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…Home of the red, black, and blue; where there’s a darkness not just on the edge of town, but all along Main Street; and where the heartland lies deep within October Country.

This site is an outgrowth of the blog Macabre Republic (constituted in 2010), which was devoted to the celebration and appreciation of the Gothic in American literature and culture. My goal here is not merely to construct a platform for my own written work, but to build a community of fellow aficionados–all those who feel right at home on the nightside.

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IT’s Just Too Much

I am of two minds about IT: Chapter Two. There are aspects of the film I really enjoyed, but also a lot more elements I found problematical.

The opening scene involving the gay-bashing of Adrian Mellon (and Pennywise’s eventual noshing on him) marks a harrowing return to Derry’s unfriendly confines. The violence on display is vicious and unsettling, and bears an immediacy lacking from the corresponding scene in Stephen King’s novel (which is presented via a series of ex post facto statements to the police by the perpetrating punks). Director Andy Muschietti makes a wise choice starting with this hate crime, which inaugurates Pennywise’s next cycle of predation. In this scene, we get a glimpse of the evil influence that has permeated Derry; the problem is that Muschietti fails to sustain this idea. The town’s haunted state is largely absent from the rest of the film, as the streets and edifices of Derry are reduced to mere backdrops and the townspeople to virtual spear-carriers in the ongoing battles between Pennywise and the Losers Club.

The monsters mashing their way through the film (as Pennywise dons his various terrorizing disguises) are undeniably top-notch. Particularly memorable (by which I mean: scarringly nightmarish) here are the witchy Mrs. Kersh (the most unnerving nude in a King adaptation since the woman in Room 217 in The Shining) and the animate, bat-spewing statue of Paul Bunyan. The film boasts a menagerie of impressive antagonists; this is one area where the follow-up manages to surpass IT: Chapter One (which I reviewed here).

I don’t think it’s a terrible spoiler to write that Stephen King has a cameo in the film. Readers of this post who have yet to venture out to their local cineplex will be happy to learn that this is arguably King’s best cameo work to date. Muschietti, though, typically pushes matters too far by including a second cameo by a Hollywood luminary (seemingly playing himself), whose appearance here is completely out of left field and serves to jar the viewer out of the onscreen world.

Time is not on the side of It: Chapter Two; a generation has passed and the members of the Losers Club have all grown up. It’s simply not as easy to root for–and fear for–the adult versions of these characters. Personality traits that proved endearing in the young can seem tiresome in the post-pubescent. I found James Ransone’s adult Eddie especially grating, and thus had a hard time investing in his character arc. James McAvoy as adult Bill is miscast and unconvincing–he lacks stature (he’s dwarfed by most of the other Losers) and the commanding presence that led the others to look up to him as the group’s leader in King’s novel. Jessica Chastain gives a solid performance as the adult Beverly, but her character is bogged down by the burgeoning romance with the hunky yet utterly uninteresting Ben (Jay Ryan). Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) is a muddled mess; rather than forming the conscience of the group, he comes across more as a borderline madman verging on a heel turn. Just as Finn Wolfhard stole the first film as young Ritchie, Bill Hader stands out as the adult counterpart. A professional stand-up comedian, Hader’s Ritchie’s delivers laugh-out-loud-funny lines throughout (almost too many of them, threatening to compromise the tonality of the film). The much-ado about Ritchie’s personal secret, though, was somewhat off-putting. This aspect of his character was nowhere present in the source text, the alteration made here seemingly just to be different.

The film hardly floats through its bloated 170-minute runtime. A significant part of the drag no doubt stems from the insistence on re-establishing the juvenile ensemble from the preceding chapter. As the adult Losers are sent off on a silly treasure quest, viewers are subjected to a series of flashbacks to the troublesome summer twenty-something years earlier. But these scenes of further dreadful encounter with Pennywise strike a vague note of anachronism. I found myself asking: why didn’t any of this come up before (at least as a point of discussion between the young Losers)? Muschietti might have benefited from adopting a more self-contained approach here, minimizing the recurrences to the characters’ childhood.

