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.

Son of Shadows

Dedicated to Harry Kümel’s 1971 film Daughters of Darkness

Stefan feels nothing.

He sits in the King-sized bed, now empty aside from himself. And he doesn’t count. The honeymoon suite is a mess. After he and Valerie talked, after she left … he must have destroyed the entire place. All the blankets, his clothes, the ornaments, even the bathroom toiletries are strewn everywhere.

And the phone. The phone is in pieces on the floor, against the wall. The same phone that he called …

Stefan notes his hand. His belt is the only thing he’s kept on him, wrapped around his hand. Pins and needles prickle across it as he realizes he must have blacked out with the strap around it, gripping it into a tight fist.

His chest feels tight, as the events from hours ago fully materialize back into his conscious mind. He sits up, maneuvering his legs so his feet can touch the cool wood of the floor. He puts his head in his hands. The leather of his belt, and the metal of the buckle keeps him grounded. All that volatile emotion that he’s tried to avoid, and all he feels now is hollow. Of course Valerie is gone. His wife. As if …

He lifts his head out of his palms, and blinks. There is a figure, standing near the window. So silent …

“Valerie?” His heart leaps into his throat, with many other feelings that are harder to define.

She steps away. The woman isn’t Valerie. She has short black hair. Red lips. White skin. So pale … so …

“Ilona.” Her name comes to his mind, as does her smile at him from the stairway from what seems to have been a thousand years ago. Stefan’s fingers are inches away from where the lamp used to be, until he realizes that it’s one of the things he’d already smashed in his earlier rage. He lowers his hand. Ilona is at his side, sitting at the edge of the bed.

“Why are you here?” He asks her, suddenly feeling incredibly exhausted.

He can see her a little better now, in the dark. It’s foolish that he mistook her for Valerie, showing him just how foregone he really is. He can see her black dress, her clothing not like Valerie’s lighter colours. And the pearl necklace stands out around her neck and chest like a string of small full moons.

“I’m so unhappy.” She tells him, tracing a hand across his cheekbone. “Unhappy.” Her fingers trail down his chin, and rest in her lap. In the darkness, she is an eclipsed silhouette, a silvery outline of a ghost. Stefan doesn’t say anything. What does one say under these circumstances? It’s not the first time he’s heard a woman say these words, directed at him, or no, far from England, in a Continental hotel room. But perhaps it’s the first time they really hit home, in the moment.

Instead, seeing this vulnerability that he can somehow feel, he touches her cheek. He looks her in the eyes. “You’re as white as a sheet.” He murmurs, remembering his own terror.

Ilona turns away from him. “No, no.” She whispers. “I’m frightened.” She pauses for a second, as though letting that admission sink in. “I don’t what’s going to happen … to any of us.”

It is such a bizarre thing to say. But Stefan has nothing witty to say. Nothing clever. Nothing dismissive. He thinks back to the events of the evening, and the phone dashed against the wall of their honeymoon suite, feeling the old, oppressive tide of helplessness rise up inside his throat again, no longer enraging him, merely threatening to choke him and take him down with it into its depths of self-loathing. “Neither do I.”

They sit that way for a time. He feels something cool and soft on his hand, on his fist wrapped in his own belt. He realizes it’s Ilona’s hand. He feels her other hand stroking his hair, bringing him closer to her.

He shouldn’t. It’s a bad idea. It’s not good to look up at her right now. It’s bad enough that he’s naked. Because if he does look up at Ilona, if he meets her gaze …

Stefan does it anyway, another terrible decision in a series of awful life choices. There is some consistency in that much. Ilona’s eyes are dark, and they reflect no light. But they are deeper than the unlit room, and there is both a sadness that makes her seem a lot older than what she is, and a hunger beyond a simple midnight rendezvous. For some reason, they make her red lips seem more crimson, less of a pout and more of the orchid that … Stefan doesn’t want to think about.

“I know.” She says, softly. Her lips are inches away from his own. “You didn’t understand anything yet.”

“No.” Stephen also admits, more to himself than to her. “I’m afraid not.”

“How could you?” Her gaze is the equivalent of a sad shake of the head as she lowers her hand again. “Anyhow, it doesn’t matter anymore.”

“No.” Stefan says, thinking of his own circumstances and the bed that he unmade in which he must lie. “I suppose it doesn’t.”

Her hand keeps circling on his own, over the belt. Somehow, he can feel her fingertips trail across the veins underneath. Slowly, imperceptibly, his hand begins to unclench, to let go. All that’s left is that one emotion in Ilona’s eyes.

Loneliness.

And as she strokes his hair, with a combination of fondness and despair in her gaze, her generous lips brushing against his cheek, as she gently but firmly pushes him back onto the bed, her mouth on his collarbone, his chest, and trailing wetly lower, Stefan gives into that loneliness as well.

*

Ilona’s mouth tastes of both Stefan and Valerie. She knows they’d made love, before the telephone call. Before their argument. Before Valerie left. It’s the closest she’s come to having either of them. She remembers her orders, as much as she would nothing more than to discard them, and slake her thirst.

But she has done this. She can no more disobey Elizabeth than leave her. Yet it is the smaller things. The little moments under her. Away from her. They are victories. That is what Ilona tells herself. After sampling the other precious substance that Stefan had to offer, to distract him, to become diverted herself, her core contracts within herself, and around him as she moves slowly, sinuously, contorting her body in the way that he needs. That she needs.

Ilona Harczy knows what she’s doing. She’s done this for a long time. She doesn’t know if she does this for her own enjoyment, or Elizabeth’s, just as much as she’s forgotten the fine line between loving her Countess, and hating her. It is same with this young man. She isn’t blind. And neither is he. In the darkness, at least he won’t see the red stain on the side of her throat. Not that it matters. It’s too late for them, one way or another.

He’s so callow, and venial. So weak. And yet, there is anger inside of him — a profound unhappiness at his life’s circumstances — and a concurrent fear of leaving those elements that so confine him. The truth is, for all she sees the seeds of what Elizabeth finds amusing in the man while lusting far more for the girl — the traits that attract her like for like — she sees a scared youth: trapped in more ways than one.

And Ilona can relate to that sentiment. For deep down, as she folds herself back and moves, and he loses himself in her, and as he gives her the means to take the edge off her red hunger for a time, her red lips parting at their temporary solace, Ilona knows that the person she despises more than Elizabeth is herself.

This is something else that she and Stefan have in common: this, and this momentary, sweet sensation of blissful, unthinking oblivion.

She lies with him for a while, in the dark, watching the rise and fall of his chest. The sound of his heartbeat against her ear makes her feel alive, gives her a sense of anticipation, of having something other than more cold nights with Elizabeth with which to look forward, if only for a little time.

Ilona unwraps Stefan’s belt from around her neck, from where she forced his hands around it, which she inevitably took from his grasp. She touches the imprints left in her flesh, and smiles.

This. This much, right now, is hers.

*

“Do my questions upset you?”

Valerie looks out into the sea, at the dark grey sky, and the turbulent waters. They mirror her heart like some brooding form of romantic cliché. The Countess’ … Elizabeth’s dulcet tones are soft. Inquisitive. Once, that same whispering voice entranced her, just as much as it repulsed her in the lobby of the hotel with what it promised her, with what it shared with Stefan.

Stefan …

“The answers …” She replies quietly, bitterly, realizing yet again in the fog of confusion and pain that Elizabeth’s stories from the hotel lobby, and Stefan’s conversation with her that night aren’t, in their very nature, that dissimilar after all.

There is a chuckle. Faint and throaty. “Not always pleasant, eh?” The Countess sighs. Valerie is mindful that she’s still holding her carryall, having intercepted her at the train station so fast.

The dead travel fast, she thinks to herself, and wonders of the truth of it, especially of the girl in Bruges. Valerie tries not to shudder in the cold winds of the night. Elizabeth, however, continues speaking as though reading her mind of that afternoon. “But as I always say, one must never be afraid to look deep down into the darkest deeps of oneself where the light never reaches.”

Valerie turns to look at Elizabeth. “But you cannot imagine what —”

The Countess smiles. Her hair is wavy, and golden. There are laugh lines around her mouth and eyes. Between her and Stefan, they believed her to be in her mid-thirties, but as Valerie looks into her eyes she sees a wryness, an old amusement. Her smile makes her cheeks dimple, her cheekbones more prominent. There is something glamorous about the Countess, obviously regal, and incredibly worldly.

“Oh, yes.” Elizabeth says. “I can.” She puts an arm through hers and Valerie, again despite her best judgment, allows her to do so as they walk. “It’s not so difficult to see through your Stefan.”

The jolt of her words hits Valerie, as she remembers Bruges, and the Countess’ arms around him in the armchair, and the phone call. That damned phone call …

“Tell me, Valerie.” Elizabeth says, smoothly interjecting over the trembling storm inside her heart. “Didn’t you already know?”

Valerie suddenly feels tired. The fury, the hurt, the way his dull, flat tone hit her harder than any belt ever could, leaving a numbness inside of her that reminds her of just how young and idealistic, how stupid she really was: that she still is. “He said the same thing to me.” She murmurs. “On the bus, back to the hotel.”

“It began in Bruges.” Elizabeth prompts quietly, her question more of a gentle statement, a lingering on the skein of her mind.

