and done: Ted Prior (who also made the special effects in this film, which is pretty cool to see that level of versatility), Linda McGill, John Eastman, Jeanine Sheer, Tim Aguilar, Sandy Brooke, Steve Wright, and with Michael Shanahan, Maria Mendez, Doug Matley, Ray Lawrence, and Justin Greer after a transition between ambiance-inverted figures, and a man in a puppet mask. It’s like attempting to watch a locked adult cable channel without knowing any better. We see this is written by David A. Prior, George Abouhabib is in charge of production in another scene, the electric synthesized organ title music is by Philip G. Slate in another blurry shadowy segment, additional music by Ted Prior and Marc Adams, it’s all edited by one Ralph Cutter, and Special Effects are by … well, what you do know: Blood & Guts. The Special Effects in this continuing Rorschach Test from Hell is Jacque Marrino, the Director of Videography down the stairs is Salim Kimaz, Lighting Director Michael Watt … all right — wish he could have done something with these long opening credit scenes, art director Laurence Mcelrea …
All right, the legs walked down the stairs finally, and on another blot screen we have Associate Productor Tom Baldwin, producer Nicholas Imaz again as a hand turns a door knob, executive producers Abdalla Itani and Chuck Malouf, and a reminder that David A. Prior not only wrote this movie script (more on that later), but he directed it as well.
Gott im himmel. Finally. The movie hasn’t started yet, and it’s already busting my balls. But hey, at least it gave me the excuse to write the credits down, so there is that.
We transition to an inverted and out of focus, but gradually distinctive cottage that wouldn’t look out of place on Little House on the Prairie. It even has trees, a mountainside behind it, and a white picket fence. Surely nothing atrocious will happen here. And after the beginning of a series of long, stationary establishing shots in which the camera operator seems to be contemplating existentialism for more than a breath, we pan forward towards the house as we hear a woman screaming at a small child.
A mother in an 1980s dressing gown argues with a boy, her son — who for some reason I thought was called Jimmy, I don’t know why — about him not ruining her evening, and throws him in a closet that, for some reason, has a lock on it. The scene goes into slow motion, trying perhaps to show this moment as something fateful, as though it says to the audience “And this is where she fucked up.” The past tense is intentional as we slowly pan towards the door, and I get some serious Pieces flashbacks.
A man is sipping wine in a bathrobe, as the mother goes in and they engage in what might be the best acting of the whole movie — and that doesn’t say much — in that it’s slightly less flat than the rest of it. He asks about “the kid” and she amps up from attempted sexy to she “took care of the little bastard” with such animosity and hatred you’d think he killed an entire species, or something. Child abuse apparently turns this man on as they kiss, giving exposition that they are having an affair with each other in a short exchange of sentences, and then she starts kissing his belly and the camcorder capturing this whole movie pans to the right as we … think she’s starting to give a blowjob? I really can’t see the angle either way.
But anyway, we see the shadow of a figure with — you guessed it — a sledgehammer — coming towards them and the whole scene freezes, and fades out. A great place to stop it, right? Of course not. Instead, we see the mother continuing to kiss the man’s belly button failing to simulate oral sex, and the camera scrolls up as the most half-hearted hammer blow hits the man in the back of the head. We see some pretty good practical effects of blood and viscera, with a watery sound as he falls down. The woman abruptly looks up, and — well — you’d think she would have noticed that he was falling over even in slow motion given that his penis was supposedly in her mouth. Instead, her mouth is open wide and she both mutely — and painfully — begs for her life. So right: Pieces. We see the shadowy outline of a hammer swing down like a metronome, staining the wall with little drops of blood … and it is caught in midswing as the visual of film seems to burn away into red darkness, and the next scene.
And now we see a beautiful sunny mountain countryside “ten years later.” A car slowly drives up the road in a long panning shot to the left until it gets to the house.
And then, the peaceful scenery is broken for what will be the obnoxiousness of the rest of the movie.
Teenagers come yelling out of the car, or people playing them. Names are called out as they fool around, but it’s so easy to miss it in the pandemonium. There is a whole lot of unpacking from the ride they’ve hired, and bantering and talking over each other that goes on for a long time. For too long. John is the large bearded man trying to make order among them. Jimmy — it turns out I remembered his name and not that of the kid — is a dark haired man exchanging a cooler with his blonde girlfriend Carol: and there is some tension there. Chuck is a muscular blond man played by Ted Prior, while his short brown-haired girlfriend is named Joni. Chuck and Joni have a conversation that seems to allude to something, without going into details. I want to believe it might be a “Hills Like White Elephants” situation, but my brain was probably attributing something more adult and deeper to the exchange than it actually is. There is a whole lot of back and forth between unpacking, the driver leaving, and Chuck attempting to roughhouse Joni to make her feel better: because, you know, putting a beer on your girlfriend’s head, giving her noogies, and tossing stuff at her to carry are the secrets to keeping a relationship alive.
So, where were we? Oh yes. Slow motion idyllic pastoral walking scenes, with gentle country music reminiscent of 1980s porn, or at least scenes from … New York Nights. And it goes on for quite some time. Well, after following Chuck and Joni around slowly panning to the right as they walk, he almost gets that beer can to balance on her head. This is a horror movie, I think?
Now that we have our romantic leads, we get to the next scene. John is messing around in a junk-filled area of the house as ominous synthesization plays, and he pulls out what might be the sledgehammer that killed the woman and her lover, but we don’t see it well and it ends with a freeze frame.
Next scene Chuck imitates some kind of macho action hero, or politician, and everyone gets drunk. I attempt to take the time to figure out who everyone is during this particular cacophony. So we have the bearded and large John, long dark-haired Mary who is John’s girlfriend, we have muscle man Chuck, poor short-haired Joni, dark-haired and bearded Jimmy, his blonde girlfriend Carol, and stripe-shirted short-haired Joey — also known as Hand Job. I think now I can keep better track of them,
Anyway, after Chuck’s attempts at acting — which is hilarious in an unintentionally metafictional way — we see John attempting to slobber on Carol — spitting “Tooey!” out afterwards as if he — and Chuck before him with Joni — are afraid of cooties or something. John then tries to prove himself to be “a real man” by making out with Joey beside them. Say what you will, but John is a man confident in his own sexuality, and I can respect that.
Chuck takes Joni aside for a talk. Joey leaves to start messing with the lighting or circuitry of the place. You can tell he is the shit-disturber of the group. Then we find out that Chuck and Joni’s troubles are that he apparently had been talking about marrying her and never followed up on it. Well. I guess there goes that plot point. So much for it being about abortion, or something Hemingway like that.
And then we get to a scene of Chuck — without his shirt on because, you know, he has muscles — playing on the guitar outside, and the music does this really cool thing: it is this melancholic folk string that blends into the creepy synthetic ominous “thrumming” that we’ve heard before as we pan up at the top window of the house in another scene. It’s as though something unseen might be looking down. There are a lot of interspersed shots between Joni sitting with Chuck as he plays and something — or someone — is sneaking around in the bushes near them on the property. The juxtaposition is fascinating, and it’s like Joe Bob said: the movie makers are finding their cinematic language. And now, I notice that we have an extreme close up of the window, and I can almost make out a shape behind it. That is pretty interesting.
Sanity Check: There are two discussions that stand out at me during this segment. First, there is the focus on synthesizer music — that slightly off-tune Trombone blat whose sound I couldn’t quite describe. I like how Philip G. Slate did the music but might have been David A. Prior: how he used many fake names to pad the numbers of how many he had working on this movie. But then there is the second part that truly gets to me. “You can’t make a beautiful movie, but you can make a statement in fictional form.” Joe Bob’s quote sticks in my mind. Before this, 16 mm film was the least expensive way to make a movie but the film itself is expensive and the camera to use it, and post-production. Video made things more accessible. It applies to how David Prior and his younger brother Ted — and how they made the movie. Their father was a standup comic, and their mother an assistant to Blackstone the Magician. Their parents divorced, and the two lived with their mother: making me wonder about some parts of Sledgehammer. David was obsessed with movies, and Ted was a bodybuilder. More specifically David just wanted to write, not direct, but he knew that some background in direction in smaller projects could get him into the industry. And after applying for Ads, he even got some small financial-backing, though not much. And he got his brother Ted to act because he was simply in the area. So basically, we have a director who didn’t want to direct, and an actor that didn’t want to act. I mean, what could possibly go wrong? Certainly, it was not very auspicious at first, but they evolved from this point. And then we go back to the first ninety years of film history, only the rich and elite could make films, or those with patronage, or corporate-backing: as happens with most art in history. For the first time, working-class men from Baltimore can make their own movies, and bring something to that kind of storytelling that someone emulating them might not. Perhaps that is where making a statement might come in: even though I know for a fact I’ve made a few statements of my own in these summaries so far. I think about how everyone in the movie had a beer, and was filled with manic energy. Joe Bob posited that to test a potential actor, ask him to portray not anger or sadness, but something profound like joy. And, looking at the people that were assembled then, as obnoxious as that energy might have seemed, there was something very real about it. Certainly, John Eastman as John seems legitimately drunk through most of the movie: and this drunken master technique is about to show.
Oh man. So now, we were warned about this, we have the sandwich scene. It’s one of the things, aside from hard to see lighting at times, that connects both Sledgehammer and Things to one another. Everyone is at a table, with a ton of junk food, and John stuffs a giant sandwich of meat into his mouth. It is enormous, messy, and really gross. Basically, someone smacks John and he spits pieces of his ham sandwich on Joni’s face. And while one of her friends wipes it for her, Chuck decides to pour mustard on her head. Remember: she wants to marry this man, though she also shoves a whipped cream pie in his face.
Seriously, as this degenerates into a food fight with alcohol all around I’m beginning to think that the ghost here is seriously being disturbed by the sheer amount of spirits already brought into this house.
The girls get the boys to “clean up their mess” and as all the women clean up in the other room after that food scene that goes entirely too long — another theme in this movie — we get some more character dynamics exposition. John is too boisterous and demanding for Mary, and Carol is upset that Jimmy doesn’t seem to want any sex and she doesn’t know why. Mary further elaborates that John can’t stop joking around in bed, and he likes to wear masks: but not on his face. All right then. So this juxtaposed with the boys talking about masturbation, and Chuck explaining that he was on the freeway having “a throbber” and he used his sandal. Damn. I actually completely missed watching this the first time. I almost wish I had.
The boys clown around and start to clean up their mess. Joey tricks Jimmy into letting him take a shower while he does his work. So Carol goes to take a shower and, in this painfully white hallway, we see on the side leaning against the wall Chekhov’s gun — the sledgehammer. She walks past it, and goes into the bathroom. The ominous synthetics blare out into sirens that almost sound like bad shower pipes themselves, attempting to create dramatic tension. And then, she pulls back the shower to see Joey faking his death with a noose around his neck, and blood: as if he couldn’t make up his mind which way he dies. They fight, and leave the washroom as we see the sledgehammer in the corner of the hallway … fading away as if it had never been there at all.
This will totally not be an ongoing theme.
Jimmy is searching for more alcohol in the next scene and he runs into Carol, and she asks him after he talks about “getting his clothes on” what’s wrong, and he denies that anything is going on with him. Carol leaves, fed up as well, as the camera focuses on a blank white wall until we transition to outside of the house again, panning away from it into an establishing longshot: this time at night.
The next scene we are back in the party and the loud raucous music, where Joey tries to pull down Joni’s pants … for some reason. This is when — finally — Chuck stops the record player and the generic loud and obnoxious music everyone is just so dying to listen to, and begins the plot. Oh, Joey suggests an orgy but Chuck wants to do a seance. I mean, the dead should rise in either situation, and perhaps John’s terrible misunderstanding with Carol about a seance being a scene isn’t that far off, but let’s finally act like this is a horror movie. Can we do that?
Right. I’m sorry, this is actually getting to me.
The scene — the real scene — slides away to the right, a nice segue, into Chuck sitting near a candle in the dark telling the rest of his friends a horror story. But what is it about, you might ask? Well, let’s get to it. He recaps what we saw at the beginning of the movie with the woman and her lover. This is where we see a black and white duplicate of the scene with the mother arguing with her son about him needing to go into the closet: with slow motion locking, and her leaving, and a close up of the closet door and all that. Then we juxtapose to Chuck still telling the story as we see an exact, but colourless duplicate scene of the woman and her lover with some Chuck narration, and it goes back and forth as Chuck explains their remains had been crushed and taken out of the house in bags: their bodies crushed by a sledgehammer. There is a pan out and rotation around each of his friends and their faces as they listen to the story.
Chuck explains that the adults did die, and how the boy was never found. Perhaps he fled and died in the woods, or the killer got him. But other people, other folks in the area, think he is still there: waiting. Waiting for his mother’s killer to return and get his revenge. Apparently the boy’s father didn’t do it as he had an alibi, and Chuck keeps saying that the boy will come back. Of course, at that point we have another scene of a close up of the closet where the boy had once been locked up, and a faint pounding sound for emphasis.
All right. This is interesting, information we didn’t see happen after the adults were killed. Now we are into the horror part of this movie.
So we find out that not only is everyone in the house where this happened, but they are in the same room where they all died as well, and Chuck’s states that it is his plan to call upon the spirits this night to find out just what happened to them: and to discover who killed them. Then Joey, in a totally non-suspicious way — as he is the only single guy and consistent prankster in the group — gets up and leaves as Chuck gets them all to prepare for what is to come.
Chuck calls upon the spirits to call upon the spirits that know what happened in the house, as though he is aware that spirits have a bureaucracy, chanting “Arise chicken — I mean, spirits, arise!” I will admit, when he shouts, “I command you to rise!” Chuck’s voice actually has a fierce tone behind it, and it sounds like genuine acting.
And then the rest of the events unfold. Ominous music. Establishing shots. An empty hallway again. An empty dining room and kitchen. And an angle of the room with the closet yet again. Do you think there is something paranormal going on there, ladies and gentlemen and other beings of the night? Oh, and an empty staircase that we saw foreshadowed — literally — at the introductory credits of the movie. And now a close up of the dead bolt at the closet …
Which suddenly unlocks.
