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. 

And This Hole Leads to Another Hell: Takashi Miike’s Masters of Horror Imprint

This Dissection and Speculative specimen contains extreme subject matter, and Trigger Potential. As with its predecessor, Reader’s Discretion is advised. 

I know how I opened up with my first article on Takashi Miike’s Imprint. I said a lot of things, and I explained why I reacted and said the things that I did. However, it wasn’t entirely accurate. You see, while I did write those words first on Twitter, what actually got me to truly look at Imprint, beyond my visceral reaction, was the following I wrote afterwards on Facebook: which goes into more detail:

I just watched Masters of Horror‘s Imprint.

I don’t say this lightly, you understand, but Takashi Miike, you suck. You suck so much. You use folklore brilliantly, you are excellent at illustrating human cruelty, and genuinely making a viewer feel really bad. Seriously, the amount of horror, pathos, and what-the-fuck I felt in this one episode that — surprises of all surprises — wasn’t released on North American television has been the most I’ve felt in a while.

I mean, damn. Granted, it wasn’t as disgusting as that one scene in Audition. *That* fucking scene.

But still, Takashi Miike … you suck. You suck hard. And not a horror director, my ass.

There isn’t much of a difference. Takashi Miike has claimed he isn’t a horror director, but I disagree: even though I know now that he’s created a wide variety of films across different genres. But I will say this. On Facebook, I was called out on my reaction, and some people didn’t understand that I was reacting strongly to one particular scene, and aspects after that. And then, I looked over what I wrote and realized that while most of it is venting, there are two aspects of this film that my mind began to digest in addition to, and beyond, the torture scene: mythology, and narrative.

It really all comes back to the character of the Woman as played by Youki Kudoh. She tells Christopher, and by extension the audience — us — three stories. One is about her poor, but idyllic childhood before she is sold to the brothels so she can make a living. Then there is Komomo’s suicide. Then we find out that the Woman stole the jade ring, and framed Komomo for it. In the screenplay, she goes as far as to help the other girls torture Komomo, but in the film she mostly watches in absolute horror as they do so. Then after that we find out that she strangles Komomo with the rope from which she hung. And then we see that her tale of her family and her relationship with a kindly Buddhist Priest was all a lie: that her father was an abusive drunk, and her mother an abortionist for a struggling peasant village. We even see her dispose of the fetuses, her Mother and herself: the late-term aborted lives looking nothing less than gangly human jellyfish. 

And the Woman is raped. She is molested her entire life. First, by the Buddhist Priest who shows her depictions of Heaven and Hell, and tells her she will obey him or she will go to Hell. Then, by her father after he beats her mother within an inch of her life. And then, as we saw before, by customers. She tells Christopher that “I had nothing. Only this hole bound for hell. Trading it to make my living was only natural.” 

All of this would be horrifying in, and of itself, right? From a very young age, the Woman is taught that her hole — her vagina — is a conduit to Hell, that just by living, by making a living with it, by giving birth, she is a sinner, and she will go to Hell. It doesn’t matter if she’s obedient, or not. She even tells Christopher: “Men don’t like our holes, they yearn for the hell behind them. The hell they were in before being born.” It is a cycle of samsara, or maya: of the mind being clouded by the senses, and pain. In a way, she is basically saying that everyone — this whole world — already is Hell: on that perpetuates itself.

But there is another layer. There is another level, or realm, of Hell. A lot of Far Eastern philosophy and theology posits that there are several hells. So, at the start of Imprint we see that the Woman has a pinwheel in her room. This pinwheel begins to spin without so much as a breeze. And then, when we see that the Woman’s Mother isn’t a midwife, but is an abortionist, we see a multitude of pinwheels blowing on the riverside: the same river where she and her daughter dump the aborted fetuses of the women that come to them … who are too poor to have other mouths to feed, but whose husbands or men continue to impregnate them nonetheless. The pinwheels are placed there by the Mother to commemorate the lives of those dead children, before they are even children. It is a Japanese custom to plant these pinwheels at the site of miscarried and stillborn children, for the deity Jizō to protect and guide their souls to the afterlife. 

Yet for a pinwheel to turn on its own in a brothel is probably an inauspicious sign, especially as we know the souls of the dead are all around Christopher and the Woman. There is another Japanese custom, or rather a myth. It’s said that if a wife of a miserly man rarely eats, a second mouth will form on the back of her head, eating twice what she would, and screeching obscenities if it doesn’t get what it wants. This mouth can also form if a miserly man accidentally hits his wife in the back of the head with a wood axe. But, more tellingly, a woman can develop this second mouth, complete with moving snake-like hair if they let a stepchild — perhaps a child — starve to death. This is the myth of the Futakuchi-onna.

The Woman herself resembles Kuchisake-onna, or the folkloric Slit Mouth Woman, but she is really a Futakuchi-onna. The reason for this, as we see a hand-like creature with teeth form from the side of her skull — her parasitic twin “Sis,” like a female version of Basket Case’s Belial still attached to their sibling — is that, in her final story, we find out that her Mother and Father were actually Brother and Sister. They were forced out of their town  as a result of their incestuous affair, and forced to wander and eventually settle in this peasant village. The Woman is cursed as a result of this incest taboo. But there are other folkloric elements. Her Father is a miserly individual that takes most of her Mother’s money from abortions to feed his alcoholism. In addition, the Mother has aborted many children, possibly many of her own before the Woman, and perhaps those spirits have cursed the Woman by extension. In the script, the Woman says the reason her Mother saved her after leaving her to drown was that she survived in the river for two days: the Mother realizing what she was earlier, and not wanting to be cursed by letting her die, or perhaps starve to death. An interesting fact is another way a Futakuchi-onna is created is when a mother starves her stepchild in favour of her biological child, and her daughter can also become possessed as a result. It isn’t precise, but most myths aren’t.. Most folklore is dirty, and bloody stuff.

The Woman is no exception to this, and neither is what the Futakuchi-onna presents. William Leung says it best in his article in his work Misogyny as radical commentary — Rashomon retold in Takashi Miike’s Masters of Horror: Imprint. That second mouth is all about repression, about the resentment and bitterness inside a woman buried deep down, and manifesting as this other being. In the Woman’s case it is her sister that she all but absorbed in the womb, but it serves that purpose. After all, the Woman is raped by her Father, her Mother’s Brother, and her Sister gets her to kill him: smashing his head open, making a wound in the back of his skull, with a rock. We see a scene in the draft of her Mother looking expressionlessly on as the trader takes her away after this, but it’s not included in the film. But “Sis,” which is a great nickname as it sounds almost like “cyst,” even if it’s not intentional, also makes the Woman take the jade ring, and frame Komomo for the theft: as she likes “shiny things.” It makes sense. In the screenplay, the Woman’s Mother even mentions that they had once come from a family of affluence, with rice and Western candy abound. This didn’t make it into the film, but it makes sense that if “Sis” is that feminine rage of being violated, that she is also that greed for the food she barely got growing up, and jealousy for a life of riches she will never have. 

But I also remember fox possessions from The Tale of Genji, how the spirit of a fox or some similar entity will use a woman — as women are considered to be natural mediums of the supernatural in Japanese lore — to cause mischief, and express resentment, but also communicate truths, and hidden knowledge. “Sis” knows things. She can not only mimic Komomo’s voice, but she even seems to know things about Christopher himself. 

The two sisters, this Futakuchi-onna, reveal two truths to Christopher for the price of one. The Woman explains why she killed Komomo. And this is where her Hell ideology comes into play. When you consider that her Father is her Mother’s Brother, and he abused her Mother, possibly raped her, and molested her as well, then considering how the Buddhist Priest educated her about Hell after violating her, you see the cycle of karmic suffering closing in a much tighter circle. Everything is interconnected for the Woman in an unbearable way. Combine that with the fact that she’s seen what happens when men have sex with women, and create disposable fetuses, and her own experiences in the brothel you can see how she equates sex and family with Hell: easily.

There is a concept I was introduced to back in my Japanese Literature and Film class. It is called Amae. It is a term utilized by the Japanese psychoanalyst Takeo Doi in his book The Anatomy of Dependence: which deals with the idea of a uniquely Japanese need or drive to be in good favour, and dependent, on everyone around you. More specifically, Amae is supposed to be rooted in the parent-child relationship, and having someone take care of you. 

Komomo is depicted in Imprint as a naive girl wanting someone to save her. In a way, her description of her family — who she claimed didn’t abandon her to the brothels — is similar to how Mother tells the Woman about their family in the early draft of the script. Komomo firmly believed that in another time, she would have been a Princess, never mind the fact that the other prostitutes claim her family committed suicide out of shame, and she was sold by her foster family to cover their debts. Moreover, Komomo believed Christopher would come back for her, and take her to a whole new life. Now, you can easily interpret this as your typical “Princess waiting for her Yankee Knight to rescue her” trope, but I can argue that Komomo feels Amae to the family she’s lost, still dependent on them for her personality, then the brothel — especially when she gives the Woman her portion of rice when the Madam starves her for not working — and then towards Christopher who she believes will take care of her: like a father-figure. 

