What is The Horror Doctor?

I find that I keep on reinventing my horror origin story.

As of this date, the Horror Doctor is a year old. Not me, of course unless you want to be existential about it, but this whole blog. 

I don’t think I ever really knew what it was going to become. Oh, I definitely had a plan. I was going to take a particular film and rewrite it on here in installments for my “Reanimation Station,” but for the most part I’ve written “Strains and Mutations” for my horror mashup fictions and homages (read: fanfiction), a whole lot of focus on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and vampires, and — really — my “Dissections and Speculatives”: you know, my reviews. 

A lot of my horror reviews focus on films, even though originally I toyed with looking at short stories, written narratives in general, plays, and even games. Sometimes I’ve done some “Behind the Screams,” which is an embarrassing label as it is anything other than original, though I got to write about my reasoning behind creating some of my fictional homages, so that was all fun. 

Mostly, my Horror Doctor blog reviews, takes apart, and sometimes puts together in different forms horror movies. A long time ago, I wanted to focus on lesser known movies too, but once I saw Cannibal Holocaust it was all over. I’d like to think that somewhere, in the Dark Multiverse that probably wasn’t created by Universal Studios, that the original version of my horror blog — a work displaying a long-form horror film rewrite, along with some smaller fictional experiments, and reviews of films most people don’t look at — does exist. And maybe, it might at some point anyway in this hellish timeline. 

A long time ago, my non-fictional writing mostly focused on the comics medium, and popular geek culture. I wrote for two other online publications, and a whole ton of fanfiction along with my mainline Writer’s Blog Mythic Bios: where I’d post a lot of writing experiments, which included horror. 

One problem I have is that sometimes I try to be too clever. I’m a perfectionist and it creates a cycle where I agonize over something, and it either causes great anxiety and I overwork myself, or more anxiety and it just doesn’t happen. Before really delving into horror in a focused way, I used to be even more exacting, and serious: I took myself and what I would see or watch very seriously. Horror, back in the day for me — before the Year From Hell, and you know exactly what I mean by that — was something I was afraid of as a child, kept away from the mainline Eighties and Nineties films by my parents, and something I came at surreptitiously from the corners of my youth. I would go into Hollywood Movies and look at the box art and descriptions of the films either my family wouldn’t let me sneak past, or my own fear kept me away from. 

But I read abridged folktales and classics, and eventually went to the Toronto Public Library and read Christopher Pike, and R.L. Stine’s Fear Street series. I saw the Poltergeist: The Legacy series as I got older later at night, already watched Are You Afraid of the Dark, and the Goosebumps shows, and occasionally managed to get some Tales From the Crypt, when not also watching shows like Psi Factor, and Outer Limits, and your good old X-Files if you want to branch out into multi-genre classing. 

And I saw some movies, especially when the 300s became available on Cable. I was always there, on the periphery but I missed out the mainline slashers and contemporary monsters of — again — the Eighties and Nineties until much later, and I’m still catching up on them: which isn’t a bad thing as I’m doing so with the Mutant Fam of The Last Drive-In. I could seriously do worse than discover old and new films with Joe Bob and Darcy, and Fangoria Magazine as well. 

It really culminated when my late partner got me into the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, and when I started going and checking out films from the late and lamented physical manifestation of Toronto’s Suspect Video store and sometimes I wish I could go back in time — for a variety of reasons — to talk about the things I learned. And I would just make these comments on Shudder when I discovered it on the movies I watched, or on Twitter after I saw something at the After Dark. 

Then the Pandemic struck. And, like I mentioned in other places I’m sure, I looked at an old Blogger journal my partner and I were going to make together back in 2011 that never happened. I was going to make The Horror Doctor — still a working title — there, but the platform wasn’t sophisticated enough and I went with WordPress, only for it to change its own format in the process too. 

But I needed a place to write my thoughts on horror that was more than just on other online magazines, or even Mythic Bios. I needed something focused. Something clearer. Like a dark blade. 