Well, what swear word rhymes with Chuck? We are about to find out.
And as Chuck continues to invoke the spirits, Joey is messing with a stereo in another room. John is on edge. And then through different switching, from the seance to Joey and back, we hear a synthesized roar. Joey is too pleased with himself as the rest of the group thinks the spirits have arrived. They hear voices from the stereo that they don’t know about as the prank continues. Meanwhile, down the stairs, something wicked this way comes from the credits scene: a pair of legs … and sledgehammer that totally isn’t a stand-in for something else if you know what I mean, and I think you do.
Damn, the video loves its Jump Cut Juxtapositions, making a scene by scene summary an utter multifaceted nightmare. The scenes continue as the group hears that the spirit can tell them — in a reverberating voice — what happened, as Joey is still pleased with himself in the other room, and as a shadow darkens Joey’s room …
The spirit, as recorded, insists that it can only tell one person what happened that night — and it’s John of course. Fascinatingly enough, as the scenes jump between John standing and being told the spirits want to drink his blood, he holds his neck even as — in the other room — Joey gets slowly stabbed in the neck. Now, why the killer wouldn’t use his sledgehammer is beyond me, but I guess he is just getting into character for the sake of their little seance, or something. This is cut fairly well, actually, as we see the lead up with the killer walking behind Joey, John standing, then the killer having the knife at Joey’s throat, and John holding his own neck, and Joey getting stabbed through the neck. There is a definite language forming from this haphazard movie.
The people in the room are getting antsy with all of this going on, and they agree with John that they want it to stop. And then, we see the killer slowly dragging Joey’s corpse away. We finally have our first murder, and of course it is the archetypal horror jokster.
Sanity Check: According to Joe Bob, David Prior mentions the disappearing sledgehammer as indication of something supernatural involved. He was inspired by the Friday the 13th series, and this point leads Joe Bob into mentioning that many shot-on-video directors were inspired not by avant-garde or art house independent works, but rather mainstream movies and directors: minus their resources. It makes sense for those starting out in an artistic medium to emulate masters in their field, and the works that they genuinely love. While this isn’t entirely true, and there are those — who Joe Bob even points out later — are inspired by fellow “fanboys” and amateurs such as themselves, the best way to teach yourself an art I find — especially a literary one like text, or poetry, or film, is to go as close to the source as possible and not necessarily a gradation of that foundation. However, after that, I feel you should definitely see the variants of the fundamentals, even though that’s not all how to start out. I certainly didn’t when I began writing and I was inspired by Dragonlance as opposed to The Lord of the Rings, or Beowulf. Chester Novell Turner’s 1984 Devil Doll From Hell sounds fascinating: made by a man in the home remodelling business, and blaxploitation movie about a working-class woman raped by a ventriloquist dummy, and leading her to a sexual awakening. Another film, this one from 1985, is Blood Cult, It is about college students being stalked by a psychopath who is part of a human sacrificial cult. It’s something else that made it into stores, into that so-called plebeian Bottom Feeder Section, and had a brilliant piece of cleaver box art. From what I understand, it’s less important on its own merit, and more for the films it inspired and made way for in a seminal manner such as Blood Lake, Cannibal Campout, Twisted Illusions, Demon Queen, Video Violence, Phantom Brother, and others. Many of them are on Troma Distribution list. But back to art. There are Joe Bob’s words about a fan making horror or video folk art to consider. When you don’t have formal training, or the resources to do so — or if that education is something commercial to the elite — a person would be forced to invent their own film language. The printing press element of the camcorder, and video allows them access to devices and means — media — that can record worlds, even oral histories of real and fictional kinds that no one would have even considered preserving. It all comes back to that: the idea of high art possibly being a class-difference, but also something that a movie maker is inspired by but adapts to their own voice: culturally, or personally. That truly is beautiful. I feel like I am not doing that concept enough justice in this writing, and I really want to do so.
Sanity Check Addendum: All right. I am instituting a new rule. I can do that. You see, the way I figure it, the movie makers are just trying to figure out stuff as they go along, so I will do the same. Each scene shall henceforth be decided by fade outs. I will think of them as punctuation in this run-on sentence of a cinematic camcorder story. Otherwise, I will be here on this one movie forever. As an Iron Mutant Potentiate, I exercise that right, and will attempt to institute it for the rest of the near-future.
Next scene. We see the house outside at night again. John is denying that was scared as they all hang out, sans Joey. Jimmy and John almost come to blows as the former makes fun of the latter’s fear. Then everyone is surprised that it was a prank, as revealed by Chuck, with more roughhousing as a result. We have another scene of the killer materializing into existence again, carrying around his large, titular sledgehammer — showing it off like … Anyway, he hasn’t used it. Yet.
So we see the group playing a rousing game of charades. No one, by the way, has noticed that Joey is missing yet. We get a close up of Jimmy and Carol on the couch getting comfortable. She wants to go upstairs, and insists they don’t have to rush into sex. Jimmy looks profoundly uncomfortable, but gives in as Carol teases taking off her top in front of everyone. They go upstairs and for some reason Carol calls out for Jimmy as he is in the hallway, and I don’t know why. Maybe there was another scene there that got cut out.
We go back to the party now. Joni is wondering where Joey is (it’s so easy to get these names confused with all the names starting with J), and John (see what I mean) makes a crack about how Joey might be watching Carol and Jimmy go at it. This disgusts both Mary and Joni, and after Mary says “just you wait,” we realize that John has been waiting for sex with Mary for two years. So it makes me wonder what that whole mask not on his face was about, unless they haven’t had intercourse, and done everything else. Sexual speculations and drama aside, we see Chuck actually looking for Joey and going to the room where they prepared their prank, only to find it empty … with the exception of blood.
And now we come to the crux of Jimmy and Carol’s issues in the bedroom. The truth of the matter, as we find out, is that Jimmy has been lying to himself his whole life and seeing John kiss Joey made him realize that he is not into girls, as he thought he should be, and he tells Carol … No. That didn’t happen. Instead, we find out — as Carol surmises, that Jimmy is a virgin and this is going to be his first time: and she takes it in stride, and takes charge of the matter. Of course, now that the sex is going to be happening, we know what’s also going to occur next: that age-old trope.
See, it was back enough that they made fun of the deaths and suffering in this place for the sake of a prank. That’s what happened to Joey. But now two adults are going to have sex, in a place where a small child was locked in a closet so his Mother of the Year can kiss her skeezy lover’s belly button erotically. We see a slow moving perspective from the camera, presumably from the perspective of the killer, as he lumbers towards the bedroom where Jimmy and Carol are getting down to it. Then with the same ominous music, Chuck is still in the room where Joey used to be before being startled by Joni. I wonder if, like when Jimmy bumped into Carol in the corner earlier — definitely not a euphemism — the movie creators were attempting a jump scare that just didn’t work.
Movie-making speculations aside, Chuck voices his concerns with Joni about Joey. Joni wonders if they are attempting to pull another prank. But Chuck is adamant. He wants to look for him before thinking about telling the others that Joey’s been hurt: not even considering that this could be another prank of his. There is a freeze frame of his face — to capture sincerity or another happy accident — before we transition to the next scene. Jimmy is on top of Carol as they sinuously make love in slow motion. It seems to be anatomically correct, unlike The Room, and it’s definitely a little more passionate than the sex I unfortunately saw in New York Nights. There is a cut away to the door knob turning, which Freud would have something to say about I’m sure. We go back to the sex going on in a stagnated temporal field, possibly with its own altered gravity and Orgone energy attracting this killer ghost like chum to a shark as the door finally opens, and we finally get to see a Puppet Mask face — one of the few things in this movie that brings Darcy any joy, I’m sure.
Anyway, we transition away back to Joni as she just opens a door, and Joey’s body falls out with a knife stabbed through his neck: which is a pretty good effect for what this crew has been working with, and Joey falls exaggeratedly, but compellingly well. There is no warning. No preamble. It just happens. Joni freaks out, and Chuck comes in to see the whole grisly scene. He gets Joni to look for Jimmy and Carol, and not tell them what’s going on.
Poor Joni. I’ve said this a lot in this scene by scene summarization from hell, but I can never say it enough.
Surprisingly, Jimmy and Carol are both still alive: as that scene with the murderer would have been an excellent place to kill them off-screen. They are still in their little temporal loop, this time post-coitally, the killer showing us a nonconsensual closeup of his large hammer, then Joni’s coming up the stairs, and Chuck is going to John and Mary to tell them “they got big trouble.” Now, back to Jimmy and Carol … wow. They are still not dead yet. Anyway, the killer gently and graciously snaps Carol’s neck — or gives her a good crack — and then, gradually, Jimmy casually gets up only to be hit in the chest by the sledgehammer in slow motion, killing him in the warmth of the afterglow. I have to say, that is one of the most smug, satisfied and peaceful smiles I’ve ever seen on a corpse. But hey, he just had sex for the first time, so if you’re going to go at least get laid first.
Of course, Joni just came in on that part — the killing, not the sex — and runs for it as the killer slowly turns to go after her. Eventually. Back and forth down a suddenly dark and narrow hallway. We see the killer in a checkered shirt and jeans, and his puppet mask. Joni keeps looking back. She falls down. He tries to hit her with a hammer. But Joni didn’t just have slow-motion sex, or get pleased with herself over pulling an obvious prank, and dodges it: continuing to run.
Joni makes it to the other characters. Damn, can I tell you how much a relief it is to have fewer characters with which to keep track? It’s just Joni, Chuck, Mary, and John now. John goes to investigate what’s going on. John lets Chuck know he will tell them what he finds, but seems kind of dead-set on the idea that his “ass will go flyin’ through the first window” he can find. Then, we see a brief scene of a boy dressed like the man, even with the puppet mask, and the sledgehammer teleporting away into the ether.
Sanity Check: I disagree that what happened with Jimmy and Carol is a necrophiliac sex scene, or even a somnophiliac one as both participants are active and moving, and Carol herself is touching Jimmy and clearly responding to him. Anyway. We are always coming back into art, aren’t we Joe Bob? I love how it’s mentioned that David Prior made this movie in his Venice Beach apartment and was successful in making it look bigger than what it was: or bigger on the inside as some nerds might say. But it’s what Joe Bob said about his initial thoughts about Prior’s long establishing shots creating tension that got my attention in this segment, and Joe Bob’s mention of the Intentional fallacy: of always judging a work by the perceived or stated intentions of its creator as opposed to analyzing it on its own merit. Personally, I see art as an experiment, and even though David Prior wanted to “pad out the movie,” there was another gentleman — in the realm of painting — who mentioned several times throughout his career that there are “happy accidents.” Perhaps Prior was utilitarian in structuring his movie to conform to requirements of legitimacy, but art is also instinctual and this — combined with it also being a collaboration with his brother and others — could have grown this tension-filled dynamic, these paintings and frames that are almost punctuation in the movie, in an organic manner. I think I would love to see Joe Bob talk about literary theory. I love Northrop Frye and The Educated Imagination and how we make metaphors in an attempt to identify with the world outside of ourselves: and find, or create meaning in that. But anyway, onto more or less serious matters …
John finds Jimmy and Carol’s bodies. He arranges them, to give them some dignity. It’s the first time I believe we’ve seen breasts in this whole movie as John moves the blanket up over Carol’s chest to give her corpse some decency. You know, say what you will about these characters: they are loud and obnoxious, but they actually care about — and even love — each other, and I can see that. But then we see, in the corner room, a familiar item.
You guessed it: it’s the sledgehammer. Dum. Dum. Dummmm.
Anyway, John is smart and discards his makeshift bar and takes the sledgehammer. He returns to the others and tells them what’s going on, and a bit about the sledgehammer, how “the bastard tore them apart with it,” even though that is a pretty big over-exaggeration as the corpses are clearly almost intact. But pedantry aside, John and Chuck have it out. John wants to kill this motherfucker. So does Chuck, but he knows they have to remain calm. John is snapping at everyone, but Chuck warns John that they can’t split up — and cover more ground — as the killer will take them one by one. He even says, what if the girls find him? How will they deal with that?
More on that later.
So, Chuck’s plan is to stay in the living room together until daybreak when they can all leave. Joni is breaking down into hysterics, for obvious reasons, as she doesn’t want to stay in the Murder House a moment longer. But John is now using logic as well and wonders what difference daybreak will make in dealing with a killer, and how they are even going to begin hiking for fifty miles away from even the spectre of Walnut Grove. So, they decide to stay unless the killer comes after them, and after that it’s open season on him. So everyone falls asleep in the next scene, as John keeps watch with the sledgehammer that totally doesn’t represent toxic masculinity at this point in the game. There is a quiet beating sound-effect as we get shots of the house interior again: the kitchen, the stairs, the closet room, the hallway, the bathroom, the hallway… It’s as though we’ve been here this entire time. And we have.
Finally, at the hallway, the killer does his best impression of the Tall Man in terms of size, as he materializes back into existence, and begins stalking the night again, fading out of the material plane once again with his hammer in his hand.
John dozes off, and he wakes up: only to see that the sledgehammer is gone. John doesn’t like feeling emasculated, so he leaves the room to split up and cover more ground. He does pick up a knife from the kitchen sink, however. He goes in to look at his friends, and then we see a transposition of a flashback where Chuck tells them the story of how the illicit couple was brutally murdered in the room they are all staying in. This movie loves to repeat itself, like a ghost reenacting its own death, but you can see how badly this story has rattled John and perhaps he believes it’s more than just a simple physical killer coming after them.
John leaves. He goes up the dark staircase with his newly acquired knife. He goes into the room where Jimmy and Carol’s bodies are, but there is either a blanket over them, or they are gone. There is a transposition of Chuck telling everyone the state of the illicit lovers’ bodies, and then he leaves the room as Chuck recounts what may or may not have happened to the boy from that time. And, in the hallway, the boy appears behind John in his puppet mask. John confronts, and chases the boy to a locked room that he tries to open with his knife.
And then, we have a weird sequence. Chuck wakes up, right, and then we cut to John being teleported from outside to the room to which he’s trying to get in. And it’s that room: you know the one. It’s the epicentre of this entire debacle. The closet room. John goes to the closet. It’s lock is old and worn. There are cobwebs on it. And this is where I wondered if it wasn’t so much that the boy was killed, or escaped the house, or was kidnapped when his mother and her lover died, but if perhaps he’d been forgotten in that closet.
