Super Bowl Burton

Meet Edgar Scissorhands…

Airing during tonight’s Super Bowl, Cadillac’s “Scissorhands 2” commercial features the handy son of Winona Ryder’s Kim Boggs character. The 90-second ad packs in a lot of witty gags in the vein of the classic film. Tim Burton fans are big winners tonight!

 

The Night Stalker at 49

On this date in 1972, The Night Stalker premiered as the ABC Movie of the Week (garnering the highest ratings for any made-for-TV film up to that time). The movie introduced the world to that bloodhound of an investigative reporter, Carl Kolchak, here tracking the story of a series of killings in Las Vegas in which the female victims have been drained of vital fluids via a bite to the neck. Nearly a half-century now after the initial airing, it’s no terrible plot spoiler to note that the perpetrator proves to be not some psychopath with a Dracula kink, but the real supernatural deal.

The Night Stalker forms an indisputable landmark of televisual American Gothic. With Darren McGavin playing a wisecracking, working class Van Helsing, the film imports Bram Stoker’s classic vampire narrative, reworks it and roots it in a modern urban setting. Stephen King has praised the film in his study Danse Macabre (poignantly dubbing Kolchak “more Lew Archer than Clark Kent”), and The Night Stalker can be detected as an influence on the author’ own fiction (e.g., Salem’s Lot, “The Night Flier”). This hard-boiled/horror hybrid has also proven seminal to the paranormal-investigation subgenre, most notably in the case of The X-Files.

With its fine pedigree (Richard Matheson furnished the script for producer Dan Curtis), The Night Stalker unsurprisingly became an instant hit with audiences. The film also holds up remarkably well to a 2021 viewing. Barry Atwater is a frightful, and decidedly physical, menace as the vampiric antagonist Janos Skorzeny. The film’s protracted climax, in which Kolchak searches the vampire’s Gothic household lair (where Skorzeny’s latest victim is held captive as his personal blood bank), is the quintessence of thrilling suspense.

Thanks to the success of the film, the Kolchak character would develop into a pop cultural icon, appearing in a subsequent made-for-TV movie, a short-running but long-revered TV series, and countless works of fiction. Forty-nine years later, though, it is still The Night Stalker that represents the height of Kolchak’s story-hunting, monster-encountering glory.

 

The House Wins

Thanks to the video-pirate’s cove that is YouTube, I was able to watch last night the 1979 made-for-television version of The Fall of the House of Usher. Admittedly, the acting isn’t the greatest: Martin Landau hams it up as the hypersensitive Roderick, and Robert Hays (the protagonist Jonathan) is as wooden as the timber his character uses to reinforce the fissured façade of the Usher mansion. But Dimitra Arliss is a blood-crying, morningstar-wielding, white-haired nightmare as the resident menace Madeline. And while some of the alterations to the plot of Poe’s original story are borderline ridiculous (here the house becomes the embodiment of the Usher-cursing Devil!), the film does feature a thrilling and spectacular climax.

What really distinguishes this effort, though, is the setting. The House of Usher is an absolute Gothic marvel, replete with winding staircases, secret passages and hidden chambers, creepy portraits, copious cobwebs, and candelabras galore. This is as good as it gets in terms of Gothic mise-en-scène; Collinwood seems quaint and 1313 Mockingbird Lane looks ultra-modern by comparison.

I can remember being mesmerized as a kid watching The Fall of the House of Usher when it first aired, and I found myself surprisingly entertained seeing it again nearly forty years later. I wish more of such unabashedly, classically Gothic fare premiered on the small screen today.

 

Mob Scenes: Lovecraft Country

Given its pointed combination of fantastic horror and American history, and its critical engagement with H.P. Lovecraft’s bigotry, it’s no shock that Lovecraft Country features a racially-charged mob scene. What is surprising, though, is that the same incident–the Tulsa riot of 1921, one of the ugliest events in the history of the Republic–is handled so differently in Matt Ruff’s source novel and the HBO series it inspired.