Amae is supposed to be an ideal of social interactions, and the love of a child-parent relationship. The Woman, understandably, doesn’t feel this: or at least not in the same way. She never had anyone to take care of her. Her Mother made her work for her keep, albeit teaching her how to assist in taking lives. Her Father neglected, and violated her. And the authority figure that is the Priest used her for his own gratification. The Woman is used to this cycle, as horrible as it is.

But then, she meets Komomo once she comes to her brothel. She reaches out, and offers her rice when the other girls don’t even bother. According to the Woman, she even defends Komomo’s dreams and hopes from those girls by threatening them: to make them look like her. However, you need to remember that any form of attachment to the Woman is Hell. From the vagina, or hole you enter into the world through, to the penises that use you, and the guidance that becomes exploitive and coercive. But this kindness, this arguable … Amae, it’s too much. It’s not the same as the twisting cleaving that the Woman’s whole life has been based on. Even “Sis” is only “helping” her because they are forced to share the same body. 

So the Woman, after “Sis” has her way with the ring and the punishment, sees Komomo. She sees her completely destroyed, but still holding onto that hope. She explains to Christopher that if the Devil saw them together, he might just think Komomo is just as bad as she is as she is her friend. And so, the Woman claims she tried to hate her, and killed her herself so that God or Buddha would take her away. More than anything, I believe that after Komomo’s torments the Woman was simply offering her a mercy killing: because if she hadn’t, Komomo would have continued in that brothel, as the nature of her punishments were made to spare her face, and sexual organs — the Madam’s property — as the patriarchy in the form of the syphillic solicitor and his bobbing cockhat laughed at her misfortune. The way the Woman could have seen it, Komomo continuing on would have seen her dream of seeing Christopher again die, and she would have been tortured to death, or killed herself: both fates condemning her to Hell.

In an act of love outside of Amae, the Woman releases Komomo from her suffering — away from this vindictive patriarchal system that punishes you for behaving or misbehaving. According to the Woman, it’s the only conscious and sober choice she’s ever made in her life. Or perhaps, in that sense, the Woman takes on a maternal role: becoming the parent that takes care of the child, of the innocence still in Komomo, by helping to end her pain. It may also be a major sense of thematic empathy. It is no coincidence that Komomo’s body is seen in the same elegantly crumpled position after her torture by the other prostitutes as the Woman’s had been when she was a girl after her father raped her. Of course, it’s also possible that the Woman killed Komomo because she resents the dependence and approval that Amae entails, and that between her and “Sis” they destroyed that possibility. Then again, the Woman is still dependent on the brothel to live, and her “Sis” who dictates her life, and is the most assertive element of the two of them.

And then, speaking of “Sis,” there is her truth to Christopher, and how it brings this whole twisted film full circle. Christopher tells the Woman that the reason he loved Komomo was that she reminded him of his dead younger sister. That is a pretty disturbing revelation on its own, until you also take “Sis’” words into account, and how they affect Christopher: triggering his last flashback in which he remembers his sister begging for her life, after doing “what he asked” before he kills her.

Think back to the whole thematic structure of this film. The Woman and “Sis” have to share an entire body between them, and how “Sis always gets what she wants.” Her Mother and Father were Brother and Sister, and her Father beat her Mother, and then terrorized the both of them. Christopher killed his sister, presumably after raping her, and then wanted Komomo to himself because she was basically a sister-surrogate for him. Also, consider what Komomo might have gone through had Christopher found her alive: what the status of a Far East Asian woman, who had been a prostitute, would be in a Caucasian-dominated nation like America. In fact, you can go further with this inquiry when you consider the idea that programmer and writers Chris D. and Wyatt Doyle present in their commentary track on the Imprint’ DVD: that Christopher first found Komomo as a child. It doesn’t look good either way. Komomo wanted a parental figure to protect her. Christopher would have essentially replaced the brothel in having the power of life and death over a woman who reminded him of the sister he murdered. 

Christopher can’t face these truths: that he is part of a system that exploits the women and girls he claims to love, that he destroyed both of them. He tries to kill the Woman, and it is telling that when he shoots her in the head, she appears to him as Komomo: with her brains oozing out of the back of her skull, from a wound not unlike that of the dead pregnant woman’s head at the beginning of the film; not unlike that which apparently creates Futakuchi-onna.

It all comes back to holes leading to Hell, doesn’t it? At the end of Imprint, Christopher is back on the Japanese mainland: in a deep pit of a nineteenth century Meiji prison. The male guards are dressed like proper Imperial soldiers. They mock him for killing an innocent girl — in the screenplay it was for killing “a whore,” perhaps the property or merchandise of society as William Leung puts it — and he will spend the rest of his life there: after they “have some fun with him.” He’s left with his water ration, to rot in his own sense of personal horror. In the script, he smashes his head against the wall and sees Komomo reaching out to him and then morphing into his dead little sister as he screams. In the film, he holds his water ration containing the vision of a dead fetus. Perhaps he sees it as his murdered innocence, or a representation of a potential and love killed by him, and a patriarchal world. He holds the bucket, and cradles it, singing a broken lullaby as the spirits of Komomo and his sister stand there: each holding a pinwheel. 

The ending to Imprint in the screenplay implies that the Woman has survived, that as she put it to Christopher, he couldn’t kill her. In the film, after the credits, we see her. Her “Sis” doesn’t manifest, as she does in the screenplay. Instead, she is cooking a fish, and enjoying it. Then, she looks up, and it feels like she is looking right at us: at the audience. She smiles.

I thought about that. I wondered if Christopher really had killed Komomo, or planned to do so. Did the Woman change into her? It was probably a thematic device, but as I think about this entire debacle, this tightly knit hole into hell, I recall Yugiri’s failed affair and the pain he causes in The Tale of Genji towards the women in his life. I think about Komomo suspended with her own urine pouring over her broken body after the women in life almost sensuously torture the hell out of her. I remember how Murasaki Shikibu was an attendant of the Imperial Court, but a minority as a woman with power. And I consider the message that Shimako Iwai’s presence as the sadist in Imprint makes: of the person who created the story that made the basis of the film almost knowingly looking at Komomo, and us: the audience.

And I think about how involved I got, and how there is a complicity in watching a narrative unfold. There is a complicity in being, or letting yourself, become part of a system of sighs and sin and slaughter and slavery: fact or fictional. You get caught up in the cycle of it. You feel like it’s more than second-hand embarrassment or chagrin, or even empathy. You feel like you are a part of it, by virtue of seeing it happen. And the liminal figure of the Woman knows this, her smile bidding you to see if you can handle her Matrixial “truth” better than Christopher: if you can deal with the hell you make, and carry inside of you. Either way, Takashi Miike’s film leaves its mark on me. 

This Hole Leads to Hell: Takashi Miike’s Masters of Horror Imprint

This Dissection and Speculative specimen contains extreme graphic subject matter, and Trigger Potential. Reader’s Discretion is advised. 

After I saw Takashi Miike’s Masters of Horror film Imprint, I wrote the following on Twitter:

I don’t say this lightly but … Takashi Miike, you suck. You suck so hard.

You know, #Audition was terrifying enough, even disgusting. You know the part. But #Imprint … I haven’t been so filled with horror, pathos, and what-the-fuck in a while. Damn, it was brilliant.

I mean, Takashi Miike, you had to know there was no way #Imprint could be shown in North America. You just had to … I mean … Dude. Come on, man.

You suck. Your work is brilliant, but you are such a troll. Not a horror director, my ass.

So why did I respond like this? 

Right. So, years ago I took a Japanese Culture and Film course. And one of the requirements of this course that I took was that our entire class had to read Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji monogatari: also known as The Tale of Genji. It is here I learned a lot about Japan’s Heian Period, the concept of fox possessions, Buddhism and its place in that whole monarchy, a constantly rotating court of royalty and nobility, silken finery and subtle cruelties, many cherry blossom viewings, women generally getting screwed over, and a whole ton of romantic and erotic affairs. I understand, of course, that this isn’t precisely history: even though Murasaki herself, its creator, was a Lady-in-Waiting and poet in the Imperial court: credited with creating the first Japanese novel in Japanese: once considered to be a woman’s written language, or that of poetry compared to the masculine and more overused royal Chinese characters: or so I recall from the time. 

What I do remember, more than any of this, is this one scene in The Tale. The protagonist, Genji, the “beautiful shining prince” who is also one of the Emperor’s illegitimate, yet high-ranking offspring, has many affairs. I didn’t understand him. I tried to relate to this man in this court in this society and time. But he had a son, named Yugiri who is more sombre and less outgoing than his father, though far more along in his studies at the court and through the classes than he is. Unfortunately, there is one chapter where Yugiri endangers not only his standing, but his relationship with his wife, all to harass another woman who wants nothing to do with him. 

