A Messy Road to Sunrise: Joe Begos’ Bliss

It has been a while since I’ve opened the operating table, such as it is.

And tonight, ladies and gentlemen and other sentient beings, we have an interesting specimen on the table who didn’t so much die young and leave a beautiful corpse so much as leave a glorious mess of bile and beauty, blood and Diablo in its wake. I am, of course, taking about Joe Begos’ 2019 film Bliss.

I, figuratively, walked in on Bliss as one woman was vomiting up blood, and another took a chuck out of another woman’s neck in a club bathroom. Aside from reminding me of my limited clubbing days, though not in Los Angeles as this film takes place, I wondered if I had accidentally crashed one of Dionysus’ revels in the twenty-first century. I left it alone for a while, once I saw this part on Shudder TV, my brain occasionally mixing it up with Panos Cosmatos, Elijah Wood, and Aaron Stewart-Ahn’s 2018 film Mandy, and eventually decided to revisit this strange, yet beautiful specimen after the subdued revelry of the New Year.

What I found was … blood can spoil, and so can films — or people who talk about them — so please mind these Spoilers, or chase them down with a gallon of red, or paint, or your favoured kind of debauchery. Or you can follow the good example of Bliss‘ protagonist Dezzy and, in the words of Neil Gaiman, “Make good art.”

I can see why some others have compared Bliss to Mandy. Aside from the fact that they both played on Shudder, they have heavy psychedelic sequences: with the bright strobing lights, and disjointed shapes, shadows, and shrieking noises that form the basis of every seizure warning disclaimer displayed before the film even plays. But this is the only thing those two films have in common. Before I set the record straight, I had this vision of the female protagonist of Bliss being kidnapped and she and Nicolas Cage engaging in witty banter as they slaughter every human and demon in their way to escape.

This did not happen.

Bliss, on the surface, seems like the kind of film — experimental and with art-house elements — that a critic and personality like Joe Bob Briggs would despise, or at least pick apart. Dezzy, played by Dora Madison, is an artist living in Los Angeles, with a clueless boyfriend content make a moderate living, while needing new experiences to help her break her artist’s block to finish her most recent art commission: a painting that will be displayed in an art gallery. All, obviously, isn’t well of course. It’s a chain reaction of Dezzy having this creative block, not getting paid by her agent, who isn’t getting paid by her, the owner of the gallery not getting the commission she paid for, and Dezzy dealing with a rut in her own life.

So what does Dezzy do about this? Well, it’s really simple. She goes to her drug dealer friend, and his older buddies, and gets some drugs — some alternative consciousness perhaps — to break through her block, and create her painting which at the beginning of the film is almost literally an ember that will ignite into a bloody, terrifying, incredible inferno. However, it is Dezzy’s life that needs to explode out there first.

The cinematic narrative perspective of the film follows Dezzy — and only Dezzy. It’s confusing enough as it is without adding anyone else’s perceptions into the mix, and Begos does this on purpose. On the surface, it would be so easy to say that after indulging in a self-destructive lifestyle of sex, drugs, booze, and rock and roll Dezzy loses her sanity, and kills herself but not before creating her last great work. As I said, this film can easily follow the burden of artistic genius and creative block trope easily: complete with hallucinations that are very much in line with the content of Dezzy’s painting.

But this isn’t taking the vampires into account.

Those vampires, seriously. You almost miss them at the beginning of the entire thing, and it’s easy to do so. In fact, Begos seems to hope that you will. It’s hard to keep track of a lot of events, in between time speeding up, becoming fragmented, and bouts of Dezzy being sick in the washroom, or screaming in terror into a phone and punctuated, rather brutally, by frequent blackouts.

Oh, there are some … crimson herrings of course. At the beginning of the film, Dezzy’s drug dealer offers her the drug called Diablo, and it’s another clever trap: where you might think that she’s inhaling the ashes of a demon that possesses her, and every interaction she has beyond that is incidental, or integral in triggering this entity into controlling her and destroying everyone around her: something like a twisted throwback to the genius, or muse, or daimon of ancient times: the old Mediterranean paradigm of a creator being inspired or inhabited by an outside creative spiritual force that makes them make things. But it seems like this is more than a kakodaímōn that encourages a person to commit terrible deeds such as murder, even if the metaphor might actually be implicit there.

Courtney and her boyfriend have a threesome with Dezzy during a party at her dealer’s house. And it’s only after this act, that we see Dezzy getting sick. And the imagery doesn’t end there. It is complete with Courtney killing a woman in a washroom and sharing the blood with Dezzy, as well introducing Dezzy to a man named Hadrian — who suspiciously resembles the kind of businessman elder vampire we all know from current vampiric films and literature, though we don’t see much as Dezzy’s senses are distorted from alcohol and drugs to the point of passing out.

Slowly, inevitably, we begin to realize the reason Dezzy is vomiting up blood isn’t because Diablo is destroying her body, or some monster is eating her up from the inside: though those things, both physically and metaphorically do take their toll on her. It is her vampirism. It is from all the moments she feeds and kills and blacks it all out of her mind — and it’s only later — when she comes face to to face with this addiction she can’t overcome, or have Courtney take away from her, that we see her kill: this almost somnambulist, animalistic state overcoming her, and making her murder and devour all her friends, and loved ones. .

Bliss‘ vampires are different. They seem to be able to eat food, drink, use drugs, and have sex. If anything, they seem more like Maenads — again with the Dionysian imagery of reveling women lost in drink and dance and becoming enraged to the point of ripping people apart and feasting on their blood — than something undead, or rotting. It could also be that Dezzy herself is in the transition into becoming one of these beings. Indeed, after her encounter with Courtney and her boyfriend, she can still walk around in the sunlight and eat: but it’s earlier on, and as she loses track of time and events spiral swiftly onwards, we get caught up in the whirlwind of the entire time. Eventually, looking back on everything, you wonder if Dezzy is only ever out at night now, indulging in her addictions and her creativity, and her madness.

But the vampirism in this film is almost besides the point. Somehow, it gets sidelined. What is fun is realizing that Courtney and the other vampires probably told Dezzy the rules of what they are, and how they are to operate in society, but because Dezzy is so suffused with Diablo — apparently, and ironically, the only thing keeping the edge of her hunger — she might not even remember those conversations having taken place. If you look at it on the surface, it seems like Courtney just threw her friend into the world of vampirism and “fucked around and found out”: just letting Dezzy go out of control until needing to do something about like — you know — devouring her instead.

Courtney isn’t blameless, of course. She knows Dezzy. She knows how to indulge her worst traits, or enable them. She probably knew it would come to drugs and killing sprees and orgies of death in general. Perhaps she underestimated the scope of them, or the focus. Because, here is the secret of this entire time: the lynch-pin of this film if you’d like. Dezzy’s primary addiction isn’t sex, or drugs, or alcohol, or money, or power, or blood and immortality.

Dezzy’s ultimate compulsion is the creative process.

Dezzy needs to paint. She needs to create. She castigates her boyfriend or lover, who wants to settle for mediocrity, because she tells him that he doesn’t know what it’s like to make something, and it shows. It is the main part of their disconnect. It’s the reason she went on this new odyssey to begin with, but the journey becomes the destination. It might have started with needing to pay bills, or gain fame, or keep up the money she needs to maintain her lifestyle but the seeds of all of this had been planted in the ash-covered ground ages before, watered by the blood of Dezzy’s friends and enemies. She only did the bare minimum to keep living, to have outlets for her physical needs in order to continue her artistic passion: her need for freedom, and the power of creation itself.

Everything has been a means to that act of art: the drugs, the alcohol, the sex, the interpersonal connections, and even the vampirism. E. Elias Merhige’s 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire posits that its monster isn’t the vampire, or human greed, but the cold, soulless lens of the camera that wants to consume everything that it views in its mechanical gaze. Bliss‘ monster is all consuming love of creativity, and the process, at all costs. And, just like the vampire playing Max Schreck, Courtney, the inadvertent vampires made by Dezzy by feeding off of everyone she knows, and Dezzy herself are all consumed by this burning passion: culminating in a joyous, bloody explosion by sunlight, and her painting displaying a beautiful summoning of a road into hell.

The vampires of Bliss can be killed by a stake through the heart, but it’s the light of the sun — the sunset at the beginning of the film, and the red dawn at the end — that sees the beautiful disaster of Dezzy, once well-meaning but become a blood-splattered glory, to the ascension of everything she ever truly loved … and destroyed. After all, it is no coincidence that the damned souls depicted in her painting look an awful lot like the people in her life taken down with her, and the central figure surrounded by them herself.

Perhaps, like Ana Lily Amirpour’s 2014 A Girl Who Walks Home Alone at Night — another excellent vampire film and reimagining — Joe Bob and others might see this as artistic cliché and masturbation, but it hits close to home for a lot of reasons. Dezzy isn’t perfect, but despite what she inhales she isn’t the Devil, and there is something about the mentality of the creative process being all-consuming, like fire over a vampire and the release of the mess of emotional gore inside artistic expression combined with Begos’ cinematic unreliable narrative perspective, that truly speaks to me, and I am glad that after my horror writing hiatus from the last year, this is the film with which I chose to wreck it.

Behind Nostalgia

In order to look at the necromantic strings holding my story “Nostalgia” together, I have to truly go back into the past, and look at Sweet Home.

Now Sweet Home, or Sûîto Homu is a 1989 Japanese role-playing game made for the Famicom: in which you, as a television crew must venture into the haunted mansion of the fresco artist Mamiya Ichirō, and deal with the malevolent spirit of his wife the late Lady Mamiya. It is, basically, an 8-bit nightmare directed by Tokuro Fujiwara for Capcom where you have to switch between protagonists who have different abilities lined up with their tools and you both have to work together and, well, split up to get things done.

Another thing to note is that it was the spiritual predecessor, or even the prototype of Resident Evil, and survival horror games in general. That almost says it all, really.

Released, or announced, concurrently with video game was a film of the same name directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and produced by Juzo Itami. There has been much confusion about which came first: the game, or the horror film. I had been introduced to the game through the YouTube Let’s Plays of Deceased Crab, and I briefly paused continuing to view them in order to play the game myself. This is no easy task, as an English version of the game was never released on the Nintendo outside of Japan, one of the possible reasons being the absolute nightmare fuel of the slow, dread-filled pacing of the cinematics, and their graphics. I mean, just look at this. Look at it.

Nightmare fuel and a rotting skeleton from Capcom’s 1989 Famicom horror JRPG Sweet Home.

I mean, what the fuck right? Imagine being a child, which the Nintendo Entertainment System had been advertised towards, and seeing this monstrosity pop out at you. As an adult, and other kinds of people, this would be awesome, right? So, it didn’t get an English translation or port, but there are fan translations and lovely ROMs that you can get online in order to play the game on your computer.

I didn’t get far. The game is a labyrinth, and it’s easy to get lost, to not know what to do, and switching between characters can get cumbersome. Also, you have a limited amount of items that you can get and your items aren’t endurable. I lost patience with the arcane mechanics of the thing, and that’s really not why I brought you all here to examine this particular experiment of mine.

The film is even stranger. It also hasn’t gotten an official Western release, or translation. It is comical at times, almost Hallmark and cheerily bizarre with the characters’ social interactions. But then, it gets dark as fuck. Seriously, the puppeteers and special effects artists that create Lady Mamiya and some of the other things in that film — especially when Ken’ichi Yamamura’s flesh boils and melts off thanks to confronting the ghost — could have easily worked on both The Dark Crystal, and some of the ugliest horror films of that time.

Many people have talked about these elements, with far more qualifications than me, and my learner’s knowledge of horror. So why did I write this story? Why did I create this scene, and incorporate it into an actual scene in the film?

For me, it all began again when I got Fangoria, and read an article in Vol. 2, Issue #1 by Preston Fassel in the column “Corrupt Signals” entitled “Sorting through the murky history of the film/videogame SWEET HOME.” This was the point where I was not only reminded of the game, and encouraged by Fangoria looking at other media in the genre — as I was interested in examining certain horror comics myself — but it hit home, or I realized, there was a film.

So, of course, I had to watch it.

And I did. I found a fan subtitled version of it on YouTube and watched the hell out of it: and those “being burned from the inside out” scenes that Fassel talked about were no exaggerations. But I think what really got, and this is something I’ve been looking at in various forms since really honing in on horror is the concept of “family horror.”

It all comes back to two characters: Mamiya Ichirō and Ken’ichi Yamamura. In the Sweet Home game, just as in the film, an old man named Yamamura helps you in your quest to quell the spirit of Lady Mamiya and gets incinerated from the inside for his troubles. He provides clues in the game, if I recall right, while in the film he is an actual character who works at a gas station near the estate, and believes fervently in spiritualism of some kind. But in the film, he sacrifices his life to rescue the girl taken by Lady Mamiya and returning the girl to her father Kazuo Hoshino and his producer the woman Akiko Hayakawa.

Yamamura is a boisterous, taciturn, scolding old man who drinks much sake but at the same time uses the power of belief to do considerable things in the film. He is also, paradoxically, humble and self-effacing. He understands, and is furious, when he hears about how the television crew disturbed the grave of a young child on the estate grounds and he always gives Kazuo Hoshino, and the director of the crew absolute hell. But he also helps them, and tries to show them the way. Juzo Itami plays the old man himself, and there is a cantankerous gravitas there, a living experience, like he’s seen something like this before … perhaps even personally.

