A Good Show Bears Repeating: Joe Bob Briggs’ The Last Drive-In

The Last Drive-In came to Shudder back in 2018 as what was going to be a single twenty-hour movie marathon of weird, bloody, boob-filled, glorious, ridiculous films. It had been so popular that fans, encouraged to log on if they wanted to see more, and keep the showing going, pretty much — from what I understood — broke the Internet, or at least Shudder during that period.

I was in a different place in 2018. I’d recently gone through a breakup two months before, and I was just trying to find my way back to something: to some place where I would could feel a sense of solidarity and home again after losing that particular feeling of equilibrium. I’d known about Joe Bob Briggs, particularly his MonsterVision, through James Rolfe’s segments on MonsterVision itself, and his interview with Joe Bob. I also found out about The Last Drive-In, and I’d gained a Shudder account before then based on my love of horror being constantly supported by my time at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival.

There were a few differences then. In addition to my personal journey and struggles, I was still very much in a Netflix frame of mind. You know the one: where you hear about an interesting program, or a series and just wait for it to come out so that you binge the entire blood sucker that night, or for a few moons afterwards: to tide you over until the next ghoulish feast.

And then in 2019, after some specials — including one Halloween series one where I actually interacted more with Diana Prince, who had been responsible for me finding out about The Last Drive-In altogether on Twitter — the The Last Drive-In had its first season. By this point, I was going out again, meeting new people and making new relationships — or meeting new relationships and making new people as the case may be — and I wasn’t spending as much time at home anymore. Before 2019, I’d mostly stayed indoors as a borderline hermit, with the occasional trip to downtown Toronto or a Greyhound bus to the States, but by 2019 I was downtown a great deal more. One of the consequences of this was that my writing output, which had been considerable, fell by the way side. I used to write for GeekPr0n and cover the After Dark: writing smaller reviews as I went on. Those reviews of weird and odd independent films never left my mind, and while I grew to just enjoy watching the movies, and not having to apply my dissective brain to all of them, something felt missing.

I needed a place to put my thoughts about all those films, even when I attempted to ignore that impulse. At first, I would write some things on my Mythic Bios, but they just remained in my head. Waiting. Waiting for something.

And I thought one of the things I was waiting for was for Season One of The Last Drive-In to be all gathered in one place, and I could binge it at my leisure on Shudder. I hesitate in committing to something. When I commit to something, I put a lot of energy these endeavours until I either run out of that energy, or I just keep going with it. It can take a toll, to set aside that time and effort, to find that space. It also doesn’t help that I have anxiety, and when I don’t get something done, or I need to do something — or set myself to do something a certain way — it can affect me adversely. So I waited on it.

I waited, basically, until Doomsday. I’ve gone into it in previous Blog entries in various permutations as the mad science of grieving allows. The Pandemic happened. One of my partners died, My pet died. Some of my long-time relationships ended. It all went I-t’s Up, if you know what I mean and I think you do. These were things that defined my personality: my sense of self. And there were all gone. What’s more,, like many other people, I lost the ability to go outside as we were — and still are as of this writing — all in Quarantine. I discovered things during this time: finding truths about people and places that I really hadn’t wanted to know,. but also making new connections where I didn’t consider them before.

Twitter is a magical place, like Tahiti. But Agents of SHIELD references aside, I’d Tweeted before back in my GeekPr0n and comics scholar Sequart days. It is addicting to have your words shared and out there, and potentially made concise and clear: as cutting as a scalpel, but also fascinating tissues from the recesses of your mind.

I’m not sure when I found out, or when I realized the truth about Joe Bob Briggs’ The Last Drive-In on Shudder. I loved seeing the Halloween episode on Shudder TV, a nice glimpse into communal viewing again like we did in the old Cable TV days. And Tweeting along, then, while posing my Michael Myers theory about his supernatural abilities was fun. But I didn’t know how much I wanted to commit.

But I found out that many of the old episodes, with Joe Bob’s commentaries as commercial segments –as he apparently would also do in his Drive-In Theater show before MonsterVision — were deleted off of Shudder: both due to jurisdictional reasons, and those of copyright as Shudder (and AMC that owns it) eventually loses the rights to show some of those films.. Those shows I kept waiting to watch were, for the most part, gone and I realized that this had been — and it still is — an ongoing issue. I genuinely regret not seeing Daughters of Darkness, and Joe Bob’s take on it, even though it was because I knew he showed it in the program that I watched it to begin with. Unlife works like that, sometimes.

So one night, realizing that I had nothing else to do that Friday, feeling like I would never do anything again thanks to the hermitage of the Pandemic and everything I lost, I felt myself on a precipice of participation, on the edge of entertainment, an alliteration of awesome, in deciding to watch one episode live on Shudder TV in addition to doing a Tweet-along. It was like taking a breath and forgetting that I didn’t need to breathe anymore, but realizing that I still could. I didn’t know what to expect. I was wondering if this would be another 24-hour marathon of mayhem, and if I could take it. But it wasn’t: Season Two has six hour episodes each showing two films and having erudite and sometimes ridiculous Joe Bob commentary in-between. I found myself taken by his folksy mien, and fierce intelligence as well as Diana as Darcy the Mailgirl’s laconic tolerance but genuine fondness of it all.