Valerie finds herself shaking her head, feeling herself hurting again. “No.” She blinks back tears. “It was before. On the train. In the bed. Our words to each other.” The two of them walk back into the darkness as she allows herself to full her resignation. “Deep down, that was when I knew.”

*

“You’re both so young.” Elizabeth Bathory tells Valerie as they head to her rooms after walking a few hours through the deserted city. “You can’t give up after a few days.”

“I —” She watches the young woman, barely out of girlhood, her blonde hair a white-gold, her sky-hued eyes keenly poignant, not like the faded disenchanted blue of Ilona’s gaze. “I don’t know if I can face him. Right now.”

“It’s all right.” Elizabeth tilts her head, and attempts a smile. It’s hard, sometimes, to remember how to make a facial expression that is so reassuring. “You may stay with us for the night. I will join you shortly.” She turns and pats Valerie’s hand, holding it in her own for a few beats. “Trust me, Valerie. I meant what I said by the sea.” So many changes, the prospect of it fills her with a warmth she hasn’t felt in a while, not with Ilona, not even in Bruges, and Nice, and Monte Carlo. She realizes the name for this feeling. It’s genuine excitement. Elizabeth doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, and she adores it, almost as much as the woman she is putting into her room. “You do understand Stefan, if you truly think about it.”

“I …” Valerie finally looks down. “I’ve tried. I can’t help it. He … frightens me. He needs help. And I …” She turns her face. “I don’t know.”

“Does he?” The Countess asks. “Or is that what he said scared something within yourself? Are you truly frightened of your own feelings?” She shakes her head at the younger woman’s silence. “Don’t trouble yourself with this right now. Get some sleep. I will …” She pauses, considering her next decision. “I will send Ilona to check in on you.”

“I …” Valerie actually meets her gaze. This pleases Elizabeth a great deal. “Thank you, Elizabeth. I don’t know what I would have –”

“You would have left.” Elizabeth sighs, deciding on honesty. “And you would have regretted it.” She leans forward, and gently kisses Valerie on her pallid cheek, the colour and texture of warm marble. She smiles, a little more truly, at the red mark that she’s left there, the Dionysian upon the Apollonian. Such a symmetrical, Grecian beauty. “Have a good sleep. Tomorrow evening, we shall speak further.”

She hands Valerie her luggage, and gently but firmly pushes her through, past her threshold. Then, when the door closes behind her, she lets out a faint huff. Right. This is a … complication. But if time has taught Elizabeth Bathory anything, it’s that for all things change the right amount of patience will allow everything to fall into their places.

This is her thought as she walks towards the honeymoon suite, and lets herself in.

*

Ilona watches Stefan bathe under the shower. She doesn’t care, at this point, if he sees her looking at him. Her lips are parted, and her teeth are exposed. In the light of the bathroom, he can probably see her, if he just turns around.

She observes his shoulders straightening, his posture under the running water becoming still. His neck is rigid. When he turns to look at her, she closes her lips. There is a new light in his eyes. He’s grinning. They are just separated by their naked bodies, and water.

“Come on.” He says, his tone lighter than when she first came upon him. She can see him eyeing her, her flesh, and the marks that he’s left on her.

“No.” Illona says, her skin crawling away, instinctively, from the running water. One of her first lessons that, in her eagerness, even now she sometimes forgets.

“Come on in.” Stefan invites her, his smile almost matching his dead set eyes.

“No.” Ilona says, a little more urgently, fear of another kind creeping into her heart.

Stefan smiles. It’s as though he’s sensed this spike of terror. He comes out of the shower. “You’re not afraid of a little water, are you?”

Stefan’s arms are around her. He grabs her, forcefully. Their liaison has woken something inside of him. She can see the fire in his eyes, but it is the water and not the figurative blood in it that scares her far more. Suddenly, she is reminded of just why Elizabeth has her eyes on this couple. She thought it was just the girl, but …

“Ilona. There you are.”

Thinking of, almost literally, the Devil. Ilona turns, in Stefan’s grasp, to look at her Countess. She’s alone. The girl is nowhere to be seen. Did she think she was going to take him? Even now, Ilona knows better. There is a faint amusement in Elizabeth’s eyes as she takes in the scene. Stefan, for his part, tenses. His assertiveness, his aggression, leeches out of him as he looks from herself, to the Countess. And back. For some reason, Ilona finds herself putting a hand on the small of his back.

“Now —” Ilona isn’t sure whether Stefan is about to issue a demand, or an excuse.

It ultimately doesn’t matter. It never did. Elizabeth shakes her head. “Come now, Ilona.” She says, her voice melodious, drifting. She tosses Ilona’s black dress and pants to the ground. The white pearls stare up at her like sightless eyes from a dark shroud. “We have a guest in our rooms. I need you take care of it.”

It is clear to Ilona to whom Elizabeth is referring.

She stares into Elizabeth’s eyes. It’s strange. She’s noticed, over time, that her Countess merely runs through the bare minimum of emotions beyond her strong appetites, a dance or pantomime of social behaviour barely recalled. Even in humiliating her right now, though this is not even close to the worst of it. She turns back, to look at Stefan. She can feel him breathing hard, his wet body rigid, his face full of fury and passion before slack and speechless.

“Now, please. Ilona.” The Countess brings up her willowy arms, and delicate fingers like she is wearing her boa and dress, and not her simple white sweater. This is Ilona’s summons.

Ilona turns back to Stefan. A smile curls on the side of her red lips, as crimson as Elizabeth’s. She reaches up, and grabs the sides of his face. Then, she crushes her lips against his own. She trails her lips down, to Stefan’s neck, letting them linger against a faded scar from the nick of a razor, allowing Elizabeth to see it. It had been good to feel like a desirable object again as opposed to a detached entertainment, an echo of both being the lover and the ardently beloved. There is a defiance in her heart, for a second. A thank you. A goodbye.

Ilona turns, and bends down to pick up her clothes. She doesn’t look at Elizabeth in the eye. She’s done enough. She’ll probably pay for this later. But it’s worth it. Just for that moment. As she walks past Elizabeth, putting on her slacks, pulling her blouse over her head and chest, she wonders wonders if her Countess would be jealous that she got that taste of her lovers together — of the complete set — first.

This what Ilona uses to fortify herself as she returns to their rooms.

*

Stefan can barely process what’s happening. He feels Ilona’s lips on his skin, on his neck. She’s so pale, even after what they … what they did together. And that emotion in her eyes when he came for her, to drag her into the shower. It was genuine fear.

He recalls the bed. The coolness of her body against his. The way she slowly moved, the position she fell towards, what he did to her, what she made him do to her. Even her hands in his own felt like … and the way she remained so utterly still.

The weight of what happened before, with Valerie, hasn’t left him. But something that had been building inside of him — coiled — ready to pounce, ready to explode has, for lack of a better term, unfurled. It thrums inside of him, even now, at this strange scene. He watches Ilona’s perfect, porcelain buttocks retreat into the shadows of the room, thinking about how she instinctively sucked on the part of his neck that he cut, the sight of blood making him feel … behind the Countess who, idly, strokes her dark hair as she passes. It’s a detached gesture. A possessive one. It’s like the way a girl would play with one of her dolls.

And suddenly, the reality of what has happened, what he has done, all of it, hits Stefan. Hard. He tries to recall what he was trying to say to the Countess before she’d interrupted, but the words don’t come out.

“Your wife is staying in our rooms.” The Countess tells him softly, her gaze never wavering.

It occurs to Stefan that he’s still naked. “Oh.” He replies, then takes a step back, sitting on the rim of the bidet.

“You are having troubles.” She says. Her face seems sympathetic, but Stefan can tell there is something hard about it, an effort, like the muscle memory doesn’t entirely recall the motions.

“She …” He stops himself, thinking about their time on the train, on the bus, on the boat. “She doesn’t want to see me, anymore.”

The Countess almost glides. She sits on the edge of the bathtub. It occurs to Stefan that both she and Ilona match the ivory material. “Do you wish to talk about it?”

Slowly, Stefan shakes his head. “If my wife is with you, surely you’ve already talked. And …” He waves his hand, at the room, at all of this. “I think I’ve done enough.”

“Have you?” Unlike Ilona’s sad eyes, or the heavens in his wife’s, the Countess’ are a darker, almost steely grey. “Tell me.”

“Countess —”

“Stefan.” She trails her hands over his, folded over his lap. “Remember our talk. We are friends now. You may call me by name, yes?”

Her touch is faint. Ghostly. But muscles in Stefan that he didn’t know were tense begin to loosen. “Of course, Elizabeth.”

She smiles. It is a radiant smile, almost tentative in the manner that he’s observed. “Come.” She puts her arms around his shoulders. “Let’s go back to your room, and talk some more, yes?”

Stefan nods, once. He lets her help him up. They walk across the tiles, and the mirror, and he is so lost in his thoughts he doesn’t particularly see anything other than the outline of himself, wandering through the fog on the reflection. A part of his mind registers, distantly, that his razor isn’t on the basin. It must have fallen in, he supposes. Instead, Stefan focuses on the Countess’ movements, and her form leading now him by the hand. Whereas Ilona reminds him of a flapper from the Roaring Twenties, Elizabeth is akin to a ghost of an actress from the era of Silent film, ethereal white and faded gold. A queen from a bygone time.