There is also the matter of the artist that used to own the estate: Mamiya Ichirō. He is never seen in the film, but referenced as the crew is there to find lost works of his in his locked up home. It isn’t clear what happened to him, nor is this apparent in the game as the antagonist is his dead wife. What we know is that his child, with Lady Mamiya, wandered into the furnace and died: prompting Lady Mamiya to go mad, abduct other children, then when found out she committed suicide. But no one seems to know what happened to the fresco artist amid these consecutive tragedies.

The game, however, seems to intimate that Yamamura and Ichirō are the same person, especially when he still manages to communicate with the characters after he is supposedly dead. There is the matter of the fact that he vanished, and in the game there are servants who seem to know who he was. The film doesn’t go into this detail, and there are no servants in that house: trapped, as they were in the game, or otherwise.

I kept asking myself: could film Yamamura also be Ichirō? Would this make sense? I thought about it for quite some time, watching a Walkthrough of the game after I’d seen the film, and then a story began to form in my mind. I wondered what would happened, that day, if Ichirō had taken a break from the fresco he was creating based on his son’s birth — which would have gone through depicting his entire life — and helped his wife find him before he was burned alive?

The death of a child is a terrible thing. The panic Lady Mamiya must have felt in not being able to find him, and then discovering his body in the furnace must have been terrible enough. But what about Ichirō? What was he doing that day when his infant son burned himself alive when the furnace was turned on?

I considered the Mamiya could have been a merchant clan, or a Clan of craftspeople, in the early days of Japan. Perhaps I flubbed that part. But I decided the house was Ichirō’s ancestral home, and I built up a bit of a history which might have been helped by the film. I looked up Japanese terms for “wife” or “mother” or “beloved” or “child.” I imagine I gained mixed results in terms of accuracy. But those references to the sister-mother and brother-father creator gods was intentional thematically speaking, and I am proud of including them.

Sweet Home is about the agony of a mother having lost her child, while the protagonists Kazuo and Emi had lost the woman that was their wife and mother respectively and still mourned her: still affected by her loss. Akiko becomes something of a love interest for Kazuo, and a maternal figure and friend for Emi. She makes the most effort to get to know Emi, and help her deal with that grief, and when she is taken again by Lady Mamiya she puts on Emi’s mother’s garb — related to an item in the game to deal with the ghost I believe — to confront her with the power of a mother’s love.

It wouldn’t, in my mind, be an exaggeration to say that Sweet Home is about mothers and lost children, and their struggle to bring them back. But what about fathers?

Kazuo does attempt to confront the ghost, and he dies. We know that the man throughout the beginning of the film neglects himself and sometimes even his fatherly duties in doing his job, while burying his own pain in his work: however bumbling and well-meaning he is. So I thought to myself: what about Ichirō? What if Ichirō, after losing his son from absent-minded devotion to his artistic craft, buried himself further into his work to deal with the grief and guilt of losing him — despite burying him with an elaborate grave marker to placate his spirit — only to make himself ignorant of his wife’s madness. What would losing her do to him?

Perhaps, in a way Mamiya Ichirō does die, and a man named Ken’ichi Yamamura opens a gas station, after spending years wandering and studying Buddhism and Shinto. Maybe that marker on the child’s grave was his to not pacify him, but his mother. Perhaps Yamamura drinks, and works, and abandons his art — or any creative impulse he has goes into the creation of talismans to ward against evil — to forget, to let the foolish, neglectful person he was die, until, one day, a bunch of foolish television crewmembers go … back there.

Then he can’t just sit back. He can’t ignore the past. He has to go back. He has to go back to that place.

And he does. He tries to pass his knowledge to Kazuo because he sees some of the person he used to be in the man, and he wants to save him: especially where Emi’s life is involved.

Eventually, he’s forced to go into that fateful return into the incinerator: the one that took his son from neglect, and his wife from suicide. He takes Emi out of there, saving her. And the story, in which I asked myself what would happened if the artist saved his son — and hence his family — becomes less of an alternative history, and more of a vision of what could have been, a delusion of pain as he succeeds in saving at least another child’s life: not his son’s, not the children his wife killed, but the daughter of another foolish man consumed by his own artistic endeavours.

But he knows he must pay the price. Perhaps he’s always known. And he dies, and he dies horrifically. Maybe he thinks he deserves this. Maybe he thinks he has earned so much worse. But I like the idea that he had one look at Emi and Akiko, and realized — and remembered that important theme in the film about the power of a mother’s love, both in the mad grief of loss, and in saving that which she loves — and realizes that a maternal power can succeed where the paternal failed so miserably. That’s how, in my story and from his perspective, he dies: in agony, but with the hope that one child will be saved, and one mother will be united with that child despite him, or perhaps in some small way because of him.

I actually think, looking back to the film, that it would have been more powerful if Kazuo had died by Lady Mamiya as well, leaving Akiko and Emi as the only survivors: only after presenting her with her dead child to take to the afterlife. It would have been a good mirror of Yamamura if he was indeed Ichirō, and the power of motherhood in absent and redemptive fatherhood. But perhaps Kazuo, having survived in a bumbling manner benefitting his character, in hiding at the end was the levity needed. After all, we’d seen a lot of deaths and he did bravely face down a being that he should have failed to survive to save his daughter. He deserves his life. They all do.

I was actually kind of glad he survived, where the old man did not. I just like the fact that if Yamamura were Ichirō, he did in part redeem himself, and in facing his regrets and bravely facing the pain of his past and present, he gave another family another chance. Perhaps redemption isn’t a part of horror, in any culture, but there is a cathartic element in that: especially when you consider Lady Mamiya’s evil nature softening into the genuine grief you see as she holds the body of her long-dead baby, and passing on.

I hope that one day the game and film will be get official releases, and become available to everyone. It makes me appreciate both mediums where the story is told, and this necromantic experiment in analyzing and speculatively synthesizing them together gives me some insight into how the narrative works.

Nostalgia

Mamiya Ichirō wanders out of the room, his face smudged with paint.

He’s just begun the fresco for his family. For his newborn son. It will be just theirs, unlike the rest of the work he’s shown to Nihon, and the world. It will show every step of his son’s development, from infancy, to childhood, his adolescence, and his adulthood. One day, when he inherits their ancestral estate, he will see it and show it to his family. Or maybe his brothers and sisters will have other rooms. 

It’s chilly in the house now. Most old families, even modern ones, would simply bear it with blankets on futons and stringent tea. But Ichirō’s work has paid dividends: not only are his works world famous, but neither he nor his family will never want for yen in his life. His family had been well to do even before this, and he’s upgraded the furnace they had installed here decades back. He’s left the room to turn it on, but he can feel the house beginning to warm up. He smiles. His wife must have turned it on already. It does take a while to kick in, or to ventilate through an old, drafty house like theirs. That’s why he’s taken a break. The furnace and incinerator for the garbage sometimes break down, and he just wants to make sure they are all right. 

Sometimes, he gets lost in his own work. His wife, his beloved, she has to remind him to eat. And it’s different now that they have a child. He has to keep pace with his time. Painting his child growing up is one thing, but seeing him grow, and being there is another. He has to remind himself to take more breaks. 

“Tōsan!”

His wife comes across the hall. Usually, she is composed and serene. Always a gentle word, and a smile. With her long straight dark hair, and her pale skin she wouldn’t look out of place at a Heian court. Their families were said to have survived from that time, even the Mamiya that were a minor clan of craftspeople elevated by one of many courts. His wife’s family were minor nobility, and he never forgets it when he looks at her manners, and her temperament, and the beauty that she represents. They managed to even survive the Second World War through ingenuity on his family’s part, and then the frescoes he’s made from his family art and the serenity he so desperately sought and found in himself during that time. 

“Kāsan?” He takes his wife gently by the shoulders, her white yukata soaked with sweat, the same moisture glowing from her flushed forehead. “What’s wrong?”

“Thank goodness you’re here.” She holds him, then breaks away. “I can’t find find our son.”

“Oh?” Ichirō smiles wearily. “He’s … he can walk?”

“He’s been to walk for a while now, Ichirō.” Her dark eyes turn stern. He knows he’s made a mistake now. He knew even before he asked the question. Of course his son can walk. He’s learning. It’s been some years now, and it’s about time. How can he track his son’s progress with his art if he keeps getting sidetracked like this. 

“I’m sorry.” He bows. “I … where is he?”

“I don’t know.” There are tears in Mamiya Fujin’s eyes. “He likes to play on the lower levels. That’s where the servants find him too. I’ve been calling him for a while after turning on the furnace. It’s tea time.”

Something in Ichirō turns. It’s as though his centre of gravity has reversed. “Pardon?”

“It’s tea time. I turned on the furnace, it’s been chilly …”

Ichirō feels the blood drain out of his face. She looks at him with concern. “Koishī? Ichirō?”

It’s a premonition. He grabs her hand, and runs. They run. The boiler room is close. Adrenaline seems to fill Ichirō’s veins. His heart is pumping furiously. By the time his wife realizes where they are, at the door, she breaks away from him and tries to open it.

“No!” He draws her back, as she struggles with the door. 

“Aisoku!” The gentle affection behind that word is gone, replaced with panic. “Aisoku!” 

“My love.” He pushes her back. “Get the servants!” He wrenches open the door. “Get them to turn off the heat!” 

“Ichirō …” She tries to come back. 

“Get them, I say!” He roars as the heat blasts him. “Aisoku! Aisoku!”

He leaves her behind, hoping she will do as she’s asked. It is hot. Everything is blurred. He can’t breathe. But … but as tears come into his eyes, he sees … a shape on the ground. He runs over, staggering, and picks it up. He picks him up. His son. His son is breathing shallowly. But he’s alive. He’s all right. Tears stream down Ichirō’s face as he holds his son in his arms, as he walks slowly, and painfully away from the boiler, towards the door. 

“Papa …” The boy whimpers. “Papa …”

“Aisoku.” Ichirō sobs, burying his face in his son’s damp hair. “My Aisoku. You’re all right. We are all right.”

He sees the door. The red hot light is dimming. Ichirō feels his skin burning. He hurts. But he has his son. His son is alive, and unharmed. He can see him. There are soot smudges on his yukata and his face to match the paint on his. They’d been nearby. They got here just in time. Primal terror fills Ichirō when he considers that he could have still been painting that room, or his wife could have been upstairs. No one knew where his son had gone! He hadn’t known. He’d been so busy with the business, and his work. He realizes he hasn’t particularly spent as much time with his wife. He has something for her. An amulet he bought from a merchant. Something old. Perhaps Buddhist, or even a talisman from the early days of Shinto. But a trinket would have meant nothing without their beloved son. 

“I have you, Aisoku.” He says. “I have him, Kāsan!” He calls out, as the cooling shadows grow. It is the end of a long, arduous day with one terrifying moment. But it is all right. He staggers out, his carrying his son in his arms, and his wife is there, her own arms wide, ready to encompass them. He smiles. He did it. He …

*

“Emi!” 

The man, who died a long time ago, staggers out into the darkness. The halls are cool and mouldering. But he is burning. His flesh is seething. His power of concentration is waning so much now, the strength that allowed him to crush that bottle of sake gone for what seems like ages. 

He drops the girl. He can’t help it. The others … Kazuo, and Akiko rush forward to pick Emi up. Without her in his arms, he is burning in agony. The boiler still leaves its mark on him. It is charring his skin, as it had the man incinerated in half upstairs, and the woman melted on the wheelchair in another room, and Mamiya Fujin, and those children, and … and the child … 

He focuses. He has to have some concentration left. They need him. “Run!” He rasps through burning lungs. “The shadows are coming!”

“But Mr. Yamamura …”

The stupid man. So indecisive. So caught up in his work. He didn’t pay attention! He didn’t pay attention! Not to this house, not to his loved ones, or his own flesh and blood. He needs to listen. He …

“Don’t worry about me!” The man, calling himself Yamamura Ken’ichi, growls. He hurts so much, and there is no time. It is too late. It’s always been too late. But not for them. Not … “Get out quickly!”

Then, it is just the agony. They take her. He registers that. They call out her name. They call out his a few times. He feels his flesh liquefying, and his bones charring from the flames inside of him. The woman … Akiko. She is crying out for him. For a few moments … he sees her again. She is pale, like the grave, like Izanami no mikoto herself, with part of her beautiful face burned away. He is Izanagi-no-mikoto, who ran away. He thinks about the flames now, how she suffered, how the child burned, how he lost them, and the children that are now forming on parts of her neck. All of his sins, of neglect, come back for him. Yes. The man calling himself Yamamura deserves this. He is just as guilty of killing those children, and the people that came here after despite the memorial and the warnings …. these people, and those poor devils Akashi, Etsuko, Shogo, and Kenji … the servants that refuse to leave, in terror of their mistress, and the child … and Kāsan … Kāsan … 

I’m sorry. He says to her, in his mind. And for a few moments, he thinks he almost sees some sadness there on the face of the woman who killed children, because she had been abandoned in his own grief too. He reaches out with one crumbling hand. Then, it’s just Akiko and nothing more as his eyes run down his face. Just darkness. That woman. Perhaps he was wrong about her. Nothing is stronger than a mother, or a mother that has lost her child. Gods only know a father’s love only went so far. Concentration. Prayer. Regret. Redemption. 

