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.

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. 

No More Yielding

Even now, her father’s ghost haunts her. 

The footstep booms through the chamber, on the small space station Eureka. Or perhaps its the strike of a large clawed hand on the doors of the observatory. Alta holds the blaster pistol in her hands. Her husband’s. She’s surprised that her grip is so tight, that it isn’t shaking. 

Boom.

The doors dent, just a bit. Alta breathes out, closing her eyes for a few moments, trying to find that centre. Trying to rediscover that calm. That old happiness. The little wooded brook where she used to bathe. The personal zoo, the little menagerie, her father kept for the two of them. The ornate couch where she studied physics, mathematics, geometry, and the rest of her academic assignments. Her father reading her stories. Her father. Her father …

Dr. Edward Morbius, who rediscovered the Krell of Altair IV.

Boom.

The impression left in the doors is more pronounced. A little more red. 

Alta shakes her head slowly, from side to side. No. That won’t do. All of those memories: her tiger that turned on her, poor Lieutenant Ostrow, or “Doc” dead on the couch, and seeing her father — seeing Dr. Morbius for the first time in her whole life … No. She needs to not think about that. She needs to …

“Miss Alta.”

“Robby.” Her voice is quiet, as she recalls the large robot at her side. He’s so … she’s always thought he was cumbersome, awkward. Like a giant, wind-up children’s toy with helical rubber arms, and spinning, whirring gadgets. It was as though, when her father tinkered around with the knowledge of the Krell, he unconsciously thought of Tik-Tok from Ozma of Oz, a children’s book from the beginning of the twentieth century, almost three hundred years ago. He was supposed to have comforted Dorothy as she’d found Oz fallen to ruin and darkness around her. She is so glad that he’s here now, despite this. “We need more …”

Boom. 

 “Those doors are composed of Krell metal.” He reminds her, a chill streaking down her back as she remembers her father saying almost exact same words to John, in an eerily similar situation. “It will not hold.”

“I know.”

“Miss Alta.” The echoing tone, less monotonous despite being recorded on vocal tapes, somehow manages to resemble concern, even if she knows better. 

“It’s all right, Robby.” Alta says, putting her hand on the automaton’s shoulder, her father’s words about him just being an object be damned. “It will buy us some time.”

They’d bought themselves a lot of time, these past couple of years, Alta admits to herself now. After John found them, after they’d left on his ship C-57D to watch Altair IV erupt into a beautiful sphere of blue destruction, they reported to the United Planets: to the interplanetary governing body centered around Earth that Altair IV and its deceased colonists — including her father — were supposed to be a part. Robby, and as it turns out she herself, had much to offer and with John at her side they’d made a life for themselves. 

“Robby.” Alta says. “Is she safe?”

Robby’s censors whir and buzz, the clacking of his internal circuits filling the tenseness of the room as she braces for the percussion on the other side of the doors to continue. “Affirmative, miss.”

“Good.” A part of Alta relaxes, despite the fear, in spite of the grief she hasn’t processed yet. She looks down at her hands, with the pistol, smudged in …

It’d been so quick. The force fields hadn’t stopped it, just as they hadn’t succeeded in doing so six years before. Six years. But it let them see it. It’d been subtle, at first, as it had with the colonists as her father told her, as it did when it attempted to sabotage John’s ship. It resembled a giant behemoth with the face of a gremlin from hell. But before that, it was just a whisper. Just a few coils gone missing. Just an accident in the control room that took a few lives of the skeleton crew they had here. 

That’s not what this is. John told her, as she remembers his strong hands on her shoulders, his square fingers settling in her uniform firmly. She’d come a long way from the girl that wore thin clothing, to conservative dresses. She is a crew member now. She works at the station. It died. He says. It died with your father. 

It did. She remembers. She recalls similar doors bending and burning, liquifying as the presence, the psychic storm of energy of rage made incarnate came for her and the Commander that would take her away from her father. But she sees her father, Dr. Morbius again, in her mind’s eye. His dignified mien, his stern yet gentle face accentuated by his goatee, broken in anguish, distraught, his hair a tangled mess, despair and a fierce protectiveness warring in his eyes. 

And she sees John. She sees John jump in the way. He didn’t even hesitate. She saw his face, with that dark curl of hair, greying a bit, over his blue eyes: his expression every bit as passionate as her father’s, the grim set of his mouth, the love in his gaze towards her. 