He finds himself seated on the bed, still rumpled from his time with Ilona, from his rage, from his time with Valerie. She sits beside him. Their feet almost touch. A part of him wonders if he should cover himself. He can see his clothes on the floor, his white shirt, his black pants, his red sweater …

“We wear similar colours, you and I.” Elizabeth laughs softly.

Stefan recalls her attire when they first met, and realizes she’s right. He decides to give up, that it is far too late for modesty. She’s seen enough of him tonight. It seems as though everyone has, at this point. “Great minds.”

“Yes. With great expectations heaped upon them.”

He looks up at her, his eyes scrutinizing. “How much do you know?”

She shakes her head, the look on her face distant, musing, mulling something over. “You are so sad. So tense. I can see it.”

He feels her move up behind him, folding her legs until she has them on either side of his, her feet hanging again from the bed frame. Stefan doesn’t know what to think of this. He’s just, he’s so tired. Her hands are soft, but firm on his shoulders as her fingers begin to knead the muscles underneath.

“She wouldn’t let up.” He explains, her hands finding the knots in him, unkinking them. His mouth opens and closes almost of its own volition. “She wanted it to be known that we were married. I tried everything. And I thought that maybe …”

He doesn’t finish the sentence. He knew what the result of that call would be before he even made it.

“Family.” Elizabeth drawls out, silvery, behind his ear, making goosebumps crawl up the bare flesh over his back. “It is the first love. Obligation and Duty are unto it like Sin and Death to Satan.”

Paradise Lost.” For a few moments Stefan allows himself a crooked smile, losing himself in the voice of the Countess. “I wonder if it is possible to lose something that you never had.”

“Lucifer had no choices. You never have a choice.” The Countess says, her fingers moving towards the sides of his neck. Perhaps it’s just Stefan’s imagination, but there is a lilt to her tone that hadn’t been there before. “That has nothing to do with love. That is what I told Valerie.”

He stiffens under her touch, hearing his wife’s name again, recalling that night. “What do you know of that, Bathory?”

The absolute venom in his voice startles even him. The Countess’ fingers stop in their massage. Stefan breathes in, and lets out a long sigh. “Of course you know. A stupid question.”

“You told her.”

“Yes.” Stefan says. “After the call. I felt it welling up inside of me. That helplessness. I thought — I thought she wanted to know. About me. I thought that maybe …”

Elizabeth starts to probe the back of his neck with her fingers, her clothed body against his spine.

He bows his head. “I told her everything. All of it. The Manor. The Continental trips. Being alone. I thought maybe if she understood that, realized that, she might know where I came from. She might … know me.”

“You went to the only place that could understand you.” Elizabeth’s words flow through his mind like smoky molasses. Rich, and elegant, and deep. “It’s all you’ve ever known.”

“But it wasn’t enough!” Stefan hisses. His fist tightens as he clenches his jaw, looking away. “I needed more! I need more. I …”

“You wanted to hold her down.”

“Yes.” Stefan murmurs.

“You want to have power over her.”

“Yes.” Stefan feels Elizabeth’s fingers splay out on his chest.

“You wanted her to feel what you have felt, all these years.” Her hands roam around his ribcage, her lips in his ear, her legs wrapped around him.

“… yes.” Stefan closes his eyes.

“You wanted to take that belt, the one you didn’t use, the one you thought about using on her, and thrashing her with it within an inch of her beautiful life.” Elizabeth’s hands roam downwards.

“Mmph.” Stefan groans, his eyes clenching shut, his body betraying him under her hands.

“You wanted her to be like the girl from Bruges.” A pair of lips husk as they kiss his earlobe.

Stefan’s eyes flutter. “Oh god …”

“No.” Elizabeth murmurs. “We are talking about love, remember? God has nothing to do with it. Or everything to do with it, if Family is the first love as is to Satan. You told her all of that, didn’t you?” She continues stroking him, idly. “Just as we talked about those things back in the lounge.”

Stefan’s throat is dry. Something is tensing up inside him, a massive knot in his chest. In his lungs. In his heart. “I can’t …”

“It’s all right, Stefan.” Elizabeth tells him, one hand stroking the side of his face. “That is why you love her. Valerie. It’s what you dream of making out of her, what every man dreams of making out of every woman — a slave, a thing.” Her lips drone into his eardrum. “An object of pleasure.”

Her other hand lets go of him, and scrapes her nails up his inner thigh. “It is understandable.” She tells him, his senses everywhere, his body trapped between the state of animation and stasis.

“It sounds …” Stefan says, his mind almost back into his body from Elizabeth’s caresses. “It sounds like you want this as well.”

“Mmm.” Elizabeth’s hands spread across him again, going lower. Stefan finds himself thinking about Valerie again. Valerie. If Ilona is a doll, and Elizabeth a femme fatale, then Valerie is a nymph. Playful and coy. The answer to that age-old question as to how something so innocent can be so lustful at the same time. And she knows. She knows what he is.

“They are fantasies.” Elizabeth says, teasing him again. “Fun. Little things to spice up a dreary life. All to make a show, like that week in Bruges.”

“Is that what you are …” Stefan sighs, his mind coming back to him. “Like in the stories? Erzsébet Báthory tormenting young women, the only thing she’s known her entire life … in a life of Obligation, and Duty? Sin, and Death? And Satan as her Family …”

He looks to see Elizabeth staring at him, her eyes misty but gazing right into him. “And what if I were?”

“Hm.” He lets himself become distracted, by the thought, entertained by it as she is amusing him now. “It would explain a lot. After all, if she still lived, she wouldn’t want to be stuck in one place. She’s always been stuck, hasn’t she? When she was born, when she lived … and when she died. You’d feel trapped. Claustrophobic.”

“You make me sound like some kind of ghoul? A vampire?”

He laughs. “You can’t stop. You could have a mansion, an entire Castle, to feed to your heart’s content. Why travel against the edge of the sun to do so?”

“Why don’t you stay and enjoy the garden in England? After all, who understands a boy better than his own Mother?”

Stefan’s heart jolts as Elizabeth’s grip tightens. He finds that he has nothing to say.

“No.” Elizabeth murmurs into his neck, continuing her movements. “Just as Dracula is not Vlad Tepes, I am not my ancestor, the Blood Countess. I am even less than that, Stefan. I’m just an outmoded character, nothing more. You know, the beautiful stranger, slightly sad, slightly … mysterious … that haunts one place after another.”

“W-who are you?” Stefan grits his teeth against the growing sensations in his body. “Are you even real?”

“Are any of us real?” Elizabeth asks. Even her breath smells red. “We all make stories of ourselves over time. Little artifices. Fictions. Am I the Countess Elizabeth Bathory, for instance? And are you really Stefan of Chilton Manor?” Stefan opens his mouth, and he is past the time for words. “Come.” Elizabeth purrs, wrapping herself tightly around him, as he loses himself in her embrace, as he lets her let himself grant him permission. “Let us make a new story together.”

*

Stefan stands on the boat in the night. Everything after their time in the honeymoon suite moved so fast. Elizabeth explained to them that it was like this: time moving slowly, in increments, and then all at once.

He remembers Valerie’s screams as they came into the bathroom of Elizabeth and Ilona’s suite.

Poor Illona. Stefan finally figured out where his razor had disappeared. In the end, she found the water after all, and turned it red. Their favourite colour. Valerie, her white sweater covered in blood, like the spot on Ilona’s pale neck grown and turned large. Stefan keeps the image of Ilona’s body in his mind’s eye.

Elizabeth assured Valerie that it hadn’t been her fault. That she didn’t suspect her, despite the implications. Of course it hadn’t been Valerie’s responsibility. A part of Stefan wanted to rib her further, as he had with the Belgian newspaper, to rankle her, to probe that place, to enjoy her squirming. But restraint. Elizabeth teaches restraint. And patience.

Stefan decided to dig the grave, in the mud, in the darkness, though it’d been Elizabeth’s plan. He hadn’t forgotten how quickly she’d come to that decision, to deal with Ilona. He’d laid a kiss on Ilona’s lips, so pale in death, that when Elizabeth threw the earth on him, and he’d become tangled in the corpse’s limbs, it’d taken him aback. He wondered then, if this had been her plan all along, to bury them together … until a hand reached down …

And Valerie pulled him up. Despite everything.

Then, the Countess’ red bed. And the two of them, as she explored them, and the violet boa around her shoulders. Seeing Ilona’s body, being entwined in it, terrified but … excited him. It helped make that night even more memorable. He wishes he can thank her for that. The last thought he had, of his old life, was seeing Elizabeth’s boa, its feathers reminding him of a bird in a gilded cage, and he couldn’t help recalling the orchid: the Laeliinae, Cattleya violacea. 

Stefan doesn’t think of flowers anymore. Instead, right now he stands on the deck of their ship, wishing it called the Demeter or at least the Persephone, crossing, in Elizabeth’s words, the River Oceanus. It is much calmer now than in those early nights. He turns to his side. Valerie stands there, a stoic, white statue from another time.

“Tell me.” He says, also from another place, another era. “Do you love me?”

Valerie inclines her head. “Don’t you know?”

Her mouth moves, her pouting naivety now become a calculating Galatea. “No.”