The fact is, I couldn’t stand it. It drove me absolutely up the wall that this character would do that. In fact, I got so angry I threw the book across my room. Later, I told my Professor about this, and he thought it was the most hilarious thing in the world. No, more than that. He was pleased. He was pleased because I would never have even done that if I’d been bored, or I didn’t have any feeling invested whatsoever. 

The truth of the matter was that I got invested in that ephemeral, but flawed and worldly place, and sometimes it made me uncomfortable. But it also made me think.

And it made me care. 

I don’t have a material copy of Imprint to throw across the room, and even if I did, I wouldn’t do it. Imprint doesn’t take place in the medieval Heian Period, but in the Meiji Era: the nineteenth century where the Japanese Emperor was officially restored to the head of state after the dismantling of the Shogunate, and the nation’s adoption of many Euro-American sciences, technologies, and philosophies. 

Yet the American journalist Christopher, played by Billy Drago travels seemingly away from these developments to a far island “of whores and demons” to find a woman he loves: a prostitute named Komomo that he left some time ago. Now, thanks to Joe Bob Briggs and The Last Drive-In, I’ve watched Takashi Miike’s Audition, and I saw that liminal place between different perceptions and perspectives of reality and time. I already knew that there would be one scene — at least one scene — that would really fuck with me. In other words, I knew even based on this small amount of information about Imprint, no good was going to come of this.

But holy damn.  

There is something mythic, with an element of the kaidan — or ghost story that Takashi Miike has mentioned — to the setting right off the bat. Christopher is on a boat with a group of labourers when the boatman finds the bloated corpse of a pregnant woman floating in the water. This is a prelude as to what’s going to come. Fascinatingly enough, according to the screenplay written by Daisuke Tengan, who is also the screenwriter for Audition — the woman’s hand was apparently supposed to move towards the boat, or at least from Christopher’s perspective. This would have foreshadowed even more of what happens in the film with Christopher, and who he encounters. 

The island is a place out of time, with some Victorian dress for the prostitutes there — women with red dresses and wigs, blackened teeth, milk pale skin — clamouring to offer their services behind the bars of their brothel: literally a tarnished, gilded cage. Christopher is still looking for Komomo, and is directed into one establishment for the night by a syphilitic solicitor with a rooster hat on his head, and a missing nose. It all starts to fit together into an image that, when you look back on it, makes a whole lot more sense. But by then, it’s too late, and you’ve seen the horror in it. You’ve been taken into it.

Takashi Miike makes you invested in a young, disfigured prostitute who is never given a name: sitting off to herself, and not bothering to even solicit her services. Half of her face is stretched tightly, a birth defect. But it doesn’t take away from her presence, or the layers of personality she exudes. Youki Kudoh plays her role well, seemingly demure but worldly, tired, and beautiful. You can already see there is a lot more to her, and whatever Christopher finds is going to be through her. 

No one on the island seems to know Komomo, though Christopher has followed her trail to this place, but this disfigured girl — who seems to see or sense the dead — does know her. The girl plays this for laughs at Christopher’s expense, though in the screenplay I read she is dead serious about seeing the spectres around her: that both he and she can see. It makes me frustrated in another way, as Imprint is a film adapted from a short novel or novella written by the writer Shimako Iwai titled Bokke e, kyōtē, which is a regional Okayama expression or series of words meaning “really scary.”

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be an English translation of the novella, but from what I’m given to understand the story is written in a way where the prostitute — who also doesn’t seem to have a name — is telling a patron a story, or a series of stories, but the reader never gets to see the patron, or read what they have to say. The whole interaction is, according to William Leung in his indepth Misogyny as radical commentary — Rashomon retold in Takashi Miike’s Masters of Horror: Imprint, in “a monologue format.” Interestingly enough, that would mean Bokke e, kyōtē is written solely from a female perspective, a narrator who is the only force that makes sure her male patron even exists in the story as the reader only knows about him through her one-sided conversation, and Shimako Iwai is the writer that makes this possible.

It is equally unfortunate that this Okayama dialect couldn’t be utilized in the film: making Imprint a foreign language film with English subtitles would have done dividends for it, and added that authenticity to the setting. But Showtime is an American network, and apparently Takashi Miike did the best he could by having the actors speak a form of accented English to approximate the dialect. Also, it might have been problematic to determine what language Christopher, or Billy Drago, would have spoken if everyone was speaking a form of Japanese. Someone might have had to speak English, anyway. Even so, It’s interesting to look at how this discussion of the novella, whatever its original language, translates through the screenplay, and into the narrative of the film. Writers and critics like Leung examine the presence of Christopher as an embodiment of an Occidental masculine gaze, or a narrow need to seek out “truth”: to know, and comfort one’s self in that knowledge regardless of anyone else’s status around you. I’ve read reviews where Billy Drogo’s acting is criticized for being flat, and unconvincing but while this might not have been purposeful, I think that his performance in addition to his appearance as a dissolute Westerner adds to his character: showing the audience, making it clear to us, that he has something to hide: that the man doth protest too much when he says his only goal is to find the woman he loves.

I think it’s also telling that Christopher and Komomo, as played by Michie Itô, are the only named characters in this film, while everyone else — most of them women — don’t have any names at all. I would argue, and perhaps others have already done so given that this film was released in 2006 and many have already made their … mark on it, that Komomo is only mentioned by name in that she is the only thing that’s important to Christopher. Everyone else, as described by the prostitute — the woman he’s staying with for that night — are the Madam, the woman’s Mother, Father, the Buddhist Priest that taught her about Heaven and Hell, and — eventually — Sis. The other prostitutes don’t even have names, and the brothel solicitor is just a diseased cock.

The fact is, this island — by thematic design — and from the way the woman describes it as a place of “whores and demons,” exists away from a defined, empirical reality. This is not a place where people have names, or lives, or futures. This is where people come to fuck, and die. At the same time, as a critic or scholar like Leung would mention, this place is very much a part of the mainstream culture and society that rules it. Women and girls are given away from places of famine and cultural shame to brothels to work with what the prevailing society thinks is their only defining trait: their bodies. 

It’s interesting. In Western philosophy and aspects of Gnosticism you have the figure of Sophia — of Wisdom in the form of a woman — that a philosopher, generally a man, always pursues. But Leung in his work defines Youki Kudoh’s prostitute character as “the truth.” And as “truth?” She is somewhat deformed, but also sultry, coquettish, sly, but also silent at first until she unfurls herself, and reveals what she truly is. The writer Iwai created her novella, the inspiration for Imprint, with the idea of her character having a secret, and moving on from there. 

So let me get back to making this more personal, even though it is fairly clear at this point in the game that Imprint isn’t particularly Christopher’s story, or from his perspective, but it has always been dependent from the storytelling narration — and subsequent layers of lying and unraveling description — of Youki Kudoh’s character: of the woman. 

As I said before, the Woman is identified as “truth” by Leung, and even Christopher — presumably due to his journalistic instincts — singles her out to spend the night with him, and possibly get him the answers that he thinks he wants.

And, eventually, she tells him what happened to Komomo. It is a painstaking process, in which first he finds out she was here, then she died, and is then told she committed suicide through hanging. And this is the part where … my visceral reaction comes into play.

We find out why Komomo died. Komomo, who was a favourite girl at the brothel, was accused of stealing the Madam’s jade ring. She is taken to the linen closet by the Madam and her fellow girls where they torture her. Brutally. Takashi Miike doesn’t fade out from the scene, or hint on things. It makes sense. In the interview “I am the Film Director of Love and Freedom: Takashi Miike,” he admits that he took one non-descriptive line about the situation from the script, and constructed this entire scene.

Of course he did. 

No. You see it happen. You see it all happen. You see the girls burn her armpits with incense sticks. You watch as one particularly sadistic girl with a red-gold wig — actually played by Shimako Iwai herself — with a relish almost bordering on eroticism, even love — drive acupuncture needles into each of Komomo’s fingers, under the nails to the point of seeing blood bloom like in the introduction of the Masters of Horror series. Then, they hold her mouth open and drive those same needles into her gums, Iwai’s character taking special delight in placing the needle just inches away from Komomo’s eye. Afterwards, they hang her upside down and question her. The thing is, in the script, she had urinated all over herself during the needles sliding into her, Takashi Miike has it so that she pisses on herself as she’s suspended by that rope. And, the entire time, you hear her screaming, begging, grunting like an animal, writhing around, her eyes rolling back into their sockets from the agony, as she is utterly dehumanized.

That scene fucked me. It wrecked me. This was the mental equivalent of me throwing The Tale of Genji across the room. It filled me with rage, at seeing this poor girl — who did absolutely nothing, who was even kind, and just told stories to keep her sanity, who waited for Christopher to find her — tortured by these merciless other women, while the solicitor laughs at her with his rotten cock bobbing up, and down on his head. It was disgusting, and I wanted all of these evil bitches to pay for what they did to her, while at the same time feeling major empathy, and a sense of protectiveness for this fictional woman. 

