Creepshow Commentaries Season Three – Episode Six: Drug Traffic/A Dead Girl Named Sue

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 6: Drug Traffic/ A Dead Girl Named Sue 

So, despite my reservations from my look at Episode Five being equaled or topped by this  Season Three Finale, Creepshow delivered. And it delivered with power.

Literally.

There is a bit to unpack here, thematics aside, and I can’t promise that I will be able to talk about everything. These Commentaries, like most of what I write, focus on what truly stands out to me. Certainly, many other articles and commentators will examine exactly the elements that I want to look at here, and I feel like — at best — I will just look at the impact that it has on me as a viewer, and a student of horror. That is the best you will get here, and all that I am willing to promise. 

First, we have “Drug Traffic”: a story by Mattie Do and Christopher Larsen, with the teleplay written by Larsen, and the entire segment directed by Greg Nicotero. I just want to talk about the monsters here, to be frank with you, but the only way I can do that is to go a bit into the context: into the situation with which we are presented.

An American politician is riding what seems to be a Greyhound bus with various people, many of them ill, across the border to Canada so that they can get proper medical treatment. This fact, in and of itself, is a commentary on America’s terrible medical care system for those who are not upper-middle class, or generally privileged ethnically or racially as well as a look at how people will use this issue — under the guise of moral outrage — to gain power, or reinforce their own sense of moral superiority while not giving a single damn of the people truly affected by these forces. 

The politician, and the border guard symbolize both of these aspects. The politician running for higher office wants everything recorded, including him making a show of using his power to challenge this guard and his systemic discrimination. But the guard is intelligent and has his own left-of-centre views: calling the politician out on quoting Karl Marx, and blaming his posting on this outward border on his own views. Further, he does perform his job to the letter of the same system in which the politician wants to elevate himself, and he will detain and go so far as to handcuff someone in order to prove a point: whether someone else’s life is at stake, or not.

I am not sure which one of these people I dislike more: the politician is at least honest or transparent that the ordinary people he is escorting to the border to make a point about the terrible condition of the States’ medical program that they have to leave the country — claiming to want to make reform should he get his votes — are tools to that end. The border guard goes out of his way to say he is an ordinary man, and has the audacity to moralize to a woman he handcuffs and denies her daughter seemingly life-saving medication: claiming she is carrying more than the allotted amount of unknown drugs out of the country to another, and that her taking her daughter to another country for treatment is just a short-sighted solution for the greater problem that is America.

Meanwhile, that Asian-American woman is giving her visibly and chronically ill daughter Mai pills to keep her stable. And by stable, I mean in her body, and not detaching her head and neck to hover, and feed off the flesh of human beings.

And that was when I realized, I’d seen this before. The Far East Asian woman with the head that either elongates, or detaches all together is something you would see in, at least within Japanese folklore, as a member of the yokai or youkai: specifically a Nukekubi. Yet I also wondered, when I saw this, especially when I realized the medication the mother was giving Mai had information in a Chinese dialect. And this made me look up more information: to see if these beings existed in other places aside from Japanese mythology. And, as it turns out, there are beings called hitōban, or rakutō: though the former already has a line around its neck, and the latter’s body remains resting in its bed while its head roams. They feed off of blood and human flesh, but they also need to ingest vermin and lamp oil of all things. There are many different depictions of these beings in Far East Asia, and South-East Asia, but one interpretation states that if you move their bodies, their heads can’t reunite with them, and they will die accordingly. 

Mai seems to be, based on her entrails remaining under her hovering neck, a Laotian variant of this kind of being: a Phi Kasu: at least according to Ryan Thao Worra’s article Japanese yokai: The Rokurokubi on his Blog On the Other Side of the Eye. She doesn’t have to sleep for the condition to manifest either, but she does require feeding or a bloodbath will happen. 

My personal thought is that those pills Mai’s mother was feeding her, to suppress her hunger for human flesh and blood, contained specialized animal matter, or even something like lamp oil though there are issues with this concept because neither of these are illegal, or potentially illegal substances. There is also the possibility that it is brine in those pills, which is used apparently to reduce swelling in the organs so that their heads can safely return to their bodies, again according to Worra in his article The Phi Kasu: Supernatural entities of Laos on the above Blog. Certainly, Mai doesn’t need sleep for this condition to happen, though it tends to manifest at night: which seems to occur as she and the other passengers are detained by customs, and her body expels her — or her head leaves it — explosively, with only gore behind. 

