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.