Perhaps he died behind that door, and they never found his body.
Space-time gets weird here, especially when you see John moving fairly slow. He gets to the closet, unlocking it, and then puts his hand on the cobwebbed doorknob. His hand is on that knob in that surreal space with its shrill, eerie piping music for what seems to be forever. The door slowly opens. And, finally, John looks in and sees a skull on the floor, blood underneath it, and a discarded puppet mask nearby. So I guess the implication is the kid died in that closet.
He jumps back, to see the corpses of the child’s mother and lover sitting at a makeshift table with an upside pentagram painted in blood over the man. He sees there is a crumpled newspaper in the man’s hand. John reaches out, and takes it: and it’s an article about the mother and lover being dead, and the boy not being found. I think we get what’s going on here by now, movie: you are almost literally as subtle as a sledgehammer to the face.
John finally wins the Captain Obvious Award when he states: “It’s the kid.”
And as if to say, “No shit, Sherlock,” the adult male killer with mask on face and hammer in hand appears at the doorway. They wrestle for the hammer in the killer’s hands. The killer kicks John to the ground. It is all in slow motion. But John somehow pulls out the knife he got earlier, and stabs the killer: so you got to give him that much. It actually seems to hurt him too as he slumps against the wall, but if you’ve seen any slasher horror films you know exactly how this goes.
Sanity Check:Joe Bob’s theory about the kid is similar to mine: that he can “transmogrify” from a spirit into a flesh and blood killer. One thought I’ve gleaned from this section is that Shot-to-Video movies subvert home movie mundane moving and acting aesthetics: using mundane dynamics to make a fictional story. What that does in a horror sense however, seems to be that it lulls you with a homey atmosphere, into a false sense of security until the terrifying elements jarr and subvert it. I find it interesting that David Prior moved away from horror into action films, his first love. You can see that love in a lot of the fighting and stylized violence even in Sledgehammer: barely keeping under the surface. Mankillers which is an all-woman Dirty Dozen sounds fascinating. And the fact that he created the genre of aerobic horror called Killer Workout or Aerobicide: a maniac who terrorizes a health spa with a safety pin is cool. I want to see it shown on The Last Drive-In. And I like that anecdote about Deadly Prey: a Rambo-homage where Ted Prior rips off a man’s arm and beats him with it in the film. Furthermore, I appreciate Darcy’s interest in Ted Prior’s centerfold in Playgirl, and a still of Linda McGill, Joni’s actress, from Shape-Up Sensational Sex. Blood, Breasts, and Beasts. Also, I can see a semiotic interpretation of the Sledgehammer, which is what I’ve been doing all tongue and check, and I believe other academics are totally reading into it in a less ironic way. That is hypocritical of me, in some ways, as semiotics is all about interpreting symbols, and I have definitely been doing it. I am still doing it — and going to do it — even as we speak.
Chuck, Mary, and Joni finally have enough, and go up the staircase to look for John. John is struggling to get to his feet, the killer apparently dead beside him. Then we cut to Chuck calling out for John. Somehow John is badly hurt, his abdomen having been wounded even though it seemed like all the killer did was kick him to the ground, and it was John that stabbed him. The others are still looking for him before John slowly stumbles out, and falls to the ground: the knife somehow in his own back. I don’t know what dimensional shenanigans were involved in this, but given what this move is like, I should probably not question continuity too much at this point.
“You bastard! You son of a bitch! Where are you!” Chuck cries as they crowd around John’s body, losing their shite. Mary, having taken the knife out of the man she loves, charges into the room with it out of pure rage. See, this is what I like: protagonists that actually give a fuck when their lover or friend dies, and wants to go medieval on their asses. But then the room turns invertedly red as she faces the killer, and realizes — belatedly — that she’s fucked.
The room door is shut again. Chuck and Joni are trying to get in, to no avail. The killer is slowly going towards Mary. Mary is begging for her life now. She manages to dodge some hammer blows. Finally, Chuck breaks down the door. And I guess the killer got tired and realized being a child increases his reflexes and agility as he decides to stab Mary to death instead.
So basically, at this point in the film my theory goes a little something like this: the boy was locked in the closet by his mother so she can have sex. He has been habitually mistreated by his mother, and forced to see her having this affair while his father is gone. He begins to associate adult sex with abuse, and the loss of his own freedom. That resentment grows until it manifests into a killer psychokinetic force. Perhaps the boy died in that closet, suffocated to death, and his resentment and hate manifests into this sex and love-hating killer. Sometimes he’s the adult he never got to be, warped and twisted, perhaps the absent father in his life, or the man that took his mother from him in his own messed up mind. And then, he is the child who never got a childhood, and he likes to play with masks and … sharp toys to also fulfill his sense of retribution. And when these Orgone-ridden teenagers come in, making fun of his suffering and demise, making sport of it, and just existing with hormones in his space, it activates him and makes this whole awkward, brutal romp possible.
So Chuck is slower on the uptake about what’s going on than John was, despite him having set up this whole visit — and seance prank — to begin with. He asks what’s going on, and who the child is. The child actually speaks, but he speaks fast, rushed, and almost incoherently, and it’s like his audio is muffled and he’s just half-heartedly memorized some lines. After reviewing it with some subtitles, he says: “Mommy was … I had to kill her. She took me away from Daddy. She was a bad mommy.”
I mean … he’s not wrong.
Chuck tries to take the knife away from him, blade first with his hand. He gets mad at the kid for his own bad decision, disarms him, and tries to take off the kid’s mask. Joni tells him not to do it. A jump cut happens as the kid grabs Chuck’s arms with superhuman strength.
Then, I fuck you not, the kid bitch-slaps Chuck away from him. I am actually somewhat impressed by this shapeshifting, teleporting, masked child slapping a grown man across the face, and downing him.
But it gets better. Chuck then gets up, and punches the kid in the face: only to hurt his own hand. I know it’s supposed to make this apparition look terrifying, but it is simply amusing at this point, and I need all the amusement from this film I can get.
Finally, the kid has enough. As Chuck is somehow curled against the wall with Joni in a missing sequential scene between them, the kid begins to grow into his adult killer self with menacing sound effects. He looms over them as, presumably, Chuck and Joni are astounded at these continuity errors that have them first facing a boy, and then a grown ass man over attempted supernatural child abuse. Chuck valiantly pushes Joni out the door as he struggles like Captain Kirk with the killer. Joni is crying out his name multiple times as we see more juxtaposition and Chuck getting the fuck smashed out of him in slow motion after the game of Wackamole just doesn’t work out for the killer. It seems he kills faster moving targets better without the sledgehammer. Who knew? Joni in the meantime runs down the stairs between perspectives.
But Chuck is bleeding from his mouth, and falls onto his body. The killer decides to slowly move after Joni. She runs to a door, only to find Joey’s hanging, stabbed corpse again. She screams, takes a baseball bat from some blankets, and runs away from the killer up the stairs.
And this is where Joni goes all Home Alone — or, if you prefer, 3615 code Père Noël — on his ass.
She’s gone up to a room, taken the blanket off a bed and wrapped it in the closet. She’s opened, or tried to open a window. The killer comes up stairs. Then he goes into the room, poetically looking towards the closet, perhaps even thinking Joni’s hiding in there. And that is when, in a continuous slow motion sequence, Joni slams her baseball bat right behind his knees, bringing him down. Then she smashes her bat into his back several times before turning to the closet, and doing something with the blanket she wrapped up there. She turns as he starts to get up, and she kicks him down while running to the exit of the room. Then time restores itself as she struggles with each and every door in the hallway, and can’t seem to open them, even as the killer starts to walk out, slowly, after her as if she had done absolutely nothing to him.
This is when Joni goes to the room with the extension cord to the stereo that Joey was using during the seance: the same room where the killer got him. She begins to do something with the cord itself as the killer lumbers toward her position, the shadow of his sledgehammer trailing down the wall as he comes down the staircase. Through several interspersed scenes, Joni wraps the cord around the door knob to the room, and struggles with an outlet to plug the thing into the wall: because I can tell you from existence that electric sockets are frustrating.
He comes down, and eventually gets to the room. He grabs the door knob, though why Joni is holding onto the cord and not getting affected is strange to me. Even so.
As the killer fries and jerks outside, sparks reflected through the knob, and flame even bursting out on the wire, Joni relaxes: thinking she got him.
He is suddenly in the room, and he demolishes an old television screen with his hammer. She’s run into the kitchen, and she’s scrambling for a weapon. Any weapon. Desperate. He corners her in the kitchen with the traditional slasher teleport. She strikes him with a meat cleaver and he literally doesn’t care. She slips past him, and skids into the living room. He swings his sledgehammer down and just misses her as she goes flying, looking like he’s hit a hole in one on a domestic-themed golf course in hell.
Joni is on the ground, crawling away. She gave this bastard a run for his money, but he cheats by merely existing. He is about to swing his hammer down in a purely non-Freudian way when ,.. Motherfucker gets tackled by Chuck, who’s not wearing a shirt, and is still alive motherfucker! They grapple and struggle after Chuck punches him in the face, and doesn’t in fact hurt his hand.
Chuck beats on him, and tackles him back into the room where Joey died. Then, he takes up the killer’s own sledgehammer, holding it like it was made for him, that it is a part of him and — phallic connotations aside, smashes the fucker in the face, bloodying him and letting him slump to the ground. Chuck goes to check on Joni, holding her in his arms as the adult form of the killer twitches, blood all over the wall … and lies still. The only thing that would have made … well, some of this better, would have been if Chuck had thrown him back in the closet, and killed him there. But poetry can only go so far.
And poetry ends. We are outside the house now. It’s daylight. Chuck helps Joni out, eventually just picking her up and carrying her away from this cursed place. But then we pan up, and up, as the killer child looks out the window: scowling malevolently at the grown people that have escaped his wrath. The sledgehammer is still his. They can never take that from him, as the image freezes into place, and fades to black for the last time.
Then credits, as the Dramatis personae are repeated with scenes of them acting, and several more credits, and the demolition is finally done.
Final Sanity Check and Observation: I am thinking about points of view. There is Joe Bob’s observation about there being many different perspective shots that shift away from that of the killer’s. I would argue that the house itself, and the land around it is a part of the killer. He is bonded to it: perhaps against his will, or maybe he doesn’t remember where his life ended, and his haunting began. I think about, and I’ve mentioned before the sledgehammer itself: of a thwarted masculinity. That boy never got to be a man. But he was also robbed of his father’s love. He is stuck in a place, in the middle of nowhere: a small, picturesque atmosphere hiding his trauma, and his undeveloped desires in a closet. I feel like there could have been more sexual experimentation with Jimmy, and even John and Joey but that wouldn’t have been acceptable in the eighties and nineties mainstream with which Prior still wanted to be a part, and might have mixed the messages of this story. But not necessarily. The boy never gets the chance to grow. His adult form is a parody of a man that enacts the violence he was powerless to undertake to defend himself when he was alive, and the lack of acknowledgement and respect about his space — his small circle of space allotted to him in life and death — brings out his rage. The sledgehammer could be the masculinity he never had, in his mind, and the desire to destroy all the rotting walls around him in this beautiful place, and these thoughtless people. I still think it was a missed opportunity that Chuck didn’t viscerally hurt him by throwing him, and injuring him with the hammer back in the closet. But I think the fact that the sledgehammer hurt him so badly, the thing he used to kill others, speaks volumes.
I want to keep in mind, again, that the name of a synthesizer score used in many 1980s horror films is the hum and shiver. But then we get back to fanboys. Sledgehammer became obscure for thirty years until a fan named Clint Kelly acquired the rights and released it on DVD. As a fanboy of fanboys, Kelly became a low-budget filmmaker in his own right as a result of this life-long passion. Such is the circle of life, and I am just as much a part of that, hopefully making my digressions on here come full circle.
It’s sad that David Prior planned a sequel to Sledgehammer at the time of his death in 2015. I know he said, when his movie got shown at film festivals that it bothered him: because now he could do so much better. Darcy admires that, in the words of Lloyd Kaufman, the movie makers made ‘their own damn movie.” Apparently, Doug Matley, who played the killer in the movie, said in an interview on the fascinating Silver Bolo Award-winning SOV Horror — that examines direct-to-video movies, and is a documentary series and podcast — that they didn’t focus a lot of time on character development. Notice my surprise. Even so, I am actually truly surprised that I found stuff I genuinely respect in this movie.
A dimensional incursion has occurred between the genre of comic book superheroes, and horror has occurred. It began, cinematically, in Moon Knight, with just a hint of it in No Way Home, but now the singularity has happened and I decided that I couldn’t contain it anywhere other than in this textual laboratory.
Have you ever began something with a singular purpose – like a Sacred Timeline – and then through a series of tangents, spin-offs, unfortunate events, and poor life decisions, or varied Choose Your Own Adventures you find yourself in a complicated web where you have to confront all of these things in some kind of existential test filled with dread? This is basically Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
I could go into Marvel lore – both comics-wise and cinematically – but let’s be honest, so many others have, and are, already doing so in the different planes of reality. So now, I ask you – my readers – to take after the example of the Infinity Warriors that some of you already are, and remember the Creed:
No Spoilers. Because, after this moment, reading past this point means that all the responsibility falls onto you. You were warned.
When you look past sorcerers, in this world with their martial arts and academic leanings, and witches with their raw power and their own erude learning, what you are left with is a magician. And while Stephen Strange and Wanda Maximoff are sorcerer and witch respectively, it is Sam Raimi that is the magician. And what are magicians excellent at displaying?
It’s a trait that carries over from his work in the horror genre: where you think that the plot is going to go one way, or the story is going to end in another, but something else happens entirely. And in Sam Raimi’s case, it is usually a mad-cap situation that goes down.