Stefan nods.

There is the pause, of a breath that neither of them need anymore.

“And you?” She asks, her eyes far away, the firmament in there as dark as the night that they have led her into, that they were destined for together.

He remains facing away from her, all of his lies now laid bare, now knowing every sordid part of each other. Now knowing, and reveling in, what truly he is. “No.”

Valerie also nods, curtly, hiding her face under her platinum bangs. “That’s good.”

And as their fingers reach each other’s, before Elizabeth can call for them again, Stefan thinks about Ilona’s necklace. She must have dashed it to the floor when she entered the bathroom. He imagines it, in her haste, in her stride as Stoker might have said, snapping, spilling every glorious, ivory bead, each one rolling away, released into the shadows and the crimson tide lapping around them. He considers what kind of newspaper article that would have made, back in Ostend. Stefan grows hard.

Their fingertips almost meet even as Elizabeth comes in from behind, languorously stretching out her arms under her black raincoat, sheltering them, feeling her presence looming over them all.

It Isn’t About the Dick: Robert Hiltzik’s Sleepaway Camp

I first heard of Felissa Rose on The Last Drive-In.

Joe Bob Briggs had, during a “commercial” segment in his show, phoned her up and consulted her as a “mangled dick expert.”

Yeah. So, between her quips and her obvious charisma, I had to find out more about who she was.

I’ve mentioned on here before that I am not a horror expert. A lot of what I do here is me discovering the old classics for myself, or commenting on strange grindhouse, art, and mainstream movies and stories that speak to me in some way. Sometimes, I will just dissect, or reminiscence about my reactions toward them. Other times, I will create potentially bad revisions of the film stories for my experiments, or even outright homages (read: fanfiction).

But I was intrigued by Felissa Rose and her guest calls on The Last Drive-In. I figured out she was a legendary actress in the horror genre, and I had to check out the film in which she is most known: Robert Hiltzik’s Sleepaway Camp.

Now, before I continue writing, I just want to say the following. When I started this Blog, I was going to begin small. Originally, I would look at some older, perhaps more obscure works, and give my takes on them. And then, Cannibal Holocaust happened. It side-swiped me. It hid in the jungle and blew a dart in me with a complex substance that I couldn’t suck out of my brain, or ignore.

And, in that same spirit, so did Sleepaway Camp.

Yes. Even before this death-dealer loving film returned to Shudder, I watched it. And I felt like I got trapped in the sights of that point of view killer camera angle.

Of course, as with most old films the ending was spoiled for me. As Joe Bob mentions in his interview with Felissa Rose that I finally got the opportunity to see not too long ago, I too believed this is where the origin of the “mangled dick expert” came from. But I, too, was wrong: just differently. You know a word or a concept can mean something ages before, and as time passes it changes. Sometimes, it transforms so much there are legends attached to it, even mythologies or tall-tales? This seems to be one of those times.

See, I’m going to spoil the ending to this 1986 film. I’m not going to do it right now, but when I give you the warning, and you want to watch this, run. This article will deal primarily in looking at this issue, and how it relates to the film.

But before we do that, I just want to say I actually enjoyed watching Sleepaway Camp. Felissa Rose plays a quiet, shy, awkward, and terrified thirteen year old girl named Angela Baker who goes to a summer camp with her cousin Ricky, and proceeds to get humiliated and terrorized by both her fellow campers, and some of the counselors.

So, here is your first spoiler warning, with a side of violent trigger warnings.

Angela Baker proceeds to kill everyone that has wronged her in the most creative, and brutal ways possible. It is bloody inspiring. We only, for ages, see through the camera as a first-person perspective. I can just imagine it as a video game like Dennis the Menace or Home Alone, except instead of escaping Mr. Wilson, or planting death-traps for Harry and Marv, you get to pour grease on a pedophile cook, stab a malicious counselor in the shower, shoot a child beater in the neck with an arrow, create a death by beehive situation to a counselor on the toilet, Anakin Skywalker some little shits with a machete that threw sand at you after nearly drowning, and introduce a particularly mean girl — intimately — to a curling iron.

Somehow, I don’t think that by even today’s standards, that it would be a game for children, even if it happened to them in this film.

Yes, you can tell how much I enjoyed this movie. Almost every person that dies in it, deserves their fate. And those whose fates you have conflicting feelings about, you can understand why they are killed. You actually emphasize with the killer. You feel bad for Angela, and towards the end of the film and looking back, I know I can totally root for her.

And then … there is the other revelation. So, this is where I am going to put spoilers up, with another trigger warning.

So, in 1975, before the film begins Angela is seen with her brother Peter with their father who gets into an accident due to some careless teenagers. As a result, there are some injuries and Angela is the only survivor. This is not the spoiler, however. What you find out is that Angela’s aunt, one Dr. Martha Thomas — who is so much more terrifying than Angela will ever be — decides that she has a son already, and wants to raise a girl.

To get back to the end of the film, we discover that Angela — who is extremely aquaphobic, has issues with burgeoning relationships and her body image, and won’t even shower with the other girls in her cabin — is biologically male. Essentially, the movie ends with one of the counselors finding Angela — this young, sensitive, introverted child you’ve been rooting for — with the decapitated head of the boy she liked, naked, and grinning like a maniac, with a low animal growl in her throat following the man shouting: “Oh my god! She’s a boy!”

… yeah.

There is Angela, who had been, or is still Peter, naked with a demented grin of utter torment on her face, and her penis is fairly clear with a body possessing visible chest hair.

So yeah. I walked right into this. And I was so sure, like Joe Bob, that Angela — and it is unclear to me whether or not good old Aunt Martha made Peter take his sister’s name along with her appearance in some good old fashioned misgendering for her sensibilities — suffered injuries from that accident, and perhaps this is why her Aunt and family influenced her to transition. And, thus, the origin of Felissa Rose’s moniker.

It turns out, we were both wrong.

A lot of reviewers have mentioned that the twist ending of Sleepaway Camp has not … aged well. And I see their point. The transphobic elements from the 1980s are pretty clear. Certainly, the fact that Angela and Peter’s father had been gay, or involved in a gay relationship before their accident adds some homophobia and the implication of this arrangement affecting Angela’s sense of identity adversely to this mix.

I don’t think at this point I’m telling you anything that you don’t already know, or can’t read elsewhere.

Personally, between you and I, I like other takes on this film. Certainly, BJ Colangelo, and more extensively her partner Harmony M. Colangelo on their Dread Central and Medium articles respectively, look at Angela Baker as a young victim of misgendering in a social system of transphobia and bigotry. Harmony M. Colangelo goes as far as to say that Angela is something of a Frankenstein’s creature: a symbol of transgender rage against a social order that maligns her because of her sense of identity.

Colangelo isn’t the only writer that identifies Angela as such. Daniel Sheppard sees Angela as a supposed antagonist that he identifies with as an LGBTQ+ man who had been a fifteen year old boy struggling with gayness. In addition, he ascribes to Angela something not out of place in The Queer Manifesto and Queer Ultra Violence: Bash Back! but draws the idea from Sam J. Miller’s “Assimilation and the Queer Monster.” Sheppard argues that the “queer monster” functions as a symbol of anger, and pain, and radicalism to which LGBTQ+ audiences can relate their anxiety and fear: something that the “normalizing” queer identity can erase for the sake of assimilation and hetero-normative comfort. In other words, the “queer monster” or ” queer radical” isn’t all about “gayness” as “happiness” but as a symbol of every terrible negative feeling an LGBTQ+ person is forced to feel in a system that is supposed to be “natural” or “no longer an issue.”

It’s easy, the argument goes, to claim that representation has been achieved, and there is no need for the radical another, but often the image of the radical or the “monster” makes you look at just how flawed society truly is: even when it seems to be “fixed” — and often isn’t. So when you look at Angela in that light, and consider her utter torment, and the discomfort of watching a young human being in their formative years twisted into something that barely resembles a human anymore, having sympathized with her and — literally — seeing her actions from her perspective, perhaps finding themselves complicit in the impetus that forced her to this point, in a dual juxtaposition that all comes together traumatically at the end of the film, it hits home just how utterly fucked up this situation truly is.

Did Robert Hiltzik and his crew intend this reading — this subversion — of transgender and LGBTQ+ exploitation? I don’t know. However, I was curious to know what Joe Bob and particularly Felissa Rose — who played Angela in every scene except for the murder perspectives, and the nude display of the character at the end — had to say about the issue.

It is already complicated. You have a cisgender girl playing what seems to be a transgender character, but when take away the time period and prejudices of the time in which the film is made, and you really look at the film: just what is Angela’s identity? How does she identify? Is she still Peter in her mind? Is he still there? Are they, beyond arguably functioning as a symbol of both “the danger of the queer infiltrating straight spaces” as Harmony M. Colangelo put it, or the radical image of LGBTQ+ pain striking back against “the heteropatriachal norm” as Sheppard states even transgender? What pronouns would they have? Do they even know? Does this character even know what, or who they are at this age where their aunt has proceeded to “convert” them into her perspective of the female gender?

Does this character, does Angela, like Arthur Fleck in Joker except from a gender identity slant even exist beyond working as a cipher for what others project onto, or see reflected in her portrayal?

