Still Fine at XXIX

 

After twenty-nine years, the “Treehouse of Horror” shows no signs of falling into disrepair.

Kudos to The Simpsons for the show’s Cthulhu-themed episode opener; given the tendency for “Treehouse” to draw most of its raw material from film and TV, it was refreshing to see the weird fiction of H.P. Lovecraft invoked. The spoof of Lovecraft’s mutant characters goes swimmingly, including one fishy denizen of Fogburytown (a Simpsons stand-in for Innsmouth) sporting a “Wetsox” jersey. This intro (whose Homer vs. Cthulhu oyster-eating contest is especially precious, considering that Lovecraft’s nightmare creations can be traced back to the author’s aversion to seafood) also features my favorite line: told that he is about to sacrificed to an evil god from the ocean’s depths, Homer replies, “Spongebob?”

The first of the episode’s trio of segments, “Intrusion of the Pod-y Snatchers,” is probably the least effective. The satire (“Mapple”/”Steve Mobs”/[I-]pod[-obsessed] people) tends to be a bit facile. Nevertheless, the segment offers some wonderfully witty moments, such as when Lisa questions why aliens never use contractions when addressing earthlings, or when the plant version of pothead Otto is configured as a marijuana leaf.

Pre-judging by its title, “Multiplisaty” was the segment I feared I would least enjoy. I envisioned some lame lampoon of a Michael Keaton movie, but imagine my surprise when I realized Split was the true source here of Lisa’s Beast-ly insanity (the original Saw is also subjected to some clever irreverence). The segment presents some funny kills of Milhouse and Nelson (Groundskeeper Willie also receives his requisite axing) amidst its tongue-in-cheek commentary on the maddening behavior of males.

The final segment, “Geriatric Park,” proves the most adult-oriented; it’s imbued with gore and closes on a note of virtuoso innuendo (pterodactyl Agnes’s quip, “Virgin Air I’m not!”). Extended as it might be, the riff on Jurrasic Park/-World never grows tiresome. For me, the gag where the dentures fall out of drooling dinosaur Abe’s mouth makes “Geriatric Park” worth the price of admission.

I’m forty-six now, and it’s occurred to me that The Simpsons‘ Halloween episode has been an annual staple of my adult life. Nearly three decades later, the macabre comedy of “Treehouse of Horror” still has the ability to reduce me to a gleefully-giggling child.

 

The Night He Came Stumbling Home: A Review of Halloween (2018)

A film forty years in the making, Halloween unfortunately fails to make much of an impact.

Director David Gordon Green’s direct sequel to John Carpenter’s seminal slasher flick from autumn 1978 proves as dull and drab-looking as “Grandmother” Laurie Strode’s hair. The film lacks both overarching vision and particularly striking visuals (arguably, the most memorable image is an incongruous one: that giant, defiantly-unsoothing red-and-white grid painted at Smith’s Grove). It lacks characters interesting enough to fear for–or even to root for their victimization by Michael Myers. Perhaps most glaringly, it lacks the presence of Donald Pleasance’s Dr. Loomis, replaced here by the loony, underdeveloped and unconvincing Dr. Sartain.

There are a few aspects of the film that I did appreciate. The callbacks to the original Halloween are cleverly done, and never employed in a heavy-handed manner. Terrific choreography is on display as Michael death waltzes in and out of a block of Haddonfield homes while trick-or-treaters traipse obliviously though the streets. The bits of comedy are also top-notch: Jibrail Nantambu nearly steals the whole movie in his brief appearances as Julian, a wisecracking child being babysat by Vicky, a friend of Laurie’s granddaughter Allyson.

Green’s film seems determined to overplay one major note: after living through the night of the Babysitter Murders, Jamie Lee Curtis’s final girl has transformed into a Michael-obsessed survivalist. While such a character arc is understandable, it’s also derivative: as moviegoers, we’ve seen all this before (cf. Linda Hamilton’s turn as doomsday-prepper Sarah Connor in Terminator 2). Furthermore, the extended timeline–the idea that this has been going on for forty years–skewed me towards disbelief. Such prolonged state of paranoid hyper-preparation probably would have resulted in fatal hypertension long ago. A one-woman militia movement, Laurie boasts an impressive arsenal of guns, but the elaborate booby-traps she has built into home border on the ridiculous. Her final solution for the invading Michael was maddeningly illogical (let’s just Laurie will be moving in with her daughter come tomorrow).