I am not a cultural expert in this field, though it fascinates me to no end, but there is a folkloric antecedent for the brilliant practical effects rendition of the being that is Mai, this cross-cultural counter on a border between the East and the West, but there is an even greater precedent for how she, and her mother are being treated in this story: especially with regards to American land border crossing. I’ve taken Greyhound Buses before, and there have been a few instances where families or groups, usually non-white, are detained for a while as customs officials question them: delaying the bus from going further. Profiling exists in the system. Mai’s mother is Far East Asian, perhaps Laotian, but neither the politician nor the border official seem to bother to want to make these distinctions. Certainly, she has every right to take offense when she’s asked to read the Chinese on the packages of the medication involved that even she doesn’t know the contents of: as if just by being Far East Asian, even Asian American, she should automatically know the language. 

It’s true that Mai does look suspiciously sick — perhaps in withdrawal, or overdosed — and her mother is carrying a lot of drugs beyond the allowed amount, but I suppose I thought that the politician’s campaign was more publicized, and there was this implication that Mai was chronically, or terminally-ill. But the system is a failure: there are no Asian-American representatives at the border facility, no medical experts or even First Aid apparatuses. The guard is the only personnel there that day, and there is some obvious understaffing and underfunding going on despite the really fine waiting room everyone else sits in which I have never seen at a border station before. And, as i said, the official immediately wants to make an example of Mai’s mother just to spit in the politician’s eye. 

It could have been a completely avoidable situation, but instead it escalates, everyone else dies, and the politician and border official end up hacking Mai’s body up with an axe while her mother screams out for her, chained to a table, helplessly. And the sad thing is: Mai isn’t a terrible being. She doesn’t immediately try to feed on someone. She isn’t mindless. She is willingly taking the medication, and she almost loses her inhibition only when her mother is taken from her: and even then, one of the politician’s guards scares her away. She then tries to get candy from the vending machine, and looks in the official’s fridge to find food of any kind, and fails. 

Mai can’t help her hunger. I have no idea what kind of aid she expected to find in Canada compared to America for her condition, which is what it is in folklore: she isn’t part of another species, but rather it is an affliction, or a curse … or at least another state of being. Maybe her mother wanted to get her better medication that she doesn’t throw up, or a food she can safely ingest. We will never really know, unfortunately, as her mother cuts off her own head with glass so that Mai can take a new body.

And what happens at the end? What happens when the official destroys Mai’s body “for her own good,” and the politician admits he isn’t going to change the system, says racist shite about immigrants, and callously doesn’t seem to even care about his dead and eaten wife as they both drink some beers? Does Mai kill them?

No. Mai takes her mother’s broken body and staggers back to the bus … to be let on by the Creep. He does this sometimes, in some of the segments. He will interject himself at the end of stories, and break that fourth wall, and in this case — despite the animated skit of him holding her head joyfully out of the window — he is actually the good guy here. Mai is given the chance to live. She chooses to live despite everything that happened to her, and her mother, and the Creep takes her out of a narrative where she is doomed to make other minorities and sick travelers from the States suffer, to hopefully a better one with no further loss, and perhaps somewhere where she can get help, and be accepted. 

It’s like what they say about Frankenstein: the Monster isn’t Frankenstein, but Victor Frankenstein is the monster. And the Monster isn’t a monster, but the Creature. And Mai is only a monster in a system that hates sick people that can’t pay for their right to live, and placed in a system that is actively hostile towards her in a kyriarchal manner: for being disabled, female, and Far East Asian. At best, she is like what I’ve read of the rokurokubi magic tricks in Japan: where she is a minority token of exoticism to prop up a white American male politician’s career, and at worst a foreign abomination that needs to be exterminated, and an example of what “not to let into the country.” And I find it fitting that while the politician barely mourns the wife that Mai killed, she grieves for the mother who sacrifices her life so that she might live: an exchange of heads, of glances, on the floor of sterile governmental bureaucratic brutality in a parody of that Japanese magic trick that allows her to live, and flee the land of the free and the home of the brave that claims to want the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, and the wretched refuse of another’s teeming shore. 

I intimated that the politician and the border official are cynical and exploitive, and well-meaning and self-sanctimonious monsters respectively but they are just symptoms of a greater social justice system twisted and horribly wrong: creating disasters. And it is a theme that continues into “A Dead Girl Named Sue.” 

It is a black and white production, with a few exceptions. At first, I thought what we would be seeing is a homage to Serling’s Twilight Zone, or Hitchcock’s Psycho. But the clues are there. It is all black and white, and the date is 1968 during a time of upheaval. “A Dead Girl Named Sue” is written by Heather Anne Campbell, and directed by John Harrison. A small town police officer is confronted by a group of citizens, Black and white, who want to find a young man who has been committing atrocities, the son of their Mayor who has been escaping justice, and take the law into their own hands.