The first episode was hard for me to get through, as sitting in one place can take a lot out of me. I didn’t actually feel well afterwards, but I liked it. And I came back the next week. And the next. My friends and I weren’t really gaming, and my other interactions were now long-distance. I watch some anime once a week with some friends, which can be a commitment of time again, but this is different as it is longer and there are so many more people involved.

I joined at an interesting time in more ways than one. Revelations about CineState went down, and Fangoria began distancing itself from its former parent company. I wondered if the magazine would survive. And then Joe Bob’s old articles, and even something he said the previous year came to the fore, and I saw that side of Twitter.

I know I might not look it, but I am not a stupid man. I have a Graduate School Education, a Master’s Degree in the Humanities. I’ve gotten work published in print and online. I’ve met a few people with differing opinions. Even with the pain I went through, I still had my sense of self. And I recognized that what was happening, as I was interacting with other people, as I was getting to know MutantFam people of the “blood, breasts, and beasts” crowd was that I was finding solidarity and a sense of safety in what Joe Bob and crew were constructing in this time of plague and death and real life horror. I also understood that there were people who didn’t feel this way, and felt like the show propagated aspects of their lives that weren’t safe, or represented. I’d seen a lot of personality revelations online, and I didn’t want to get involved. I didn’t want to believe in something just to see that it was worse than fake blood, but I also didn’t want to destroy something good because other people were crying about how the sky is falling.

A lot of things had been going down, then, behind the scenes that few of us knew about. At one point, slightly before the Twitter outrages and the usual cyclical nature of Diana Prince being sent to “Twitter Jail,” Joe Bob actually PMed me. It was after I was Tweeted about Diana’s role in Frankenstein Created Bikers (which I’ve finally seen, and think should definitely be a Last Drive-In feature) and he thanked me for my support and wanted my email so that he could “keep me in the loop.”

I think this, ,while it never got followed up on, was the seed for something else.

See, as Season Two was unfolding and I got caught in what ultimately became a wave of positivity, I kept having these thoughts about horror and its plasticity and its ability to vastly experiment with form and storytelling, and just weirdness. I realized that I was getting a lot of attention with some of the things I wrote about on Twitter,, and I was being heard: which, for me, is a big deal. So I was going to send an article to a Joe Bob fanzine in response to some backlash that Diana was facing: to support her. But I was already thinking about something else.

Towards the end of the season, especially after the One-Cut of the Dead showing — in which I ended up writing “The Cut of my Jib” as an article that I even sent out — I created The Horror Doctor. It was partially in honour of my late partner, whom we’d always talked about writing, or collaborating, on something together. But I realized I needed a place for my horror. I’d written about Jordan Peele’s Us, and Ari Aster’s Midsommar in a few places elsewhere, but I felt I needed to streamline this. Create a home. A lab.

The Horror Doctor was also going to be a place where I would find ridiculous movies and rewrite them into stories that made more sense, at least to me. I have dabbled in it, but my grand experiment hasn’t happened yet. I wanted to something unique: something where my voice would stand out. And The Last Drive-In, and the fanfare inspired this.

As of this coming Season Three of The Last Drive-In, I now come into it with my Blog more firmly established. I don’t want to analyze episodes. I just want to have fun with them. The fact of the matter is based on all the above factors, I came to the conclusion that it’s far more satisfying to watch this show with others than binge it on your own: that Live-Tweeting brings a sense of community, and comradery during uncertain and even terrible times. Perhaps when I take about how being with likeminded people with something — or someone — to believe in, I could be talking about a cult. Certainly, it would not be out of place given the films we watch. But it’s more than that. There are dissenting opinions, and conversations, and that is more than okay. It’s not perfect but, honestly? I don’t want it to be: as it can’t be, and all we can do is acknowledge that while continuing to examine it, and even enjoy the spectacle.

I don’t know where I would be without having found, and taking the plunge to watch this show. I don’t think I really want to know, to be honest. I certainly have no idea where it will take us, where it might take me. I have a dream that one day I might create something worthy of a Silver Bolo Award, perhaps something on this Blog. It might not always be called The Horror Doctor. It might change.

But I don’t think the intent behind any of it will ever truly perish. For after all:

That is not dead which can never say goodbye,
and even with strange aeons the Drive-In will never die.

See you all this Friday, my fellow Fiends.

No More Yielding

Even now, her father’s ghost haunts her. 

The footstep booms through the chamber, on the small space station Eureka. Or perhaps its the strike of a large clawed hand on the doors of the observatory. Alta holds the blaster pistol in her hands. Her husband’s. She’s surprised that her grip is so tight, that it isn’t shaking. 

Boom.

