I Got A Lot to Think About: Travis Stevens’ Jakob’s Wife

Stagnation can last years, but the dead travel fast.

If I can summarize Jakob’s Wife, directed by Travis Stevens, and written by him, Kathy Charles, and Mark Steensland, it would be that bite-sized sentence above. I’ve been looking forward to seeing — and writing about — this film. Not only did Travis Stevens direct the brilliance of what misogyny leaves behind in Girl On The Third Floor, Kathy Charles write the Lovecraft Mythos remake of Castle Freak, and Mark Steensland co-write a twisted version of male sexual fantasies, addiction, and consequences in The Special, but this movie stars the renowned Barbara Crampton who plays Anne Fedder: an unhappy woman and wife of a small-town preacher who gains something that can be seen as both a curse, and a blessing.

I just want to say, as many other reviews, articles, and interviews have stated — including and especially in Meredith Borders’ “Waiting to Exsanguinate” as well as Barbara Crampton’s own “Scene Queen: The Journey of Jakob’s Wife” in Fangoria Vol. 2, Issue #11 — that the element of vampirism is only part of the overall theme of the film: which is that of a woman seeking to change her life in a stale relationship, and attempting to negotiate the boundaries of love while seeking her own freedom. 

Perhaps there is a better way to phrase it. Certainly, vampirism being besides the point in a vampire film is nothing novel. Joe Bego’s 2019 film Bliss comes to mind, if only because I said something very similar about it. But there is a difference between that psychedelic nightmare of drugs and self-denial, and Anne’s sudden thrust into a reality that is terrifying, but all too clear: something that, in some ways, has always been around her: and she’s only seeing it now. It’s poetic that takes Anne dying to actually realize that she wants to live. But does Anne actually die?

I am getting ahead of myself. If you want to actually watch the film — and I highly suggest you should — our fangs are out, and from them are dripping spoilers. You were warned. I would suggest, as Anne says to another in her film, that you run while you still can.

This whole film is nuanced. It’s true that Barbara Crampton’s previous horror roles in the 1980s — in Re-Animator, and From Beyond — were not always subtle, but in addition to the way she portrays those characters her skill has evolved. Certainly, by the time we get to her role in Andy Collier and Tor Mian’s Sacrifice, we see she can play a character who straddles the line between different sides of morality, and someone who struggles with their place in society, and their own desires. 

Barbara Crampton goes specifically into the correlation between herself having returned to acting later in her life after marriage and raising a family, and Anne being an older woman seeking to fulfill dreams she put on hold to find love and stability. However, unlike Barbara Crampton — who never really stopped working or chasing her own goals, despite the ageism towards women in the film industry — Anne let herself become subsumed by the doctrine, but mostly the routine of married life with her husband the Pastor Jakob Fedder: a seemingly unassuming man played by veteran actor Larry Fessenden. 

I’m getting back to my point about nuance. This film could have easily gone a few ways, and I found myself being wrong with almost every prediction I had. When the film begins, Jakob is preaching to his congregation in their small town, and after — when he’s approached by a young woman named Amelia — there is almost this red herring in the way it’s portrayed playing on your expectations that the young girl is trying to flirt with the pastor, or there is something illicit business going on. A part of my mind even considered the possibility that Anne had already become a vampire, and is the presence stalking the girl later: her sympathy towards the young woman’s alcoholic mother being an excellent mask.

But that’s not what this film is about. It also isn’t about Jakob, however mundane he seems at the beginning of the story, being a terrible or a violent religious fanatic, or being completely ignorant of what happens to his wife right towards the end of the movie. He doesn’t immediately turn on her, and he also isn’t killed by her as a plot point to liberating herself from him. These are all heavy-handed, easy plot solutions, but Jakob’s Wife never takes the easy way out.

It’s true that the town, in the middle of seeming nowhere, is ruled by a patriarchal system and social expectations towards women: something we see in the attitudes of Anne’s brother and sister-in-laws, and even her husband during their dinner scene when talking about whether or not Amelia ran away “due to a boyfriend,” as opposed to something having actually happened to her. There are certainly some class and even possibly racial connotations in those deliberations and gossip given that Amelia is Black and she and her mother live in a more rundown part that town, and definitely some of that is mirrored in the way that Jakob confiscates marijuana from two younger people of colour. This is the setting that’s seeped into Anne throughout the years, an ebb and flow: a sluggish pulse of inertia that Jakob can live with, complete with the expectation of having a dutiful wife that you can see in the implicit chauvinism of his brother of his brother’s wife, but not someone like Anne whose always sought to travel, to innovate, to just … do something more with her life.

Again, it would have been simple to have Anne leave her oblivious husband to have an affair with her lost childhood love come back to town, while renovating the old abandoned mill that is apparently a town landmark. Hell, having Tom — Anne’s mischievous rule-breaking former flame — be the vampire that turns her is another place that could have gone. But it doesn’t go there. Instead, Anne breaks off the moment’s indiscretion, despite her unhappiness, because we realize she actually still loves her husband: or at least feels loyalty to him. 

And then, everything begins to go to hell. Tom is consumed by rats, unsurprisingly, found in some crates the size of … coffins. They’re coffins, complete with earth and all of that Dracula and vampire Eastern folklore goodness. After that, Anne is attacked by what we find out is an old vampire called “The Master.” No, not the Master from Buffy: The Vampire Slayer with his collared leather jacket, and snide sarcastic remarks.

We are talking about — what we find out later — is a Master that’s like Count Orlok from Nosferatu in the perpetual, final stages decay … who likes to play with her food. Or, in some cases, her toys.

A few vampire film inspirations are referred to in various interviews, one with Coming Soon’s Larry Fessenden on Unique Role in Horror Pic Jakob’s Wife, and Meredith Border’s Fangoria article as well. Films such as Ganja & Hess, Nosferatu, Salem’s Lot, Let the Right One In, The Hunger, and Possession are mentioned, but Dracula has also left its toothy mark on the vampires in Jakob’s Wife.

I really want to look at how vampires function in this world. At first, I thought Anne was a throwback to the way vampires used to be before Nosferatu: beings that are simply weaker, or less tolerant of sunlight, but can otherwise move around. However, what we find out is that she is — figuratively and literally — going through a transition. It’s like a less severe version of what happened to Lucy Westenra, or Mina Harker when they were being fed on by Dracula, and given his blood. However, Anne is already manifesting the hunger. At first, it’s just for animal blood but eventually she can’t even tolerate that. She already can’t eat solid food anymore, and she’s become photosensitive, but she’s changed more than this. Her physical strength has vastly increased, as have her five senses.

And, perhaps due to these new stimuli, Anne expresses a certain directness, with some coldness, that might have remained under the surface: with a fire that Barbara Crampton notes in her “Scene Queen” column. By not having to eat anymore, she also doesn’t feel the need to cook for her husband, who has taken all preparations for him as something for granted: an extension of that casual chauvinism that his brother expresses to him on the possibility that Anne is having an affair. 

But it is not a perfect, nor a permanent state. Eventually, Anne can’t feed off animal blood anymore without being violently ill, focused ultraviolet light becomes damaging to her, and the hunger begins to take its toll. It’s also clear that when she kills a human being — and she only kills one when the hunger becomes too much for her — that if she doesn’t finish off the body, even with its head partially torn off, it will reanimate as what seems to be another vampire. This is something I recall from, of all things, Blacula, where all a vampire like Prince Mamuwalde needs to do is feed and not give their blood to the mostly drained human. 

Yet it’s still more than that. Anne is not, apparently, a full vampire. And Amelia, the poor girl who hears “the Master” calling to her as well, is mostly a twisted, hate-filled bloody revenant of her former self. Even the poor man Anne kills in a frenzy comes back as a relatively mindless thing that she has to wrestle with, and it becomes hers, and her husband’s first kill together. 

Oh yes. That’s right. Remember how I said that Jakob doesn’t remain ignorant? Well, after he goes to, reluctantly as he isn’t a confrontational man, tell Tom to leave his wife alone he realizes that the old mill is home to vampires, and very nearly dies there due to the pitiable, terrifying thing that used to be Amelia. 

He returns, realizing that “the Master” is after his wife: to find his wife feeding off of her unintended victim. It might as well, in his mind, be him catching his wife with her pants down with the Devil in his kitchen.