Takashi Miike’s Audition was hard on me. I’m not talking about when Asami Yamazaki tortures Yasuhisa Yoshikawa, although that also sucked, but I mean the vision Yoshikawa has of a mutilated man drinking Asami’s vomit out of a dog bowl.

I just … I couldn’t.

This scene of dehumanization, and the body losing control just hit me, and while Audition made me feel ill, this part of Imprint made me angry. And yes, looking back, this — these are the transgressive places — is where I said that Takashi Miike sucks. And he sucks hard.

At the same time, the scene is brilliant.

Think about it, if you want. Here are these women, these — as Youki Kudoh’s Woman puts it — “daughters of joy,” trafficked sex workers having internalized a society that rejected and used them, and indoctrinated them into provided male pleasure, using their instruments of that indentured profession in their culture to inflict non-consensual pain on a body that is like their own, but it isn’t one of them: not for the purposes of this exercise. Incense sticks are supposed to create a smell that will relax you. Acupuncture needles are made to provide health benefits for the body, or sadomasochistic releases. Even the rope, that suspension, can be tied to kink practices like Shibari and erotic bondage in general. Komomo’s mouth is held open, used for another’s pleasure, and long phallic objects are inserted into soft, pliant places.

Even her cries of pain can be sold as sounds of pleasure to an audience indoctrinated into responding to such. I will never forget the sadist either. Shimako Iwai is not only a writer, a tarento — a television celebrity or personality — but also a pornographic director, and someone particularly vocal about sex, and sexual pleasure. And here she is, playing a sadist using all of those tools against this character, and you realize she doesn’t give a jot about that jade ring. In fact, none of the girls do. Not even the Madam does. It is all about Komomo, according to the Woman, having been “too good,” “too favoured,” and this theft is just an excuse to release all of that suppressed feminine resentment on someone else. It’s horrific because these women have also been victims, but like demons in hell, they have reached the point — in a manner similar to the women in The Handmaid’s Tale as they tear apart a chosen criminal — where they will tear apart their own for doing exactly what they rest of them have been doing, even excelling at it, even loving the men, or the man doing it. And they themselves love inflicting this cruelty on her, things that had been done to them by men and society in many different ways.

I wanted to hate those women, and that anger remains, but the true horror here in Imprint I feel isn’t supernatural or limited to one innocent individual’s suffering, it’s that this twisted patriarchal order and internalized misogyny, exists and created this entire thing. Leung definitely delves into this idea when he mentions how Christopher ignores that whole reality just to focus on Komomo. Hell — and I don’t use the term lightly, as the Woman herself goes into her ideology of Hell as the film goes on — he even sees them suffering, behind those bars, ravenous and desperate, and when he sees the dead pregnant woman float by. In the screenplay, he doesn’t even acknowledge the corpse while the labourers pour sake into the water, except to notice it grabbing at the boat. In the film, he at least has the decency to take off his hat as the labourers offer prayers.

This place, in Imprint, is literally Hell. But as the Woman’s Sister says at the end of the film, hell is a place but it’s not a space you can run away from. You carry it with you.

Takashi Miike in the documentary “Imprinting: The Making of Imprint” explains that he told Michie Itô, as he directed her during her torture scene as Komomo that  “It’s like you are in a pretty field of flowers, and an old man is bashing your head in with a stick.”

That sentence sums up that world, that scene, and what comes after, pretty well. 

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.

Creepshow Commentaries Season Two: Creepshow Episode 1 – Model Kid/Public Television of the Dead

So after my Iron Man Certificate Challenge escapade, I had a lot of a mess to clean up in my Dissections and Speculatives room. Certainly, I needed more energy and inspiration after such a self-inflicted punishment. Ominously enough, the next season of Creepshow has landed on Shudder, and I had the occasion to watch it. I’ve thought about what I would do once the Creepshow seasons started up again, as I had written a whole series of summaries and thoughts — micro-reviews — of the series’ episodes before I even began the Horror Doctor. What I have decided is that, instead of waiting to have them all compiled, I am going to do one a piece. I think that is fair, and digestible. As such, most of these Creepshow entries are my thoughts and impressions of the episodes with their twinned stories grafted together complementing and contrasting with one another. In other words, I will be horror geeking out most of the time, and hopefully something of substance will be said or gleaned from it. As such, here we go with the first episode. I hope you will enjoy it ladies, gentlemen, and other beings of the night.

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 1: Model Kid/Public Television of the Dead

I wasn’t sure how Creepshow was going to top its first season, especially with its Animated Special. And so, here are the first two stories to start off the second season and … what can I say?

They tell us to think about the children when creating or enjoying controversial things. 

And they did.

That isn’t entirely accurate, of course. In fact, I would say that both of these stories, directed by Greg Nicotero and written by John Eposito and Rob Schrab respectively, are about nostalgia and the power of that sentiment even against the forces of darkness, and abuse.

Eposito’s “Model Kid” reminds me of all the old Universal and Hammer movies made in the early twentieth century that I would watch in my childhood, especially those involving Abbott and Costello. We even see a bit of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein as a young boy named Joe and his mother watch it on what the latter calls “their time machine.” And she even explains why she calls their projector a time machine: as it is a device that takes you back to a time, a fictional piece of space-time preserved forever, a silver piece of moving eternity, and simpler, perhaps even better times. It’s nostalgia all over again. I also love the fact that Joe creates a fight between the Gill-Man and the Mummy, his action figures, and especially when you consider that as of the release of this Creepshow episode, Godzilla Vs. Kong has just been released. These monster mashups and cinematic attempts at shared universes have existed for a long time, especially when you consider that Meet Frankenstein has “the Monster,” Dracula, and the Wolfman all in one film, whatever grief films like Batman Vs. Superman might have possessed for having more than the titular characters. 

You really feel for Joe, especially when you realize that his nostalgia takes the form of his “friends”: who are essentially the monsters in all the vintage horror films, some before his time in the 1930s and some contemporary Hammer — as he lives in 1972 and talks about Christopher Lee being the relatively new Dracula compared to Bela Lugosi, whom he dresses up as and imitates. For me, it had been the eighties and nineties where I would watch these tapes over and again on VHS, even renting them repeatedly, or recording them from Cable. I could relate to not having many friends, and consistently watching those films to remember the events in my life that happened around those films — my fleeting childhood, my grandparents, uncle, and time just getting away from me. But with Joe, the loss of time is even more poignant, and the people that don’t understand it far more cruel.

I could, as you can see, truly relate to Joe: especially in how even the most well-meaning people in his life didn’t understand why this “time-machine” and its assorted toys and posters were so important to him. And while the plot was fairly predictable, the way those monsters come to him, proving to be his friends, and the karma he delivers through some less than sympathetic magic with a figurine — a model — he orders, is fairly satisfying. 

Nostalgia and karma somewhat bleed out into the next story by Rob Schrab “Public Television of the Dead.” However, the nostalgia doesn’t centre on the early twentieth century, but rather the latter part of that epoch. We open up with a children’s show that reads like a combination of Lamb-Chop’s Play-Along and Reading Rainbow who has a character called Mrs. Bookberry teaching kids about “karma”: about how good deeds — and terrible actions — revisit themselves back on their doers. 

It continues on, with an Antiques Roadshow analogue, and even — honest to the happy little trees — a Joy of Painting homage to the point of plagiarism called The Love of Painting starred by a man named Norm. Norm is about to, unfortunately, lose his show due to the greed of Mrs. Bookberry, who is not nearly as benevolent as she appears to be on television, especially not in how she treats one of the few African-American television production members on staff. That last little detail about that element of racism, glossed over during that time, really added a gravity to the awfulness of that character.

But there is another aspect of horror nostalgia. We see Ted Rami, yes that Ted Rami, on the antique show — one of the three programs run by one WQPS along with the reading show, and the painting one — showing a book he … found in his fruit cellar. I admit: I was swearing, goodnaturedly, at the screen as this went on. And I thought: there was no way they would mention its title. I believed they would just mention it in passing, and have a whole other story. But …

They went there.

They went there, and they went there hard. Not only did the motherfucker have the same twisted cover of flesh and screaming faces, albeit with a lock on its pages, but … it had the same effects. And they named it. They actually named it. 
And … I will just say it. Deadites were there. Fucking Deadites. Deadites somehow manifested, along with the Necronomicon Libre Ex Mortis, outside of Evil Dead into Creepshow.

And Norm, the Bob Ross analogue who is balding in contrast, shares the artist’s former military background and … I was so glad he wasn’t killed in the first part. He, the producer, and his assistant band together to fight the Deadites and keep the Necronomicon from being read on television. It was beautiful, this strange fusion of different aspects of my childhood that played in the background that … works, so well.