I found this film vastly inferior to Rob Zombie’s 2007 edition of Halloween. The shock rocker brought a stylistic flair, a certain brashness to the proceedings. By focusing on Michael’s childhood for the first third of the movie, he also endeavored to create some insight into the character. Robbed here of that backstory, as well as any sort of unfinished-family-business motivation, Michael reduces to a homicidal blank–the embodiment not of pure evil, but rather mundane mindless violence. The film does attempt to recapture the hulking rage of Zombie’s Michael, but again the timing seems off: such untiring ferocity in a now-sixtysomething psychopath strains belief (unless Sartain smuggled some HGH into the asylum, Michael at this point should be startling to shrivel up like a jack-o’-lantern in November). How ironic, then, that an ultimate lack of fight causes the most disappointment: Michael’s literally static ending is completely unsatisfying.

To no surprise, the film does leave open the possibility of another October follow-up. Such prospective sequel is not one I will be looking forward to, whether next year or decades hence.

 

The Shapes of Wrath: Michael Myers’s Nine Most Frightening Movie Moments

The High Holiday’s knife-wielding icon will be slashing his way across the big screen once again on Friday, October 19th. This will mark Michael Myers’s tenth appearance in the Halloween film series (every installment except Halloween III: Season of the Witch). To celebrate his murderous return, I have put together a list–presented here in reverse chronological order–of my choices for Michael’s most frightening moment in each of the preceding nine films:

 

9. Halloween II (2009)

“Trick or Tree.” The embodiment of hulking brutality, Michael has never been more savage in his attacks on the hapless populace of Haddonfield than in Rob Zombie’s sequel to his own series reboot. But for all his raging rampage, Michael arguably is at his most frightful in one of his stealthier moments: the scene where he materializes seemingly out of nowhere, stepping out from behind a shadowed tree to surprise and strangle the policeman posted in front of the Brackett home. Unnerving in and of itself, the kill is also chilling because it forebodes that the sun is about to go down for good on Annie.

 

8. Halloween (2007)

“Ahead of His Time.” Young Michael’s first-time donning of his mask gets the nod here. The sight of this creepy, oversized head perched on a child’s clown-costumed body is strangely disorienting, making the subsequent slashing of sister Judith that much more unsettling. This giant, adult mask might be mismatched here, but Michael is destined to grow into it and make it a perfect fit.

 

7. Halloween: Resurrection (2002)

“No More Laurie.” The acting of Jamie Lee Curtis (“I’ll see you in hell!”) is at its worst, as is the plot logic (the idea that Laurie would have the time or the means to set up a booby-trap for Michael on the rooftop of a psychiatric facility is ridiculous). But there’s no denying the shock value when a backstabbing Michael finally succeeds–after a quarter century and four previous cinematic attempts–in getting the best of his sibling nemesis. If Halloween‘s original final girl can meet her demise in this film’s opening, then all bets are off.

 

6. Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998)

“Dumbwaiter Outsmarting.” From our first glimpse of it in the campus mess hall kitchen, we all know that the dumbwaiter will come into later play, but nevertheless it is put to unsuspected use. For one thing, Michael never comes jump-scaring out of it (although one of his victims, Charlie, is discovered stuffed inside by the boy’s horrified girlfriend Sarah). When Sarah attempts to escape Michael by ascending in the mechanized contraption, Michael saws through the trailing rope but does not simply bring Sarah crashing back down. Instead he catches her as she is about to exit on the next floor; she does not suffer some graphic decapitation, but only has her leg injured by the plummeting dumbwaiter. From here, Michael climbs leisurely upstairs, and when he proceeds to press his boot down on the neck of the bleeding/pleading girl and hack away with his blade, we see just how methodical and merciless he can be.

 

5. Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995)

“Fear Window.” Admittedly, there’s not a helluva lot to choose from in this wretched entry (which makes a mishmash of the Michael Myers mythos). So I’ll go with the scene when heroine Kara Strode is on the phone with Beth and watches (through telephoto lens, in an upstairs bedroom directly across the street) Michael sneak up on the unsuspecting teen and deliver his sharp brand of post-coital punishment. To make matters even more terrifying, when Kara pans down, she sees her young son Danny crossing the street and heading straight towards the kill zone.