And this is where the film gets interesting as we see, essentially, a priest and a vampire, a husband and wife, team up to hunt other vampires: to hopefully deal with the curse laid on Anne. On the surface, this is fairly bad ass: not just because we realize that Jakob’s holy items — communion wafers, cross, and water — actually work on vampires, and he even knows instinctively how to dispose of the remains of Anne’s aborted creation in the grave in their garden, but Anne has a new kind of ruthlessness in dealing with “the Master’s” other creations. The way she kills Amelia is a counterpoint to all the sympathy and compassion that she expressed to her earlier in the film: to a point where her husband, the priest, is horrified. He actually wanted to save Amelia, probably in his mind by killing her dark creator … if that’s how this species of vampire functions  of course, right?

But it’s here where their conflict really begins. This is where Jakob has to admit that Anne has changed, and not just because of her transformation. She is more independent and willful than she had been before: or maybe she had been that way before her mother died, Tom left, and all she had was good old solid Jakob and the never-changing faith of the church. But he is angry at her admitting she kissed Tom, and … basically blames her for “the Master’s” attack on her: like a spouse blaming their partner for their own rape which, given what “the Master” is like, and how Anne staggered up to the washroom to hide herself, blood-stained, violated, and screaming while her husband remained ignorantly downstairs, is more or less my read on that situation.

However, Anne is having none of it and actually calls Jakob out on his behaviour. Yet this is a fight between two people who don’t know each other anymore, who hadn’t for a while, but still at their core fiercely care for one another. Even when Jakob drives away, and goes to bed, he can’t quite stop himself from going after her, and when “the Master” uses her power to take control of Jakob, to make Anne feed from and kill him, Anne forces herself to save him instead, having come back to their home on her own. 

“The Master,” played by Bonnie Aarons, is twisted. It’s more than just her appearance. She has the ability to control and change herself into multiple rats. “The Master” also seems to have the power to fly, or at least move almost instantaneously from one place to another. She can even move objects without touching them. But more than that, she has great powers of mental domination: which she uses to not only control Jakob as a thrall, but Anne herself. There is something horrific about how “the Master” manipulates Anne like a puppet, moving her with her body’s movements. She plays with her, and she knows it, and Anne knows it. She can kill Jakob, or anyone Anne cares about on a whim. Amelia is just a plaything, perhaps a prototype to what she seemingly wants from Anne. 

“The Master” provides a lot of voice to what Anne is feeling, about being in the thrall of men, and what they have constructed. She claims she wants to help liberate Anne from being a “scurrying church mouse” as she had been when she had drunk of her own Master’s blood ages ago. This is apparently the thing: drinking your creator’s blood, in this world, liberates you from the hunger of the transition between human and vampire. This is the choice that “the Master” offers Anne.

Choice is a main component in this film. For years, Anne felt her choices taken away from her. Now she has agency again, or a new vital sense of it. She wants equality and a say in her life from her relationship with her husband. She wants to have a role again in their mutual decision making. It’s clear, when the two work together, they are a force to be reckoned with: when they kill the vampire in the kitchen, when they dispatch Amelia, and even taking that poor deceased old woman’s body for Anne to slake her hunger for a time while Jakob hunts for “the Master” during the day.

There is even one scene, after their fight at the mill, where we find out — hilariously enough — that pot takes the edge off of vampiric hunger as Jakob takes his confiscated drug and shares it with Anne. It’s here that they have a heart to heart, and she tells him that she didn’t feel valued, and he apologizes. That is the gist of their conversation. And there is this moment, where Anne seems to feel validated, and get her say in all of this: in her own fate. 

But “the Master” keeps escalating the situation. “The Master” claims to want to liberate Anne from her husband. She asks her “Were you ever really you, or were you just Jakob’s wife?” The film title drop aside, she has some valid points. Certainly, the discussion about Amelia at the beginning of the film is predicative of Jakob’s go-to behaviour along with the victim-blaming element of Anne’s current situation. He has taken her for granted for years, fulfilling her role as her sister in law does. Hell, he doesn’t even consider that “the Master” is a woman: just another man that his wife let take advantage of her, like Tom. And he’s only cooperating with her now to make her “normal” again: to make her “back the way she was.” 

Jakob’s sermon at the beginning of the film, which is Ephesians 5:28: “In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself,” and in the middle, which is 1 Corinthians: 7:16 “For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” speaks volumes about how he views marriage, and his relationship with Anne. Anne is just an extension of him, as Eve comes from Adam’s rib.

Oh, and “the Master’ gets to that. Even while the latter proverb is almost a rebuke to Jakob about not knowing his wife anymore, mirroring his own fear of her changes, “the Master” talks about how Eve was deceived well before Adam by the Serpent, and how she deserves better. And here is where I begin to disagree with the sentiment that “the Master” is trying to “liberate” Anne.

You see, she is still using the metaphor of Eve, Adam’s wife, comparing Anne to her, and her relationship — or dependency — on Jakob. It’d be so easy, again, if this film — as Meredith Borders puts — had been stereotypical and about Anne as Jakob’s extension, as his wife. Or perhaps, to make another Biblical reference, Anne or what she represents now can be the angel that Jakob has to wrestle with to get his life back. That angel has been referred to as Lucifer, as the Devil, but in the Old Testament that angel still works for God: to test Jakob’s resolve. 


But while their relationship is central to the film, this story isn’t about Jakob, or angels. It is about demons. You see, if we go into apocrypha, Adam had two wives before Eve. His second wife had been constructed, from the bones and ligaments up, to being a full human being: an act that horrified Adam so much, God had to remove her. The parallel between a being constructed, all bloody and messy and imperfect, to a man realizing a woman has bodily functions and needs — and indeed possesses growth reminding him of his own imperfection — is not lost here. But perhaps Adam’s first wife, Lilith, is more appropriate in this theological discussion of sorts:  being not made of filth, but the same mud and dust that Adam was created from, and who refuses to be subservient to her husband. 

Lilith discovers the powers of the world, she is embolden by them, and she leaves her husband to ascend to Heaven, and descend to rule in Hell. I think this is a lesson that Anne might have taken more to heart. The problem is “the Master,” as Amelia worshipped her as a god, or a god-surrogate — being her creation — is petty. She likes to play with humans, tormenting and hunting them. Amelia is a diversion, some poor girl who just wanted to take care of her sick, alcoholic mother, for “the Master” to manipulate: even as she preyed on her the same way she did Anne. And what she does to Anne: not just killing Tom in front of her, but also attacking her, and then controlling her body — even going as far as to make Anne masturbate in front of the window — does not look like the independence she promises.

Here is a possibility: what if Anne had chosen to drink “the Master’s” blood, it solidified the older vampire’s claim over her instead of liberating her. What if Anne is just an extension of “the Master” just as she claims Eve had been of Adam, and Anne of Jakob, or her town? What if the choice had already been a false equivalent and Anne had almost been tricked into exchanging one Master for another. Indeed, even if all of those acts were sadistic lessons to give Anne a taste of potential freedom and more supernatural example of the slavery with which she already labours and can escape, either way I think the Master is a cruel, bloody mistress.

What is the ultimate tragedy is not that Jakob kills “the Master,” it’s that he takes that choice away from Anne. She doesn’t have time to make it. “The Master” is — seemingly — gone. A stake through the heart is enough. She is muck and dust, and one rat on the ground. Instead of reverting to a human, Anne is stuck — supposedly — as a bloodthirsty ghoul. Perhaps she could have been liberated, even gaining the shapeshifting, telepathic, and telekinetic powers of her creator. We don’t know. Neither does Anne. And this seriously pisses her off.

It’s fitting: that the man who hesitated in killing, who hated what he believed his wife made him become in destroying her own vampire in the kitchen, who didn’t want his wife to kill a young woman, doesn’t even hesitate to destroy a monster — but that’s not the point. It’s that the divide between them is too great. It’s more than just mortal and immortal, vampire and human. It’s a fed up woman and a clueless man too steeped in his ways.

That last scene between them is so telling. I think … I could have seen it going another way. I can picture it, after they discuss selling the house, with Jakob having an epiphany and realizing that it is not his place to dictate to his wife anymore: that it never was. He can’t help her anymore, but he won’t stop her. He has to trust that she will find her way. And Anne has to let him go. I think what Jakob robs Anne of is something I anticipated so much in this film: that she would face up to her would-be creator, and utterly defy her: to break her bond with her, and make her own way as a vampire in her own right, and not a tool with the illusion of freewill: unbeholden to anyone, or anything.

But Jakob killed “the Master” and took that choice away from her. She’s stuck in transition, a frustrating and angering process indeed, for anyone to be in. This could have ended with them going their separate ways, kind of like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, except the Girl and Arash leave each other.