Felissa Rose seems to think, from her interview with Joe Bob, that in that scene when Angela and Peter are facing each other after seeing their father and his boyfriend together, they are exploring their own concept of sexuality: a situation that gets disrupted with their father and sibling dies. It isn’t about the genitalia of Angela, or however or whoever this character identifies. Felissa corrects Joe Bob, and says that the character’s body is intact, which leads Joe Bob into making her The Last Drive-In‘s resident mangled dick expert. Rather, I would argue that what’s mangled is Angela’s mind and soul from a lifetime of trauma, and gender projection and enforcement.

Joe Bob says it best, I think. He tells Felissa Rose that he believes that it had been totally unnecessary to state that “She’s a boy!” That image of Angela, if you can even call her transgender — beyond any idea she may represent to audiences — growling deep in her throat, her face twisted into a death-head’s grin, her adolescent body covered in hair and blood, cradling the head of a boy she had confused and conflicted feelings about, is an image that will certainly haunt me far more than any ghost or spectacle ever could.

Ephemera of Disconnection, and Moments of Painful Clarity: The Etheria Film Night Shorts of 2020

It’s hard writing about anthologies. And the only film anthologies I’ve ever written about — Tales of Halloween and XX — have been in the auspices of the horror genre. And then, you have an event like the Etheria Film Festival.

This is an unusual situation, I’m given to understand. Usually, the Etheria Film Night Shorts are shown in the Egyptian Theatre, and Aero Theatre in Santa Monica to a live audience. However, due to COVID-19 the film entries for the 2020 Etheria Film Festival are all available on Shudder until July the 20th. These are unfortunate, and unprecedented times, and it’s only fitting that these nine short films possess both unique elements, and misfortune for quite a few of their characters.

Tales of Halloween and XX had framing narratives, a film that basically attempts to bring all of its other cinematic stories together. I know that, in the case of XX — another woman-directed, written, and acted anthology — a unifying theme had developed: that of family. The Etheria Film Night Shorts of 2020 do not have a framing story woven through them, even though Heidi Honeycutt — the director of programming — introduces the anthology, and then just leaves us to experience the films for ourselves.

The Etheria Film Festival features short science-fiction, fantasy, horror, and weird films created by female directors, and the 2020 selection is no exception. However, even without an overall narrative, I began to pick out something of a theme due to how each film is curated and ordered one after the other. If I were to really sit down, and think about the themes presented in the 2020 Etheria Film Night Shorts, I would settle on the danger of a superficial world of disconnect in a time of intense connection.

Many of the films feel like the feminist elements of XX meeting the dystopian banal technological reality of Black Mirror. The shallow, transactional “swipe-left” relationships displayed in “Waffle,” directed by Carlyn Hudson, and written Katie Marovich and Kerry Barker are in some ways far more terrifying than even a self-entitled psychopath. After all, what is more deadly: a predator that takes advantage of a system, or a system that normalizes such hollow relationships to be exploited? This definitely bleeds — figuratively and literally — into Mia’kate Russell’s film “Maggie May” which focuses on the dangers of self-centredness and that evil doesn’t so much happen when “good men” do nothing, but when banal people only care about themselves, and will do anything to avoid personal responsibility or consequences.

And if “Maggie May” is about a character who ignores what is right in front of her out of convenience despite having so many ways to correct the situation, and claiming to have no impetus to do so, then “Basic Witch” — written by Lauren Cannon and directed by Yoko Okumura — has one character use her power to make another face what he has done to her. It’s so deceptively gentle at first, complete with a sunny background and a latte and what looks like an episode of Charmed that teaches one person — perhaps even both characters — the lessons of consent. In a short period of time, we see a myriad of different thoughts and emotions between the characters and a form of communication that is usually so difficult to express is made manifest through radical empathy. It manages to make fun of parts of itself while also allowing its message to be painfully clear. The nuance and depth and that gradual horror but level ground of understanding in it makes it one of my favourite films in the whole anthology.

My other favourite movie in the Etheria Film Night Shorts is one I’d heard about when this event was being advertised online: “Conversion Therapist.” There are so many ways this short film could have gone, or been introduced, and Bears Rebecca Fonté subverts all of these expectations. Imagine a group of pansexual, polyamorous people utilizing a gruesome yet poetically justified set of techniques against a captive Evangelist conversion therapist. It is dark, what they do, and you can be terrified at their cruelty until you realize they are just using the tools of the oppressor against one of their tormentors. The moment I saw the man with the rainbow coloured T-shirt, I just knew what their prisoner had done, and that he was so utterly fucked. It’s not certain, to me, whether or not he did everything his torturers claim he thinks about or enjoys, but what we know he has done is enough to warrant the vengeance happening to him, and others of his kind. Talk about queer ultra violence.

So, at first you might be forgiven into thinking “Conversion Therapist” breaks the pattern I’m trying to work with, but aside from the fact that it takes what happens in “Basic Witch” to a much darker and more punitive level, it goes back to the hypocritical double-standards of a society or a social system that fails to understand its humanity. “Offbeat,” written by Chiara Aerts and directed by Myrte Ouwerkerk, is the non-English subtitled film in the anthology — made in the Netherlands — which displays just what happens when a dystopian society called the Dome creates the only clean highly technological environment built on conflicting ideals and statistics without humanity, while claiming to embrace diversity. It is here that the protagonist has to face the stigma of labeling while watching other characters like a disabled man, and a transgender woman struggle through tests of admission try to stay true to his own self and basic decency.

And this societal critique of a system that inherently discriminates in a cycle, while pretending at fairness, again literally bleeds over from science-fiction to horror tropes in the form of “The Final Girl Returns.” Alexandria Perez explores the idea of a survivor of a horror serial slasher being condemned to rescue the horror trope’s “final girl” only to have each one die to the murderer from she supposedly escaped each time. I am not entirely sure, but all of the characters seem to be people of colour — just as the protagonist from “Offbeat” is — and the subtext about the authorities never dealing with, or capturing each serial killer in this self-aware horror genre universe speaks very intersectional volumes, and is very timely.

Taryn O’Neill’s “LIVE” is a nice transition considering that each character from the last two films is attempting to survive, but “LIVE” goes back to a similar conceit as “Waffle” in that the world is ruled by social media but in this case the protagonist is forced to engage in something of a fight club for views along with other nearly 24/7 streaming activities just to survive a world where the growth of AI has made most human activity irrelevant. This is a reality where everything is, again, transactional and the only way to stand out is to give up your sense of privacy for spectacle and drama and so many more views.

This lack of privacy seems to be a theme in itself within “Man in the Corner” written by Daniel Ross Noble and Kelli Breslin, the latter of whom is the director. After viewing this short film, I tend to think that it can be a metaphor for “catfishing” — of meeting someone online who is under a false identity, except this is interpreted as physical — or ignoring the red flags of the situation around a hook-up for the physical immediacy of the experience. It is a surreal atmosphere, whose reality is unclear and both the protagonist and the reader wonder if they are involved in a dream, or a nightmare.

But I think the film that took me off guard the most is the last film of the anthology. “Ava in the End,” written by Addison Heimann and directed by Ursula Ellis, starts off as a story about another seemingly shallow, hollow science-fiction dystopia — this time with people being able to upload their consciousness into a digital cloud — where a young woman has an interaction with an AI called “Bae,” but as events unfold in such a short period of time you feel for both of them. In fact, I think what makes this film the strongest is that these two characters — who start off in one place — find a commonality, a humanity, an empathy with each other, a sense of connection that can happen in a world that is supposed to be so connected.

That is how the 2020 Etheria Film Night Shorts end. From superficial rent-a-friend and dysfunctional familial interactions, to revelations of harm caused through a lack of connection, to systems of impossible perfection and literal cycles of horror confronted, and the threat of privacy as an illusion to be preyed upon, it all concludes with two lost souls reaching for each other across the digital darkness to make some meaning — to share some solace — in their terrifying existence. And if the results of what should have been a live showing of the 2020 Etheria Film Festival doesn’t capture this contemporary feeling right now online, where so many of us now live even more so than before, I don’t know what does.

Making a Green Inferno Turn Red: Watching Cannibal Holocaust

Designation: Trigger Warning. Reader’s discretion is advised. I will attempt to not become too graphic, but I will refer to things that some people might not like, or feel comfortable reading about, even on a Horror Blog.

Welcome to Phase Two of Looking Out to the Horizon of The Last Road to Hell: Cannibal Holocaust: where this Designation truly applies. My first post deals with my preconceptions of Cannibal Holocaust, and some of the information I’ve looked up about it. This writing will focus on my impressions of the film and its structure, and how I reacted to its contents.

So from last time, to reiterate: the short answer?

It’s messy.

I think that sentence sums up Cannibal Holocaust. After several trigger warnings, from the film, from Shudder, from even Joe Bob and Diana Prince themselves, we were introduced — or reintroduced — into this cinematic narrative, into this situation. It didn’t start the way I thought it would. Riz Ortolani’s musical score, which is genius and on point throughout the entirety of the film, is cheery and as bright as the lush green trees we see below us from a bird’s eye point of view.

And I didn’t trust it. Not one bit.