I have been writing this blog for a year. I learned a lot. I write my entries in Google Docs now and paste them into the format that WordPress has basically enforced, after a lot of complaining on my part. I finally made a place, too, for my collected Creepshow Commentaries. It’s funny. My Mythic Bios blog, that I haven’t really updated in a while, was the result of me needing a place to talk about geekery that my Reviews on Amazon just couldn’t cut, and then I went into GeekPr0n and Sequart from there. And it was a similar, but parallel evolution here on The Horror Doctor: from Shudder Reviews and Twitter streams of consciousness, to this. 

I’m sure this is all fairly interesting retrospective stuff. Sometimes, even with all of this I wonder how it all happened, and if it’s going to go anywhere. I’ve worked on this a lot, perhaps in a fairly obsessive manner. I wonder, sometimes, when that sliver of doubt happens if I can use this writing to lead me to a place where I can write professionally again: or in general really. Sometimes I wonder if I am just wasting my time. 

But this has been a transformative experience too. Not only has this space allowed me to engage with horror media in a critical and creative manner — more expansively than before — but I got to review new films based on classic horror film stars, and interact with them on social media. I can’t even begin to tell you how it feels to realize that I’ve talked with Kelli Maroney, and Barbara Crampton. I have difficulty trying to describe just having a casual conversation with Diana Prince (Darcy the Mailgirl), or even getting a DM from Joe Bob one day. It’s hard to explain the coolness of chatting with Anna Biller on Twitter about Viva and The Love Witch, not to mention Barbara Crampton and her role in Sacrifice. I have a whole section on “Dialogues” on The Horror Doctor that was reserved for Interviews with horror personages I might have, and some of those discussions could have made it on there if they were a bit more formal, and if of course I had permission to post them. 

But also having Kelli Maroney, Barbara Crampton, Diana Prince, and even directors like Travis Stevens, and Tate Steinsiek, a writer like Kathy Charles, and so many others comment positively on my articles is just something that made this year for me. 

The fact is, like many people during this time, I lost a lot this year, but I gained something else. I don’t always know what it is, or where it will lead, but I want to keep going with it. I have to be careful to pace myself. I’d been flirting with burn-out for a while. It helped to take a break for a while. Breaks are good. Breaks let you take stock, watch other things, do other things, perhaps see the difference between not giving up on something and letting something old tired go, and going back with perhaps more of a game plan. 

It’s been a hell of a year. But I accomplished a lot. And even if this blog ends sooner rather than later, I did this. I made this, and put it all on social media, and curated what I could, and did the best I was capable of doing. And whatever happens, nothing can take those achievements away from me. 

It’s been a ride. And hopefully, we can have more of them together. Technically, today is not the first day of the Blog — that would be the 29th because that is the first post I made — but this was one year anniversary of the first time I made this “About” section, and cursed at WordPress in trying toggle their weird Word Block formats in setting this basic structure up. 

And I’m so glad that you long-time readers have continued to deign to join me here in this organized house of horrors, and I am equally appreciative of those of you newcomers who want to see my black blade at work on these bloody building blocks of storytelling.

So take care everyone and remember, while I am not an actual doctor or a master of this genre, I am definitely still continuing to be one of its students, and perhaps we can continue the experiment together along the way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rest in Pieces Creepshow Season Two

Episode 5

“Night of the Living Late Show”

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

Consuming the Sublime: Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man

I almost didn’t watch The Wicker Man.

Unlike Cannibal Holocaust, which I thought would be too extreme even for me, I didn’t watch The Wicker Man for a long time because of not only my ambiguous place in horror media, but also because later I’d seen Ari Aster’s Midsommar — and I loved that film so much, that I was afraid that if I saw The Wicker Man I would end up seeing the former as something of a pretentious bastardization of the latter.