Bill Skarsgard reprises his role as the coulrophobia-inducer extraordinaire Pennywise, and once again entertains with a combination of bloody malice and maniacal wit. Thankfully, though, Pennywise doesn’t only reach down into the same old bag of tricks. There are new nuances to the character, such as when the clown lures Its prey by feigning loneliness and painting himself the victim of ostracism. It’s in these quieter moments that It terrifies the most, not when the Dancing Clown launches into hyperkinetic attack mode. Perhaps my favorite part of the movie is when Pennywise sulkingly insists that It is an “eater of worlds” even as It is bested by the Losers.

That being said, the film’s climax frustrated me on a couple of fronts. First, the Ritual of Chud from King’s novel is grossly mishandled, turned hackneyed (a mystical routine learned from some token Native Americans conveniently living right outside the Derry town line). Also, while certainly not lacking for action, the climax is just too protracted. Amidst the epic battle, the Losers are split up individually, with each member having to deal with personal demons and negotiate a dark funhouse scene. Pennywise is juggling a lot of balls here, and I couldn’t help but wonder how the clown managed to pull off all these frightful mind-games simultaneously.

A running (and not particularly funny) gag throughout the film is that the horror novelist Bill sucks at scripting endings to his books. I’m almost tempted to think that the screenwriters were anticipating the audience’s own negative response to the film, whose denouement isn’t very moving. The voiceover reading of a missing Loser’s missive felt terribly contrived, and the quintessence of schmaltz. It had me pining for a scene of Bill and catatonic wife Audra on a bike ride through the beleaguered streets of Derry.

For all its prodigious length, It: Chapter Two paradoxically falls short. The film lacks scope: there are plenty of tentacles whipping around, but the sense of It as a Lovecraftian horror from beyond space is sadly absent. I don’t doubt that the film will benefit from a second viewing in the comforts of home–when I’m not physically assaulted by AMC Theatres’ thunderous sound system, and when I can rewind and rewatch key scenes with attention to the details that might have slipped by amidst all the chaotic goings-on. Still, I don’t think I will ever consider the sequel the equal of its precursor. It: Chapter Two bursts its own balloon with over-inflation; its impressive parts end up being too much of a good thing, yet nonetheless outnumbered by the film’s creative missteps.

 

O. Boy, Oh Boy!

I am doing a happy dance, on the heels of some incredibly exciting news. Norman Partridge’s 2006 novel Dark Harvest–an instant classic of Halloween fiction–is finally being adapted as a feature film.

Set in 1963 in an archetypal Midwestern town, Dark Harvest features a legendary bogey called the October Boy–an animate scarecrow with a jack-o’-lantern head. He attempts to run a gauntlet of teenage boys armed like angry villagers, as part of an annual Halloween ritual that is integral to the fate of the community. I would describe the novel (my favorite book by one my all-time favorite writers) as Ray Bradbury meets Shirley Jackson, yet nonetheless a tale of stunning originality presented in Partridge’s unique prose style.

The film is slated to be directed by David Slade, whose work on 30 Days of Night appears to make him an appropriate choice for this project. Dark Harvest‘s compact narrative, fueled by hard-charging action, also makes it the perfect vehicle for a cinematic adaptation. If visualized correctly (and not scythed down by bad CGI), the October Boy has the chance to grow into a horror icon.

Production details are limited at this point, and the film probably won’t be released until next Halloween season, but whenever Dark Harvest does crop up in theaters, rich rewards stand to be reaped by viewers.

 

 

Lore Report: “The Shortest Straw” (Episode 122)

 

“When faced with death, that will to live kicks in and gives people the courage to do what is necessary to survive. Whether it’s the strength to sever your own limb to escape a dangerous situation, or the stubborn refusal to give up hope of rescue, people are capable of extraordinary things. And when their very life is on the line, desperate people will do anything to survive.”

