Missouri Macabre: A Review of Ozark (Season 3)

I was thrilled when the third season of Netflix’s drama series Ozark was first announced, and–I must admit–somewhat wary. Could the show possibly continue to develop its complex storyline and maintain its level of excellence? After a marathon bout of housebound bingeing (here in the time of the coronavirus pandemic), I am happy to report that Ozark has come back better than ever.

Part of my initial trepidation stemmed from the fact that a slew of characters, both heroic and villainous, did not survive last season’s bloodbath. Fortunately, plenty of viewer favorites return, starting with money-launderer extraordinaire Marty Byrde, a mostly understated figure whose pressure-cooker of a life leaves him prone to some explosive outbursts. Good as Jason Bateman is in the role, he is eclipsed by Laura Linney’s utterly brilliant turn as Marty’s cunning yet caring, formidable but vulnerable wife Wendy. Julia Garner’s Ruth Langmore once again exhibits spunk in spades (dropping enough f-bombs to make George Carlin blush), but the tenderer side of her character is much more evident here in Season 3 as she is given a love interest. Local sociopath and hillbilly Lady Macbeth Darlene Snell (Lisa Emery) remains unfailingly unnerving, while stone-cold cartel lawyer Helen Pierce (Janet McTeer, in a welcome extension of her role from last season) forms a no-less-chilling adversary. The real season-stealer, though, is cast newcomer Tom Pelphrey as Wendy’s lovable but combustible brother Ben. Subsumed into the Byrde family drama, Pelphrey’s Ben transcends secondary-character status and proves integral to the story arc.

The action picks up six months after the events of Season 2, with the Byrdes working to keep their new riverboat-casino venture afloat, amidst an intensifying drug war in Mexico (whose violence spills over onto American soil) and the intrusive presence of Kansas City mobsters and F.B.I. agents alike. Ozark offers a master class in plot complication, as the web of deceit grows ever more tangled and the protagonists’ predicaments more dire. Forget Breaking Bad; this show could be called “Breaking Worse and Worse.” Thankfully, though, three seasons’ worth of relentlessly escalating stakes has not caused a loss of plausibility. This is prevented by a refreshing sense of self-awareness–Wendy even goes so far to admit a certain addiction to the perennial chaos swirling around the Byrdes. Also, Ozark takes pains to demonstrate the inescapable and soul-crushing toll of the road the characters have chosen to travel, of the regrettable, if necessary, decisions they have made all along the way.

Safe to say, Ozark is not for the faint of heart. Savage cartel attacks are dramatized here, and the season opens and closes with scenes of shocking violence. This third iteration of the series might not be quite as grisly as seasons past, but the show still furnishes a perfect example of how easily noir crime can shade over into the macabre.

Season 3 of Ozark is at once gut-wrenchingly tense, wickedly funny (its black humor is pitch perfect), and heart-breakingly tragic. There aren’t enough Emmys to be awarded to this amazing Netflix effort.

 

Dark Shadows: Return to Collinwood (Macabre Republic Imports)

My previous post inspired me to import this 2012 book review from my old blog, Macabre Republic…

Dark Shadows: Return to Collinwood by Kathryn Leigh Scott and Jim Pierson (Pomegranate Press, 2012)

Published in anticipation of this weekend’s release of the Tim-Burton-directed film, Dark Shadows: Return to Collinwood is a glossy, oversized paperback collecting topical essays, anecdote-rich reminiscences by former cast members, a chronology of the 45-year history of the beloved Gothic romance, a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the latest cinematic Shadows, and even a postscript poem by David Selby.

The book brims with insider information (which is to be expected, considering that Kathryn Leigh Scott played Maggie Evans/Josette DuPres on the series). Some of the intriguing insight offered: the genesis of the idea for Dark Shadows in series creator Dan Curtis’s mind; how those involved managed to shoot a feature film and a daily soap simultaneously; the reason Jonathan Frid refused to reprise his role as Barnabas Collins in the second film, Night of Dark Shadows; the impact of the Gulf War on the 90’s primetime version of the series; what it was like when Johnny Depp met Jonathan Frid on the Burton set.