When Dr. Morbius, when her father died, she didn’t even have the chance to mourn him. Not the person she realized he hadn’t been, not the being who had so callously dismissed the lives of “Doc” and Farman for his research and his space, not the force that always kept her from going out to Earth to be with other people, to the stars to explore and further expand her mind … and not the human being that sacrificed his life against his literal demons to save her own. She couldn’t even hold him. She’d been too busy clutching John, having John hold her as agony filled her entire being. 

And John … she had even less than that. She grabbed his back, burying her fingers into his uniform, as the … thing ripped and burned him into … 

Into nothing. 

Ashes stain Alta’s hands like the sins of her father revisiting her now. She ran. She and Robby had separated, and for a reason.

Perhaps Robby should have remained on the planet when it detonated. It would have been safer. 

They agreed to help the United Planets reverse-engineer what they could.

“And I have come to the unalterable conclusion that man is unfit, as yet to receive such knowledge, such almost limitless power.” 

She remembers her father’s words, however, even now. Alta agreed to help them on one condition: that she and Robby — and by extension her husband as the commanding officer — would have a scientific space station to slowly, and carefully, unravel some of the secrets of the Krell. That had been her official stance, backed up by John. And they got it. It helped that Robby’s ability to reproduce a sample of any material given him was a microcosm, a sliver of what the Krell had been originally capable. It said a lot about her father’s ego that he considered Robby to be an oddity, a hobby, or a toy that allowed them to make other automatons, smaller ones, drones that could assist in their research and limit the amount of other humans around them. 

And Alta had been to her father’s study. She’d learned some lessons from him. And she was no slouch. She knows she is an intelligent woman. 

“My poor Krell,” her father’s voice laments six years ago from an orbital thermonuclear grave. After a million years of shining sanity, they could hardly have understood what power was destroying them.”

Dr. Morbius, the first Dr. Morbius, hadn’t been so fortunate. Neither is the second. 

John hadn’t been either. 

Boom. Hiss. 

The doors are red hot now, with a white heart causing their metallic layers to gradually buckle. She can’t ignore it. It’s staring her right in the face. She can feel it.

At first, she’d been delighted to be on Earth, to be surrounded by so many people, with their customs, their practices, and every kind of endeavour open to her. Her husband had been at her side as well, married at the United Planets Headquarters, grounding her in a living, breathing existence in flux, not the placid, static, dead world left long destroyed behind her. But then, the whispers started. The missing items. The mechanized locks on their home always breaking down as though from the inside. Almost always, they would have to stay elsewhere, and the little incidents would stop. 

For a while. 

If they had been in more superstitious times, the couple might have thought themselves haunted, or cursed by the events on Altair IV. It’d been the impetus to encourage the leadership of the United Planets to let them actually begin their research in a contained setting like the station, though not fully disclosing the true reasons on official channels. Unofficially, they were to monitor the phenomenon. 

Hisssss …

Alta tries not to flinch as the rent in the doors grows. She knows she did good. Between her and Robby, they made miniature versions of the machines that replicated substances on the molecular level. Nothing too complex, nor dangerous. Eventually, they made mechanisms that could generate repair parts and, more importantly, food. No one need ever go hungry again. They were just in the process of finishing their touches on allowing their inventions to create complex medicines, some not even discovered by humanity yet, when … life became complicated again. 

For Alta. For John. For the both of them. 

She wonders, even now, as the creature on the other end of that door comes inexorably towards them how her father — with his intellect vastly increased by the Krell’s “plastic educator” — couldn’t figure out how to save her mother from death, from what he called “natural causes.” Perhaps there had been some complications beyond the skill of the Krell to repair, that even they in their highest state couldn’t save an organism from the cessation of life: from death itself. Certainly, they hadn’t escaped their end. But maybe it had been her father who had failed, who by his own admittance had been the equivalent of a developmentally challenged young Krell. But did he fail? Didn’t Dr. Morbius survive the plastic educator’s rigorous routine? Didn’t he expand his own field of knowledge beyond philology — the study of words and language and their intersection with literature and philosophy — into the hard sciences to make a construct like Robby with the technology he had at his disposal? Didn’t he create her animal friends, including the tiger that she loved, that nearly killed her if not for John? 