The segment has a slow creeping reveal of events worthy of George A. Romero’s ghouls. And at first, I wondered: were they really going to go there?

And they do.

By god, they do.

In the background, we hear about attacks. And it’s clever. At first, you think it might be Race Riots. Certainly, the timeline as when Romero’s creation was released, would line up with that. But then you hear reports of half-eaten victims, and news reports. And then went there. By god, they go to that place. I recall being disappointed by “Skeletons in the Closet” and wishing that Sentinel from the previews would be used in a story that was an outlier set in the dreamscape of Phantasm, just as the Deadites and the Necronomicon were flat-out introduced in “Public Television of the Dead.” Certainly, Night of the Living Dead” was also referenced towards the end of the Creepshow Season Two finale segment “Night of the Living Late Show.” I never even considered it. 

Yet here we were. Here we are, for that matter. We have basically something like a “Times is Tough in Musky Holler” situation, but I would argue it is more immaculate as you aren’t sure at first where it will go. The officer denies vigilante justice, even as they claim “the law won’t matter tomorrow” which is another clue as to what is going on. He instead goes to find the young man who has been committing these crimes, and arrest him again. This is where, at his place, he finds an old woman with parts of her gnawed off and the back of her head blown off as well. 

At first, you might think that the officer and the criminal have to band together and fight off the legions of the undead in this isolated place. But this officer isn’t Ben, and he sees something on the floor: a blue ribbon in this black and white world. He also notes the bed and the chains and the blood stains around them, which the criminal claims to be from “breaking his dogs in.”

What we see is something truly beautiful. 

The officer arrests the criminal. The young man is belligerent. He thinks that his father will just bail him out again, that he will just escape another trial, and the officer will be punished. It is methodical, much like Romero’s ghouls using tools to bring into a house, or slowly take some bodies apart from which to feed. The police station is still whole. The officer’s subordinate is still there. The townspeople are alive as well.

By the time a large, silent group of people walk down into the cell where the criminal is being held, you almost think they are — if you will pardon the reference to a spiritual descendant — the Walking Dead. But they are not. They are all the townspeople that this man wronged: everyone who lost someone they loved to this madman who has Daddy protecting him.

He is given a chance to admit to his wrongs, but he refuses. This is when the sack is brought downstairs: the squirming, shrieking sack. You see, there was a girl named Sue who had gone missing, and had been killed. This terrible person did it, but the coroner who could have done forensics on her body conveniently went on an all-expenses paid vacation to a resort courtesy of the criminal’s Mayor father. The problem is that standard procedure was to remove the brain, and put it in a jar: something that didn’t happen as the coroner was already gone. Sue reanimated, and well …

Sue and the criminal are reunited. You see a brief flashback, as you look at her very red ruby ring as she crawls towards him in that cell, of how he lured her to him, chained her … and let’s just say, I strongly suspect that her viciousness towards him, biting chunks out of him was more than just the ghoul need for flesh. 

By the time it is over, the officer admits to everyone as they ask him why he changed his mind, why he gave into vigilante justice, that if these are the End Times, where the dead are rising to plague the living, they probably deserved it. I would had him say something along the lines of:

“If these are the End Times, then let this be Judgment Day.”

The story ends with the officer and the others going to get the Mayor, to let him join in his son’s fate as society crumbles all around them. So fucking satisfying.

As I finish this write up of the Season Three of Creepshow, I have to note the following. The finale comes almost right before not only Halloween weekend, but Joe Bob Briggs’ Last Drive-In Walking Dead Special on Shudder, and it couldn’t have been timed better. We live in uncertain times of socio-political unrest, of chaos, and this episode hits harder than a double-tap to a zombified skull. And I am all for it.

Perhaps Season Three started out ambling, but it finished off strong: with the power of a broken system that needs destroying. And yet, that is the question: when this is done, what will we see after it? The Horror Doctor doesn’t know. But we will continue to find out. We will continue to write about it, and with both dread and anticipation, I intend to do so. And I need to watch more of Romero’s ghoul movies. All of them. 

Creepshow Commentaries Season Two: Episode 5 – Night of the Living Late Show

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 5: Night of the Living Late Show

They always say that the first rule of holes is that you should stop digging. But in horror, what often happens is the protagonist keeps on digging, until they complete their own grave — or, in this case, a coffin. 