Yet this is not what happens. It is left, like life, ambiguous. Did Anne want to destroy or refute “the Master” herself? Was she going to be liberated? And will Jakob the priest, and Anne the vampire destroy one another? Is it their last spat, or just the beginning of another conflict that will lead to something more?

I think it all goes back to that glorious scene, when Anne realizes it’s blood she needs, and after pouring herself a cup, she dances to a remix of Concrete Blonde’s “Bloodletting”: also known as “The Vampire Song,” one of the most epic moments in this entire film. I think whatever happens, Anne has a better grasp of herself now, and she knows where she stands — in this moment — as Barbara Crampton did in her role in this film, a penultimate achievement, with more accomplishments — in acting and production — to come, I’m sure. 

A Good Show Bears Repeating: Joe Bob Briggs’ The Last Drive-In

The Last Drive-In came to Shudder back in 2018 as what was going to be a single twenty-hour movie marathon of weird, bloody, boob-filled, glorious, ridiculous films. It had been so popular that fans, encouraged to log on if they wanted to see more, and keep the showing going, pretty much — from what I understood — broke the Internet, or at least Shudder during that period.

I was in a different place in 2018. I’d recently gone through a breakup two months before, and I was just trying to find my way back to something: to some place where I would could feel a sense of solidarity and home again after losing that particular feeling of equilibrium. I’d known about Joe Bob Briggs, particularly his MonsterVision, through James Rolfe’s segments on MonsterVision itself, and his interview with Joe Bob. I also found out about The Last Drive-In, and I’d gained a Shudder account before then based on my love of horror being constantly supported by my time at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival.

There were a few differences then. In addition to my personal journey and struggles, I was still very much in a Netflix frame of mind. You know the one: where you hear about an interesting program, or a series and just wait for it to come out so that you binge the entire blood sucker that night, or for a few moons afterwards: to tide you over until the next ghoulish feast.

And then in 2019, after some specials — including one Halloween series one where I actually interacted more with Diana Prince, who had been responsible for me finding out about The Last Drive-In altogether on Twitter — the The Last Drive-In had its first season. By this point, I was going out again, meeting new people and making new relationships — or meeting new relationships and making new people as the case may be — and I wasn’t spending as much time at home anymore. Before 2019, I’d mostly stayed indoors as a borderline hermit, with the occasional trip to downtown Toronto or a Greyhound bus to the States, but by 2019 I was downtown a great deal more. One of the consequences of this was that my writing output, which had been considerable, fell by the way side. I used to write for GeekPr0n and cover the After Dark: writing smaller reviews as I went on. Those reviews of weird and odd independent films never left my mind, and while I grew to just enjoy watching the movies, and not having to apply my dissective brain to all of them, something felt missing.

I needed a place to put my thoughts about all those films, even when I attempted to ignore that impulse. At first, I would write some things on my Mythic Bios, but they just remained in my head. Waiting. Waiting for something.

And I thought one of the things I was waiting for was for Season One of The Last Drive-In to be all gathered in one place, and I could binge it at my leisure on Shudder. I hesitate in committing to something. When I commit to something, I put a lot of energy these endeavours until I either run out of that energy, or I just keep going with it. It can take a toll, to set aside that time and effort, to find that space. It also doesn’t help that I have anxiety, and when I don’t get something done, or I need to do something — or set myself to do something a certain way — it can affect me adversely. So I waited on it.

I waited, basically, until Doomsday. I’ve gone into it in previous Blog entries in various permutations as the mad science of grieving allows. The Pandemic happened. One of my partners died, My pet died. Some of my long-time relationships ended. It all went I-t’s Up, if you know what I mean and I think you do. These were things that defined my personality: my sense of self. And there were all gone. What’s more,, like many other people, I lost the ability to go outside as we were — and still are as of this writing — all in Quarantine. I discovered things during this time: finding truths about people and places that I really hadn’t wanted to know,. but also making new connections where I didn’t consider them before.

Twitter is a magical place, like Tahiti. But Agents of SHIELD references aside, I’d Tweeted before back in my GeekPr0n and comics scholar Sequart days. It is addicting to have your words shared and out there, and potentially made concise and clear: as cutting as a scalpel, but also fascinating tissues from the recesses of your mind.

I’m not sure when I found out, or when I realized the truth about Joe Bob Briggs’ The Last Drive-In on Shudder. I loved seeing the Halloween episode on Shudder TV, a nice glimpse into communal viewing again like we did in the old Cable TV days. And Tweeting along, then, while posing my Michael Myers theory about his supernatural abilities was fun. But I didn’t know how much I wanted to commit.

But I found out that many of the old episodes, with Joe Bob’s commentaries as commercial segments –as he apparently would also do in his Drive-In Theater show before MonsterVision — were deleted off of Shudder: both due to jurisdictional reasons, and those of copyright as Shudder (and AMC that owns it) eventually loses the rights to show some of those films.. Those shows I kept waiting to watch were, for the most part, gone and I realized that this had been — and it still is — an ongoing issue. I genuinely regret not seeing Daughters of Darkness, and Joe Bob’s take on it, even though it was because I knew he showed it in the program that I watched it to begin with. Unlife works like that, sometimes.

So one night, realizing that I had nothing else to do that Friday, feeling like I would never do anything again thanks to the hermitage of the Pandemic and everything I lost, I felt myself on a precipice of participation, on the edge of entertainment, an alliteration of awesome, in deciding to watch one episode live on Shudder TV in addition to doing a Tweet-along. It was like taking a breath and forgetting that I didn’t need to breathe anymore, but realizing that I still could. I didn’t know what to expect. I was wondering if this would be another 24-hour marathon of mayhem, and if I could take it. But it wasn’t: Season Two has six hour episodes each showing two films and having erudite and sometimes ridiculous Joe Bob commentary in-between. I found myself taken by his folksy mien, and fierce intelligence as well as Diana as Darcy the Mailgirl’s laconic tolerance but genuine fondness of it all.

The first episode was hard for me to get through, as sitting in one place can take a lot out of me. I didn’t actually feel well afterwards, but I liked it. And I came back the next week. And the next. My friends and I weren’t really gaming, and my other interactions were now long-distance. I watch some anime once a week with some friends, which can be a commitment of time again, but this is different as it is longer and there are so many more people involved.

I joined at an interesting time in more ways than one. Revelations about CineState went down, and Fangoria began distancing itself from its former parent company. I wondered if the magazine would survive. And then Joe Bob’s old articles, and even something he said the previous year came to the fore, and I saw that side of Twitter.

I know I might not look it, but I am not a stupid man. I have a Graduate School Education, a Master’s Degree in the Humanities. I’ve gotten work published in print and online. I’ve met a few people with differing opinions. Even with the pain I went through, I still had my sense of self. And I recognized that what was happening, as I was interacting with other people, as I was getting to know MutantFam people of the “blood, breasts, and beasts” crowd was that I was finding solidarity and a sense of safety in what Joe Bob and crew were constructing in this time of plague and death and real life horror. I also understood that there were people who didn’t feel this way, and felt like the show propagated aspects of their lives that weren’t safe, or represented. I’d seen a lot of personality revelations online, and I didn’t want to get involved. I didn’t want to believe in something just to see that it was worse than fake blood, but I also didn’t want to destroy something good because other people were crying about how the sky is falling.

A lot of things had been going down, then, behind the scenes that few of us knew about. At one point, slightly before the Twitter outrages and the usual cyclical nature of Diana Prince being sent to “Twitter Jail,” Joe Bob actually PMed me. It was after I was Tweeted about Diana’s role in Frankenstein Created Bikers (which I’ve finally seen, and think should definitely be a Last Drive-In feature) and he thanked me for my support and wanted my email so that he could “keep me in the loop.”

I think this, ,while it never got followed up on, was the seed for something else.

See, as Season Two was unfolding and I got caught in what ultimately became a wave of positivity, I kept having these thoughts about horror and its plasticity and its ability to vastly experiment with form and storytelling, and just weirdness. I realized that I was getting a lot of attention with some of the things I wrote about on Twitter,, and I was being heard: which, for me, is a big deal. So I was going to send an article to a Joe Bob fanzine in response to some backlash that Diana was facing: to support her. But I was already thinking about something else.