I still can’t believe they had the balls, or ovaries, or sheer metaphorical gall to introduce Deadites into another world, though given where they come from, and the other stories involved, it makes a lot of sense. After all, the Necronomicon gets around. Of course, the story has an … open-ending, as you would expect from an Evil Dead homage, that makes me glad I took the time to watch the core films this Pandemic. So while the monsters are not friendly in the latter story, they are a hearkening back to another time that, mixed with an earlier period of reassurance, shows us that the past was not always pleasant but like the past and its conflicts, the present will find its own equilibrium as well: or the very least, the stories will never end. And if either story in this first episode of the second season of Creepshow demonstrates anything, it’s that its stories have only just begun.

She Will Always Be There: Travis Stevens’ Girl On the Third Floor

A long time ago, I was at a man’s place that had seen a great many wild and passionate parties. At the same time, I also knew that there were some … less than savoury, sometimes even gross things that happened beneath the surface. Lingering hugs on women, someone watching people and being surreptitious about their activities, and a great deal of emphasis on a whole lot of feminine art throughout the entire place along with a great deal of … moisture that you could slip on, and break your neck. I always wondered, if places can record memories — or if people and actions can imprint energy into spaces — just what a building haunted by erotic energy, and intrusive or even predatory behaviour, would look like.

These weren’t just all negative thoughts, of course. At another time, after reading references to Wilhelm Reich’s concept of orgone energy — of a hypothetical universal life force generally generated or manifested by sex and erotic actions — I’d often muse about how that affected another favourite establishment: one that used to be a nineteenth century mansion before it was changed to an adult entertainment hub and night club. What would such a manifestation look like, especially when you consider how it would ride the gamut between lust, love, joy, despair, anger, anxiety, fear, excitement, and all the rest of it? And this was a place focusing specifically on making a comfortable space for women and LGBTQ+ individuals to explore while also making a profit, and still navigating a lot of the patriarchal land and social scape — with men’s desires and expectations — around it.

And this place also had a third floor. And there was always a girl on the third floor.

I was utterly fascinated when I found out about Travis Stevens’ Girl on the Third Floor, and its premise. The Girl on the Third Floor, directed by Travis Steven, and written by Stevens, Paul Johnstone and Ben Parker, is about less about a morally flawed man attempting to renovate an old house for him and his pregnant wife, and more about the house itself, what it has come to be, the forces that shape it, and the girl within it. At least, these last facts are what interest me more than anything else. I recall, when Fangoria #3 came out and I was greedily looking any information on this film before it had come out, wondering where I was going to see it at the time, with only little trails of marbles through an old house and the specifics of cinematography and filmmaking to tide me over before finding … the Girl.

I mean, a horror story that takes place in a house that used to be a brothel. Not only is that an awesome premise, but indeed: what could possibly go wrong?

Well, a lot goes wrong for our initial protagonist Don Koch (played by Phil “CM Punk” Brooks) — whose last name is more than suggestive about his personal traits and failings — and all of it is pretty much his own fault. It isn’t just the terrible things he did in his past, how he put his own personal advancement and desires ahead of the lives of others, and the constant transgressions against his long-suffering wife under the guise of claim to change, but what he does to the house. He comes into this place, with its pastels and pink interior, noticing the black secretions coming out of the wall and instead of asking around about its history, or talking with Ellie Mueller the pastor who actually seems to know more about this situation, he pounds holes and nails into the walls, not paying attention to all indicators that something is different about this place. Essentially, Koch doesn’t ask for help, his pride keeping him from even telling his wife what’s going on, and this toxic masculine attitude — of wanting to make a feminine place his own instead of recognizing it as something that is not what it seems — tells you everything you need to know about where this is going to end. .

Certainly, the house isn’t healthy of course. Aside from its black discharge, its marbles appearing like mobile little growths, this house used to be a high-class brothel for some upper-class society men that viewed women like their playthings. On the third floor, bricked up and concealed, is a viewing platform looking into what is now the bedroom. But it wasn’t always a bedroom. Instead, it used to overlook a platform or a stage where the sex workers involved — all young women — were used in kink and BDSM scenes where an bird-headed man would sadistically whip them, among other things, for the viewing pleasure of other men. It is heavily implied that these women, from the nineteenth or turn of the century, are there under duress or were trafficked as well, and the presence of a little girl there who constantly draws pictures, and plays with marbles — that the bird man gave her — is not reassuring in the slightest as to what this place had been really like. Eventually, at least one sex worker is murdered there, followed by a missing body, and the place is closed down, and passed on to several different generations of families with varying results.

Koch is warned, by some men at the bar he’s not supposed to be at as he is an alcoholic, that the house despises “straight men” and will actively attempt to do terrible things to them. And when you look at the history of the house, you can probably see why that might be the case. Koch is a man who has an affair with a woman named Sarah Yates (played by Sarah Brooks) and then coldly attempts to brush her off and pretend it never happened. He also drinks when he’s not supposed to do so, and when all else fails he will resort to violence to get his way. He is pretty much a spiritual descendant of the men that ruled this town and society, and an extension of patriarchy. It’s not going to end well for him.

But strangely enough, as far as malicious female ghosts go, these are surprisingly fair in that they only react to what is brought to them. They’re not fair to his dog, of course, who did nothing wrong but there is a point where any empathy or discernment is erased by the pure rage that is left behind. But it’s more complicated than that, as it always is. We find out that Sarah is actually the ghost of the woman that was killed in the brothel, and that she reacts to people — as an extension of the house — depending on how they treat it, and anyone in it. Sarah kills Koch’s dog to hurt him for rejecting her and treating her like an object. She kills Koch’s former coworker and friend Milo because despite the fact that he is the friend of both Koch and his wife Liz (played by Trieste Kelly Dunn), he goes along with hiding the affair the other man had due to some sense of reluctant homosociality, essentially being complicit in all men’s behaviour.

And then there is the spectre of what is called, outside the film, the Nymph (played by Tonya Kay): a being that resembles a deformed blond-haired woman with a ruined face that is constantly leaving, and shooting marbles throughout the house. At one point, towards the end of the first part of the film, she manages to insert marbles under Koch’s skin that writhe around and, ultimately, seem to possess and kill him.

I’ve thought about Sarah and the Nymph a great deal since I watched this film a while ago. I also read an article that I can only barely recall was on Fangoria’s online site, when it was owned by Cinestate, that focused on the critique of the patriarchal elements of this film, and the nature of the Nymph herself. Unfortunately, I can’t find the article now but I do have my own conclusions and elements that I want to focus on which might not have been completely discussed to death by many other pre-existing reviews.

It is fascinating that Sarah can manifest physically, and be seen by those she chooses. Her being able to manipulate people’s perceptions isn’t as surprisingly, but being capable of materially interacting with the living is impressive, and quite possibly the result of all that tormented, oppressed, sexual energy and anger inside the house itself giving her that strength. Sarah is a result of what happens to a woman used by men, degraded, and killed by men. What’s worse is that she seems to have been the mother of that little girl, Sadie, who had been making all of the drawings throughout the house. So it’s possible that something happened to her daughter, or herself by the brothel owner.

But it’s the Nymph that gets to me. It isn’t clear what she is. I think I read somewhere that she’s essentially the spirit of the house itself: of all those broken desires, and brutalized women by the brothel-owners, and society manifested into some kind of composite entity. Think of her as some kind of twisted genius loci that guards the place where she was generated by the sexual energy of exploited women, and twisted men’s fantasies. I originally pondered over her being a brutalized sexual sacrifice or experiment of a lodge or cabal of male magicians and occultists — especially with the almost ritualistic practices in that place, and the bird-masked man — but I think it is more effective that she and Sarah have become manifestations of rich men’s debased desires of women.

Of course, there is another interpretation of the Nymph that is equally horrifying, if not more so. While Sarah does utilize the marbles as well to lure the dog and distract Koch and his friend, it’s the Nymph that uses them more. She acts skittish, awkward, and almost childlike: like the effigy of a person, or a doll. Victorians used to call a woman the “angel in the house:” like they are some kind of delicate ornament, or a pretty toy. But angels can fall, along with pedestals, in the dichotomy of female virgin-whore. It is as though she is, or was, almost innocent until something changed her into a parody of what men want. If you watch the film, her body is that of an young adult woman, but her face is warped: as though it had suffered repeated blunt trauma … or it had been drawn by a child.

Think about a little girl being in a place built to contain women for rich society men’s pleasure. Perhaps she died in there, or maybe it was just a part of her soul that died when her mother didn’t come back, and the bird man who gave her the marble bag. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to consider that she was being groomed, or that the loss of her innocence created this apparition. Maybe it is Sadie’s spirit, or Sarah’s lost innocence made incarnate and corrupted over time, or just an entity that represents a woman abused to the point of inhumanity, not allowed to grow or rest, and wanting to play in the horrible ways she’d seen in that place, and in how she sees the world around her.

