Whisperers Shout Out

The wasteland is a red state, as The Walking Dead has donned its M.A.G.A. (Macabre and Gripping Again) hat.

The unevenness of the AMC series in recent years has been bemoaned and belabored by fans and critics (I’ve contributed my own pair of pennies to the discussion when posting here–and here). But with Angela Kang’s succession of Scott Gimple as showrunner, and the recent six-years’ time jump in the action following the send-off of protagonist Rick Grimes, the show seems to be making a conscious effort to reset itself, to refocus its creative energies. Apparently this involves a renewed emphasis on the horrific, as evidenced by the shocking murder of Jesus by a Whisperer in a fog-shrouded cemetery at the end of the season-splittling episode 9.8, “Evolution.”

Last night’s mid-season premiere, “Adaptation,” picks right up where the show left off, and instantly demonstrates the significance of the Whisperers to TWD‘s rebound. The introduction of this group revitalizes the human-zombie conflict that had grown understandably mundane. When it comes to fearmongering, familiarity breeds diminished returns; after so many seasons, the countless walker attacks lost a lot of their bite. The zombie horde ostensibly served as decayed clay pigeons, heroically obliterated by gun and sword and hatchet. With the advent of the Whisperers, however, the rules of close-up enemy engagement have been altered dramatically, since now a more calculating and dexterous nemesis can be lurking in the midst of the staggering cannibals. My anxiety was appreciably high last night as I watched Negan take swing at some walkers outside the Sanctuary, as I wondered if one of the gruesome opponents would suddenly show its true, living color (my concern for Negan’s safety also says a lot about the redemptive character arc this former Big Bad has been given).

For certain, the Whisperers’ subterfuge makes for a sinister modus operandi, but these figures also prove quite frightful in and of themselves. Their very appearance arrests the viewer, who can’t help but question the mindset of anyone willing to dress up in someone else’s flayed skin. As they stood looming in the tall grass in last night’s episode, the Whisperers also reminded me of another classic horror bogey–the killer scarecrow (in her first appearance, the Whisperer leader Alpha suggests less a latter-day Leatherface than a glorious product of the Grim Stitch Factory). Just as the raggedy straw-man staked as a cornfield sentinel unnervingly blurs the line between the animate and inanimate, the scarecrow-evoking Whisperers muddle the distinction between the living and the undead. From its inception, TWD has presented a clear duality, as the survivors of the zombie apocalypse faced threats from human and posthumous antagonists alike. Now, those two groups of foes can no longer be easily distinguished.

These people in ghouls’ clothing not only model a clever (if outre) survival strategy; their blending in with the grave masses also allows them to turn zombies to tactical advantage. Accordingly, the Whisperers can help redress one of the show’s shortcomings from a past season. I felt the Wolves’ run (in season 6) was cut way short; I wanted to see more of their morbid mousetraps, created by the recruiting of the resurrected dead as shock troops. The herd-infiltrating/-influencing Whisperers, though, promise to take the weaponizing of walkers to a whole other level.

I’ve never read the Kirkman comics, so I don’t know much about the story arc concerning this faux-putrified faction (and have been trying hard to avoid all plot spoilers when reading up on the AMC series of late). But needless to say, I will be attending closely to the Whisperers as TWD moves through the back half of season 9.

 

Kid You Not: A Review of The Prodigy

I caught a screening of The Prodigy yesterday, and in hindsight found it apropos that the previews before the start of the film included trailers for the remakes of Child’s Play and Pet Sematary. The basic premise of the former–the posthumous persistence (in pre-adolescent mold) of a killer–is forwarded here, while a central theme of the latter–parental love leading to poor choices and catastrophic consequences–resounds in director Nicholas McCarthy’s film (not coincidentally, Jeff Buhler, the writer of The Prodigy, also scripted the forthcoming Pet Sematary).

In fact, The Prodigy manifests a broad horror lineage. Its most obvious relation is to the Evil Kid film, a subgenre stretching from The Bad Seed to The Good Son (with The Omen in between). But it hearkens back, too, to The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, that ur-werewolf narrative (as identified by Stephen King in Danse Macabre) of conflicting figures in a singular body. The Prodigy is arguably also a ghost story–only in this case it’s a house of flesh that’s haunted, and the restless spirit isn’t seeking to have the story of its bloody death unearthed.