The events of the film play behind my third eye’s mind. We see an alternate version of Stephen Strange, called Defender Strange, with one of the few human singularities or cosmological constants in the multiverse – America Chavez whose ability is to travel all realities – fleeing a monster covered in runes and incantations. We think, and we are primed, to believe that he will sacrifice himself to save America’s life by letting the monster attack and kill him. We are led to believe he will send her away as the creature corrupts and changes him into a zombified version of himself: an undead body warped and twisted by an evil spirit to become an antagonist as America gets the mainline Marvel Cinematic Strange to help her escape evil.
Instead, we see them trapped attempting to get the Book of Vishanti in this plane between universes, and Strange decides to drain America of her power: effectively killing her instead of letting the pursuing demon’s master have her power to travel the multiverse instead. This is such a prelude to the critique of Stephen Strange – all the Stephen Stranges throughout the multiverse and the one we know – that will happen throughout the film: taking him to an uncomfortable psychological place.
This is where we see Stephen Strange and his arrogance: his inherent, deep-set need to know best over the needs and consent of others. He can even violate the friendship and trust of anyone at his side if it threatens “the greater good.”
And then, the Stephen Strange we know wakes up: having seen all of this as a nightmare. But we know it wasn’t just a dream. As it turns out, and as America explains later on to him and Wong – the former sorcerer Librarian and current Sorcerer Supreme – there are people powerful enough to dream themselves into their alternate selves in other realities: to get a glimpse of what their lives might have been like if other roads had been taken. It is eerie, and disturbing when you think about what we all dream about, assuming this only applies to “the important,” especially given that America herself never dreams when she sleeps: as she is the only one of her kind in the multiverse.
Think about it. Imagine all those dreams where you die. Or you are still in high school. Or you are losing your apartment.
Or you find yourself falling.
Consider that all of these scenarios happened to you, or are happening to you, in the multiverse. And then take that realization, and apply it to those other selves dreaming of you. This existential dread is just the beginning, and it’s something that Stephen Strange has to face when he looks at the corpse of Defender Strange on the rooftop before him. I mean, holy Gothic horror Batman: looking at your dead double or Doppelgänger after hearing that he betrayed the girl he was friends with would shake your core faith in yourself, I don’t care who you are. Talk about the foreshadowing and ill omens you do not want. Forget having a living harbinger telling you that you are going to fuck something up by messing with it in the horror genre, just look at your own dead body, and think to yourself: I need to seriously reconsider my life.
And with this foray into the morbid uncanny in mind, let’s look further into some messed up character psychology. We are primed to think there is a Big Bad, some kind of powerful demon or supervillain that sent these monstrosities after an innocent girl like America: to get her power to expand their power throughout the multiverse. So what does Doctor Strange do? Well, he realizes he needs help. He has an entire legion of his fellow brother, sister, and sibling sorcerers in the temple of Kamar-Taj to protect America, but he knows that having a fellow Avenger might help: someone with familiarity with the Mystic Arts.
Wanda Maximoff has had a bad time of it. When you look at the intertextuality or continuity of her between films she had killed the man she loved for nothing, fell into delusion and denial over his death and unconsciously used Chaos Magic to take over an entire town and recreate her lover and make children from nothing, was manipulated by an ancient witch, and then lost all of what she built, and ends up in the possession of the Darkhold: a tome of dark magic that corrupts the essence of the person using it. We’ve seen the Darkhold affect Agents of SHIELD: scientists, soldiers, and even an artificial intelligence, and none of it was pleasant. So imagine how horrifying a concept it is for someone of Wanda’s ability to be influenced by this book.
To give you an idea of what the Darkhold is: it was, in the comics, created by followers of an Elder God of Darkness and Chaos named Chthon as a way to leave his mark on the world from which he was banished, and to eventually come back into it. Now, Chthon refers to the earth, but also has very Lovecraftian overtones, and the Darkhold is essentially Marvel’s — and Gerry Conway and Mike Ploog’s — version of the Necronomicon. Nothing good ever comes from possessing a book of forbidden knowledge. And, like the Necronomicon in H.P. Lovecraft’s Mythos, it has copies. And while I am still unsure if Agents of SHIELD is canon, or not a parallel reality to the mainline cinematic universe, that copy was taken by Ghost Rider elsewhere to be destroyed, presumably in hell or some infernal plane like it. Agatha Harkness had another copy, which Wanda had taken from her.
So basically, this book is inspired by Marvel’s equivalent to a Great Old One, who in the comics made Scarlet Witch to conquer the world and multiverse. It is a nice parallel to Alan Moore’s analogue to the Necronomicon in his and Jacen Burrows’ comics work Providence, the Kitab al Hikmah Najmiyya, or The Book of the Wisdom of the Stars with its own prophecy of the Redeemer: a figure will return reality into an inherently non-human chaos. Basically, Wanda is Chthon’s Redeemer even if, like Moore’s Lovecraft depiction, she doesn’t intend to be.
But comics and scholarly geekery, and whether or not Moore was inspired by the Marvel Darkhold or some other Mythos story, we come back to Sam Raimi. If you have watched the Evil Dead Trilogy, you have seen the Necronomicon before. The Naturom Demonto, or the Necronomicon Ex Mortis is a book that details Kandarian funerary rites, prophecies, and passages that allow for the summoning of demons. Mainly in Raimi’s films, whenever this book with a cover of warped human, or demon flesh and made by the Dark Ones, is opened and people stupidly read from it in a cabin within the woods, it summons demonic spirits. And these entities are all about possessing people, turning their bodies into living, gibbering, autonomous weapons called Deadites that maim and kill human beings out of amusement. And you can only destroy them by cutting them into little pieces. Generally, once you call on the power of any version of this book: from Lovecraft’s with its rituals to deal with Great Old Ones, Marvel’s Darkhold with its black magics, or Raimi’s Naturom Demonto or Ex Mortis, it never ends well for anybody.
So we have Wanda, whom Strange approaches, in her meadow and her snug little cabin to help guard the life and soul of a young girl. But like any horror film, you see that cabin is cursed by the proximity of the Darkhold and Wanda has only been masking the diseased nature of the land around them by her own magic. It only takes Strange a moment to realize that the human disaster that is Wanda Maximoff has been the one secretly sending those monsters after America: so she can use her powers to travel to the multiverse to be with alternate versions of the sons she lost.
Wanda is also the second person in that film, after Stephen’s former lover Christine Palmer, to ask him if he is truly happy. And she confronts him with some truth bombs about his hypocrisy in opposing her: about how his own selfishness, and also keeping his own counsel in dealing with the Time Stone cost so many lives while she wants to do is go to her children. We see that her delusion hasn’t abated. She’s simply consumed by the power of the Darkhold and the obsession of her getting her family back: at all costs. And if she has to kill a young girl to do it? Well, the girl is an anomaly and therefore not human, and according to Wanda “she doesn’t count.” I mean, it is not atypical. After all, witches sacrifice children to empower themselves, or accomplish their goals all the time in folklore. Just not superheroes.
So yes. It is safe to say that Wanda the Scarlet Witch has traded reason for madness.
Horror films love to deal with that age-old trope of the road paved with good intentions. And here, too, Stephen avoids answering the question about whether or not he’s happy.
The following fight between Wanda and the sorcerers of Kamar-Taj is nothing short of a deadly one-sided slaughter, with some resonance with Raimi’s own Army of Darkness. Wanda doesn’t resurrect the dead, or summon more demons. She simply preys on the minds of the adepts, and uses her raw power to overcome their traps.
But it becomes clear, as America Chavez’s power is activated by intense fear and she and Doctor Strange are sent throughout the multiverse that the only way to stop a Darkhold-infused Scarlet Witch is to find the Book of the Vishtanti : the Darkhold’s positive opposite empowered by Elder Gods opposed to it.
So the Book of the Vishanti, that can basically create a spell that can instantly accomplish its goal, feels reminiscent of August Derleth’s interpretation of the Cthulhu Mythos: in that he wrote stories where the Elder Gods were good, and the Outer Gods were evil. One can see Marvel, in making their conception of the Darkhold that made it into this film, thinking of Chthon as some kind of equivalent to an Outer God, and the three Vishanti deities as Elder Gods. Certainly, there is some influence there, even if the Vishanti and Chthon are all Elder Gods in Marvel’s mythology.
Yet it is also important to talk about these books, and books of power themselves, in the context of Sam Raimi. Books are important in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead film series. The Book of Vishanti is supposedly the only one of its kind in the multiverse, much like a text equivalent to America Chavez, whereas the Darkhold has multiple copies in different realities based off the Temple Cthton created on Wundagore Mountain in one plane. In Army of Darkness, Ash Williams is sent back in time due to the events of Evil Dead II, the sequel and revision to the first film, and he has to find the right book – in this case the Necronomicon Ex Mortis – to fight off the scourge of the Deadites and return home to his time. He ends up in a graveyard facing what seems to be three copies of the Necronomicon – two of them being false – and when he finds the right one he fails to speak the magic words (which were inspired from the alien Klaatu’s orders to his robot ally Gort in the 1951 film The Day The Earth Stood Still, which is funny when you consider the presence of the Illuminati’s Ultron Iron Legion). The Necronomicon, in the case of Raimi’s third film in the trilogy, isn’t just the source of chaos in existence, but it has potential solutions as well. However, there is a more direct parallel between the Book of Vishtanti and Raimi when you look at Evil Dead II, the Necronomicon also possesses missing pages that contain a space-time vortex spell, and a prophecy of “the Hero From the Sky” that Annie Knowby, the daughter of Professor Knowby and Henrietta Knowby – who is possessed thanks to the Kandarian Demon and made into a Deadite also referred to a lot of the time as a witch – uses to banish the evil of the book, and accidentally Ash as well. Of course, the Ex Mortis itself is a lot like the Darkhold with its own prophecy of Wanda as the Scarlet Witch.
Of course, there is an interesting parallel in that Ash Williams fails to retrieve the Necronomicon Ex Mortis peacefully in Army of Darkness albeit by his own foolishness, while Stephen Strange and America Chavez also fail to keep the Book of Vishtanti when Wanda obliterates it.
Interestingly enough, and speaking of the destruction of books, the burning the Necronomicon Ex Mortis in Raimi’s films also eliminates the Deadites, while the obliteration of the Darkhold – while it also costs the life of the person that damages it, as we see in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness – essentially robs its user of much of its magics: including the ability to dreamwalk.
Dreamwalking is another fascinating element in this film and its mythology. It is a practice, taken from the Darkhold, that allows the user to possess any of their alternate selves through the multiverse. So imagine that while normal dreaming lets you see through the eyes and minds of your alternates at times, dreamwalking gives you the power to control your alternates like puppets: overriding their sense of choice and freewill to do whatever you want. It is a terrifying skill, and one that apparently angers the damned. It isn’t to be used lightly. In fact, Wanda only utilizes this power when she has no other way to reach Stephen Strange and America in the multiverse. And when Stephen Strange ends up using another copy of the Darkhold to dreamwalk back to his own reality, he is accosted by spirits that twitter, taunt, and torment not unlike Deadite demons except they are essentially demonic shadows without bodies: the very same he begins to utilize against Wanda before she can absorb America’s power.
But when you get back to the entire plot of the film, it is one great horror misdirection. The hero at the beginning of the film attempts to kill his charge for his conception of the greater good. Another hero has gone mad, and is willing to terrorize murder a young girl to find her created chidren in another realm: committing war and essentially genocide against an entire ancient order to get to her.
Yet I think that what ultimately gets to me is the absolute personal horror in this film.
Not only do you have the fact that fear is the only thing that America Chavez can use to activate her power to travel to, and portals to other realities, and her living with the burden of having accidentally banished both of her mothers to other planes, but it all comes back to Wanda Maximoff and Stephen Strange. Wanda Maximoff continues to make a whole series of moral compromises: from sending monsters after America, to slaughtering an order of sorcerers defending a child, to essentially violating and controlling her alternate counterpart in the Illuminati reality – even abandoning her in the plane between realities without knowing or caring if she has powers to get herself back – all the way to tormenting and potentially killing Wong, and draining the energy out of a young girl as Agatha Harkness tried to her back in WandaVision. It is sad to see a misguided hero become essentially a villain, or at least a seriously corrupted antagonist, and it is only after America Chavez literally gives Wanda a reality check by forcing her to see her alternate and her sons terrified of her that she sees what she has become. This realization, that she is basically a monster, that she looked into the abyss and became the things that used to torture her and use her, that she swore to destroy, that “her children” were afraid of her, breaks her.
And then we have our friend Strange himself, the supposed hero of this film. What we find is what happens when a man who thinks he knows best is pushed to the nth degree in different realities. The Illuminati themselves, created by one version of Doctor Strange, also believe they know what they need to do for the greater good, and overestimate their power: costing the majority of them their lives. Black Bolt and Mr. Fantastic die horrific, grisly deaths for superheroes under the Scarlet Witch between the former having no mouth and he must scream, and the latter being peeled away like a cheese stick: complete with Captain Carter getting cut in half by her own shield, and the Rambeau Captain Marvel crushed by her own statue. Poor Professor Xavier, whom I actually thought would be the worst of the lot, was actually the most compassionate in wanting to free Stephen Strange from their capture of him, and even attempting to remove Wanda from her captured alternate’s mind before she snapped his neck. It’s a strange thing to see when you consider Xavier’s interplay with Wanda in the Marvel Comics when they were sometimes allies, and oftentimes enemies as she was Magneto’s daughter.
The reason I mention the Illuminati’s deaths, most of them not particularly graphic but some of their off-screen and shot angles of demise allowing the imagination to fill in the blanks and make it worse, is that they die because they captured Stephen due to them having killed their own Doctor Strange, and other variants of him. Essentially, what Stephen Strange discovers, and what they reveal to him, is that the Strange of their universe attempted to use the Darkhold’s dreamwalking against Thanos and, as a result, destroyed an entire other universe. He hadn’t told them, or his version of Christine Palmer what he was doing – taking it on himself to “wield the scalpel” – and it cost trillions their lives.