I didn’t expect this episode for a variety of reasons. First of all, “Night of the Living Late Show” is just one story as opposed to two, directed by Greg Nicotero and written by Dana Gould. It doesn’t share the billing with another story, and it almost functions as a standalone. The other reason it’s taken me aback is that, as the fifth episode, it is also the last of this season. That surprised me, as the last season had six episodes, though due to the current global circumstances it might make sense: and really, having all of these episodes to watch with their controlled fears on the small screen — or writ large on a television — is one method of escape. 

It’s a different situation from the ending of Season One. While “Skincrawlers” and “By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain” were decent stories, worthy of being Creepshow material for sure and having that undead spirit within them complete with the grim justice inherited from EC Comics mentality, they just didn’t feel like an end cap. Of course, the Animated Special made up for it — in my mind — but I remember thinking as it ended just how Season One started strong, and then kind of ended on an anticlimax, or not even an element of catharsis. “Night of the Living Late Show” still has the ghost of Creepshow within the structure of its machine, and it tries to innovate, and it feels like an end. It also makes me think about other matters as well. 

The homage to Night of the Living Dead — in the VR sequences before, during, and after the story — were nice to see. The introduction raised my expectations for sure. As for the actual virtual reality device that we see Simon having created, complete with camera-mirrors, and looking like a casket — it feels like something from a Black Mirror episode: invention made from the best of intentions, but gone terrifyingly wrong due to the banality of human nature. 

I appreciate how they attempted to splice together vintage horror films such as Horror Express, and Night of the Living Dead into the story, which is a nice thematic callback to the first episode of this Second Season, in particular the story “Model Kid”: which also plays with a youthful and nostalgic imagination for vintage horror. At the same time, I can also see how it interplays with “Public Television of the Dead” with an element of nostalgic horror affecting the minds of those it comes into contact with through technology.

But these are only some of the thematics. I did find myself relating to “Night of the Living Late Show” in some uncomfortable ways. I suspect that Gould and Nicotero wanted us to sympathize with Renee, and believe that her husband Simon gets his just desserts. And I agree: Simon isn’t honest with his wife. He lies to her. There is the implication that he’s married her to get the funding to create his virtual reality pod in order to get his jollies off with a fictional character, and escape from life, that her father was right in that he only cared about her for her money. And it is cringy that he says the title of “Countess” before he goes to sleep, right next to his wife. Also, the man talks through horror films. It’s almost a guaranteed death sentence in at least a movie theatre setting. 

At the same time, I don’t particularly … like Renee. She is fairly ignorant of what Simon actually likes and, deep down, it comes apparent that she’s fairly disdainful of it. She refuses to even test out the very device he’s spent so much time and energy creating, on her own dime no less, and browbeats him for perceived unhappiness in his life instead of actually talking about it with him. While Simon runs away from his problems, and gets addicted to the escapism of being in his favourite horror film and having sex with a fictional character — which is essentially interactive VR porn — Renee only seems to think about herself, is generally passive-aggressive, and while talking about “sacrificing her relationship with her father” doesn’t seem to even acknowledge how much Simon had actually taken the time to get to know him and prove him wrong. It’s one thing to not have the same interests, but in her case she has this almost wilful ignorance of what he likes, and I can just see where that resentment would begin. 

I think we’ve all been there as geeks and nerds, where there is someone special in our life, and we accomplish something, or something good happens and they just … don’t get it. They don’t understand. That can be absolutely soul-killing. I know I’ve been there, where I worked time and again on something, just for others around me to simply … not care, or in a better case scenario it’s just not their area of expertise. It’s easy to side with Renee over what happens, but I keep thinking about how Simon went to her, totally proud of what he’s accomplished, more than willing to show her — to show her father and her friends, and really just her — that he isn’t a loser. That he more than earned his place in the material aspect of their relationship. This is a big deal. This device can simulate reality and it doesn’t need a headset. Simon could exceed any money he married into by billions, easily. But there is nothing. No excitement. No attempt to really engage. Nothing. 

There are other aspects. Simon doesn’t account for claustrophobia, or even the fact that the pod takes up a great deal of space and resources. Miniaturizing the technology is a good step. Even having a screen that would allow someone to watch a partner or friend interact with a simulated film would be a nice touch. Certainly, as a builder of something to be placed in the consumers market, Simon would have needed to present his product in an accessible way. At the same time, it’s as though Simon doesn’t want anyone else to have this technology, and it’s more just about him and his special relationship with it: not just because of the fictional Countess, but also because he can — in his own mind — hobnob with the likes of the late Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing: and no one else. 

