Stranger in the Land of Get Out

The first time I ever knew about Get Out was at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival. Here I was, sitting with my partner at the time, watching this preview unfold at the theatre about a young Black man named Chris and his white girlfriend Rose going to her parents’: introducing him for the first time.

I recall a part of me inside cringing, knowing that something really bad was going to happen to Chris. This feeling only got worse at the sight of Georgina, the Armitages’ helper, with her Stepford wife smile, and tears slowly trailing down her face. This is complete with Chris being bound to a chair, and the presence of hypnotism, and the whole implication of slavery happening under a polite veneer at the Armitage property. You see, I thought that what was going to occur was that the Armitage family used mesmerism or brainwashing, even torture – physical and mental – to break down minorities, Black people,  and get them to serve them in modern day slavery: a racist cult that made their slaves appear to obey them out of freewill. In my mind, I was seeing Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner becoming a horror film version of Twelve Years a Slave. I didn’t know Jordan Peele at this time, or watch any of the work he did, which was comedy. But I knew this film was going to be a big deal. 

There has been a lot written about Get Out over the years, including how some people were surprised that white people, or other groups could relate to – and root for – Chris in the circumstances of the film. And while there has also been a lot of social commentary examined, and I absolutely believe that in the hands of anyone other than Peele the whole brain transplant element that skirted like the line between old B film horror, and genuine contemporary appropriation metaphor, might have fallen flat, I think I will lead with how I specifically related to Chris.

It’s, arguably, an intersectional place. There is a lot of baggage, and societal stereotypes around Black identity, and that carries its own resonance. That is not what I am attempting to unpack here, as it’s not my place. But the tension that Chris feels as he is introduced to Rose’s family, whose identity and background is different from his own is something with which I can relate. 

I was born into a Conservative Jewish family. That has its own cultural and historical weight when dealing with the rest of the world, and it’s even more impactful when you have interfaith, or interracial relationships. For the most part, when I have discussed this I’ve focused on my family’s perspectives and treatment of me and my partners, as most if not all of my partners haven’t been Jewish in the slightest. But one thing that is ingrained, on some level, from at least my experience is to always be careful of those people that aren’t Jewish: that are non-Jewish, or Gentile. There have been many experiences where Jews were considered allies by Gentiles, or even friends in different nation-states, and groups, only to get turned on later, and either become ostracized, exiled, abused, or even killed. And Jewish history has had its own Biblical and historical encounters with slavery, and genocide. 

This is something I was taught by my family, by synagogue, and by Hebrew School: the outside world will accept you to an extent, but it can turn on you quick when things go wrong, or even if you are doing too well, or you are too different, or you are “assimilating too efficiently.” And there are other groups who, historically, have tensions with my ethnicity, and even if they hadn’t been hostile interactions they grew up in cultures that believed in stereotypes, and might even subconsciously project them onto you. Now, for me, I wanted to live my life. I still do. I want to believe in the power of independence, individuality, and knowing where you come from, but not letting it dominate you: or keep you from new experiences, and especially something like love. 

But then we get to the other side, which is the strength of the bond you might make with someone who isn’t in your group, and being among their kin: in their territory, away from your own, or even the illusion of an open society. When Chris is invited to the Armitage home it seems friendly enough, but there are the awkward jokes, the looks, the things that aren’t said – especially the things that aren’t said – and sometimes little microaggressions that your partner might not see, or even participate in without consciously knowing. 

I can only speak for myself. One girlfriend’s mother sat with us in her car after she drove me home, and told us she knew that despite our different backgrounds, she was all right with us: all the while I knew she would castigate my girlfriend about it behind my back. Her siblings would be friendly to my face, but I always felt a tension there, and words that weren’t said. Her father never talked to me, or rarely did. It felt like there was this quiet, tolerance there. They were Eastern-European and Mediterranean respectively, raised by Eastern Orthodoxy, and they had a Jew in their household – that, granted, they invited – who nevertheless was dating their daughter. I would see the iconography of a culture that sometimes persecuted mine, even if Eastern Orthodoxy had a better relationship with Judaism than Catholicism or Protestantism arguably did. But I never once forgot that Eastern-Europeans did unleash pogroms on my ancestors, and that once in the Old World, a Jewish man being intimate with a woman from those cultures could result in his beating, or death: or worse.

