Variety Is the Slice of Life

Written and directed by Colin and Cameron Cairnes, Late Night with the Devil boasts a terrifically clever premise. The film frames itself as a documentary dealing with a notorious episode of the late night variety show Night Owls with Jack Delroy. It offers up “the recently discovered master tape of what went to air that night, as well as previously unreleased behind-the-scenes footage.” “That night” was October 31st, 1977, a sweeps-week special episode not just content to “celebrate all the fiendish fun of Halloween.” The episode represents Delroy’s desperate attempt to resuscitate his show and boost his career–his last-ditch effort to unseat Johnny Carson as the ratings king of late night television.

The Cairnes brothers bask in the retro, perfectly capturing the1970’s America mise-en-scène. Late Night‘s look–the clothes, the hairstyles, the set design (suffused with brown and orange hues), the video graphics–is spot on. Timely references to figures such as Ed and Lorraine Warren, Reggie Jackson, President Jimmy Carter, and Burt Reynolds are made. Fictional characters in the film are recognizably based on real-world models: the medium/spiritualist Christou recalls both Criswell and the Amazing Kreskin; reformed magician and current debunker of the occult Carmichael Haig forms an obvious James Randi stand-in; the satanic leader of the First Church of Abraxas, Szandor D’Abo, echoes Anton Szandor LaVey. The result of all this commitment to verisimilitude is the easy suspension of disbelief as the viewer imagines that an actual television show is playing before the eye.

Indeed, the sustained intimacy of the film’s tv-studio setting reels the audience in; brush with the uncanny/occult feels like it is occurring live and in lurid color. Suspense builds steadily, especially after the first guest Christou, an apparent fraud, experiences genuine distress (physical as well as psychic) and must be rushed to the hospital. Strong narrative tension is maintained, as the characters debate whether something truly supernatural is transpiring, or whether the sinister twists are the product of slyly calculated stagecraft. The apex of anxiousness is reached when the main guests are brought out: parapsychologist/author June Ross-Mitchell and her ward Lilly, the sole survivor of the Abraxas cult’s mass suicide and now the alleged earthly vessel of an infernal spirit. The Night Owls ratings ploy of attempting to summon up the demon dubbed Mr. Wiggles is nerve-wrackingly tense. This extended scene makes for one of the best evocations of the demoniac in modern horror.

Perhaps not shockingly given its talk show setting, Late Night displays a wicked sense of wit. Even the diabolical must capitulate to capitalism, as a deadpan Delroy tells his audience: “Ladies and gentlemen, please stay tuned for a live-television first, as we attempt to commune with the Devil. But not before a word from our sponsors.” Wonderfully arch use is also made of the old-style “Experiencing Technical Difficulties” cutaway. All told, the film presents a barbed satire of the entertainment industry, as well as a cautionary tale about the awful price of ambition.

This is the kind of cinematic vehicle that can steer one of two ways: with its ambiguity (natural vs. supernatural explanation) left unresolved, or with all hell indisputably breaking loose at film’s end. I don’t think it’s a terrible spoiler to write that the latter direction is chosen here (considering that the documentary intro touts “the late night event that shocked a nation”). Yes, one can anticipate where matters are leading, but the fun resides in getting to that point, and then witnessing what happens once the excrement hits the proverbial fan. Horror lovers are certain to find all the climactic havoc savagely satisfying. Let me whet the appetite by stating: imagine if Regan MacNeil replaced Carrie White as bloody-minded prom queen.

Late Night is not a perfect effort. Its opening montage (for which Michael Ironside provides the voiceover) arguably supplies excess exposition, giving too much information away about Delroy’s dealings. The surrealism of the conclusion also denatures the found-footage trappings, as it seemingly shifts from documented tape evidence to Delroy’s subjective experience of a Faustian nightmare. Still, the film is wildly entertaining and features incredible performances: David Dastmalchian utterly captivates as host Jack Delroy, Ian Bliss is a joy to behold as the curmdugeonly Carmichael, and Ingrid Torelli nearly steals the whole damned show as the perky but mercurial Lilly. It’s also a film that rewards repeated viewing, as subtle glances and suggestive bits of dialogue grow more clearly meaningful the second time through. Stuffed with visual, verbal, and thematic echoes of classic horror fare such as The Exorcist and Rosemary’s BabyLate Night with the Devil serves up a tasty snack that can be relished here tonight at the halfway-mark to Halloween or once again at the approach of the midnight hour at October’s end.

Late Night With the Devil is now playing in theaters, and also streaming on Shudder.