Love. Akiko feels love for that girl. Yamamura contents himself with that, realizing in his last moments, he still feels love as well, that it’s all he has left, as the remnants of the person he used to be finally disintegrate into ashes. 

Yule in Fuckedupland: Greg Nicotero’s “A Creepshow Holiday Special”

I don’t really know what to say.

I didn’t expect there to be a Holiday edition of Creepshow, but I should have. I really should have. I thought, given what happened with this passing year of infamy and the quality of the Animated Special, we would have to wait until next year — maybe even longer — to see another episode of this Shudder series. In fact, when I first heard about someone mentioning this online, I thought they were still talking about the Halloween Animated Special.

I was wrong. It turns out, I was wrong about a great many things.

What we have here, this particular specimen made of a collection of fibers, buttons, and sixty-five cents in the manner that old vintage-era comics used to cost over time, is live-action and the only story of its kind: its own weird star on its very furry Yuletide tree from the Fucked Up Island of Misfit Stuffed Animals. I know what I said. 

The premise is that Robert Weston, an unassuming prickly man goes to a support group called Shapeshifters Anonymous to deal with the fact that he has become a lycanthrope: a werewolf. But that’s not what the story is about. Not really. This story, written and directed by Greg Nicotero on too much egg-nog spiked on crack perhaps to offset the bleak insanity of this year, is about how these therianthropes — these humans that change into humanoid animal monsters except for for Phyllis, the furry member who just reliably makes every meeting — has to fight to the death against their ancient enemy: Kristopher Claws, a jumped up folklore nightmare wannabe that wishes he was Baba Yaga, and his Santa helpers. 

Yup. That’s it. The episode is off the wall, and its lampoonish insanity and premise is reminiscent of Scare Package’s “M.I.S.T.,E.R” with some What We Do in the Shadows werewolf humour. Also, Bob — as a central power — makes it back into Creepshow, but not in the same way as the name did in “The Finger,” which this episode gives the Holidays. 

I didn’t expect this, in so many ways. It is almost comical, and it’s strange to see a standalone episode without another to accompany it in the usual double features with which we become accustomed. There was an interlude of sorts where it went right back into the comics sequences that we’ve seen, and I wondered if they were going to end the episode there and transition into the other, like they usually do, but they didn’t. 

The story itself is haphazard in a fun way like Manborg, like adults playing with their toys and mixing metaphors in ridiculous ways to just make … fun. 

To be fun.

It could have gone another way. It could have been all fun and games until Phyllis, the only non-therianthrope, is killed by Kristopher, and then it becomes real: this group of friends really fighting for their survival. There were points, even with the were-boar and were-turtle where I thought some of these friends would die. But I’m glad it didn’t go there. I’m glad Phyllis got to have her moment, and get her wish. Phyllis is awesome. 

It’s easy, and dangerous, to take horror seriously. To always expect it to be grim, and tragic, and brutal all the time.Frankly, we had that already in “A Creepshow Animated Special” of Halloween. Between the “Survivor Type” and “Twittering From the Circus of the Dead” I’m not sure I could take anymore of the horror of isolation. I think this year has also done that enough for us. But in giving the tropes of Holidays the taloned finger, Nicotero also draws together these therianthropic misfits from an awkward first meeting to a heartwarming sense of belonging and camaraderie against the ridiculously diabolical hordes of the hired killers that want to rip off all their hides with a gusto usually reserved for cookies and milk, and toys given out of guilt. I even ship Weston, played by Adam Pally, and Irena as played by Anna Camp together: as Robert is a well-meaning fumbling man, and Irena is a good kitty … or as much as a were-jaguar or any cat can be. A were-boar can actually be a terrifying thing, but the one in Shapeshifters Anonymous is not. I definitely had a Ninja Turtle flash-backs with another member, the were-turtle would could conceivably be a fighting tank, and I was just waiting for Kristopher — their enemy — to make a quip like “Tonight we dine on turtle-soup!” What a missed opportunity. 

I don’t think I’ve laughed this hard in a long time, minus the hysteria. All told, as a Creepshow story it was entertaining, and it is great to see what could be a supernatural affliction become something positive against deceptive holiday normalcy, and instead of Rudolph getting to play reindeer games, Irena gets to show Robert what a California King-sized bed truly is.

I needed something to remind me of how weird and comical horror can be, and how it can laugh at itself, reminding me of some of the fun spectacles at the Toronto After Dark. “A Creepshow Holiday Special” is the heartwarming story of a group of were-creatures fighting against the assassins of Santa Claus is a gift you may not want, but you definitely need. 

The Shadows Over Dagon and The Deep Ones

I’ve been thinking a lot about Castle Freak and the origins of both the original and the remake, where Stuart Gordon and Tate Steinsiek along with Dennis Paoli and Kathy Charles respectively draw from and adapt H.P. Lovecraft’s stories to create their own cinematic narratives. In my own article on Gordon and Paoli’s Castle Freak, I considered what would happen if they — or someone else — had told the story of Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” and used that protagonist to replace Randolph Carter in “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”: essentially stitching together another story to tell a whole other tale. In fact, I’ve engaged in similar speculation before when considering what might have happened if in their cinematic adaptation of From Beyond,  someone had incorporated elements of “The Shadows Over Innsmouth” and “The Thing on the Doorstep” alongside “From Beyond” to create a whole other kind of narrative.

All of this thought is derived from my experience watching Robert Stanley’s Color Out of Space, which is an adaptation of Lovecraft’s novella of the same name: where Stanley takes the main story, which is meatier — if you will pardon the unintentional pun with the word meteor given the story premise — and made it feel like it was part of Lovecraft’s whole Cthulhu Mythos on screen through word-dropping names, institutions and geographical locations: with the potential to explore more through The Dunwich Horror. Stanley seems to want to continue through “The Dunwich Horror” while Steinsiek and Charles have already grafted it onto Gordon’s offspring derived from “The Outsider” and seem to want to go and make their own retroactive mutation of Re-Animator: though how much of it will be from Gordon, or from the serialized narrative of Lovecraft’s “Herbert West – Reanimator” with their own twist is another matter entirely.

I find it interesting how when thinking about Castle Freak I wanted to go the entire ghouls and Dreamlands route, where there is a thin line between the waking world and dreams reaching into inhuman realities in a sort of terrible dark fantastic odyssey — definitely a part of the Cthulhu Mythos with “The Dream-Quest” and “Pickman’s Model” — while Steinsiek and Charles went into some good old Yog-Sothothery with “The Dunwich Horror” grafting.

But Stuart Gordon and Dennis Paoli also had to expand on the matter of another reanimated Mythos experiment much in the way Steinsiek and Charles did, and West might have done as a filmmaker utilizing the bodies of other stories as he did during his stint with his partner in one of the serials — or chapters — set in World War I.

I am thinking about Dagon. And by focusing on Dagon, I am looking at Lovecraft’s infamous novella “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” and where else it leads. “Dagon” itself is the title to another Lovecraft short story about a former soldier who, after fleeing being captured by Imperial German forces, finds himself on a piece of land emerged from the ocean inhabited by non-human ruins, and what ultimately in later stories in the Mythos become the Deep Ones: aquatic humanoids that worship their own Great Old Ones. This unnamed protagonist is hospitalized after returning to civilization, and he attempts to kill himself when he can’t get anymore morphine to drown out the feelings of terror associated with his memories of dealing with the creatures, and the idols of their god Dagon, but there is this implication that at least one of them tracked him down to finish the job. This story is one of Lovecraft’s earliest to introduce the Cthulhu Mythos, and the rest of the elements of Dagon, and the Deep Ones are expanded in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”

Gordon and Paoli themselves simply take the title of this first short story, or the name of the deity of Dagon, and simply adapt — or transplant — “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” into another clime entirely. Gordon and Paoli’s 2001 film Dagon takes place in Spain, in the town of Imboca: the equivalent to Innsmouth. The town itself is just as water-logged and rotten as the costal town in America. While Robert Olmstead in “The Shadow” is a student from Oberlin College fascinated with antiquarian studies and his own genealogy — a thing that never ends well in Lovecraft stories — Paul Marsh (played by Ezra Godden) had been a graduate of Miskatonic University, and is vacating on a yacht with his girlfriend and their older friends before a storm seems to appear out of nowhere and force at least the two of them to seek help in Imboca.

Paul does have some foreboding about the situation as he’s been having dreams about a mermaid or siren beckoning him and revealing her fangs. He is also filled with no only a sense of dread, but as he says to his girlfriend Barbara (Raquel Meroño), a lack of purpose as well. There are also some unexplained pink slashes on his ribs at the very beginning film, and he is always having medication for a stomach ailment presumably caused by stress.

There are differences between the two stories: “Shadows” taking place during Prohibition, and Dagon in the early aughts, and the main character of the former being alone, and the latter having his friends and a lover as well as a female entity interested in his existence. The horror in the novella is more subtle through Olmstead’s description of smells, and the strange “Innsmouth look” of its inhabitants — that uncanny valley of not quite human tinged with no small amount of xenophobia in the writing, while it becomes very clear to Paul Marsh and Barbara that most of the people in Imboca are not human at all, and even those that pass are definitely not normal: almost ridiculously so.

The film is blatant about it. The people of Imboca are pretty ineffectual mobs who don’t take too long in chasing Paul around, and losing him every time, whereas the citizens of Innsmouth slowly do subtle things such as manipulating the door locks at the inn that Olmstead is staying at, or conveniently making it clear the bus out of their town isn’t working so that they can grab him during the night. Olmstead is more worried about saving himself, while Paul wants to find his girlfriend who goes missing in Imboca: even after he is told that she’s dead.

Fascinatingly enough, :Robert Olmstead and Paul Marsh do see the gold that the Deep Ones are infamous for possessing, and the implements they make out of it. However, while Olmstead sees an example of an ornamental crown or tiara held at a museum, which the people of Innsmouth had been trying to get back for ages, Paul and Barbara simply see the priestly inhabitants — Imboca’s version of the Esoteric Order of Dagon that rules in Lovecraft’s Innsmouth — wearing them, and in particular their High Priestess.

The designs of the Deep Ones, and the Deep One-human hybrids of Imboca are fairly on par with their descriptions from Lovecraft. Apparently, Bernie Wrightson — an American artist famous for his illustrations of Frankenstein, and being the co-creator of Swamp Thing — created many designs for what was going to be a Shadow Over Innsmouth film in 1991: some of which made it into the Dagon adaptation instead. The rituals of the Deep Ones are made clearer in Imboca, with many of them wearing the flayed skin of the humans they have captured for sacrifice and, presumably, food given that some of the bodies are being held with animal meat in storage. It’s strange because I don’t think the Deep Ones of Innsmouth eat humans, and they don’t wear human skins: for disguise, ritual, or otherwise, but it is an interesting conceit for the creepiness in that film. Like I said in my other post before this one, “nameless and blasphemous rites” which, surprisingly this time around are not orgies.

The parallels between the short story and the film are fairly straightforward, though Dagon tends to be more graphic and illustrate exactly what happens. Both Lovecraft’s Obed Marsh and Orpheus Cambarro are sea captains that corrupt their desperate towns respectively with promises of sea bounty, and gold: save that while Innsmouth had a massive human uprising that needed to be put down by the Deep Ones with their shoggoth servitors and Elder Signs, and the survivors were forced to interbreed with them, Imboca mostly had compliance with a few dissenters that were useful as sacrifices and examples of what happens when one defies the god Dagon.

Ezequiel, the old man is played by Francisco Rabal, is pretty much Imboca’s equivalent of Old Man Zadok (Zadok Allen) who is one of the few humans left in Innsmouth. Yet while Zadok mostly just tells the story of the Deep Ones infiltration and control of Innsmouth, going as far as to say Marsh found them during his travels in the Pacific and the Caroline Islands interbreeding with peoples there — and then being disposed of “off screen” for saying too much to an outsider — Ezequiel also explains his past, albeit with a very thick accent that’s easy to miss every other word, and actually helps Paul Marsh out until he is pretty much skinned alive by the priest of the village.

It is made clear that the Deep Ones have mated with humans in Imboca over a a period of time, yet Dagon is different from “Shadow” as Dagon himself, this Great Old One from the sea, is more prevalent and puts on a physical appearance: going as far as to, of course, need human female sacrifices to … impregnate in the village’s rituals. This is what happens to one of their friends, and then eventually Barbara herself.

Robert Olmstead somehow manages to flee Innsmouth, perhaps even being let go, and informs the American government that — essentially — takes all of Innsmouth’s citizens into concentration camps, and even damages the underwater cities of the Deep Ones with their submarines. But Paul Marsh doesn’t run away, but attempts to set the church where the inhabitants conduct their rituals on fire … and fails. He fails to both rescue or kill Barbara, who is pregnant with Dagon’s brood, and to kill the rest of the villagers.

At the end, both Olmstead and Paul learn the terrifying truth of their origins. After Olmstead leaves Innsmouth and calls the authorities on them, he investigates his family tree and realizes that his grandmother Eliza Orne had been related to the Marsh family, and he begins to physically transform into a Deep One. This revelation: that he isn’t human, and he inadvertently committed genocide on his own people almost breaks Olmstead, bringing him almost to the brink of suicide by an automatic rifle. Instead, he dreams of his grandmother and ancestor Pth’thya-l’yi — who are still alive due to the immortal lifespans of the Deep Ones — and they order him back to them, to pay a penance for his actions but to nevertheless take his place among them. He ends up rescuing his cousin from a sanitorium who is more transformed than he is, and hopes to live out their lives in the underwater city of Y’ha-nthlei.