In another situation, I had a partner with Northern European background, and their ties to Protestantism. And while they were nothing but friendly to me, we travelled there – the two of us – to see them deep in the North. I found myself in an old house, generations owned, not unlike that of the Armitages but without the forest or the deer as far as I knew. And that isolation, even though I met them before in my region, made me nervous: to be a household that wasn’t mine, alien but not, and I can remember Chris’s apprehension even as I can consider what I felt watching the city recede to the wilderness of the North, and away from what I knew. 

There is this idea of xenos: of guest-friendship. It is the idea that the stranger, or the outsider should be honoured and treated as one of your own. At the same time, there is xenophobia, which is the fear of the outsider, that can often lead to misunderstandings, and hatred. There is a barrier where it is all right to be friends with someone different, but anything beyond that can be difficult, and go bad. This is a lot of baggage. But you can see, looking at Chris at the Armitage residence, feeling his immense discomfort, and his sensitivity towards those gestures – even second-guessing himself and feeling bad that he;s feeling those emotions, wondering if he’s projecting them at times due the gaslighting of the family in this case – why I can relate. 

When I finally did get to watching it, I saw there were differences between my preconceptions of the film, and what I saw. Brainwashing and mesmerism were elements, but there is also the weird science of that brain transplant, the attraction of Chris as a commodity which is an extension fo the objectification of slavery in America. I never trusted Rose, not even from the previews, and sure enough I was right. She had a very Delilah resonance about her, and I knew she was going to betray him: that she was luring him to her family to be abused, and used for some malicious purpose. 

The fear of the outsider, and the Other is strong, and it can condition you if that is the culture – or a culture – in which you have been raised. Is that household kind and simply ignorant, or are you projecting? Or under that veneer of politeness and hospitality is there a genuine resentment, or hatred of you simply because of where you come from? Are you the friendly stranger to become potential family and are there expectations of you to bring something to the table as if you are a resource, or are you to be the Other sacrificed to maintain, or even increase the power of the group that despises you, or sees you only as that object with which they want to exploit, or be rid? Are you being treated by a host, or a potential enemy? Are you a guest or an outsider? These are ancient, human questions, and instincts. 
I’m glad I saw Get Out. And, looking back at this writing, and my attempt to explain how I relate to Chris and the soul of the film, it makes me wonder if I succeeded, or just projected my own experience in lieu of that understanding. It’s funny now, when I think about this film and how important it is, or could become. I think about how people equate the Jewish experience with whether or not someone has watched Schlinder’s List. And I wonder if, just like Dean Armitage and his vow that he would “vote for Obama a third time” if he could, if one day someone will claim to even begin to understand Black experiences and trauma because they watched films such as Roots, or Get Out itself?

Whatever the case, I wasn’t ever threatened or hurt. I definitely didn’t have someone wanting to use my body, or a cultural history of chattel slavery with which to contend. But the feeling of being isolated, being a stranger in a strange land and not knowing where I stood, but historically having negative cultural experiences howl at me from beyond the void of time, making me question if what I was feeling was valid, but ultimately wanting to at least leave the discomfort and tension of the situation  is something that I think is a human experience. And I think, at least once in our lives, especially from lived minority experiences, we’ve all felt the need to run, to get away from the stereotypes and perceived notions of others, to find our sense of people, of family again: or sense of self.

To Get Out.

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

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

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

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

And then, one day, I encountered Phantasm.

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

And then, I saw him.

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

And he also summoned silver spheres. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

Mamuwalde, Screaming: The Two Films of Blacula

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

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

And then, you have Blacula.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However …

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

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

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

Yet here is what gets me. In light of Matthews-Alvarado, Howarth and kinkedsista’s articles, and their observations of black hypermasculinity, and European influences, and a Black woman’s place in those dynamics, we find a complete opposite to what finally stops Mamuwalde: as, you know, it is the last film in the series so far since the 1970s. Lisa Fortier is a Black woman in 

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

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

To a Queen of the Damned

I was in Thornhill Secondary School, going through the great variety of fantasy and science-fiction books there. 

