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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creepshow Commentaries Season Three: Episode 2 – Skeletons In the Closet / The Familiar

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 2: Skeletons in the Closet/ Familiar

Spoiler alert. I … you know how you see a teaser for something, and there is a flashy moment, a scene that you think is really excellent and promising, and you want to see how it plays out? And then it doesn’t?

Yeah.

“Skeletons in the Closet” is a story written by John Esposito, and directed by Greg Nicotero. That title already had a great deal of promise to it, and the whole premise of a film buff opening up a museum display, only to have a rival collector threaten all of his plans, really intrigued me. Were we going to see them try to outbid each other on an auction? Were we going to see some weird, colourful horror collector characters, and a murder mystery amid gory practical effects memorabilia? Hell, were there even going to be some special guest stars?

No. Not really.

The murder weapons were all there. The effects were, well, in effect. We had so many Easter-eggs too, but you can’t make an entire story that is completely made from the bones of other works. My skeleton pun aside, I’m not talking about inspiration, or playing off a trope and finding your voice in it.

There is a homage, and then there is something completely derivative. And being derivative multiple times. It doesn’t even bother to hide it. It is a fairly predictable plot once it gets rolling. The film buff, Lampini, is actually the son of a former magician and movie memorabilia owner, and he is in a feud with a man who almost dated his mother before his father got him.

The collector, Bateman, wants the prop of a zombie from George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, and is blackmailing him into giving into him as one of his displays is actually a body that the film buff guy had dug up. So when things escalate, his girlfriend — Danielle — kills the man with a shoe that has a knife in it. And this is after she doesn’t believe her film buff boyfriend would dare be a ghoul, and dig up a corpse that was already used as a prop in a film before being returned to that grave.

Yeah. She is a pretty one-dimensional character, in both senses of the word: constantly snotty, a horror elitist, kind of arrogant, and hanging on her boyfriend’s every word until, you know, she finds out he dug up a skeleton. To be fair, the commentary on horror fandom here — art house and grindhouse snobs alike — is so on the nose it’s probably broken some facial bones on impact. And then he preserved his own father’s bones to do them like one of Ray Harryhausen’s Spartoi skeleton warriors. By the way, I love animated skeletons. They are light-weight, agile, they move insanely fast, and if you are a necromancer they are cheap to make. And it is a bonus if they cackle.

I will say this. Bateman’s body, once the dynamic duo stripped him down, and put his remnants into acid, did deliver on the laughing skeleton part. I think one of the things that makes me sad is that we saw, in the preview of Season Three of this show, one of The Tall Man’s spheres — a Silver Sentinel: you know, from Phantasm. And I was hoping, I just hoping Don Coscarelli would write or direct or even have influence over this episode, and make it a tiny one-off Phantasm story even if Angus Scrimm can’t be with us. Hell, they did it with “Public Television of the Dead,” though minus Sam Raimi. Unfortunately, that was not to be, but that prop did get to be Chekhov’s sphere.

And at least Danielle died, which almost made it better except for the fact that it was a clear parody of the Psycho shower scene, and it was perhaps supposed to be funny but it … just fell flat for me. I did like how the film buff’s father’s skeleton, and his rival’s bones got into a fight, and the father won. I think of Lampini as kind of like Lovecraft’s Pickman except his “magic” — as is bandied about in the story — isn’t painting, but collecting props, and when he can’t he makes them from the dead: including from the bodies of everyone he loves. It just comes across as more weird, and silly than anything else. But hey, at least we got a skeleton battle out of the deal, and a Silver Sentinel fulfilling its true purpose. And that callback to the original 1982’s Creep’s model was great. 

I’ll take it, I guess. I agree with Karina Adelgaard of Heaven of Horror when she says this should have been the first episode of Season Three, if it was going to happen in this way. It would have been a great transition from Season Two’s “Night of the Living Late Show.”

But then we have the other story. “Familiar” is a story written by Josh Malerman and directed by Joe Lynch. It is harder to talk about this one. Whereas “Skeletons in the Closet” is mostly made of references and doesn’t have its own character so to speak, “Familiar” has a clearer vibe. One thing both episodes have in common is that the female characters are profoundly dismissive, but whereas the one in the former episode was practically singing her boyfriend’s praises, Fawn in “Familiar” teases Jackson a lot.

They go to a fortune teller named Boone after a night of drinking, to celebrate Jackson’s growing career as a promising lawyer and while the man tells Fawn her fortune, he passes a piece of paper to Jackson telling him that brought “something bad in with him.”

It makes you wonder, especially from the title of the story, if Jackson already knew about whatever this is. I actually thought that he was becoming successful because he had contracted a familiar — binding a demon — to do his bidding, but its presence was becoming intolerable, and soon he would have to pay the piper. That didn’t seem to be the case though, and he tries to dismiss it as if it’s nothing.

But when this creature seems to appear at random times, and then it goes all Brownie-Poltergeist on his office, and the restroom, he confides to his … girlfriend? Wife? He tells his partner Fawn, and she makes fun of him and his fear. She doesn’t see it and worse, when she’s not acting like the stereotypical white character in a horror film thinking something supernatural is cool and should be investigated or purchased for a lark as opposed to avoided like the plague, she is pretending to know it, and ignoring her partner’s obvious discomfort. Nevertheless, she doesn’t seem to mind him looking into it, but … You see, this is an interesting story for a few reasons, and one of which I hadn’t really thought about.

When I finished watching this episode, I looked at other articles to see if I could understand the ending. Yeah. That is never really a good sign, I even watched the ending again: to see I’d missed something.

Of all things, there is a Decider review of the episode by Walter Chaw which is profoundly also self-referential, highly full of itself, and eventually it descends into a kind of contradictory word-salad. I don’t generally get this critical of another piece of writing, but I have to call it as it is. But there is something he says in that article about Jackson being Black, and how the Familiar — the really cool antlered humanoid creature following him around — is subtext for, if you will pardon the borrowing from Forbidden Planet, “a creature of the Id.”

It is telling that the couple brings this thing into a room in which fortunes are told, that this is an unspoken, unseen dark force, a burden that they are unconscious, or subconscious about. Fawn is fairly dismissive of Jackson seeing this creature afterwards, and just goes about making fun of him. And what seems like mutual ribbing becomes a little one-sided. Other articles have said that the geriatric dog, Randolph, is Fawn’s but that was not the impression I got: that Randolph is in fact Jackson’s dog of many years.

These are all details that will be important because, after a while, Jackson goes back to Boone to get help to deal with this Familiar. Now, the story itself says the Familiar is a creature that is bound to someone and will do anything: lying, cheating, stealing, and even killing to stay with the person to which they are bound. The thing is, though, I know that familiars in folklore are summoned by magicians and witches to fulfill bargains, and carry out services. Certainly the book Jackson picks up seems to hint on this, and you’d think a lawyer that constantly prides himself on his knowledge of legal loopholes and the language of the law would be more interested in the symbolism of the magic circle and mage in that book.

How Boone presents this as, however, is that Jackson must take an object of innocence, in a binding circle, and trap the Familiar under a “magical crate.” Because this is, you know, all Loony Toons now, right?

So we can already figure out where this is going to go. It’s the Lambton Worm all over again. He has to take the crate, the magical crate, and dump it into a pond and get away from it as far as possible. So first, taking Boone’s suspect innocence sky pendant made by his sister, he traps the thing: only for it to mimic Randolph. You see, Familiars can actually possess the bodies of the dead and the dying just to masquerade as one’s friends, and stay by you because they are — again — bound to you. But when he lifts the crate, Randolph isn’t there, and the pendant is gone.

So no dog-killing today, just as it didn’t happen in the Lambton Worm story. Those poor, loyal hounds. 

Right. So Jackson realizes he needs a replacement for the not-suspicious amulet … err, pendant. And so he visits his partner, and yes, Fawn is a sculptor. He realizes after talking with her that her gift for him, which is a lamb figurine I believe, represents innocence and love. He uses this to trap the Familiar. It … seems to mimic Fawn’s voice, begging to be let out, but he doesn’t check, and she is not answering her phone.

Then he dumps the crate in the lake, and seems to feel better … even though we hear Boone laughing like a madman in the background.

So, at the end, we find the Familiar with Fawn’s drowned corpse. It fades, and Fawn’s body is reanimated. It croaks to Jackson, as it embraces him, that “I believe you now.”

He does fulfill the Lambton sacrifice. But instead of freeing him, it costs him everything.

See, Chaw in his article takes pains to show that one Black man — Boone — is showing another Black man — Jackson — that his white partner isn’t good for him, or the dynamic isn’t healthy. There is a grain of salt in this that wasn’t actually used in a protection circle, but the idea of a successful Black man or person dealing with an issue that a white woman or partner or friend can’t see, possible gaslighting, the Familiar — in more ways than one — being that resentment, and anger, and the idea too that it might be Boone’s Familiar that he is using to attack Jackson and pass onto him so that he can free himself, and that it takes his dead partner’s form in a creepily Shakespearean Desdemona fashion is something that is intriguing, and disturbing.

But I was really unclear as to what happened. Did Boone trick Jackson all along? Did he have that Familiar follow him because he wanted to be rid of it? Did he resent Jackson’s success? Did he make Jackson aware of the social and cultural inequalities around him? Was Boone just a dick? Is the Familiar in Fawn essentially the dream Jackson always thought he wanted, in a career in law that he didn’t really take seriously, or care for, made manifest?

I went online — specifically on Twitter — to try to find an answer. Luckily Joe Lynch, the director himself, was in a generous and charitable enough mood, and he weighed in on the subject in the following exchange.

So, there you have it. But that matter aside, I feel sometimes I’m not as well versed in the horror genre as I should be, and there are references to other works and pieces that would help me get a better context. I will say that “The Familiar” was far more interesting, if sometimes vague, than “Skeletons in the Closet,” but while the former does have some charming, ridiculous moments, the latter definitely makes you think.

Creepshow Commentaries Season Three: Episode 1 – Mums/ Queen Bee

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 1: Mums/ Queen Bee

It’s been a long time since Season Two, and even the Specials, but after the Christmas Special we are now going into autumn, and the grim harvest, and everything that falls from there.

Chrysanthemums. In Japanese culture, they apparently symbolize death, but also immortality. Violet or purple ones also represent the wish to “get well,” while pink are all about “longevity.” I’m not entirely sure, but even if these aren’t the plants, or flowers, that feature in Rusty Cundieff’s “Mums,” the first Creepshow story of Season Three, adapted from a story by Joe Hill, these aspects can definitely be seen.

The story is a variation of what we’ve seen in karma-based stories that were ever-present in EC Comics and its spiritual successors such as Creepshow. A woman is abused by her husband, and a child — Jake — is forced to watch it all happen. His mother is murdered, and she is buried in the flower garden that she loves.

But the details are fascinating. Jake’s mother wants to take him to see his great-grandmother, his Meemaw, which is an interesting term as I didn’t know it was a common one for grandmother, and the rest of her family. She’s taking him away from what turns out to be a man, and his friends, attempting to create a “two-bit terrorist” cell that is both secessionist and Confederate-based. Later, we see them referring to a book called The Pale Horse’s Cookbook: which presumably is a compilation of American terrorist ideologies, and home-made explosive designs — the latter of which they are planning to apply to a building. Whatever the situation, in Creepshow death is always in season.

It is a well crafted cinematic narrative. At first, it almost makes you wonder if Jake’s mother — who plans to run away with him — is actually a good person, and if his father is necessarily a terrible one. There are  a lot of references to how bad his mother’s family was to her, and some “strange ideas.” The fact that Jake’s “Meemaw” is over a hundred years old, perhaps older, made me wonder if they were a family of witches, and his father was actually keeping him — or thinking he was keeping him — safe from them.