Towards the end of the season, especially after the One-Cut of the Dead showing — in which I ended up writing “The Cut of my Jib” as an article that I even sent out — I created The Horror Doctor. It was partially in honour of my late partner, whom we’d always talked about writing, or collaborating, on something together. But I realized I needed a place for my horror. I’d written about Jordan Peele’s Us, and Ari Aster’s Midsommar in a few places elsewhere, but I felt I needed to streamline this. Create a home. A lab.

The Horror Doctor was also going to be a place where I would find ridiculous movies and rewrite them into stories that made more sense, at least to me. I have dabbled in it, but my grand experiment hasn’t happened yet. I wanted to something unique: something where my voice would stand out. And The Last Drive-In, and the fanfare inspired this.

As of this coming Season Three of The Last Drive-In, I now come into it with my Blog more firmly established. I don’t want to analyze episodes. I just want to have fun with them. The fact of the matter is based on all the above factors, I came to the conclusion that it’s far more satisfying to watch this show with others than binge it on your own: that Live-Tweeting brings a sense of community, and comradery during uncertain and even terrible times. Perhaps when I take about how being with likeminded people with something — or someone — to believe in, I could be talking about a cult. Certainly, it would not be out of place given the films we watch. But it’s more than that. There are dissenting opinions, and conversations, and that is more than okay. It’s not perfect but, honestly? I don’t want it to be: as it can’t be, and all we can do is acknowledge that while continuing to examine it, and even enjoy the spectacle.

I don’t know where I would be without having found, and taking the plunge to watch this show. I don’t think I really want to know, to be honest. I certainly have no idea where it will take us, where it might take me. I have a dream that one day I might create something worthy of a Silver Bolo Award, perhaps something on this Blog. It might not always be called The Horror Doctor. It might change.

But I don’t think the intent behind any of it will ever truly perish. For after all:

That is not dead which can never say goodbye,
and even with strange aeons the Drive-In will never die.

See you all this Friday, my fellow Fiends.

Creepshow Commentaries Season Two: Episode 2 – Dead & Breakfast / Pesticide

Warning: Potential Spoilers for Episode 2: Dead & Breakfast / Pesticide

I love how the beginning of this episode began with an animated bit, with the Creep taking a fly from his eye, and placing it into a spider’s web to eventually … die. There was an old lady, am I right?

And there was. Let’s look at “Dead & Breakfast,” directed by Axelle Carolyn and written by Michael Rousselet and Erik Sandoval. It begins in an old boarding house in 1939 where a guest is killed with an axe by an old woman named, fairly inaccurately, Spinster. For, as it turns out eighty years later, her adult grandchildren now run the house with which she committed her serial killings. 

Unfortunately, for all her granddaughter Pamela’s — the name and obsession of which reminds me of Jason Voorhee’s mother — pretensions to her grandmother having been the greatest American serial killer alive, she and her brother Samuel barely keep the boarding house running as a tourist attraction. And it’s too bad, for even as they encourage an influencer — a young social media personality by the equally pretentious name of Morgue — to stay at their property for free to get more exposure and potentially more bookings, even the Winchester Mansion-labyrinthine characteristics aren’t enough to keep her entertained or engaged, and Pamela decides to take rather drastic measures more out of a sense of twisted pride than common sense. 

I like how this one plays out. Morgue plays with the word “Spinster” as she makes fun of Pamela, as the older woman dresses up as her grandmother to scare her with an axe, only to seriously lose her already tenuous sanity, and kill the young woman after a lengthy chase and fall down the old stairs. And then Samuel, seemingly incompetent, always browbeaten, wanting to give up on the whole scheme altogether, constantly dressing up in a headless costume, kills his sister — revealing that he is just as much a grandchild of Old Lady Spinster as she is — to profit from the amount of social media Views and Likes that their “performance” of killing Morgue would bring. I have to hand it to him: making it look like it was staged, combined with the idea that an influencer can in fact disappear off the grid, or retire out of publicity reasons and making it look like his sister committed suicide really did add to his scheme: as convoluted as it is.

Of course, we find out that Old Lady Spinster had indeed been a successful serial killer. The problem, of course, with being a truly effective killer is that — even with her deathbed confessions — she was just too good at her job: at hiding the bodies. At the end of the day, there had been nothing to even prove that Spinister had even been a killer: that is how good she was, until Samuel goes back to the sealed room with the sewing machine and spindle. It turns out, Old Lady Spinster had a certain liking for either Sleeping Beauty, or Rumplestiltskin in that when he accidentally touched the mechanism of the machine, it opened a trap door for him to fall through: surrounding him with the old bones of his grandmother’s victims. He was pleased by this development too until, in EC Comics karma fashion, the trap door closed in on him: killed by a device his own grandmother installed ages ago. Even as Morgue gets to truly be involved in a serial killing she’s always investigated, as Pamela notes before killing her, Grandma Spinster’s whole line is destroyed by her own murderous legacy beyond the grave. I will say, however, that my only complaint — the only thing that took me, briefly, out of my immersion — was the fact that Morgue reconnected the modem Pamela unplugged that was she was so quick to get her Wifi connection back. That is just unbelievable, but in my mind still forgivable as I was entertained by this twisted circle of life in a story commenting on an America profiting off a history — and a reality — of murder. 

And then, speaking of murder and profitting off countless exterminations of life, we have “Pesticide,” as written by Frank Dietz, and directed by Greg Nicotero. This particular story reminds me of a story in the first Creepshow movie, “They’re Creeping Up On You!” Like that protagonist, we have the exterminator Harlan that calls himself the King — who despises insects, though he also enjoys killing other beings that are considered vermin — and, unlike the callous rich man in that 1982 story, he doesn’t have money until it is offered to him for … undertaking a whole other kind of pest control. 

His guilt, however, does plague him like Upson Pratt — or some kind of supernatural delusional event anyway — and the creature effects are fairly impressive,and gross. I do think that people living on the streets would be able to figure out that there is something off about their stew being poisoned, especially as the King — for all of his expertise in chemicals — isn’t particularly subtle, especially in how he kills that one homeless man with the knife. Street-smarts are a real thing, and the whole story makes me wonder if it truly happened at all, or if the exterminator just lost his mind. It has a whole dream-like quality to it, including another EC Comics karma ending that draws on a Kafkaesque “he found himself transformed into his bed into a monstrous vermin” moment. But The Metamorphosis reference aside, I truly appreciated Keith David as one Mr. Murdoch — the devil in the King’s ear — and that deep, baritone voice filled with casual satisfaction over the exterminations he received. I had some major Goliath from Gargoyles flashbacks hearing him speak again, and him appearing as an exterminator the end brought the whole Creepshow reference to “They’re Creeping Up On You!” full circle, which was the concluding story for the 1982 film as well.

I also enjoyed seeing Ashley Lawrence appear in her role as a psychologist and — just like her work as Kirsty Cotton in Hellraiser — she plays both victim and killer, with fear and disdain — extremely well. If anyone would see a blubbering would-be killer as beneath her, as someone on the other end of the counselling sessions this time, it would be Lawrence, and while the story itself is a bit disjointed at the end it is fitting that she ends King’s pathetic little life, with Murdoch offering to help her with “further pest problems.” 

Two stories, one with the descendants of a killer hoping to profit off of her deaths, and the latter of a killer of insects making the choice, foreshadowed by his uncle in jail for some unspecified crime — who taught him how make poisons, to kill “larger vermin” —  the legacies and actions come back to take them full circle, back to the spider and the fly at the beginning of the episode. And, after all, aren’t these stories just a microcosm of the horror cycle of life. Doesn’t death always come back to death? And isn’t that, ultimately, how these stories will continue, when everything is all said and done? 

Either way you look at it, I look forward to seeing more callbacks and familiar horror faces in the episodes that are still to come.

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.

Yule in Fuckedupland: Greg Nicotero’s “A Creepshow Holiday Special”

I don’t really know what to say.

I didn’t expect there to be a Holiday edition of Creepshow, but I should have. I really should have. I thought, given what happened with this passing year of infamy and the quality of the Animated Special, we would have to wait until next year — maybe even longer — to see another episode of this Shudder series. In fact, when I first heard about someone mentioning this online, I thought they were still talking about the Halloween Animated Special.

I was wrong. It turns out, I was wrong about a great many things.

What we have here, this particular specimen made of a collection of fibers, buttons, and sixty-five cents in the manner that old vintage-era comics used to cost over time, is live-action and the only story of its kind: its own weird star on its very furry Yuletide tree from the Fucked Up Island of Misfit Stuffed Animals. I know what I said. 