The doors dent, just a bit. Alta breathes out, closing her eyes for a few moments, trying to find that centre. Trying to rediscover that calm. That old happiness. The little wooded brook where she used to bathe. The personal zoo, the little menagerie, her father kept for the two of them. The ornate couch where she studied physics, mathematics, geometry, and the rest of her academic assignments. Her father reading her stories. Her father. Her father …

Dr. Edward Morbius, who rediscovered the Krell of Altair IV.

Boom.

The impression left in the doors is more pronounced. A little more red. 

Alta shakes her head slowly, from side to side. No. That won’t do. All of those memories: her tiger that turned on her, poor Lieutenant Ostrow, or “Doc” dead on the couch, and seeing her father — seeing Dr. Morbius for the first time in her whole life … No. She needs to not think about that. She needs to …

“Miss Alta.”

“Robby.” Her voice is quiet, as she recalls the large robot at her side. He’s so … she’s always thought he was cumbersome, awkward. Like a giant, wind-up children’s toy with helical rubber arms, and spinning, whirring gadgets. It was as though, when her father tinkered around with the knowledge of the Krell, he unconsciously thought of Tik-Tok from Ozma of Oz, a children’s book from the beginning of the twentieth century, almost three hundred years ago. He was supposed to have comforted Dorothy as she’d found Oz fallen to ruin and darkness around her. She is so glad that he’s here now, despite this. “We need more …”

Boom. 

 “Those doors are composed of Krell metal.” He reminds her, a chill streaking down her back as she remembers her father saying almost exact same words to John, in an eerily similar situation. “It will not hold.”

“I know.”

“Miss Alta.” The echoing tone, less monotonous despite being recorded on vocal tapes, somehow manages to resemble concern, even if she knows better. 

“It’s all right, Robby.” Alta says, putting her hand on the automaton’s shoulder, her father’s words about him just being an object be damned. “It will buy us some time.”

They’d bought themselves a lot of time, these past couple of years, Alta admits to herself now. After John found them, after they’d left on his ship C-57D to watch Altair IV erupt into a beautiful sphere of blue destruction, they reported to the United Planets: to the interplanetary governing body centered around Earth that Altair IV and its deceased colonists — including her father — were supposed to be a part. Robby, and as it turns out she herself, had much to offer and with John at her side they’d made a life for themselves. 

“Robby.” Alta says. “Is she safe?”

Robby’s censors whir and buzz, the clacking of his internal circuits filling the tenseness of the room as she braces for the percussion on the other side of the doors to continue. “Affirmative, miss.”

“Good.” A part of Alta relaxes, despite the fear, in spite of the grief she hasn’t processed yet. She looks down at her hands, with the pistol, smudged in …

It’d been so quick. The force fields hadn’t stopped it, just as they hadn’t succeeded in doing so six years before. Six years. But it let them see it. It’d been subtle, at first, as it had with the colonists as her father told her, as it did when it attempted to sabotage John’s ship. It resembled a giant behemoth with the face of a gremlin from hell. But before that, it was just a whisper. Just a few coils gone missing. Just an accident in the control room that took a few lives of the skeleton crew they had here. 

That’s not what this is. John told her, as she remembers his strong hands on her shoulders, his square fingers settling in her uniform firmly. She’d come a long way from the girl that wore thin clothing, to conservative dresses. She is a crew member now. She works at the station. It died. He says. It died with your father. 

It did. She remembers. She recalls similar doors bending and burning, liquifying as the presence, the psychic storm of energy of rage made incarnate came for her and the Commander that would take her away from her father. But she sees her father, Dr. Morbius again, in her mind’s eye. His dignified mien, his stern yet gentle face accentuated by his goatee, broken in anguish, distraught, his hair a tangled mess, despair and a fierce protectiveness warring in his eyes. 

And she sees John. She sees John jump in the way. He didn’t even hesitate. She saw his face, with that dark curl of hair, greying a bit, over his blue eyes: his expression every bit as passionate as her father’s, the grim set of his mouth, the love in his gaze towards her. 

When Dr. Morbius, when her father died, she didn’t even have the chance to mourn him. Not the person she realized he hadn’t been, not the being who had so callously dismissed the lives of “Doc” and Farman for his research and his space, not the force that always kept her from going out to Earth to be with other people, to the stars to explore and further expand her mind … and not the human being that sacrificed his life against his literal demons to save her own. She couldn’t even hold him. She’d been too busy clutching John, having John hold her as agony filled her entire being. 

And John … she had even less than that. She grabbed his back, burying her fingers into his uniform, as the … thing ripped and burned him into … 

Into nothing. 

Ashes stain Alta’s hands like the sins of her father revisiting her now. She ran. She and Robby had separated, and for a reason.

Perhaps Robby should have remained on the planet when it detonated. It would have been safer. 

They agreed to help the United Planets reverse-engineer what they could.

“And I have come to the unalterable conclusion that man is unfit, as yet to receive such knowledge, such almost limitless power.” 