Film reviewers have failed to catch an intriguing connection that The Prodigy makes: the name of the paranormal problem child, “Miles,” is also that of the young boy watched over by the governess in The Turn of the Screw. To note this allusion, though, is also to highlight a shortcoming: whereas Henry James’s supernatural/psychological horror novella is a masterpiece of ambiguity (the question of whether Miles has fallen under the evil influence of a ghost is never resolved), The Prodigy (thanks to the precise imagery of its cross-cutting prologue) makes its uncanny aspects clear to the audience from the start. Miles’s parents seem the only ones who haven’t caught on (failing to do so until the boy is eight), and the dramatic irony drags on a bit too long.

The scenes dramatizing early instances of disturbing behavior underwhelm here because they have become overly familiar; like his cinematic brethren, Miles is the bane of babysitters and family pets. McCarthy steers the film in a more impressive direction when he touches on the taboo–the subtle gestures that “Miles” makes toward his mother that raise the specter of incest. For me, the most unnerving moment in the whole film occurred when the scheming Miles, like some juvenile (and decidedly foul-mouthed) Machiavelli, blackmails the reincarnation expert Arthur Jacobson with the threat of alleging sexual misconduct during their hypnotherapy session.

At times, the film’s plot strains disbelief: there’s not a chance in hell that Miles would have been allowed to set foot back into the classroom after his spectacularly violent outburst against a fellow student (the legal repercussions of the incident are completely glossed over as well). Trading in notions of reincarnation, The Prodigy inevitably approaches the hokey, so credible performances are a must. Taylor Schilling gives a strong one as Sarah, a mother beleaguered by her beloved boy’s bad turn. And Jackson Robert Scott is undeniably creepy as the eponymous savant. Scott, who gave his arm and his life to Pennywise as Georgie Denbrough in IT, here plays a role that recalls another Stephen King kiddie: the adorable but deadly Gage Creed in Pet Sematary.

Where The Prodigy really hits its stride is in the home stretch. When Sarah finally realizes what she is dealing with, her actions to save Miles lead to some terrific suspense. The climax ties back nicely to the film’s opening, while also presenting a question likely to linger in viewers’ minds long after the closing credits: How far would you be willing to go to protect the life of your child? I wish more screentime had been devoted to this moral dilemma, which proves much more gripping than the standard scares stocking the first two-thirds of the film.

While falling short of the extraordinary, The Prodigy is an effectively entertaining horror movie, one that just might cause prospective parents in the audience to consider contraception instead.

 

Lore Report: “Sight Unseen” (Episode 107)

(Here’s the second installment of a new feature to this blog, which offers episode reviews of Aaron Mahnke’s hit biweekly podcast, Lore.)

“While everyone is busy looking for death from the most obvious places, history is full of individuals who took the more invisible approach. Their ingenuity and creativity allowed them to slip under the radar and deliver pain and suffering in a way that few would have suspected.”

Episode 107 highlights the terrors of the invisible world. The focus, though, isn’t on ghosts or microbes, as Mahnke’s narration addresses something more sinister than (super)natural forces: the deliberate poisoning of a fellow human being.

“Sight Unseen” takes an extended look back at a American true crime case that gained national attention in the early 20th Century. The murder mystery recounted here is no doubt a harrowing one, as several members of a single family curiously perish over a period of years. At first, the podcast episode appears to be presenting a howdunit more than a whodunit, but while Herman Billik, an occult herbalist and adviser to the plagued Vrzal family, forms an obvious prime suspect, there proves to be much more to this shocking case than meets the eye. (For a book-length study of the sensational crime, listeners are encouraged by Mahnke to seek out Steve Shukis’s Poisoned.)

Mahnke does an excellent job of tying together the various threads of Episode 107, which opens with a discussion of alchemy (and an intriguing tidbit about what modern-day lab testing of one of Sir Isaac Newton’s hairs revealed). The closing segment points out how the Herman Billik trial helped lead to a governmental push for food safety standards. For me one of the most unforgettable parts of the podcast is the revelation of how unscrupulous businesses used to doctor milk–the surreptitiously added ingredients (e.g. plaster of Paris) surely didn’t do any body good.