The premise is that Robert Weston, an unassuming prickly man goes to a support group called Shapeshifters Anonymous to deal with the fact that he has become a lycanthrope: a werewolf. But that’s not what the story is about. Not really. This story, written and directed by Greg Nicotero on too much egg-nog spiked on crack perhaps to offset the bleak insanity of this year, is about how these therianthropes — these humans that change into humanoid animal monsters except for for Phyllis, the furry member who just reliably makes every meeting — has to fight to the death against their ancient enemy: Kristopher Claws, a jumped up folklore nightmare wannabe that wishes he was Baba Yaga, and his Santa helpers. 

Yup. That’s it. The episode is off the wall, and its lampoonish insanity and premise is reminiscent of Scare Package’s “M.I.S.T.,E.R” with some What We Do in the Shadows werewolf humour. Also, Bob — as a central power — makes it back into Creepshow, but not in the same way as the name did in “The Finger,” which this episode gives the Holidays. 

I didn’t expect this, in so many ways. It is almost comical, and it’s strange to see a standalone episode without another to accompany it in the usual double features with which we become accustomed. There was an interlude of sorts where it went right back into the comics sequences that we’ve seen, and I wondered if they were going to end the episode there and transition into the other, like they usually do, but they didn’t. 

The story itself is haphazard in a fun way like Manborg, like adults playing with their toys and mixing metaphors in ridiculous ways to just make … fun. 

To be fun.

It could have gone another way. It could have been all fun and games until Phyllis, the only non-therianthrope, is killed by Kristopher, and then it becomes real: this group of friends really fighting for their survival. There were points, even with the were-boar and were-turtle where I thought some of these friends would die. But I’m glad it didn’t go there. I’m glad Phyllis got to have her moment, and get her wish. Phyllis is awesome. 

It’s easy, and dangerous, to take horror seriously. To always expect it to be grim, and tragic, and brutal all the time.Frankly, we had that already in “A Creepshow Animated Special” of Halloween. Between the “Survivor Type” and “Twittering From the Circus of the Dead” I’m not sure I could take anymore of the horror of isolation. I think this year has also done that enough for us. But in giving the tropes of Holidays the taloned finger, Nicotero also draws together these therianthropic misfits from an awkward first meeting to a heartwarming sense of belonging and camaraderie against the ridiculously diabolical hordes of the hired killers that want to rip off all their hides with a gusto usually reserved for cookies and milk, and toys given out of guilt. I even ship Weston, played by Adam Pally, and Irena as played by Anna Camp together: as Robert is a well-meaning fumbling man, and Irena is a good kitty … or as much as a were-jaguar or any cat can be. A were-boar can actually be a terrifying thing, but the one in Shapeshifters Anonymous is not. I definitely had a Ninja Turtle flash-backs with another member, the were-turtle would could conceivably be a fighting tank, and I was just waiting for Kristopher — their enemy — to make a quip like “Tonight we dine on turtle-soup!” What a missed opportunity. 

I don’t think I’ve laughed this hard in a long time, minus the hysteria. All told, as a Creepshow story it was entertaining, and it is great to see what could be a supernatural affliction become something positive against deceptive holiday normalcy, and instead of Rudolph getting to play reindeer games, Irena gets to show Robert what a California King-sized bed truly is.

I needed something to remind me of how weird and comical horror can be, and how it can laugh at itself, reminding me of some of the fun spectacles at the Toronto After Dark. “A Creepshow Holiday Special” is the heartwarming story of a group of were-creatures fighting against the assassins of Santa Claus is a gift you may not want, but you definitely need. 

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.

An Outsider’s View of Castle Freak

I’d been curious about Castle Freak for a little while.

Part of the reason I’ve had interest in the film is because I am still catching up on the first official season of Shudder’s The Last Drive-In series, and then I heard that Barbara Crampton is involved with its remake. It’s strange, for me, being a Lovecraft fanatic that I never made the connection that, aside from being given a poster of concept art from which to work, director Stuart Gordon and screenwriter Dennis Paoli had been inspired — at least roughly — to make the 1995 film Castle Freak by H.P. Lovecraft’s extremely short story “The Outsider.”

I didn’t know what to expect from Castle Freak, beyond knowing it takes place in an old Italian Castle and expecting there to be a ton of gore and brutality: possibly by a group of monsters on an unsuspecting American family. At the time, I didn’t even know that Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton were even in the film, never mind its central stars: though knowing Crampton was being interviewed on The Last Drive-In episode of Castle Freak became another impetus in me having a look at it.

I’ll admit that watching Joe Bob Briggs’ segments did spoil aspects of the movie for me, but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the film. I’ve heard that many fans of Gordon’s work don’t think as highly of Castle Freak as they might Re-Animator, and even From Beyond. A lot of it, from my understanding, is that while the latter two films — created in the 1980s — have heavily goofy and “camp” overtones, drawing close to comedy in horror, Castle Freak itself is played out seriously, and without laughs. Unlike the science-fictional and paranormal elements of the former two films, Castle Freak is a mystery horror film with obvious Gothic influence: complete with tropes such as family secrets, hereditary sins, a long lost, deformed and/or insane family member, and a scene of crumbling beauty and the price of pride turned into madness revisited on unsuspecting descendants.

Another element I can also argue is that while Re-Animator, and to some extent From Beyond — which I have written about and attempted to experiment on in this mad laboratory that is my Blog — are very clearly based from Lovecraft’s works, Castle Freak uses “The Outsider” as just a stepping stone, or a foundation to create an entirely different work. Re-Animator still follows the resurrection of the dead and the hubris of Herbert West, and From Beyond does illustrate what happens when you attempt to view and interact with dimensions beyond human perception, but Castle Freak? It isn’t like “The Outsider” in that the “creature” involved isn’t the protagonist or some possibly undead monstrosity that was once a human being realizing what he is, and fleeing from that knowledge.

Giorgio Orsino — the titular “Freak” of this film played by Jonathan Fuller — is a tormented man whose death was faked by his mother the Italian Duchess D’Orsino and, blamed for the sins of his American father in leaving her, spent the rest of his life chaining him in a dungeon and flaying him with a barbed whip. He is five years old when his death is falsified and forty-two years pass before his mother dies from a heart-attack after beating him one last time. He is practically a feral being by the time he manages to escape his bonds, though he seems to have a grasp of some rudimentary Italian when he does occasionally speak. However, unlike the protagonist of “The Outsider” who seems to be quite intelligent and has “many antique books” Giorgio is not only driven by a sense of loneliness — more visceral than existential — but hunger and fury over his torment and neglect. If anything, his skittering manner of moving through the corridors of the Castle, is reminiscent more of Lovecraft’s :”The Rats in the Walls” than anything else, and for more reasons than one when you realize just how famished he is. Giorgio is a living being that wants what he thinks is owed to him, and he literally wants his pound of flesh.

Lovecraft, of course, is no stranger to Gothic themes and tropes, especially considering how “The Outsider” and its narrative style is influenced by the prose of Edgar Allan Poe. The story of Castle Freak, however, follows not just Giorgio who is the monster — and I would argue one of the true victims of this entire film — but also the American Reilly family and in particular its patriarch John Reilly.

John Reilly, played by Jeffrey Combs, is an alcoholic and an unemployed professor. His father abused him during his early life, and it the echoes of it affect him all the way until the end of Castle Freak. He inherits the Orsino Castle after the Duchess, his aunt, dies and he takes his family there to claim and potentially sell the property. John’s wife, Susan (played by Barbara Crampton), despises him. There is really no other word for it. Due to his alcoholism he lost his employment, and because his five year old son J.J. dropped his video game in the car and tried to reach for it, the boy loses his life in a car accident when John tries to stop his son and simultaneously keep his eyes on the road: failing at both. This same accident blinds his daughter Rebecca, played by actress Jessica Dollarhide, and it leaves his wife to blame him for everything that’s happened to their family.

I think one element of this film that needs to be discussed is its use of connections, and how they all pay off. And when I mention connections, what I am really talking about are relationships. From the police officer who has a relationship with the sex worker that John takes him when his wife spurns him again, to the child they’ve had together, to the amoral Italian Orsino lawyer being the sibling of the housekeeper that warns the Reillys of the Castle and what her death causes, and John’s own tormented relation with Susan, the memory of J.J., and his attempts to protect Rebecca, Susan’s own resentful bond with John, and her over-protective and even obsessive relationship with Rebecca, and the Duchess’ own malicious and petty need to torture Giorgio, and Giorgio wanting to belong to this new family that he can somehow sense as his kin … it all fits together in a patchwork like the scars on Giorgio’s body, and the worn stones of the Castle that is their heritage.