She remembers her father’s words, however, even now. Alta agreed to help them on one condition: that she and Robby — and by extension her husband as the commanding officer — would have a scientific space station to slowly, and carefully, unravel some of the secrets of the Krell. That had been her official stance, backed up by John. And they got it. It helped that Robby’s ability to reproduce a sample of any material given him was a microcosm, a sliver of what the Krell had been originally capable. It said a lot about her father’s ego that he considered Robby to be an oddity, a hobby, or a toy that allowed them to make other automatons, smaller ones, drones that could assist in their research and limit the amount of other humans around them. 

And Alta had been to her father’s study. She’d learned some lessons from him. And she was no slouch. She knows she is an intelligent woman. 

“My poor Krell,” her father’s voice laments from six years from an orbital thermonuclear grave. After a million years of shining sanity, they could hardly have understood what power was destroying them.”

Dr. Morbius, the first Dr. Morbius, hadn’t been so fortunate. Neither is the second. 

John hadn’t been either. 

Boom. Hiss. 

The doors are red hot now, with a white heart causing their metallic layers to gradually buckle. She can’t ignore it. It’s staring her right in the face. She can feel it.

At first, she’d been delighted to be on Earth, to be surrounded by so many people, with their customs, their practices, and every kind of endeavour open to her. Her husband had been at her side as well, married at the United Planets Headquarters, grounding her in a living, breathing existence in flux, not the placid, static, dead world left long destroyed behind her. But then, the whispers started. The missing items. The mechanized locks on their home always breaking down as though from the inside. Almost always, they would have to stay elsewhere, and the little incidents would stop. 

For a while. 

If they had been in more superstitious times, the couple might have thought themselves haunted, or cursed by the events on Altair IV. It’d been the impetus to encourage the leadership of the United Planets to let them actually begin their research in a contained setting like the station, though not fully disclosing the true reasons on official channels. Unofficially, they were to monitor the phenomenon. 

Hisssss …

Alta tries not to flinch as the rent in the doors grows. She knows she did good. Between her and Robby, they made miniature versions of the machines that replicated substances on the molecular level. Nothing too complex, nor dangerous. Eventually, they made mechanisms that could generate repair parts and, more importantly, food. No one need ever go hungry again. They were just in the process of finishing their touches on allowing their inventions to create complex medicines, some not even discovered by humanity yet, when … life became complicated again. 

For Alta. For John. For the both of them. 

She wonders, even now, as the creature on the other end of that door comes inexorably towards them how her father — with his intellect vastly increased by the Krell’s “plastic educator” — couldn’t figure out how to save her mother from death, from what he called “natural causes.” Perhaps there had been some complications beyond the skill of the Krell to repair, that even they in their highest state couldn’t save an organism from the cessation of life: from death itself. Certainly, they hadn’t escaped their end. But maybe it had been her father who had failed, who by his own admittance had been the equivalent of a developmentally challenged young Krell. But did he fail? Didn’t Dr. Morbius survive the plastic educator’s rigorous routine? Didn’t he expand his own field of knowledge beyond philology — the study of words and language and their intersection with literature and philosophy — into the hard sciences to make a construct like Robby with the technology he had at his disposal? Didn’t he create her animal friends, including the tiger that she loved, that nearly killed her if not for John? 

Didn’t he always generate a small simulacrum of herself with his mind? Wasn’t she always in his thoughts?

The door and the wall around it rumbles, seemingly shaking the entire station from where Alta stands. She feels the anger fill her veins, sadness turning into rage and fear, her heart beating hard. What if it had all been a lie? What if she had been just another creation of his? Another generation? Another construct? Maybe she never had a mother at all, and somehow she exists beyond even the good Dr. Morbius’ demise. Is she the child of Altair IV in makeup as well as soul? The Eidothea to its Proteus? The Athene to his Zeus? Or perhaps, her mother had existed, and her father and his experiments — his attempts to raise his IQ — had other effects, had become genetic, had … 

He never let her use the machine. It’d been too risky. One look at what happened to “Doc” had been enough to show her that much. And the demon that came after them … She dreamed of it. She dreamed of it killing Farman. Yes, he’d taken liberties with her. She knows that now. John tried not to speak ill of the dead, especially a comrade and a friend, and she knows he wouldn’t have gone too far, if she had said no, but she didn’t know what it was like to be with others, or why her body didn’t react the way she’d read about to those kisses. She’d had so damned few experiences, trapped on that world with her overprotective, brooding, lying overseer of a father …

Hisssss … 

The tear is small, but visible now. 

But Alta doesn’t care. She bares her teeth. She’d enjoyed that freedom. Those embraces. But what she felt with John had been a hundred times that, even though she’d been angry at him, desired him … But he had been all she knew, almost as much as her father. Both meant well … But she wanted to travel. To experience life beyond her books, and data. To live. 

And she saw it. She saw how it pained John to always been around her, all the time. And even more so on the station, virtually isolated. And they still needed that skeleton crew of human beings. Not now. Not anymore. And she saw … she remembers how he looked at those young ladies, recalling what Jerry, poor Jerry said about John’s roving eye and how girls and women shouldn’t be alone with him, even though a part of her even then knew he was just projecting what he was, that John was a fine, upstanding man, firm and loving, but she was keeping him from life … she took his life away from him. 