It is like Defender Strange’s attack on America writ large, and making Stephen Strange see his gamble against Thanos in his reality and allowing him to understand the cost in doing so: even if it was the only way from his perspective with the Time Stone. But it gets worse. Stephen and Christine end up in a dying universe, looking not unlike the fractured reality of The One Who Remains in Loki. It is there that Stephen meets what can be called Sinister Strange, who is mostly mad and failed to save his universe: who has taken it on himself to absorb the power of the Darkhold, and murder his alternates for fun in other universes. Essentially, this Doctor Strange took the burden of his failures, and of doing everything himself, messed up, and hated himself so much he kills himself in other places, over and again. And when Stephen realizes the full extent of this, and duels with him, the other’s death is more like a mercy killing.
Because what Stephen Strange finally confronts in looking at his mirror darkly, is that he is afraid of failure, of being alone, and he drives people away in response by embracing perfectionism. He sees his arrogance, and the price it exacts on himself, and everything around him in other planes. And instead of being able to use the Book of Vishanti and its Light magic, he must use the copy of the Darkhold that destroyed the mind of his counterpart: facing darkness, using Dark Magic and the realms of the damned accomplish what I think is one of the best subversive aspects of this film. He can’t take the easy way to victory. He has to work, and suffer for it.
Stephen Strange manages to dreamwalk into the corpse of Defender Strange while he is trapped in Sinister Strange’s universe, essentially reanimating him, and weaponizing the spirits of the damned attacking him around him to use against Wanda and her own servants. Essentially, to borrow yet another comics franchise analogy with another underhanded sorcerer, he Constantines Wanda before encouraging America to draw on her own determination to use her power, and give the Scarlet Witch her wake up call. In essence, Stephen Strange has to function as his own Deadite entity to possess the dead body of his alternate self to defend the girl that this same alternate had once befriended and tried to kill. The Zombie Strange we’ve seen in previews, who had all been typecast as an antagonist, is actually a hero using dark magic to protect a girl’s life, and give her a chance for agency.
Usually, in a Sam Raimi film a spirit possessed or controlled body is a problem, such as with Ash Williams’ or even Ash himself. Ash too had to face down his own doppelgänger in Army of Darkness, a few times over, his own strange little alternate selves and demons in the mill before having to deal with his undead one later. Another interesting parallel to Ash Williams and Stephen Strange is that they both have tremendous pride that can lead them into doing terrible things such Ash not saying the words in the graveyard and unleashing the Army of Darkness, and Stephen Strange believing he can take any problems head on without consulting anyone.
The differences are that while Ash just kills his undead counterpart, and doesn’t seem to learn a damn thing in the films, Stephen Strange does learn to trust the help of others through using his undead double – which is hilarious in retrospect as I was telling him to burn the body under my breath as I thought the Zombie Strange would be the beginning of an undead plague – and lets America Chavez make the decision and judgment call that saves them.
In the end, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness owes a lot to Sam Raimi’s own horror beats and sensibilities, complete with the twist at the end where everything seems resolved until that third eye opens on Stephen’s forehead like his sinister counterpart’s: that surprise, weird, ending that characterizes his Evil Dead work. It is something of a mess at times, and some parts feel more diluted than others, but it definitely succeeds in capturing the weird, the uncanny, and even the zany of Raimi and the world of Doctor Strange. I can totally forgive the insanity and haphazardness at times, especially when you consider you are dealing with madness. It is a story without a villain — save for an evil book that enables terrible behaviour and Monkey’s Paw wishes — but plenty of monsters to face, and antagonisms within the characters themselves. But then you need to ask yourself: at the end, when everything is said and done, and you have a moment, and you think about all the possibilities and your choices, and what you have seen: did you find what you were looking for?
Are you happy?
I think I already know my answer. And maybe one day, I too will stop hitting myself.
Back on January 7, 2022 and in his Fangoria Terror Teletype “Monstrous Musings Column,” Phil Nobile Jr. asked for freelance pitches in his article “Things to Do in 2022” with the observation that most pitches have become “repetitively autobiographical,” and that many more readers are getting to the point where they “want to read informed, smart content about the genre, not about the writer.”
It’s something I’ve been mulling over ever since, and I will admit that it felt personal, though Nobile also added that it is his opinion, and perhaps even that of Fangoria’s Digital Editor Angel Melanson. Certainly, I would imagine that this sentiment would not apply to horror figures such as Barbara Crampton with her “Scene Queen” column, or the various interview that luminaries such as Jordan Peele and Ari Aster have given to each other, but even then while their lives definitely figure into their discussions, it is often more the insight into their already established careers that have the most fascination for a horror readership. It also makes me wonder if Nobile is referring specifically to digital content itself (with a majority of Fangoria’s print edition being filled by veteran writers and figures in the genre), as you will find many articles in which the writers involved attempt to relate their life experiences to different horror media.
I know I’m not different. Many of my articles on The Horror Doctor and elsewhere are specifically focused on how I relate to something. I think it’s a very human thing to do, especially in the face of uncertainty, trauma, and fear. I’m also different in that while genre is important to look at, as opposed to merely my own life experience, I think that the stories told within that genre are equally – if not even more – important.
This is a long segue into being reintroduced to Max Brooks’ novel World War Z during this Pandemic. The first time I read it was back in 2009, and the second time I exposed myself to this specific brain-virus again is the year of this writing, 2022. However, World War Z was published in 2006, and the audiobook that I listened to this year was released in 2013. Let’s look at these years. In 2006, several years passed since 9/11 and the War Against Terror. But more specifically, we have the SARS epidemic in China back in 2002, and then H1N1 spreading in 2009. This is around the point, at least in North America, where we began to see hand sanitizer dispensers crop up in public spaces outside of hospitals. The fear that a Pandemic could happen in our generation thanks to poor governmental organization, and global ennui was really prevalent, and the spectre of it never disappeared. And look at the zombie films, as unliving, walking, representatives of what a Pandemic represents truly coming to the fore: You have your 28 Days Later, Quarantine, Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead, and a whole other host of cinematic, slavering, creeping, infections.
The era when I first read World War Z was long after I read Dracula, and I’d become very aware of epistolary narratives, though definitely before I’d truly come to appreciate the horror subgenre of found-footage films. I recall reading it as I traveled from Go-Train between Toronto and Oshawa to visit the partner that bought it for me. H1N1 was still a fear, so much so that in a horror writing contest called “Dark Idol” I attempted to be clever and write a story called “Hypochondriac” where the main character is terrified of getting a vaccine that ends up turning patients into zombies, only for his girlfriend to turn right when she’s giving him oral sex. Yeah. I made the themes relate back to one another much in the way I circle back to a point in my current writing, but between the awkward gait of the prose that would have made a zombie frustrated, and a “just a dream” hallucination from the vaccine he actually had leading up to that point, I didn’t want to think about it.
But it all circles back for me, now.
In 2009, World War Z was just a pseudo-historical narrative of different people’s stories being affected by the spread of the zombie virus, and watching how civilization almost dies, and then radically changes as a result of surviving the waves of its Pandemic. It also makes each source of – shall we say – An Oral History of the Zombie War, very compelling, and incredibly human in both how it depicts suffering, fear, hope, and a grim determination. I absolutely love how Brooks manages, or at least attempts, to encompass a variety of cultural and individual experiences in dealing with the unthinkable: almost the ridiculous. I’d heard about the 2013 film loose adaptation, that focuses on just one story and seems to lose the point of the entire human experience by altering the slow, creeping Romero nature of the zombies and cutting out all of those stories. I’ve said for a long time that World War Z would have benefitted much from being made into a miniseries, or webseries for streaming: which Netflix could have easily done as it created original programming in 2013. At the time the only other work I can think of that attempted to bring together so many stories into a world surviving the undead is The Walking Dead released in 2010: and adapted from Robert Kirkman’s 2003-2019 comics run of the same name, the Cable-televised version starting off strong before eventually succumbing to its own inevitable melodramatic rot.
However, after bemoaning this (I am sorry, but not sorry for these unintentional zombie puns), a friend of mine reminded me of the audiobook which I listened to now, again, in 2022: the closest thing to a multifaceted audio, oral history of a zombie apocalypse, or at least a global disaster. The World War Z audiobook, narrated and voiced by luminaries such as its creator Max Brooks, then Mark Hamill, Simon Pegg, Nathan Fillion, Denise Crosby, Alfred Molina, René Auberjonois, Bruce Boxleitner, Henry Rollins, Jeri Ryan, even Martin Scorsese, and other all-stars, feels like the vocal equivalent to different episodes of a series about people that saw, survived, and look back on different human facets of a zombie pandemic. Their voices reanimate the conflict between life and death, society and chaos, in a whole other way – these eye-witness accounts, recollections, and reflections, feeling more ever-present, more vital: especially after existing several waves of our own global Pandemic, and its effects on our world, and lives.
If reading World War Z came at a time in my life, and in the world, where it became apparent that global health was letting itself become vulnerable to a superbug or virus, and North America was exhausted by various wars in the Middle-East, along with wondering how I was going to get my own work done in Graduate School and what I would do from there, listening to the audiobook is something that comes with its own existential angst. Aside from freelancing jobs, I have been long unemployed after Graduation, isolating at my parents’ house even before the Pandemic, and watching an incompetent government reign in America, and waves of sickness deciminate people and overwhelm medical systems. They are similar places, but while the former was an abstraction of something that could happen, and was going to, the latter is an experience which it has – and it still is.
It’s eerie. While Max Brooks used Studs Terkel’s The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two as the inspiration for his narrative, as well as the zombie films and tropes of George Romero to create the solanum virus – the disease that creates the zombies that he introduces in his Zombie Survival Guide of 2003 in which he actually outlines an infection scenario that is expanded on in so many ways in World War Z, he might as well have predicted many of the events of 2020, and even some that preceded it.
The parallels are fairly clear. At one point, set presumably after the Bush Administration – though Brooks seems to be intentionally ambiguous about this – a new Black President and his running mate, nicknamed “The Whacko” are elected into office, the comparisons between Barack Obama and Joe Biden being fairly clear: though I can definitely see some Duane Jones in the little characterization we are told of that leader and his mannerisms. There is so much misinformation and denial about the zombies, even when the governments of the world are warned about the virus in advance. There are interviews that cover the terrible socio-economic conditions of North America, how the Pandemic is changing how everybody works, and what is important in a world attempting to survive, and then rebuild. There are tensions with Eastern Europe, especially Russia: even though as far as I know, it isn’t attempting to become a theocracy yet. There are accounts of people fleeing with items that will not help them in the long run, and taking all essential products from others, and falling for poor advice. Hell, even the false zombie cure or vaccine called Phalanx has some disturbing ties to all the debate circling around Moderna, Pfizer, and the like: though Phalanx is a placebo to prevent international, or at least American panic, while the vaccines of our world actually work.
You also have constant reports of a death toll, and seeing how bureaucratic structures simply can’t – or aren’t willing and able – to change fast enough to combat this virus, and many people choose to remain ignorant, or even see it as a sign from God, or at worse even try to appease and embrace it. There are obvious differences. While the threat of societal breakdown was, and is, possible if medical infrastructure is overwhelmed by the vast numbers of infected in our world, Brooks’ universe is one where civilization takes a major hit. But Brooks’ world also has stages where the change of seasons will allow for the virus to spread again through its carriers, and has lulls and waves: though ours tends to happen in Winter and Flu-Season, while Brooks’ occurs during Spring and Summer thaws.
I think there is something that The Whacko, who became President after his running mate, says that sums up everything that we have been feeling. While he is talking about America, and its idea of the “fair deal”: of doing honest work and be rewarded for it, he also mentions: ”The numbers are declining, thank heavens, but it doesn’t mean people should let down their guard, We’re still at war, and until every trace is sponged, and purged, and if need be, blasted from the surface of the Earth, everybody’s still gotta pitch in, and do their job.”
And make no mistake, what we have gone through – what we are still going through – is a struggle akin to a war: a world war. And this isn’t even talking about Russia and Ukraine and the spectre of atomic conflict, or the environmental damage that has created longer winters in World War Z (due to a nuclear confrontation between Iran and Pakistan) and our own pre-existing behaviour.
COVID-19 is heavily infectious. And while it isn’t incurable like the solanum virus, it mutates and if people take unnecessary risks it will continue to persist and remain a potentially deadly adversary. Like zombies, COVID-19 isn’t an opponent you can negotiate with, bomb (The Whacko’s comments not withstanding), shoot, or intimidate into surrender. It is definitely not something to ignore. While solanum spreads through bites and fluids passed into cuts or openings in a person, COVID-19 is airborne in enclosed spaces. And while you can’t survive solanum, it is possible to beat COVID, though it can have its price and potentially overwhelm our social structures if left unchecked. Despite their differences, take away the symbol of the zombie and what you get is our twenty-first boogeyman made manifest: our fear of plague and contagion every bit as frightening as the terror that makes the herd instinct do some incredibly stupid things.
I don’t know if anyone, beyond health professionals and zombie hunters, wears thick and almost cumbersome gear. I am not sure if masks are a part of Max Brooks’ World War Z, or what effect the virus has on fashion and social interaction. Ours is insidious. See, The Walking Dead likes to focus on how “the walking dead” aren’t the undead, but humanity as it struggles with a force greater than itself, trying to wipe it out completely. Who maintains their integrity? Who rises to the occasion in extraordinary times? Or who will resort to foolish actions? Who will be selfish? Who will have incredibly rash and irrational moments that can mean not only the differences between life and death, but between questioning their morality, or losing it completely? Who will admit they were exposed to something that made them sick as they stay in places, with people, that are vulnerable and don’t want to become sick?
The people of World War Z and their responses are different. With solanum, some people have attempted to isolate if they have the infrastructure and the resources to hunker down, or to keep moving and migrating and always being vigilant to whom they spend their time. With COVID-19, it is isolation that is both the greatest boon if you can manage – if you aren’t an essential worker – but a major killer for a herd-based species like us. I can’t even begin to tell you how being separated from my friends and loved ones for two years has affected my health and sanity. And how many relationships of mine ended, in one case terminally.
The thing is, we do our part too. We take the vaccines that now thankfully exist for a year. We put on our masks in this grim Halloween game, something we need to keep doing despite many governments and organizations relaxing those mandates. There is something absolutely soul-killing about seeing people attempting to return to business as usual, to parties and gatherings as though they can’t get sick again, as though they can’t die, as if you are the one that is mentally sick, and perhaps you are: maybe you do need help – and if so, you should seek it out.