And it all comes back to those marbles, doesn’t it. Not only do they have a phallic resonance, in terms of gonads, but there is the idea of them being pretty little baubles: just like women, and women’s bodies. In some aspects of Islamic culture, feathers left behind in a space denotes a haunting by restless spirits or demons. But I think that the marbles go well with the imagery of the house being the interior of a vagina: made unhealthy by sexual abuse. Maybe they are like ovum, especially in how they implant themselves into Koch, but they can also be seen as lesions or lumps: as disease. Something natural can also become sick. I can definitely see a sexually-transmitted disease metaphor in there, but also I think what’s important to consider beyond the literal is that Koch sees the house as a distortion of how patriarchy views female sexuality: as something dirty, unclean, even disgusting. It is his perspective that determines the house and how it treats him. Of course, there is also the fact that marbles — as small reflective spheres — can stand-ins for eyes, for intrusive looks that can be anywhere, where not even the sanctity of personal space or the body is safe.

They are like extensions of the mirrors with their over-ornate frames in the house, making Virginia Woolf come to mind when she mentions that to men women are mirrors that show themselves written large. Yet the house’s mirrors turns the male gaze against itself, and shows it what it really is: a wall with a dark hole stuffed with paper.

Indeed, Ellie Mueller — who Liz actually talks with when Koch disappears in the second half of the film — tells her that the house isn’t always malicious. Sometimes it just tests someone, or it doesn’t bother them at all. Couples had lived there, even straight ones, their entire lives without incident. It’s only when someone brings with them these power imbalances and hypocrisies, self-entitlement and forcefulness without facing them, that the house seems to react badly. Of course, it also challenges Liz. But Liz pays attention to details. Liz sees the newspaper article — from the scrunched up papers in the wall socket behind the central mirror no less — about the origins of the house, and she consults with the pastor about it. She knows Koch’s toxic masculine behaviour all too well and is, frankly, tired of his macho and emotionally-stunted excuses. But she is not intimidated by Sarah’s presence, and the ghost and the house seem to want to show her what happened: while testing her the entire time. It gets into her head, or tries to, while it succeeds with Koch: who is just a skin-suit for Sarah now. He got inside of her, and she — and the house — are now in him, as he is also trapped in it. Liz doesn’t forgive him, or his actions that have endangered her and their unborn child. Like a man having an affair and potentially getting his spouse infected by something he caught, Koch has brought Liz to this point but she confronts this distortion of the feminine on her terms.

Liz ends up being let go by Sarah, told she passed the test for not forgiving her cheating and terrible husband again, rejecting a man’s control over her with his false promises, saving herself and her child. But she does more than that. She ends up confronting, and killing, the Nymph. This act actually hurts Sarah. It hurts Sarah more than seemingly being killed by Koch. She ends up holding the Nymph’s broken body, this being that could have been her daughter, or part of the person she used to be, or a representation of Woman twisted and used by men to point of being unrecognizable, or even as a symbol of the house’s hate: of a form of internalized misogyny. And she’s genuinely crying over it: this thing that she loved, that she despised, that was her friend, and her jailor. And now, she’s gone.

Perhaps both Sarah and the Nymph began from a tremendous sense of injustice, but eventually this anger — however justified — turned into something that caused pain for not only those related to their tormentors and murderers, but became collateral damage for everything else in their way. In the end, Liz — after being told by the pastor that each person that enters the house needs to choose to go in and face their own actions — goes further. She ends up going back into the house, finding Sarah’s body, and giving it a proper burial. Liz claims the house for her and her daughter. It is now a place without Koch, and has seemingly made into her own space. And yet … at the end, Koch is still there. Or the house now uses Koch as its new host. It is offering their daughter a marble, a beautiful promise, a terrible lie, a thing to ensnare, a toy to play with, a lesson perhaps to learn, or the hint of the cycle of exploitation and recrimination happening all over again for the next generation.

Like I said, I think about Sarah. I think about the Nymph. I consider the women, and girls, damaged by society around them, its microaggressions, and the weight of a history of trauma influencing who and what they are. I remember that some ghosts are seen in the places they’ve been long after they’ve died. Sometimes you know it. Sometimes, you don’t. So many forces shape them. And sometimes, they come to you. They approach you, and take you to the third floor, like the one at the club I loved. Sometimes, they will offer you something. And you should always pay attention to what is offered, how you accept it, and where you stand.

My Favourite Lovecraft Story

As I write this, it is now Yuletide.

It’s already a darker time of year with shorter days, and longer nights, but when you add into the setting a Pandemic, there is this faded almost ethereal, even melancholic aspect to the entire thing: like you are asleep, or something is asleep, trapped in a place between a dream and a nightmare — and neither of you can wake up. Or, perhaps, we are all awake and we don’t want to be.

It’s in this particular state right now, in this strange twilight of an eerie calm and sadness, but a reflective point at a darker time that can easily give away to light that I’m thinking about the stories of H.P. Lovecraft. I mean, this shouldn’t surprise anybody. If you’ve read this Blog, or seen any of my other writings on Lovecraft, you know how much I appreciate the world he created, and shared with so many others. But after the Happy Holidays and towards the time of the New Year, why would I be thinking about his work in particular?

It’d be so easy to say that “The Festival” fits into the theme of the time with its Yule-like rituals at Kingsport, Massachusetts and summoning winged byakhees, and a narrator reluctantly drawn into these family doings, and discovering — or nearly revealing to himself — what they really are. But Cthulhu Mythos holiday celebrations, and awkward family gatherings, remote through space and time, are not going to be the basis of this post. No. I’m going to answer another question.

What is my favourite Lovecraft story?

But before I do that, I want to talk about something I’ve realized: having read about it elsewhere, and truly understanding just how far it goes. H.P. Lovecraft has always identified himself, in some way, with the figure of the outsider. I know I’ve written about his early short story “The Outsider” and its influence on Stuart Gordon and Dennis Paoli’s Castle Freak, as well as the remake created by Tate Steinsiek and Kathy Charles but it goes so much further than that. You can argue that every writer has something of a literary stand-in for themselves, but some are more overt than others.

Lovecraft is no exception. He always has a character who just never quite … fits in. Be it Charles Dexter Ward, who is a young antiquarian that just wants to roam the old streets of his neighbourhood and gets in far over his head as his own ancestral history literally kills him, or Edward Pickman Derby who is a stunted young occult scholar that finds someone he thinks can understand him and takes everything from him, and even Wilbur Whateley who is seen as “a freak” and just wants to understand his purpose and bring back his father, or Professor Peaslee whose life is stolen from him for a time by the Yithian that takes his body and the Great Race of Yith always outside space-time in other the bodies of other beings: never quite a part of what they observe, or record, but desperate to keep going and keep their words and research alive.

I can go further and look at poor Arthur Jermyn realizing that something bad and “unhealthy” is in his family line, or the distant and frail Dr. Muñoz whose delicate health needs to be preserved, or Walter Gilman who is a student having what seems to be a nervous breakdown but is dealing with experiencing another reality out of the norm. Hell, I’ve always seen the Deep One Hybrids of Innsmouth as resembling the Easter Island statues who, in turn, look like Lovecraft. And if you read the stories, we all know what happened to those people.

I’m sure there are many other examples of parallels you can find as subtext of elements between Lovecraft’s own life, and those of the characters — the humans and otherwise — in his stories.

You might think, to those of you who’ve read or heard of the stories, that “The Call of Cthulhu” is my favourite story due to its epistolary makeup of accounts, journal entries, and the idea of poets and artists being sensitive to a change in the air as something ancient and powerful shifts in its undying slumber. Certainly, I appreciate “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” in which Mr. Ward finds the secrets of resurrecting the dead, and learning their secrets through an ancestor that regularly did so to gain incredible knowledge and power. “At The Mountains of Madness” is an epic science-fictional horror story where humans go to Antarctica — to a place of snow and ice much like this time of year — and uncover alien predecessors on Earth who, in turn and for all of their completely non-human qualities, are far less terrifying than the shoggoth they created that went horrifically out of control. And I definitely loved “The Shadow Out of Time” and that whole idea and reinforcement that Earth was ruled by more powerful and terrifying species in its prehistoric era, and whose effects transcend all of space and time.

There is something oddly comforting in knowing that the human species is so small, and inconsequential compared to these vast and alien horrors that makes you really appreciate that little space of safety: at least, for those who identify with the protagonists and their lifestyle and place in the society depicted. I always imagine this vast chaos, and then endless darkness, and then this bubble of academia, and books, and poetry where friends can debate and correspond together away from that terrible uncertainty: even if it’s all an illusion. In that place, which may be less Lovecraft’s and more the place in my own heart created from that writing with corresponding elements taken from those words, I found peace and a little less heartache: and even the creatures and horror were simply inevitable and the pressure to perform and exist, and fit in didn’t matter if we all are truly that small. That weight, in the middle of that terror, lessened for me, and the loneliness became just a little bit less.