Paul Marsh meets the High Priestess Uxía Cambarro — the mermaid from his dreams — who almost seduces him, and it is only at the climax of the film that her father, who is mostly transforms, stops the villagers from killing Paul with the revelation that Paul is his son from a mother that fled Imboca, and the half-brother of Uxia. I didn’t know, when I first saw this film, that Paul’s last name was Marsh otherwise it would have been a dead giveaway as to who, or what, Paul truly is. Uxia and some of the other Imbocan villagers are strange in that they have octopus tentacles instead of amphibian features, seemingly another departure from Lovecraft’s depictions of Deep One physiology, though it may have been combined with aspects of Cthulhu. It is worth noting that I recall them reciting the chant “Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn! Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn! Iä!” which refers to Cthulhu as opposed to Dagon, though Cthulhu is part of their pantheon, and is noted as such in “Shadows Over Innsmouth.”

Paul Marsh, realizing that he is a Deep One hybrid and having lost the woman he loves, and knowing his half-sister wants to be with him for all eternity with Dagon attempts to burn himself alive with kerosene (for some reason, the Deep Ones in Dagon possess a fear of fire), but Uxia stops him and throws the both of them into the grotto under the church, making the stripes on Paul’s ribs turn into gills and making his transformation complete. There is your usual horror cinema titillation with female nudity and sex scenes, especially in Stuart Gordon’s horror, though it is strange not to see Barbara Crampton and Jeffrey Combs having any roles in this Lovecraft adaptation, considering they were in Re-Animator, From Beyond, and even Castle Freak. Dagon‘s production value feels a little wonky — especially in its special effects — but the ending is very Lovecraftian, and it fits well with its original source material.

Most of Lovecraft’s stories don’t have female characters in them, or relationships depicted, though sex here is illustrated as something grotesque and horrible much like Lovecraft would obliquely refer to it in his writing. And this becomes more prevalent in a film like Chad Ferrin’s 2020 film The Deep Ones.

The Deep Ones is a movie made almost two decades after Gordon and Paoli’s work, with a dedication to the memory of Gordon Stuart similar to that of the Castle Freak remake. Ferrin, the director and writer of this film, also does something with Innsmouth and Dagon. However, unlike Gordon and Paoli, he doesn’t take Innsmouth and attempt to transplant it into another geographical locale, but he attempts to reinvent it.

In this film, the characters do not find themselves in Innsmouth but a small, gated community off the Californian coast called Solar Beach. The cultists here, as the couple’s friend Deb comments, seem to be a tamer version of those who might attend the Burning Man Festival, but they resemble more the stereotype of swinger couples: of older men with younger wives that engage in communal rituals. Certainly, Russell Marsh — again, that old Marsh family — played by Robert Miano seems more like Hugh Hefner than the masked and deformed High Priest father from Dagon, or the shadowy and unseen Barnabas Marsh from “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” In fact, if anything Russell resembles more of a sea captain, at least in aesthetic: which would make him closer to an Obed Marsh of sorts. His wife, Ingrid Krauer, played by Silvia Spross has more of a Stepford Wife feel, as Kim Newman in his own review of the film notes about the entire situation.

The protagonists themselves are a couple named Alex and Petri (played by Gina La Piana and Johann Urb respectively) that are grieving over a miscarriage and attempting to heal and start over again at an Airbnb that is Russell and Ingrid’s home. The creepiness here isn’t so much the surroundings that look immaculate, even beautiful, but the incredible intrusiveness of the Marshes and their insular community. Literally, the entire house is secretly hooked up with surveillance cameras even as the Marshes invite themselves back into the Airbnb to “take care” of the younger couple, putting some unknown substance in their food, and having their doctor friend, who for some reason is played by the actor Timothy Muskatell in drag, take a urine sample from Alex to look at her fertility.

You can already see where this is going. Hell, even the gate outside of the Marsh residence made Airbnb has the same Esoteric Order of Dagon symbol as the one in the church in Gordon and Paoli’s Dagon. And the good doctor’s husband, who helps host their party at their own residence for the younger couple, has the first name Obed. The cultists themselves do not look mutated, or have that strange fish-like Innsmouth look. In fact, they just resemble affluent rich white American citizens but it is their blandness that makes them so disturbing, and their pervasive, reasonable explanations for strange things. This pervasiveness does become a little heavy-handed when Russell is able to hypnotize Petri with his gold cigarette case: making him “look into the light.”

As far as I know, Deep Ones and their followers in Lovecraft aren’t capable of hypnotism or even changing people without Deep One blood into something inhuman. It was smoother for me with Dagon because we find out Paul is a Hybrid like his half-sister Uxia and from “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” we now they can communicate with each other in some kind of communal dream which, given the fact that they are related to — and even worship Cthulhu, especially given how they also make that iconic chant to him “Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn! Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn! Iä!” (Hail! … Cthulhu Dreams!”) — makes a lot of sense. But the fact that Russell uses gold to mesmerize Petri does track with the fact that the Deep Ones possess this ore with abundance and use it to maintain power over humans. Innsmouth did have a gold refinery created by Obed Marsh after all, and Dagon did bring gold to Imboca in the film of his name.

Again, fascinatingly enough, the Marshes and their neighbours have access to a special wine, which they ply Petri with in their seduction of him, that they create in their own personal refinery amongst their locally grown food substances: those Marshes and their refineries. It is also interesting to consider that Alex explains to Deb that Petri might see the father-figure in Russell that he lost with the death of his own father, and then you realize that Dagon in the Cthulhu Mythos is referred to as Father Dagon.

I’d tempted to think of The Deep Ones as something of its own genetic splicing with the Mythos by Ferrin, except for one other element. It isn’t the Deep Ones that we do see, which are few and far between, though there is a young girl with webbed fingers and a fish-face here and there. Rather, it is the addition of a fascinating character named Ambrose Zadok. This is the female analogue to Zadok Allen from “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” played by the excellent Kelli Maroney — and easily the best thing, aside from the villainousness of Robert Miano, about this film — who is looking for her lost daughter: a daughter that we realize isn’t missing, but was taken by the Solar Beach cult to their master Dagon. Ambrose is desperate, nearly deranged with grief and fear for her child, and her presence is explained away — gaslit — by the Sheriff who has never heard of Mayberry or Andy Griffith: I mean, seriously, these Deep Ones and their human converts are trying to infiltrate into human society, and they were doing so well. How couldn’t they know about the all-American Andy Griffith Show?

The cultists are indeed fairly good at seeming normal, but there is always something a little off, or a little zany about them. They are awkward, almost cringe-worthy in how they view the protagonists as potential converts … or sacrifices. Kim Newman mentions that their all-white upper-middle class background almost speaks volumes about privilege, and racism in Lovecraft and America. Just like in Dagon, we also see Dagon but the person playing him is smaller than the giant in Gordon and Paoli’s film, and like Paul Marsh and Barbara neither Alex nor Petri — like a dish where specimens are observed and experimented upon — escape, and they join the madness.

There are elements that put me off of The Deep Ones. The production value is different, almost made-for-television. The film’s over-reliance on the theremin’s sound effect for bizarre and creepiness becomes almost campy after a while, and I found that despite having Petri and Alex possessing their own little couple ritual based on how they first met, they were forgettable, and their friend Deb is irritating. In fact, I feel like they were lampoons of the normal white couple of privilege who have the resources to rent a high-end Airbnb, and can afford to ignore the bizarre nature of everything going on outside of their sphere, and the suffering of people like Ambrose Zadok until their final transformation into the Stepford cultists that they want to be. They start this entire film off wanting what the Solar Beach community wants: children and family, and they get exactly that. Granted, Alex does try to think of Ingrid — Marsh’s wife — when she and Deb realize she had been captive, as we’d seen at the beginning of the film, until seemingly brainwashed into becoming pregnant with Dagon’s child.

This is another aspect as well. It seems being pregnant with a child of Dagon is to have something of a symbiote that continues hypnosis by infiltrating the body: as we get with Ingrid’s womb-tentacle into Petri’s mouth after he’s first mesmerized. It’s similar to the tendril and eventual vaginal eye that comes out of Rebecca Whateley and her Freak sister in the Castle Freak remake as they are children of Yog-Sothoth. We also see in Dagon that Ingrid has the ability to psychically possess Petri after the death of her husband, and herself. Indeed, at the end of the film, both Alex and Petri are acting like Ingrid and Russell respectively when welcoming another couple into the Marsh home that now belongs to them. Aside from the symmetry of the film ending much like it begins, with a woman running and then succumbing to fear, and acceptance of the unknown, what seems to happen to Petri at least is reminiscent of the mind transfer ability seen in “The Thing on the Doorstep” with Asenath Waite, or Ephraim Waite, which is appropriate I suppose when you consider that these Lovecraft characters also came from Innsmouth, and perhaps learned that spell there.

When looking back at Chad Ferrin’s The Deep Ones, I can appreciate the Mythos elements and what he does with “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” but I feel like there is a missed opportunity with Kelli Maroney’s Ambrose Zadok character. The interactions between her and Russell Marsh in her car, which he can somehow just go right into — which makes me think he and Ingrid do have some powers of their own — stand out the most, especially when he confronts her about how “she knew what she wanted” and “she knew the price.” That is a story all in itself, and I feel like that while it is appropriate that Deb dies being distracted by that creepy little Deep One Hybrid girl reminiscent of the children she’s left with her sitter, it may have been even more effective if that’s how Ambrose dies — with the implication that she made her own compromise with her daughter’s life and had second thoughts far too late — instead of being lured out with her voice, and all but killed off-screen.

I like to compare these films and their source material together. It makes me think about what a big production or an adaptation of “The Call of Cthulhu” might look like. Cthulhu, Father Dagon, and Mother Hydra represent a polytheistic idea of dreams and nightmares being one with reality, and how humankind is not that far removed from what they are. Water is another theme: a medium of magic that can call on, and summon things between worlds, or force us to see that they already exist among us: oddity hiding right in plain sight. I have always been interested in the Deep Ones, in the idea of people secretly having non-human ancestry that manifests and they become the beings that they are truly meant to be. I can even see Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water playing with this idea: where the Amphibian Man can be seen as just as much of a Deep One as a Creature From the Black Lagoon, and Elisa Esposito is a Deep One-Hybrid abandoned by the side of a river: with slashes on her neck that become gills with the Amphibian Man. I’d love to compare “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and Dagon with The Shape of Water.

Suffice to say, that tropical literary embryonic tissue that Herbert West and his assistant experiment with keeps growing into different ligaments and directions, continues. I wonder what other mad scientists and filmmakers will make of it all next. Can we always see the same horror twice? Is it always going to be the same deep, dark, dream?

An Outsider’s View of Castle Freak

I’d been curious about Castle Freak for a little while.

Part of the reason I’ve had interest in the film is because I am still catching up on the first official season of Shudder’s The Last Drive-In series, and then I heard that Barbara Crampton is involved with its remake. It’s strange, for me, being a Lovecraft fanatic that I never made the connection that, aside from being given a poster of concept art from which to work, director Stuart Gordon and screenwriter Dennis Paoli had been inspired — at least roughly — to make the 1995 film Castle Freak by H.P. Lovecraft’s extremely short story “The Outsider.”

I didn’t know what to expect from Castle Freak, beyond knowing it takes place in an old Italian Castle and expecting there to be a ton of gore and brutality: possibly by a group of monsters on an unsuspecting American family. At the time, I didn’t even know that Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton were even in the film, never mind its central stars: though knowing Crampton was being interviewed on The Last Drive-In episode of Castle Freak became another impetus in me having a look at it.

I’ll admit that watching Joe Bob Briggs’ segments did spoil aspects of the movie for me, but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the film. I’ve heard that many fans of Gordon’s work don’t think as highly of Castle Freak as they might Re-Animator, and even From Beyond. A lot of it, from my understanding, is that while the latter two films — created in the 1980s — have heavily goofy and “camp” overtones, drawing close to comedy in horror, Castle Freak itself is played out seriously, and without laughs. Unlike the science-fictional and paranormal elements of the former two films, Castle Freak is a mystery horror film with obvious Gothic influence: complete with tropes such as family secrets, hereditary sins, a long lost, deformed and/or insane family member, and a scene of crumbling beauty and the price of pride turned into madness revisited on unsuspecting descendants.

Another element I can also argue is that while Re-Animator, and to some extent From Beyond — which I have written about and attempted to experiment on in this mad laboratory that is my Blog — are very clearly based from Lovecraft’s works, Castle Freak uses “The Outsider” as just a stepping stone, or a foundation to create an entirely different work. Re-Animator still follows the resurrection of the dead and the hubris of Herbert West, and From Beyond does illustrate what happens when you attempt to view and interact with dimensions beyond human perception, but Castle Freak? It isn’t like “The Outsider” in that the “creature” involved isn’t the protagonist or some possibly undead monstrosity that was once a human being realizing what he is, and fleeing from that knowledge.