In “The Narrow House” section of Ruff’s novel, Montrose Turner is sent on a mission to retrieve a group of magic tomes from a named Henry Narrow (an alias assumed by Hiram Winthrop’s fugitive son). Arriving in Aken, Illinois, Montrose learns that Narrow is already dead, but interacts with Narrow’s ghost inside an apparition of the man’s house. As the price of his posthumous assistance, Narrow requests that Montrose tell him a story, and Montrose proceeds to relate his experiences in the Tulsa riot. Montrose explains how the riot started: the arrest of a black man named Dick Rowland after he was (falsely) accused of attacking a young white woman named Sarah Page; a white mob’s attempt to lynch Rowland at the jailhouse; the intercession of armed black men on Rowland’s behalf; the shootout that followed, and the eruption of violence as the white mob endeavored to torch a wealthy black neighborhood. Montrose’s father Ulysses was one of the neighborhood’s defenders against the white mob, and is fatally wounded while trying to protect Montrose. Montrose’s tale concords with the one then shared by the ghost Henry, who was himself shot and killed (along with his colored wife and child), and had his house burned down by a racist mob that refused to welcome a mixed family into the Aken community.

In the “Rewind 1921” episode of the HBO series, Montrose, his son Atticus, and Atticus’s girlfriend Leti all time travel back to Tulsa to retrieve the precious Book of Names (which they’ve learned was secretly possessed by the Turner family, but perished in the fires set by white arsonists). In a tense sequence that stretches almost the entire episode, the Tulsa riot explodes around them as the protagonists attempt to locate the book. The violence is especially hard-hitting when witnessed onscreen–the brutal murder, for instance, of a young Montrose’s friend, who is shot in the head at point blank range. Panoramic shots of the raging inferno after the neighborhood is set ablaze reveal the absolute war zone into which Tulsa has been transformed.

In Ruff’s novel, Montrose’s father acts and dies heroically, whereas in “Rewind 1921” he is shown to be an abusive, homophobic alcoholic. The main difference between book and series, though, is in the handling of the Tulsa riot. As impactful as the imagery of mob violence is in the episode, it lacks the backstory furnished in “The Narrow House,” and is employed more as a dramatic backdrop–another dire obstacle thrown in the time travelers’ way. Ruff’s book section (which uses the testimony–quoted in The Chicago Defender–of an African-American survivor of the riot as an epigraph) deals less sensationally but more informatively with the historical events. Both book and series do a fine job of demonstrating how that fateful day in 1921 has scarred Montrose and shaped his character, but the book proves more effective in its more naturalistic (even as Montrose converses with a ghost) invocation of the ignominious moment in American history that played out so chaotically and devastatingly in Oklahoma.

 

 

History Lessons: “Nine Nightmares” (Episode 2.6)

Some quotable quotes from the season 2 finale of Eli Roth’s History of Horror, an episode that focuses on “nine uncategorizable films that push the boundaries of horror”:

 

Eli Roth: Great horror films entertain us and provoke us. They put society under a microscope, making us question not just what we fear, but why we fear it.

 

Jordan Peele: Sort of existing with a privilege, and a privilege that many of us enjoy, is violent act. And that’s the central theme of Us. This idea that when we look in the mirror, both individually and collectively, we might realize it’s not as simple as ‘I’m the good guy.’

 

Mary Harron: When we were filming American Psycho, I realized that the fear a woman has going on a date, or going to a guy’s apartment, and something bad happening, or him suddenly transforming from one kind of person to another, is a very strong female fear. Movies are a way of exploring those fears.

 

Joe Dante: [The Wicker Man is] about faith and how faith doesn’t really pan out for you. I wouldn’t say it’s on the side of the paganists, but it certainly comes close, because devout as the hero is, it doesn’t save him.

 

Michael Dougherty: The [E.G.] Marshall story [in Creepshow] does represent a lot of the sociopolitical things that were going on at the time. You know, him being a blatant racist character who is trying to live in this protective white bubble, literally, in his compound, and he’s terrified of other things getting into that world.