This unity, or this twisted rhyme, can be seen in the form of J.J. J.J. is the child that shouldn’t have died. Giorgio, whom everyone believed dead, once looked the spitting image of J.J. Two dead children that are blood-related, and practically doubles or doppelgängers of each other: the former’s death indicative of an emotionally absent father whose alcoholism led, in part, to the car crash that took his life, and the latter whose father’s physical abandonment led him to having his very identity destroyed in all the ways the matter are central to this film. Families and children, unhealthy dynamics between spouses, siblings, and parents and children are what make Castle Freak.

And then, there is the matter of karma. We find out, and it becomes clear especially after Joe Bob’s talk with Barbara Crampton, that Giorgio and John both have the same American WWII soldier: the former being the Duchess’ son, and the latter being the bastard child of her sister that ran off with him, unmarried, to the United States. The Duchess dies before any justice or vengeance can be carried out on her from the boy whose life she ruined out of a sense of pride and, presumably, the American soldier is also long dead and gone.

Giorgio is John’s Shadow, another popular literary trope. He has abusive and neglectful parents like John, except taken to the nth degree. He was flagellated by a mother for his perceived sins, and tormented for things that were — unlike John — literally beyond his control. Even John’s sexual frustration as punishment by his wife and her anger, and inability to connect with those of his blood, or a disconnect from the sexual relations he has to have with the sex worker are mirrored horrifically in that Giorgio seems to be castrated, but his mother left him his testicles and the frustration of loneliness and an animal fury he can’t express in any other way: as we see with what he does to the poor sex worker. But mostly, there is a grief there. While John grieves, and is guilt-stricken by J.J.’s death, Giorgio mourns even the death of his tormenter and that fury needs somewhere to go.

And Giorgio, after killing the sex worker and the housekeeper sister of the man who could have saved John from being blamed for their murders, finds this outlet: in the form of the scourge that his mother used on him his entire life. It is this whip he uses on John who, in a way, represents the reason Giorgio had been rendered into a tortured being. To Giorgio, if he can think that far, John is the brother that his father left him for, and abandoned him to the cruelty of his insane mother. In a way, John’s existence is the reason his life is so ruined, and that madness is taken out on his hide.

Giorgio, his mother’s whipping boy, makes John his own. And Giorgio, who John once saw as resembling his dead son — the child dead by his own negligence — is something of a gross magnification of his own guilt flagellating himself. And yet, something happens with John that Giorgio is incapable of understanding, or undertaking. For all of John’s selfishness and self-absorption, he still loves his family. Perhaps, at this point in the film, after contemplating suicide, drinking, and undertaking actions that further hurt his family, John doesn’t want Giorgio — both a psychopathic monstrosity of his aunt’s torment, and a symbol of his own guilty conscience — to damage his family anymore. And with a noble moment of self-sacrifice, John tackles Giorgio and the two fall to their deaths: united in death in a way they could never have been in life.

At the end, Susan Reilly sees this — him having saved her and their daughter — and seems to forgive him, perhaps even seeing her own part in the torment that led to all of John’s own actions as they exchange their last words with each other. The Reillys live on, with perhaps the cycle of abuse and pain and recrimination broken by John and Giorgio’s deaths, and the understanding of what led to where they are now: and perhaps after mourning they can find a way forward.

The sins of the family, in this case, are not a blood related curse or a result of eugenics as Lovecraft’s stories and those of his Victorian predecessors often go, but of generational abuse and trauma. But there is one thing that bothers me in this otherwise relatively immaculate film.

Where is Giorgio’s coffin?

At the end of the film, we see John’s coffin being taken to his funeral, or his funeral endings, but we never see what they do with the boy who was supposed to have died decades ago. John is a sufferer of terrible familiar trauma, consciously or otherwise, but Giorgio himself is an even more obvious victim. What happened to his body at the end of the film? Did he even get the dignity of a burial? A real burial?

It gives me inspiration: to try something else.

I always try to say something in this Blog that is more than just a rehashing of something already said and done. So, in light of the upcoming remake by Tate Steinsiek and its more overt and cultish Cthulhu Mythos influences of which I’m curious to see unfold, I started to think to myself — and this was the only reason this article even happened — what if we went back to the roots of “The Outsider?”

There are obvious issues. “The Outsider” is a short story that functions well from a first-person limited perspective. The readers are limited by what he knows and perceives. It is hard to translate that into a film narrative, even with voice over narratives: though it would make for perhaps a good experimental short film, or animation. And I am sure it’s been done already.

So, let’s Frankenstein this fucker, my solution to almost everything in this mad lab. Think of it as following looking at the lives of two children traveling different paths through Castle Freak. First, let’s take Giorgio Orsino from Stuart Gordon’s film. Let’s say that he isn’t the only freak in the Castle, that Giorgio was used by his mother and her family to seal the rest of them away: namely, the ghouls from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and Dreamlands Cycle respectively. Imagine John and Susan Reilly as being completely unsympathetic or clueless and it is Rebecca who focuses on finding her way into understanding how the Castle works: on discovering that it is a weak place between reality and the Dreamlands. Consider that John was supposed to be the original sacrifice, but his father and mother left with him: perhaps even unknowing, and it was up to Giorgio to be offered as a perpetual whipping boy, his blood sealing the other creatures below the Castle into the Underworld.

But then the Duchess dies and Giorgio is freed. A lot of the events of the film continue, but Rebecca is more proactive and bitter about not only being blind, but having her mother constantly attempting to control her. I also like the idea that something comes of her learning some Italian, as she attempts to do in the film, and begins to understand Giorgio: even sympathize with him after she realizes how damaged he is. It may even be that there is something in his hoarse voice that reminds her of her lost brother J.J. I’d also be fascinating if we saw the film from Giorgio’s perspective, and there is a part of him that still thinks he is that golden-haired five year old child until he looks at a mirror, or he does something particularly feral and vicious: almost making him like two different characters and making the audience wonder who that strange child is who also resembles J.J. until the end.

I would have it that it looks like John is attempting to save his family, but he fails. Perhaps he and Susan kill each other, or the other beasts get them instead. Rebecca goes insane or perhaps begins to think that there is another way. It is Giorgio who after his killings of the housekeeper and the sex worker that actually opens the Gate and unleashes the beasts fully: taking Rebecca with him. It’s with Giorgio pledging himself to them that we realize the Reillys and the Orsinos they came from, have ghoul blood. And Giorgio and Rebecca become ghouls, slowly changing, mutating: with Giorgio eating the corpse of his mother who tried to consume his life and keep him in a stillborn stone womb of a prison, shedding the illusion of the child he used to be and wished he still was and the mutilated husk of a broken human to become something more. And Rebecca ends up devouring her own parents: those who controlled hers and emancipating herself to a whole new existence. They then leave with the ghouls — the last of their line here — to live in the depths of the Dreamlands and feast on the dead forever.

So, in this way I am marrying together “The Outsider” with “The Rats in the Walls” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” thereby adding a supernatural or low-key Cthulhu Mythos element into it — though not to the apparent extent of Tate Steinsiek’s work with something of a gross and twisted “happy-ending.” Instead of John’s redemption and reaffirmation of family and society, it could be a story about Giorgio, and even Rebecca’s dark salvation from the ruining influence of a mortal world, and the freedom of a bloody, supernatural one beyond human morality.

Conversely, there is the other “child” of my Mythos thought. We make a cinematic story with “The Outsider” traveling through his grave, to his ancestral castle and shying away from the truth of his undead nature, with only snippets of memory and perhaps he — and the audience — see him as a whole being like the youth of “The Quest of Iranon” as he travels through places like “Under the Pyramids” and even through a “Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” to finally realize what he is, and to come to peace with it as he joins the ghouls and night-gaunts in their revels. This would have more of a dark epic fantasy cinematic horror feel to it: a saga that expands out to a glorious Lovecraftian cosmic ending: romantic in the sense of it being sublime in unearthly Nature.

Even though I like the 1995 Castle Freak, and my original intent was to not attempt to alter films that I feel work in their own way, I also love the idea of an Outsider, of a supposed monster or a disabled female character — who is actually the central character in the upcoming Steinsiek remake — being the protagonist of their story and challenging a world view in being so. There are opportunities there, perhaps being taken in the remake to an extent. We will just have to see.

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. 

Another Halloween

I’ve meant to do this for a while.