Giorgio Orsino — the titular “Freak” of this film played by Jonathan Fuller — is a tormented man whose death was faked by his mother the Italian Duchess D’Orsino and, blamed for the sins of his American father in leaving her, spent the rest of his life chaining him in a dungeon and flaying him with a barbed whip. He is five years old when his death is falsified and forty-two years pass before his mother dies from a heart-attack after beating him one last time. He is practically a feral being by the time he manages to escape his bonds, though he seems to have a grasp of some rudimentary Italian when he does occasionally speak. However, unlike the protagonist of “The Outsider” who seems to be quite intelligent and has “many antique books” Giorgio is not only driven by a sense of loneliness — more visceral than existential — but hunger and fury over his torment and neglect. If anything, his skittering manner of moving through the corridors of the Castle, is reminiscent more of Lovecraft’s :”The Rats in the Walls” than anything else, and for more reasons than one when you realize just how famished he is. Giorgio is a living being that wants what he thinks is owed to him, and he literally wants his pound of flesh.

Lovecraft, of course, is no stranger to Gothic themes and tropes, especially considering how “The Outsider” and its narrative style is influenced by the prose of Edgar Allan Poe. The story of Castle Freak, however, follows not just Giorgio who is the monster — and I would argue one of the true victims of this entire film — but also the American Reilly family and in particular its patriarch John Reilly.

John Reilly, played by Jeffrey Combs, is an alcoholic and an unemployed professor. His father abused him during his early life, and it the echoes of it affect him all the way until the end of Castle Freak. He inherits the Orsino Castle after the Duchess, his aunt, dies and he takes his family there to claim and potentially sell the property. John’s wife, Susan (played by Barbara Crampton), despises him. There is really no other word for it. Due to his alcoholism he lost his employment, and because his five year old son J.J. dropped his video game in the car and tried to reach for it, the boy loses his life in a car accident when John tries to stop his son and simultaneously keep his eyes on the road: failing at both. This same accident blinds his daughter Rebecca, played by actress Jessica Dollarhide, and it leaves his wife to blame him for everything that’s happened to their family.

I think one element of this film that needs to be discussed is its use of connections, and how they all pay off. And when I mention connections, what I am really talking about are relationships. From the police officer who has a relationship with the sex worker that John takes him when his wife spurns him again, to the child they’ve had together, to the amoral Italian Orsino lawyer being the sibling of the housekeeper that warns the Reillys of the Castle and what her death causes, and John’s own tormented relation with Susan, the memory of J.J., and his attempts to protect Rebecca, Susan’s own resentful bond with John, and her over-protective and even obsessive relationship with Rebecca, and the Duchess’ own malicious and petty need to torture Giorgio, and Giorgio wanting to belong to this new family that he can somehow sense as his kin … it all fits together in a patchwork like the scars on Giorgio’s body, and the worn stones of the Castle that is their heritage.

This unity, or this twisted rhyme, can be seen in the form of J.J. J.J. is the child that shouldn’t have died. Giorgio, whom everyone believed dead, once looked the spitting image of J.J. Two dead children that are blood-related, and practically doubles or doppelgängers of each other: the former’s death indicative of an emotionally absent father whose alcoholism led, in part, to the car crash that took his life, and the latter whose father’s physical abandonment led him to having his very identity destroyed in all the ways the matter are central to this film. Families and children, unhealthy dynamics between spouses, siblings, and parents and children are what make Castle Freak.

And then, there is the matter of karma. We find out, and it becomes clear especially after Joe Bob’s talk with Barbara Crampton, that Giorgio and John both have the same American WWII soldier: the former being the Duchess’ son, and the latter being the bastard child of her sister that ran off with him, unmarried, to the United States. The Duchess dies before any justice or vengeance can be carried out on her from the boy whose life she ruined out of a sense of pride and, presumably, the American soldier is also long dead and gone.

Giorgio is John’s Shadow, another popular literary trope. He has abusive and neglectful parents like John, except taken to the nth degree. He was flagellated by a mother for his perceived sins, and tormented for things that were — unlike John — literally beyond his control. Even John’s sexual frustration as punishment by his wife and her anger, and inability to connect with those of his blood, or a disconnect from the sexual relations he has to have with the sex worker are mirrored horrifically in that Giorgio seems to be castrated, but his mother left him his testicles and the frustration of loneliness and an animal fury he can’t express in any other way: as we see with what he does to the poor sex worker. But mostly, there is a grief there. While John grieves, and is guilt-stricken by J.J.’s death, Giorgio mourns even the death of his tormenter and that fury needs somewhere to go.

And Giorgio, after killing the sex worker and the housekeeper sister of the man who could have saved John from being blamed for their murders, finds this outlet: in the form of the scourge that his mother used on him his entire life. It is this whip he uses on John who, in a way, represents the reason Giorgio had been rendered into a tortured being. To Giorgio, if he can think that far, John is the brother that his father left him for, and abandoned him to the cruelty of his insane mother. In a way, John’s existence is the reason his life is so ruined, and that madness is taken out on his hide.

Giorgio, his mother’s whipping boy, makes John his own. And Giorgio, who John once saw as resembling his dead son — the child dead by his own negligence — is something of a gross magnification of his own guilt flagellating himself. And yet, something happens with John that Giorgio is incapable of understanding, or undertaking. For all of John’s selfishness and self-absorption, he still loves his family. Perhaps, at this point in the film, after contemplating suicide, drinking, and undertaking actions that further hurt his family, John doesn’t want Giorgio — both a psychopathic monstrosity of his aunt’s torment, and a symbol of his own guilty conscience — to damage his family anymore. And with a noble moment of self-sacrifice, John tackles Giorgio and the two fall to their deaths: united in death in a way they could never have been in life.

At the end, Susan Reilly sees this — him having saved her and their daughter — and seems to forgive him, perhaps even seeing her own part in the torment that led to all of John’s own actions as they exchange their last words with each other. The Reillys live on, with perhaps the cycle of abuse and pain and recrimination broken by John and Giorgio’s deaths, and the understanding of what led to where they are now: and perhaps after mourning they can find a way forward.

The sins of the family, in this case, are not a blood related curse or a result of eugenics as Lovecraft’s stories and those of his Victorian predecessors often go, but of generational abuse and trauma. But there is one thing that bothers me in this otherwise relatively immaculate film.

Where is Giorgio’s coffin?

At the end of the film, we see John’s coffin being taken to his funeral, or his funeral endings, but we never see what they do with the boy who was supposed to have died decades ago. John is a sufferer of terrible familiar trauma, consciously or otherwise, but Giorgio himself is an even more obvious victim. What happened to his body at the end of the film? Did he even get the dignity of a burial? A real burial?

It gives me inspiration: to try something else.

I always try to say something in this Blog that is more than just a rehashing of something already said and done. So, in light of the upcoming remake by Tate Steinsiek and its more overt and cultish Cthulhu Mythos influences of which I’m curious to see unfold, I started to think to myself — and this was the only reason this article even happened — what if we went back to the roots of “The Outsider?”

There are obvious issues. “The Outsider” is a short story that functions well from a first-person limited perspective. The readers are limited by what he knows and perceives. It is hard to translate that into a film narrative, even with voice over narratives: though it would make for perhaps a good experimental short film, or animation. And I am sure it’s been done already.

So, let’s Frankenstein this fucker, my solution to almost everything in this mad lab. Think of it as following looking at the lives of two children traveling different paths through Castle Freak. First, let’s take Giorgio Orsino from Stuart Gordon’s film. Let’s say that he isn’t the only freak in the Castle, that Giorgio was used by his mother and her family to seal the rest of them away: namely, the ghouls from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and Dreamlands Cycle respectively. Imagine John and Susan Reilly as being completely unsympathetic or clueless and it is Rebecca who focuses on finding her way into understanding how the Castle works: on discovering that it is a weak place between reality and the Dreamlands. Consider that John was supposed to be the original sacrifice, but his father and mother left with him: perhaps even unknowing, and it was up to Giorgio to be offered as a perpetual whipping boy, his blood sealing the other creatures below the Castle into the Underworld.

But then the Duchess dies and Giorgio is freed. A lot of the events of the film continue, but Rebecca is more proactive and bitter about not only being blind, but having her mother constantly attempting to control her. I also like the idea that something comes of her learning some Italian, as she attempts to do in the film, and begins to understand Giorgio: even sympathize with him after she realizes how damaged he is. It may even be that there is something in his hoarse voice that reminds her of her lost brother J.J. I’d also be fascinating if we saw the film from Giorgio’s perspective, and there is a part of him that still thinks he is that golden-haired five year old child until he looks at a mirror, or he does something particularly feral and vicious: almost making him like two different characters and making the audience wonder who that strange child is who also resembles J.J. until the end.

I would have it that it looks like John is attempting to save his family, but he fails. Perhaps he and Susan kill each other, or the other beasts get them instead. Rebecca goes insane or perhaps begins to think that there is another way. It is Giorgio who after his killings of the housekeeper and the sex worker that actually opens the Gate and unleashes the beasts fully: taking Rebecca with him. It’s with Giorgio pledging himself to them that we realize the Reillys and the Orsinos they came from, have ghoul blood. And Giorgio and Rebecca become ghouls, slowly changing, mutating: with Giorgio eating the corpse of his mother who tried to consume his life and keep him in a stillborn stone womb of a prison, shedding the illusion of the child he used to be and wished he still was and the mutilated husk of a broken human to become something more. And Rebecca ends up devouring her own parents: those who controlled hers and emancipating herself to a whole new existence. They then leave with the ghouls — the last of their line here — to live in the depths of the Dreamlands and feast on the dead forever.

So, in this way I am marrying together “The Outsider” with “The Rats in the Walls” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” thereby adding a supernatural or low-key Cthulhu Mythos element into it — though not to the apparent extent of Tate Steinsiek’s work with something of a gross and twisted “happy-ending.” Instead of John’s redemption and reaffirmation of family and society, it could be a story about Giorgio, and even Rebecca’s dark salvation from the ruining influence of a mortal world, and the freedom of a bloody, supernatural one beyond human morality.

Conversely, there is the other “child” of my Mythos thought. We make a cinematic story with “The Outsider” traveling through his grave, to his ancestral castle and shying away from the truth of his undead nature, with only snippets of memory and perhaps he — and the audience — see him as a whole being like the youth of “The Quest of Iranon” as he travels through places like “Under the Pyramids” and even through a “Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” to finally realize what he is, and to come to peace with it as he joins the ghouls and night-gaunts in their revels. This would have more of a dark epic fantasy cinematic horror feel to it: a saga that expands out to a glorious Lovecraftian cosmic ending: romantic in the sense of it being sublime in unearthly Nature.

Even though I like the 1995 Castle Freak, and my original intent was to not attempt to alter films that I feel work in their own way, I also love the idea of an Outsider, of a supposed monster or a disabled female character — who is actually the central character in the upcoming Steinsiek remake — being the protagonist of their story and challenging a world view in being so. There are opportunities there, perhaps being taken in the remake to an extent. We will just have to see.

Creepshow Commentaries: Season One

This is something different, even though it might not look that way. Before creating my little laboratory here, before truly coming to The Last Drive-In that consumed me during the summer, but after I stopped writing for GeekPr0n and during a lull in writing about some horror films and comics for Sequart, I began watching the new Creepshow serials on Shudder.

At the time, this creative descendant of Stephen King, George Romero, and Greg Nicotero reminded me of the time I watched the very first Creepshow with my late partner, and when I heard this series was being created I commented on each episode as it came out. But eventually, I wanted to keep my comments. Part of it had to do with the fact that for a while I couldn’t leave comments on Shudder and even when I did, after a time, they would become lost, and I found that I actually liked what I was writing. What complicated it even further was, like I said, I really had no place to put it. It’s true that I had my Mythic Bios Blog but it just … didn’t fit.

As it is, they are comments, but even as such they began to coalesce like the rendered pieces of some dead eldritch god coming together, gravitating and mutating towards each other in something that others might call … themes. In a way, you can think these early prototypical samples of Dissections and Speculatives for the formation of the Horror Doctor Blog itself much later on. As such, they are rough, down, and dirty. I could clean them up, but honestly? I like how elemental and honest they are. This is some early work, including the dates in which I wrote them if not seen the episodes, ,and I’d like to think someone can glean something from this, or at the very least see the place of horror from whence I am still learning. Or, you know, before my descent into madness.

Right now, as of this writing, it is Friday November the 13th of 2020. If there was any appropriate time to release these, it would be this night. And to all the people watching a reanimator student at work in this twisted horror medical theatre, allow me to introduce you to my almost epistolary, “found commentaries” on Shudder’s Creepshow.

*

September 27/19

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 1: Gray Matter/The House of the Head

I like the spiritual influence of the film on the first episode and its two stories so far. The Creep is so much less … communicative than his Crypt Keeper television cousin, at least in this early episode.

“Gray Matter” was an interesting story. You could go very far, to say, that it talks about the dangers of alcoholism and that sometimes it might take a hurricane to quench the thirst of an addict … or not. The dispersion of scenes between the cafe owner and the boy, and the sheriff and the doctor served to add a little more tension to the piece. That tension and suspense making your stomach clench as the boy’s story slowly continued, combined with the gross out factor did fairly well, though it might of gotten a little out of control towards the end. 

“The House of the Head” was my favourite of the two, to be honest. Carl Jung always used the house as a symbol of one’s subconsciousness, or the collective unconscious. Combine that with the premise that if you can have haunted dolls and toys, you can also have haunted dollhouses. And dollhouses have often been literary metaphors for girls exploring their identities in socially accepted ways to become women. You can make an interesting reading of what the protagonist, the little girl Evie, does in attempting to deal with that malign influence, working in that system of the house … before realizing it is the house itself with which she needs to deal with: perhaps more than the thing in the house that no one outside of herself sees. 