The actors’ enduring love for Dark Shadows shines through the pages. Despite the grueling five-episodes-per-week production schedule, players such as Scott, Frid, and Lara Parker (Angelique) admittedly found it a joy to go to work each day. This remarkably positive attitude in turn makes Dark Shadows: Return to Collinwood a pleasure to read.

Long-time fans will treasure the insider’s perspective here, while newcomers will appreciate the opportunity to learn all about Dark Shadows before seeing the film. Lovely as it is timely, the volume is lavishly illustrated with color and black-and-white photos. It makes for the perfect coffee table book for Gothic-aficionados throughout our Macabre Republic.

 

Dark Shadows Illuminated

Dan Curtis (1927-2006) had a long and distinguished career in television as a producer and director, both within the horror genre (The Night Stalker, Trilogy of Terror, Burnt Offerings) and beyond (the epic miniseries The Winds of War and War and Remembrance). Nevertheless, he will always be best remembered as the creator of the American Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, so it is only appropriate that the biographical documentary Master of Dark Shadows devotes most of its attention to Curtis’s still-beloved brainchild.

Narrated by Ian MacShane, and featuring interviews with Curtis, his family, and the cast and crew of Dark Shadows, the documentary traces the history of the ABC series, starting with its origins in a strange dream Curtis experienced. The early struggles for ratings–and near cancellation of the series–are acknowledged, which makes Dark Shadows‘ evolution into a pop culture phenomenon (subsequent to its turn to storylines centered on supernatural elements) that much more remarkable. A convincing argument is made for the revolutionary aspect of the series, which not only changed the nature of the daytime television drama but also transformed “an international archetype for horror” via its introduction of the reluctant, sympathetic vampire Barnabas Collins. The documentary also offers some interesting contextualization, suggesting that the show’s fantastic plots offered an escape from the grim realities of Vietnam-era America.

I recognize Dark Shadows as a formative influence; the series undoubtedly shaped my love for all things Gothic and macabre. When the show returned for a syndicated run on NBC in the early 80’s, it numbered me among that next generation of kids who rushed home from school each afternoon to tune in to its atmospheric horrors. Master of Dark Shadows brought those fond memories flooding back to mind as it furnished deeper insight into the hit series. This wonderful documentary (currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime) is highly recommended for every Dark Shadows fan of any age.

 

Castle Rock Reaction

Some thoughts on the second season of Hulu’s series Castle Rock, which concluded today with episode 10, “Clean”…

The plotting in Season 2 was much stronger than that in the show’s inaugural run, where obtuseness tended to produce lingering confusion. Here in Season 2, the puzzle pieces steadily fit together into a more perfect assembly–no small feat, considering the multiple plotlines unfolding and telling quite disparate stories (psychological vs. supernatural horror).

There are a couple of “holy shit” twists woven into the narrative, starting with the end of the first episode (I don’t think I will ever look at an ice cream scoop the same way again). The reveal at the end of episode 7, which hearkens back to Season 1 and gives viewers a new perspective onto those proceedings, was positively staggering.

Without a doubt, the highlight of Season 2 was the performances by the cast, led by Lizzy Caplan. Playing a younger version of Annie Wilkes, the actress has no trouble filling Kathy Bates’s formidable shoes, and gives a no-less-award-worthy performance. She easily convinces viewers that this is Annie Wilkes, via both nuances of body language/voice inflection and more histrionic outbursts. There are levels of complexity here to the character that aren’t present in the Stephen King novel or the Rob Reiner film, and the season-long interaction with her “daughter” (a terrific Elsie Fisher) was magically dramatic (my one quibble: naming the counterpart to Annie from Misery “Joy” came off as just a bit too cutesy). Thankfully, the show’s producers don’t simply appropriate one of King’s most iconic characters for mere cachet value; Season 2 works to demonstrate what ultimately turned Caplan’s Annie into the deadly fanatic immortalized by Bates on the big screen. Annie’s 10-episode arc on Castle Rock proves supremely satisfying (yet also heartbreakingly tragic).