Ghostface Invocation: All the Scream References in The Angel of Indian Lake

Jade Daniels’s slasher-film passion clearly saturates the narratives of the Indian Lake Trilogy. When it comes to this horror genre, her namings are legion (as attested by the Letterboxd listings [1, 2, 3] of the various films mentioned in My Heart Is a Chainsaw, Don’t Fear the Reaper, and The Angel of Indian Lake). Jade’s notable cinematic go-to’s include the HalloweenNightmare on Elm Street, and Friday the 13th series, and the films Just Before DawnJaws, and A Bay of Blood. But her (and author Stephen Graham Jones’s) favorite scary-movie franchise to cite arguably is Scream. Callbacks to the Kevin Williamson/Wes Craven creation are sounded throughout the novel trilogy, and nowhere more extensively than in The Angel of Indian Lake. Here is my Letterboxd-inspired attempt to quote (without plot spoilers) the various Scream echoes in Jones’s latest Jade Daniels book:

1. It’s Monday, not Friday, meaning no pep rally for football. nobody pulled the fire alarm. It’s not senior skip day, , and Banner hasn’t instituted some curfew to keep everyone safe–there’s no reason to. Ghostface isn’t out there slicing and dicing. (p. 26)

2. “Dwight,” I say down to this junior on his knees.
He probably thinks it’s a Dewey reference, but I’m really calling him Brad Pitt from Cutting Class. Because that’s what he’s doing.
“Um, Trent, ma’am,” he stammers, trying to peel out of the glittery Father Death robe he’s now tangled in. (p.31)

3. After taking attendance and passing back quizzes and peeling up the Post-it notes stuck to [ ___ and ___ ‘s] seats–“Casey” and Steve” respectively, fourth time in two weeks–we finally dial the lights down […]. (p. 38)

4. I was going to be that janitor working a mop in Scream, waiting for Principal Himbry to surprise me. (p. 39)

5. “Do you like scary movies?” someone behind me says, not with a voice-changer, but with that same kind of murderous chuckle that promises the game’s only beginning here. (p. 52)

6. One says Casey, one says Steve.
Casey who was gutted and hung from her childhood swing, Steve who was tied to a chair in his letterman jacket and gutted just the same. (p. 53)

7. Of note is that both Ms. Daniels and Dr. Watts have agreed to wear “Ghostface” masks (not robes) for these sessions, so as to promote “honest talk.” (p. 54-55)

8. “This isn’t public knowledge,” Banner whispers, eyes darting around Dewey-style. (p. 61)

9. Next time we see [ ___ ], he might look like Dewey from the second-to-last Scream: grey, grizzled, a sort of wince to his step. (p. 71)

10. “A Cassandra’s someone doomed to know the truth but nobody believes her. I’m like the sidekick, the Randy. Good for a little comedy breather, some out-loud exposition, but ultimately not a real factor.” (p. 75)

11. It is how slashers like to open: a Barry and Claudette going down, a Casey and Steve deader than dead. (p. 91)

12. She’s in a pale nightgown, is barefoot, and isn’t moving with the [ ___ ] crowd. Rather, everyone’s flowing around her, their eyes across the lake.
“Maureen Prescott,” I mumble.
Sidney’s mom, from the third Scream(p. 113)

13. But, on the napping couch that day, when I finally made the connection Chin wanted me to make, I looked down to my feet to see if I had tiny skulls painted on my black toenails or what–more like Ghostfaces, thanks–and kind of wiggled my toes in greeting to myself, and… (p. 131)

14. I’ve seen a Casey strung up from a tree by her guts, though. I’ve been in that cell Rod died in.
No thank you, Mr. Craven, Mr. Carpenter, Mr. Cunningham. I’m fine being on the outside for once. (p. 137)

15. “I don’t even like that movie.”
“You don’t like Scream? How can someone not like Scream?” (p. 145)

16. Like I have to, I flash on the first time seeing Principal Himbry in Scream, and how, for a moment, it was definitely him chewing through the senior class. But I guess The Faculty would cover that soon enough. (p. 148)

17. I was always meant to be Randy, a Cassandra, a Clear, never the Sidney, never the Laurie, the Nancy. And, I might worship at the shrine of Ripley, sure, but nobody gets to be her. (p. 148)

18. You were always trying to get me to buy into that one, Mr. Holmes, but I always had Sidney and Billy in my head, picking their genre. (p. 156)

19. Gale Weathers is staring right into her new camera man’s camera, she doesn’t care how beat up she looks after this Hell Night, what she looks like is a SURVIVOR, one with Friends now, and what she’s telling the world is that the Dark Night of the Scarecrow is over. (p. 182)

20. By reluctant degrees, I crank my head over, my neck popping in the process, Billy-style. (p. 187) Continue reading

Daytime Nightmares Paired

In this neck of the Macabre Republic at least, this afternoon’s much-hyped solar eclipse proved to be a dud. If today’s celestial event also left you feeling underwhelmed, then you might find a more thrilling experience by turning back three decades–to the literary rendition of a total eclipse in the linked Stephen King novels Gerald’s Game and Dolores Claiborne.