I have definitely been influenced by the Cthulhu Mythos, but its the Dream Cycle that is closer to me. Dead Cthulhu may lie dreaming in his house at R’lyeh, but his dreams are only part of something far larger that link the unconscious and conscious minds of the world together, and complete planes of existence. Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle illustrates this the most, from his earliest to later works. This is where I saw the horror genre verge into the truly fantastical for the first time years ago when I was on my own in my Undergrad.

I saw “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” where the protagonist journeyed from the waking world all the way into the Dreamlands and met a whole wide variety of Lovecraft’s creatures and gods: one of the most epic and bizarre odysseys I’d ever read at that point in my life. The vistas of the entire experience still stay in my mind, and I respect the crossovers the novella had with so many of his other stories, and how it all came full circle. Then, you have “The Quest of Iranon” which I’ve written about before: where the eternal youth Iranon — apart from everyone, sometimes respected, other times laughed at — walks the world to find his beloved dream home, only to realize it is a lie, and he gives up, withering against the harshness of reality and goes off to die.

But it is the last story I’m going to talk about: featuring the protagonist from “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” “The Unnamable” and “The Statement of Randolph Carter.”

“The Silver Key.”

Randolph Carter is a scholar who has lived most of his life. He used to see the world more clearly. It was brighter. More beautiful. He knew his place in it, or at least he thought he knew it. He had the ability to effortlessly enter the Dreamlands and explore its vastness and potential. He had a family that loved him, and a forest to explore, and the potential for so many adventures. Over time, however, he got older. His family declined and he lost his childhood home. It became harder for him to enter into the Dreamlands on his own, and to see the magic in the world. Carter studied literature and philosophy in an attempt to drown out that pain of loss, of that waning connection with beauty. He became cynical and jaded, even bitter but he could never escape that longing for … that feeling back. He explored what he could of the weak places in reality, studying occultism and nearly getting destroyed in the process.

Out of all of Lovecraft’s protagonists Randolph Carter survives the longest. He doesn’t die, or go mad for quite some time, which is quite the achievement. One day, after using his resources to attempt to reconstruct his childhood home far away from the land where he was, to feel that sense of wonder again to fill that emptiness that had grown inside of him, he eventually finds out about a silver key. It turns out he finds it in the Dreamlands through the help of his long-dead grandfather, and it’s subtle how it all transitions from reality into dreams as Carter uses the key to go back to his old home, and meets with his family again, and he’s not an older man but a young boy whose life is just starting: and everything he’s lived through is a vision that he had of his own future. He’s back where he was happy — back where he belongs — away from the disappointment and heartbreak of adulthood, and ready to plumb the depths of the Dreamlands proper.

I didn’t expect this story. You can see aspects of it in “Iranon” and even in “The Dream-Quest” when Carter realizes that the place he wants to go to is his childhood home of Boston. But “The Silver Key” is something special. It broke my heart, but also reached it during a time when I was lost, or at the very least wandering around aimlessly if only in my own head.

Let me be clear. H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t a perfect man. He was a racist that believed in eugenics and had Anti-Semitic views among many other radical and unpleasant flaws. But in this story, I can’t help but realize in retrospect what many of his narrators — his characters — were really looking for. Lovecraft himself lost his beloved grandfather, and his family estate, his father and mother had mental and physical illness, he himself had terrible health, and he couldn’t deal with the outside world beyond Providence, Rhode Island. He married a woman and couldn’t support the marriage in New York, and everything he did just seemed reactionary: at least in the earlier parts of his life.

Many people claimed that he was less of an outsider and alien than the people that he discriminated against, of which there are a few writers who are re-appropriating those aspects in their Mythos stories. But one revelation I’ve had, this Yule during the darkest time in the world at the moment, is that almost all of his narrators in the midst of the fantastical and the horrifying were all looking for something. These outsiders, trapped by the ravages of time, but detached from it and almost everyone else, wandered. They roam. They are all trying to find something, to deal with a fear inside of them, or the a sensation of emptiness or something missing, or an incredible sense of longing.

And in “The Silver Key” I realized that in this inherently non-human world, this uncaring or malicious universe and the need to stay in that small, glowing bubble, Randolph Carter and so many of Lovecraft’s main characters just want one thing. They want to find, or rediscover, or return to a place where everything made sense, where they know their place in the world, where they can get away from the insanity and the madness. Where they know who they are.

In the end, they just want to go home.

Lovecraft ends up giving Randolph Carter a fate worse than death with his writing collaborator E. Hoffmann Price in “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” — his “becoming the monster or the alien” trope for his protagonists that don’t go mad or die — but it isn’t the same. It never is. You can never really return to what used to be. You can never really go home again.

You can’t go back. No matter how badly you wish you can.

The stories we relate to say a lot about the people we are, the places we’ve been, and the experiences we’ve had — or didn’t have. We change over time, much like the Crawling Chaos Nyarlathotep as he wanders the world and planes of life influencing everyone around him. Even when he attempts to trick Carter in “The Dream-Quest,” there is perhaps something of a lesson in that act.

Even if you can go back, you aren’t the same anymore. It’s something crudely illustrated through what happens to Carter in “Through the Gates of the Silver Key,” but it’s no less true. Still, what is the Silver Key but an artifact with a series of arcane symbols — or words — inscribed on it taking you somewhere else entirely, a place both familiar and different, another variation on a theme of a lived life, and so many other places besides in dreams and nightmares. And perhaps, in this place, through the gates of our imagination, as small as we are, and as strange as everything else around us is, the story that is the Silver Key can help us realize that while we are the outsider, while we feel displaced, we carry that home within us. Even as we travel. Even as we wait. As we sleep.

Even as we dream under the waters. Until the New Year.

Behind Nostalgia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, of course, I had to watch it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cut of My Jib: Inspiration, Not Aspiration From The Last Drive-In

I wrote this back in May of 2020 for MutantFam.com. The plan was to have it posted on there, and then work my way into creating The Horror Doctor. It was originally an appreciation letter for Diana Prince, or Darcy the Mailgirl from The Last Drive-In, but it became something else. It began to encompass my whole feeling towards The Last Drive-In and Joe Bob Briggs. I can’t even begin to overstate just how glad I am that I found, and made a point of watching it, and interacting with people in the horror community during this time. 

If you’ve been following me, or this Blog, you will see many familiar — and some personal — things in this article. And some things have changed since. For instance, I did get to see Darcy’s beautiful Prom Night after all. But, like my Creepshow Commentaries, this writing belongs here, and I will give you all another cut of my jib, as it were. Take care, and Happy Horror Days, and Great New Fears to you. 

It came together. 

I’d been watching Cinemassacre for a number of years, mostly Angry Video Game Nerd videos until I ran out of those and began watching James Rolfe’s Monster Movie Madness series, and in particular some of his interviews. Both James Rolfe’s retrospectives, and his interview with one of his childhood heroes is how I was introduced to Joe Bob Briggs for the very first time. 

I didn’t know what to think of him. He had the Texan stereotype persona on, and I knew he was a host for long-running horror and weird movie commentaries. I even had this sneaking suspicion I’d seen him in passing, once or twice, on his lawn chair in the dark with his cowboy hat, getting sass from the Mailgirl Rusty, on TNT but to this day I still can’t confirm it: much like how creepy stories and nostalgia all begin in half-remembered or even retroactively imagined memories. But I remember James Rolfe talking about Drive-In Theater and MonsterVision, and how it influenced his multimedia work of games criticism, weird film, and blood and guts gross 90s horror. I thought about all the people that watched these commentaries when they suddenly stopped one day on Cable television, and thought it was a shame: how would have been nice to watch horror films then, with some good, erudite and silly commentary. I thought nothing further about it after a while.

I was on Twitter one day. That’s always a great sentence to start off another paragraph. I don’t know how I found it, but some Followers of mine were commenting on a person’s account. They were showing her great solidarity. Apparently, Twitter had banned her account due to nudity or breaking some other terms of service. And it had been a long-running situation. I came in and saw a picture of Diana Prince, looking at the Tweet that was banned, at a shot of her from the waist up wearing nothing but black skull pasties. I thought the picture was amazing, and I’d seen far more graphic things on Twitter that didn’t get any strikes at all.

Then I went onto her website and realized this striking woman with the awesome skull pasties was an absolutely avid horror genre fanatic who liked really bad Crypt Keeper puns. Not only was I taken with her zombie pictures in red and black lighting that made me feel strange things, but I was fascinated with her takes on classical horror films, and by the fact that she was — or was going to become — Darcy the Mailgirl on Joe Bob’s Last Drive-In Show: what was going to be a one-shot revival of what he did years ago.

A lot of things happened to me during that time period, and even though I got Shudder once it was released, I didn’t really get into The Last Drive-In. I always meant to come back to them later, to view them all at once, but I was too busy dealing with the loss of relationship, anxiety, depression, and going back out into the world again.