The scene then eventually shifts to the city of New York and the bustle of humans within it. This is where we are introduced to Professor Monroe, who gives an interview, in which he is going to help find a team of young filmmakers that went missing attempting to make a documentary about “indigenous cannibal tribes” in the Amazon rainforest.

What I found the most fascinating was examining how the found footage, the epistolary, was used in framing this story. At one point, we are literally introduced to the filmmakers through a close-up at a television screen. This is where we see, and Joe Bob pointed out, that the footage with the filmmakers is filmed with 16mm in contrast to the rest of the movie’s 35mm film, to give it that grainy, realistic, rough feel. Most of the movie itself is Professor Monroe actually encountering the Yacumo and, eventually, the Ya̧nomamö tribes to get confirmation about what happened to the group.

The first is told almost from the end of it, where we see the remains of the group, the aftermath of the tribes they encountered and affected and, finally, the retrieval of their own unedited documentary film in a canister. I found Munroe’s interactions with the tribespeople fascinating in that he began to understand their sense of reciprocity and that while they are warlike — he and his mercenary accompaniment actually interfering with a war between the Ya̧nomamö and the Shamatari, these supposed two cannibalistic tribes, on the side of the Ya̧nomamö to get their favour — and himself is fairly paternalistic about their culture, they tell their stories. You can see it in how they are choreographed in the film to gesture and reenact certain motions of past violence. This whole film, even at that point, is about storytelling, and that really does it for me.

Deodato apparently created Cannibal Holocaust, once titled The Green Inferno because of these supposed practices in the Amazon, as an artistic rebuke of exploitative journalism focusing around violence, murder, and tragedies: how these journalists would accentuate and over-focus on the worst elements to profit off of the sensationalism of it.

Again, for those people who have seen and love the movie, I’m not telling you anything new. But I think what really affected me the most wasn’t the gore as I knew it was simulated: it was acted out. Part of it was definitely the animal cruelty. I teared up when I saw what happened to that turtle. I felt a profound anger at that moment, even though the full sequence proved to be a foreshadowing of what was going to happen to some of the filmmakers later on. I also know that these animals had been eaten after the fact by actors on set, so their lives weren’t wasted. But the way they were killed just made me emotionally detach from the rest of it.

But it wasn’t until later, on these reels retrieved by Monroe, that I saw why the film was truly called Cannibal Holocaust. I am Jewish. I guess, aside from my own individual empathy towards animals over humans — as they are perceived to be more innocent — there is this idea that the way an animal is killed can affect the meat you get from it: a resonance of it. Perhaps in some way this is why Deodato had them killed, as something of a ritual, to ascribe something bloody and visceral into this film that couldn’t be done with human sacrifice. After all, the word holocaust itself is taken from the chief ancient Greek verb Holokautein: made up of holo (whole) and kaíō (burn) which refers to animal sacrifice, and sharing the parts of the being with the gods, and the community, but over time it has been used as a definition for human genocide.

This is where my own cultural resonance went beyond the depicted cannibalism that was displayed at the beginning and end of the film. It didn’t stop informing me when the filmmakers began to attack and torment the Yacumo, destroying their food, and forcing them into their huts and setting their huts on fire: all in an attempt to stage a “tribal war” to record. And it definitely didn’t stop when the filmmakers took turns raping a Ya̧nomamö woman, and possibly impaling her afterwards to make it look like a “senseless honour killing.” This is where, as one of my teachers put it, the karma is set and they are going to pay it. You know that these filmmakers, whose remains we find earlier in the film, deserve everything coming to them. That is my feeling. But it’s more than that. For me, these were the moments, especially based on finding out what they did with their previous documentaries, it just hit home that they didn’t even see these people as human beings.

They were just toys to “play with,”  in order to gain fame from the stories they forced on others. They dehumanized them, treated them like objects, tormented, killed them whenever they wanted, and recorded it. Even the one woman in the team, Faye Daniels, is more upset that they are wasting film recording the men raping the tribeswoman and her boyfriend and director Alan Yates having his turn, than because a fellow woman and human being is being violated. These colonial and genocidal atrocities make their resonances clear.

By the time the Ya̧nomamö deal with the group themselves, I found myself having little sympathy for them and you begin to realize that the violence inflicted on these “children of the Space Age” is more justified and understandable than the team and their sense of entitlement to the lives of these people.

Dehumanization is the best way to sum up the theme of Cannibal Holocaust. The tribespeople do it to each other, though in their minds they are fulfilling social functions to keep surviving and their reasons and motivations are no less human than anyone else’s, while the team does it for fame and glory, and even the syndication company that has recruited Professor Monroe wants to use the spectacle of the situation to get ratings. It’s an infection or poison more insidious than any tropical disease or blow dart. You see it in the group’s amputation and abandonment of their guide Felipe and the blasé manner they treat his death, in the way they treat the tribespeople, and even in the manner in which they sacrifice other to the Ya̧nomamö to survive, and failing that, to keep recording.

It reminds me of the words, and the obsession behind them, from F.W. Murnau in The Shadow of the Vampire: “If it’s not in frame, it doesn’t exist.” That fictional depiction of that German film director was willing to throw away human and monstrous lives to make his art immortal. And, in the end, the group’s film reels almost doesn’t exist: kept by the tribe they antagonized, and nearly destroyed by the company that hired Monroe to uncover their story … only for the film to be sold for viewing by the projectionist in order to get his, if you will pardon the terrible pun, pound of flesh.

When Monroe asks, in an internal monologue voice-over — which was also done well earlier in the film through his tape recordings, another element of the epistolary — “I wonder who the real cannibals are?” it becomes pretty clear that it isn’t just the tribe that butchered and devoured the filmmakers. I can see just what Deodato could be arguing: that profiting from the suffering of others is a cycle of self-consumption that will devour us all.

And I can just end this off-the-rails article here. I can talk about how the film slowly pieces together the testament of these four young neo-imperialists through depictions of television interviews, tape recordings, testimonies from the people who knew them, the oral tales of the tribespeople that unfortunately encountered them, and the unedited film reels that create this entire frame story: this narrative beginning at the end and going back and forth into the past to when it all lines up again. I can even point out what Joe Bob mentioned about the film being the precursor to the found-footage subgenre which, in turn, is the result of combining the structure of a Mondo film — a pseudo-documentary depicting taboo subjects — which leads well into the sensationalism of the cannibal film, and the seeming of a snuff-film.

It’s strange to say this with regards to something so brutal and rough in content, but it’s elegant. The pacing is excellent even with the shaking of that 16mm camera work working with, in H.P. Lovecraft’s words, “the care and verisimilitude of an actual hoax.” You can feel it building towards something and the payoff is there. Ortolani’s music is summery and light but also at turns tragic, catastrophically climactic, and unsettling: especially when he juxtaposes them with the other towards the very end. There is a sense of justice to that ending, but there is also a tremendous humanity in the worst possible way, and it does illustrate the power and danger of exploitation. The effects are realistic for their time, and the camera doesn’t focus too long or specifically on them, just to let the viewer put the grisly visual pieces together in their mind.

But when you consider that this film is a social commentary on human consumption, there are just some thoughts that won’t go away. Joe Bob mentions that Deodato not only didn’t credit the indigenous people he got to act in this work, but he also didn’t really make the effort to research the people in the area was using for his film: the ones he had acting as the cannibal tribes. Apparently, the Yacumo aren’t portrayed correctly, with their aesthetics not being as they are in the film. And the Ya̧nomamö not only aren’t at war with the Sanumá (the Shamatari) but they rarely practice cannibalism. And when they do, they consume their deceased tribespeople through an elaborate funerary ritual to keep the spirit of that individual alive among them. It has a meaning, and it is not a punishment.

See, one of the things I keep thinking about now is what could have happened if Deodato, or another creator, took the Ya̧nomamö with this information and attempted to make a film like this? Would the Ya̧nomamö simply eat the dead, and the not the half-alive tribespeople depicted in the film, and only attack when some neo-colonizer assaults them? Or could he have just used another group instead and adapted them accordingly? One account I recall is that, for instance, indigenous or First Nations peoples of North America didn’t scalp settlers until European bounty hunters committed those acts first. Imagine a film from the perspective of the Ya̧nomamö, with a bunch of filmmakers, opportunistic missionaries, or mercenaries wanting them to fulfill these cannibalistic “savage” stereotypes and forcing them to do it, maybe even resorting to cannibalism of the people themselves after devouring all of their food and no luck finding their own, only to have these same people use these tactics against their tormentors later. It’d be a different form of film, of course, and even then as I write this I know it’d be extremely difficult to bring out the nuance of the thing.

And it would be exploitative as well, even in attempting to subvert the tools of that exploitation. Would a director show the humanity and three dimensions of the Ya̧nomamö or another tribe and watch it erode because of what happened to them, becoming the thing they hate or are projected upon? Or would there be some kind of vindication in their acts? Perhaps if the prospective filmmakers had someone from a similar group to consult or collaborate with, and deal with some of these themes with sensitivity … You see, I just don’t know if it’s possible. You would still get a stereotype or a caricature. I mean, the Mondo and cannibal subgenres of film and horror are, in and of themselves, problematic. And even if a director makes an entirely fictional tribe, as Deodato could have done, it still draws from those tropes.