Even when his father murders his mother elsewhere, and he discovers the seeds in the packets — in the suitcase she packed for the both of them — and the emphasis on blood, I was thinking that both Jake’s mother and father were terrible people, just one in a supernatural sense and linked to her family, and the other in a more banal, abusive, “red-neck” terrorist one.

I really appreciate, however, the variation of abuser to which Jake’s father is actually depicted. He doesn’t smack his son around, or have incoherent rages. He gaslights his wife. He makes it clear that she is an alcoholic, though according to Jake she quit a while ago. But even if she didn’t, her illness and genuine pain is being used by his father to excuse his actions. He wants to keep Jake as his heir, his property, to indoctrinate into his whole idea of personal sovereign land, and make him read that terrorist cookbook. It’s your basic toxic masculinity with more than a side of guns, and explosives.

But Jake’s father fucks up. He kills Jake’s mother. And then he smoothly lies about it, pretending that she is in a “half-way house” and that she will choose “drugs and booze” over Jake any day. He also buries her in her garden, on his land, thinking the law won’t dare trespass. He is an overall terrible human being, who — as it so happens, and as also transpires — doesn’t know as much about the land as he thought he did.

Jake learns about blood. And when I say that, it’s not that he embraces the legacy of murder that his father sets for him — at least not in the way his father intends. He plants those seeds in his mother’s garden, which he doesn’t know is her grave. It’s your basic Cain and Abel situation of murder all over again, where the ground tells. But it tells through pretty flowers. I began to wonder if Jake’s maternal family were, again, witches, that used blood magic to create plants that obeyed their will: feeding off life essence to do so.

I had it in my mind that the seeds Jake plants are like “dragon-teeth” as per the ancient Greek custom of Thebes, or in this case, his Meemaw’s teeth. Certainly, the humanoid face that appears from the ground could have been  his mother’s altered corpse, but also his ancient Meemaw who lives in the ground. But the story doesn’t go there, even though Jake and the floral entity he nurtures from his mother’s death, gain retribution on the woman who pretended to be her friend and betrayed her, the man who helped his father kill her, and his father who was ultimately going to kill him. And as Jake drives the van, with four of those plants with tiny skulls in them, to see his Meemaw, I wonder if she will ultimately be proud of the boy, and the kind of man that he can become: perhaps even under her tutelage.

Of course, we can’t talk about flowers without considering the bees that pollinate them. I mean, in the hellscape that we’ve made our world bees are an endangered species, and their extinction will mean our own. The honey they create is a byproduct of what they truly do, as is the growth of the plants that will become fruit and such to keep our ecosystem going. They do, however, prefer human aid in continuing to build more secure colonies, and reproduction is their main goal.

Greg Nicotero is the one that creates the story “Queen Bee.” It feels like that would happen if Are You Afraid of the Dark, or Goosebumps, attempted a … B movie. Three adolescent children want to see their favourite singer, Regina, give birth. She actually goes as far as taking control of an entire hospital floor to have privacy. There are so many references to “not having a father,” the name “Haddonfield,” and pregnancy in a secret place, and even a reference to the end of the world that made me thing: “Oh yes, this is going to be another Anti-Christ.”

It’s not. Instead, what happens is the stupid antics of these three kids reveal as they infiltrate the hospital to invade their idol’s privacy, that Regina is actually a … not even vaguely humanoid giant Queen Bee, who is mind-controlling staff with green eyes to facilitate her transformation into her real form, so that she can give birth. She controls them through the sounds she creates, which makes sense given how she’s also a musician.

Eventually, at the end, one girl betrays her friend — even after they are nearly killed by Regina’s drones, and one of their friends is murdered by her — because she is her “biggest fan” at all costs. The fanatical girl, Debra — as played by Hannah Keple — has an absolutely smackable look on her pouting lips. You seriously wish, at the end of this story, that she and her snooty attitude of fan-worship would be repaid by her becoming a meal for her Queen. Seriously, I didn’t love to hate her. I just hated her, though it is in keeping with some stereotypical teenage — and even some narcissistic adult — selfishness. But this is one story where treachery, and even hypocrisy as it was Debra who had them go into the hospital and knew about the whole situation because her mom was a nurse there, is rewarded. Or, perhaps, it’s safe to say that her loyalty above friends and family to her idol is what is recognized.

It’s funny. Jake’s mother, the gardener, in “Mums” is named Bloom and she tries to save her son’s life: and in an indirect way she succeeds: the archetypically feminine power of flowers consuming blood, making it, and freeing him from patriarchal control. It even helps him realize that Beth, the woman who betrayed his mother for his father, isn’t the matriarchal figure that he wants. Whereas in “Queen Bee,” even though I feel like it is the weaker of the two stories, Regina also cares for her children and kills and controls anyone and everyone to nurture them: while taking those loyal to her under the hive-structure in which she creates: her musical production linked to her own reproduction. These are some fascinating feminine themes either way you look at it: the story about a flower and her seed, and about a queen bee recruiting another drone for her hive.

And as with “Mums” — which as of this writing is misspelled as “Mumms” on Shudder — and “Queen Bee,” the journey will continue deep into the ground, where the dead go and their spirits rise, and covetous, green-eyed fans will continue to do anything to make sure that their stories continue on: and they get their pound of sweet, sticky, bloody things. 

Pat Mills’ The Retreat Bashes Back

I wrote this response to Fangoria back in June, and I thought I would share my thoughts on Pat Mills’ The Retreat with the rest of the class, with spoilers.

As a disclaimer, I’m not an expert in the exploitation genre, or any of its subgenres. As of this writing, I haven’t even seen I Spit On Your Grave. However, after reading Phil Nobile Jr.’s “I Spit On Your Gatekeeping” on the Terror Teletype I watched Pat Mills’ The Retreat at the beginning of Pride Month, where a lot of other discussions about respectability politics, and some resurgent controversies about marginalized identities in horror itself were — and perhaps still are — taking place.   

In particular, I’ve been thinking about queer exploitation, and if a slasher revenge subgenre has a place within it. I personally think it does, and I think that The Retreat is both — to paraphrase Phil Nobile  — something that portrays “queer folks fighting back against hate and violently fucking up some bigots,” and also has “nobler goals.” One thing I’ve learned in my crash-course in the exploitation genre is that it has the potential to subvert the very subject that usually gets maligned by mainstream society, even if sometimes the piece of art that results is made problematic by doing so. 

The Retreat addresses itself. It doesn’t sexualize its characters. Scott and Connor at the beginning of the film, and Valerie and Renee are in loving relationships and attempting to live their lives: the former wanting to celebrate their coming nuptials, and the latter trying to figure out just what they are as a couple after some time together. The tension is there from the start of the film, and not just because of what happens to Scott and Connor. It’s stated by partners of both couples that they feel uncomfortable out of the city, which tracks with many LGBTQ+ experiences of ignorance and fears of violence and discrimination. Moreover, in the midst of the rural convenience store with its knickknacks joking of putting putting a bullet in your ex’s head, and a man very micro-aggressively coming onto a clearly uncomfortable Valerie while waiting for Renee in the restroom, we see Renee herself going out of her way — awkwardly — trying to downplay their romantic relationship to this imposing heterosexual man, and the toxically masculine environment around them. . 

Those tensions are symbolized the most in Renee and Valerie’s relationship: where the latter wants to be open, and know where they stand as an official couple while the former — having her own experiences growing up as a rural hunter, feeling bad for the deer her family killed and not answering Valerie’s question about whether or not she had a choice in that, or indeed any questions about where their relationship is headed. Fear is already a factor there, and The Retreat goes out of its way to illuminate this trait in an otherwise loving LGBTQ+ relationship. What if they are seen? Who is watching them? 

The surveillance screens shown in the convenience store, and in the house of the extremist snuff-film homophobe hunters, are no coincidence. Nor is the deer stand Val and Renee come across on the “Gay BnB” retreat property, or even the painting of a stag being beset on all sides by a pack of wolves in the dark of the wood. This place screams of the masculine gaze, of LGBTQ+ people being objects of violation, violence, and entertainment, and as such prey to be hunted by anonymous killers of an “Alpha-male” quality. Even the one other woman in this whole film is homophobic, perhaps consumed by internal misogyny, and all of this contributes to the hunting ground outside of the safety of a more accepting city that the protagonists must escape. There is nothing titillating about it. What should have been a safe space, a place of joy between friends, brothers and sisters — of family of the made-kind — is, literally, a trap.

But perhaps some of this is the wrong perspective to take. Maybe the titillation is not sexualizing or objectifying the LGBTQ+ characters in this film, but rather the cathartic element of watching the protagonists escape their predicament, and turn the rules of the twisted game against their homophobic kidnappers and assailants. There is certainly a historical precedent for it. Documents like the Queer Nation Manifesto, Michael Swift’s “Gay Revolutionary,” and even the Queer Nation banners of “BASH BACK” — along with other bodies of thought — advocate retaliating against systemic violence with its own methodology: going as far as to take back the slur of “queer” to make it mean an outside agency or power that puts the tool of the oppressor in the hands of the oppressed to destroy the entire structure. 

Of course, the label of queer — taken back or not —  is still contentious among the LGBTQ+ crowd in and of horror. Certainly, Kirk Cruz — from The Mutant Fam fan-run community — discusses these details, and his own experiences growing up LGBTQ+  and dealing with the horror genre and scene on Twitter, but I feel like The Retreat not only covers a need for burgeoning — and veteran — LGBTQ+ people to vent their frustration and fear against social structures that still persecute them, but it comes from the very spirit of Pride and the Stonewall riots that led to the former’s creation. Sometimes, talking and reasonability — respectability — can only go so far. Even Renee attempts this in the beginnings of the film, and actually hesitates in killing the homophobic wife while she’s down. She and Val consistently beg, even plead, for the hunters to let them go, as did Scott and Connor before them. It’s only when Renee tells the leader of the hunters that she doesn’t even know what he looks like, that he can just let them go, and he takes off that dude-bro macho camouflage skull mask — perhaps a shot at homophobic anonymous elements online, especially given that he and his buddies make snuff executions of LGBTQ+ people for online consumption — and when his wife proves to be just as sadistic as he is, that’s when Renee realizes she has to survive at all costs. That’s when she, and Valerie — who deliciously mixes chemicals together into something acidic against the toxically masculine man who cornered her at the store, and killed her friend in front of her (I just love poetic justice) — realize that the only way they will live if they kill the people trying to murder them. 

The pay-offs are beautiful. Not only is there the aforementioned getting his face burned — albeit not as much as I would have liked — the wife, who likes to watch the violence voyeuristically through cameras gets a screen smashed onto her head, turning it into pulp, while the man who orchestrated the whole thing is shot by a bullet from the deer stand he used to hunt, and his throat slit on camera by the lesbian women he hunted. The tools of the oppressor are turned against him, and the spectacle of ending lives — Scott and Connor being portrayed as more than victims or casualties of cruelty in this film, but as human beings that love, and are loved — is thrown back in the face of the silent, cowardly, unseen spectators and enablers of the Dark Web as love lives. 

I also love the fact that there is nuance in the film. We see the leader of the hunters kill another kidnapper, who doesn’t want to go along with the murders — who just wanted to “scare the queers.” Toxic masculinity and homophobia turns on itself too. And even at the end of the film, Valerie and Renee make it out. They get to that pick-up truck with those two male passengers. You are expecting something horrible, for these men — whatever their sexuality — to turn on them. It gets even more tense when Renee finally, after that entire ordeal, kisses Valerie in the back of that car in full view of the driver’s front view mirror. She feels no need to hide, or be afraid anymore. She’s faced the demons, worse ones, she and Valerie. They’ve fucked fear, and now they want to embrace love. And then, the film ends and as far as we know the protagonists are safe. 