Luckily, my love for Midsommar remains intact as it that is a different story. And while Ari Aster’s movie revolves a remote choreographic Nordic communal culture in which the protagonist faces the demons of her grief and gains a twisted form of resolution, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man is ultimately a folk horror musical film about a man who finally gets the chance to become a contemporary Christian saint in on an island ruled by a form of Celtic paganism.

I think about this film on the surface. Imagine: a movie that utilizes musical tropes to complement and institute the philosophical quandaries, a murder mystery, and the final psychological horror of the entire thing. I don’t think I will ever be able to get any of it out of my mind: not the folk songs the children sing when talking about the cycles of reproduction and nature and the harvest, not Sergeant Howie literally being made a fool of — and unlike Punch, the costume he takes, the Devil didn’t make him do it, just his own sad sense of self-righteousness, not the brilliant Lord Summerisle’s (played by the towering Christopher Lee) monologues and observations of human nature, nor just the way that the entire story reaches its peak. And I can say, with certainty, that if the innkeeper’s daughter Willow sang to me like that, I would definitely have not been the sacrifice that the inhabitants of the Hebridean island of Summerisle would have been looking for.

So much can be forgiven, really, when you look at the quality and the build of the film that so many other critics and scholars, far better than I — a dabbler student in horror — have already dissected and spread across the world like a glorious, beautiful, terrifying harvest. Certainly, you have to suspend your disbelief to consider that anyone on that island would have known that Sergeant Howie was a virgin at all, and gone through the machinations through the “kidnapping” or “death” of a child of theirs to bring him there. But when you look at all those cheerful, awe-inspiring songs almost pulling you back into English folklore, the elemental rituals of dance, and music, and copulation also reminiscent of the free love spirit of 1973 in some parts of the world, and just watching Howie’s own Puritanism — which in the Final Girl trope would have saved her — become his complete, and utter undoing, it is a perfect bloody film.

Someone once pointed out that Howie could have saved himself if he had just given into Willow, into fornication, into living, into feeling beyond a set of ancient, strict, patriarchal guidelines. This is no Golden Calf, but a flesh and blood woman who actually offered him genuine connection and tenderness beyond the bounds of socially and religiously accepted marriage. But Howie just couldn’t do it. And, in a way, there is almost this tragedy there: that he had one moment where he could have had this, had this link to the earthly joys and the here and now, and it’s lost to him forever because of his sense of duty. In a Christian paradigm of some kind, he passed a test and resisted temporal sin, but fittingly enough he also passes the standards of the Summerisle villagers and their pagan roots by proving himself worthy to be sacrificed in The Wicker Man.

The Wicker Man itself makes me so tempted to make a bad pun of the strawman argument, where something is argued against but not properly represented. It is a scarecrow, made to scare off things that would devour it or refute it but is ultimately just empty clothes and bails of straw. In this sense, Lord Summerisle believes his people can make a harvest happen again through animal and human sacrifice based on their Celtic belief-system, believing the faith of Christianity and science and mainland civilization to have failed them. But another way of looking at it is Howie considering the ways of the villagers immoral and wrong because they abandoned Christianity, and believing that the death of a girl is clearly their fault because they are “heathens.” The straw man is the Wicker Man for both whereby it is an object ritualistically destroyed in order to prove one side, or the other right: a sacrifice to the gods, and an eventual martyrdom for Christianity.

It’s too simple, though, and perhaps not a great analogy in its own. The fact is, Howie is a terrified man being burned alive cursing the villagers for tricking him — the fool and the trickster, the outsider and the stranger — to this fate for dying for their “sins” while Lord Summerisle believes that the harvest will happen despite all logic, and that he will not one day be called on by his people and “volunteered” should it fail again.

Perhaps, again, the Wicker Man isn’t so much a strawman as it is the scarecrow I mentioned: created to placate the villagers’ fears of the harvest not happening, of starvation occurring, while allowing for the nominal civil and spiritual independence of the island. At least, this is what Lord Summerisle seems to believe.