I must have been in the horror section again. Up until that point, I’d read Christopher Pike and R.L. Stine books primarily. To this day, I’m not sure what actually did it. Maybe it was Buffy The Vampire Slayer becoming a formative part of my youth, and creative mind. It could have been my friend who was making her own vampire stories. And I’d heard of Interview With the Vampire as a film that girls loved.

And so, that afternoon, at my high school library I borrowed a copy of Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire: card catalogue, and stamp, and all. I read it everywhere: at home, at my friends’ and even at the synagogue services I was forced to attend. It’s been years since that time, but I can tell you that my brain expanded reading that book. I saw the baroque writing, the lush descriptions, the sensuality that my younger mind was not prepared to process along with the homoerotic subtexts, and … the world-building. The world-building hit me like a fuckton of blood bags. It was one thing to discover what another child vampire like the Anointed One from Buffy but with far more personality like Claudia could do, and the idea that vampires weren’t affected in the slightest by holy symbols, or places, or even stakes of wood. It had no human hunters. No slayers. No Van Helsing groups.

It was just vampires. Vampires attacking other vampires, loving other vampires, trying to find out about themselves, trying to reconcile their predatory natures with their former selves, and their emotions. It was a vampire telling a human journalist a story about his miserable eternity, even if – as we find out later – it wasn’t the entire story, or even the complete mood of Louis. We find out about Revenants: of beings that were not given blood quite right, or in the precise amounts to make them anything other than beasts. Before The Vampire Lestat, and Queen of the Damned, it was more than possible – at least to Louis and Claudia – that these were some of the first, more primitive vampires who prey on even other vampires.  We got more description of how organized vampires are in Europe, compared to the New World: with covens and covenants, and their need to constantly reinvent themselves when they exist for too long. There was a period of time when ancients existed, but most of them were killed by younger vampires that rebelled against them, and only a few survived.

Interview With the Vampire is where I learned that vampires weren’t just soulless beings but remembered every part of their existence, and some didn’t acclimate to their new inhuman state well and either went insane, or mindless. Many would commit suicide. I learned they all had different powers depending on who their sires, or progenitors were, and some were better suited to their vampiric nature than others. There is a moment where you see Louis, who up until this point, had basically been acting like a human with supernatural abilities realizing that he isn’t a mortal anymore and fully embracing his reflexes, and instincts – his nature – which costs another obnoxious vampire his existence. And of course, older vampires are more powerful than the young, but they can increase their power by feeding off of even older vampires. Telepathy, telekinesis, inhuman speed, incredible strength – these were some of their powers, and we see how these beings have been venerated as gods by humanity, and demonized later on, and made into myths even later than that.

I made it from Interview to The Vampire Lestat, where we find out Lestat isn’t just some inhuman dandy serial killer monster, and has faced far worse than Louis and Claudia could ever dream: and tried to protect them from it. The fact that he had male lovers, and brought across – or turned – his own mother was strange to me, but Anne Rice showed me a world where other rules applied to other beings, and it got me thinking.

If White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade, Clan Brujah was inspired by Lost Boys, and Clan Nosferatu by the film of the same name, then Clan Toreador are definitely descended literarily from Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles: beautiful, swift, psychically gifted artists, poseurs, and obsessive beings whose morality is different from the humans that they hunt. Perhaps that’s why I gravitated towards that faction when I really studied that game lore. I was also fascinated with Lestat’s creator Magnus, who was a wizard that stole immortality from captured vampires, and experimented with various younger victims before settling on Lestat before killing himself. That obsession with experiments, and perfection, and making something better as horrifying as it was, really got to me – as did Anne Rice’s writing.