Originally, I was going to make something of a Toronto After Dark retrospective: specifically an account on how I was introduced to the Film Festival, and how it made me deal with the horror genre in a different way. And the person who brought me to this Festival in 2010 was Kaarina Wilson.

It always comes back to her.

I’ve talked about Kaarina before, and not just on this medium. I feel like sometimes that is all I ever do: talk, and write about her. Autumn, or Fall, is a time of year in many cultures where the veil between the material and the spiritual worlds, the living and the dead is supposed to be at its thinnest. The Harvest is often reaped in Fall, before Winter. And people go around wearing the likenesses of their favourite fictional characters, their celebrities, or their personal demons and their nightmares.

This was Kaarina’s favourite time of year. She got to dress up and be as unapologetically camp as she wanted. And she also got to wear her fears and terrors on the outside for a change, of the creeping, inexorable march of the body’s hunger and decay overtaking the rational and feeling human mind.

She was so much more into the horror genre than I was. Before her, I had read the Classics like Frankenstein, Dracula and H.P. Lovecraft’s main Cthulhu Mythos stories. I’d watched some camp and horror movies with my friends before they moved from their apartment to Barrie so many years ago. I learned, there, that horror is something that should be experienced in a group setting. I can’t even begin to tell you the difference between watching something terrible happen to someone, or an utter bastard of a character getting their comeuppance alone, and then hearing other people gasp, or applaud, or cackle beside you as it all happens on the big screen.

Kaarina cackled. That was how she laughed. It was this wicked, pleased with herself reaction of dark joy, and it was one of the reasons I was so insanely in love with her. It was her that had me read Clive Barker and made me realize that horror isn’t just a fear of the unknown, but also the realization that you often what scares you is — deep down — what you ultimately desire when you strip away human niceties, conventional morality, and common sense. It also set the stage for the fact that, aside for the potential of public catharsis — the purging of emotions caused by pity and fear often attributed to ancient tragic plays — horror can have its own twisted logic, an orange and blue morality that even in its own alien mindset still has a human component that makes sense.

I think about the fact that Kaarina was the one that made me read “Dread” and “The Midnight Meat Train” and then had me see the film adaptations, but not before we watched May together in the basement apartment she called her Wonderland — after Alice’s — or what I thought of at times was her Underground. Quaid just wanted to overcome his fear and help others do so. Leon Kaufman had a terrible need to fit into something bigger than him, to find an assured and foundational place in New York: to belong somewhere. And May, in the midst of humiliation and confusing and deceptive human actions she just wanted to make a friend.

I learned a lot, then, even as I related to it. I’d even read “The Forbidden” and got to see how that short story changed in the better known Candyman adaptation. It also helped that Kaarina had been taking a Ryerson course on Gothic Literature that gave me the excuse to read her online copy of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that a lot of what I learned about horror, which had been scattered between University courses, bored movie channel watching at my parents’ place, and the times with my zombie-fanatic friends, started from Kaarina. And she was definitely the one that encouraged me to write something about horror in film: to the point of her arguing with me when I didn’t believe I could focus enough to do so.

The truth is: I never thought I really fit into this genre. But Kaarina challenged that. She made me watch ridiculous films, weird films, creative films, erotic films, and enjoyable films. She showed me movies that made me use my critical brain, and others that I just sat back and enjoyed. I realized it didn’t always have to be serious, or stick to eclectic small things that were the result of my own crippling perfectionism.

It was actually okay for me to have fun.

This was important, especially given that when we met I was still struggling to finish off my Graduate Program. I didn’t think I could do it, get through my Program, write again for myself, or even engage with these weird independent movies, and have something to say. I know for a fact I used to drive her utterly crazy with my doubts, and my stubbornness.

Perhaps it hit a little too close to home, even as I encouraged her to write more reviews and stories herself. Like the seasons, like birth, death and rebirth, or life, death, and reanimation everything was a cycle. It still is.

For example, if not for the Pandemic this year would have been the first After Dark without her. And there is something almost fitting about the fact that on the year of her death, the Toronto After Dark Film Festival — her favourite event — didn’t happen. But either way, this is the first Halloween without her in it.

And grief is a cycle as well.

So I find myself, in the midst of 2020’s utter misery trying to compensate, to live twice as much as I can in these limited circumstances, to feel that abundant life force and need to live in the middle of so much death and stasis, and to enjoy horror for the two of us. I bought her a subscription to Fangoria while she was in the hospital which I had to cancel after she was gone, and I have to read that for her: to succeed this time, one day, in actually being able to submit something into its pages. I got her a Shudder account while she was in a medically induced coma to shave the damaged parts of her lungs away — and I curated the films in there to match the ones we’d seen together, or that were at the After Dark Festival, or anything I found interesting, but now that she’s gone it still exists there, having never had the heart to close it. Some part of me imagines, in some liminal space between sleep and the Internet, that a part of her watches those films to this very day.

I know there are some things, like this Blog, which she would be proud of me creating, but it’s hard to think about how she will never be able to tell me that herself again. So that is why I watch all these horror films, so many more than I used to. That’s why I want to celebrate Halloween with friends, to enjoy the movies with others and not be alone. That’s why I look forward to the Hallow’s Harvest table-top roleplaying game I’m playing with my friends before I have to return to this reality.

In the early summer, still reeling from Kaarina’s loss, I finally decided to sit in on a live watching of Joe Bob Briggs’ The Last Drive-In on Shudder. I’d only been there in passing when they were watching some of the Halloween series having found out about it through Diana Prince: or Darcy the Mailgirl on the show. When I watch the show on Shudder TV, and live-tweet with Diana, and the rest of the MutantFam it reminds me of all the times I watched horror films with my friends, all the moments I wished I had someone to watch them with in my house, every occasion I watched them at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival in the Bloor, and Underground Cinemas, and ScotiaBank Theatre.

Watching strange and weird films with “blood, breasts, and beasts” with the MutantFam of The Last Drive-In reminds me of all every night I watched movies with Kaarina, and it takes a little bit of that edge of the jagged Jack-o-Lantern hole in my heart off.

I had a lot of plans for this Blog. I was going to write alternate endings to films and stories. I was going to reconstruct one movie in particular. And I was going to write about weird things, unique perspectives and experiences and experiments. Most of this has been reviews, like the ones I would write for GeekPron or Sequart. But sometimes I can still get personal. Perhaps next time, I will tell you all about the writings that actually led to the making of this Blog: my proto-articles that tried to link themes and ideas together in a series I was watching which would provide the basis of what I do — or try to do — on this Blog. I wrote them when Kaarina was still alive, but she never saw them. But I think she would have approved.

So let me just say to you all, before adopting my Horror Doctor half-mask persona again, have a safe and happy Halloween. I will do the same. It is the least I can do now.

The End of Freddy’s Revenge: Journal of a Scream Queen

When I first watched the documentary Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street, I wanted to write something about it but it didn’t feel appropriate to do so at the time. Aside from it covering Mark Patton, the actor who played Jesse Walsh in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, and his life as a gay man during the 1980s and the demons he had to face then, and afterwards, there was one other fact with which I had to contend.

I hadn’t watched A Nightmare on Elm Street. Any of them.

The reason I saw the documentary at all had more to do with the anticipation of, and the recommendation from Sam Wineman, and his upcoming documentary on queer horror for Shudder. I’d already seen Shudder’s Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror directed by Xavier Burgin, and I’ve hoped to see a similar treatment to LGBTQ+ people and themes in the horror genre. In the meantime, however, I realized that what I needed to do — unlike Horror Noire where I began watching some of those films and the work of their actors after viewing it — was watch some LGBTQ+ horror itself, or at least some that played with those elements, for good or ill.

This is where Scream, Queen came in. And even now, despite having written something on Sleepaway Camp and its problematic elements, I’m still not writing about this documentary. Not entirely.

I’d like to think it’s not that dissimilar to how Patton wrote “Jesse’s Lost Journal.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. You see, I’m a freak. Given that this blog is called The Horror Doctor at the moment, and the subject matter we are covering, that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. But I might be one of the few people in the horror fandom that watched Scream, Queen before ever seeing the Nightmare on Elm Street series, and the sequel in particular. The fact that I saw that documentary before watching Nightmare on Elm Street 2 probably informed my opinions differently than someone who saw the film cold in their formative years, or even afterwards.