Alas, the same cannot be said for the show’s other thread involving the reincarnated cultists. The sinister body-snatching of Castle Rock’s citizens makes for some chilling scenes (the group’s use of the Marsten House as the home base for their unholy crusade also forms a fine toward Salem’s Lot), but this plot doesn’t pay off as well as it might have. For starters, the cultists’ expressed goal of global conquest seems too grandiose, in the sense that it reduces the significance of the town of Castle Rock (such apocalyptic stakes seem more associated with other King locales like Derry and Haven). As if not quite sure how to handle this material, Castle Rock resorts to a series of bad action-film clichés. Yes, there’s a lot of noisy gunfire and booming explosions, but what the audience really wants to hear more about is that mysterious moaning of the schisma that began in Season 1. “Clean,” though, abruptly washes its hands of any explanation, leaving Castle Rock in a literal cloud of dust (shifting across the border into Canada for the remainder of the episode). The fact that we aren’t granted any further insight into the enigmatic Kid/Angel yet again makes me want to channel my inner Annie and call the show’s writers a bunch of dirty birds.

Castle Rock can be frustratingly uneven at times, but the series is never less than entertaining. I do hope it returns for a third season, one that finally answers the questions that have been raised over the past two years.

 

Flanagan and Garris Chat

In case you missed it…

Mike Flanagan was the guest on last week’s (#68) episode of Mick Garris’s podcast Post Mortem. The two directors renowned for their respective adaptations of Stephen King works discussed the recently-released Doctor Sleep, the 1997 TV miniseries version of The Shining, the Kubrick film, as well as the source novels. This hour-long interview is a terrific listen, brimming with interesting details. Some of the highlights:

  • Flanagan discusses his plan for navigating the Room 237 vs. Room 237 conundrum, and the reason he made his final choice as to what to put on the hotel room door in the film.
  • Flanagan reveals the aspects of King’s novel that so “desperately” made him want to direct a film version of Doctor Sleep.
  • Garris explains why King nearly pulled the plug on the miniseries just before shooting was set to begin.
  • Flanagan cites his favorite scene from the finished film version of Doctor Sleep–a scene, he says, that convinced King that returning to the Overlook (still standing at the end of the Kubrick film) was a good idea.
  • The directors discuss the salient differences between the novels The Shining and Doctor Sleep, and consider both books in the context of King’s biography.
  • Flangan identifies the specific scene from King’s The Shining that he has been “honoring” throughout his filmmaking career.

 

Extra Helping of Horror

Yes, it’s three decades late to the dinner party, but tonight’s episode of The Simpsons finally provides a Thanksgiving-themed follow-up to the show’s annual “Treehouse of Horror” edition. Naturally, good taste isn’t on the menu, but “Thanksgiving of Horror” still is a televisual dish to savor.

The episode riffs nicely on the “Treehouse” tradition, as Marge steps on stage for one of her preliminary p.s.a.’s. There’s also the obligatory Kang and Kodos cameo; here the aliens appear costumed in pilgrim garb that has nothing to do with holiday spirit (“Is this not how oppressive colonizers dress?” they are curious to learn).

With countless turkey decapitations throughout, and a climactic mauling of Wiggum by a bear, the opening segment “A-Gobble-Ypto” arguably features enough graphic violence to fill a baker’s-dozen-worth of “Treehouse” episodes. The segment is also absolutely hilarious, as turkey versions of The Simpsons cast speak in gobbledygook that still contains discernible echoes of the characters’ famous catch phrases and ejaculations (e.g. Turkey Homer’s “Woo-Hoo!” upon witnessing the slaughter of the Patty and Selma birds).