I think this is some of what happened to Deodato and his own crew. In their own attempt to show the consequences of exploitation by using its own structures against it, they perpetuated it, or at least the attitudes behind it. But does this responsibility end there? What about the people that view, have interest, are hungry for such stories? In Cannibal Holocaust, people wanted to watch the missing group’s The Last Road to Hell: a fictional documentary that uses actual footage of State and terrorist executions. And the people who watch Cannibal Holocaust will view it, some of them knowing about the deaths of animals, the killing footage, and the indigenous people not credited in the work.

Does watching a film built on all of these elements make someone culpable in them? I’ve been asking myself this question for a few reasons, but mainly because this film fascinates me. I admire its structure and what Deodato attempts to do with it, what he tries to say, and I wonder if there is a degree of self-consciousness that the film has about what it is that even the director might not possess. In mixing together truth and lies, real violence and simulated, it’s a journey I wasn’t sure I wanted to go on, and now that I have — because I am probably the poster child of the protagonist that goes after the thing in the Forbidden Knowledge that “Man” Was Not Meant to Know trope — I find that I can’t look away from it. I don’t feel drained, or depressed by what I saw. It was terrifying and gross, and I had my own emotional reactions to it. But I think it is good art.

I can see why Joe Bob and Shudder decided on including it for viewing, because not only is it important to understand the formation of a horror cinematic subgenre in found footage, but makes you question the assumptions in the film itself, and your observer-participation in it. Aren’t we also consuming human suffering and exploitation in watching this? Would it be right, or disingenuous not to include the animal killing scenes? Would it be morally right not to even look at the film because of all the above elements, or do the messages implicit within the narrative honour what is depicted? What was done?

And I ask myself: does this make me complicit in the forces that made this film, and if it represents the attitude of the consumable media, could just make me aware of how I have already been participating in this cycle? And what can do I do about it?

You can see how timely and timeless these ideas are, especially now. I think the real reason Cannibal Holocaust scares me, now, is that I liked it. I want to know more about how it was made, and who was involved. Part of it, like my rudimentary fact-checking is me just wanting reassurance that it wasn’t real. Another part of me wants to know more about the people and customs that were shallowly depicted as complex human beings, and the creator in me wants to see this tale or something like it from their perspective, even if that’s impossible. Gwendolyn MacEwen, who is not a horror writer, was a Canadian poet from Toronto who penned:

But the dark pines of your mind dip deeper
And you are sinking, sinking, sleeper
In an elementary world;
There is something down there and you want it told.

And when I think about how this film began, I remember another part of her same poem “Dark Pines Under Water”:

Explorer, you tell yourself, this is not what you came for
Although it is good here, and green;
You had meant to move with a kind of largeness,
You had planned a heavy grace, an anguished dream.

Cannibal Holocaust Vinyl Cover
Art Credit: Jock, Mondo

The young film team went out for fame and glory in documenting an obscure cannibalistic tribe, even if they had to make one. Deodato and his crew sought artistic acclaim to create a film to expose the hypocrisy and danger of the mentality in turning trauma into spectacle, even if they had to make one.

And in writing this article, drawing on Deodato, and Joe Bob Briggs, and the whole contents sordid colonial contents of this film, in actually finding something more than cathartic but inspiring and revitalizing in looking at this movie — taking the traits of other humans’ work and consuming it — of wanting to be noticed, of wanting to say something great, of commenting on something that isn’t my background and should feel tremendous discomfort in even considering, but not turning back when I should have done, how am I any different?

Perhaps I got to talk about creatures and monsters after all.

I think making me ask that question of myself again — reminding me that I am not a Doctor of Horror, but merely a student — is the legacy imparted to me by Cannibal Holocaust.

Looking Out to the Horizon of The Last Road to Hell: Cannibal Holocaust

Designation: Trigger Warning. Reader’s discretion is advised. I will attempt to not become too graphic, but I will refer to things that some people might not like, or feel comfortable reading about, even on a Horror Blog.

I was expecting to talk about monsters, or creatures.

Instead, as another kind of segue from my last post, I’m going to write about my first impressions of a film I never considered watching.

Yes, this past weekend I watched Ruggero Deodato and Gianfranco Clerici’s Cannibal Holocaust.

Of course, I start off my Blog writing about one of the heaviest, most controversial horror films in the genre, and possibly cinema. Before that night at Joe Bob Briggs’ Last Drive-In, this Horror Doctor such as I call myself had very different ideas about what this movie actually was.

Years ago, I just thought it was a mindless grindhouse story where an army of masked killers and mutants attack and torture a group of hapless adolescents, or their families with chainsaws. I think it was my expectations of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre conflate with a title that sounds like one great over-exaggeration, one blatant and gory spectacle. I mean, seriously: Cannibal Holocaust. It sounds like a child trying to show how dreadful, menacing, and important they are by combining two grandiose and horrible words together: human flesh-eating, and mass destruction. You know, like an overgrown man-child that calls himself Kilgrave.

Aside from going there, I learned more about it and realized it was part of the cannibal subgenre of horror: the kind that exploits stereotypes of “the savage,” of isolated tribes of people in developing countries supposedly being barbarians and xenophobic murderers. The stereotype has existed ever since pretty much colonialism. Again, I thought it would just be about supposedly well meaning white missionaries or journalists getting brutally tortured and murdered by caricatures of non-white indigenous people. Like, these cannibals were going to mass-murder a whole lot of supposedly civilized people.

I didn’t think about the film much, even when I heard about The Green Inferno that I may have only vaguely knew had some creative link to it. I just wasn’t into watching castration happen, or gratuitous violence for its own sake in some, in my mind, sloppy attempt to show how terrible human beings are. I don’t need a film about human flesh eaters, and slaughter to know that fact about humans. I can just watch, or read, the news.

But I did know, even though I wasn’t aware of the full details, that Cannibal Holocaust had a legendary, fearsome reputation among horror fans.

Then, Joe Bob announced on Twitter that it would be the second course of the sixth week of The Last Drive-In.

I expected the worst. I’m not going to lie. I was waiting to see the racism, the colonial themes, the mutilations all well up, the gruesomeness and the gore, just all blur together and bring me completely down. I felt a little bit of that when I was watching Blood-Sucking Freaks that very first night of the second course of the first episode of the second season of The Last Drive-In: when I was first acclimating myself to watching with the rest of the Mutant Family live for the first time.

So many firsts. I thought it’d be Blood-Sucking Freaks with its ridiculous, banal grossness, but magnified and with more prejudice in there.

We were given the option not to watch it. To skip it. To just, for the first time as far as I knew, watch all the Joe Bob segments as their own independent self. But I also knew there was a reason why Joe Bob and Shudder were showing, and curating, Cannibal Holocaust, and I didn’t think it would be something as simple as shock value, or pandering.

And so, I did what I do when I don’t understand something and I don’t want to face it head-on right away. I looked into it.

It wasn’t research, but I wanted to ground myself. To remind myself that it is just a film. Just a piece of art and production. And what I found was something that caught my eye: that Cannibal Holocaust is the first known example of the found-footage subgenre of horror. Now, anyone who knows me understands that I love epistolary fiction. Epistolary fiction, a word I use a lot and find myself defining quite a bit, is a narrative put together through different written accounts: such as letters, journal entries, transcripts, and the like. It’s a simulated multimedia affair, and found-footage has that quality in it: of a film within a film, or a piece of cinematic narrative that is supposed to be real. And both epistolary fiction, and found-footage have something of a confessional bent at times, or they portray testimony of particular characters.

Cannibal Holocaust Found Skull

It got me hooked, even as I began to feel a kind of inevitability. After I discovered this, I looked into the controversy without spoiling too much of the plot because I knew, at this point, that I was going to see it. And well, between the indigenous people that were featured as actors in the work and not credited by Deodato, the inclusion of rape scenes, and the very real animal cruelty as well as the fact that the filmmakers were put on trial for murder — as the hoax they were attempting to portray through the realism of the film felt very real at the time — I really got a better idea of what kind of monster I would be facing.

None of these things are surprising to those of you who have seen, or heard of the reputation of, this movie. But that wasn’t enough for me. I was operating under the idea that once I saw this film, it would change my life forever, that I would not be the same person as I was before I watched it. I needed a foundation from which to work from; a perspective to ground myself from, to understand the extent of it.

And then, Diana Prince posted an article on her Twitter account. This is an article written by Joe Bob, under his real name John Bloom in 1981, titled And Jesus Said, “Mai Eeñeno” (“Weep Not”). A lot of the terminology in it, such as “primitive,” “third world,” “the white man,” “Indians” and the like are dated, even there are attempts to rectify some of the cultural misconceptions such as the Waorani (now the Huaorani) people no longer being called the Aucas (a Spanish word for “savages”) but the gist of it is Joe Bob — in his usual tangential, winding way — explaining the implications of a Western missionary program’s effects and interactions on isolated tribal cultures in South America, and who some of these indigenous people actually are, and what they have to contend with as their world changes.

I was looking for a human take, a human or individual face, or at least a nuanced look at a whole other world, and the implications I took away from the article — from what both well-meaning and selfish influence from Western elements on other human ways of life — were complex to say the least. In fact, it brought to mind the story from two years ago where the American missionary John Allen Chau had been killed by Sentinelese tribespeople off India after being warned away from their island at least once.