 

4. Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989)

“Out of the Closet.” As if it wasn’t painfully obvious already, Michael reveals his orientation as a violence-minded voyeur in this early scene. A police sweep of Rachel’s house has deemed it empty, but Michael is in fact hiding in the closet. We first see (via an effective I-camera shot) Michael’s hand reaching out from behind Rachel’s wardrobe; the scene then cuts to an interior view of Michael as he watches the naked, vulnerable, and oblivious Rachel throw a sweater over her head. The emphasis here is on simmering suspense, but Michael’s eventual exodus from his hiding spot makes for a nice pairing with his closet break-in scene in the original Halloween.

 

3. Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)

“Michael-plicity.” Characters Sam Loomis and Jamie Lloyd have been experiencing respective visions of Michael throughout, but here in this scene they both (along with Rachel and Sheriff Meeker) see not one, not two, but three different Michaels surround a squad car. Their collective reaction to the trio suggests that this is no mere hallucination. The would-be slashers are soon revealed as costumed imposters (punk teens playing a Halloween prank), but for a brief moment it seems as if the franchise has taken a bizarro turn.

 

2. Halloween II (1981)

“Hallway Stalking.” Thinness of plot is made up for by unity of setting in this hospital-focused follow-up to the John Carpenter classic. Michael cuts down almost the entire staff of Haddonfield Memorial, but his scalpel-stabbing of nurse Jill constitutes the most frightening kill of all. Jill calls out to a wounded, drugged Laurie stumbling down the hallway, who turns back only to watch Michael step out behind Jill and impale her. Jill is no wicked fornicator (unlike her nurse counterpart Karen, who sneaks off while on duty for a tryst in a hydrotherapy tub) doomed by the conservative sexual politics of the slasher film, and so her murder proves especially disturbing. Jill’s death sentence is poignantly punctuated when her shoes slip off her feet and clatter to the floor as she is held aloft by Michael.

 

1. Halloween (1978)

“Exercise in Terror.” The extended climax (Michael’s pursuit of Laurie) is a textbook frightfest, but its signature moment occurs when the Shape gets back in shape via a single sit-up. Like Count Orlock emerging from his coffin in Nosferatu, the presumed-dead Michael rises up stiffly into sitting position. The maneuver brings dramatic irony to its height, as Laurie is completely unaware of Michael’s resurrection behind her. Also, for the first time, the audience must wonder if Michael is no run-of- the-mill serial killer but somehow supernaturally enhanced. Even before Laurie famously inquires at film’s end, the question crosses the viewer’s mind: is this the Boogeyman?

 

Zombie Omissions: Thoughts on Episode 1 of Eli Roth’s History of Horror

Roll out the talking heads and the walking dead. “Zombies”–the inaugural installment of Eli Roth’s History of Horror–ironically begins in the modern moment, with “the monster of the 21st Century” (as the undead flesh-eater is dubbed here by John Landis). I have to admit, I was a bit thrown by the outset of the series. First, because the decision to proceed via theme episodes portends an abridged history, and the exclusion of various facets of horror that don’t fall within clear categories. Second, the skeptic in me found this primary focus on zombies suspiciously self-serving, considering that AMC is the network that also airs The Walking Dead (which had its season premiere just last week). I’d call last night’s episode of the documentary series a crypto-commercial for the sagging drama, except for the fact that there’s little subtlety involved: Greg Nicotero literally has a seat at the table right next to Eli Roth!

Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty to be entertained by here. The myriad of film clips are aptly chosen, and the show presents a slew of genre luminaries as commentators. A lot of the discussion likely will fail to be groundbreaking (this just in: Romero’s zombie films feature socio-political subtext) for the veteran fan. Nevertheless, intriguing points are made throughout: Edgar Wright’s account of the impact of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video on the zombie subgenre; Stephen King’s thoughts on the mob mentality on display in such films; Max Brooks’s philosophizing about what makes the slow zombie so much more frightening than its faster counterpart.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given Roth’s resumé as a horror director, the show adopts a Fangorial approach, emphasizing more recent, and more graphic, titles (films such as White Zombie, I Walked With a Zombie, and Frankenstein are treated cursorily). While I understand that only so much can be covered within 42 minutes of run time, I wish more attention had been given to films/TV shows that provide fresh perspectives on zombies and the post-apocalypse. My biggest disappointment, though, is that this History of Horror appears to posit a strictly visual, aliterate audience: zero exploration is made of the zombie in horror fiction. For the love of all that is unholy at the Micmac burial ground, couldn’t Roth have asked King about the author’s foray into zombie territory in Pet Sematary?