It was a nice, straightforward revenge slasher film with a solid LGBTQ+ theme. No twists. No honey-pot subversions like you had with Get Out, and the women live at the end. I’ve watched short films such as Blake Mawson’s Pyotr495, and Bears Rebecca Fonté’s Etheria Film Festival 2020 entry Conversion Therapy with similar themes, but while the former has supernatural elements and the latter has twists and focuses primarily on the torture and punishment of a high-profile homophobe, Pat Mills’ The Retreat fleshes out its characters in the trap of what should be a safe place turned violent — a microcosm of social factors against LGBTQ+ people — and shows that despite terror loss, they survive, and persevere. So, I definitely think that while The Retreat  has that “cathartic homophobe bashing” element, it uses its own self-awareness of exploitation to comment on exploitation and use it against itself while telling a story about love and survival, and that is a story that is — and will always be — relevant. 

Fuck Cancer: James Wan’s Malignant

I didn’t know much about James Wan’s Malignant going into the film. In fact, I wasn’t even sure I was going to view the film at all. It was really one of those situations where everyone on social media, in various horror circles, was talking about the movie — or pointedly not focusing on the details of the piece so as not to reveal spoilers, or the twist — that, eventually, with nothing further to do that Friday evening I had to check it out.

Before all of this, all I knew of Malignant was a spike to the head. Literally. The image of a blade inches away from a woman’s eyeball. Really, as you watch the film, it sums it up fairly well. So yes: this is going to be full of spoilers, a twist straightened out, and a malignancy dissected. 

I like how Wan just gives us Gabriel. He doesn’t fuck around. There is an entity in a Research Hospital back in 1993 that seems to have telekinetic abilities, or influence over electricity, and the strength to maim and slaughter full-size adults. There are also children’s toys everywhere in his room, and the hint of some malformed creature seems to be connected to a child. The doctors manage to incapacitate him, followed by the words “Time to cut out the cancer.” And then, we are in present time — perhaps 2021 — where the events of Malignant unfold: where Gabriel somehow returns, and the plot is slowly unveiled.

Wan isn’t trying to be subtle. He is practically spoon-feeding the details that you need to either figure out the twist of the entire film, or at the very least have it all make sense when the reveal occurs. I had a few ideas about what Gabriel was. Gabriel, the name, is that of an angel: the archangel who appears to the prophet Daniel to explain the nature and meaning of his visions, and also apparently the guardian angel of Israel who guards it against the angels of other nations. Angels are not attractive, or humanoid beings in ancient Judaic culture, an idea of which the Gabriel of Malignant definitely follows, but he is no celestial or infernal being, even if his sister-host Madison calls him the Devil. Yet he knows all about visions, and all about explaining or elucidating reality and events to someone else.

It’s no coincidence that Madison continues to have visions of people — and as it turns out specific people — being murdered, except instead of her seeing them before they happen, she sees them afterwards. It’s like a delayed reaction, or perception of events. Basically, when you watch the scenes melt away and Madison can only observe them helplessly, you are cinematically seeing the very definition of the term “unreliable witness.” 

For a little while, I was taken a bit off track, though mostly in the beginning. Originally, I thought Gabriel was some kind of sentient tumour like that of the creature in Clive Barker’s “Son of Celluloid” that fed off of negative emotions, and transferred between hosts. Certainly, the fact that the film begins in Simion Research Hospital made me wonder if he was some kind of research discovery or experiment that the staff there simply transferred to another child, or if he was just one example, and the rest of the film would be finding others of his kind. I guess, like a few people in other horror social scenes have already mentioned — including myself — I was applying Frank Henenlotter’s 1982 Basket Case to a lot of this, even at this point in my viewing experience.

Then I was confused for a time in that Gabriel was very clearly linked to Madison, and I thought that perhaps Gabriel was one person, and that the researchers were able to excise the Gabriel-tumour, and make his host body transgender: with Gabriel haunting, and possessing Madison as a spirit. But this didn’t add up as Madison could clearly become pregnant though, granted, it was also possible that Gabriel could have been the masculine gender he chose before the scientists and doctors lobotomized him, or something to that effect.

But it was far more streamlined than all of that, as it became more apparent what was going on. Like I said, Wan isn’t subtle. We find out Madison is adopted when she’s talking with her sister Sydney. Simion, from the Simion Research Hospital, is a Romanian spelling for Simon which is Hebrew for “listen” and “hearing,” while it is a Classical Greek adjective for “flat-nosed.” Now, look at freaking Gabriel with his vestigial lack of a nose when he and Madison are eight, and after the surgeries dealt to her when his face emerges from the back of her skull. And then consider, as well, how he communicates with her: telepathically through their shared brain in which Madison “listens” and “hears” what he has to say, and what reality he is dictating to her. 

I didn’t know about Simion at the time, but given the name of Gabriel — which is about as elusive as the name Belial with its own meaning of “without worth” and being associated with the Devil — I knew it had some significance. So speaking of Belial and going back to the comparisons between Basket Case, and Malignant, there are obvious similarities. Gabriel and Belial are teratomas — or what are theorized to be Fetus in fetu, basically parasitic twins. At least, that’s what it seems. Belial himself is flat-out considered another being, Duane Bradley’s twin, even if others think he is a monster, or a growth. Gabriel is seen by the doctors and specialists as a mutation linked to Madison Lake’s body and nervous system. Of course, there is one more obvious difference between these characters and their plot points: Duane and Belial never wanted to be separated, and even when they were and they conflicted with one another, they still loved each other in a warped and twisted manner, even if Duane tried to kill Belial in the first film. Duane often carried Belial around, after he was cut away by inexperienced surgeons and con artists, to get revenge on the people that did that to them.

Madison and Gabriel are still connected. The doctors weren’t able to fully remove ‘the tumour” that is Gabriel, not without damaging Madison’s brain, or making her comatose for the rest of her life. There is no love between Madison and Gabriel whatsoever. Gabriel terrorizes her, taking over her body and functions, and making their body do whatever he wants. Any attempt at love or affection from Gabriel’s part is always a deception to attempt to kill or destroy someone else. Gabriel takes away, or deeply compromises, Madison’s agency whereas Belial resents not having Duane’s life, and Duane is angry at having to take care of Belial while also furious at the world for thinking the latter is a monster. Both sets of siblings in their films do have a telepathic link with their counterpart, though Duane’s is when he sleeps, and Madison’s state of consciousness is always pliable to Gabriel’s manipulations. And although they don’t go into it with Duane and Belial, in order to keep himself alive, Gabriel needs to absorb nutrients from Madison’s body as a child and, when she is an adult, from the fetuses in her womb: using them as batteries that he drains to keep himself alive in the background when she’d unconsciously repressed him after her time in the hospital.

But with these pleasant comparisons aside, there is one other thing Gabriel can do differently from Belial aside from hijacking his, and his sister’s body, which is electronic manipulation. It is basically psychokinetic in origin. He uses radio waves, or electricity to speak to anyone that isn’t Madison. It’s fairly clear that the reason he can do this is due to all the electro-shock therapy — or torture, if you’d prefer — that he received from the Simion Hospital when the doctors were forced to pacify him when he became violent with Madison’s body: on her, and others. Eventually, even electricity doesn’t hurt him anymore in 1993, to the point where he has influence over it, and can cause disruptions in devices powered by that energy.

It is a little clunky, but this power doesn’t come from nowhere, and as a creator myself I was more than a little disappointed that Gabriel doesn’t use this power more often when he commits to his assaults. No. Gabriel is an up-close and personal slasher-killer. I don’t know how he does it, or did it, but perhaps due to his access to Madison’s limbic system, he can control that body’s pain and damage threshold. And, more than that, he alters their reflexes in inhuman ways. Perhaps he has control of their adrenal glands, and can increase their physical strength, endurance, stamina, and their reflexes. At first, I thought — and I already knew he was taking her body, or their body — that Gabriel wasn’t used to controlling an adult Madison’s body with how awkward he was moving. But then it occurred to me as I watched the film, that he bent her joints backwards to match where his face emerges from behind her skull. He isn’t able to do much about her feet, but he seems to adapt to that with crawling, and a lot of jumping. Human beings can adapt to various environments, and disabilities, and as such Gabriel in this fictional world is no different. 

Now, as for how Gabriel has his knowledge of the secret levels of Seattle, that is fascinating. You see, I think that both he and Madison had this knowledge. They were given to the Simion Research Hospital by their fifteen year old mother Serena May. Madison’s original name was Emily, before it was changed by her adoptive family. She and Gabriel were both eight when they were given away because Serena’s religious mother refused to take care of them, regardless of the fact that they were the result of rape. Serena’s mother blamed her, and the Devil for what happened, and the abomination that her children are: to the point where even Serena calls Gabriel that. Fascinatingly enough, Serena actually named Gabriel as we find out towards the end of the film where she calls him by that name and apologizes to him for how she abandoned them. Serena May is a tour guide through the lower levels of Seattle: the Underground that the original city of Seattle became in the mid-nineteenth century when it was burned, and the people decided to rebuild around, and over it: much like how Gabriel’s limbs had been cut off, and buried inside of the former Emily turned Madison.

All of these Jungian parallels, including Gabriel capturing Serena in Madison’s attic aside, Serena May seems to have a tremendous enthusiasm for the Seattle Underground. Perhaps she even had it when she was fifteen, and spent that time telling her children about it. This could be where Gabriel’s knowledge, along with his sense of vengeance for his mother abandoning him, came from.

At this point, we are past talking about the clues that lead to the twist which anyone who has seen many horror films or read such stories, can predict. I’m mostly talking about how it all comes together. From the videotapes Sydney retrieves from the abandoned hospital that shows the former Emily being able to see everything that Gabriel does in one of his uncharacteristic moments of cooperation with the doctors, to the family tapes where Madison is talking to Gabriel who wants to kill Sydney in her mother’s womb, and the revelation that Madison’s attic may well connect to the Seattle Underground in a large bit of metaphor. Hell, even Gabriel’s blade is made from the Award he stole from Dr. Florence Weaver: the emblematic blade of the whole film.

I want to write about Gabriel’s downfall. He is malicious as all get out. You can understand it to an extent. Imagine being born attached to someone else’s body. You can’t leave them, even if you want to, no matter how badly you want to be somewhere else. Your mother abandons you, and considers you a monster because of the way you look, even though she named you after an angel. She hands you over to doctors who routinely drug you, and torment you with electricity. You know that everyone thinks that, at best, you are a tumour or a deformity of your sister’s, and at worse you are a monstrosity they want to either curb, sublimate, or destroy. And then, when your rage gets too much, they’ve had it with you. These intrusive people your mother handed you over to essentially murder you. They cut off your arms, your legs, they take off your head such as it is, and they push the destroyed, ruined remnants of you deep into your sister’s skull, and bury you alive. Never mind the fact that you tried to kill them: that was just revenge, perhaps even self-defense, or you just didn’t like them.

Then they take your sister to another family, where she slowly forgets about you, to the point of pushing the phantom of you down into your body: not just her body, but yours. You know that once she sees her adopted sister, once she is exposed to Sydney, she will completely drown you out, and you will exist in a living death in a body turned into a prison that you can’t control. So you bide your time. You consume those “parasites” in your body to regain strength. It’s just as well, as you know if she didn’t get pregnant you would feed off of her too much, and potentially kill yourself as you share the same body. But then your sister’s abusive husband slams the back of her head — namely you — into the wall. And you. Will. Not. Have. It.