 

Chris Hardwick: Horror is the genre that gave us the bad good. Like there could be a really great horror movie and that’s fun to watch, but a really bad horror movie can be fun to watch, too.

 

Alexandra Billings: The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous; it’s breathtaking. So it’s unfortunate that it sits on a foundation of transphobia in a really big way, in a really blatant way. Because Dressed to Kill came out at a time when trans people were still thought of as illegal, making us murderers made perfect sense. It wasn’t a big stretch to think that we would go from jail to killing someone.

 

Eli Roth: It’s supposed to be shocking. you’re not supposed to watch and then move on to something else. You know, if you can get through Cannibal Holocaust, you see some of the most incredible, incredible filmmaking ever.

 

History Lessons: “Chilling Children” (Episode 2.5)

The kids are far from all right in the latest episode of Eli Roth’s History of HorrorHere is some of the fine guidance offered, on dealing with “Chilling Children”:

 

Kier-La Janisse: Everybody sympathizes with Carrie. The character of Carrie White continues to resonate, generation after generation, because she is sort of like this heroine character for anybody who has been marginalized, or bullied, or has had an oppressive parent.

 

Mick Garris: What could be more frightening than your child gone wrong [such as in We Need to Talk About Kevin]? I mean, how organic is that, how horrendous would that be? Because you’re there for at least eighteen years, man. However your kid comes out, you have a responsibility.

 

Eli Roth: The Bad Seed arrived in the mid-1950’s, one of the most conservative periods in American history. The generation that grew up during the Great Depression believed in strict discipline and frowned on selfishness, and Rhoda embodied their worst fears about their children.

 

Dana Gould: It’s the innate fear that parents have, that your child is here to replace you. They’re here because you’re leaving, and they’re going to take over. And the anxiety [as reflected in Village of the Damned] is that they’re not going to wait.

 

Don Mancini: What all these movies have in common is that they were about kids supernaturally punishing their enemies. And I think that is something that is extremely attractive to young people who feel that they have no control over their lives.

 

Milly Shapiro: You don’t want to punch a child; you don’t want to kick a child. They’re scary, but you’re like, ‘I can’t do anything, it’s an actual child.’ And so it’s a very unnerving thing to watch a scary child, or a child with a knife or anything like that.

 

Jason Middleton: It’s Alive dramatizes the idea, you know, of a monster kind of born, and it’s because of environmental factors, so it works in that whole eco-horror theme. But it’s also just very much about the idea that for men, childbirth is something over which they’re going to exercise little control, and, you know, what’s going to happen with this birth.

 

The Legend of SNL

My essay “Eerie Rider: The Headless Horseman’s Forays into Pop Culture” (in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition) attempts to provide a definitive account of the Irving character’s post-Legend appearances, but acknowledges that there will still be further instances following the essay’s publication. And pop culture didn’t take long to validate this point.

Showing once again that there’s no better proof of popularity than being spoofed, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was targeted during last weekend’s Halloween edition of Saturday Night Live. The five-minute skit–in which a wandering Ichabod Crane encounters the Headless Horseman (carrying his animate head)–is riotous with impropriety, as Crane and lascivious company end up tormenting the poor Horseman. Definitely not suitable for younger viewers, but a video of the skit can be found here.

For an analysis of countless other examples (both spoofs and serious uses), be sure to check out my “Eerie Rider” essay.

 

Treehouse of Trivia: Bonus Edition

In lieu of a full review of last night’s “Treehouse of Horror XXXI” (which I thought was terrific, and did its Halloween number proud), here’s a brief quiz pertaining to the episode. Answers appear in the Comments section below.

 

1. When Marge tells Homer he should vote if he cares about the three things he loves most, what does Homer immediately imagine?

 

2. In “Toy Gory,” Radioactive Man explodes after Bart puts him in the microwave–a reference to Gremlins. This isn’t the first time such gag has appeared on a Treehouse of Horror episode, though. Can you cite the other?