Watching horror is great, but sometimes (having) read is better.

 

Fourteen Ways of Looking at Fall Foliage

Here on the fourteenth day of October, I present “Fourteen Ways of Looking at Fall Foliage.” This autumnal one-upping of Wallace Stevens was first published in my collection Autumn Lauds: Poems for the Halloween Season (available on Amazon).

 

Fourteen Ways of Looking at Fall Foliage

By Joe Nazare

 

I.
Nature emblazoned.
An unguttering, golden-orange torch
Mitigating the lengthening nights.

II.
Beacon to New England.
A regional tourist trap
Sprung by the shortage of chlorophyll.

III.
The outdoors brought online.
Photographic alchemy uploaded,
The transient rendered eternal.

IV.
Splendid deciduous calendars.
October oaks counting down
The days remaining until Halloween.

V.
Gloriously performative.
Furnishing a synonym for the season
In silent, scattershot descent.

VI.
Unabashed divesting.
The methodically discarded apparel
Of exhibitionist boughs.

VII.
Democratic in downfall.
Rolling out a red carpet
That anyone can walk.

VIII.
Cemetery lethargy.
Leaves lying like scratchy blankets
Drawn over cold sleepers.

IX.
Rain-pasted to windshields.
Clinging to the hope of mobility,
Driven by autumnal wanderlust.

X.
Dead but wind-borne.
Brittle skittering across macadam:
Shucked insect husks activated.

XI.
Absent yet manifest.
Colorful trefoil ghost-prints
Recorded on concrete.

XII.
Omnipresent models.
Originals of the plastic facsimiles
Decoratively strewn across harvest tables.

XIII.
Late-season heaps.
Sizable shapes suggesting fairy mounds.
Front lawns given an eldritch hint.

XIV.
Fiery piles ignited.
Like proleptic pyres
For the waning year.

 

Hill House Revisited

Unsurprisingly, Mike Flanagan’s new series The Haunting of Hill House (now streaming on Netflix) has rekindled interest in the classic Shirley Jackson source novel. Two noteworthy recent articles are Anna Green’s “11 Chilling Facts About Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Alison Flood’s “‘Textbook Terror’: How The Haunting of Hill House Rewrote Horror’s Rules.”

On this occasion, I would also like to call attention to my own essay. “Haunting Anniversary: A Half-Century of Hill House” was published by The Internet Review of Science Fiction back in February 2010. The piece attempts to correct reigning critical misinterpretations of Jackson’s novel, and works to identify the specific ghost haunting Hill House. It also traces the literary legacy of Jackson’s novel over the five decades since its first publication. To this day, the essay remains one of the pieces of my own writing of which I am the proudest. The Internet Review Of Science Fiction‘s website is no longer operating, but I have just added the full text of my essay to the Publications/Free Reads page here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic.

 

Amazing Creations

I think I’m in love…

…with Netflix’s new series, The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell, and its gorgeous, October-spirited star.

Think Nigella by way of Elvira; a bizarro Martha Stewart; The Muppet Show meets The Munsters. This clever variation on a cooking show features instructional segments mixed with bits of comedic narrative. When I first heard the premise of the show, I feared the creature puppets would be a juvenile intrusion, but these characters actually prove rich additions. They spice up the proceedings with some hysterically-funny adult humor (that never becomes tasteless). Perhaps most darkly delightful of all is Rankle, the ever-sarcastic mummified Eqyptian cat who looks like some feline Crypt-Keeper.

The ultra-talented Christine McConnell is to baking (and sculpting and sewing) what Ray Villafane is to pumpkin carving. Her treats (viewers with a yen for the Gothic and monstrous can feast their eyes on wolf’s paw donuts, spirit board cookies, a haunted gingerbread house, and edible shrunken head ornaments) are works of art that literally look too good to eat.

These curious creations of holiday fare are stunning to behold (it’s like watching Halloween Wars, but without all the manufactured ” reality” drama and annoying contestants). The show’s most enchanting element, though, is McConnell herself; putting the boo in beautiful, she manages to make co-star Dita Von Teese seem like the plain one here. Christine McConnell is the dream hostess for any Halloween party in the Macabre Republic, and her new steaming series is an irresistible binge-watch this High Holiday season.