It’s been thirty years later, practically, as scientists and doctors attempted to mutilate, and bury you alive. All that’s left of you are vague memories of a traumatic imaginary friend, some family tapes of your sister “talking to herself,” the tapes and folders left in a rotting, abandoned hospital, and the bad memories of doctors. You remember everything. And you take your body, because you are the only one who really knows how to use it, to the nth degree. And it is all because Emily — or Madison — is too weak-willed to do what must be done.

And this is where Gabriel fucks up.

You see, Gabriel forgets that he shares a body. It isn’t his body, but also Madison’s, and it has been hers for years. Madison has had years of love. Her pain still affects her, the trauma is still there, and perhaps it affects her life’s decisions. Or maybe assholes came in, and took advantage of her kind nature. She is a nurse, and tries to help people.

There is a lack inside of her psyche, however. She wants someone she’s blood-related to in order to fill that void. Unfortunately, she doesn’t remember until much later that she already had that, and it was hell. She is all too ready to leave her abusive husband, she wants to have one of her children survive, and she loves her adopted family and her sister. But Gabriel threatens all of that, but it’s not until she’s in a holding cell that she finally begins to understand that Gabriel’s gotten even more adept at altering her memories: that he is holding her in the prison of their body now.

What happens is something beautiful. One thing I absolutely adore about Malignant is the unapologetic mass-murder. It’s true. Gabriel could probably destroy people with electricity, or short out more technology as he does in the hospital at the end. But he goes in, up close and personal, and slaughters every prisoner and police officer in his way. Hell, he doesn’t even have to kill everyone in that precinct. He just … enjoys it. It’s this ugly catharsis after seeing Madison get imprisoned, and tormented by the other inmates, and disbelieved by police who even saw a phone activate and the power go out thanks to Gabriel: and he likes to do that, cutting the power out of a place, and going to town on it as he tried to do back in 1993 when he was much younger.

Yet this fucks him. Because Madison is older, and she has something to fight for. The film could have been so easy. Gabriel’s defeat could have been Madison committing suicide, or letting someone else kill her. But Madison has had enough. This is especially true when, as Gabriel tries to murder Sydney, when she tells Madison to wake up and realize what Gabriel did to her unborn children: how he devoured them to keep himself alive. And just as he is going to kill Sydney and their birth mother, Madison traps Gabriel in the same prison he always put her in: altering his memories, and stopping him.

He claims that he will return, of course. This doesn’t surprise Madison. But she claims that when he does return, she will be ready for him. And this is one of the strengths of this film. Not only do we get the chance for a sequel, but we realize that the power in this film isn’t knowing the twist. It’s seeing the characters come to that realization, to all the discoveries, and overcoming the challenges that come to this point. Madison’s mother finds out the truth, along with Sydney, and and instead of leaving her to Gabriel’s devices, they still love her. Sydney goes out of her way to know more about her sister, and save her. It gets to the point where she won’t shoot Gabriel because she knows it will kill Madison.

And Madison ends up achieving self-agency. Her abusive husband is dead. She remembers Gabriel, and what the doctors did to her as well as him. And she stops him from hurting the family she loves, and even the woman that abandoned them. She thinks to herself “Never again.” She takes control of her body, which is still altered because it isn’t just Gabriel’s body and physiology but hers. She still has that incredible strength. She can control it, and the speed, and possibly more. Hell, and I am saying that a lot since we are talking about defeating a Devil, Madison could simply deprive Gabriel of sustenance: slowly shrinking him over time, perhaps if she still wants a child and keeps him locked away, into nothing.

Gabriel is rage and hatred and fear of abandonment. Even internal misogyny. He is a parasite that threatens to make her wither away while he grows malignant, and strong. Madison uses the tools of her oppressor to defeat him, and whittle him away. As was said at the beginning of the film, he is the cancer — the word and breath of him threatening to grow, and spread — and while he will never necessarily be gone, Madison has put him, and everything he stands for, into remission.

Spoiling of the Sweet: The Hives Between Nia DaCosta’s Candyman

In response to a Tweet talking about Candyman, I said:

“What I love is that build up and the false Candyman right before the real one just comes in, and you hear his voice echoing in Helen’s mind, booming, but also quiet. And he is so calm. So collected. And Helen is entranced by him in terror, and awe. He only loses his cool at the end.

“But as Tony Todd recites those delicious lines from “The Forbidden,” you feel that power resonate in a way not unlike, but not like buzzing. And you know, without a doubt, that he is in control here. He is the nightmare. And is bringing her home.”

And these Tweets, and Facebook comments got me some pushback, as some people believed I was spoiling Nia DaCosta’s Candyman film — directed and co-written by her, Jordan Peele, and Win Rosenfeld where, in actuality, I was referring to Tony Todd’s performance as the created urban legend in Bernard Rose’s classic 1992 film. At first, I was annoyed at people not bothering to read, or examine what I was saying more closely, but now in retrospect I can’t particularly blame them.

I mean, they are both called Candyman even though DaCosta’s film is the remade sequel to the events from Rose’s movie: possibly creating a new continuity diverging from its previous sequels. And both films share beats with the original 1986 short story from whence it came: Clive Barker’s “The Forbidden.”

I’m very interested in the creation of myths, and stories. Folklore, and more contemporary urban legends, and even electronic creepypastas have different iterations of themselves, though like a twisted Campbell mono-myth they come from an original narrative, or at least common human themes. Many people have already mentioned how Clive Barker’s Candyman differs from the one transmitted into the films. He is more of an elemental, wilder being, like some kind of Celtic god of sweets and blood: the painted, end continuing result of a class of people so trapped by gentrification and class that they glorify the horror and violence they can’t escape, worshipping it to stay it off, but also feel a sense of importance and perhaps even catharsis with the sacrifice of innocence, and death of an outsider. He also has a hook for a hand, just like “The Hook” or the “Hookman” urban legend, but being situated in the Spector Street Estate in England, and having British almost pagan roots when you consider his almost agrarian characteristics  with the bees inside his body. And, unlike the Candyman played by Tony Todd in Rose’s film, he doesn’t have the Bloody Mary element: in that you don’t need to say his name five times in front of a mirror to summon him.

He will come to you if you search for him, or attempt to dissect his myth. More often than not, he is content to simply be an idea and let others tell stories about his atrocities, his cautionary tales, and occasionally have someone enact murders in his name: unless, of course, an outsider like Helen Buchanan — a cold, detached and rather shallow student of “sociology and aesthetics” in this short story caring only about proving herself right, and even her sense of conscience in exploiting the suffering of a lower-working class neighbourhood — begins investigating too closely. From Butts’ Court, to Ruskin in Spector Street, murders and mutilations are attributed to this figure, but they only become more immediate and real to Helen when Anne-Marie — the single mother she’s been talking with in her flat about the graffiti and the homicides — is caught in her own tragedy as her infant son Kerry has his throat slit by the Candyman himself. In fact, the reader doesn’t even see the Candyman’s name mentioned until later in the story, and he only appears himself far towards its end. We never get an origin story for this boogeyman, as he simply exists in the hearts and minds of the people of Spector Street and — eventually — Helen’s as well.

Helen becomes interested in this figure, past her love to document graffiti as some kind of urban cultural or historical art, mostly to spite her husband Trevor: who she has a jaded, and often adversarial relationship with, as well as her equally shallow and insincere academic peers and friends. Trevor already cheats on her, with several women, and she is just over it. Barker is not flattering to anyone in these depictions: not even Anne-Marie who, for all her grief and then her nervousness over Kerry’s death, becomes almost effulgent during his funeral: as though she is, from Helen’s perspective, the centre of attention for the first time in her whole life, or made illuminated by this ritual sacrifice of a child. The whole neighbourhood is in on placating, and worshipping this Candyman — this immediate specimen of primal and bloody divinity, forged from visceral and personal tragedy — and even Helen, deep down, feeling distant and empty in her own life of background homicide news and papers, wants to be a part of the story. She wants immortality. 

What you fear is what you desire in Clive Barker’s Books of Blood collection at least, where “The Forbidden” is included. Helen ends up trying to find Kerry’s corpse, which is secretly held in the pyre the people are building — to bring his body as evidence to the police to prove there is a conspiracy going on at Spectator Street — only for the Candyman to hold there, and they burn together under the flames of his worshippers. Murderer, victim, and child sacrifice are made archetypes, and Helen — deep down in a horrible place — secretly wants this. The story ends with Helen wanting to haunt Trevor, in a line not unlike that from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and it all has this particular Wicker Man feel to it when you look at how Helen is lured into the story of the neighbourhood: albeit more enticed by a lack in her life, than a stringent sense of duty. 

Then we get to Bernard Rose’s Candyman. Most of you all know this one. Rose moves the Candyman’s location from Liverpool, England and Spectator Street to Chicago, in America and the Cabrini-Green housing project: a Black neighourhood abandoned by white society, and terrorized by violence and crime. It is a film whose themes focus on both gentrification, and race. Helen Lyle is, straight-out, a semiotics student of Chicago and is fascinated with urban legends: wanting to do a publication on it with her friend Bernadette “Bernie” Walsh. Bernadette is in the Clive Barker short story, but she is mostly just someone in a conversation about the murders in Spector Street, and nothing more is really said about her. In Rose’s film, she is a Black graduate student and best friend of Helen’s and — for the most — seems to have more common sense, or at least street-smarts than she does. There is a bit of the stereotypical “sassy Black woman” combined with “the Black best friend” trope.

Helen is more sympathetic, however, and seems genuinely interested in the urban cultural legend of the Candyman, and its implications. Anne-Marie McCoy, a single Black mother, with her son named Anthony, are also more humanized than in the short story. Cabrini-Green doesn’t worship the Candyman. Its residents are terrified of him, and Anne-Marie is absolutely and ferociously protective of her son. We find out that the Candyman was once the son of a slave, who was educated at the finest schools, and became a master painter: an artist that, unfortunately in the 1890, fell in love with a rich man’s white daughter, got her pregnant, and was tortured and murdered by a lynch mob organized by her father. He gets his hook after having his hand cut off with a rusty saw, he’s stung to death by bees, and his ashes are scattered all over the site of what will become Cabrini-Green: a ritual of hatred laying the groundwork of Black generational suffering to come due to gentrification, and his restless spectre.

In a Fangoria column and interview Problematic Films: In Defense of Candyman (1992) Sean Abley and William O. Tyler discuss Tony Todd’s Candyman, in which Tyler notes his “black and white checkered pants that you see line cooks wear” combined with his fur coat symbolizing a working class man or street denizen “elevated to this theatrical, supernatural being”:  a fairly different depiction of him from Barker’s version.

Helen and Bernadette are fairly methodical, in that Helen realizes her apartment is sister to the one in Cabrini-Green where a woman reportedly killed by the Candyman: realizing her mirror is attached to another room. This same mindset works against them as they both utter his name, with Bernadette doing it four times, and Helen completing the fifth. This is where the horror icon develops. We also get a sense of the gentrification and the ghettoization of Cabrini-Green from Helen and Trevor’s more affluent neighbourhood: even though they were both made by the same developers. This similar, but mirror-opposite — if you will pardon the pun — arrangement gave me some major Jordan Peele’s Us vibes, which given what we are talking about makes sense after the fact.  