 

3. According to Kent Brockman’s news report in “Into the Homer-verse,” the group of Homers terrorizing Springfield do all of the following, except:

A. Over-bowl the bowling alleys
B. Empty family-style buffets of everything except salad
C. Start a doo-wop group
D. Attend a football game with their shirts off
E. Leave the library untouched

 

4. The episode lives up to its Treehouse of Horror title when ________________.

 

5. Complete the quote: “Bart Simpson, I’m gonna do what clowns do best: ____!

 

6. “Into the Homer-verse” gives a nod to what classic Star Trek episode?

 

7. In “Be Nine, Rewind,” temporal loops can be broken by all of the following, except:

A. Saving the whales in Star Trek IV
B. Bombing at the box office like Happy Death Day 2U did
C. Saying “Orange you glad I didn’t say banana” in the knock-knock joke
D. Being nice in Groundhog Day

 

8. True or False? Bart gets tennis elbow from his toys in “Toy Gory.”

 

9.In “Into the Homer-verse,” Kearney dresses up as Pinhead for Halloween. Can you cite the other time the Cenobite has appeared on Treehouse of Horror?

 

10. How many clips are shown in the closing credits of TofH XXXI?

 

History Lessons: “Witches” (Episode 2.4)

The topic of last night’s episode of Eli Roth’s History of Horror was perfectly suited to Halloween. Here is some of the wisdom conveyed about cinematic witchery:

 

Joshua Leonard: Without Heather’s monologue [in The Blair Witch Project], and without the weird framing of that shot, I don’t think the film works. I think that very iconic moment made the film and added so many stakes and so much relatability to the film. And Mike [Williams] and I had no idea that she filmed that until we saw it for the first time in the theater.

 

Eli Roth: The merciless Wicked Witch of the West is one of the most recognizable creations in cinema. Green-faced, hooked-nosed, pointed chin: she represents one of the oldest villains of folklore–the evil crone. And like many horror archetypes, she’s the product of cultural anxiety.

 

Rachel True: It’s an analogy for female sexuality. If you notice [in The Craft], as our powers get stronger, our skirts get shorter. Society’s always been scared of women and their sexuality, and teenagers, that’s their burgeoning sexuality when it hits. So the witchcraft is kind of an analogy for the fear we have of women coming into their power.

 

Ari Aster: One of the first images that came to me when I was developing Hereditary was that of the dollhouse. This artist who, you know, was making these very true to life replicas of the spaces in her life. That just felt like an appropriate metaphor for this film about a family that ultimately has no agency. Ultimately, they are like dolls in a dollhouse.

 

Scott Derrickson: Here’s this good person [Tomlinson in The Witch], who is being consumed by an evil that she cannot escape. She only wants to be good and only wants to do what is right. And the idea of being usurped by evil is a one of the scariest ideas you can think of, from a theological or religious point of view. But at the same time, the movie is very critical, in saying that this what religion and religious hysteria and religious repression also inevitably does to young adult minds.

 

Rob Zombie: I like the ending [of The Lords of Salem] a lot, because I’ve always been a big fan of Ken Russell movies, and I like crazy shit. Because I thought, if you have someone [the character Heidi] who their entire soul is being stripped away because they are being dragged to hell by witches and forced to give birth to Satan, well, what’s that gonna look like?

 

Ernest Dickerson: What Dario Argento was really doing [in Suspiria] was, he was making an adult fairy tale. It is amazing to see that his inspiration for it was Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. He wanted the color scheme of a Disney film. And he got it. It’s another externalization of the fears and the anxieties the main character’s going through.

 

Jennifer Moorman: It’s not common in other genres to see women as powerful and dangerous. And to watch them take back the power, and use it to break free, is really exciting.

 

Treehouse of Trivia Answers

Here are the correct answers from yesterday’s Treehouse of Trivia: Ultimate Simpsons Quiz. How did you rate?