 

For its 122nd episode, Aaron Mahnke’s podcast Lore voyages to the land of ultimate taboo: cannibalism. Once again our intrepid narrator displays a knack for sketching historical context and supplying fascinating details. When tracing the origins of cannibalism, Mahnke notes that making provender of one’s fellows is not distinct to humanity: over 1500 species have been known to dine on their own kind. In terms of strictly interpersonal gourmandizing, such gruesome act (judging from the tooth-marked bones unearthed) dates back an incredible 600,000 years.

Mahnke narrows matters down to focus on the “custom of the sea” (sailor euphemism for the resort to cannibalism). The title of the episode refers to the practice of literally drawing straws to determine who among the group of desperately hungry seamen would be fed, and who would be converted into cuisine (drawing the second-shortest straw wasn’t very rewarding, either: to that person fell the dirty job of butchering the designated victim). A good chunk of the narration here is devoted to an 1884 maritime tragedy involving the English yacht “The Mignonette,” and the story does bog down a bit as Mahnke discusses the legal dilemma that stemmed from this cause célèbre (is cannibalism a justifiable survival effort or simply murder?). But the tale takes a turn toward the intriguing when Mahnke proceeds to identify a callback to the case by a recent Oscar-winning movie, and to point out a curious coincidence with Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.

The episode clocks in at a considerable 38 minutes, yet I wish it had run even longer, and addressed other offbeat feats of survival besides those involving starving sailors in dire straits. For anyone, though, who is a fan of the subject of shipwreck and grim perseverance in American fiction–from Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” to Stephen King’s “Survivor Type” and Dan Simmons’s The Terror–“The Shortest Straw” will surely be a winning selection.

 

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Stephen Crane’s “The Monster”

The latest (overdue) installment of a recurring feature exploring just how “American Gothic” are works of literature collected in anthologies bearing that titular label. Continuing to work through the contents of editor Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916:

 

“The Monster” by Stephen Crane

Crane’s 1899 novelette is a clear American Gothic riff on the classic novel Frankenstein. Like the patchwork creation in Mary Shelley’s narrative, Crane’s African-American character Henry Johnson, a genial horse groomer, is sadly misunderstood; his physical abnormality is mistaken for essential grotesquerie. Henry is gravely wounded (his face seared right off) while rescuing his employer’s son from a horrific house fire (which Crane describes in nothing-less-than-Gothic terms: flames gouting from the windows are likened to “bloody specters at the apertures of a haunted house”). Grateful for Henry’s sacrifice, the father, Dr. Trescott, sets to the Frankensteinian task of “restoring him to life.” Such effort, though, is not endorsed by the people of Whilomville, who consider that the physically- and mentally-ravaged Henry is better off left for dead.

At one point, Henry escapes from his supervised convalescence, unwittingly terrifies a group of children gathered at a party, and is chased by a stone-throwing mob of angry villagers. The treatment of the wounded hero Henry is despicable enough, yet does not represent the extent of the town’s ugliness. Crane exposes the pettiness of the gossiping townspeople, whose prejudices extend beyond the racial (Henry was already marked as different because of his skin color, but now he is further demonized for modeling a travesty of the healthy human form). Trescott’s so-called friends and neighbors hector him to banish Henry to a remote farm, and when the good doctor refuses, both he and his wife end up ostracized: the doctor’s long-time patients abandon him for other physicians, and at the conclusion of the tale, Mrs. Trescott’s tea party is boycotted by the women who now refuse to socialize with her. The true monster of the novelette’s title proves to be not Henry Johnson, but the community of the only-superficially-idyllic Whilomville itself.

In its references to Shelley (transferring elements of a canonical text of British Gothic fiction to New World soil) and its censure of the incivility underpinning a quintessential small town, Crane’s “The Monster” surely warrants the label “American Gothic,” and forms one of the most representative pieces in Crow’s anthology.

 

Lore Report: Uninvited Guest (Episode 121)

 

We are, in fact, constantly at risk, a heartbeat away from losing control, vulnerable to an encounter that could threaten our well-being, our comfort, or our very lives. It’s a threat that has taken the lives of countless people over the course of history. And while some have made it their lives’ work to study it, most have been woefully unprepared for just how insidious it could be. We’ll never see it coming, but the effects have the potential to be absolutely devastating.