And I hadn’t even watched the film until after reading those two books. It led to a good time with my girlfriend, though I almost didn’t want to interrupt the movie in my living room as it was so good. And the film adaptation of Queen of the Damned, starring Aaliyah as Akasha the Queen and Mother of all Vampires, was the first film I saw with my girlfriend and my friends after my parents revealed – and grudgingly accepted – they knew she was my girlfriend. I remember her and I holding hands as we watched Queen of the Damned unfold on the screen, complete with that bloody bathtub of roses scene, and all. 

I went on to make my other vampiric mythos: with a Chalice of the Damned that had blood that was supposed to offer immortality to the wizards that created it, but whose magically generated blood only made monstrosities, and then blood-dependent vampires. I made a vampire magus who figured out how to remove his own heart, and became almost impossible to kill before I even knew about Koschei the Deathless. But none of this would have been possible without Anne Rice, and her work.

I think about it now, that she’s passed on: how Interview With the Vampire was that perfect combination of history, mythology, folklore, sex, sensuality, and epistolary fiction: that interview format that was essentially a dictated journal, or an autobiography of an immortal. And I think far before Frankenstein, and Dracula, this is the format that informed my writing interests to this very day. 

Over the years, I’d heard about Anne Rice and her personal views, as well as her other works, but I would never get over her vampires. I personally loved Marius: who was level-headed, an artist, and had started to master his advanced vampiric abilities. He was an ancient Roman that revelled in the Renaissance. But I think I related the most to Louis, to a nature of melancholy and bitterness that nevertheless hid a spark of true, and aggressive, potential. Perhaps these days, in some ways, I can more see the Lestat in my creative endeavours, but I think I will always try to endeavour to be a balanced and powerful creator like Marius.

And as I wrap up this commemorative retrospective, I truly hope that wherever you are now Anne Rice, that you know you were a true Queen of the Damned. Thank you for making me more interested in vampires beyond being blood-drinking monsters.  May Lestat brat you into the Afterlife. May this Interview never end.

Ash Vs. The World

Ash has had it. 

Between the Book that nearly sucked him into itself almost as hard Sheila’s enthusiasm, and the Book that’s bitten him also far less pleasantly, he’s narrowed it down to the one on the top of the rocky altar. He curses the Wise Man again for making him try to remember the ridiculous stuff, simple things, about “the words” and neglecting to tell him about which Book was which, and hopefully without any more fucking witches. 

He’s about to take it. But then, he does remember. Right. 

Ash clears his throat, throwing out his hands, perhaps getting points for dramatic gestures. “Klaatu, barada …”

And then, it fails him. No. No, this isn’t a thing. He knows this. He’s got this. He told the Wise Man. He’s a college student from Michigan State University. He’s good at memorizing useless trivia. He intones the words again. “Klaatu, barada, nick …”

Nick? Nick? Nick what? He recites a few words under his breath, each one with the letter “n.” But he isn’t sure. No. This is ridiculous. Ash said he’d get back to the Book that bit him, but the truth is, he’s done with this. He’s done with howling winds chasing him, with trees trying to eat him, broken bridges, with cutting off Linda’s cackling head, and the dead wanting to fuck him up. He’s sick of being bled on, black bile spewing on him, and getting torn apart. He’s definitely up to here with being possessed by demons, Deadites, or whatever the hell they are, and being thrown into a past of primitives, even if those grapes and those girls, and Sheila — kind, beautiful Sheila — are the best things after losing Linda, and barely knowing Anne, and his job at S-Mart, and trying to remember if he’s lost Cheryl too, and Scott and Shelly, or if it was LInda, then Anne and those other chuckleheads, and if any of this is actually real. The words are driving him just as crazy. He feels like he should know them, that they’re familiar somehow. Maybe he should have paid more attention in that Film Class elective. Right now, though, he wishes this was like he was in the fucking Wizard of Oz, because what could be simpler than tapping together some ruby slippers?

As it is, he’s tired of double-tapping these Deadite bastards. Ash just wants to go home. 

There’s no place like home, he thinks to himself, focusing on what he’s going to do when he gets back, thanking whatever isn’t insane in the universe and reminding him with that ghostly tingle in his stump that at least he didn’t lose his sexing hand. This bullshit ends now.