When you try to imprint a narrative on someone else’s story, especially one that has been developing on its own for ages, there will be consequences. Of course, according to Joe Bob’s article the world is becoming smaller — had been even in the 1980s — and having a presence that can help you adapt to these changes can make all the difference. But then, wouldn’t that same force also have a moral responsibility to seeing those changes through, and bearing the consequences of them? Joe Bob’s article is interesting in and of itself, especially in how the translation of a religious text can mean the recording and preservation of an oral language into a written one … while also changing the paradigm from which that language comes. And the missionaries that are in that article are, despite not getting monetary gain, or scholarly notoriety, still pushing an agenda and a narrative onto peoples that didn’t have it, displacing their own instead of attempting to integrate them in a healthy manner: or help preserve the cultures they have.

But I am veering off of my own tangent. So what did I think about this film?

The short answer?

It’s messy.

As for the long answer, well, you will have to be found in my next post. Think of this post as Phase One, the preliminary, of my preconceptions and rudimentary investigations on and around the construct of the film and its contents. Phase Two will be how I processed the experience of Cannibal Holocaust, and saw what was to come as a student of horror.

Why is the Horror Doctor?

It seemed like a good idea the time.

Horror is pulp. I’m not talking about the old magazines made from cheap and often recyclable paper that are not known for their physical durability. I am definitely not referring to so-called mass-produced or “low quality storytelling.” It’s the closest to the dark building-blocks of the imagination: where fear, death, blood, comedy, tragedy, bodily realities, and the monsters that are archetypes that are both cautionary tales and ourselves, meld together or viciously separate from one another.

It’s a mess. Horror is messy. Weirdness is confusing, and playful. Terror tells you that something is wrong, and dread informs you that there is nothing you can about the inevitable.

Words are misleading when you really think about it. Naming something and defining it is hard when you are taking it apart, and trying to put it back together in some other kind of form. That’s why I thought it was a good idea at the time before I actually sat down, finally, in front of his computer screen, and began to type it all out.

Pulp, as has been used in different places, can mean something visceral and gross — a mashed and distilled version of what could have been a solid state before the blender or the force exerted to crush it — while, in a literary sense, it can mean something ephemeral and transitory, ideas and feelings that have poignancy until they eventually pass on with the people or things that carry them. I’m mixing metaphors here. If you follow me long enough, you’ll realize that I do that a lot. I mean, I might as well be taking about gore and ghost stories by this point, and you wouldn’t be wrong in including these thoughts.

I guess, for me, horror is a liminal thing. It is transitional. It is always in a state of change like the innards of the human body, or the feelings of a person under stress, or someone’s concrete thoughts before they are lost to the misinterpretation of outside influences, or the oblivion of forgetfulness.

This is my focus here, for this Blog, where I may or may not be playing a role half of the time. My problem has always been that when I review a piece of literature, cinema, or interactive narrative my brain does more than just take it apart. It’s easy to do that. Obviously, some people are better or more expert at dissecting matter such as doctors and butchers, but you will just have to settle for me. I am no H.P. Lovecraft, or Joe Bob Briggs. I’m definitely not a Carl Jung.

I’m more like, as the description of my Blog states, a Victor Frankenstein: with hopefully a little more sense of responsibility and just … well, sense in general. I don’t have a Doctorate in any sense. A Master’s Degree in Humanities and my own eclectic knowledge will have to do. I’m not a Cinema Student, or even a cinephile, though I do like some films and I appreciate the effort and the imagination that goes into them.

It all began, one day, when finally sitting down and watching an episode of Joe Bob Briggs’ The Last Drive-In on Shudder, after watching several other horror classics and obscurities that I never got around to doing before the Pandemic. I was watching a movie that was going to be removed by Shudder, along with Briggs’ commentaries, and something just … clicked in me.

It wasn’t an immediate reaction, you understand. I’ve been grieving the loss of one of my partners, who was a major horror fan, and was instrumental in getting me to write again outside of an academic setting, and to watch weird and odd films that my very serious and formerly straight-laced self had no place for, even though I had a whole lot of thoughts. Horror is pulp, she lived with how messy her illness made her life physically and emotionally. Weirdness is confusing, as we didn’t always know how to feel about us or life. Terror tells you that something is wrong, and I felt a sense of falling, waiting for that other shoe to drop. And dread informs you that there is nothing you can do about the inevitable, like a slow, stupid, swarm of encroaching zombie sickness taking away all of your functions, or watching someone you love slowly disappear or worse — not seeing it happen at all, with just hints of it, and knowing that it is still occurring, and you are still helpless.

They say that there are three modes of fear: flight, fight, or freeze. I tend to call the last one fright. An absolute, paralyzing terror where you, again, know that something’s wrong though freeze is appropriate too given how you stay in place — not wanting to move, hoping you’ll survive if you just don’t change, just don’t breathe. It’s where the term “blood-chilling” comes from, I’m sure.

Our time together was messy, and also ephemeral. I recall details but even now a lot of them are fading from my mind, from my memory, over a relatively short period of time. I started Horror Doctor in my partner’s memory, on Blogger where we were going to collaborate on a project together, and because of my own lack of confidence and her own changing life, we never did. I had shared access to it, and I saw her own works, and an unfinished draft: something that will never be started, or completed.

But Blogger didn’t work for my purposes, and I came back to WordPress. Unfortunately, it too has suffered from change, and I may have to go elsewhere or go to another hosting site as figuring out Block Editor feels like putting a tombstone on my writing process before it even begins.

So what is Horror Doctor? Well, think about Victor Frankenstein. He was never a PhD or even an MD by the standards of fictional Geneva in the late 1700s. Victor is a student of old texts and, for his time, new discoveries. Somehow, he manages to combine ancient alchemy and what seems to be cutting edge science to make something new: to create life in a clumsy, artificial manner by taking something apart and putting it together in strange arrangements, and wondering why it isn’t beautiful when he pumps it with chemicals and possibly galvanizes it with lightning, and disowns the poor bastard when he’s done.

I’m not rich like Victor, a Baron’s heir. And while I attempt to edit my work, and I’m biased towards it, I know I’m not making any Adonises out of my parts. This Blog is evidence of that already. I’m not a web designer, blog creator, nor a graphic artist. What you see here, in terms of layout, is what you’re going to get for a while unless I can make some collaborative arrangements with my friends.

But I don’t think it’s ugly. I don’t think it will be. Certainly, my idea isn’t. Perhaps neither was Victor’s, when you really think about it. You see, my issue has always been like that I like taking things apart and putting them back together in different patterns. I have, what you could call, a synthetic brain: and no, that doesn’t mean I am an artificial intelligence, or a cyborg. It means that while I use analysis to look at different pieces of a thing, I primarily do it as an ends to the means of making something else. I’ve done it in my academics, my other articles, and here will be no exception.

You see, that day when I saw that movie Joe Bob had been examining on Shudder, I looked at all the ways it didn’t work … and then I thought to myself — a very dangerous thing to do in general for me — what would happen if this, or that, had been done instead? What would the narrative be like, the flow of the events become, if I changed elements around, if I grafted parts of it into different places? If I took some of the ideas in them and conflated them with similar mythological material? What if I took the bullshit, and bullshat it in a different direction?

You might say it would be fanfiction at that point. I began to think, then, about all those obscure horror movies that didn’t work, or were weird for some reason — that most people, not necessarily all — forgot about, and I started to ask myself: how could I get them to work for me?

That is the twisted, infernal heart of what this Blog is, my friends. Primarily, I want to focus on this film I saw, this weird, messed up thing that barely makes sense, that could make sense, and make it into a story that does. And if it works, I want to see if I can do it with others, on this Blog.

Obviously, I am not doing it for the money. There is no money for something that doesn’t belong to me. This is obsession, pure and simple. Perhaps some Pandemic boredom and ennui and existential dread with which to deal. And perhaps more than a little bit of grief to process.

And maybe, it will lead to an original work, to help me sift through the muck and the grime, and the filth and the guts of this thing. I’m not an augur, being able to tell the future of what I can make by searching through something’s insides but maybe it might trigger something, or become like some sort of weird Jack-o-Lantern that I can hollow out and eventually provide the basis of something entirely new.

I might, in addition to rewriting obscure horror films, write up some reviews on the genre here, some homages or fanfiction, and maybe even more thoughts. The thing is, for me — personally — horror is that archetypal place that I can draw on in between supposed “high-brow” and “low-brow” art, journeying through the guts to find the gem that I’m looking for. I guess, through doing this, through just watching these films and reading these stories, and not being rigid about my expectations, I want to be more fluid. I want to be more alive.

Victor Frankenstein abandoned his creature. And maybe my impetus will run, and I might do the same with this one. But I want to give it a good start first. And even this doesn’t work out, I can use it to learn how to make the next thing better, perhaps, or make it at all.

You get to see the creature get made, my friends. Or creatures. I’ll try not to take apart something I only began to put together. I always thought that the creature’s companion deserved better, whether in Shelley’s novel, or James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein. Victor was never a Doctor, but popular consciousness ascribed him that title. Let’s see if I can, similarly and creatively, earn the designation of becoming a mad creator.

Come, let’s study a scary story with the Horror Doctor.

Frankenstein 1910
Image from Edison Studios’ Frankenstein, 1910.