 

In “Uninvited Guest,” the latest episode of the hit podcast Lore, host Aaron Mahnke reveals the horrors of the invisible world. He subjects his audience to parasites, beginning with an intriguing discussion of the origin of the term/concept in ancient Greece (referring to acolytes who “metaphorically ate at from another’s table in order to support themselves”). From there, Mahnke proceeds to test listeners’ intestinal fortitude, detailing a series of extreme experiments (including one by a freaky Japanese physician who willingly consumed thousands of roundworm eggs in the interest of scientific research!). There are images of body horror conveyed here that could make David Cronenberg squirm, and the names given to some of the infectious diseases treated (e.g. “The Creeping Eruption”) sound like they were ripped from a Lovecraft effort in the pulp pages of Weird Tales.

Devoted Lore listeners won’t be surprised to find that Mahnke ranges worldwide and throughout history when sharing his apropos anecdotes in episode 121. From an American Gothic perspective, the story about a terrible outbreak of hookworm (“the American Killer”) at the Civil War prison camp in Andersonville, Georgia, proves especially intriguing. Mahnke also manages to tap into American pop culture and convey a sense of futuristic ickiness when describing a certain barnacle (that can latch onto a crab and take over its brain and reproductive system) as “the natural world’s version of the Alien from the Ridley Scott film franchise.”

Infinitesimal yet capable of massive impact, parasites, says Mahnke, “have the power to change lives, destroy communities, and transform cultures, and given the right circumstances, they can even alter the course of history.” He supplies a prime example in the Livingstone-searching journalist/explorer Henry Stanley, who formed the vanguard of a (literally disease-spreading) colonialist scourge that ravaged settlements across Africa. The harmful effect of Stanley and his contingent on the continent is proof that “not all parasites are microscopic.”

The samples I’ve handed out here are just a few from this absolutely bountiful episode. While not for the weak of stomach, “Uninvited Guest” is a welcomed addition to the Lore table of contents.

 

Superbly Subterranean: 8 Great Cave- and Mine-Based Works of American Gothic

Earlier this week, I reviewed the recent episode of Lore that covered the legends and superstitions associated with mines and caves. This got me to thinking about how such underground sites have served as recurrent settings in works of American Gothic horror. In retrospect, it’s not hard to see why writers and filmmakers have turned again and again to the subterranean. Places of pitch-black darkness, caves and mines can be filled with threats both natural and otherwise; they can be populated with our own subconscious dreads as well as supernatural terrors. The history of cave- and mine-set scenes is a rich one, tracing all the way back to the origins of the American Gothic genre (the title character’s frightful battles with a panther and a tribe of Indians inside a cave in Charles Brockden Brown’s 1799 novel Edgar Huntly). Here’s my choice of eight exemplary works from books, film, and TV. This survey is admittedly subjective, and should not be taken as an attempted ranking of the eight greatest (I am well aware that classic texts by Poe, Lovecraft, King, and Ketchum are not included here).

 

*Gargoyles

This 1972 made-for-TV movie plays at times like a bad riff on a Planet of the Apes film (why would a winged gargoyle resort to riding on a horse?), and most of the eponymous antagonists look like outcasts from a Land of the Lost episode. But the makeup (done by the then-unknown Stan Winston) for the head gargoyle is amazing, and the Arizona-desert cave that forms the den for the devilish creatures is wonderfully creepy and labyrinthine. I remember being mesmerized by this movie when I saw it televised one weekend afternoon as a kid, and have no doubt it was a formative influence on my interest in the macabre.

 

*First Blood

Wait, I can hear you saying, isn’t Rambo an action-adventure hero? Anyone, though, who has read David Morrell’s novel knows that First Blood (1972) demonstrates a flair for the Gothic. The scene of the fugitive Rambo’s descent into a mine and forced traverse of a chamber teeming with bats and beetles is as harrowing as any ever featured in a horror film or book. Morrell immerses the reader in the grotesque muck and disorienting darkness right along with the viewpoint character, expertly chilling the blood.