“Klaatu, barada, nic –” he coughs the rest of it out.

He looks around. Nothing’s happening. Just a creepy graveyard with three fucked up Books in it. He did it. It’s done. He reaches out for the Book of the Dead, ready to get this over with, taking it off the cold, rough stone. No problem. 

And that is when he sees it. It’s lightning, in the sky. No. It’s a shape. It’s coming closer. It’s …

*

Storm clouds gather in the darkening skies. Lord Arthur shouts orders to the men over the terrified screams of horses, and the cries of the people. In the middle of the turmoil of lightning and the thunder crashing, the Wise Man comes out. He looks around in the chaos, the wind whipping into his hood, and sweeping back his long grey hair and beard.

“Something is wrong!” He calls out, perhaps more to himself than to the rest of the people. “Something’s amiss …”

And that is when he looks up and sees it. The light …

*

There is something shining in the darkness of the firmament. It’s silvery, and round. It looks down from beyond the skies, from beyond the clouds, and the ozone. Only the stars are farther as it orbits the planet. 

A port forms, a dark rectangular shape opening into something not unlike a crypt of its own. A form stands in the black gateway of the hovering ship. It sees the electro-magnetic disturbances on the island below. It is not surprised. There had already been anomalous signs. Extra-dimensional, and temporal fluctuations had been occurring at an alarming rate. They weren’t due to directly visit this world for another six centuries. They were only to watch. To listen. Safeguards had been put in place as the proper protocols to prevent extra-dimensional incursions, these ones localized on another continent of this world millennia ago, were compromised: sending the signal to the ship. 

The figure’s head inclines. Its visor begins to rise. These extra-dimensional parasites, the servitors of their non-Euclidean creators, could not be allowed to spread: not on this world. Not on any other. An eerie light pulsates on the horizontal line of the figure’s face as a beam fires out, piercing the starry darkness … and making contact with the rotating blue and green sphere below it. The planet glows brighter than all the celestial bodies around it for a few moments before it disappears: completely and utterly vaporized. 

Gort stands at the entrance to the ship as it begins to close. Then, he turns around, and makes his way back in. His visual and audio receptors recorded everything. Even with the generations of Wise Men and the commands entrusted to them, this species could barely follow ritualistic instructions to protect themselves, never mind have been trusted to develop more power resources of energy, or making their way into the wider galaxy. This incarnation of the anomaly — what this world’s natives called the Naturom Demonto, the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis — has been destroyed. The potential incursion has been contained. For now. 

It’s a pity.

That human. 

He should have said the words. 

Made Family: Clive Barker’s Nightbreed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Tell-Tale Heart

I said it a year ago, on the first Halloween of The Horror Doctor, that this is the time when the veil between worlds is thinnest. It’s a time of costumes, candy, and contemplation. 

A year ago, it was the first Halloween everyone spent in Quarantine from the grim harvest that was COVID-19, before we had a vaccine. It was also the first Halloween without my partner Kaarina Wilson: an avid horror lover. 

So I wanted to enjoy my Halloween twofold, for the two of us, since she wasn’t here anymore to celebrate with me, or her family, or on her own. So I decided that from September to October would be a Grand Halloween, and I would do my damnedest to enjoy it all before I’d have to deal with a reality that I’d rather not.

And I did well. I went to my friends’ virtual horror viewings. I attended some Lost Drive-In Watchalongs, and even interacted with Joe Bob and Darcy, and the fine folks that also love them. And I watched as many of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, having returned and being all online this year, that I possibly could. 

So I’m not sure what this was going to be, this latest October 31st post, before the events of a week or so again, when my grandmother passed away.

My grandmother and I used to talk a lot. We were close. I was a demanding child, somehow to counterbalance the extreme introversion and shyness. I had her make me things all the time, when she could, and I was exacting. I wish I could tell you what I had her make for me, but it’s all lost to time now. 