If I had one critique of “Sight Unseen,” it’s that I wish Mahnke would have devoted more time analyzing the “toxic element” of the poisoner psyche. However arresting the specific details of the Billik case might be, they broach a larger concern–the disturbingly devious mindset a person must possess to commit murder via such stealthy and methodical malevolence.

 

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi (Chapter XXXI) and Sarah Orne Jewett’s “The Foreigner”

The latest 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:

from Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain

The Poe overtones are manifold in this Gothic tale interpolated in the thirty-first chapter of Twain’s ostensible 1883 nonfiction book. Before embarking on a curious nocturnal errand, the narrating Twain persona recounts a dark tale told to him in Germany a year prior by the now-deceased Karl Ritter. Ritter’s story reveals a man hellbent on vengeance after a terrible affront to his family (his wife and child are murdered during a cabin-invasion and attempted robbery by two wayward [German emigre] soldiers during the American Civil War). Many years later, Ritter (having traveled back overseas and found work as a corpse-watcher in a German death-house) takes a Montresorian delight in tormenting his ill-fated nemesis when the latter (prematurely designated as dead) awakens in his shockingly charnel surroundings. Along with “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Premature Burial,” Poe’s “The Gold-Bug” is invoked via an encoded missive that serves as something of a treasure map (the stolen riches secreted by the soldier-thieves paralleling the hidden plunder of Captain Kidd in the Poe story).

Ritter’s tale is full of deceptive disguise (the determined detective and would-be vigilante infiltrates the army camp by dressing up as a fortune-teller) and mistaken identity (Ritter unwittingly stabs to death the “gentler robber,” not the brute who murdered his family). Twain’s Chapter XXXI narrative (whose frame story is appropriately set in “Napoleon, Arkansas”) is also noteworthy for its transnational aspects, its cross-cutting between a German death-house and “that lonely region” of the war-torn American South. Ritter makes a deathbed request that the narrator locate the hidden money in Napoleon and then bequeath it to the heir of the gentler robber, who lives in Mannheim (“I shall sleep the sounder in my grave,” says Ritter, “for knowing that I have done what I could for the son of the man who tried to save my wife and child–albeit my hand ignorantly struck him down”). But the happy ending pointed to at the end of this excerpted chapter is ironically undercut by the anthology-editor Crow’s appended endnote: “The next chapter [of Twain’s book] reveals that the building which may have contained the treasure has been swept away by the changing channel of the Mississippi.” Apparently, human fortune has been beggared by the caprices of sublime Nature.

 

“The Foreigner” by Sarah Orne Jewett

Jewett endeavors to establish a dark, stormy atmosphere for the ghost story told in this 1900 tale (which forms a bit of a postcript to the regional-realist author’s 1896 collection of linked stories, The Country of the Pointed Firs). A tempest rages without (“some wet twigs blew against the window panes and made a noise like a distressed creature trying to get in”), just as it did on the night the title character (a French widow of Dunnet Landing’s Captain John Tolland) died. But Jewett is no Joyce Carol Oates or Anne Rice (or even Edith Wharton), and her character Almira Todd presents a tale that produces no terrifying revenant. The dark-faced woman who appears to Almira and the widow as the latter lies on her deathbed has “a pleasant enough face” that is soon identified as the countenance of the widow’s late mother (who has come to lead her daughter off into the hereafter, where she’ll never have “to feel strange an’ lonesome no more”).

Jewett’s story creates minimal frisson, yet qualifies as a work of American Gothic in its depiction of small town prejudice. The natives of Dunnet Landing ostracize the French foreigner (especially after her singing and dancing in the meeting-house vestry is deemed scandalous). They also bear a superstitious fear of her, as Almira recounts: “She was well acquainted with the virtues o’ plants. She’d act awful secret about some things, too, an’ used to work charms for herself sometimes, an’ some of the neighbors told to an’ fro after she died that they knew enough not to provoke her.” Almira, though, dismisses the town gossip as nonsense, and admits that she owes her own “unusual knowledge of cookery” to the widow. “The Foreigner” thus furnishes further insight into the character (central in The Country of the Pointed Firs) of Mrs. Todd, a herbal-medicine dispenser who represents a “kind of good witch” (as described by Crow in his editorial headnote). In this light, it is also intriguing to consider how Almira prefigures the resident of another fictional Maine community: the uncanny heroine of Stephen King’s Castle Rock narrative “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut.”