Many of us, like the people in World War Z, will never be the same again. Some persevere, now working from home, or having new jobs and mobility they didn’t have before. Others lost everything, and they still have to struggle to get something akin to stability back. Their favourite places no longer exist. Many have larger families. Some have no families at all anymore. There is a story of a shut-in, in his case a self-identified otaku in Japan, who feels a lot like I was before our Pandemic, and I know I couldn’t have improved as much as he had done.
For me, and this is where it is personal again, I struggled to get out of the house before COVID-19 and I was in the process of rebuilding my life before the virus destroyed all of my plans. It is a major event for me to even go to the movies with my brother, or see my small group of friends, or go on a date. There are places I can never go back to. People I won’t see again. And there is so much trauma I haven’t even begun to process yet.
I am a freak. I watched Cronenberg’s Rabid and Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse in the midst of the Pandemic. It is always on my mind. The day I visited my partner in the respiratory ward of a hospital before the virus officially hit, where I had to put gloves and a mask on felt not only like the dress rehearsal of her death and isolating myself from all other people, seeing them from a distance, but the beginning of this grim Halloween harvest that never seems to end.
It reminds me of something in the novel. Actually, it reminds me of two things. At one point, Max Brooks as “Max Brooks” is interviewing a filmmaker who created movies during the Zombie War for morale. And to give you a strange feeling, at one point the filmmaker refers to “Marty,” you know: Scorsese, who also does voice-acting in Brooks’ audio adaptation. Anyway, this movie-maker mentions how “Marty” created a film called Avalon: in which the residents of a college of the same name fight valiantly against the zombie hordes. The version that most people see is the one where the heroes are valiant, brave, and those that die presumably go out tragically, if not with nobility. But then the filmmaker tells “Brooks” that there is a longer version of that film that “Marty” chose not to release during the height of the Pandemic: a cut which shows the worst of humanity, the lows, the despondencies, the vilest and cruelest excesses, and even the despair of the heroes, or protagonists in question. “Marty” wanted to show the best of humanity in the worst crisis of their world, to prevent depression and even suicide rates. It is only after the worst of the Pandemic is over that “Marty” releases the longer cut to show the multifaceted nature of the human condition in the crucible of life versus death itself.
Right now, after several waves and quarantines, I think this is my longer cut of my own observations between COVID-19 and World War Z. At the beginning of the novel, “Max Brooks” is supposed to be working for the UN: to create a report on the event, only for it be greatly paired down for its consumption. It is only after he gets furious over many of his testimonies getting cropped out and his interviews ignored, that his boss tells him that what he should do is something else: that he should write a book.
I think back to Phil Nobile Jr. and Angel Melanson talking about how they believe horror readers, at least of Fangoria, are exhausted by autobiography as opposed to facts and genre details. And maybe where The Horror Doctor, and my writing in general, shines is precisely in looking at those emotional and personal elements. And while I can examine other considerations, perhaps I should do something different with my writing: with my experiments. Because while I can say something about the genre and tropes of World War Z, how it is just as much a world-building serial extension of the ghoul mythos created by George Romero and John Russo as Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, and how the cinematic adaptations of both Brooks and Kirkman do not do them justice, I think it’s important to say something about people – and even horror fans and creators’ minds – during this time.
When you compare World War Z to COVID-19, the novel reads like the past two years of our world accelerated and condensed into something of a four year singularity, or a potential implosion. Brooks’ fictional pandemic lasted from 2004 to 2008, but ours began in 2020 and still continues now in 2022. But our War, our World War C isn’t over yet, but I think that despite this fact, this is a timely article to write. We are all feeling it: the C, for cyclical, nature of this conflict and how literature and horror imitate and even anticipate the timelessness of our struggle, and the stories that we live and leave behind in its wake.
The first time I ever knew about Get Out was at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival. Here I was, sitting with my partner at the time, watching this preview unfold at the theatre about a young Black man named Chris and his white girlfriend Rose going to her parents’: introducing him for the first time.
I recall a part of me inside cringing, knowing that something really bad was going to happen to Chris. This feeling only got worse at the sight of Georgina, the Armitages’ helper, with her Stepford wife smile, and tears slowly trailing down her face. This is complete with Chris being bound to a chair, and the presence of hypnotism, and the whole implication of slavery happening under a polite veneer at the Armitage property. You see, I thought that what was going to occur was that the Armitage family used mesmerism or brainwashing, even torture – physical and mental – to break down minorities, Black people, and get them to serve them in modern day slavery: a racist cult that made their slaves appear to obey them out of freewill. In my mind, I was seeing Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner becoming a horror film version of Twelve Years a Slave. I didn’t know Jordan Peele at this time, or watch any of the work he did, which was comedy. But I knew this film was going to be a big deal.
There has been a lot written about Get Out over the years, including how some people were surprised that white people, or other groups could relate to – and root for – Chris in the circumstances of the film. And while there has also been a lot of social commentary examined, and I absolutely believe that in the hands of anyone other than Peele the whole brain transplant element that skirted like the line between old B film horror, and genuine contemporary appropriation metaphor, might have fallen flat, I think I will lead with how I specifically related to Chris.
It’s, arguably, an intersectional place. There is a lot of baggage, and societal stereotypes around Black identity, and that carries its own resonance. That is not what I am attempting to unpack here, as it’s not my place. But the tension that Chris feels as he is introduced to Rose’s family, whose identity and background is different from his own is something with which I can relate.
I was born into a Conservative Jewish family. That has its own cultural and historical weight when dealing with the rest of the world, and it’s even more impactful when you have interfaith, or interracial relationships. For the most part, when I have discussed this I’ve focused on my family’s perspectives and treatment of me and my partners, as most if not all of my partners haven’t been Jewish in the slightest. But one thing that is ingrained, on some level, from at least my experience is to always be careful of those people that aren’t Jewish: that are non-Jewish, or Gentile. There have been many experiences where Jews were considered allies by Gentiles, or even friends in different nation-states, and groups, only to get turned on later, and either become ostracized, exiled, abused, or even killed. And Jewish history has had its own Biblical and historical encounters with slavery, and genocide.
This is something I was taught by my family, by synagogue, and by Hebrew School: the outside world will accept you to an extent, but it can turn on you quick when things go wrong, or even if you are doing too well, or you are too different, or you are “assimilating too efficiently.” And there are other groups who, historically, have tensions with my ethnicity, and even if they hadn’t been hostile interactions they grew up in cultures that believed in stereotypes, and might even subconsciously project them onto you. Now, for me, I wanted to live my life. I still do. I want to believe in the power of independence, individuality, and knowing where you come from, but not letting it dominate you: or keep you from new experiences, and especially something like love.
But then we get to the other side, which is the strength of the bond you might make with someone who isn’t in your group, and being among their kin: in their territory, away from your own, or even the illusion of an open society. When Chris is invited to the Armitage home it seems friendly enough, but there are the awkward jokes, the looks, the things that aren’t said – especially the things that aren’t said – and sometimes little microaggressions that your partner might not see, or even participate in without consciously knowing.
I can only speak for myself. One girlfriend’s mother sat with us in her car after she drove me home, and told us she knew that despite our different backgrounds, she was all right with us: all the while I knew she would castigate my girlfriend about it behind my back. Her siblings would be friendly to my face, but I always felt a tension there, and words that weren’t said. Her father never talked to me, or rarely did. It felt like there was this quiet, tolerance there. They were Eastern-European and Mediterranean respectively, raised by Eastern Orthodoxy, and they had a Jew in their household – that, granted, they invited – who nevertheless was dating their daughter. I would see the iconography of a culture that sometimes persecuted mine, even if Eastern Orthodoxy had a better relationship with Judaism than Catholicism or Protestantism arguably did. But I never once forgot that Eastern-Europeans did unleash pogroms on my ancestors, and that once in the Old World, a Jewish man being intimate with a woman from those cultures could result in his beating, or death: or worse.
In another situation, I had a partner with Northern European background, and their ties to Protestantism. And while they were nothing but friendly to me, we travelled there – the two of us – to see them deep in the North. I found myself in an old house, generations owned, not unlike that of the Armitages but without the forest or the deer as far as I knew. And that isolation, even though I met them before in my region, made me nervous: to be a household that wasn’t mine, alien but not, and I can remember Chris’s apprehension even as I can consider what I felt watching the city recede to the wilderness of the North, and away from what I knew.
There is this idea of xenos: of guest-friendship. It is the idea that the stranger, or the outsider should be honoured and treated as one of your own. At the same time, there is xenophobia, which is the fear of the outsider, that can often lead to misunderstandings, and hatred. There is a barrier where it is all right to be friends with someone different, but anything beyond that can be difficult, and go bad. This is a lot of baggage. But you can see, looking at Chris at the Armitage residence, feeling his immense discomfort, and his sensitivity towards those gestures – even second-guessing himself and feeling bad that he;s feeling those emotions, wondering if he’s projecting them at times due the gaslighting of the family in this case – why I can relate.
When I finally did get to watching it, I saw there were differences between my preconceptions of the film, and what I saw. Brainwashing and mesmerism were elements, but there is also the weird science of that brain transplant, the attraction of Chris as a commodity which is an extension fo the objectification of slavery in America. I never trusted Rose, not even from the previews, and sure enough I was right. She had a very Delilah resonance about her, and I knew she was going to betray him: that she was luring him to her family to be abused, and used for some malicious purpose.
The fear of the outsider, and the Other is strong, and it can condition you if that is the culture – or a culture – in which you have been raised. Is that household kind and simply ignorant, or are you projecting? Or under that veneer of politeness and hospitality is there a genuine resentment, or hatred of you simply because of where you come from? Are you the friendly stranger to become potential family and are there expectations of you to bring something to the table as if you are a resource, or are you to be the Other sacrificed to maintain, or even increase the power of the group that despises you, or sees you only as that object with which they want to exploit, or be rid? Are you being treated by a host, or a potential enemy? Are you a guest or an outsider? These are ancient, human questions, and instincts. I’m glad I saw Get Out. And, looking back at this writing, and my attempt to explain how I relate to Chris and the soul of the film, it makes me wonder if I succeeded, or just projected my own experience in lieu of that understanding. It’s funny now, when I think about this film and how important it is, or could become. I think about how people equate the Jewish experience with whether or not someone has watched Schlinder’s List. And I wonder if, just like Dean Armitage and his vow that he would “vote for Obama a third time” if he could, if one day someone will claim to even begin to understand Black experiences and trauma because they watched films such as Roots, or Get Out itself?
Whatever the case, I wasn’t ever threatened or hurt. I definitely didn’t have someone wanting to use my body, or a cultural history of chattel slavery with which to contend. But the feeling of being isolated, being a stranger in a strange land and not knowing where I stood, but historically having negative cultural experiences howl at me from beyond the void of time, making me question if what I was feeling was valid, but ultimately wanting to at least leave the discomfort and tension of the situation is something that I think is a human experience. And I think, at least once in our lives, especially from lived minority experiences, we’ve all felt the need to run, to get away from the stereotypes and perceived notions of others, to find our sense of people, of family again: or sense of self.
I was in Thornhill Secondary School, going through the great variety of fantasy and science-fiction books there.
I must have been in the horror section again. Up until that point, I’d read Christopher Pike and R.L. Stine books primarily. To this day, I’m not sure what actually did it. Maybe it was Buffy The Vampire Slayer becoming a formative part of my youth, and creative mind. It could have been my friend who was making her own vampire stories. And I’d heard of Interview With the Vampire as a film that girls loved.
And so, that afternoon, at my high school library I borrowed a copy of Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire: card catalogue, and stamp, and all. I read it everywhere: at home, at my friends’ and even at the synagogue services I was forced to attend. It’s been years since that time, but I can tell you that my brain expanded reading that book. I saw the baroque writing, the lush descriptions, the sensuality that my younger mind was not prepared to process along with the homoerotic subtexts, and … the world-building. The world-building hit me like a fuckton of blood bags. It was one thing to discover what another child vampire like the Anointed One from Buffy but with far more personality like Claudia could do, and the idea that vampires weren’t affected in the slightest by holy symbols, or places, or even stakes of wood. It had no human hunters. No slayers. No Van Helsing groups.
It was just vampires. Vampires attacking other vampires, loving other vampires, trying to find out about themselves, trying to reconcile their predatory natures with their former selves, and their emotions. It was a vampire telling a human journalist a story about his miserable eternity, even if – as we find out later – it wasn’t the entire story, or even the complete mood of Louis. We find out about Revenants: of beings that were not given blood quite right, or in the precise amounts to make them anything other than beasts. Before The Vampire Lestat, and Queen of the Damned, it was more than possible – at least to Louis and Claudia – that these were some of the first, more primitive vampires who prey on even other vampires. We got more description of how organized vampires are in Europe, compared to the New World: with covens and covenants, and their need to constantly reinvent themselves when they exist for too long. There was a period of time when ancients existed, but most of them were killed by younger vampires that rebelled against them, and only a few survived.
Interview With the Vampire is where I learned that vampires weren’t just soulless beings but remembered every part of their existence, and some didn’t acclimate to their new inhuman state well and either went insane, or mindless. Many would commit suicide. I learned they all had different powers depending on who their sires, or progenitors were, and some were better suited to their vampiric nature than others. There is a moment where you see Louis, who up until this point, had basically been acting like a human with supernatural abilities realizing that he isn’t a mortal anymore and fully embracing his reflexes, and instincts – his nature – which costs another obnoxious vampire his existence. And of course, older vampires are more powerful than the young, but they can increase their power by feeding off of even older vampires. Telepathy, telekinesis, inhuman speed, incredible strength – these were some of their powers, and we see how these beings have been venerated as gods by humanity, and demonized later on, and made into myths even later than that.
I made it from Interview to The Vampire Lestat, where we find out Lestat isn’t just some inhuman dandy serial killer monster, and has faced far worse than Louis and Claudia could ever dream: and tried to protect them from it. The fact that he had male lovers, and brought across – or turned – his own mother was strange to me, but Anne Rice showed me a world where other rules applied to other beings, and it got me thinking.