During that time between my childhood and adolescence, I was a nervous being. In retrospect, a lot of my maladies were probably the result of anxiety. And my grandmother played cards with me, we watched television — usually Early Edition, or Keeping Up Appearances, or Are You Being Served? — to calm down.

But then, she also read to me. A lot of the time it was from books she already had like Little House on the Prairie, but sometimes I wanted her to make stories. To create them. I was fascinated, and scared, by horror. My parents wouldn’t let me watch 1980s or 90s horror, so I wanted as much of the classical stories as I could get away with. Now, my grandmother was many things, but she didn’t make stories. But she did retell them. I remember being in the basement of a house that saw at least four generations of my family on my Mom’s side, a dim place with crackled red and white checkered tiles with a bar that never saw much use anymore, and a fireplace that did. I recall, like my horror, being fascinated and terrified by that fire place. We would put in wood, but mostly white paper birch that we used to write on from a tree in the front yard, to burn. I’d stay away from that old grate as it would barely contain the crackling embers that spit out, as my grandmother would nudge it with a poker, as she would tell me about the heart buried under the floorboards, and the man that put it there: haunted by his crime of murder: committing it, and hiding it from everyone except himself.

It didn’t take long to realize that she was retelling Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and possibly conflating it with “The Cask of Amontillado,” but it did the trick, and it made me want more. And to do more.

I made all kinds of weird clay creatures from Magic Model plasticine and Play-Do in that house that she displayed for a while. I would create men out of Silly Putty, give them Lego armour, make vehicles, and crash them down the long stairs into the basement into a million pieces just to reassemble it all, and do it again, and again. And again. I am pretty sure she knew I did it too, but let that slide as I had some aggression to work out, those dual forces of creation and destruction that are so intrinsically part of my character. 

There were always woods where she and my grandfather lived, in her own parents’ house. I was always exploring, and contemplating the many ghosts that could be in the area from my late relatives alone. It was a bubble of time that also managed to make me very aware of it having passed. 

Sometimes, my grandmother let us get away with some things. For instance, while my parents didn’t want my brother and I to watch horror films, she would rent us movies, and some of them fell under that umbrella. I am pretty sure we watched Anaconda and Mimic under her watch while my parents were busy dealing with adult matters. And this isn’t even going into when we could get away with staying up a little later. I recall one time, at night, when there was a TVO horror movie with a woman affected by a love potion by a man, who dies, and her ghost haunts him still from the obsession he gave her. It was probably the first time I’d seen a simulated sex scene in a horror movie. There were many other times as well, and this didn’t even include when I could sneak snippets of Tales From the Crypt on Fox 29 when we were over for Passover Seders. 

Things were not always easy between us, especially as I got older. I was questioning a lot of my parents’ beliefs, and therefore those of the family. My grandmother was noted as being a peacemaker, but sometimes what that meant was that she would strongly advise something “for the good of the family,” even if you didn’t like it. Even if, sometimes, it was kind of tone-deaf. She couldn’t help it. It was probably socialized into her, her whole life, being a matriarchal force in a patriarchal family and culture. She would always side with my parents when I just wanted more freedom, and less structure, and her spoiling only went so far. 

Poetically enough, it all came to a head one summer when she blamed my first girlfriend for my rebellious behaviour. It should be mentioned that my first girlfriend wasn’t Jewish, but that I was rebelling far before I met her. She literally took me aside, and chewed me out over it, and essentially told me to tow the line. Never mind the fact that I’d missed spending more time with my friends at this time in my adolescence, at one point being dragged out before I could finish watching Fright Night with them, or not going on cottage trips despite my good grades, and academic behaviour. It was an unfairness that struck me, and those phone calls I used to make to her talking about new ideas, and my days, stopped. I didn’t feel like she was on my side, which I needed her to be — just once — but in a choice between me and my parents, it was kind of inevitable where that decision would land. As it was, it drove me further into my own rebellion, and alienated me a great deal. Years later, I would talk about this incident in Pornsak Pichetshote, José Villarrubia, Aaron Campbell, and Jeff Powell’s horror comic Infidel: which was funny, as my own father once called me a heathen, so there in a symmetry in the miniseries published two of my letters. Infidel is a comic about differences, and how in attempting to overcome them, sometimes they tear us apart. Sometimes, as Stephen King notes, the monster wins. 