Didn’t he always generate a small simulacrum of herself with his mind? Wasn’t she always in his thoughts?

The door and the wall around it rumbles, seemingly shaking the entire station from where Alta stands. She feels the anger fill her veins, sadness turning into rage and fear, her heart beating hard. What if it had all been a lie? What if she had been just another creation of his? Another generation? Another construct? Maybe she never had a mother at all, and somehow she exists beyond even the good Dr. Morbius’ demise. Is she the child of Altair IV in makeup as well as soul? The Eidothea to its Proteus? The Athene to his Zeus? Or perhaps, her mother had existed, and her father and his experiments — his attempts to raise his IQ — had other effects, had become genetic, had … 

He never let her use the machine. It’d been too risky. One look at what happened to “Doc” had been enough to show her that much. And the demon that came after them … She dreamed of it. She dreamed of it killing Farman. Yes, he’d taken liberties with her. She knows that now. John tried not to speak ill of the dead, especially a comrade and a friend, and she knows he wouldn’t have gone too far, if she had said no, but she didn’t know what it was like to be with others, or why her body didn’t react the way she’d read about to those kisses. She’d had so damned few experiences, trapped on that world with her overprotective, brooding, lying overseer of a father …

Hisssss … 

The tear is small, but visible now. 

But Alta doesn’t care. She bares her teeth. She’d enjoyed that freedom. Those embraces. But what she felt with John had been a hundred times that, even though she’d been angry at him, desired him … But he had been all she knew, almost as much as her father. Both meant well … But she wanted to travel. To experience life beyond her books, and data. To live. 

And she saw it. She saw how it pained John to always be around her, all the time. And even more so on the station, virtually isolated. And they still needed that skeleton crew of human beings. Not now. Not anymore. And she saw … she remembers how he looked at those young ladies, recalling what Jerry, poor Jerry said about John’s roving eye and how girls and women shouldn’t be alone with him, even though a part of her even then knew he was just projecting what he was, that John was a fine, upstanding man, firm and loving, but she was keeping him from life … she took his life away from him. 

She’s killed him.

“Miss Alta.”

Alta finds herself blinking back tears, and failing. The hole is larger. Soon, the doors will melt and collapse altogether. She’s seen it before. She’s experienced it. But not from this angle. The terrible truth. She doesn’t need a “plastic educator” to see the greater picture. She understands that the psychic manifestation, the psychokinetic maelstrom, the nightmare made material without the machine or the lost planet of her birth, doesn’t belong to her father or the absent Krell. Not directly. It’s different. She can almost visualize it now. More sinuous than bulky. The foot isn’t a claw or tail, but a head. She hasn’t seen the face, though. She can’t bear to, even now. She wonders, when the Krell’s nightmares destroyed them and their civilization, if their psychic constructs obliterated all physical traces of their species, of their physical likenesses because for all their near-enlightenment, those subconscious impulses, those little resentments and hatreds, they just couldn’t bear to see themselves — their very uglinesses — in the mirror anymore. 

This is why she wanted the skeleton crew phased out, to maintain just the machines like Robby to watch her … just her. And John, John would never leave her. He was always there and she … she … 

And the two of them. 

And the three of them. 

That’s when she remembers. That’s when Altaira Morbius — Alta Adams — recalls what is truly important. 

The door is almost down now. She knows what’s coming. She turns to Robby. Her father was a philologist before being a scientist. He read her just as much poetry as he helped her study organic chemistry. And he loved his stories too. She wonders, looking at Robby, about the early twentieth century again, how Robby wasn’t so much influenced by the word robota, a Czech word for enforced labour, or rab — slave — though that is where the word robot is supposed to have been first derived. That word had been attributed to Karel Čapek, its creator, to his brother Josef, just as the Three Laws of Robotics hadn’t been solely created by Asimov but John W. Campbell. But Asimov had made a “Robbie,” a robot accepted by his assigned family after saving the life of their child. 

Regret with nostalgia mingles in Alta’s heart. “Robby. Remember your orders.” She releases a shaky breath, drawing on her resolve. “Maintain reports to the United Planets. Don’t inform them of what occurred on this station. Continue work on the plastic educator. She will need it. Guide her. Slowly, as I outlined for you. She will … she will need it.”