The dark curtain that the July 20, 1963, eclipse drew down over King’s Maine landscape cloaked some seriously illicit acts: premeditated murder (of Dolores Claiborne’s drunken, abusive husband) and traumatizing molestation (of ten-year-old Jessie Burlingame by her own father). False nightfall also gives rise to some truly strange conditions, as the protagonists of the respective novels are able to glimpse (via enhancement of the mind’s eye) moments of their counterpart’s ordeal. The path of the eclipse appears to cut straight through The Twilight Zone.

Aside from such Gothic/uncanny plot elements, King also darkens our encounter of this eclipse with passages of memorably creepy description. In Gerald’s Game, the “premature twilight, both entrancing and horrifying” triggers the untimely and “very scary sound” of an “old hooty-owl” crying out in the woods (King’s subtle nod to Manly Wade Wellman’s Dark Forces story titled “Owls Hoot in the Daytime”?). Jesse is further unnerved by the eclipse’s unusual optical effects: “What scares her the most is the way [her and her dad’s] shadows on the deck are fading. She has never seen shadows fade quite like that before, and is almost positive she never will again.”

Dolores Claiborne, meanwhile, lends the eclipse a dark fantastic aspect. The eponymous narrator’s depiction of the benighted heavens hearkens back to Tolkien. Sauron’s evilly omniscient and captivating Eye is ostensibly matched by the outré orb Dolores observes:

The eclipse wasn’t total yet, but it was close. The sky itself was a deep royal purple, and what I saw hangin in it above the reach looked like a big black pupil with a gauzy veil of fire spread out most of the way around it. On one side there was a thin crescent of sun still left, like beads of molten gold in a blast furnace. I had no business lookin at such a sight and I knew it, but once I had, it seemed like I couldn’t look away.

Two unique narratives conjoined by central astronomical device, Gerald’s Game and Dolores Claiborne clearly demonstrate that when it comes to giving an unsettling twist to a natural phenomenon, there is no eclipsing King.


Third Time a Final Girl: A Review of The Angel of Indian Lake

The Angel of Indian Lake by Stephen Graham Jones (Saga Press, 2024)

“The Savage History of Proofrock, Idaho” (as aptly dubbed by a student’s video essay in the book’s opening) gets an added chapter, in this final installment of The Indian Lake Trilogy. Genre savant Stephen Graham Jones pens another novelistic love letter to horror fans, and once again proves himself a master of devising/revising the slasher narrative. Readers are guaranteed to laugh out loud, to cry (Jones is as skilled as an Ultimate Fighting Champion when it comes to hitting his audience squarely in the feels), to cheer dramatic acts of heroism, and to cringe at the bursts of graphic violence (e.g. “She folds over holding onto the axe handle but [ ___ ] pulls it back to him, Tall Boots’s intestines unspooling like a long meaty tapeworm she’s been keeping secret since second grade”).

Like its predecessors, My Heart Is a Chainsaw and Don’t Fear the ReaperAngel begins as a bit of a slow burn (the expected opening-scene slayings notwithstanding). Jones takes the time to (re-)establish his characters (the major players and the potential red herrings) and to plant his plot stakes (sketching the circumstances that furnish the requisite isolation; in this instance, it’s a raging forest fire that’s “giving these killings a cover to keep happening”). Once the dominoes are all set in place, though, and the tipping point is reached, the narrative is all hurtling momentum. Former nemeses resurface (in perfectly Gothic fashion, the past refuses to stay dead and buried in Proofrock) and new final girls rise to the violent occasion. Several levels of mystery rivet reader interest, starting with the basic question of what sort of hell has broken loose here–how to explain the series of bizarre deaths (many seeming to result from barehanded decapitation)? Who is the antagonist running around wearing Ghostface (masks)? And who constitutes the title character, the apparent apparition (sporting a “tattered white nightgown and J-horror hair”) reportedly making the town’s environs its haunt? From start to finish, Jones impressively orchestrates his novel’s plot, offering call backs galore and giving familiar story beats fresh resonance.