I know I didn’t win, then. And this was a powerful experience from my grandmother that I carried with me for the rest of my life, for good or ill. Sometimes the people you love, that might even have good intentions, make mistakes. Sometimes, they simply come from a different place, and they will not see your perspective.

Sometimes, they will fail.

Our relationship was changed. I buried my part of it in the floorboards when I could. I moved as far away from it as I could, which I began to do with other relationships that failed as well. 

Of course, she was always there. She would be invited over to my parents’ and I made token appearances: and made them as brief as possible. I drew her birthday cards. And when COVID-19 hit, I wrote her letters: especially when she sent me birthday money, which she always did without fail. Eventually, over time, what was anger became just awkwardness, and distance, a gap of age and time. I knew she was never going to change who she was, and I wasn’t going to do so either. I didn’t go to many family functions. I still don’t as they aren’t really places for me anymore, unless I have the will and the lack of anxiety to do so. 

When she was sick, it’d not been the first time. I guess a part of me, just like with Kaarina, thought or hoped that she would pull through. Despite our differences, I still loved her. She was stubborn, you have to understand. So am I.

So, one day, I was told she didn’t have enough time. And, despite missing Kaarina’s passing and others, I made my way with my Dad to the house. It’s hard to see someone you saw so independent and strong, and stubborn, even when you disagreed with them, even when you remember all the times you spent with them, tired and worn away. She wasn’t speaking anymore. It was like she was in between dreaming states on that easy chair in the Den. The following morning, she passed. 

It was as though the darkness in the halls of that house I always walked through consumed the dimming light, and it grew throughout the entirety of the week of the services and the funeral. And I realized, with her being gone, that all of it was gone: the childhood, the house that was a part of my reality — even on the fringes — the anger, the disappointment, her distinctive chuckle, and all of it. She loved mystery novels, she always read them and got them from my Mom, and I can see how Poe came to her mind all those years ago when she retold those stories to me. 

And I suppose the mystery is how it all came to this point, which is life, and the horror of realizing one day I would be lying down like that in my own home surrounded by people that knew me: if I was lucky. If I am lucky. 

Reality sucks. I wanted to stave it off for just one more month, but these Twenties evidently want to suck as much as their twentieth century counterparts. And I have been angry, hurt, sad, and terribly tired. 

But this is something I have to write, something real, as autumn becomes fall, and Hallow’s Eve passes to the Morning. It was my grandmother’s house and the land that helped nurture the horror inside of me. It was those stories that made me want to know more, in addition to the remnants of old pulp comics she kept, and books that were collected. It was the little moments of grace where I got to see, and gained things I probably shouldn’t have but she let it pass. 

So maybe I did bury that old part of me. But perhaps, through seeing what was important at the end, I don’t have to have it drive me mad. I don’t have to have it beat through my conscience for the rest of my life. I got to see her again, for at least one last time. 

Rest in peace, Bubby Rose. You were almost a century old, and you saw wonders and horrors I can’t even begin to imagine. I am going to a Halloween Party with friends today as of this writing: where we will participate in a roleplay game as monsters attacking some heroic antagonists coming into our Dungeon. Maybe it’s not what the family might be interested in, and I know you would have hated even the idea of me hurting simulated lives, but it interests me, and I intend to have as much fun for as long as I can.

A funny thing though, before I end this post. When we used to eat at her house more often on weekends, when I stayed up late I would sometimes see some other television shows. And on a channel called TNT, far after Dinner and a Movie earlier that evening there was a strange man in a cowboy hat sitting on a lawn chair that was always hitting on a red-head that viciously never gave him the time of day. I never understood the point to all that, or the weird movies that played … But I do now. It was great meeting you that first time, Joe Bob. And thank you again, Bubby, for that little indulgence. 

Next time, on The Horror Doctor, I think we will talk about something else. Something else to do with family.

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

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

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

Time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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