She’s killed him.

“Miss Alta.”

Alta finds herself blinking back tears, and failing. The hole is larger. Soon, the doors will melt and collapse altogether. She’s seen it before. She’s experienced it. But not from this angle. The terrible truth. She doesn’t need a “plastic educator” to see the greater picture. She understands that the psychic manifestation, the psychokinetic maelstrom, the nightmare made material without the machine or the lost planet of her birth, doesn’t belong to her father or the absent Krell. Not directly. It’s different. She can almost visualize it now. More sinuous than bulky. The foot isn’t a claw or tail, but a head. She hasn’t seen the face, though. She can’t bear to, even now. She wonders, when the Krell’s nightmares destroyed them and their civilization, if their psychic constructs obliterated all physical traces of their species, of their physical likenesses because for all their near-enlightenment, those subconscious impulses, those little resentments and hatreds, they just couldn’t bear to see themselves — their very uglinesses — in the mirror anymore. 

This is why she wanted the skeleton crew phased out, to maintain just the machines like Robby to watch her … just her. And John, John would never leave her. He was always there and she … she … 

And the two of them. 

And the three of them. 

That’s when she remembers. That’s when Altaira Morbius — Alta Adams — recalls what is truly important. 

The door is almost down now. She knows what’s coming. She turns to Robby. Her father was a philologist before being a scientist. He read her just as much poetry as he helped her study organic chemistry. And he loved his stories too. She wonders, looking at Robby, about the early twentieth century again, how Robby wasn’t so much influenced by the word robota, a Czech word for enforced labour, or rab — slave — though that is where the word robot is supposed to have been first derived. That word had been attributed to Karel Čapek, its creator, to his brother Josef, just as the Three Laws of Robotics hadn’t been solely created by Asimov but John W. Campbell. But Asimov had made a “Robbie,” a robot accepted by his assigned family after saving the life of their child. 

Regret with nostalgia mingles in Alta’s heart. “Robby. Remember your orders.” She releases a shaky breath, drawing on her resolve. “Maintain reports to the United Planets. Don’t inform them of what occurred on this station. Continue work on the plastic educator. She will need it. Guide her. Slowly, as I outlined for you. She will … she will need it.”

“Yes, Miss Alta.”

“Thank you, Robby.” She smiles. She turns, and puts the blaster pistol in one hand, wiping at her eyes with the other. “Thank you for everything.” She braces herself. “And now, your final order, Robby.”

The robot doesn’t say anything. 

“Robby.” She says. “Protect her. Protect my daughter. Protect Miranda.

“Archimedes.”

She remembers what John did with the door combination back in the Krell Lab. The two of them had Robby hide their girl. This … thing won’t find her. It might destroy the machines and drones around it, but Alta doesn’t plan for it to go that far. No. This manifestation, this monstrosity. It ends. It ends here.

She looks at Robbie. She recalls looking up at the big machine. It occurs to her that the robot has seen her ever since she was a baby, making food for her, creating emeralds and diamonds for her dresses, at her whim, patiently blasting non-lethal beams to ward away her pets from the fruits on the kitchen table, creating medicine when she was sick, faithfully there for her father … for her. The dials on either side of his cranium almost look like eyes. She wonders if the automaton feels anything. If he is even capable with what her father programmed into him for a lark. 

The sparks in his glass cranium crackle for a time, even with the override. Even as she reaches out her hand. And gives him the pistol. 

“Robby.” She says again, as the creature on the other end of the door screeches and roars out its hatred of a life wasted, of being deprived of its illusions, its comforts, of destroying what it coveted so much. “When it comes through. Only then. I want to look at it. If I can. I want to look it right in the face. And then … kill it. Do you understand?”

“Affirmative.”

Alta gulps, a sense of relief almost overwhelming her. “T-thank you, Robby. You … thank you.”

There is a pause. “Farewell, Alta.”

The door collapses completely as heavy breathing, always in the background, now fills the room. Dr. Alta Adams, nee Altaira Morbius, stands her ground in the observation deck of the Eureka, surrounded by stars. She remembers her father telling her, when he showed her the Krell Lab not to look into the eyes of the Gorgon. But right now, she recalls another myth: of Odysseus tied to his ship as he forced himself to hear the deadly songs of the Sirens as his crew rowed onward. These are her thoughts, thinking about sitting at her father’s knee, at her husband’s side, her daughter on her lap as she faces her darkness in the eye, and doesn’t even hear the quiet hiss of a blaster pistol’s measured violet disintegration discharges. 

Friend? Lucky McKee’s May

It’s funny to re-watch May in April.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be seen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friend. Best friends. I will see her forever.

Consuming the Sublime: Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man

I almost didn’t watch The Wicker Man.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For What It Is: Steven Kostanski’s Manborg

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

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

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

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

Right. I am being very generous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dream well. 

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

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

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

Or at least, she tried.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Halloween

I’ve meant to do this for a while.