 

*The Descent

“You can get dehydration, disorientation, claustrophobia, panic attacks, paranoia, hallucinations, visual and aural deteriorations, a cave can collapse, you can drown.” One of the characters reels off this list of potential dangers as her all-girl group of adventurers heads toward an uncharted cave deep in the Appalachians. Unfortunately, they will soon be able to add to the list, after they run afoul of a group of gruesome, carnivorous Gollums prowling within. Savagely scary, The Descent (2005) does for spelunking what the opening scene of Jaws does for skinny dipping in the ocean.

 

*My Bloody Valentine 3D

This 2009 remake relocates the 1981 Canadian slasher squarely to small-town America (the ironically-named mining community of Harmony) and offers some nice twists for those familiar with the plot of the earlier movie. Filmed in 3D, and concerned with the exploits of a homicidal, pickaxe-wielding coal miner, My Bloody Valentine 3D stages some eye-popping (literally, in one case) kills. Some of the graphics here do prove a bit cartoonish, but the underground scenes nonetheless possess a stark realism, thanks to their being shot on location inside a former working mine.

 

*”The Dark Down There”

Don’t be fooled by the author’s trademark grotesque humor and bawdy dialogue here. Joe R. Lansdale is also a master of crafting tremendously frightening scenes, as can be seen in this 2010 Weird Western story collected in Deadman’s Road. The gunslinging protagonist Reverend Jebediah Mercer battles a horde of Kobolds that have overrun a mine, and man, these are some nasty goblins. When they are not chewing off people’s heads and feet, they enslave humans and put them to backbreaking work in the mine. And their reigning queen, a bloated Kobold “pile of living flesh,” is so repulsive, she makes Jabba the Hutt seem like he belongs on the cover of GQ.

 

*”Lost in the Dark”

John Langan’s title suggests an exercise in primal fearmongering, and the ensuing novella (first published in the 2017 anthology Haunted Nights) certainly delivers the goods. The tale centers on Bad Agatha, a possibly inhuman predator who, according to Halloween lore, has made an old cement mine in the Hudson Valley her lair. The extensive scenes leading a set of hapless characters down into said mine demonstrate the terrifying heights that horror fiction can reach. With its thematic blurring of Blair-Witchy documentary filmmaking and make-believe monstrosity, Langan’s narrative begs to be brought to the big screen.

 

*Meddling Kids

Edgar Cantero’s 2017 novel (which I reviewed here) is an incredibly witty postmodern mash-up of Scooby-Doo-style sleuthing and Cthulhu-Mythos-alluding horror. When a group of former teen detectives reopen the case that made them famous, their investigations take them deep into an Oregon mine containing a mother lode of bogeys: the carbon-dioxide-breathing “wheezers.” How richly eldritch does the tale get? Well, these creatures are merely the hench-things of a monstrous chthonic deity out of Lovecraft waiting to ascend to earthly supremacy.

 

*The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

There are plenty of terrifically eerie settings in this 2018-2019 Netflix series, but none outstrips the mine in the Greendale woods. The place is the site of a deadly cave-in triggered by a malicious witches’ spell (Chapter 7), and in the second-season finale (Chapter 20), demonic hordes are ready to break through the Gates of Hell located within the mine and inaugurate the End Times. For my money, though, the show’s best venture into the tunnels comes in Chapter 2, when a prank against the bullying jocks of Baxter High takes an even darker turn with a game of “Devil in the Dark.”

 

 

The Creature Featured

The latest issue of HorrorHound (#78, July/August 2019) takes an in-depth look back at my favorite Universal Monster, the Creature from the Black Lagoon. In a thirteen-page article (“Rising from the Amazon’s Forbidden Depths: Celebrating 65 Years of the Universal Monster!”), John Kitley sketches the cultural context for Creature trilogy, and presents a plethora of details about the making of the films. Accompanying Kitley’s text are hundreds of wonderful color photos–of movie posters, lobby cards, book covers, and seemingly every piece of tie-in merchandise ever created. The article is immediately followed by “Spawn of the Creature,” in which Josh Hadley offers a critical survey of the various film and TV successors (in some cases, shameless rip-offs) of the original Universal trilogy. One particularly fascinating aspect of this survey is Hadley’s consideration of how the Creature films themselves and their numerous cinematic offspring intersect with the aquatic terrors made famous by H.P. Lovecraft.