If White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade, Clan Brujah was inspired by Lost Boys, and Clan Nosferatu by the film of the same name, then Clan Toreador are definitely descended literarily from Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles: beautiful, swift, psychically gifted artists, poseurs, and obsessive beings whose morality is different from the humans that they hunt. Perhaps that’s why I gravitated towards that faction when I really studied that game lore. I was also fascinated with Lestat’s creator Magnus, who was a wizard that stole immortality from captured vampires, and experimented with various younger victims before settling on Lestat before killing himself. That obsession with experiments, and perfection, and making something better as horrifying as it was, really got to me – as did Anne Rice’s writing.
And I hadn’t even watched the film until after reading those two books. It led to a good time with my girlfriend, though I almost didn’t want to interrupt the movie in my living room as it was so good. And the film adaptation of Queen of the Damned, starring Aaliyah as Akasha the Queen and Mother of all Vampires, was the first film I saw with my girlfriend and my friends after my parents revealed – and grudgingly accepted – they knew she was my girlfriend. I remember her and I holding hands as we watched Queen of the Damned unfold on the screen, complete with that bloody bathtub of roses scene, and all.
I went on to make my other vampiric mythos: with a Chalice of the Damned that had blood that was supposed to offer immortality to the wizards that created it, but whose magically generated blood only made monstrosities, and then blood-dependent vampires. I made a vampire magus who figured out how to remove his own heart, and became almost impossible to kill before I even knew about Koschei the Deathless. But none of this would have been possible without Anne Rice, and her work.
I think about it now, that she’s passed on: how Interview With the Vampire was that perfect combination of history, mythology, folklore, sex, sensuality, and epistolary fiction: that interview format that was essentially a dictated journal, or an autobiography of an immortal. And I think far before Frankenstein, and Dracula, this is the format that informed my writing interests to this very day.
Over the years, I’d heard about Anne Rice and her personal views, as well as her other works, but I would never get over her vampires. I personally loved Marius: who was level-headed, an artist, and had started to master his advanced vampiric abilities. He was an ancient Roman that revelled in the Renaissance. But I think I related the most to Louis, to a nature of melancholy and bitterness that nevertheless hid a spark of true, and aggressive, potential. Perhaps these days, in some ways, I can more see the Lestat in my creative endeavours, but I think I will always try to endeavour to be a balanced and powerful creator like Marius.
And as I wrap up this commemorative retrospective, I truly hope that wherever you are now Anne Rice, that you know you were a true Queen of the Damned. Thank you for making me more interested in vampires beyond being blood-drinking monsters. May Lestat brat you into the Afterlife. May this Interview never end.
I bought the Director’s Cut of Clive Barker’s Nightbreed in the latter days of Suspect Video’s existence: a unique Toronto movie store, and cultural landmark.
You know, to this very day, I don’t know why I bought it. It wasn’t the discount, at least not completely. It wasn’t even because it had been directed by Clive Barker. As it was, I’d only read Barker’s Books of Blood, and I am almost ashamed to say that I’d not watched any of his mainline films: not Hellraiser, nor even something based on his work like Candyman. Seriously, I’d only watched The Midnight Meat Train, and Dread.
But I bought Nightbreed, long after I read about a contest in which fans of that world were to write stories set in Midian. And I had no idea what any of it was about. All I can remember, like a half-unmade dream, is that the title, and the premise of a community of monsters against humanity stood out at me. Or maybe this is only what I remember in retrospect. I know that there were a few cuts of this film, and that its initial release had been compromised by many studio decisions, and that “Occupy Midian” was all about restoring Barker’s original vision of the film to its audience.
I’m not going to talk about that, except for the fact that I am glad I got this DIrector’s Cut, and watched only this version. What I will tell you is that it was only far after I watched the first Hellraiser, and before Candyman, during the height of the 2020 Quarantine that I opened up my copy of Nightbreed, put it in my portable DVD player, and saw it in its infinitely dark and glittering world-building glory.
I saw a protagonist suffering mental trauma, never really quite finding his place in the world, and getting gaslit by someone he trusted, and then slowly realizing after running from the woman he loves that his delusions about a city of monsters free in the night, hiding underground, were all true. Madmen became his allies, and his brothers. Humans reveal themselves to be the ignorant monstrosities they really are. And the monsters that the main character always feared kinship with, yet secretly yearned to be a part, were complex, beautiful, terrifying, and so very vital and alive. And there were so many different creature designs, and mysteries, and a story that felt like both an ending, and the beginning to another. I think what really got me was that throughout all of it, as the protagonist progressed, it wasn’t all about him, even as he navigated his way between two worlds the woman he thought he had to leave never abandoned him. Not once.
And I watched this film all the way from the late insomniac night to the wee hours of the sunlit summer morning during a time of earthly purgatory. Yet, somewhere, I knew the monsters — the Nightbreed — were still dancing their labyrinthine, Dionysian dances of which no mortal could ever truly be a part.
Monsters. Creatures. Outcasts. Dreamers. Beings of the night. All of them live in the city of Midian. Just think about it for a few moments. This film was released, such as it was, in 1990 and had antecedent in the late 80s. This was a movie about monsters where humans invade them, where the greatest murderer is a man, and the man who becomes one of the Breed is the hero: or at least, an exemplar of sympathetic beings that just want to maintain, and then be reunited with their home. During a time when markets were inundated with generations of films about evil monstrosities, things not human, things being different as threats to the humans that eventually destroy them — or are destroyed by them — I can see why executives couldn’t deal with that concept: even if they had read Barker’s 1988 novella Cabal from which it was based.
I’ve read Cabal recently. And it read like an expanded story from The Books of Blood, all tight third person limited thoughts, otherworldly descriptions of monstrosity, sex, fear, and desire, and the petty parts of people warring with the melodrama, and the messy, hopeful life inside of them to show what they really are. I recognized Boone in this story, and his girlfriend Lori, and the tormented Narcisse, and the sadism of Decker. Certainly, the perspective on Decker himself — the psychologist who is both Boone’s gaslighter, and a secret serial killer with his “murder-hard” — was disturbing, and fascinating in turns. And it was particularly intriguing to see the psychic link that the young Nightbreed Babette made with Lori, and what they shared together.
But honestly? I prefer the film version of this story: Nightbreed itself. Much of the plot is the same between both novella, and film. But there are differences. Lori has many more doubts about reality in the novella and has a distinct and instinctual revulsion of the Breed that she encounters when looking for Boone. We never see the strangely alluring spined beauty that is Shuna Sassi which we are introduced to in the beginning of the film. Rachel is more reticent and distant from Boone and Lori, even when the latter had saved her daughter Babette from being killed by sunlight. The priest Ashbury, who is a crossdresser blackmailed by the small-town Albertan police captain Eigerman, isn’t rendered into a mutilated, maddened torso by the scattering of Midian’s god Baphomet, but becomes a twisted version of Cecil B. DeMille’s Moses: killing the bigoted police officer to pursue his obsession on the Breed. Eigerman doesn’t survive to get petty revenge. In the novella, we see that Midian is a ghost town, but that the real Midian is established under the town’s cemetery, and Boone is first shot down in an abandoned house by Decker, getting the police to follow suit instead of claiming Boone is going to shoot him in the woods.
We see the brutality of human systems in the film, and their joy in it. Boone is brutalized by the police after they capture him when Decker frames him for another serial killing. And for a small Canadian town, we see that the police have a large armoury of weapons that would make some soldiers in the military envious when Decker mobilizes them to exterminate the people of Midian. This fervour reminds me so much of Barker’s “Skins of the Fathers,” it hurts. And we see that this isn’t the first time. Indeed, in the film Rachel telepathically shows Lori the systematic genocide of the Nightbreed over the millennia by various human holy crusades that couldn’t bear their physical differences, and practices. It is graphic and upsetting, especially when you see how humanized they are, when you look at the Breed living their lives in the catacombs of Midian. It is the moment where you see the mural on the wall showing their history, and their underground markets, and rendez-vous that you realize what is at stake with this coming purge.
And, like in the novella, Boone decides to save Lori’s life over the vows he made to keep Midian a secret: and it not only costs him the home he long sought, but even that place and people’s safety. However, when he returns and accepts what he is, and what he has done — like a more active Robert Olmstead trying to save the people of Innsmouth — he helps create a defense for his people. He even encourages Lylesburg to release the Berserkers: terrifying Breed not in the novella that are contained by their fellows because of their violence, just to allow women and children a chance to escape.
But what gets me is that Boone isn’t alone. Lori never leaves him, and indeed goes back to save him from the jail, but unlike the novella it isn’t just Narcisse who aids her but both Rachel and Babette. There is this sense of comradery, this bond going deeper than a predatory bite turned into a supernatural rebirth, or baptism by the blood of a sundered, burning god. You see a disparate people, rejected by the world, or at least misunderstood by it, coming together to free one of their own: an outsider from even other outsiders, and they all return to where they belong: for as long as they have it. Narcisse’s death, after he sought Midian for so long and gained such power, to be killed by a psychopath like Decker is still heartbreaking, and there is something fearsome in Decker — in the film — having searched for Midian through the delusions of his other patients, just so the human monster can kill all other monsters that aren’t human. He is a counterpoint to Boone, especially in how he massacres families of both species, and I am for one glad that in the Director’s Cut Boone kills him for good. The tormented Boone dies with Decker, and after he encounters Baphomet one more time — with Lylesburg unfortunately dying in the film — he is re-baptized Cabal: to work towards gaining his people a new home that he lost them … no matter how long it takes. And meanwhile, Ashberry is a throwback to that terrifying Moses — chosen or marked by a deity beyond his understanding — to destroy these beings as so many so-called holy men had tried before: and all for a purpose beyond his understanding, and those of our own.
At the end of the film, we see the Breed did escape — though many also died — and they dwell in a farm. And the mural that we saw at the beginning shows both Cabal and Lori as Breed who will lead their people to a new home.
When I think back to Nightbreed now, it reminds me of an older story I read years back. In Ray Bradbury’s “Homecoming,” we see a young boy named Timothy who is raised by the Elliotts — a family of ghosts and monsters — attending an All Hallow’s Eve family reunion. He keeps hoping that his powers will manifest, or he will start drinking blood but he never does. He ends up realizing that one day, he will grow old and die like an ordinary human by his monster family, and it breaks his heart. Yet the poetry of it is that this story is part of a larger one where the Elliotts themselves begin to decline as humans stop believing in them, as their homes are obliterated and appropriated, and Timothy — the human among them — helps them survive by carrying their stories onward: even recording them for the new world. I wonder, now, if Cliver Barker read Bradbury’s story at one point as it has a few beats with itL but while Timothy never becomes a monster, he is part of that family that took him in, just as Boone for all of his mistakes, becomes Nightbreed as more than merely being an outcast, or vampiric: but in continuing to wander, and help his family search for home.
There are a few subtexts here. It is no coincidence that Barker created this film in the 1990s given many LGBTQ+ events such as the AIDS activism, and anti-homophobia marches occurring for a vibrant people and subculture trying to survive a world that wanted them dead or buried. Also, the intersectional addition of Hugh Quarshie as Detective Joyce as a Black officer who sees the atrocities of the police on the people of Midian is no accident either: as you can see the evil of what happens when one diverse or historically discriminated group is silent the poor treatment of another. At the same time, I can see how many queer-adjacent spaces of kink, and polyamory, and geekery and — yes — horror fandom can relate to this film. We that glorify in watching blood, and sex but also justice, and the search for a new home, and even as we sometimes hurt and reject each other too, those that remain and remember what’s important will bust each other out of the jail cells of our personal despair, will band together, and celebrate what we love in macabre and beautiful dances in the night. It means a lot, to think of those late night revelries — dancing spirits — finding where you belong all the way past the twilight.
And some of these things are why Nightbreed is important. Many of them are why Nightbreed is important to me.
I said it a year ago, on the first Halloween of The Horror Doctor, that this is the time when the veil between worlds is thinnest. It’s a time of costumes, candy, and contemplation.
A year ago, it was the first Halloween everyone spent in Quarantine from the grim harvest that was COVID-19, before we had a vaccine. It was also the first Halloween without my partner Kaarina Wilson: an avid horror lover.
So I wanted to enjoy my Halloween twofold, for the two of us, since she wasn’t here anymore to celebrate with me, or her family, or on her own. So I decided that from September to October would be a Grand Halloween, and I would do my damnedest to enjoy it all before I’d have to deal with a reality that I’d rather not.
And I did well. I went to my friends’ virtual horror viewings. I attended some Lost Drive-In Watchalongs, and even interacted with Joe Bob and Darcy, and the fine folks that also love them. And I watched as many of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, having returned and being all online this year, that I possibly could.
So I’m not sure what this was going to be, this latest October 31st post, before the events of a week or so again, when my grandmother passed away.
My grandmother and I used to talk a lot. We were close. I was a demanding child, somehow to counterbalance the extreme introversion and shyness. I had her make me things all the time, when she could, and I was exacting. I wish I could tell you what I had her make for me, but it’s all lost to time now.
During that time between my childhood and adolescence, I was a nervous being. In retrospect, a lot of my maladies were probably the result of anxiety. And my grandmother played cards with me, we watched television — usually Early Edition, or Keeping Up Appearances, or Are You Being Served? — to calm down.
But then, she also read to me. A lot of the time it was from books she already had like Little House on the Prairie, but sometimes I wanted her to make stories. To create them. I was fascinated, and scared, by horror. My parents wouldn’t let me watch 1980s or 90s horror, so I wanted as much of the classical stories as I could get away with. Now, my grandmother was many things, but she didn’t make stories. But she did retell them. I remember being in the basement of a house that saw at least four generations of my family on my Mom’s side, a dim place with crackled red and white checkered tiles with a bar that never saw much use anymore, and a fireplace that did. I recall, like my horror, being fascinated and terrified by that fire place. We would put in wood, but mostly white paper birch that we used to write on from a tree in the front yard, to burn. I’d stay away from that old grate as it would barely contain the crackling embers that spit out, as my grandmother would nudge it with a poker, as she would tell me about the heart buried under the floorboards, and the man that put it there: haunted by his crime of murder: committing it, and hiding it from everyone except himself.