The Black Mirror-reflecting middle piece, “The Fourth Thursday After Tomorrow,” deals with an A.I. version of Marge that is a whiz in the kitchen. I have never been a big fan of the “Treehouse” segments that take A.I. as their subject, and this “Thanksgiving” equivalent similarly underwhelmed me. Not that it isn’t witty (e.g. Moe’s grouse that his “burps taste like lies” after finding out it was an A.I., not the flesh-and-blood Marge, that prepared the holiday banquet); there’s just not much here that really qualifies as horror.

Thankfully, there’s some sci-fi horror to relish in the closing segment, “The Last Thanksgiving.” Referencing classic films like Alien and The Blob, the segment presents a cylinder of cranberry sauce turned into a sentient, metastasizing, predatory Jelly Monster. There are terrific sight gags (many involving Milhouse’s floppy arm) stemming from the Monster’s sucking of victims’ bones right out of their bodies, not to mention some grotesquely humorous lines: “Doesn’t the thing know that the skin’s the best part?” an incredulous Bart expresses as piles of spurned epidermis are left sloughed on the floor of the spaceship.

Rather than rehash Halloween leftovers, this November-centric episode finds plenty of fresh fare to offer up (right down to the altered-names bit in the closing credits). It’s doubtful that “Thanksgiving of Horror” will become an annual tradition like its “Treehouse” precursor, but with this single serving The Simpsons has crafted a classic feast of satiric terror.

 

1984: It Was a So-So Year

Some final thoughts on the latest season of American Horror Story, which concluded last night with Episode 9.9 “Final Girl”…

Overall, AHS gave a strong showing in its hearkening back three decades. It invoked, and poked some loving fun at, 80’s aesthetics (shorty shorts, porn star ‘staches, mercilessly teased hair) and trends (most of all, the aerobics craze), without getting too distracting or giving the sense that the show was targeting clay pigeons. There were some memorable performances–John Carroll Lynch displayed terrific range as the not-mere-Mr.-Jingles Benjamin Richter, and I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed Dylan McDermott more than for his work here as Bruce, the sleazy psycho aspiring to serial killer stardom.

The first half of the season was particularly entertaining. These early episodes continuously hooked the viewer via the unities of time and place. A slew of events transpired over the course of a single, blood-soaked night at Camp Redwood in the summer of ’84, and the writing positively brimmed with wild plot twists and character reversals. In these episodes, AHS seemed to revel in the recreation of 80’s slasher horror.

Sustainability, though, is perennially the big problem for this show, and, alas, this season proved no exception. The action derailed at midseason with the jump ahead in time period that made “1984” something of a misnomer. My biggest issue was with the return of murdered characters as instant spirits haunting the campgrounds. I wasn’t a big fan of this dynamic back in season one (“Murder House”), and even less so here. In defiance of logic and genre convention, these so-called ghosts are tangible, indistinguishable from flesh-and-blood people, and quite adept at dispatching the living with handheld weapons. Because of such contrivance, the show dispenses carnage without consequence, and victims’ deaths prove about as emotionally impactful as the demise of video game characters.

The ghosts’ never-ending slaughter of the Satanically-resurrected Richard Ramirez did furnish some wicked good moments of graphic violence, like a grindhouse version of Groundhog Day. For sure, gore is gloriously splashed across the screen in the season finale (including the most gruesome use of a wood chipper since Fargo). But the build toward a seemingly bloody climax at the Halloween 1989 concert turned out to be a misdirection rather than a massacre (I was disappointed, too, that the much-referenced Billy Idol never showed up at Camp Redwood, either in cameo appearance or via actor impersonation). Also, despite the title of the last episode (and some self-conscious commentary by the female leads), 1984 ultimately doesn’t present any revolutionary development of the concept of the final girl. Finally, the concluding scene, with Mike and the Mechanics’ “The Living Years” playing with no hint of subtlety in the background, made for a terribly sappy happy ending; the sentiment was as saccharine as a six-pack of Slice.