In Fangoria Volume 2, Issue 12, in his article “Reconsidering Bernard Rose’s Candyman,”  Richard Newey focuses on “the mirror component of the urban legend”: on Candyman being a projection of white guilt and I would add gaslighting: as if all the violence, hatred, and fear white society creates doesn’t exist, and it is all in the minds of its victims. Newey goes on to say that Helen Lyle is “a tourist of the Black American experience who seeks to devour an aspect of Black culture and reduce it into pedagogy [… ] she uses academia as a means to catalog and quantify Black suffering.” It reminds me of the schoolteacher in Toni Morrison’s Beloved who goes out of his way to methodically write down and quantify the characteristics of the slaves in the plantation of Sweet Home: though with less conscious and cruel intentions, but still paternalistic in a lot of ways.

Helen’s society — where she comes from — informs her behaviour, and she doesn’t realize its consequences to her, and those around her, until she interacts with Cabrini-Green. Helen summons the Candyman by trying to find him and calling out his name. She investigates the apartment room, the mirror to the one across from her, and finds his shrine there: except it is not in a maisonette or flat, but another room not far from where Anne-Marie and Anthony are staying. But after “disproving” his existence by being attacked by a gang member with a hook, and betraying the child who trusted her with the secret of the public restroom where the mutilation of a developmentally challenged young man took place — in both the short story and this film some time back — the spectre himself is called upon to intervene directly.

And he makes her face her actions, and the influences that brought her there. He tells her to “be his victim.” And then it occured to me — after reading Newey’s article what that might mean in another context: that in framing Helen, perhaps even possessing her, to kill Anne-Marie’s dog, to steal and hide Anthony away, and to murder Bernadette and the psychriatrist Dr. Burke, holding her in a mental institution — that perhaps she begins to know what it is like to have crimes attributed to her by the system that once benefitted her, and be punished for it: showing her her privilege and what it is like to be scapegoated. If the Candyman functions as a mirror, as a horror created by white racism, he is the oppression made by society now oppressing Helen, a white woman, who dared to summon him for her interests: to let him in.

This especially works if Helen is truly the reincarnation of the woman he loved and died for. It is no coincidence that Rose changed Helen’s last name from Buchanan to Lyle, which according to a quote from Barker’s in Phil and Sarah Stokes’ “Say His Name” was the name of one of the people that made “a golden syrup” in which “The makers of this syrup put on their can a picture of the partially rotted corpse of a lion with bees flying around it, and the Biblical quote…[from Judges 14: 14.] “And he said unto them, Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness.” Not only is this origin for “Sweets to the sweet,” even though Barker quotes it from Hamlet, but one of the makers of this English honey is called Lyle, to which Rose probably made a homage. This links Helen far more directly to the Candyman, and his entire legacy. She is the sweet he died for, and also the sweet made by the society that killed him.

The overall film mythology here is that of Father, Mother, and Child: something of a twisted holy trinity or a thwarted life, though the way this story ends is Helen attempting to save Anthony’s life — and succeeding — at the cost of her own, only to become a cautionary tale and murderous entity in her own right after supposedly destroying the Candyman with fire in the pyre. The people of Cabrini-Green seem to exorcise him, even if some had once worshipped him or tried to keep him at bay with offerings of candies and razor blades, and replace Helen as their saviour-figure: with the problematic elements of that fairly clear in her being white. 

It is interesting to consider that, like William Marshall with the character of Mamuwalde in Blacula before him, that figure also being the result of racist violence turning a Black man against his own people, representing the perpetuation of hate in a cycle, Tony Todd apparently created — or had great influence expanding on — the Candyman’s backstory. And while we are looking at concepts,  according to Phil Nobile Jr. in the Fangoria Terror Teletype of August 27, 2021 in the script that existed before Nia DaCosta was tapped to direct and co-write the 2021 Candyman, it was Helen — who had killed her unfaithful husband that summoned her — that attempts to continue the cycle of resurrecting Candyman: through his chosen host.

Nia DaCosta, however, does something a little different. It is all about a piece of art. It is all about a ritual. It is all about a structure, and a cycle. She tries to show us, to truly illustrate, how the candy, and its rot are made.

DaCosta goes back to the hive, and much farther back than you might think. She follows history, shifting most of the residents of Cabrini-Green out, and leaving it a shadow of what it is in 2019: attempting to “white-wash” it further, but instead of focusing on an apartment building, we focus more on “row-houses” not unlike the flats or maisonettes in “The Forbidden.” She refers to Helen Lyle, but distorts her story from the perspective of the storyteller’s: making the other characters believe she was a white student that went insane, attempted to kill a child, and ended up burning herself alive in a pyre in Cabrini-Green when she failed. Instead of being remembered as a victim, or a saviour, Helen becomes the monster that she changes into at the end of the first film: at least, to those who weren’t there in 1992. DaCosta retains the name of Daniel Robitaille for the Candyman, taking it perhaps from Farewell to the Flesh, but in a way that mirrors — again, that unintentional pun — the foreshadowing of the haunted apartment room with Helen’s from the 1992 film.

But if Helen’s parallel apartment was the setup, the beginning of DaCosta’s film is a dress rehearsal. She takes us back to 1977, before Rose’s film, but long after the events of the 1890: to show us a whole other kind of Candyman. It is startling, at first, but later as the character of Burke — perhaps named after the doctor killed in the previous film — explains to Brianna Cartwright, and her boyfriend Anthony McCoy before her, Sherman Fields — a developmentally challenged, homeless, but kind man with a hook for a hand — was beaten and killed by white police on suspicion of planting razor blades in candy that injured a white girl.

However, it is only after he’s dead that the razors continued to appear, and it was realized that Fields was innocent. But he became the Candyman, and was summoned by Burke’s sister in the bathroom: killing her. Even throughout the film, when he appears to someone, candies are laid on the ground: filled with razors, a bit of a different slant on both Barker’s and Rose’s Candyman characters. This is not contradictory with Daniel Robitaille’s legend, or apparently others after as according to Burke Candyman is “the whole damn hive:” a collective of Black men tormented, destroyed, and distorted by white racism to haunt the area of Cabrini-Green.

It makes sense. Gods themselves, going back to the first elemental Candyman of Barker’s creation, have different appearances, aspects, or facets depending on what roles they are supposed to fulfill, and based on from what areas they originate. A more contemporary example of this is how the television adaptation of American Gods turned William “Froggy” James into a furious ghost haunting Black people in Cairo, Illinois for not preventing his lynching and mutilation in 1909. That pluralistic approach to the urban legend — this myth — and the racist violence and trauma creates a cycle. It is certainly no coincidence that it is told that Fields’ face is beaten so bloody it doesn’t exist anymore: as if he could be any Black man at this point.

And Anthony McCoy fits into this archetype. The 2021 Candyman of DaCosta does match the beats of Rose’s 1992 film. Helen Lyle sought urban legends as a semiotics graduate student, but Anthony McCoy — the child that she saved from the fire and the Candyman — is a visual artist attempting to jog himself out of a creative slump: a painter needing inspiration. It all comes full circle, when you consider that Daniel Robitaille was a portrait painter himself before his murder and destruction, and subsequent transformation into the Candyman. Nia DaCosta, in her interview with Natalie Erika Jones in Fangoria Issue 12, explains that some of her central themes in this film are sibling relationships, absent parents, and the emotional burden and labour of Black women. 

And while she says this specifically towards Brianna Cartwright and her own past with her suicidal father, her emotionally distant mother, her relation with her brother Troy, and dealing with Anthony’s deteriorating mental state, you can easily apply this to Anthony as well. The Candymen — or the Candyman hive — are all brothers. They are all men murdered and remembered as victims turned into monsters by the system and belief that made them. Anne-Marie, Anthony’s mother, lied to him — or omitted — his kidnapping and kept from him his lost history with Cabrini-Green. You can even argue that Helen and the Candyman are  Anthony’s absent surrogate mother and father, the former having attempted to save his life, and the other endeavouring  to take it and make it his own, their spectres always there even if he didn’t remember them personally. Even Burke, the laundromat owner who he goes to for information on the Candyman — who turns out to be his worshiper, a follower who wants to resurrect him — seems to fill a paternal role he never had: as we don’t know what happened to his biological father. 

The loss of Anthony’s history, the gentrification he grew up in, the inherently racist society he struggles against, his stereotypical absentee or dead Black father, and an estranged mother combined with the sensitivity of his artististic sensibilities, all become like the background buzzing — the “white noise” of violence and fear — we hear throughout the entire film.

The Candyman’s bees seem to always be there. And even they, these harbingers of the spectre, are not immune to the cycle of destruction. DaCosta tells Jones that she wanted more emphasis on body horror in this film, and this is fulfilled when a bee stings Anthony’s hand: a sting that injects a venom that slowly infects him over time, and incubates more of the creatures inside of him. But before that, the bee loses its stinger. It does, and Anthony watches a swarm of ants consume the helpless being: a microcosmic version of the puppet dioramas where white police murder helpless Black men who become part of the Candyman. Interestingly enough, that ant swarm is a callback to Barker’s “The Forbidden”: where Anne-Marie is dealing with an ant infestation — the insects supposedly coming and surviving from Egypt — in the pipe system of her flat, and the entire Estate. She tells Helen, in that story, that the whole Estate is “infected” by them, and that no one will fix the problem. It is an interesting metaphor for an intentionally broken system, and a great coincidence or bit of creative synchronicity if nothing else.

Anthony himself tells the less than covertly racist art critic of his show about gentrification and touches on the idea of “white tourism” into Black spaces, talking from personal experiences, while Burke — when ranting to Brianna about the need for a Candyman — mentions the rot that occurs from white society: like an infestation you can’t stop.

Beats and mirrors. As DaCosta states to Jones: “I think it’s the cyclical nature of that story in particular, but also stories and urban legends in general and the place they have in our communities as a way of scaring us, but also searing us to protect us from it happening again. Like a warning, you know? The more horrifying the story is, the more important it is that we keep telling it.” There is definitely a transformation, or a broader understanding of the figure of the Candyman in DaCosta’s film from the rest of the mythos: for while he represents the power of fear and stories in Clive Barker’s work, and a cycle of hatred, and even internalized racism through the agency of Black male violence on Black people in Rose’s work, Burke — and through him DaCosta — wants to reclaim that power: to use it to defend Black people, or redirect it against the white system that created it.

But there is something else that DaCosta said in her Fangoria interview that sticks with me. She says, with regards to the lines she wants to cross with her film — as “a psychological brutal thriller” and a body horror work — that she doesn’t “want to traffic in Black pain to have a career.” It is something that comes up in the film narrative as well. Anthony, arguably, utilizes this to create his exhibit and attempt to get back into the art world from behind Brianna’s shadow, but it turns out that what he’s really looking for is a truth to fill the emptiness and anger in itself that he finds in the worst way possible. The story of Cabrini-Green is Anthony’s story, and Black pain is Anthony’s pain which he uses to create his art until it corrodes him from the inside, and despair takes him at the end. And you realize, that what we are seeing is not only the dissolution of a protagonist in this process, but the creation of the monster: especially as we see Burke cut off Anthony’s rotten arm with a saw, and replace it with a hook right in front of Brianna’s eyes: intending her, a Black woman, to be his first victim. His first sacrifice.

Yet Brianna isn’t going to have that. I wondered, a few days after I watched the film, just what Brianna’s function was in the Candyman mythos DaCosta creates. She has her own backstory, with her tormented artistic father who kills himself in front of her, a mother that leaves her to her own devices, a gay younger brother she feels protective towards, and seeking her own career while feeling like she has to take care of her boyfriend Anthony. She isn’t like Bernadette Walsh. She’s not a sidekick or a victim to be fridged for Anthony’s development into a monster. Brianna is a survivor. She’s had to remain strong, but she doesn’t let herself become the victim of male violence. And she doesn’t want to profit from it either. Brianna is reluctant to engage with a system of white racism that instilled mental-illness and imbalance in Anthony, in the art that she links in her mind to her father’s suicide — a style perhaps reminiscent of Anthony’s more blatant violent imagery in his paintings — and she won’t let Anthony, or Burke kill her.