Originally, I was going to make something of a Toronto After Dark retrospective: specifically an account on how I was introduced to the Film Festival, and how it made me deal with the horror genre in a different way. And the person who brought me to this Festival in 2010 was Kaarina Wilson.

It always comes back to her.

I’ve talked about Kaarina before, and not just on this medium. I feel like sometimes that is all I ever do: talk, and write about her. Autumn, or Fall, is a time of year in many cultures where the veil between the material and the spiritual worlds, the living and the dead is supposed to be at its thinnest. The Harvest is often reaped in Fall, before Winter. And people go around wearing the likenesses of their favourite fictional characters, their celebrities, or their personal demons and their nightmares.

This was Kaarina’s favourite time of year. She got to dress up and be as unapologetically camp as she wanted. And she also got to wear her fears and terrors on the outside for a change, of the creeping, inexorable march of the body’s hunger and decay overtaking the rational and feeling human mind.

She was so much more into the horror genre than I was. Before her, I had read the Classics like Frankenstein, Dracula and H.P. Lovecraft’s main Cthulhu Mythos stories. I’d watched some camp and horror movies with my friends before they moved from their apartment to Barrie so many years ago. I learned, there, that horror is something that should be experienced in a group setting. I can’t even begin to tell you the difference between watching something terrible happen to someone, or an utter bastard of a character getting their comeuppance alone, and then hearing other people gasp, or applaud, or cackle beside you as it all happens on the big screen.

Kaarina cackled. That was how she laughed. It was this wicked, pleased with herself reaction of dark joy, and it was one of the reasons I was so insanely in love with her. It was her that had me read Clive Barker and made me realize that horror isn’t just a fear of the unknown, but also the realization that you often what scares you is — deep down — what you ultimately desire when you strip away human niceties, conventional morality, and common sense. It also set the stage for the fact that, aside for the potential of public catharsis — the purging of emotions caused by pity and fear often attributed to ancient tragic plays — horror can have its own twisted logic, an orange and blue morality that even in its own alien mindset still has a human component that makes sense.

I think about the fact that Kaarina was the one that made me read “Dread” and “The Midnight Meat Train” and then had me see the film adaptations, but not before we watched May together in the basement apartment she called her Wonderland — after Alice’s — or what I thought of at times was her Underground. Quaid just wanted to overcome his fear and help others do so. Leon Kaufman had a terrible need to fit into something bigger than him, to find an assured and foundational place in New York: to belong somewhere. And May, in the midst of humiliation and confusing and deceptive human actions she just wanted to make a friend.

I learned a lot, then, even as I related to it. I’d even read “The Forbidden” and got to see how that short story changed in the better known Candyman adaptation. It also helped that Kaarina had been taking a Ryerson course on Gothic Literature that gave me the excuse to read her online copy of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that a lot of what I learned about horror, which had been scattered between University courses, bored movie channel watching at my parents’ place, and the times with my zombie-fanatic friends, started from Kaarina. And she was definitely the one that encouraged me to write something about horror in film: to the point of her arguing with me when I didn’t believe I could focus enough to do so.

The truth is: I never thought I really fit into this genre. But Kaarina challenged that. She made me watch ridiculous films, weird films, creative films, erotic films, and enjoyable films. She showed me movies that made me use my critical brain, and others that I just sat back and enjoyed. I realized it didn’t always have to be serious, or stick to eclectic small things that were the result of my own crippling perfectionism.

It was actually okay for me to have fun.

This was important, especially given that when we met I was still struggling to finish off my Graduate Program. I didn’t think I could do it, get through my Program, write again for myself, or even engage with these weird independent movies, and have something to say. I know for a fact I used to drive her utterly crazy with my doubts, and my stubbornness.

Perhaps it hit a little too close to home, even as I encouraged her to write more reviews and stories herself. Like the seasons, like birth, death and rebirth, or life, death, and reanimation everything was a cycle. It still is.

For example, if not for the Pandemic this year would have been the first After Dark without her. And there is something almost fitting about the fact that on the year of her death, the Toronto After Dark Film Festival — her favourite event — didn’t happen. But either way, this is the first Halloween without her in it.

And grief is a cycle as well.

So I find myself, in the midst of 2020’s utter misery trying to compensate, to live twice as much as I can in these limited circumstances, to feel that abundant life force and need to live in the middle of so much death and stasis, and to enjoy horror for the two of us. I bought her a subscription to Fangoria while she was in the hospital which I had to cancel after she was gone, and I have to read that for her: to succeed this time, one day, in actually being able to submit something into its pages. I got her a Shudder account while she was in a medically induced coma to shave the damaged parts of her lungs away — and I curated the films in there to match the ones we’d seen together, or that were at the After Dark Festival, or anything I found interesting, but now that she’s gone it still exists there, having never had the heart to close it. Some part of me imagines, in some liminal space between sleep and the Internet, that a part of her watches those films to this very day.