That’s not completely true, however. One time, on Twitter, I live-tweeted a little bit during one showing of The Last Drive-In. They were showing one of the Halloween films live, and Diana asked us to provide theories as to why Michael Myers had supernatural abilities to resist pain and death when there was no explanation for them. She also mentioned how Dr. Loomis always creeped her out, and she thought he was almost as much a bad guy as Michael, or so I remember it. I remember that night because I tweeted to her, as she had started Following me some time before — which made my day — and I posited that Dr. Loomis was the one that made Michael: that he used someone with a psychological condition and experimented on him to the point of being comatose. And the real reason he was out to kill Michael was to cover up evidence of his crime of creating a psychopath from a tormented child. Diana apparently really liked this, and had been tempted to read it on the show. It didn’t happen, but the charm was already there.

I lost track of the show after a while. I’d read about it in Fangoria, and all the effort it takes for Joe Bob and his crew to make the magic happen: to line the cameras up, to set the stage, and for Joe Bob to read through and communicate clearly his vast encyclopedic mind through long takes. In retrospect, looking back, the interview and article in Fangoria Vol. 2 #2 by Samuel Zimmerman and Preston Fassel — the second issue continuing the return of another horror staple, the magazine itself  — it almost seemed like a prelude to the inspired Week Four of Season Two.

But hindsight is 20/20. And it really is. As of this writing, it is May 2020, and I have been along with many others two or three months in quarantine. I always meant to catch up with The Last Drive-In, but episodes have disappeared due to AMC no longer having the rights to the films that Joe Bob and his crew review: something that will hopefully be remedied, or at least his commentaries can be saved, like the prom segment from Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II.

I’ve always been attracted to horror. I would go into Hollywood Movies at my strip mall, and go through and just look at the covers of the films my parents wouldn’t let me watch. I’d hear my friends talk about them, and both ask questions, and retreat in terror at ever seeing them. I was always on the edges of darkness, reading the classics, watching films like Gremlins and Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight but not getting too close.

My friends used to live above a store at Eglinton in Toronto called Higher Ground. They would invite me over, show me their endless library of zombie books and movies, and we would watch some of the more graphic horror films. They were my first experience with such films as the Lovecraftian Re-Animator — the Director’s Cut — and the weird movie with a suede heart Bubba Ho-Tep. The DNA foundations of me watching The Last Drive-In as an experience watching ridiculous yet detailed horror films with friends were planted there, at that time and place, and when they moved away it was never really the same.

It wasn’t until I met Kaarina Wilson, however, that my true appreciation for horror evolved. Kaarina was my partner for a very long time. She was the one who, in addition to introducing me to Clive Barker, also brought me to the Toronto After Dark Film Festival: a dedicated gathering of fans that love to watch independent horror and weird films. Kaarina would go to this event every year whenever she could, and I would go with her on a few nights. I saw films riding the gamut between the epic Super Sentai sensationalism of RoboGeisha and the disturbing, twisted horribleness with moments of tongue and cheek comedy like The Human Centipede, and watching them with a crowd that reacted to everything with laughter and horror completely changed me.

Before my friends at Higher Ground, and Kaarina at the After Dark, I always took things so seriously: especially horror. I didn’t think it should be silly, or multi-genre. I also wasn’t very much for crowds of people. But when Joe Bob, in an interview with Patrick Cavanaugh on ComicBook.com mentioned how there aren’t many Chopping Mall films anymore, nothing lighthearted or wacky in the mainstream horror cinematic medium in our time, it reminded me of the charm of events like the Toronto After Dark, and what I value about it.

It is all coming together. I realized I was missing a few episodes of The Last Drive-In, especially the last one, but as of Fangoria and other magazines I knew the show was coming back for another season. And then, the pandemic hit. I began to miss my friends. I thought about the films I hadn’t seen yet.

And I thought about Kaarina a lot.

Kaarina had a series of autoimmune diseases. In the last years of her life, she was in and out of hospitals. She had eventually gotten a much-needed lung transplant. I hadn’t seen her — personally or at the After Dark — in a long time, but I was going to visit her the weekend before quarantine was officially declared. We hadn’t had a movie night in ages. The last film we saw together ourselves was Jovanka Vuckovic’s all-women horror XX anthology. When she had other surgeries, and was in a medically-induced coma, I bought her a Shudder account and curated a whole series of films: including ones we saw for the After Darks of many years. I was already watching many horror films on Shudder, thinking about her. I always hoped we could watch them together, or that she could enjoy them.

Kaarina passed away in April. I couldn’t go see her. The slow encroaching diseases and illnesses in her body, her zombies, finally got her. There was more upheaval in my life too. My pet died, a relationship ended, and my friends and I couldn’t interact as much anymore because of their own personal tragedies all happening at once. Hindsight is 20/20, and 2020 is a stone-cold bitch.

The long and short of it is that I needed something to focus me. To steady me. I needed a routine. And, one day, I’d heard that The Last Drive-In was coming in. So I did an experiment. I decided to try to sit and Tweet through a whole live show. It was hard at first. I have anxiety and I needed to move around, and there were no breaks then. But I got retweeted and loved. And I realized I could pace myself. I didn’t have to stay for both films if I didn’t want to.

It’s now been four weeks. I’ve not only sat through the whole five hours each time, but I have Tweeted and interacted with the fanbase. I do take breaks, but I make sure to listen to as much of Joe Bob’s segments as I can. And I didn’t feel alone anymore. I feel like I accomplish something every time I finish a show, or make a witty comment, or realize I am more savvy in the genre than I thought I was. Kaarina always believed I could write for, and review horror. I didn’t believe her. I didn’t have the confidence then. 

But after writing for the comics scholarship magazine Sequart, and the now defunct Torontonian popular cultural publication Geekpr0n where I covered the After Dark, here I am now. 

The Last Drive-In is reminiscent of the days of watching television together where there were set times, and you could lose those episodes forever if you weren’t careful. At the same time, the online element has a sense of camaraderie to it, and sharing both my reactions and my thoughts in small sentences makes me feel important and that I am participating in something living: or something that we are, all of us, bringing to life. It also reminds me of the After Dark, of its Director Adam Lopez being our commenter, interlocutor, and guide like Joe Bob taking us through the pulp of horror and weirdness, of the sublimely mad and corny, but the literary and the sophisticated — through the guts of the thing like armchair augurs — and having us truly appreciate the ancient tragedy and comedy that is life that truly makes horror so multifaceted, and a shared experience. There is a reason these stories were told and performed around campfires. 

I found it all fascinating. And in watching these films, knowing that Kaarina is gone, I feel like sometimes I am watching them for the two of us.

But what truly won my heart? What impressed the most? Aside from the interview with the Kaufmans? It had been seeing One Cut of the Dead, and then the last segment of that episode with the jib — a moving crane or “arm” that moves the camera — panning out and Joe Bob walking around as everyone cleaned up that night, as Diana had make-up put on on another screen, and Joe Bob explained that there is no such thing as an aspirational creator: that you are a creator. That you don’t need industries or contacts. You just need to make something.

“Fuck aspiring.”

It’s funny how “fuck aspiring” is so inspiring to hear. Realizing that I was sitting through this — live — during a pandemic, during people afraid of speaking out, of losing what they love, of social turmoil, and upheavals we have yet to face, during all of this profound non-consensual suck, I realized I wasn’t just witnessing something special. I was becoming a part of it. I was a part of it. I am a part of it.

With all of you. When I watch something like The Last Drive-In, and I engage with it, I’m not just watching it for me, or Kaarina, or the memories of my friends, or Joe Bob, or Diana Prince, or the people that love the show, or the people that love it but find the courage to criticize the parts of it and the industry and community of which it is a part because they love it and want to belong, I’m watching it for … something magical. Something unique. A thing that can be manufactured, but never truly replicated. For a moment. 

And I got to be a part of a moment with all of you. Moments don’t last forever. They’re not supposed to do so. There is a lot of suck around them, and different perceptions. And simple things. But that makes the essence of them, despite or because of the suck, more valuable: because they happen. This is what The Last Drive-In means to me: a journey through different kinds of reality and weirdness, and inspiration. I’m mindful of the fact that I am not a longtime fan, and I don’t agree with everything being said. I mean, I love A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Joe Bob. Sorry, not sorry. I’ve been at the peripheries of many different communities, groups, cliques, and scenes. You can argue that I’ve aspired to all of them in some way, aspiring to life, even aspiring to be a horror fan.

But yeah. Fuck aspiring. I am a horror fan, period. I am a creator. I am going to make something from all of this. I already am. And Joe Bob, and crew, and friends, despite everything and because of it, thank you for this space — even if it’s just another moment. I will treasure it with you all — Mutant Fam — for as long as I can, and I will make sure that it continues to inspire me.

Creepshow Commentaries: Season One

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

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

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

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

*

September 27/19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 4-8/19 

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

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

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

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

October 11-12/19

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 18/19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 28/19

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

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

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

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

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

October 31-November 4/19

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

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

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

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

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

October 30/20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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