In the end, she empathizes with Anthony’s agony, and grieves when the white police — summoned by Burke before she kills him — murder Anthony in cold-blood, in her arms. And it’s only when the police capture her, threatening her to testify on their behalf or she will face jail … or worse, that’s when she does it. That is the moment where Brianna embraces the art of violence — of murder — and utilizes Anthony’s torment and death, both of which she vehemently hates, to summon him as the Candyman: to protect herself from the white racist system.

Before this point, whenever we saw the Candyman kill people in DaCosta’s film he was always invisible, or seen as Sherman Fields’ grisly form in a mirror. And all his victims in 2019 are white: who saw his story as a lark. But now, we see Anthony infested fully by the bees, flying with impunity, an avenging golem as he massacres all the police officers in his way. It is a bloody, extra-judicial vengeance, a mirror turned on its perpetrators, and all Brianna had to do was look at herself hard in the front view mirror of a police car, turned to face her by a coercive officer at her own request, and sacrifice her boyfriend’s soul — already taken by Burke and the Candyman’s machinations from the first film, as he knew Anthony was part of his plan, that he needed to change — and her own morality to survive. To compromise. To become complicit. To use the system against itself. To live.

And she gets to live, afterwards, to continue to tell the story of the Candyman, no longer forgotten by the Cabrini-Green residents that left, nor left blissfully ignored by white society, and sent on her way by the man who no longer resembles Anthony McCoy, but rather Daniel Robitaille himself: the Candyman that so many horror fans had been waiting to see again.

And that is how the story ends. Yet we see it is only one story. We see more dioramas. More puppets as Black men are beaten and gunned down. We see them fall, and then rise. They rise with hooks. They rise up, and take vengeance on those that wronged them. Anthony McCoy returned to the row-house from which he first took pictures for his art, coming back to that part of another cell in the hive. It ends where it began, and as it begins again the way it first started, with bees pollinating twisted life in flowers of hatred and leaving their stingers in candied spoils of urban war, I don’t think this is over. 

Dreams and Rats in the Attic: Charles Band’s The Evil Clergyman

I just came off of writing about Re-Animator and a cinematic Cthulhu Mythos, and here we are again. In fact, I meant to look at The Evil Clergyman first but when has anything been temporarily linear in my writerly laboratory, or in a writer’s world in general?

This is The Evil Clergyman, directed and produced by Charles Band, and written by Dennis Paoli. It was created in 1987 for an anthology called Pulse Pounders but it was shelved when Empire International Pictures closed, only for a workprint to be rediscovered in 2011, and then shown at the Chicago Flashback Weekend and put onto DVD in 2012. This is all information that you can find online, and I only found out about it thanks to the Joe Bob Briggs Drive-In Mutant Collective when I made a thread about some people’s favourite Lovecraft stories adapted into films. 

I am interested in looking at what Band did to make this film, and the differences between the movie and H.P. Lovecraft’s story of the same name. I find that the film adaptations of Lovecraft’s stories tend to do a lot of what I call “reptilian matter-grafting.” If you’ve read some of my work on the Horror Doctor already, you pretty much know the procedure and where it comes from: the directors and writers take a story from Lovecraft and his Mythos, adapt the overall narrative and spirit of the story, and then implant parts of his other stories into the film to give it that more overt Cthulhu Mythos feel. This isn’t always the case, of course, with the first Re-Animator film and the original Castle Freak — both made by Stuart Gordon — being examples to the contrary, with the latter having grown from “The Outsider” and into a whole direction, but The Evil Clergyman has been mutated to make a very compelling visual tale from what Lovecraft has left behind, with some ethereal, sexual, and Gothic romantic sensibilities added in by Band and Paoli for good measure.

Neither the film, nor the story have protagonists — or characters — that are named. Lovecraft’s “The Evil Clergyman” has an unnamed narrator who is, presumably, male that comes to the attic of an ancient house in order to satisfy his curiosity about its former occupant: an Anglican priest that owned the entire house, and vast library of magical books. The house has an elderly male caretaker, who possibly belongs to an order watching over the structure, that warns the narrator not to touch or manipulate anything in the attic room. Some “abominable order” finally “took charge” and he says that he and some others don’t know what happened to the priest’s body. There is mention of a strange object on a table that resembles a match box, and he tells the narrator to especially leave it alone: as it might have had something to do with what the priest did in that room.

Well, you can figure out what happens. The narrator does, in fact, have to meddle with the contents of the room. His curiosity is his potential undoing, as the caretaker of the house tells him. He shines a pocket flashlight on the match box object, which induces a violet radiance from it. Now, this is fascinating because its effects are reminiscent of elements from two other Lovecraft stories: Crawford Tillinghast’s electronic resonance wave device that lets one see and interact with another dimension in “From Beyond,” and the plane of existence that one poor mathematics student Walter Gilman accesses in his sleep in another warped attic in “The Dreams in the Witch House.”

Sure enough, the unnamed narrator’s act of shining that light triggers the object, and he doesn’t find himself in another realm, but he seems to be caught within the past of that room. He sees the priest, with olive skin and a dark beard, throwing his books into the fire. Interestingly enough, the section of the room with the fireplace is on the window side of the room with a wall that slants sharply, reminiscent of the strange non-Euclidean angles of “The Witch House” and while the priest had been burning all of his books, they are all on the shelves in that room in the present day. The priest is confronted by his fellow priests led by a bishop. And it’s only when he gestures at the object on the table that they back away from him with genuine fear.

It’s interesting how Lovecraft describes the priest, and his relation to his former brotherhood. He is “evil-looking” but also nervous, grim, and both filled with hatred and fear. The other priests despise, and are terrified of him: and they actually leave him there through a trap-door, cursing him. The whole tableaux is fascinating because there is no sound. The narrator is only seeing this happen, the past seemingly reenacting itself through images and gestures, though — in the typical Lovecraft literary style — he can still smell the scent of the books as they burn. When the priest takes a chair and rope, and attempts to hang himself, the priest is actually aware of him and seems to smile in “triumph.” However, the narrator, sensing something is profoundly wrong with this situation, manages to turn the light on the priest — either through his flashlight, or the match box device — and it turns the man’s skin sallow. His flesh turns violet and pink — reminiscent of the mechanism in “From Beyond” again, and he flees in terror to the trap door, and falls. The narrator rushes there, and sees nothing except villagers who look at him, with absolute fear.

The narrator passes out, only for the old man to find him and help him realize that he’s become an exact physical duplicate of the priest. Apparently another man had done similar, and when he realized what happened, committed suicide. The old man is terrified of using the device further, as it “would only make matters worse to do—or summon—anything,” and he says to the narrator “You’d better thank heaven it didn’t go further. . . .” I don’t think there has ever been the case of a Lovecraft character physically transforming into another beyond the mind transfer technique we see in “The Thing on the Doorstep” and the merging of alternate selves in the Lovecraft collaboration with E. Hoffmann Price’s “Beyond the Gates of the Silver Key.”

“The Evil Clergyman” itself is an excerpt from a letter Lovecraft wrote in 1933, and it is apparently a dream he recounted to his friend Bernard Austin Dwyer. It reads like a fragment, and certainly has a dreamlike quality to it, and it had been published as a short story in Weird Tales in 1939, two years after his death.

Band’s film also resembles a dream, but it has more of an erotic and darkly romantic slant. The Evil Clergyman isn’t the story of an unnamed narrator, but of a priest and his lover. The lover is played by Barbara Crampton, and she is young and while tentative, passionate, and not afraid of her sensuality. Jeffrey Combs is the priest, of course, and he resembles the character quite a bit save for his facial structure, skin, and a lack of a beard: but he is every bit the intelligent spirit of that character extended into eroticism, and possessive malevolence. The music track, created by Richard Band, has a lilting, sad, reminiscent quality that spirals into madness, and whispering evil.

Charles Band and Dennis Paoli begin the story with the lover coming to a castle, as opposed to a house, where she confronts its landlady — played by the formidable-looking Una Brandon-Jones — into letting her visit the room in which the priest, the man she loves, hanged himself.

The atmosphere is set right from the Gothic castle with its ornate door knocker to its stone emblems, and the room which resembles nothing more than a small and modest cell, with a window, a bed, and of course the chair. There are no books here. No library. No strange devices left on a table. The window doesn’t open out into “the ancient roofs and chimney pots” of Salem that Lovecraft loves to describe in many of his stories with great and beauteous detail. It is just this small room where sex and love used to happen: pleasant memories soured by suicide, and grief: moments of the past once present turned bitter by the arbitrary passage of time.

The exchange between the young woman and the landlady is pretty intense as well, with a jealousy that is there in the older woman’s words, and her reference to “the worm eating beauty” being more than a little reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Conqueror Worm.” This landlady seems to know, or thinks she knows, the priest, and makes the young lover aware that the chair in which he stood to hang himself keeps moving back in a certain spot in the room. The old woman even has the temerity to mock the noises of the love-making she heard back in the days in which the lovers met in this room. The power exchange, for all of the young woman’s defiance, does seem to be to the old woman’s favour: through her obvious triumph over her discomfort. I mean, that portrait we see of a hanged man above or near the bed is a little too much on the nose. We also get a nod to Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls,” when the old woman complains about hearing them scurrying in the walls of the castle — just like in the one owned by Delapore in England. The old landlady mentioning the rats, and leaving the trap with the flower in it begins the setup.

The grief, and mourning that Barbara Crampton conveys once the old woman is gone, as she sits on the softly sunlit windowsill is palpable. She’s lost someone important to her. Someone that made her feel alive. And then, she starts to hear his voice. We see his arms wrap around her, and drive her mad with feeling. Then it is gone. And then, we see him materialize in the corner of the room.

Lovecraft doesn’t write about sex, and physical acts are always “squamous” or “unnamed,” but what happens is neither as the two lovers — reunited despite death — begin fucking like mad on the bed. But underneath the bed, like a rejected parody of a Narnian beast is David Gale — you know, our creepy friend Dr. Hill from Re-Animator and Bride of Re-Animator — small, and dressed as a rat. He is chuckling, gross, and utterly pleased with himself.

The dream, like Richard Band’s musical score, spirals into a nightmare, as Barbara Crampton’s character wakes up and it’s night somehow — time not working the same in this chamber. There she meets the apparition of a Canterbury Bishop, played by David Warner, who tells her that her priestly lover had killed two other women before her, and that when he came to confront him about his crimes, he smashes his head in with a holy chalice. This is obviously a riff on the head priest of a group in the short story, but the gruesomeness, with the effects, are expanded on here. The Bishop looks on the young woman with disdain, and disgust, but he is also afraid. And Barbara Crampton has no idea what’s going on, or what is real anymore.

Eventually, we find out that the rat is the familiar of the priest. In fact, I will bet my sanity that David Gale’s twisted rat creature is essentially the same species, or kin, to  Brown Jenkin from “The Dreams in the Witch House” — an extra-dimensional entity bonded to the witch Keziah Mason who escaped to another plane from jail during the Salem Witch Trials. What we see unfolding after a while, is Crampton’s character realizing that Combs’ priest did kill himself. She sees him hanging himself again, and then talking to her from being suspended by that noose asking her to “kiss her like she used to” when she tells him she can’t reach his lips. Autoerotic-asphyxiation, and post-mortem having created a massive rigor mortis erection for a mortal blowjob aside, this macabre erotic act — designed to apparently give the young woman a chance to be released from the room — is interrupted by the bishop. She ends up beating him to death, again.