AHS: 1984 started off with a clever reworking of slasher elements, but in the end, serial killers and deadly, repeatedly-returning ghosts made for a sloppy mix.

 

The Number of the Treehouse

Perhaps serendipitously, Treehouse of Horror XXX is also the 666th overall episode of The Simpsons. The writers of the show’s annual Halloween episode appear well aware of this fact, as evident from an Omenreferencing intro (with some head-spinning nods to The Exorcist thrown in as well). This excellent opening almost feels as if it’s stocked with 666 gags, which are delivered at a furious pace (when first watching the preview of this section that was released online a few days ago, I missed the devilishly clever title of the book Marge holds: What to Expect When You’re Expecting the Antichrist). The section also features a terrific transition to the episode’s title card, after Ned, Marge, and Homer are impaled by church spires.

“Danger Things,” the first of the episode’s trademark three story segments, spoofs everyone’s favorite heavy-on-the-80’s-nostalgia sci-fi/horror Netflix series. And since Stranger Things is committed to alluding to Stephen King, it’s only appropriate that this Treehouse piece works in a images and dialogue from The Shining. The runaway popularity of the Netflix series makes it a perfect choice for parodying, but I was slightly disappointed that The Simpsons didn’t do more here with the source material (my favorite bit: flying monsters delivering Amazon packages in the “Over-Under”).

Judging by its title and main filmic reference (Heaven Can Wait), I was prepared to be underwhelmed by the second segment, “Heaven Swipes Right.” But I actually found myself pleasantly surprised, as the segment features plenty of macabre imagery (e.g. pictures of Homer’s bloated body, which has been rolled into a lake by paramedics who couldn’t manage to lift his corpulent corpse) and wicked humor (the reincarnated Homer’s deadly-sinful lifestyle quickly reduces a series of borrowed bodies to ruined temples).

The closing segment, “When Hairy Met Slimy,” bookends with the intro as the highlights of this holiday special. A spot-on spoof of The Shape of Water, the segment casts Kang and Selma as the romantic leads (when the former introduces himself as “Kang the Conqueror,” the latter pricelessly retorts, “I am Selma the Available”). It was nice to see that the well still hasn’t run dry when it comes to invoking Kang (and Kodos) into the Treehouse episodes. The writers also prove adept as ever at slipping in some witty innuendo (the lines about “Deep Space Nine” and “Jabba the Butt” hint at another “XXX” element to the episode’s proceedings).

For an unbelievable three decades now, Treehouse of Horror has formed a staple of the Halloween season. Judging from the 30th installment, the mark the episode makes on October TV viewing is as dark and glorious as ever.

 

Luminary Lanterns

Two days ago, William Bibbiani posted an interesting article over at Bloody Disgusting: “11 Unforgettable Jack O’Lanterns in Movies!”. This annotated compilation highlights some “classic carved pumpkins in your favorite movies and theatrical releases.” Most of the examples that immediately came to my mind were represented here, but the piece also got me to thinking about other eminent pumpkins that would be worthy additions to Bibbiani’s listing. So let’s make it a baker’s dozen: here’s a winning pair of jacks from two more Halloween-related features.

 

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Tim Burton establishes a gloomy October atmosphere right from the opening scene of this Irving-reworking film, with the shot of a looming scarecrow. The wickedly grinning face carved onto the cornfield sentinel (which ends up blood-spatted by Peter Van Garrett’s beheading) also presages the dark humor and lurid horror in store for audiences.

This scarecrow alone leads me to nominate the film, but Sleepy Hollow also includes another excellent jack-o’lantern: the flaming pumpkin hurled at Ichabod during Brom’s prank. The airborne gourd speeding toward the screen here forms the most realistic depiction of the iconic climax of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” that I have ever seen.