 

Gamechanger (flash fiction)

This is the first publication of the following piece of flash fiction, which attempts to give another turn of the thumbscrew to one of Ray Bradbury’s most macabre stories, “The October Game.”

 

Gamechanger

By Joe Nazare

 

“These are the witch’s eyes,” Nathan intones, for the benefit of all those circularly assembled in the October dark. “The source of her baleful glare.” The pair of orbs he circulates is warm and gummy to the touch, suggesting the yolks of insufficiently-boiled eggs.

While the denounced organs are still making their round, Nathan takes hold of another piece. “This is the witch’s gut. The cauldron of her poisonous spirit.” Noses wrinkle at the offal smell as Nathan passes along what feels just like chicken innards.

“This is the witch’s hair,” Nathan continues his litany. “Filthy as the pelt of a wild beast.” The horrid crop he proceeds to share with the group has the texture of rotted corn silk.

“These are the witch’s dugs,” Nathan offers next, his voice devoid of adolescent titter. “Which only the devil himself would suckle.” Two leathery, slacken purses are groped in turn by the gathered males.

Meantime, Nathan seizes and lofts the foremost portion. “This,” he proudly recites, reveling in his oratorical role, “is the witch’s head–”

“And this is the witch’s curse,” the at-once-animate head mouths, its rasping sentence punctuated by a derisive cackle.

Nathan and his brethren gasp in unison, relinquishing their terrible trophies as if scalded. But the unhanding doesn’t come soon enough. Assorted splats and thuds are succeeded by the crackle of deadfalling sticks, the rattle of pelleting stones.

Decry as they might, these overzealous defenders of Salem won’t be pointing fingers of blame ever again.

 

Whoa, Check Out “The Body” on Hulu

I’m not waxing lecherous when I write that the inaugural installment of Into The Dark, Hulu’s new monthly anthology series, has a killer body. October’s holiday-themed film centers on a British hitman in Los Angeles who carries out an annual assassination on October 31st: the costumed revelry all around on All Hallow’s Eve provides the perfect cover as the deadly Wilkes works to transport and dispose of (in a strategic location, where the discovery of the corpse will have the greatest impact) his latest victim. On this particular night, though, Wilkes is bound for mishap with his plastic-mummified package; complications–and macabre comedy–ensue.

Make no mistake, the humor here is blacker than a vampire’s cape, yet also never batty. The laugh-out-loud moments (hardly few and far between) are not the product of mere slapstick. Thankfully, The Body does not resort to an endless array of silly sight gags. Halloween Weekend at Bernie’s this is not.

Not a mindless romp, the film shows itself to be quite conscious of its horror heritage, starting with an I-camera opening sequence that recalls Michael Myers’s first kills in the original Halloween. Early on, one character jibes at the nattily clad body-dragger (played, somewhat serendipitously, by Tom Bateman): “Are you like the British American Psycho or something?” The references range from the overt (such as when Jack Baker–his very name an echo of another monster maker, Rick Baker–makes an ostentatious entrance to his own Halloween party dressed as a straight-jacketed Hannibal Lecter) to the more subtle (the climactic scene in the “Angus & Sons” funeral home, a nod towards Phantasm‘s Angus Scrimm).

The Body is distinguished by some strong performances. Bateman’s Wilkes is no laconic automaton: this killing machine finds joy in his grim work, and frequently flashes a wicked sense of humor. Another side of his personality is expressed as a philosophical bent; this thinking-man hitman is prone to deliver lines like “Halloween is the closest we come to admitting that we are defined by death.” It’s the gorgeous Rebecca Rittenhouse, however, who steals the show as the smitten Maggie, Wilkes’s willing accomplice in the effort to retrieve the wayward cadavar. She makes a difficult role look easy, whereas a lesser portrayal could have resulted in a ridiculously unconvincing Maggie.

Credit, too, goes to the screenwriters, who take the time to develop the characters so that their curious motives are never mystifying. At the same time, the film is fast-moving (aided by the ticking-clock device, as Wilkes struggles to meet his deadline for delivery of the body). If I had one criticism of the plot, it’s that the climactic twist (unlike the stealthy Wilkes) can be seen coming from a long ways away.

Post mortem: the toe tag for The Body should read “Good Mean Fun.” This entertaining first entry in the anthology series has left me eager to see what Into the Dark will cook up next month for its Thanksgiving-related edition.