All of this, this ghostly afternoon delight turned into a nightmare with attacking rats, and a bleeding priest, and the harrassing figure of her hung lover — and not in the good way — seems to break the woman’s mind. After almost reenacting the act of murder on the bishop, she goes to the chair, takes the noose that’s been there from where her lover hung himself again, and hopes it will all end as she commits suicide. It’s an interesting parallel to the unnamed male narrator who tries to save the priest and then attacks him with the light, only to try to warn him from falling to his doom through the door. Crampton’s character is horrified at killing a man, lost in the dream logic of killing a dead man, and it prevents her from interacting with Combs’ character.

Now, it could have been left here. This could easily have been the lover losing her mind from grief. But then we have Combs talking with his familiar. They come to an agreement. He has a certain fondness for the woman, even loves her in his own way. But he wants her body. All of her body. In exchange, he promises the familiar her soul, but not before having to kiss him.  I keep thinking about “The Witch House” and how Keziah Mason can still manifest in the physical world: probably because the dimension she went to Lovecraft’s story, along with her link to her familiar from that realm, arrests her aging process, but the priest died. His physical body is gone. If he wants to come back, through his magic, through his own familiar, he needs a new vessel. He needs a new body. 

But I can’t help but wonder. At the end of the film, the priest seems to have taken over his lover’s body, freeing him from the contained dream-reality of the room. And yet, he has all of her memories, especially when the landlady’s words are turned against, her own chin is grabbed and she is told “You were never that pretty.” Because, sure enough, as the young woman leaves — confident, cold, and calculating — we see the rat familiar screaming, dying in the mousetrap the old woman left behind. Now, it seems simple. Whereas in Lovecraft’s short story, the priest fails to possess and rewrite the existences of two individuals — only succeeding in making them look like him — whereas in Band’s film the priest is triumphant in transferring his consciousness into his former lover’s body akin to how Ephraim or Asenath Waite took over her husband Edward Pickman Derby’s body in “The Thing on the Doorstep.” The unnamed narrator in the short story pays for his curiosity with the loss of his physical identification. The young woman in the film pays for her yearning, and grief with her very identity.

Yet the familiar is betrayed. He’s left to die. I get the feeling that the priest had influence over everything in that castle. He may have been with the landlady when she was younger, or at another time, and had her leave the trap there. Obviously he lured his lover there, maybe even others. He killed the bishop in that place, it seems, and yet no one reported it or investigated. And he had this deal with his familiar. Does the familiar’s death mean that the woman’s soul is freed? That she has bonded with her lover in her body in a strange form of symbiosis? A twisted form of liberation? Was the bishop representative of staid and close-minded Christian morality, and the familiar a debased lust that threatened to consume any meaning of passion? Is the attic a Jungian representation of the woman’s very mind?

Either way, I feel like this is one of those occasions where the film adaptation of a story is superior to the original source material, while changing the letter of its non-Euclidean law to match its eldritch spirit, and not shying away from pleasure turned into revulsion, and alien madness. It’s funny: almost everyone from Stuart Gordon’s Mythos films were in this movie, even the writer and musician involved in Re-Animator. It’s also fascinating to note that Gordon made his own adaptation of “The Dreams in the Witch House,” part of the Masters of Horror series that I still need to check out.

But this was a beautiful piece of a nightmare turned into a darkly lyrical almost thirty-minute film, and I am glad it was rediscovered, and it deserves its place in the Cthulhu cinematic Mythos. 

Reattaching An Amputation? Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator

I didn’t think I was ever going to write anything on Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator. I just didn’t really see the need. It is a film that has just the right amount of uncanny terror, visceral effects, titillation, and camp to make it a lively viewing experience. And between the twistedly morbid curiosity of Herbert West as played by Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott’s overwhelmed scientific straight man Dan Cain, and the gorgeous and rightfully terrified Barbara Crampton as Megan Halsey you had the entire acting dynamic made.

It’s true. Re-Animator — co-written by Gordon, Dennis Paoli, and William J. Norris — has a few changes from its source material, namely, the serial short horror story H.P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West – Reanimator.” Dr. Halsey, the erstwhile mentor of West and Cain doesn’t have a daughter in the story, as Lovecraft seemed reluctant to have many female characters, never mind romantic interests, or anything romantic for that matter. The character of Dr. Allen Halsey doesn’t die as a result of West and Cain’s meddling, but rather of typhoid fever while attempting to save countless patients from an epidemic. That, in of itself, makes him different from Dr. Alan Halsey  the Dean of Miskatonic University in Stuart Gordon’s film: for while he is also an old-fashioned doctor that doesn’t like West’s experiments, he cares more about appearances, grant money, and class than the Halsey of the serials. In the serials, in “The Plague-Daemon,” Dr. Halsey is reanimated by West and his assistant, beats the hell out of them, and runs off into the night as opposed to being captured and lobotomized by Hill. Cain isn’t named in the story at all, and is just an unnamed narrator — a function which happens a lot in Lovecraft — who is the assistant of West who is a blond-haired, blue-eyed young man in contrast to Combs’ iteration of the mad scientist. Lovecraft himself didn’t like this story, being derivative of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in a pulpish manner.

So of course it’s one of those stories that’s easy to adapt to cinema, and honestly the fleshing out of West’s assistant as a man with good intentions instead of a pedestal narrator, and the presence of Barbara Crampton to show the emotional impact and consequences of all their experiments, works for me. But you have, undoubtedly, already heard and read about all of this if you are horror fans.

Let’s focus on Dr. Carl Hill.

If you’ve seen the film, you know what kind of man Hill is. Hill is arrogant, he plagiarizes the work of better doctors and scientists, he has a creepy infatuation with the much younger and completely uninterested Megan, and he becomes the monster he was always meant to be after Herbert West kills, and reanimates his severed head and body, building for himself a little army of army to obey his every whim in a quip-filled rivalry between him, and West. David Gale plays Hill as a completely over-the-top antagonist, ridiculously so, but it is a counter to West’s combination of cold detachment, and demented obessession with his work. Hill is ego-driven, lecherous, and just a terrible human being that has no qualms about performing lobotomies on even former colleagues to get what he wants — and this is before he’s killed, and gets transformed into one of West’s creations.

So where do I start with this? In some ways, Hill is more of a banal character than West. West is about The Work, about experimenting with life and death, whereas Hill wants fame and power and flesh. Hill doesn’t exist in the serials at all. However, that isn’t entirely true. In the “Herbert West – Reanimator” serial chapter “The Horror From the Shadows,” there is a man working with West and his assistant — now both full-fledged doctors as opposed to medical students in the fields of World War I — named Major Sir Eric Moreland Clapham-Lee: a British-Canadian military doctor and pilot:. This is a funny link, given how David Gale is a British actor, though he depicts an American doctor who prides himself on class. He shares a lot of fascination with West’s experiments, and even participated in some in situ. Aside from his interest in reviving the dead, however, and perhaps some of West’s more esoteric explorations, Clapham-Lee doesn’t get much more character development after he’s decapitated in a plane crash … and West decides to attempt to reanimate his body parts separately.

This is where Dr. Hill is derived from, poor Sir Eric, and it is pretty much the last in a long like off poor life — and undeath — decisions that seals our friend Dr. West’s fate in the last of the serials “The Tomb Legions.” What happens here is nothing short of a cold, methodical hunting and takedown of West, who is hiding out with his assistant, as a mysterious man who seems to wear a waxen face — and is carrying something, always, in a bag — finds all of West’s creations, and purposefully take him apart in an ancient series of catacombs under an old house before vanishing behind a wall completely, leaving the narrator traumatized and afraid for his very existence.

You can see where a lot of the inspiration behind the ends of Re-Animator, and Bride of Re-Animator came from to this extent. But something perplexing always bothered me about Re-Animator itself, and I was never able to put it into words before this point. 

You see, there is one scene in the film where Hill stares intently at West, after attempting to blackmail the latter based on the knowledge of his crimes, into giving him his notes on the serum: or re-agent. He orders West to give him his work, and for more than a few moments West is speechless. He’s transfixed. Now, bear in mind that throughout this whole film Herbert West has been caustic and sarcastic as all get-out with everyone from Dan, to Megan, to Dr. Halsey, ranting at the police in Switzerland at the University of Zurich, and especially making barbs at Dr. Hill’s expense. But now, with the potential for revealing his illegal work on corpses, and what he did to Dr. Halsey, West is suddenly quiet? He just shuts up?

So, in an early draft of the script, it’s revealed that Dr. Hill is — of all things — a hypnotist. That’s right. This man of questionable science, whose work is apparently by West’s standards woefully outdated — specifically his knowledge of the brain and the surgery thereof — incorporates techniques that attempt to influence a suggestible mind. According to Joe Bob Briggs, it was the film’s music composer Richard Band, who suggested to Stuart Gordon that this element be excised as it would be implausible for two impossible things to happen at once with already a certain kind of belief suspension in place. Joe Bob was against this happening, referencing what seems to be Aristotle’s Poetics in that one should have two impossible things occurring in a work. I’ve attempted to look it up, but from what I can see Aristotle mentions something about how “With respect to the requirement of art, the probable impossible is always preferable to the improbable possible.”
In other words, perhaps Joe Bob was trying to intimate that in a world with reanimation already occurring, hypnosis in conjunction with that feat isn’t that farfetched, and that by attempting to just stick with revival of the dead, something is lost: the rest of it just becomes “the improbable possible.”

But according to what I’ve found, Aristotle essentially says that if you need a secondary impossible thing to make a primary impossible element work, you should use it.

And that is where Joe Bob and I differed, at least at first. I personally thought that this wasn’t needed: that adding hypnosis into a story about creating the undead in the way it is portrayed confuses the issue. What story is trying to be told here? And then, there is the Cthulhu Mythos fan in me that is also annoyed. By the time of “Re-Animator’s” segment “The Horror From the Shadows,” Herbert West seems to have come to the existentially terrifying conclusion that a previously living human organism’s parts have independent qualities: they are only interdependent — connected by nerves and viscera — because of evolution. There is no intrinsic force compelling them together. There is no life force. No soul. He is already experimenting with “lizard tissue” to make little animated creations from parts at this point in time — something we see him do in Bride of Re-Animator.

In other words, there is no intelligent design behind humanity.

Yet.

What I thought was brilliant about Lovecraft’s serials is how the other undead are mindless except for Sir Eric — our Canadian Major — who has not only retained his consciousness, but a sense of vengeance against West for turning him into an abomination. Moreover, Sir Eric is a decapitated head that understands the science of reanimation, and all of West’s dirty little secrets. He is a brain that controls his own animated body.

So why can’t Sir Eric control other reanimated bodies if they are potentially interdependent limbs, or extensions of a powerful will?

See, this is what worked for me with Dr. Hill. He lobotomizes Dr. Halsey’s undead form, not merely to keep him from potentially talking to the authorities if he ever got his faculties back, but to make him more suggestible. You see him, after his own death, doing this to other corpses in advance before reanimating them. It’s brilliant, and horrible. And I just thought that hypnosis is just a cheap way to explain something far more Lovecraftian and terrifying in that there is no intrinsic meaning even in human life and sentience: all just processes formed together by chemical forces and influences until someone learns how to manipulate them to do twisted and banal things, leading to a terrible and perpetual insomnia of eternal hatred.