It’s a creepy thing, to think you have control over your surroundings, or a place of your arrangement and there is always something there implicit in that place, or space that you just can’t get rid of. It’s actually similar to the mould, or the organic matter in the Harrows beer in “Gray Matter”: something that should have been dealt with by an authority — like a sheriff or the girl through the policeman figurine, or the caricature of a First Nations spiritual symbol of the shaman (talk about an “Indian in the Cupboard” fuck you) — but it is a child that has to deal with it. 

The boy in “Gray Matter” dealt with it one way, by attempting to surrender to it and get away himself. The girl, Evie, in “The House of the Head” got rid of the thing … which might go on to haunt, or infect, or manifest in other’s experiences: not that she had a choice. Not that anyone would have believed her. Not that anyone believed the boy … until it was already too late. 

The themes are good together and complementary. I think the latter story was the stronger one, but they both have merit. I can’t wait to see what the Creep has lined up for us in the next episodes that follow. 

October 4-8/19 

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 2: Bad Wolf Down/The Finger 

What can I say? I really liked this episode. “Bad Wolf Down” was something to which I was very much looking forward. I mean, Werewolves killing Nazis? Where can you go wrong? I also recall the episode in “Love, Death, and Robots” called “Shape-Shifters” where you had werewolves serving both the American Army and what seemed to be an Arabic militia, and it was a case study in character development on the American side. I will say, that “Bad Wolf Down,” which had been advertised for a while with the above premise of Werewolves killing Nazi scum, was sillier than I thought it would be. But it fits into ‘Creepshow’ which also is a homage to ‘Tales from The Crypt’: in it being something of a morality tale in war. It didn’t quite go the way I thought it would. I actually thought they might make it a lot like “Secret War” where the WWII Russians are fighting the forces of hell, but I like how they kept the Nazis evil, but at the same time they also demonstrate how the American soldier characters, who are good people who regret killing, or try not to kill civilians, are willing to embrace the monster to destroy their enemy: a metaphor for war if I’ve ever seen one. Also, Jeffrey Combs as the SS commander was really awesome to see, and made me feel like not only was looking at a 1950s rendition of a Nazi villain, all outlandish and over the top evil, but he brings a ‘Re-animator’ antagonist vibe to the thing. And also, that ending right? War changes a man indeed. 

But I knew nothing about “The Finger.” I like how in both stories, you see comics pages strewn throughout the scenes — tying into the central theme and aesthetic of ‘Creepshow’ and especially how the protagonist of “The Finger” collects them like the old discarded relics that some people used to think them to be. I really like how he’s depicted like what some people might believe to be an “ordinary, normal man” — or a “nice guy” in our time: a millennial adult who feels abused by the system and society, and neglected by everyone around him while also feeling a certain degree of self-entitlement. It was so cool to see the Finger itself grow and become, well, Bob. Bob is pretty much anyone’s best friend who feels discarded, lonely, and has a whole set of petty grievances. 

This story felt like such a ‘Tales from the Crypt’ or ‘Twilight Zone’ episode, and the first-perspective and retelling of the story from the protagonist was chilling in that he is actually so relatable while, at the same time, there is something disquieting and even creepy about him. Certainly, his perspective — which is the axis from which the story is shown — is biased, and we never know whether or not he took that blowjob from his stepdaughter so long ago. I actually hope that — one day — Bob comes back to the protagonist. I think the strength of both stories is how we see the moralities of the characters in how they embrace the monstrous to undertake what they believe to be justice. It is still horrible, but there is a relatibility to it all. Here, the monster isn’t an antagonist but humans are, and if anything the monstrous is to be pitied, or even loved. And Bob, I mean: can you imagine having a friend, someone that would love you, like Bob? And just how far you would feed his love if you had one? And just, for all of the morality you think you have, what you really do with a case of lycanthropy … or Bob? I actually am surprised, but I really like “The Finger” *more* than “Bad Wolf Down,” though I like the former as well. I find that the second segments in these episodes tend to be stronger. I wonder if the trend will continue. I look forward to watching more. 

October 11-12/19

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 3: All Hallows Eve / The Man in the Suitcase

What can I say: this episode has been for me, unequivocally, the best one ever so far. I’m trying to find a central theme here, but I’d say it would be something like vindictive justice, or karma coming, coming, coming to get you. 

“All Hallows Eve” reminds me of an “Are You Afraid of the Dark” episode, or the film version of “Scary Tales to Tell in the Dark” with far more of a tight, controlled, storyline with elements of gore. It’s one of those *in media res* situations where you gradually discover what those trick or treating kids really are, and what happened to them. I loved their tree house, and the D&D session they had — a 23 is a good total, it’s too bad it didn’t translate into luck in their real lives — and the ‘Goosebumps’ poster on the wall was a nice touch. At first, I thought it was going to be each of the adults they terrified being the culprits in what happened, like in a Toronto After Dark short film I saw years back where a group of adults are terrorized by the ghosts of vengeful children whom, as it turns out, they killed as a serial killer swingers group of sorts. I knew there was something about those children, especially the one dressed as a ghost — because we all know what sheets were made to cover — and I like how when they accomplish their final goal, dealing with the bullies that accidentally but cruelly ended them, the boy was restored under that sheet. It was so poignant. I am glad they got their justice and that they can sleep now, perhaps having better dreams and only treats, like they should have done years ago.

And then, we have “The Man in the Suitcase.” I should have seen it coming in retrospect — especially with the cartoon shown during the college kid Justin smoking up — and it was only towards the end that I knew what was going on. I felt bad for Justin having to deal with a complete bitch like Carla, and his asshole roommate Alex. I didn’t know to expect until I saw the description about the coins coming out of the contorted man, in pain. The ethics and horror of it … it got the point where the college kids were just torturing him for the pleasure of it, in addition to the greed and the aphrodisiac of Mammon. But Justin was the only one with qualms as the other two lost their humanity, which was the point. 

I don’t know, I feel like there is some racial, post-colonial statement to make about what are presumably a bunch of North American college kids profiting off of, and even taking pleasure from, the suffering of a subaltern like a brown, Arabic or Persian man in a bag. In a way, I think it the whole story and situation was more like a morality tale or a cautionary one — an echo of a 1001 Arabian Nights tale where a supernatural force arranges a lesson and it may well have been Justin’s lesson, or infernal intervention as opposed to divine: one he ended up learning at the very end. Really, both stories are about emotional baggage in addition to vicious supernatural justice. The Golden Dragons, the D&D kids that were burned alive by the bullies that believed they were mainstream and the parents that backed them from being punished temporally, finally freed themselves from one last quest of vengeance, and the man that turned out to be a djinn — an evil genie traveling on a plane in his suitcase of a lamp — destroyed the two people that walked all over Justin, and because he actually had a conscience at the end, even rewarded him. Maybe mixing it with the post-colonial resonance might confuse the narrative, or make it problematic, and perhaps Justin didn’t deserve mercy, but all I know is that his ex and former roommate deserved everything they got. They failed the supernatural test, the one foreshadowed in Justin’s nightmare, and everything they visited on what they thought was a helpless force condemned to make them rich was visited right on them. 

But damn. This episode was so utterly satisfying. Five out of five skulls. 

October 18/19

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 4: The Companion/Lydia Layne’s Better Half

I will never get used to the Creep not talking like the Crypt Keeper often does at the beginning of his own shows, even if he does play narrator in the facsimile of comics pages at the beginning of each ‘Creepshow’ episode.

You know, one of these stories is called “The Companion,” but in reality both of them are about companions, and companionship, and how it can be used to one’s advantage, or gone horribly wrong as a result. I actually didn’t know where “The Companion” was going at first, even though the scarecrow seen as the graphic, hanging on a cross in a field on its own, reminded me of the story “Harold” recounted in Alvin Schwartz’s ‘Scary Tales to Tell in the Dark’ and its recent film equivalent. However, the only Harold in this particular story here is Harry, who runs from his abusive, drunken, psychotic older brother Billy into an abandoned field where he releases the unnamed scarecrow from a cane stabbed through its heart. 

The scarecrow itself was created by an old farmer named Raymond Brenner from straw, ancient bones under the soil of his property, and a heart embroidery made by his wife Mavis — his beloved companion — who died, and left him lonely. He made the creation to help him deal with that loneliness, and all went well until it killed a Girl Scout coming onto his property to try to sell some cookies. The scarecrow is different from the depictions of Stephen Gammell’s Harold in ‘Scary Tales,’ with its tusks, and almost organic parts on its chest. It looks truly macabre and terrifying. One might also think that the scarecrow is a lot like Bob from ‘The Finger,’ except while it does what its creator says, it will protect its creator — or the holder of the cane that the creator stabbed it with — at all times, or is jealous of the creator’s time, and will act accordingly. I also love how not even the scarecrow’s creator knew what animated it: the bones, or the heart that Mavis wove independently of this. It was inspiring. 

In the end, Harry uses the cane that Brenner stabbed it with all those years ago after the death the girl, to stop it from killing him, and then entrap his brother, and kill him instead with its tendrils of roots and death. At first I thought Harry was trying to make his own scarecrow, as we see him weaving something after reading the suicide letter of Brenner, but why do that when he can just sew his bedsheets around him, and get a perfectly good, ready made companion to do the job for him: to use a greater monster against a pettier one. 

Speaking of greater and pettier monsters, I’ve not forgotten about ‘Lydia Layne’s Better Half.’ It is an age-old story about greed and power, and fear and burying guilt and the evidence of a crime of murder and blood. It has a very feminist theme, or at least it uses the popular language of such. Lydia is a high-powered executive that passes over her lover Celia for a position in Switzerland, to keep her as a trophy-wife, and under her heel while paying lip service to the power of women advancing in a patriarchal world and the destruction of a glass ceiling. It is, ironically, her glass achievement award that impales itself through Celia’s brain after she attacks her, when Celia plans to tell the press about both the passing up of her for the position in favour of a man, and the result of a physical attack.

Lydia pretty much falls under the crooked archetype of the hypocrite that deserves retribution in the style of EC Comics’ ‘Tales From the Crypt’ as she attempts to hide her crime, to protect her reputation and power, and reveals that Celia had just been a plaything the entire time, while moving her body and attempting to make it look like she died in a car accident. Instead, she gets stuck. In an elevator. With a rotting corpse of the woman she claimed to love. For 24 hours. 

You don’t know if what happens to Lydia — who has no real remorse for what she has done to her jilted lover — is the result of insanity, or supernatural justice. All I know is, when she climbs on Celia’s body to attempt to escape, to continue her literal climb to power, and her place at the top it has social and gender connotations there that are painful to see, and what happens to her afterwards — as her erstwhile companion seems to get her revenge — is poetic. 

Both stories are incredibly strong, and I look forward to seeing where ‘Creepshow’ goes beyond this. Five skulls. 

October 28/19

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 5: Night of the Paw / Times Is Tough in Musky Holler

What can I say, both of these stories in this episode feel like homages. I’ve just come fresh off the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, and its showing of Ryan Spindell’s ‘The Mortuary Collection’ — which is an anthology of tales told through the frame of a creepy narrator done right, and its story “Till Death” an eerie parallel to ‘Creepshow”s “Lydia Lane’s Better Half,” elevator and impaled head of a murdered partner’s body and all, but this latest showing has callbacks to specifically literary sources.

I mean, look at “Night of the Paw.” At first, I didn’t know where this was going until — inevitably — the Fakir of Mumbai’s Paw is introduced: a relic borrowed from the classic “The Monkey’s Paw” written by W.W. Jacobs. Interestingly enough, the old man who has saved the woman he found at his doorstep is called Whitey: a parallel to Mr. and Mrs. White of the aforementioned story. And like the couple, both he and the woman he summoned with the Paw attempted to resurrect a loved one from death … and unlike the short story, it doesn’t shy back from the gory, horrific consequences. I will admit, having the woman be a murderess who killed her husband to euthanize him with a gun was a little heavy-handed, a bad pun when you consider both the fact that she loses two fingers in her hand, and the Paw itself, and I am confused as to why the Paw resurrected all the corpses in the morgue including her husband’s, but the theme of doing something gruesome and horrible in the name of good names, and receiving one’s poetically ironic fate as a result is something that carries over to the next story. I will also state I like how this story utilized the comics panels segments more, and made you read them and see them to fill in some of the blanks between the live action sequences. 

And this brings us to “Times Is Tough in Musky Holler.” At first, I thought the former Mayor Barkley and his inner circle were in hell, going to be judged by the people they had betrayed and killed. But as the story continues, you realize that it is taking place after a major event: namely, a zombie apocalypse. It turns out, Barkley and his cronies used the chaos of the dead rising to seize power in the town of Musky Holler and in a ‘Battle Royale’ or ”Hunger Games’ fashion they created arena games where their political opponents would be fed open, publicly, by the dead. What we get to see is an extension of a EC Comics Horror ethos — think the story “Foul Play” from ‘The Haunt of Fear’ except with a zombie, or a series of crimson-hued undead resembling Nathan Grantham from the first ‘Creepshow’ film’s “Father’s Day” of so many decades ago — play out, and all of the war criminals get their … just desserts in a game — the last game of its kind to punish its creators — called, fittingly enough, “Hot Pie.” 