 

Monsters vs. Aliens: Mutant Pumpkins from Outer Space (2009)

Technically, this is a bit of a fudge: it features the cast from the animated film Monsters vs. Aliens, but was actually a segment from the Dreamworks Spooky Stories Halloween special that was broadcast on NBC in 2009. Nevertheless, the titular alien critters (created by the contamination of a pumpkin patch by a flying saucer’s sewage) are wonderful to behold. With their jibber-jabbering and commitment to hijinks, they’re like a horde of autumnal Minions.

The true visual treat, though, is served up when the mutant pumpkins amalgamate into a lumbering Halloween colossus. Like a kaiju composed of radioactive jack-o’-lanterns, this creature makes for one awesome October bogey. I know I have never forgotten it after first catching glimpse of its incredible look a decade ago.

 

Camino Royale

Can I get a “Yeah, bitch!”?

El Camino, the feature-length sequel (now streaming on Netflix) to the Breaking Bad series, had a lofty standard to live up to, but thankfully manages to do just that. The film steers viewers right back into the seedy world of Albuquerque, whose sun-drenched streets have been the setting for some extremely dark doings over the years.

In a strict sense, the film picks up where the series finale left off–with Jesse’s escape (courtesy of Walter White) from enslavement by Uncle Jack’s outlaw gang. The title El Camino actually refers to the getaway car, formerly owned by Todd, that Jesse (the sensational-as-always Aaron Paul) drives as he speeds away from the carnage at the compound. He isn’t able simply to ride off into the sunset, though (otherwise there would be no need for this follow-up); much of the narrative thrust here comes from Jesse’s labors to avoid a prompt re-capturing by the local authorities now hunting him.

Yet mimicking the workings of Breaking Bad, the film does not unspool its story in a merely linear fashion. There are a series of flashbacks employed, which also gives director Vince Gilligan the opportunity to bring back a host of characters from the TV series (some of whom were killed off along the way) in new, never-before-glimpsed scenes. These revisits with old friends and enemies are skillfully done, filled with poignant moments and smoothly sequeing into earlier points on the BB timeline. The one exception I would note involves psycho Todd (played by Jesse Plemons), who appears inexplicably and conspicuously chunky in his flashback scenes (seriously, dude, you couldn’t have dieted for this role?).

Perhaps the greatest gain from the back-and-forth cutting of the film’s narrative is the light shed on Jesse’s character. Even though he is no longer locked in a cage like a filthy animal, Jesse isn’t necessarily free. El Camino does a fine job of demonstrating the psychological trauma that lingers after the physical ordeal has ended. The presentation of additional scenes from the former captivity narrative chillingly evokes the torture and torment Jesse was forced to suffer, and his present-day recall of such Gothic experiences clearly reveal a haunted figure.

There is undeniable darkness here, but again in keeping with the precursor series, also terrific instances of humor. The hysterical banter between Badger and Skinny Pete alone makes this film a must-see for fans. At the same time, El Camino features a fine shading of crime noir, especially as Jesse crosses paths with some dangerous con men after the late Todd’s stash of illicitly-gained cash.

With a two-hour drive time, El Camino can’t adopt the same deliberate storytelling approach of Breaking Bad, but the pacing of the film nonetheless feels pitch-perfect. Scenes of frantic action and sweat-wringing suspense are balanced with quieter, more tender moments. While the film doesn’t quite achieve the same gravitas as the series, it does make for a quite satisfying sequel. Jesse Pinkman (basically a good kid who found himself partnered with a bad man) has always been the show’s closest thing to a moral compass, and it is undoubtedly rewarding as a viewer to watch Jesse finally get the ending he deserves.

One final thought: the stories for two of the major characters from Breaking Bad (Walt and Jesse) are now complete, but there is still another loose thread remaining. Even as El Camino furnishes a strong sense of closure, it also spurs anticipation, and curiosity about the ultimate fate of everyone’s favorite shady lawyer (turned Cinnabon manager). The new season of Better Call Saul cannot come soon enough.