“Yes, Miss Alta.”

“Thank you, Robby.” She smiles. She turns, and puts the blaster pistol in one hand, wiping at her eyes with the other. “Thank you for everything.” She braces herself. “And now, your final order, Robby.”

The robot doesn’t say anything. 

“Robby.” She says. “Protect her. Protect my daughter. Protect Miranda.

“Archimedes.”

She remembers what John did with the door combination back in the Krell Lab. The two of them had Robby hide their girl. This … thing won’t find her. It might destroy the machines and drones around it, but Alta doesn’t plan for it to go that far. No. This manifestation, this monstrosity. It ends. It ends here.

She looks at Robbie. She recalls looking up at the big machine. It occurs to her that the robot has seen her ever since she was a baby, making food for her, creating emeralds and diamonds for her dresses, at her whim, patiently blasting non-lethal beams to ward away her pets from the fruits on the kitchen table, creating medicine when she was sick, faithfully there for her father … for her. The dials on either side of his cranium almost look like eyes. She wonders if the automaton feels anything. If he is even capable with what her father programmed into him for a lark. 

The sparks in his glass cranium crackle for a time, even with the override. Even as she reaches out her hand. And gives him the pistol. 

“Robby.” She says again, as the creature on the other end of the door screeches and roars out its hatred of a life wasted, of being deprived of its illusions, its comforts, of destroying what it coveted so much. “When it comes through. Only then. I want to look at it. If I can. I want to look it right in the face. And then … kill it. Do you understand?”

“Affirmative.”

Alta gulps, a sense of relief almost overwhelming her. “T-thank you, Robby. You … thank you.”

There is a pause. “Farewell, Alta.”

The door collapses completely as heavy breathing, always in the background, now fills the room. Dr. Alta Adams, nee Altaira Morbius, stands her ground in the observation deck of the Eureka, surrounded by stars. She remembers her father telling her, when he showed her the Krell Lab not to look into the eyes of the Gorgon. But right now, she recalls another myth: of Odysseus tied to his ship as he forced himself to hear the deadly songs of the Sirens as his crew rowed onward. These are her thoughts, thinking about sitting at her father’s knee, at her husband’s side, her daughter on her lap as she faces her darkness in the eye, and doesn’t even hear the quiet hiss of a blaster pistol’s measured violet disintegration discharges. 

Friend? Lucky McKee’s May

It’s funny to re-watch May in April.

The last time I saw Lucky McKee’s 2002 psychological horror film, I was beginning to live with my partner Kaarina Wilson in our apartment under the stairs. It must have been 2010, a whole other lifetime ago. At the time, I was still into what I considered to be serious movies, until Kaarina decided to inundate me with various independent horror films. It’s something I should have seen coming from the beginning given her own yearly participation in the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, and its variety of cinematic fare.

So we sat downstairs, with her various model heads — that she called, appropriately enough, The Heads — and her Alice in Wonderland drawings on where the stairs used to be as she popped in a new film into her system, and I got to meet May for the first time.

It’s hard to remember what it was like seeing May, then. Angela Bettis plays this small, slight, almost elfin young woman who barely “passes” in society as whatever a normal adult is supposed to be. She is supposed to be that diminutive, that hard to notice, that easy to pass over, or dismiss with something of — if you will pardon the wordplay — a lazy eye. When her strange quirks, her halting speech, her quietness, her shy smiles, her love of blood isn’t seen as a weird novelty, she’s treated like some kind of doll that can be played with, and put away whenever someone else is done with her. Or not seen at all.

May wants to be seen. She wants someone to notice her, to treasure her, to know how weird she is, and to not only tolerate that weirdness, but share and even revel in it. But she’s trapped. She’s trapped in a perfect glass case like her mother’s doll Suzie, and she can’t get out. It is perfect. Transparent. Polite. Awkward. Her whole life, because of her lazy eye and onward, she’s considered herself imperfect. Fragile. Delicate. Frail. People laugh at her when they don’t ignore her altogether. May has never fit in, not once, and while most of the film is beautiful, almost sunny and bright, she is always on the outside looking in with people that either want to use her as a young pretty woman, or socially distance from her weirdness that she can’t handle.