Angel picks up four years after the events of Reaper, with protagonist Jade Daniels (recently released from her latest prison stint) now back in Proofrock working as the history teacher at Henderson High. She bears plentiful scars from her past two runs through a “slasher cycle,” and is still dealing with the emotional/psychological toll of those prior experiences (Jade pops pills prescribed for “panic attacks,” “social anxiety,” “depression,” and “PTSD”). But she remains a font of slasher knowledge, as cinematic fantasy continues to form both an armor against the harsh realities of life and a special weapon that helps her survive the killing field into which Proofrock has once again transformed. Throughout the trilogy, Jones has experimented with narrative viewpoint, and the bulk of Angel is written in the first-person present, with the unfolding mayhem filtered through Jade’s thoughtstream. This is the closest the reader could possibly get with Jade, and her legions of fans will no doubt relish the intimacy.

Like the two earlier volumes, Angel includes inter-chapter segments. This time they are presented as “reports of investigation” by the Baker Solutions investigative firm (which is attempting to prove that Jade’s community activism has shaded off into criminal vandalism). The official nature of these reports makes them less entertaining than the “Slasher 101”-style essays in Chainsaw and Reaper, but the reports deftly spool out exposition (and have some moving surprises nested within). They also reward the astute reader by embedding key clues to the book’s mysteries.

In Angel, Jones does not shy away from pointed criticism, but never approaches preachiness (recurrent targets: the evils masked by Christianity, and America’s ignominious expansion into the West). The author also continues to interrogate the final girl figure, mining new insight into her nature and significance. Once again, Jade–older, wearier, leerier–is the last person to envision herself as a final girl, yet for the third and ultimate time she proves her metal-AF mettle. Verbally witty and amazingly resilient, brave and vulnerable, badass and tender-hearted, Jade is an unforgettable protagonist, and Angel gives her a legendary send-off.

In the book’s acknowledgment section (which reads like an ultra-informative afterword), Jones states that he felt the need to go “shriekier and gorier” in the trilogy finale. To that end, his book is a screaming success. For all its splattery chaos, the novel nicely ties up loose ends; events from previous volumes receive retroactive explanation, and the closing pages of Angel hearken all the way back to the opening chapter of Chainsaw. Jones brings his Indian Lake Trilogy to an absolutely satisfying conclusion, where the only bittersweet element lies in the realization that this is the end of Jade’s story. Some solace, though: this final girl seems destined to reappear in new form–in the hopefully-near-future adaptation (whether as film trilogy or streaming series) that Jones’s slasher narratives demand.

You wouldn’t want to live (or die) in Proofrock, but it’s a wonderful place to visit, in any shape or form. There might never be another horror locale to match its dark majesty or boast such a rousing heroine in residence.


Mob Scene: Thanksgiving

Yes, it’s April Fools’ Day, but tonight Dispatches from the Macabre Republic returns by celebrating Thanksgiving.

Eli Roth’s 2023 film evinces an astute awareness of slasher formula. Its extended opening sets up a genre-specific plot, one quintessentially driven by revenge (to quote slasher savant Jade Daniels, in Stephen Graham Jones’s 2022 Stoker-Award-winning novel My Heart Is a Chainsaw: “years ago there was some prank or crime that hurt someone and then the slasher comes back to dispense his violent brand of justice”). Thanksgiving takes this inciting prank/crime element, and elaborates it into a full-blown mob scene.

Getting the jump on Black Friday sales, the local RightMart in Plymouth, Massachusetts, decides to open up at 6 P.M. on Thanksgiving night. A seething crowd gathers outside in anticipation (“Let us in or you’ll be a patient–in Mass General,” one hooligan intones when a RightMart security guard begs the crowd members to remain patient). When the film’s protagonist Jessica (daughter of the store owner) sneaks her friends in through the employee entrance ten minutes early, those still waiting outside the front doors do not react kindly. A regrettable act of taunting amidst this premature shopping spree precipitates a store-storming riot. Immediate pandemonium breaks out as the crowd stampedes in, a battle royale of brawling and looting. Employees are trampled, an innocent bystander suffers a gruesome arm-mangling, and the wife of the store manager (tragically caught in the wrong place/time) is mowed down by a rogue shopping cart–then partially scalped by one of its wheels for bad measure.

Roth’s mob scene is brilliantly orchestrated, spotlighting the darkest impulses of the store crowd. The gonzo violence only accentuates the satire of human callousness and consumerist greed. In hindsight, the scene also subtly clues viewers in to the identity of the subsequent (John-Carver-masked) slasher who manifests the following Thanksgiving season and wreaks bloody, holiday-themed havoc on the RightMart wrongdoers.

A wickedly witty slasher that offers up a grisly yet satisfying course of revenge, Thanksgiving can currently be streamed on Netflix.