I know there are some things, like this Blog, which she would be proud of me creating, but it’s hard to think about how she will never be able to tell me that herself again. So that is why I watch all these horror films, so many more than I used to. That’s why I want to celebrate Halloween with friends, to enjoy the movies with others and not be alone. That’s why I look forward to the Hallow’s Harvest table-top roleplaying game I’m playing with my friends before I have to return to this reality.

In the early summer, still reeling from Kaarina’s loss, I finally decided to sit in on a live watching of Joe Bob Briggs’ The Last Drive-In on Shudder. I’d only been there in passing when they were watching some of the Halloween series having found out about it through Diana Prince: or Darcy the Mailgirl on the show. When I watch the show on Shudder TV, and live-tweet with Diana, and the rest of the MutantFam it reminds me of all the times I watched horror films with my friends, all the moments I wished I had someone to watch them with in my house, every occasion I watched them at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival in the Bloor, and Underground Cinemas, and ScotiaBank Theatre.

Watching strange and weird films with “blood, breasts, and beasts” with the MutantFam of The Last Drive-In reminds me of all every night I watched movies with Kaarina, and it takes a little bit of that edge of the jagged Jack-o-Lantern hole in my heart off.

I had a lot of plans for this Blog. I was going to write alternate endings to films and stories. I was going to reconstruct one movie in particular. And I was going to write about weird things, unique perspectives and experiences and experiments. Most of this has been reviews, like the ones I would write for GeekPron or Sequart. But sometimes I can still get personal. Perhaps next time, I will tell you all about the writings that actually led to the making of this Blog: my proto-articles that tried to link themes and ideas together in a series I was watching which would provide the basis of what I do — or try to do — on this Blog. I wrote them when Kaarina was still alive, but she never saw them. But I think she would have approved.

So let me just say to you all, before adopting my Horror Doctor half-mask persona again, have a safe and happy Halloween. I will do the same. It is the least I can do now.

Be Careful What You Take In: Rob Savage’s Host

Some films are a product of their times or, if you’d like to pardon the pun, the Zeitgeist: the Spirit of the times. This is definitely the case of this Shudder Original film Host. Host is a film directed by Rob Savage, co-written by both Gemma Hurley, and Jed Shepherd, and its one of those cinematic narratives created in the fear-soaked environment of the pandemic: of COVID-19.

It takes the form of a Zoom call, in which six young people decide to have a seance with a medium online to pass the time. Obviously, this turns out to be an excellent life — and afterlife — decision as these things go.

The conference call seems be on a Macintosh Apple computer based on all the colourful buttons, and the Zoom platform itself transitions between the different windows of the users involved as a six-panel screen format, and sometimes a single screen when the story needs to focus on one character. It feels like a call, like you are in the chatroom seeing people get invited in, and having little glimpses into their quarantine lives. It feels like an epistolary fictional narrative, only live. There are no letters, journal entries, transcripts, or even texts but if you take it as a recording of the situation you see these different narratives united under one theme. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Host is a found footage film, arguably a cinematic descendant of the epistolary, that feels as though it is live: that it is happening as you watch it.

Unlike The Tribe Murders, another short Zoom-modeled film that, in the words of H.P. Lovecraft “is devised with all the care and verisimilitude of an actual hoax,” there is no disclaimer at the beginning telling you that this happened because, very simply, it is happening as you watch it. There is no past-tense here. Only the eternal, oppressive, over-present.

The pacing of the film is excellent. You have six friends brought together in different places holing up against the pandemic, going about their lives as best they can and under different circumstances, while talking about their lives, and sometimes even gossiping about each other beyond their backs before coming onto the screen. You know it’s the beginning of the end when the six characters can’t take the seance seriously, and try make a drinking game from hearing the words “astral plane” from the medium who so graciously offers to guide them through the ritual.

Strangely Seylan the medium herself as she guides the characters — who are, for the most part, irreverent — brings a feeling of tranquility, even ASMR to the chat with her voice, her calm instructions, and her gentle manner. It makes the tense worse because you know that despite the previous joviality, the latter is a false serenity, a deceptive sense of security. Slow-burning stories or, Hitchcock’s “anticipation of the bang” happen this way. The manifestations of everything that goes wrong are planted in subtle images or distortions, little visual and audio feints and red-herrings, but ultimately the tragedy begins from a sense of utter irreverence against an invisible force that the Zoom participants have vastly underestimated. By the time things get serious, the effects are simply extensions of the infection that has already been growing, its signs already there, the connections not cut away in time.

There is a lot of that language in here. There are at least two themes in Host, not including the title as well. It had only been towards the end of the film that I realized it, and began to think about these elements. The first is the togetherness yet distance of the Internet. A Zoom call, like Skype before it, brings people together while being spatially distant. Seylan goes out of her way to tell each participant to visualize a connected string to their doors should they want to terminate communication with any spirit: kind of like how you would stop a Zoom call. At the same time, even the medium has to think about how to adapt her ritual to an online forum: which she has never done before. Usually, the rite involves physical touch and more direct guidance from the medium or spiritual expert in question: in far more tactile, tangible, and ritualistically secure settings.