You can argue that both stories utilize the theme of people rationalizing to themselves undertaking horrific actions for a greater good — to reunite with a deceased loved one, or to help a town survive an undead invasion, though the latter was far more self-serving — or that they both have the undead rise to deal karma on the protagonists, or that fate cannot be avoided one way or another, but whatever the case it all entertained me. Greatly. 

October 31-November 4/19

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 6: Skincrawlers / By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain

Halloween came early this year in the form of this final episode of the first season of ‘Creepshow’ being released on Shudder one day early. I find I don’t have as much to say about this one. Both stories utilize the idea of hidden animals or creatures in Nature that can benefit humanity, and that those that hunt or seek them often find more for which they could have bargained. 

I wasn’t sure about “Skincrawlers” at first, though I knew based on the comics panel art it would be a body horror situation. It could have been that the fat-eating leeches were already controlling their human hosts, or they had laid eggs inside of the people seeking to lose weight. It was pointed out to me that throughout time people purposefully ingested tapeworms for a similar and grotesque reason. The protagonist looked like a man who unlike the others volunteering for the program realized he was actually happy with who he was, and how he looked, and that the leeches were too high a price to use. You kind of knew what was going to happen when the eclipse was mentioned on the news segment right before the leech demonstration was supposed to occur with the protagonist. I don’t know if there is really a moral here aside from the price one can pay when they try to skip steps, especially with their health, but the irony of the protagonist pushing a vending machine down on the larger leech, and being the only one of a few to escape it speaks of a particular karma or ethos. And for a man who wanted those creatures nowhere near his body, he really shouldn’t have eaten a candy bar coated in the remnants of the creatures and their horribly dead human hosts.

Now, “By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain” seems like a much longer story. Written by Joe Hill, and directed by Tom Savini, the story is about Rose: the daughter of a man attempting to find a mysterious and elusive beast called Champ in the lake, whose obsession kills him before the story begins. She has a younger brother, and a mother who lives with a greedy, abusive alcoholic Vietnam veteran named Chet who always needs to be the Alpha Male in the area. Rose’s boyfriend looks like Rambo thanks to his bandana and knife, but resembles more someone from the old Kobra Kai dojo in the ‘Karate Kid’ days. Rose keeps records and clippings of any Champ, or Champy sightings. She ends up finding proof that Champ exists, and that her father wasn’t insane, only to have Chet threaten her boyfriend (I was totally waiting for someone to tell her boyfriend to “sweep the leg” — I just can’t get that Kobra Kai 1980s martial arts image out of my head) and herself when they believe they find the dead body of Champ … and realize that they are wrong. The karma is served here and Chet is devoured, but it is clear that Champ — this analogue to the Loch Ness Monster as an aquatic dinosaur-like being — isn’t good or evil, but is an animal that reacts to hostility, and may well have devoured all of them including Chet if she hadn’t been distracted by the death of her progeny. The mystery as to what killed Champ’s offspring, as claw marks are seen on its side, remains — and Rose’s boyfriend’s attempt to carve hers and her father’s name into the side of the dead creature, which is seen as sweet, becomes horrible and sad when you realize it is the real Champ’s child, and is just another example of humanity trying to mark something from nature that it doesn’t understand for itself. But the mother at the end finally believes in what her late husband sought and with the death of her abusive partner, everything has closure and feels sweet and almost saccharine, until Chet’s severed foot arrives on shore.

This episode was all right, but it just didn’t feel like a strong episode or duo of stories to end off the first season of ‘Creepshow.’ It does make its theme clear: of this is what happens when humans meddle in elements of nature and the unknown that they don’t understand, and that your actions have consequences in a moralistic vintage horror ethos fashion, I feel like the previous stories might have been more solid to end on, especially on All Hallow’s Eve or Halloween. Certainly, the “All Hallows Eve” story from Episode 3 might have been better here. Nevertheless, they were solid stories, and I definitely look forward to knowing that there will be another season of ‘Creepshow’ coming up.

October 30/20

Warning: Potential Spoilers for ‘A Creepshow Animated Special’: Survivor Type / Twittering From the Circus of the Dead

When I first saw this, I was taken aback. I already knew that this would be a special episode, but what I didn’t realize were a few things. First, it didn’t hit home that it would be its own entity: not an episode, but a Special in, and of itself. And second, when the Creep began drawing his pages, scarring them with his black ink quill, I found my mind awaiting the transition from the comics pages to the live action as I usually do … and I almost forgot that this whole Special is, like an undead construct powered by necromancy, an animated production. 

The animation studio Octopie succeeds in making something resembling EC Comics’ Tales From the Crypt shamble across Shudder’s video screen to a terrible and gloriously shaded semblance of life. Everything, as it was in the first Creepshow is a homage to EC Comics’ horror series. Even the illustrated Creep resembles the first incarnation of the Crypt Keeper, or some interstitial version between the robed white-haired man and the rotten, cackling skeleton that we all know and love.

But that is another show, from another time. It’s been a while since I’ve written a review of a Creepshow episode and a lot has changed in just a year. This is the year of the Pandemic. This is the time of COVID-19. I don’t know if either of these stories, adapted from both Stephen King and Joe Hill respectively — father and son of horror — were animated by Octopie and directed by Greg Nicotero before or after the Pandemic, but they have some resonances.

I have to say, these stories are gross. Both of them. But they are gross in a way that doesn’t make them spectacle, but genuine existential and even empathic horror. In “Survivor Type,” created from Stephen King’s short story, animated in a manner reminiscent of Alan Moore’s own homage to old horror comics Tales of the Black Freighter with seagulls galore, we see a doctor stranded on a desert island named Richard. Aside from the fact that he is voiced by the great horror film veteran Kiefer Sutherland, which gives him a tremendous force of personality, he is quite relatable. Despite, or because of, his ties and drive to do whatever it is to survive you get driven into his story. Even though I know what kind of story this is, I actually wanted him to survive — to live. But when you look at the price of life, in that situation, there is a point where you wonder just how merciful it would be to exist at that point.

When you look at this current timeline we’re living in, where health specialists and professionals are practically on the frontlines of the Pandemic, not knowing how they are going to stop it but being painfully aware of what the effects of the virus will be on others — and themselves — perhaps even hoping for some miracle cure, some saviour that never comes. Or perhaps you can look at it as, through survival in a time of great isolation, we can go on through compartmentalization, but by doing so we lose little parts of ourselves and our humanity each day. Or if you go into even more existential extremes based on old EC horror comics morality — that humanity’s path to consume the world out of greed, as represented by the doctor Richard, will ultimately devour itself, this cannibalistic stretch practically makes itself.

Perhaps this read would be more effective in the adaptation of Joe Hill’s “Twittering From the Circus of the Dead.” It takes a while to get to where it needs to be, and while the red herring, if you will pardon the ghoulish pun and context, is a corpse that never gets eaten, the one in the following story is a “cock-sock” which I almost hoped would be a Chekov’s condom (and probably something Richard will never need again).

It is a story that is also narrated, but while Richard is the only character for the most part and it is easy to forget that he is narrating other characters too, Blake is around her family the entire time: on what will be their last family road trip. She is constantly on a Twitter analogue social media app complaining about her family and the trip “from hell.”

There is an attempt to humanize the characters but it is a little flat. And then they get to the Circus of the Dead. I will say, there’s a part of me that thinks this was an attempt to criticize the effect of the Internet desensitizing people to reality, or their own instincts. I don’t know. I wonder if a North American family would wonder why there is a Circus that has a zombie-theme and it doesn’t seem to be Halloween in their story. 

But I appreciate how the Circus arranges itself, how it operates like some kind of grisly Grand Guignol, and the audience isn’t so much a tough crowd as it is quite rotten, and … par of the course. Crypt Keeper humour all said and done, I personally think that Blake would have made a good social media manager for them, though the Ringmaster seems to have that all in hand.

I just, again, see the art of it reflecting this current time. The disease around the family and the few living audience members that they willfully ignore, the warning that they dismiss as spectacle, even the spray of undead gore that they don’t realize has already infiltrated them due to their carelessness all has eerie resonance now beyond a simple zombie story if the Hazmat suited circus member wasn’t enough for you.

Both stories in the Animated Special both have to deal with cannibalism, and the human desire and inclination to ignore the hard facts in front of them. “Survivor Type” haunts me long after watching it because you know the horror of it will just continue until the human completely becomes inhuman, and yet “Twittering From the Circus of the Dead” has only one human element at the end: that realization that Blake loves her family even though it’s far too late, and she must take the place of the announcer before her, who also lost someone she loved, and only continued to exist out of fear. In this time, isolation is the enemy: it makes us — borrowing from the above idea I wrote about  “Survivor Type” eat the different parts of us if we let isolation get to us, and forget the connections that we actually have. Both Richard and Blake scorned their connections, one thinking he could survive in life by his … own two hands, and the other wanting to get away from her family.

Yet, in the end, both of them wanted connection: both wanted to be saved, and both lost everything … including their humanity. Perhaps, in the end, in the time of a greater horror looming over us as we huddle with others or on our own, there is a dark morality lesson here to consider after all. 

Another Halloween

I’ve meant to do this for a while.

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

It always comes back to her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was actually okay for me to have fun.

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

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

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

And grief is a cycle as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The End of Freddy’s Revenge: Journal of a Scream Queen

When I first watched the documentary Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street, I wanted to write something about it but it didn’t feel appropriate to do so at the time. Aside from it covering Mark Patton, the actor who played Jesse Walsh in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, and his life as a gay man during the 1980s and the demons he had to face then, and afterwards, there was one other fact with which I had to contend.

I hadn’t watched A Nightmare on Elm Street. Any of them.

The reason I saw the documentary at all had more to do with the anticipation of, and the recommendation from Sam Wineman, and his upcoming documentary on queer horror for Shudder. I’d already seen Shudder’s Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror directed by Xavier Burgin, and I’ve hoped to see a similar treatment to LGBTQ+ people and themes in the horror genre. In the meantime, however, I realized that what I needed to do — unlike Horror Noire where I began watching some of those films and the work of their actors after viewing it — was watch some LGBTQ+ horror itself, or at least some that played with those elements, for good or ill.

This is where Scream, Queen came in. And even now, despite having written something on Sleepaway Camp and its problematic elements, I’m still not writing about this documentary. Not entirely.

I’d like to think it’s not that dissimilar to how Patton wrote “Jesse’s Lost Journal.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. You see, I’m a freak. Given that this blog is called The Horror Doctor at the moment, and the subject matter we are covering, that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. But I might be one of the few people in the horror fandom that watched Scream, Queen before ever seeing the Nightmare on Elm Street series, and the sequel in particular. The fact that I saw that documentary before watching Nightmare on Elm Street 2 probably informed my opinions differently than someone who saw the film cold in their formative years, or even afterwards.

I am one of those relatively straight people, who didn’t hate the sequel. I like the fact that there was an attempt to create something new in the Elm Street mythos before it had really even begun. For me, it made sense that Freddy Krueger, as a being of nightmares, would need a physical avatar to properly interact with a material world without relying on people asleep or a half-delirious state. It also really spoke to me that he would prey on an adolescent dealing with anger and repressed sexual feelings in order to infiltrate his mind and body. Freddy is a child predator no matter which way you look at it, and he exploits whatever he can, non-consensually, to enjoy his favourite past times: pain, suffering, and murder.

If you go even further, you will notice in the second film that he only ever kills men and boys. When you consider how Jesse is humiliated by his coach, belittled by his father, his feelings mistaken as mental illness by his mother, even physically fighting with Grady, and expected to be sexual with Lisa at a popular party in a mansion I just read it all as an LGBTQ teen being thrown into a patriarchal or kyriarchical system where he doesn’t belong — and Freddy is the other side of it, the destructive, violent tendencies in addition to being his own hideous self that obliterates the societal structure and people tormenting him along with his own false sense of self. The way Freddy eventually rips out of Jesse reminds me so much of the monstrous sentient tumour that comes out of Steven Freeling after arguably rejecting his own toxic masculinity born of anger and helpless and alcoholism in Poltergeist II: The Other Side.

It’s no coincidence, to me, that Freddy wears Jesse as a skin, though the reverse is also true. Just as Jesse’s father is the reason he is imprisoned in this literally hot and stifling place of suffocation in Nancy’s old house made from murder, Freddy becomes the prison that he is entrapped within by the dominant social narrative: watching his subsequent actions become distorted into the worst possible atrocities.

The thing is, writers like Logan Ashley in his article “Scream, Queen!”: A Reflection on the Legacy of a Gay Cult Classic Death of the author, and examining what we remember about problematic, “bad” horror point out that Freddy may well represent the view that society enforces on LGBTQ people — on gay men in this case — that their sexuality is wrong, monstrous, and equated with child predation and worse. But it is through Lisa’s Platonic, pure love and acceptance of who Jesse is that makes him realize he isn’t sick or wrong, that he isn’t alone, that he is heard and understood even in the greatest darkness, and that he will survive.

It’s been pointed out a few times, of course, that this was probably not the message that the film intended. Much like Sleepaway Camp and its treatment of Angela Baker — with the character’s reveal as being biologically male and that transphobia — there is a homophobic element where some might see it as Freddy being the unnatural “other sexuality” that the love of a good woman can cure. I’m not going to rehash all of that, or the fact that the film’s writer David Chaskin attributed the homoerotic or phobic undertones to the “performances of a few elements” only to take credit for the homophobic “critique” years after the denial of it.