As gorgeous-looking as it is informative, this Creature-featuring issue will be cherished by any fan of the Gill Man.

Lore Report: “Whistle While You Work” (Episode 120)

Note: I’ve fallen a bit behind with this feature, but it’s time for me to get back on track with my reviews of Aaron Mahnke’s acclaimed podcast…

Yes, caves and mines might hold the riches we seek, but they can also be dangerous and unpredictable. There might be mysteries to dust off, or superstitions to pay attention to, but they contain a powerful warning: be careful how deep you dig, because you never know what you might find.

The 120th episode of Lore strikes the mother lode of narrative ore. Mahnke focuses on the profession of mining, establishing such subterranean delving as a pre-Industrial Age endeavor. Even more surprisingly, he details how mining was a spiritual activity for ancient cultures, who revered the precious substances (e.g. red ocher) unearthed as something sacred. Given such a mindset, it is not hard to fathom that miners across the world would fill caverns and underground tunnels with guardian spirits. Once again demonstrating an impressive knowledge of global folklore, Mahnke cites mining tales of mythological figures such as the German kobolds and the Australian Mondongs.

As a lover of American Gothic, I was especially pleased when Mahnke shifted the episode’s sights to the New World. As we have learned from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, people carry their supernatural beliefs with them when traveling to distant lands; that proves precisely the case here, as Mahnke discusses how Cornish immigrants transported their folklore to America. Stephen King’s 1987 novel might have brought tommyknockers to pop cultural prominence as undead extraterrestrial menaces, but long before then such figures (an Americanized version of Welsh “knockers”) were regarded as the spirits of dead miners, who sometimes served as an uncanny warning system for living workers.

With mines forming recurrent sites of “unexpected disaster and horrifying death,” it is little wonder that many haunting tales of mining accidents have accrued. Mahnke regales listeners with a dark gem of a story (concerning a ghostly emergency whistle) that traces back to an incident at a Minnesotan mine in the 1920’s. Episode 120, though, is not simply geared toward fearmongering; tommyknockers are considered as protective spirits more than punitive forces, figure deserving of respect and not just dread. The closing discovery alone–that such a thing as the Pennsylvanian “Society for the Relief and Support of Displaced Tommyknockers” actually existed–makes “Whistle While You Work” quite a rewarding listen.

 

Family Spree

Opting for exorcism rather than exploitation, Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood, never presents the graphic reenactment of the Manson Family’s murder of Sharon Tate (and company) that audience members are expecting/dreading. This proves in direct contrast to how American Horror Story: Cult approached the same event two years earlier in the episode “Charles (Manson) in Charge.” Now, AHS isn’t exactly known for restraint, but its decision to go there in showing the savagery is questionable at best, and downright disgraceful at worst. I recently joined back up with Cult, rewatching the aforementioned episode and considering the ostensible merit of the reenactment scene.

For sheer shock value, the scene succeeds. Much like the previous dramatization of the Jonestown massacre, it undoubtedly disturbs with its unflinching depiction of violent death. But did viewers really need to watch a pregnant Tate (Lily Rabe), standing with a noose around her neck and weepily begging for her unborn baby’s life to be spared, end up being stabbed multiple times? One can easily argue that this is a gross disrespect of the memory of the slain celebrity; the show’s producers demonstrate a striking insensitivity to the feelings of the relatives of Tate and the other real-life victims of the Manson Family’s bloody machinations. The scene, with cult leader Kai (Evan Peters) providing voice-over as he tells the notorious story to his Project-Mayhem-type acolytes, is marked by a certain flippancy of tone that adds another level of inappropriateness. Granted, Kai is Cult‘s grand antagonist, and we are supposed to be repulsed by his behavior. And AHS, as the show’s own title unabashedly establishes, is in the horror business, not that of giving viewers the warm fuzzies. Still, a line seems to have been crossed here, and the nadir of distastefulness neared.