I am one of those relatively straight people, who didn’t hate the sequel. I like the fact that there was an attempt to create something new in the Elm Street mythos before it had really even begun. For me, it made sense that Freddy Krueger, as a being of nightmares, would need a physical avatar to properly interact with a material world without relying on people asleep or a half-delirious state. It also really spoke to me that he would prey on an adolescent dealing with anger and repressed sexual feelings in order to infiltrate his mind and body. Freddy is a child predator no matter which way you look at it, and he exploits whatever he can, non-consensually, to enjoy his favourite past times: pain, suffering, and murder.

If you go even further, you will notice in the second film that he only ever kills men and boys. When you consider how Jesse is humiliated by his coach, belittled by his father, his feelings mistaken as mental illness by his mother, even physically fighting with Grady, and expected to be sexual with Lisa at a popular party in a mansion I just read it all as an LGBTQ teen being thrown into a patriarchal or kyriarchical system where he doesn’t belong — and Freddy is the other side of it, the destructive, violent tendencies in addition to being his own hideous self that obliterates the societal structure and people tormenting him along with his own false sense of self. The way Freddy eventually rips out of Jesse reminds me so much of the monstrous sentient tumour that comes out of Steven Freeling after arguably rejecting his own toxic masculinity born of anger and helpless and alcoholism in Poltergeist II: The Other Side.

It’s no coincidence, to me, that Freddy wears Jesse as a skin, though the reverse is also true. Just as Jesse’s father is the reason he is imprisoned in this literally hot and stifling place of suffocation in Nancy’s old house made from murder, Freddy becomes the prison that he is entrapped within by the dominant social narrative: watching his subsequent actions become distorted into the worst possible atrocities.

The thing is, writers like Logan Ashley in his article “Scream, Queen!”: A Reflection on the Legacy of a Gay Cult Classic Death of the author, and examining what we remember about problematic, “bad” horror point out that Freddy may well represent the view that society enforces on LGBTQ people — on gay men in this case — that their sexuality is wrong, monstrous, and equated with child predation and worse. But it is through Lisa’s Platonic, pure love and acceptance of who Jesse is that makes him realize he isn’t sick or wrong, that he isn’t alone, that he is heard and understood even in the greatest darkness, and that he will survive.

It’s been pointed out a few times, of course, that this was probably not the message that the film intended. Much like Sleepaway Camp and its treatment of Angela Baker — with the character’s reveal as being biologically male and that transphobia — there is a homophobic element where some might see it as Freddy being the unnatural “other sexuality” that the love of a good woman can cure. I’m not going to rehash all of that, or the fact that the film’s writer David Chaskin attributed the homoerotic or phobic undertones to the “performances of a few elements” only to take credit for the homophobic “critique” years after the denial of it.

Logan Ashley in his article argues that Roland Barthes’ idea of “the death of the Author” — that once a work of art is completed it no longer belongs to the creators but to the audience or those that consume or perform in its legacy — can be applied to Freddy’s Revenge in this sense, in that other readings can be attributed to it, such as — again — a work like Sleepaway Camp. And if that’s the case, there is another way this narrative can be interpreted.

All of that leads back to Mark Patton and his struggles, and the conclusions to which he’s come. All of that can be seen in Scream, Queen, this documentary directed by Roman Chimienti and Tyler Jensen, and co-produced by Patton himself in 2019. However before Scream, Queen and after the 2010 documentary Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy, Patton made something else.

Jesse’s Lost Journal is a series created by Mark Patton in 2012, posted on Static Emporium in sixty-eight parts, including a Preface from Patton. The premise is that, much like the Journal Jesse Walsh finds belonging to Nancy Thompson in the first film, he writes down his own thoughts as he experiences the events of Freddy’s Revenge … and beyond.

It’s no secret that I love epistolary fiction. Certainly, I’ve enjoyed works such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu,” and Kris Straub’s Candle Cove where journal entries, transcripts, and letters create the narrative of a horror story: this testimony to terrible things and the revelations they contain. Certainly, Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust‘s film reels and also Stephen Volk’s Ghostwatch mockumentary aspects fall into that place for me. But there are also two other elements I enjoy in my studies, and my own personal interest. For one, I love meta-fictional narratives: works that say something and build on, and from, the frame of the original works from which they are based. The first time I was exposed to this was through John Gardner’s Grendel, the story of Beowulf as told from the perspective of the monster he slays, but I particularly enjoyed Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ comics miniseries Providence — which operates from the idea that Lovecraft created his Cthulhu Mythos from slightly different, but similar events as written down in another Commonplace Book — and E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire that tells the story of what if Max Schreck, who played Count Orlok in Nosferatu, really was a vampire.

And another element I appreciate, relating to all of these points and references, is that of the unreliable narrator.

“Jesse’s Lost Journal” has all of these qualities in spades. Unlike Moore and Burrows’ Providence, or even Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire, Jesse’s story begins much like the film in which he exists but even then, there are some … discrepancies. They are subtle, at first, but as you go through you find a very different character to the one portrayed in the film: someone self-aware of his danger and his oppressive surroundings, and will do almost anything to survive.

One fascinating part is how Patton characterizes Freddy and his interactions with Jesse. Fittingly, this prose is where it got pointed to me that Freddy only attacked the boys and men around Jesse, but after thinking about Freddy some more it reminded me of Daniel Sheppard’s Sleepaway Camp and the Transgressive Possibilities of Queer Spectatorship article I referenced in my look at Sleepaway Camp in which he references Sam J. Miller’s “Assimilation and the Queer Monster” in stating that “the queer monster” is an aspect of agony and radicalism that many would like to white-wash or disavow but might be, for all of its problematic nature, a source of strength and power against a tyrannical or heteronormative system. This is something of my own paraphrase, and Sheppard goes on to say that LGBTQ people can relate to the discomfort of this being’s existence, but while that may not work with a being like Freddy — who is a predator and killer of children in the film — in Patton’s “Jesse’s Lost Journal” the protagonist sees Freddy as his tormentor, his jailer, his prisoner, but also his cohort, and sometimes even an agent of freedom. In this context, I think the queer monster definitely applies to Freddy while not taking away from his aspect of being a tool or a stereotype created by the heteronormative patriarchy.

What is so good about metafiction is that it tends to comment on its own nature or narrative structure. The fact that Jesse is wondering where Nancy is and why she hasn’t contacted him in his fight against Freddy can be seen as a commentary on women and gay men being discrimated and separated from intersectional solidarity by a heteronormative kyriarchy. There is also the fact that they have different roles in their stories and the franchise itself: Nancy Thompson in Wes Craven’s first film operates out of a sense of righteous justice and self-agency against the odds and the system of disbelieving and secretive adults. Patton’s Jesse Walsh wants to help those wronged but he has to make sacrifices along the way in so doing. Nancy can’t help Jesse in this system. She comes back in other films, fighting other battles. Jesse continues to wage his own from the shadows, deserving his own time. In the end, he can only help himself.

Jesse also doesn’t end up sugarcoating the situation. He comments on how Freddy’s crimes are downplayed to mollify the citizens of Springwood, Ohio or to entertain audiences while giving him the lion’s share of the blame of all the murders of popular children in an upper-middle class society also says a lot about not just the homophobic of the 1980s, but also the fallout from critics and fans on Mark Patton during that particular period, exacerbated by Chaskin’s comments about his homosexuality giving the film a “gay subtext” where none supposedly existed. Jesse nearly dying and being institutionalized, eventually getting away from Elm Street, becoming homeless for a time, getting to New York, and both creating art and writing in a journal to sort out his thoughts and trauma also has some interesting semi-biographical resonances.

Of course, none of it is precisely factual or biographical. Patton changes facts around and Jesse, well, as I said: I love an unreliable narrator paired up with the conceit that something fictional is real. But I would strongly encourage anyone who has watched Scream, Queen to read “Jesse’s Lost Journal” or vice-versa.

I just want to appreciate the fact that for all the flak that Freddy’s Revenge received, there is so much support and even literature written around it. And I would definitely include “Jesse’s Lost Journal” as something of an artistic commentary and critique of that film, how it was handled, how social elements dealt with it, and that entire time period in which it was made. It is such a great example of deconstruction, reconstruction, and even re-appropriation of its parent narrative’s themes. Also, I dare you to look at how Jesse wins his battle at the end of Mark Patton’s series, and then watch Patton have his own confrontation towards the end of Scream, Queen: a place I never thought they would go, but they did. Either way you look at these parallels, a demon is faced, prices have been paid, unforgettably personal denouements are reached, a burden is possibly owned and shed, and perhaps a nightmare is finally over.