Logan Ashley in his article argues that Roland Barthes’ idea of “the death of the Author” — that once a work of art is completed it no longer belongs to the creators but to the audience or those that consume or perform in its legacy — can be applied to Freddy’s Revenge in this sense, in that other readings can be attributed to it, such as — again — a work like Sleepaway Camp. And if that’s the case, there is another way this narrative can be interpreted.

All of that leads back to Mark Patton and his struggles, and the conclusions to which he’s come. All of that can be seen in Scream, Queen, this documentary directed by Roman Chimienti and Tyler Jensen, and co-produced by Patton himself in 2019. However before Scream, Queen and after the 2010 documentary Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy, Patton made something else.

Jesse’s Lost Journal is a series created by Mark Patton in 2012, posted on Static Emporium in sixty-eight parts, including a Preface from Patton. The premise is that, much like the Journal Jesse Walsh finds belonging to Nancy Thompson in the first film, he writes down his own thoughts as he experiences the events of Freddy’s Revenge … and beyond.

It’s no secret that I love epistolary fiction. Certainly, I’ve enjoyed works such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu,” and Kris Straub’s Candle Cove where journal entries, transcripts, and letters create the narrative of a horror story: this testimony to terrible things and the revelations they contain. Certainly, Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust‘s film reels and also Stephen Volk’s Ghostwatch mockumentary aspects fall into that place for me. But there are also two other elements I enjoy in my studies, and my own personal interest. For one, I love meta-fictional narratives: works that say something and build on, and from, the frame of the original works from which they are based. The first time I was exposed to this was through John Gardner’s Grendel, the story of Beowulf as told from the perspective of the monster he slays, but I particularly enjoyed Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ comics miniseries Providence — which operates from the idea that Lovecraft created his Cthulhu Mythos from slightly different, but similar events as written down in another Commonplace Book — and E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire that tells the story of what if Max Schreck, who played Count Orlok in Nosferatu, really was a vampire.

And another element I appreciate, relating to all of these points and references, is that of the unreliable narrator.

“Jesse’s Lost Journal” has all of these qualities in spades. Unlike Moore and Burrows’ Providence, or even Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire, Jesse’s story begins much like the film in which he exists but even then, there are some … discrepancies. They are subtle, at first, but as you go through you find a very different character to the one portrayed in the film: someone self-aware of his danger and his oppressive surroundings, and will do almost anything to survive.

One fascinating part is how Patton characterizes Freddy and his interactions with Jesse. Fittingly, this prose is where it got pointed to me that Freddy only attacked the boys and men around Jesse, but after thinking about Freddy some more it reminded me of Daniel Sheppard’s Sleepaway Camp and the Transgressive Possibilities of Queer Spectatorship article I referenced in my look at Sleepaway Camp in which he references Sam J. Miller’s “Assimilation and the Queer Monster” in stating that “the queer monster” is an aspect of agony and radicalism that many would like to white-wash or disavow but might be, for all of its problematic nature, a source of strength and power against a tyrannical or heteronormative system. This is something of my own paraphrase, and Sheppard goes on to say that LGBTQ people can relate to the discomfort of this being’s existence, but while that may not work with a being like Freddy — who is a predator and killer of children in the film — in Patton’s “Jesse’s Lost Journal” the protagonist sees Freddy as his tormentor, his jailer, his prisoner, but also his cohort, and sometimes even an agent of freedom. In this context, I think the queer monster definitely applies to Freddy while not taking away from his aspect of being a tool or a stereotype created by the heteronormative patriarchy.

What is so good about metafiction is that it tends to comment on its own nature or narrative structure. The fact that Jesse is wondering where Nancy is and why she hasn’t contacted him in his fight against Freddy can be seen as a commentary on women and gay men being discrimated and separated from intersectional solidarity by a heteronormative kyriarchy. There is also the fact that they have different roles in their stories and the franchise itself: Nancy Thompson in Wes Craven’s first film operates out of a sense of righteous justice and self-agency against the odds and the system of disbelieving and secretive adults. Patton’s Jesse Walsh wants to help those wronged but he has to make sacrifices along the way in so doing. Nancy can’t help Jesse in this system. She comes back in other films, fighting other battles. Jesse continues to wage his own from the shadows, deserving his own time. In the end, he can only help himself.

Jesse also doesn’t end up sugarcoating the situation. He comments on how Freddy’s crimes are downplayed to mollify the citizens of Springwood, Ohio or to entertain audiences while giving him the lion’s share of the blame of all the murders of popular children in an upper-middle class society also says a lot about not just the homophobic of the 1980s, but also the fallout from critics and fans on Mark Patton during that particular period, exacerbated by Chaskin’s comments about his homosexuality giving the film a “gay subtext” where none supposedly existed. Jesse nearly dying and being institutionalized, eventually getting away from Elm Street, becoming homeless for a time, getting to New York, and both creating art and writing in a journal to sort out his thoughts and trauma also has some interesting semi-biographical resonances.

Of course, none of it is precisely factual or biographical. Patton changes facts around and Jesse, well, as I said: I love an unreliable narrator paired up with the conceit that something fictional is real. But I would strongly encourage anyone who has watched Scream, Queen to read “Jesse’s Lost Journal” or vice-versa.

I just want to appreciate the fact that for all the flak that Freddy’s Revenge received, there is so much support and even literature written around it. And I would definitely include “Jesse’s Lost Journal” as something of an artistic commentary and critique of that film, how it was handled, how social elements dealt with it, and that entire time period in which it was made. It is such a great example of deconstruction, reconstruction, and even re-appropriation of its parent narrative’s themes. Also, I dare you to look at how Jesse wins his battle at the end of Mark Patton’s series, and then watch Patton have his own confrontation towards the end of Scream, Queen: a place I never thought they would go, but they did. Either way you look at these parallels, a demon is faced, prices have been paid, unforgettably personal denouements are reached, a burden is possibly owned and shed, and perhaps a nightmare is finally over.

The Path Back to Aira: H.P. Lovecraft’s Quest of Iranon

It always comes back to Lovecraft, for me.

When I peel back the opaque shroud of time from my mind, I remember that H.P. Lovecraft was pretty much another writer like Edgar Allan Poe to me, before I actually read his work. Certainly, when I read “The Tomb” in those early days, it didn’t disabuse me of that notion, though I had no idea of the depth of his terrifying vision and how it fit into — and beyond — the evolution of humanity until I read “The Rats in the Walls”: problematic elements, and all.

Then, one day, after getting and reading The Dream Cycle of H.P. Lovecraft with Neil Gaiman’s introduction telling us how extremely racist he was, as if it hadn’t already been clear, and my own head being filled with Lovecraft’s epistolary first-person scholarly tales of meeting horrific things that have always lived side by side with what we think is normal, though devoid of sex beyond anything squeamish and disgusting, and certainly far from intimacy tat was anything other than camaraderie I found “The Quest of Iranon.”

I remember reading it that first time. It was evening, I think, and I was sitting on the bench at Vanier College at York University. This was my Undergrad year after all my carefully laid plans fell apart, and I was tired of being so structured: and I just wanted to take the courses that interested me and — for the first time — genuinely explore my surroundings. I was pretty young then, about twenty-four or so, and between the end of my first relationship, quitting my Creative Writing Program, and not taking a full course load anymore I guess I was in the place where these stories would affect me.

They spoke to me then, with grandiose language — heightened diction, my teachers called it — but also about dreams, and nostalgia, and loss. “The Quest of Iranon” has gotten some flak over the years. Some have said it is heavily derivative of Lovecraft’s favourite writer and once of his influences, Lord Dunsany. I imagine others have seen it as a lot of navel-gazing on the part of the protagonist, and melodramatic self-pity. I know at least one person who has no patience for this story, and saw it as tremendously self-indulgent and perhaps even a little preachy. When I was reading Leslie S. Klinger’s The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft: Arkham and Beyond, he referenced Brian Humphreys in his “Who Is Iranon?” who read the ending of the story to mean that Iranon’s physical translation is literal and entails that he is related to the Gods, or the Great Old Ones in some way before stepping into a space that changes him. It is the closest horror interpretation, or Mythos one, I’d seen at that point.

For me, aside from some Cthulhu Mythos or Dream Cycle references — world-building crossover — the horror of the narrative is entirely different. I read the story as as a parable or a metaphor. Iranon is an artist. He fuels himself on his passion and his dreams. He goes to one place that wants him to get a “proper job” in order to survive, only mildly tolerating his natural abilities, and completely ignoring the fact that they just toil for the sake of work, and forgetting the finer things with which they could strive. It’s the dreamer verses the cold, grim real world trope, which I’m sure has felt trite to people who have actually worked at manifesting their dreams, but it’s also an observation about how fickle fame or respect for someone’s art can be as Iranon goes to another city and eventually, for all his initial favour, is replaced by the new. A lot of these ideas and themes are refined in Lovecraft’s later works “The Silver Key” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.”

But Iranon’s goal, to return to Aira — this beautiful land where he is a Prince — is the one thing that keeps him going. He travels the world, telling stories about this place where he feels like he belongs, and he understands things, and it allows him to remain vital. This impulse maintains his sense of youth. I imagine that others can’t even believe it, like his friend Romnod who follows him as a young boy, his constant companion for a time, only to settle in a city and die an old drunkard.

People laugh at Iranon. Or they ignore him. Or they simply don’t see him at all. And yet he continues traveling, and playing, and making his songs, still seeking his lost home. He still wants to return to Aira.

It’s only at the end, when he encounters an old shepherd at the edges of a desert, that he realizes the terrible truth of the matter.

There is no Aira.

The implication is that the shepherd and Iranon were friends years ago, beggar’s children. Iranon himself had been an orphan telling everyone about the magical city of Aira where he said he was a Prince. When Iranon remembers this truth, his self-delusion is gone. His dream is dead. He withers away, looking and feeling every bit his age. And realizing that his whole life was basically a lie, he goes to die in the quicksand rather than continue on with the rest of his miserable existence.

It’s that whole trope of “Forbidden Knowledge” or “You can’t handle the truth” that leads this formulaic story — with Iranon constantly asking every stranger he meets if they know where Aira in an almost poetic verse — to that predictable place. It’s so easy to scoff at that, or say it isn’t scary, or look down your nose and have no patience for dreamers that aren’t professional and don’t see their passion as actual work. You can even argue that it’s something of a maudlin tragedy, and you can see it in Lovecraft’s other stories: in “The Outsider” whose protagonist realizes he is an abomination and tries to forget, and some of his more racist works like “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” or even “The Shadows Over Innsmouth” where the protagonists realize they have inhuman ancestry in their blood, and either flee from their fraying humanity, or kill themselves.

Lovecraft has always stated that humanity’s greatest fear is that of the unknown, while at the same time positing that if people realized the ultimate truth, it would destroy their sanity.

I think “The Quest of Iranon” works for me because it makes me think of another interpretation of horror. Imagine you have this idea of who you are, and where you come from in relation to that. Consider that you are constantly having that sense of self challenged, and struggling to undertake the actions that make you happy. You go through all of that, and you keep that certainty alive and it strengthens you. Perhaps it is challenged, and you learn, but that core of you is still there, and it inspires you to go onward, and keep living.

And then imagine, one day, you find out that everything that you thought — that you genuinely wanted to be be true — is not only false, it never happened. You were never going to find your home. You were never going to find that peace. You were never who you thought you were.

The horror in “The Quest of Iranon” is more than just coming to the discovery that you are the alien, the monster, or the Other. It’s that you just aren’t that important. You’re not that special. And some people might cynically acknowledge that and think you were foolish for ever thinking otherwise, that this what adolescents and young adults have to accept in order to grow up, but consider what happens to someone when they believe they can never be happy unless they find the thing that, in reality, doesn’t exist. And everyone else is fine with that, or they can move on, or settle down, but you just … can’t.

I think that everyone has had a moment like this. Obviously, we don’t all go into quicksand and die, but sometimes we want to forget this disappointment. Sometimes you just want to forget those dreams that you thought were so important and now they just embarrass you, or anger you, or merely make you terribly sad in that they are not reality, and they will never be.

I’ve thought about Iranon from time to time, and Aira, and the place of youth that we all cobble together from our better memories as some kind of idyllic past that didn’t happen, but you wish it had. Or maybe it did happen in a different form. Even Iranon thought, despite knowing better, that some cities might have been his Aira and enjoyed them for whatever time they were worth.

To this very day, I don’t know the way back to a place that probably never happened, or didn’t the way I thought or wished it would. But there is nothing to laugh about that, or turn your nose up from. It doesn’t make you superior to believe that you are beyond this yearning, or nostalgia, and especially not if you look down at others for feeling this way. Maybe the horror is when you’ve felt like you lost something you never had, and everyone else just doesn’t — or doesn’t want to — understand you. Or see you.

It’s a haunting story, “The Quest of Iranon” especially during a time when dreams are important to take our minds off of a terrifying reality, or to add meaningful flavour to it. Art has kept us going through seclusion, and united us. Maybe Aira doesn’t exist, but perhaps something imaginary needs to have been, and to be.

I haven’t been in Undergrad in years. I’ve met and lost friends along the way. I’ve been in different places. I’ve still dreamed. Perhaps, one day, I will rediscover my Aira, or the very least find the strength and will within myself to let it go.