Also, isn’t about the money or the virtual porn but the fact that he’s spent more time with it than Renee that builds resentment on her end. And the lying. But I am not convinced Simon began by just wanting to use Renee for her money, but it was a breakdown in communications between them: or a feature if you consider that maybe between their two separate operating systems they just weren’t compatible.

But my inaccurate attempts at technological metaphors or analogies aside, I didn’t feel the payoff on Renee’s revenge. It is just petty and spiteful, just as Simon is cowardly and annoying. I have to admit, when the creature tries to devour Renee’s mind, I almost wish it had succeeded, though it’s fascinating given how Simon says in the beginning of the episode that the “creature isn’t finished yet.” I thought that meant it couldn’t actually do anything, or maybe he meant he didn’t have the “safeties” installed? Maybe he should have had two remotes for both hands instead of one? But let it not be said that Simon is a thoughtful person, which he clearly is not. 

I’m also curious as to why the ghouls in Night of the Living Dead seemed to react to him being there with his thumb cut off in real life, but that is another Hitchcockian fridge question for another night, I feel. 

This episode in particular makes me think about two other things: about Creepshow and horror fandom. I’ve seen fans who aren’t as enthusiastic at the Second Season, seeing an apparent degradation of quality. And I think the issue is that, for some, they don’t understand that Creepshow is modelled after EC Comics: that the stories are often bordering on two-dimensional, and they are supposed to be kind of ridiculous, zany, wacky, and weird. I used to take stories seriously all the time and I didn’t enjoy them for what they were. But often going to the Toronto After Dark, and interacting with The Last Drive-In with its own origins in a horror host who is an expert in grindhouse horror, I can still constructively criticize a piece while seeing its merits, and even enjoy them. As a creator myself, I thought of a few ways I would have made this episode different. For example, Simon uses the device to escape to his fantasy, and the film of his childhood, only to have his wife die and we see the episode repeat over and again as he keeps trying relive seeing his wife — who he knows he neglected — over and again as he is a wasted skeleton in that coffin of glittering electronic glass lenses. 

But that kind of intricate pathos isn’t a part of Creepshow. Creepshow gives you a simple premise or a gimmick and runs with it. I’ve seen somewhere that there are those who think this episode had more resources, and should have had more to develop its concept. And I think so too, but that’s not the nature of this show or what I even recall of the original film from which it all came: or EC Comics favourites like Tales from the Crypt. You have an idea, characters in an exaggerated and even over-the-top situation, and something tips the karma to the bad ones generally — especially between more than one bad one — the good tend to make it out, though there is sometimes collateral damage, but there is always a form of poetic justice. And of course gruesomeness, and sex. These are Creepshow stories, and I feel like while you can have your own opinion, there is something petty about simply dismissing a whole season without constructive criticism to the point of self-entitlement. 

There is also something fairly telling that Simon is a horror fan, or just a fan who almost self-inserts into his favourite narratives, and feels a sense of power in knowing what will happen in those stories — being outside of it, but capable of immersion — at his own will: possessing a power he can never have in reality. Simon is the kind of person that talks through a film, though I’d argue it’s less about showing how intelligent he is, and more from excitement, and even a degree of wanting to point out details one might miss. Of course, he does all this with himself and in a format that is solely his, and whenever he is pleased with Cushing or Lee, or even the Countess, arguably it’s himself and his own tastes with which he is more pleased. He did make all of this after all — and what he didn’t make, he adapted with his own will: while forgetting, perhaps, the resources and labour of others that allows him to enjoy and immerse himself in that entertainment. I feel like there is something of a critique there: especially when you consider the coff — the pod, lined with cameras and mirror-lenses that feed back into the brain, a self-contained universe where you can exist in your own fantasy world. It kind of reminds me of the inverted light cameras that made up the suit in Leigh Whannell’s 2020 film adaptation of The Invisible Man. I feel like, perhaps, Gould and Nicotero are saying something about some elements of fandom in general and, while gaudy as all Creepshow stories, it is fairly subtle and effective. 

I guess you can also see it in the animated sequence at the end of the whole episode, where the Creep — a ghoul himself — uses his own VR set to kill other ghouls, licking his lips as they consume flesh as he might want to, and he ends up getting eaten by another ghoul outside the headset: and doesn’t seem too dismayed by this. We consume our favourite things, and sometimes our favourite things consume us in return. There is a cycle in that process. 

In fact, I think if “Night of the Living Late Show” would have an epitaph on its tombstone, for the hole and grave its protagonist dug, it’d be:

Rest in Pieces Creepshow Season Two

Episode 5

“Night of the Living Late Show”

“May you be devoured by the things that you have consumed.”