When I look back on the film now, one issue I actually have with it has to do with Lord Summerisle. I just don’t see him as being afraid of the sacrifice. If the man had been raised through two or three generations on the culture, even with his education, he would see it as his own duty: as his own sense of noblesse oblige, to give his life to protect and better that of his people. To me, this faith — or fanaticism — should be bones deep and unshakable. Of course, there is the fact that by the paradigm of his people the man is also not a virgin — whatever that ultimately means — but that is almost irrelevant. I just don’t see someone as composed as Lord Summerisle being rattled by one setback, or the threat of his own life in the balance. He would understand the cycles of the world. He would know it was his time when the gods decreed it. It’s just that simple me, as real to me as Christopher Lee’s other character in Star Wars — Count Dooku — not begging for his life which ultimately doesn’t do in that film.

Lord Summerisle should be an ideologue with absolute conviction, and that should make him more horrifying than any blood-starved monster, that behind all the colourful pomp and circumstance is a man who is willing to serve the gods and the natural order at all costs: including murder. But, let’s play the Devil that doesn’t kill our Punch-wearing protagonist Howie, and say that perhaps it’s not an effrontery of his beliefs being insulted, but actual arrogance or pride masking a fear of failure and death motivating our friend Lord Summerisle. Aside from the fact that it makes him, and his belief as hollow as a straw man, consider what he tells Howie at the beginning of the film: that his Victorian grandfather revived the local pagan practices and rituals of the people of Summerisle to convince the people that his new strains of fruit trees would prosper in the climate.

But what if it was Lord Summerisle’s grandfather who was fooled, or ultimately fooled himself? What if, deep down, he did believe or it was the people he “led” that convinced him to reinstitute pagan elements that already existed in Summerisle, and just brought them to the surface again? What if these Lords of Summerisle really don’t lead using the name and acts of gods, but they are just figureheads for the people who are truly in charge? Lord Summerisle still operates from the monotheistic mainland order of rule, for appearances sakes, but what if the people just let him believe so long as he is useful? You know, until his role has to change? We see in Midsommar that there are a variety of different sacrificial rituals, so why couldn’t that be the case in The Wicker Man’s community of Summerisle? Lord Summerisle himself has, to an extent, realized that what began as a tool in his grandfather’s arsenal has become real, but what if it had always been real, and the Lords only deluded themselves into thinking that they could control it: this act of human sacrifice and growth and sex and primal renewal?

Howie believes this impulse needs to be denied, while Lord Summerisle thinks he can embrace it, but perhaps both want to control it: one through rejecting it entirely, and the other through indulging, and directing it. .But I don’t know if either particularly understands what it is they fight for or against: certainly not Howie who realizes he had been playing a whole other kind of game, and maybe not even Lord Summerisle or the villagers to think they will get what they want by following this belief and instinct to kill and burn to have their conception of Nature give them what they want.

In the end, the fire that burns through Howie consumes the hearts of the villagers and Summerisle, and there is something beautiful in that destruction and the all-too bright joys depicted in that place and site. What is it that Lao Tzu is supposed to have said: “The flame that burns Twice as bright burns half as long.”

Right now, as of this writing, Spring has just begun — however it will look — but when you look past the literal and go into the metaphor, at the nature of what happens when you release something from the constraints and strictures of security and fear, of a structure that fails its people, what do you have left to do with that passion? Does it go into a resurgence of spirituality, of land-based beliefs, into a renaissance of sensuality and sexuality? Does it challenge the status quo and grow into something else? Or does it run rampant, become chaotic, and self-destructive beyond the sight of those who first the light the fire, or carry the spark? It’s almost romantic: in the old eighteenth century terrifying and sublime sense of the word, but somehow still beautiful for it.

These are some of my thoughts as The Wicker Man continues to smoulder in my thoughts. Forever.