Of course, the undead in the film are clumsy and directionless whereas the ones in the serials move fast, and with focus. This changes a bit when Dr. Hill controls them, but he barely has fine-motor control over his own body at times, never mind the bodies of others. And there is still the fact that West is awkwardly paralyzed just looking at him in that one scene.

So, in my early articles I’ve mentioned that I wouldn’t change a thing about Re-Animator, even if it is not up to Lovecraft’s standards: the serial, or the film derived from it. But now? Years later, after seeing some attempts at a Cthulhu Mythos shared cinematic universe in Color Out of Space, and the remake of Castle Freak, as well as seeing the cultists as displayed in The Deep Ones, there is a solution.

You see, I’ve changed my mind. What if Dr. Hill, as seen by Herbert West, is into defunct and “quack-science,” but it goes further than his “stealing” of Dr. Hans Gruber’s work. What if he is also into the theories of Madame Blavatsky, and Theosophy, some very racist and eugenics shite. It’s true that unlike the serials that take place at the turn of the twentieth century and WWI that Hill exists in the 1980s, but I can see him subscribing to these ideas. And what if he is a cultist of Cthulhu or Dagon himself, but instead of making it blatant with what he says, you can just see it in his study — that typical arrogant office with shelves of idols stolen from other cultures, but nothing really specific … Until you see the Elder Sign medallion that he flashes out to hypnotise or mesmerize people. It should have been short, and to the point, and a good nod at the literary heritage from which this film was grown.

In this sense, it works for me because we establish Dr. Hill: as not only a terrible human being and an arrogant narcissist, but also believing in some abhorrent practices, and his mysticism would make him doubly hated by West even as he rubs it in the younger man’s face. He still continues to lobotomize patients so his rituals make them “more suggestible” and it says a lot more about the Western colonialism in how he treats women, perhaps other minorities, and the vulnerable. It also doesn’t take away from the insanity of the whole film. It just adds another layer. One, or two lines, even West being disparaging of Mesmerism and hypnotism, and Hill hamming it up with “there are forces that work in mysterious ways,” which also leads to West attempting to animate Hill’s parts after he kills him with the shovel … it just sits well with me.

Obviously, this injection into the body of Re-Animator wouldn’t be possible now as it isn’t fresh anymore, and David Gale and Stuart Gordon aren’t with us anymore. And the film is great as is, and discussion of these film adaptations always seems to come down to an issue about either the inherent meaningless of existence, horrifying mysticism, or just plain entertainment. But like West, I guess I still like to play with other people’s toys: a fact that will probably never change here, at this Horror Doctor’s laboratory.



The Terror of Mathematics: Angry Video Game Nerd’s Polybius

October 27, 2017. I was on YouTube, navigating through the site, when I noticed an uploaded video in Cinemassacre Plays.

I’d been following James Rolfe as the Angry Video Nerd for over a decade. His persona as a raging, scathing nerd stereotype that neatly eviscerates terrible video games, with nineties gross-out humour and profanity, really hit a nostalgic factor in my heart. When James Rolfe plays the Nerd, to me he’s both a figure to laugh at, but also to sympathize with as a child of the eighties and nineties. In fact, a lot of the time I laugh at the Nerd I am laughing at that part of myself. 

Seriously, for me the tone of the Nerd was set when I first watched his video episode on the Nintendo Entertainment System’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde game. I saw a deadpan humour, a story being built up about how he encountered this “vile piece of goat shit,” as he put it so poetically, a slow building dread in the narrative that he created, followed by the denouement of a game that arbitrarily hurts and kills the protagonist almost instantly. It’s so absurd, and so ridiculous that you can’t even believe it is an actual interactive game with rules or any sensibilities. Towards the end, he creates character as he just can’t help but laugh, but at that point I was so invested in the whole “What the Fuck” lead up and conclusion, that I just — again — laughed with him. 

It’d been a long time since that episode, however. Rolfe had been busy working on his AVGN film, and a lot of the day to day posting had been given to Mike Matei, with some appearances by Rolfe. After a time, I became more interested in Rolfe’s Monster Movie Madness episodes, and of course his interview with Joe Bob Briggs whose work I didn’t know I would become so invested in at the time. Mostly, I just listened to James Rolfe and Mike Matei talk about games and movies. I began to truly become interested in Rolfe outside of his AVGN role, perhaps more so than even the AVGN episodes themselves.

And then one day on October 27th Cinemassacre Plays, which was a channel dedicated to both Rolfe and Matei playing games and Matei in particular having rage-sessions, a short video was released. It was the Angry Video Game Nerd, who I hadn’t seen in a while, except he was talking about a whole other kind of game. Now, for those who don’t know, the Nerd’s whole theme is that he plays the worst-made video games ever created, and he critiques them and swears at them a lot while going as far as to even destroy hard copies of that game. 

But this time, the Nerd was talking about Polybius

This was when I knew we were going to be in for a wild ride. Polybius is a video game urban legend about an arcade game that apparently could affect the minds of those who played it: inducing seizures, insomnia, dementia, and pure insanity in those exposed to it. I have nothing to add to the urban legend itself, as many people have delved into it far deeper than I can at this time. I did think about doing something with the Roman historian Polybius and his possible relation, of that of his work, to the game as an attempt at a creepypasta: a copy and paste internet attempt at an online and electronic urban legend of my own creation.

As a bit of background, there was a time when I was fascinated with creepypastas — you can thank my late partner Kaarina, and Kris Straub’s Candle Cove for that — and I wanted to make one myself: to create a story so compelling, and seemingly real, it could become viral. It’d be the perfect test of my abilities. I never got there myself. I went as far as a few ideas, some notes dealing with eighties nostalgia, and getting some concepts rejected by the SCP Foundation.

James Rolfe went farther, utilizing this idea that has existed online since the early aughts. It’s funny how horror and humor relate to each other. I’ve probably mentioned it before, but just as fantasy and the macabre share the same road and branch off, comedy and terror tend to share similar pacing, unexpected beats, and familiar ends. 

Rolfe released his Polybius episode in a five-part serial. He controlled the pace right off the bat. Each part was divided into Days, and he filmed it in the found footage format that I love so much. Day One is great because it starts off with him sitting in front of the camera like any other AVGN episode, and giving a detailed run-down of Polybius and the rumours, and legends surrounding it. And that’s it. He says that he found a lead on a possible cabinet with the game, and he leaves it at that. 

Already, it piques interest. You want to know what he finds. It is a line between knowing it is fictional, to the meta-narrative point of practically winking the viewer, but also playing it straight as if the character of the Nerd is genuinely pursuing this venture into finding this potentially terrifying game. He finds bad games, but generally not deadly ones. By Day Two, we are in a warehouse with old game cabinets, and eventually we find the Polybius cabinet itself. We follow the Nerd from his camera as he shows us what is going on. Of course, the caveat is that he isn’t going to reveal the game and its graphic “because it might be dangerous,” though he claims it is all probably just a hoax. They do say that showing less of the monster in a horror film is more after all. 

Most of the time and throughout the rest of the Days, we watch the Nerd play Polybius and not the gameplay itself. He downplays a lot of it initially, stating that it’s mediocre at best, but he weaves little snippets of facts, an email of warning that he laughs off, and the realization that the Nerd is spending more and more time playing the game. His estimation of the game changes during these periods, his esteem for it rising from mediocre, to good, to one of the best games ever made … and the slow realization that he is becoming addicted, and that his senses have become, well … unreliable at best. 

Rolfe’s AVGN episode plays off of the Video Game Panic of the late twentieth century, of the medium affecting the minds and health of children, and those who play them. Video game addiction, like most addictions, is also real and has been discussed in that context. When you also add to the fact that Polybius was supposedly released by the American government as limited and localized experiments in mind-control, and you see the place in which Rolfe is playing. The way the Nerd described playing Polybius “like watching a waterfall” reminds me of the Star Trek The Next Generation episode “The Game” where there is a virtual reality simulation that creates mental geometric shapes that interact specifically with the brain, and induces pleasure in those interactions. 


In Rolfe’s Polybius episode, we see the Nerd’s addiction become his fear as he realizes he can’t rely on his own senses, or personal judgment anymore. But in one Day, one installment, we see a shape rise, look at us from the reflection of another cabinet screen, and run away: drawing us into the hallucination, or the supernatural element involved as well. It is reminiscent of those terrifying Easter-eggs in Ghostwatch

But it becomes clear that Polybius doesn’t just want to be played, but it wants others to see it be played as well: like a Let’s Play version of Ringu. The torment and exhaustion in the Nerd builds up, and gets real. In the last installments of the serialized found footage made a web miniseries, he struggles against Polybius — even working in the historical Polybius’ mathematical grid in an attempt to escape — but to no avail. What I think is fascinating is how Rolfe manages to play on the Nerd’s general frustration, on his sense of unfairness in dealing with games that break their own rules, and douses these traits with fear, and despair. Even though you know this is fictional, and the Nerd is a persona, you get invested in his genuine distress because Rolfe builds it all up to that point: from one to eleven.

In the end, after shifting the camera away and back from the screen, he relents — apologizing to the viewer — as he knows the only way he will escape this fate, like Ringu again, is to show us the game. And we see it, and the geometrical graphics warp and change, and we get a demonic jumpscare. Personally, I think it was a good lead up, and I really like the emulation of  YouTube’s “This video is unavailable screen … though I think we could have done without the second jumpscare.

AVGN’s Polybius episode is a very tough and cheek construct that plays with the found footage webseries format, with that electronic serial epistolary place, with hints of images, glances of the “monster,” rumours and accounts sprinkled through, and a slow, insidious, psychological sense of horror that grows into a jumpscare or two, with some realistic technical hoax elements. The serial drop made it, in my opinion, and I looked forward to seeing what happened each day a new installment was uploaded onto Cinemassacre Plays.

But, there is another element at play too. When I was looking for a “Making Of” episode years later, I realized that there was more to this episode. AVGN’s Polybius was filmed and recorded at TNT Amusements. And while Polybius was a more horror-based found footage version of an AVGN episode, made epistolary, THE ANGRY VIDEO GAME NERD films POLYBIUS at TNT Amusements is more of a mini-documentary of sorts … that leans towards humour. Their endings tie into each other well. Todd N. Tuckey, the President of TNT Amusements, is great.

I do think that there was another missed opportunity. You see, at the end of the episode it seems as though the Nerd is changed forever by this experience with Polybius. Perhaps he is either dead, or transported into another world. James Rolfe himself has created a few continuities, where not only is the Angry Video Game Nerd is own person, but there is another figure named Board James: a madman who plays board games with his friends, and his reality is constantly shifting like the dreamlike sequences in the Phantasm series. If James Rolfe could have gotten a lot of his original crew from that series back together, and we know from continuity that the Nerd and Board James have interacted, the ending to the Polybius episode could have been a fine crossover back to Board James, or something like it. But the logistics on that might not have been feasible, for a variety of professional and personal reasons: not the least being that James Rolfe is a busy man. I also think it might have been amazing if this had been the end of the Nerd for a while, as though he died or worse, but he was inevitably coming back with the cartoon resilience most recurring characters in weird worlds have, though there is overlap between AVGN episodes at times, and him being affected by this after the fact could have been an interesting aspect to explore.

But anyway, here is the AVGN Polybius Episode, and THE ANGRY VIDEO GAME NERD films POLYBIUS at TNT Amusements. I am so glad this exists, and I love the experimentation with the medium and the times that Cinemassacre reinvents AVGN, just as I wanted to do something new for this Friday the Thirteenth. Have a terrifying weekend, my fellow subjects.