To be honest, while some characters are practical jokers, I think in a lot of ways the character of Seylan is the most irresponsible: starting these young people on a potentially dangerous activity, and then leaving them to get a package, and not following up when her Zoom call gets dropped. She also doesn’t consider actually encouraging the characters to have physical elements beyond candles to help them have something material to ground themselves into the ritual. Sometimes, for all the information the Internet has, online existence loses something from the offline world in translation, and this disconnect can make all the difference.

At the same time, when you utilize the Internet as a medium to communicate and you don’t follow the right protocols or you disable privacy, or take it for granted, anyone or anything can be seeing or listening in on what you do. In this sense, this is both a twenty-first century cautionary tale, and an element from the entirely timeless folklore of human hubris.

The Internet and the spiritual intersect in another sense. You need to be careful about what information you broadcast, or put out there. In this case, it’s a falsehood — a story — told by one user that ends up becoming a mask, an anonymous persona, for an unwanted, malicious guest.

This feeds into the film’s other theme, the more implicit one. While the dangers of the Internet and that feeling of connection conflicting with detachment and disconnect are there and the characters operate in that background of life as usual while struggling against global despair, the pandemic itself is another major part of the story.

Remember what I’ve said about the Zeitgeist. If F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu serves as an artistic attempt to exorcise the demons of World War I in Germany, if the jinn in Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow represent the darkness of the Iran-Iraq War and Iran’s fundamentalist patriarchy, and if Pornsak Pichetshote, Aaron Campbell, and José Villarrubia’s comic Infidel deal with the forces of xenophobia in contemporary America as ghosts feeding off hatred, I think there is something to be said about Host and its status as a piece of horror symbolizing the fear of the pandemic.

It is no coincidence that it’s due to the actions of the characters in underestimating the powers of unseen forces to the naked eye, and downplaying manifestations — or symptoms — of the supernatural that everything begins to unravel. In fact, it’s only one of the characters, Jemma, who brings a false narrative — or a false positive — into the procedure out of boredom that their spiritual, and material spaces are compromised by a hostile, foreign agent. One of the characters, Radina, looks pale and sick before the seance begins. Jemma claims to feel a tremendous pressure on her neck, making it hard for her to breathe. Everyone involved doesn’t even consider the other people in their spaces, not participating in the spiritual activity but still present: and how they put them at risk.

Haley is the only one of the characters aside from the medium who she brought into the Zoom call that takes the entire situation seriously, but it’s too late as she’s been exposed to the break in their neutral safe space. Caroline’s Zoom background of herself eternally repeating the same mundane task, a hope to return back to normal, plays as she is brutally possessed and murdered: life going on after being taken by something for which she hadn’t prepared herself. This looped background becomes something of a mockery for the group, for the normalcy they will never have again, that will never cover up the horror they now understand. Even Emma, who is hiding to her last breath, under her blanket — perhaps symbolizing her former ignorance, a flimsy safety — knows the terror that lurks outside, and that will get her now that she’s let it in: and there is nothing she can do about it. There is no cure for this plague they let into their lives.

Jemma herself hastily grabs a medical mask before fleeing her space, barely even getting it on her nose which one needs to have in order to have some protection against the virus. However, even though she ends up putting it back on, it gets knocked off: as if to say it’s already too late for her, and for Haley whose place she breaks into in order to get some protection from this infection. Of course, it’s too late for all of them as, one by one in both in full knowledge and unknowing they watch each other fall — separated — into absolute helplessness: all because of the mistakes of a few.

The film itself, aside from its jump scares — feints and special effects-wise — especially at the end, are fairly predictable, though I was always wondering who would die first. And there is something about a childhood fear in the form of a music box with a limited time span, with something of a timer — much like the one at the corner of the Zoom platform that needs to be upgraded monetarily — that hits home the fear that permeates our world now. It’s just my read that the demon summoned on this Zoom call is a metaphor. The spectres of World War I, the spirits of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, the hungry ghosts of xenophobia and hatred in contemporary Trump era New York, all them would be in good company with this unseen demon — borrowing the tools of our online culture, misinformation and terror — that will consume us if we underestimate it, or ignore it, or pretend that we’ve banished it when we know that we haven’t, when we don’t listen to the experts, when the experts themselves don’t even know the full implications of its adaptation, and we let it in.

When you take this read of Host into consideration, you realize that it doesn’t just mean the facilitation of a Zoom call with privacy that doesn’t exist as is examined in The Tribe Murders, or a chatroom, forum, or platform without moderators that can get hacked by entities revealing secrets and spreading lies. Rather, a host is a person who sometimes takes an unwanted guest into themselves, thinking they are safe or non-existent: and both they, and everyone around watches their space get taken over, and they pay the price. That is the fear I feel that Host plays on, and with, and this — combined with how it presents its aesthetic all the way to the credits being a list of participants in the Zoom call itself (almost all them having the same first names as their characters, by the way) — is nothing short of something terrifyingly beautiful, a prime example of imminent horror, and it should be considered a classic of our time.