I recall the first time watching her slowly begin to understand what she has to do. It was like seeing her find different pieces of cloth and fabric to stitch together, or doll parts to fit together as the cracks in the glass of her façade — of barely passing as neurotypical and “perfect” — begins to spiderweb outward. She can even hear the grinding of those imperfections grow, the language of the doll, the fragile little angel that she can only look at and envision, but never touch, screeching softly, insidiously, into her mind.

And throughout everything she does, that she inevitably realizes she is going to do, there is an odd sweetness about her, almost an innocence that really gets your heart. At least, before May does.

After over a decade, I still appreciate how May takes to her heart what her mother tells her at the beginning of the film: that if you can’t find new friends, you need to make them. Now, as the Horror Doctor here — an imperfect student of horror and creation of grafting nightmares (I wanted to be a Mad Scientist when I grew up and here I am) — I can truly empathize with wanting to understand and construct glorious creations to express one’s art, and will. But May does it out of loneliness, out of a sense of isolation, of wanting to be seen by the cardboard cut-out flat two-dimensional, shallow and insincere people around her, and realizing that only parts of them had intrinsic value.

It is a slow burn, an elaborate dollhouse setup of a film, of someone barely understanding social conventions finally breaking down after constant humiliations, and when she does … I think the most frightening thing about May is when she gets serious towards the end, she acts neurotypical. She takes on the appearance of Suzie, of the doll, of the little girl told she needs to be protected her whole life, isolated from understanding socialization and sexuality, thrown into it like a toy without any care for her very human emotions — and takes direct, cold, command of situations, and gets the things that she needs. There is something heartbreaking, but also impressive in watching her shed that gentle, awkward exterior for that hard beauty that takes what she wants, whose sadness for a moment turns into anger and hate, but back into that need for companionship and touch: for understanding.

To be seen.

Sometimes I wonder, even now, just what would have happened if someone truly attempted to talk with May beyond a surface interaction, to engage on her level. To actually be her friend.

Just seeing her frustration and sadness, but that determination as well despite everything she does — or because of it — makes me ache for her. Because I think when it’s the right audience, we see her. I see her. I appreciate the alchemy, the strange combination of her sewing, dollmaking, and veterinarian assistantship skills, and the placement of the broken clay ashtray with her name rearranged into the name of “Amy” like the inscription of “life” for her version of a patchwork doll-like golem made of human and animal parts, as she sacrifices her eye — the source of her stigma, physical and social — not for wisdom like Odin, but to infuse the parts of her creation: with the hands of a man named Adam, the body of a punk with a Frankenstein’s Creature tattoo on his skin, and female neck and legs into something of an androgynous being.

But now, years later, I see May’s transformation. The way that Adam, played by Jeremy Sisto, plays with and pretends at understanding her weirdness just to reject her, and Polly (Anna Faris) sees her as an interchangeable toy for sexual play, both rendering their friendship with her invalid — adult relations that she understands only initially in an abstract, almost childlike fashion — leads her to the case holding her doll literally shattering, and releasing the rage and primordial need for creation within. And yet, even her killings aren’t sadistic. They are mostly accidental at first, from the cat onward, and even when they become purposeful there is a gentleness in the way she slits Polly’s throat, and a surgical precision, the directness in which she maneuvers Polly’s casual lover Ambrosia to her doom, and the overall one hit K.O. in how she kills the rest of them.

There is something vulnerable, and powerful in May with which I can relate and, throughout the twistedness of the entire film, in how just keeps … trying so hard, and there is something truly moving about how she finally gets her wish at the end.

I’ve never forgotten May. She is far more sympathetic than the protagonists from Tragedy Girls. I almost feel this need to protect this young pretty serial-killer Frankenstein. Perhaps it’s the mad scientist who’s also had trouble relating to flawed, superficial human beings around him. Maybe it’s because she is reminiscent of my lost Kaarina in her own struggles, in dealing with so many conflicting parts of her life, in just wanting “best friends.” In wanting to be seen. It’s no coincidence she showed me that film, so many years ago. It’s one of the few things of hers that I have left. Perhaps it is both of those things that I see, now.

I will say this. This film wandered toward me, like the Creature did in the woods towards the old man in the cinematic Frankenstein. And when it did, when she came then, as she did now, as blind as I am in other ways, when she asked the question, I gave the same answer then that I do now.

Friend. Best friends. I will see her forever.