That said, is there anything to appreciate about the scene? I did like how the actors from the season’s main storyline were utilized in the reenactment. Billie Lourd’s turn as the reticent Linda Kasabian cleverly reflects the outlying position of the actress’s Willow character in relation to brother Kai’s cult/political movement. Similarly, Sarah Paulson playing the (t)witchy Susan Atkins forms a nice piece of foreshadowing of her main character Ally’s dark deviation at season’s end. Indeed, the real impact of the scene is not its recreation of the murderous incident on Cielo Drive in 1969, but its set-up of the horrors to come on Cult. A raving Kai (whose psychotic break is evident when he subsequently holds conversations with a hallucinated Manson) calls for a “Night of a Thousand Tates,” a frightfully exponential copy-catting of Manson Family madness. Kai’s preparation of his hit squad in the season finale (complete with a knifing tutorial using a plastic anatomical model, and a practice stabbing of watermelons) ranks amongst the most chilling moments in the show’s history.

Of course, not even AHS would dare go that far, and the Night of a Thousand–or even a Hundred–Tates never comes to pass. Significant suspense, though, was created by the use of the Tate-murder reenactment scene. I don’t know if this ultimately justifies the show’s artistic choices, and for me the decision to depict such a scene remains controversial. “Charles (Manson) in Charge”–that mocking, unsuitably unserious note can be discerned in the very title of the episode–leaves me questioning what those in charge of the show’s content were honestly thinking.

 

Say Hello to Hollywood

Quentin Tarantino has never been known for strictly linear plotting, and his latest film, Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood, to no surprise unfolds in a slow-burning and circuitous manner. No doubt there will be plenty of viewers who grouse that the film is self-indulgent and frustratingly digressive, but I certainly do not count myself part of that camp.

There’s undeniable artistic purpose to the proceedings here. Tarantino takes the time to establish the various characters whose lives are destined to intersect spectacularly. Start with the male leads: a wonderful Leonardo DiCaprio as the flawed, past-his-prime actor Rick Dalton, and Brad Pitt (who oozes charisma, and gives one of the best performances of his career) as his stunt-double/driver/buddy Cliff Booth. Margot Robbie’s starlet-next-door Sharon Tate is developed as a full person (although the camera does tend to linger fetishistically on her legs/feet), not just some cinematic celebrity made more famous by her eventual savage demise. Even seemingly minor figures are woven deftly into the tapestry: the Hollywood hangabouts who prove no mere hippies, but the dangerous constituents of the Manson family.

Outstripping his thorough commitment to character development is Tarantino’s determination to establish the film’s titular setting. The Hollywood scene of the late Sixties is brought to life in stunning detail, from filmings on studio back lots to parties at the Playboy mansion. Clearly this is a loving recreation on the director’s part, a relishing of not just a time and place but a cultural moment just prior to its tarnishing by carnage.

Versed in the bloody details of what transpired on Cielo Drive in early-August 1969, the viewer has to wonder if Tarantino has built up this Hollywood scene merely to burn it back down. Yes, there’s a plethora of era-evoking movie magic on display here, but a palpable sense of dread also hangs over the film. And for all its concern with the Western (which helps further the thematic exploration of the nature of heroism and villainy), the film aligns just as much with the horror genre. The scene in which Cliff visits–and then investigates–the Manson-family-infested Spahn ranch is an interpolated masterpiece of squalor horror. I can’t remember the last time I felt so much sweat-wringing dread, so much fear for a character’s well-being.

Likewise, the film’s extended climax is rife with suspense and deadly menace. Yet it offers a surprising twist in its handling of one of the most shocking, Gothic moments in Hollywood (and American) history. Defying audience expectation and refusing to devolve into an exercise in exploitation, Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood concludes on a more cathartic than horrifying note. While veering from the historical record toward the realm of the fairy tale, the film’s story is gloriously well-told, and in the end, epically satisfying.