It didn’t take long to realize that she was retelling Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and possibly conflating it with “The Cask of Amontillado,” but it did the trick, and it made me want more. And to do more.
I made all kinds of weird clay creatures from Magic Model plasticine and Play-Do in that house that she displayed for a while. I would create men out of Silly Putty, give them Lego armour, make vehicles, and crash them down the long stairs into the basement into a million pieces just to reassemble it all, and do it again, and again. And again. I am pretty sure she knew I did it too, but let that slide as I had some aggression to work out, those dual forces of creation and destruction that are so intrinsically part of my character.
There were always woods where she and my grandfather lived, in her own parents’ house. I was always exploring, and contemplating the many ghosts that could be in the area from my late relatives alone. It was a bubble of time that also managed to make me very aware of it having passed.
Sometimes, my grandmother let us get away with some things. For instance, while my parents didn’t want my brother and I to watch horror films, she would rent us movies, and some of them fell under that umbrella. I am pretty sure we watched Anaconda and Mimic under her watch while my parents were busy dealing with adult matters. And this isn’t even going into when we could get away with staying up a little later. I recall one time, at night, when there was a TVO horror movie with a woman affected by a love potion by a man, who dies, and her ghost haunts him still from the obsession he gave her. It was probably the first time I’d seen a simulated sex scene in a horror movie. There were many other times as well, and this didn’t even include when I could sneak snippets of Tales From the Crypt on Fox 29 when we were over for Passover Seders.
Things were not always easy between us, especially as I got older. I was questioning a lot of my parents’ beliefs, and therefore those of the family. My grandmother was noted as being a peacemaker, but sometimes what that meant was that she would strongly advise something “for the good of the family,” even if you didn’t like it. Even if, sometimes, it was kind of tone-deaf. She couldn’t help it. It was probably socialized into her, her whole life, being a matriarchal force in a patriarchal family and culture. She would always side with my parents when I just wanted more freedom, and less structure, and her spoiling only went so far.
Poetically enough, it all came to a head one summer when she blamed my first girlfriend for my rebellious behaviour. It should be mentioned that my first girlfriend wasn’t Jewish, but that I was rebelling far before I met her. She literally took me aside, and chewed me out over it, and essentially told me to tow the line. Never mind the fact that I’d missed spending more time with my friends at this time in my adolescence, at one point being dragged out before I could finish watching Fright Night with them, or not going on cottage trips despite my good grades, and academic behaviour. It was an unfairness that struck me, and those phone calls I used to make to her talking about new ideas, and my days, stopped. I didn’t feel like she was on my side, which I needed her to be — just once — but in a choice between me and my parents, it was kind of inevitable where that decision would land. As it was, it drove me further into my own rebellion, and alienated me a great deal. Years later, I would talk about this incident in Pornsak Pichetshote, José Villarrubia, Aaron Campbell, and Jeff Powell’s horror comic Infidel: which was funny, as my own father once called me a heathen, so there in a symmetry in the miniseries published two of my letters. Infidel is a comic about differences, and how in attempting to overcome them, sometimes they tear us apart. Sometimes, as Stephen King notes, the monster wins.
I know I didn’t win, then. And this was a powerful experience from my grandmother that I carried with me for the rest of my life, for good or ill. Sometimes the people you love, that might even have good intentions, make mistakes. Sometimes, they simply come from a different place, and they will not see your perspective.
Sometimes, they will fail.
Our relationship was changed. I buried my part of it in the floorboards when I could. I moved as far away from it as I could, which I began to do with other relationships that failed as well.
Of course, she was always there. She would be invited over to my parents’ and I made token appearances: and made them as brief as possible. I drew her birthday cards. And when COVID-19 hit, I wrote her letters: especially when she sent me birthday money, which she always did without fail. Eventually, over time, what was anger became just awkwardness, and distance, a gap of age and time. I knew she was never going to change who she was, and I wasn’t going to do so either. I didn’t go to many family functions. I still don’t as they aren’t really places for me anymore, unless I have the will and the lack of anxiety to do so.
When she was sick, it’d not been the first time. I guess a part of me, just like with Kaarina, thought or hoped that she would pull through. Despite our differences, I still loved her. She was stubborn, you have to understand. So am I.
So, one day, I was told she didn’t have enough time. And, despite missing Kaarina’s passing and others, I made my way with my Dad to the house. It’s hard to see someone you saw so independent and strong, and stubborn, even when you disagreed with them, even when you remember all the times you spent with them, tired and worn away. She wasn’t speaking anymore. It was like she was in between dreaming states on that easy chair in the Den. The following morning, she passed.
It was as though the darkness in the halls of that house I always walked through consumed the dimming light, and it grew throughout the entirety of the week of the services and the funeral. And I realized, with her being gone, that all of it was gone: the childhood, the house that was a part of my reality — even on the fringes — the anger, the disappointment, her distinctive chuckle, and all of it. She loved mystery novels, she always read them and got them from my Mom, and I can see how Poe came to her mind all those years ago when she retold those stories to me.
And I suppose the mystery is how it all came to this point, which is life, and the horror of realizing one day I would be lying down like that in my own home surrounded by people that knew me: if I was lucky. If I am lucky.
Reality sucks. I wanted to stave it off for just one more month, but these Twenties evidently want to suck as much as their twentieth century counterparts. And I have been angry, hurt, sad, and terribly tired.
But this is something I have to write, something real, as autumn becomes fall, and Hallow’s Eve passes to the Morning. It was my grandmother’s house and the land that helped nurture the horror inside of me. It was those stories that made me want to know more, in addition to the remnants of old pulp comics she kept, and books that were collected. It was the little moments of grace where I got to see, and gained things I probably shouldn’t have but she let it pass.
So maybe I did bury that old part of me. But perhaps, through seeing what was important at the end, I don’t have to have it drive me mad. I don’t have to have it beat through my conscience for the rest of my life. I got to see her again, for at least one last time.
Rest in peace, Bubby Rose. You were almost a century old, and you saw wonders and horrors I can’t even begin to imagine. I am going to a Halloween Party with friends today as of this writing: where we will participate in a roleplay game as monsters attacking some heroic antagonists coming into our Dungeon. Maybe it’s not what the family might be interested in, and I know you would have hated even the idea of me hurting simulated lives, but it interests me, and I intend to have as much fun for as long as I can.
A funny thing though, before I end this post. When we used to eat at her house more often on weekends, when I stayed up late I would sometimes see some other television shows. And on a channel called TNT, far after Dinner and a Movie earlier that evening there was a strange man in a cowboy hat sitting on a lawn chair that was always hitting on a red-head that viciously never gave him the time of day. I never understood the point to all that, or the weird movies that played … But I do now. It was great meeting you that first time, Joe Bob. And thank you again, Bubby, for that little indulgence.
Next time, on The Horror Doctor, I think we will talk about something else. Something else to do with family.
Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 5: Time Out/The Things in Oakwood’s Past
To be honest with you, I wasn’t sure if I was going to write this Commentary this early morning during my nocturnal hours. I finished most of the films of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, even as my grandmother was fading from almost a century on this Earth. Frankly, I just didn’t know if I had time.
If there is one thing this episode of Creepshow has in common it is literally the theme of time. Remember when I left off my last entry wondering what surprises this show would have for us next week? Well, they weren’t exactly surprises. When you study a literary or cinematic trope for a while you identify beats and patterns. You can generally see where the story is going when you are practiced enough, or you’ve seen a fair bit.
It’s like knowing people are born, they live, and they die: just as you have, you are, and you will — or that there are cycles to events that will always come around again. Sometimes you might forget the particulars, or lose yourself in the moments — and those are the places and situations that stand out from what is otherwise a predictable existential framework.
“Time Out” is a story written by Barrington Smith, and Paul Seetachitt, and directed by Jeffrey F. January. A young man named Tim gains an inheritance from his grandmother Catherine, who recently passed away. I can’t begin to tell you how that hits close to home due to the fact that as of this writing two or three days ago my grandmother also passed. But unlike The Complete Works of Shakespeare that I was given, Tim gets a wardrobe that his grandfather — a World War II veteran who also apparently had a monkey’s paw (and thank fuck it wasn’t going to be a repeat of that episode, or the story from which it was derived) — got in Germany. Tim had also been at his funeral when the segment starts, and his grandmother warns him away from the wardrobe before he can go in there with the key he discovers in the drawer.
That wardrobe is no gateway to Narnia, however, and the key is no Silver Key back to some halcyon childhood, or dreams, or other planes of existence. Instead it contains a pocket of time outside of the main flow of linear time. And Tim takes advantage of it. He does much of his academic and legal work, spending hours in that wardrobe getting it all done just come out without even a second of external time passing. I’m not going to lie: as a writer, and creator I would have abused the hell out of this artifact. Imagine how many works I could create in there: though whether or not I’d be able to get a wifi signal based on the different flows of time is a whole other matter.
No, the wardrobe has two drawbacks: the first is that time does pass for you, and you will age more quickly. The second is that you must keep that key on you. Otherwise, the doors automatically close, and they will not open.
Tim is a man that wants to make up for the lost time of his father who died prematurely in a car accident before he could finish law school, or spend time with him. The poetic cruelty is that while he accomplishes tremendous amounts of work in shorter periods of time — relatively speaking — he accelerates his own physical decline, and doesn’t spend time with the family he’s making. The man even has a mini-stroke at a younger age: with the doctor going as far as to say he has the health of a man ten years older than he should be.
It’s the same challenges someone would have in a high-pressure job, and having a family: in the workload always being on you, and the people you love wanting to spend time with you whether you are in your own mind a success, or not. But as Tim’s grandmother Catherine puts it, “you can’t cheat time.”
Tim almost backs off. He almost listens to his wife in saying that she doesn’t care about his position, but that she just wants him to be with her and his son. He should have listened, right? But Creepshow is about more than retribution, but also morality tales. In the end, he goes into the wardrobe one last time, and his key falls out of his pocket: outside. We already saw what happened to the cat at the beginning of the segment, and poor Kitty didn’t make it to Ulthar. And what makes it worse is after Tim turns into dust, his son goes into the closet — too — and the door shuts. That is how the story ends.
Tim’s grandfather had done the same thing. His father died in a car crash. And both Tim and, presumably, his son will follow them. There is always just that one more thing, you know? That one more task. Then you can rest, right? Then you can replenish yourself, or heal. But it’s always that one more thing, that becomes many more, and even when you see it coming the pressure, and the expectations on yourself keep accumulating … until it is inevitable. Until it’s too late.
This story hit me hard, and it would have done so even before the events of this week as I write this Commentary. Even now, I’m writing this extremely late when I should be sleeping, when I’m mindful of the habits that I kept when I was younger not necessarily serving me now that I am getting older. Imagine if Tim had pre-existing medical conditions, and he used that wardrobe. It’s grim, either way you look at it. But damn, did that story deliver. Damn, did I want Tim to make other choices.
And sometimes, as I said earlier, you don’t see it coming: though there is this nagging feeling that you should. History repeats itself, or at least human arrogance dooms us to a cycle of events. In “The Things in Oakwood’s Past” we find ourselves in a glorious animated feature as directed by Enol and Luis Junquera, written by Daniel Kraus and Greg Nicotero, and directed by Nictero and Dave Newberg. Unholy hell a lot of work went into this production. And Mark Hamill is a voice actor in it too: playing Oakwood’s self-serving Mayor Wrightson.
The story begins in a news segment obliquely referencing a Carpenter Arctic Expedition Collection: a reference to John Carpenter’s classic 1982 horror film The Thing, and perhaps even Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness.
But then we have the actual story. Two hundred years ago, the people of Oakwood disappeared and left that mystery behind them. Now Marnie, the town librarian, found the journal entries of the previous librarian even as the town has discovered a time capsule in the form of a chest that doesn’t look ominous at all.
Apparently, the cycle of disappearances is older than merely 1821. They occurred in 1621, and even 1421 with the Mi’kmaq First Nation. Marnie discovers all of this in the journals, and the realization that the people weren’t killed by plague or war, but by a demonic monstrosity that slaughtered them. And, fairly soon, this iteration of Oakwood will be having its two hundredth anniversary. Marnie wants to stop this from happening, and according to the journal, the original townsfolk believed that the key to preventing their destruction is in the capsule: which, conveniently, has the date “1821” on it. It is also found under a particularly friendly tree that has the same markings in the journal and chest of not a Jack-o-lantern from hell. She and Mac, the news reporter interviewing her, have a great and wholesome attraction as they seek to solve this mystery: especially after the terrifying slides of villagers being massacred and flayed alive.
But Marnie’s father, the Mayor, has them stopped and they can’t open the box prematurely. You can already see where this is going, of course. It turns out, the chest contains the evil that they desperately seek to stop. It’s Pandora all over again. An added twist to it is that the historian Marnie is reading lies about the chest containing the salvation of the town: that an elder killed his daughter, and was then exonerated, and he told the people about the chest to make them open it, and slaughter everyone.
The monsters are grotesque and Lovecraftian. I thought there would only be one, but Hell is generous. We watch as the Oakwood people of 2021 are flayed open, cut in half, amputated, and murdered. Marnie barely escapes, with her father charging the sheriff in getting her — barely — out of town. A demon has a camera strapped to it as they all return into the chest, probably to wait another two hundred years. Why they do this, I don’t know: and it almost doesn’t matter. Demons always have rules, which I’m sure they hate but they will do whatever they can in the meantime within them to get their full of flesh and blood. No one else survives.
It’s sad as you see that these people had lives, and even the historian from two hundred years ago had his very human reasons to make that lie. We see what hell looks like as the demons not only don’t care, but they revel in showing it to viewers. The newspeople attempt to shrug it off and mention something about Rider’s Lake, and I don’t know if that is a reference to anything else. No one really learned a thing about history. The story will live on. It will continue on.
Creepshow outdid itself with this episode. Time comes for everyone involved. And seriously? If this were the last episode of the season, I would be all right with that given its strengths in making us relate to the characters, have empathy for them, dealing with the consequences of hubris and greed, and also telling some good stories, and creating even better art all around. But there is another episode, and I have to say: this one will be harder to live up to … or die for.