Score
0-5: D’oh!
6-10: Ay, Caramba!
11-15 Argh
16-20 Diddily-Do
21-25: Whoo-hoo!
26-31+: Exxxcellent

 

1. C. Bart (an interrupting Marge asks Bart to warn viewers in the TofH IV opening, but he never actually does so)

 

2. E, D, F, C, A, B

 

3. “King Homer” (TofH III), “Dial M for Murder, or Press ‘#’ to Return to Main Menu” (TofH XX), “Homerzilla” (TofH XXVI)

 

4. “No TV and no beer make Homer go crazy” (from “The Shinning” [TofH V])

 

5. False (parodied in “I Know What You Diddily-Iddily Did” [TofH X])

 

6. G. The Fly (in “Fly vs. Fly” [TofH VIII]), Bart is Fly-headed, but it’s a mutation, not a Halloween costume)

 

7. D. Herman Munster (Homer appears as a parody of Herman Munster in the opening of TofH XI, but it is not a Halloween costume)

 

8. In “Dial Z for Zombies” (TofH III), Bart and Lisa plan to resurrect Snowball I (cf. Pet Sematary)

In “Bart Simpson’s Dracula” (Tof H IV), vampire kids float outside bedroom window (cf. Salem’s Lot)

In “Attack of the 50 Ft. Eyesores” (TofH VI), a giant lumberjack terrorizes Springfield (cf. It)

In “I Know What You Diddliy-Iddily Did” (TofH X), Homer tells Lisa to go hide in the Pet Cemetery

In “Hex and the City” (T of H XII), a gypsy places a curse on Homer (cf. Thinner)

“The Ned Zone” (TofH XV) is a segment-long parody of The Dead Zone

In “Heck House” (TofH XVII), a pig is dropped onto Homer’s head (cf. the pig’s blood prank in Carrie)

 

9. Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford (in “The Terror of Tiny Toon” [TofH IX])

 

10. D. Skinner and Chalmers

 

11.”But let that ill-gotten donut be forever on your head” (from “The Devil and Homer Simpson” [TofH IV])

 

12. Family Guy‘s Peter Griffin

 

13. E. Snake

 

14. True (clips from the first 666 episodes appear in a grid at the end of TofH XXX)

 

15. In “Night of The Dolphin” (TofH XI), Willie is impaled through chest by a dolphin leaping through town hall window (cf. the Headless Horseman’s staking of Baltus through church window in Sleepy Hollow)

In “Bartificial Intelligence” (TofH XVI), the Robot David trims the hedges in the shapes of the Simpsons’ heads (cf. Edward Scissorhands)

“There’s No Business Like Moe Business” (TofH XX) is a segment-long parody of Sweeney Todd

 

16. G. Lisa’s Pieces (Lisa is actually a nutritious apple)

 

17. Fran Drescher

 

18. In “Attack of the 50 Ft. Eyesores” (TofH VI), the Lard Lad Donuts statue comes to life (and attacks Homer for stealing the donut from it)

In the opening of TofH XXIII, the giant Mayan hurls the donut from the statue like a frisbee

In the opening of TofH XXIV (directed by Guillermo del Toro), the statue is shown on the rampage

In “Telepaths of Glory” (TofH XXVI), Maggie teleports the statue’s donut onto a radio tower

In the “Planet of the Couches” gag (opening of TofH XXVII), the statue is shown half-buried on the beach

In “Dry Hard” (TofH XXVII), the statue is shown in a state of post-apocalyptic ruin (but with a video camera installed in the donut hole)

 

19. D. Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London”

 

20. The half-kneeling death pose of Commander Adama (Lorne Greene) in Battlestar Galactica

 

21. Treehouse of Horror (The Simpsons Halloween Special appeared in episodes 1-13)

 

22. A. The Shape of Water (which hadn’t been released yet, but would eventually be parodied in “When Hairy Met Slimy” [TofH XXX])

 

23. In “Hell Toupee” (TofH IX), the renegade hairpiece attacks Bart like the facehugger from Alien

In the opening of TofH XIV, Kang and Kodos’s boss expels Bart from his stomach after dinner

In “Starship Poopers” (TofH XX), half-alien Maggie attacks Jerry Springer like the facehugger

In the opening of TofH XXI, Bart has the alien inside stomach when he walks past an x-ray machine

In the opening of TofH XXII, Bart and Maggie dress up as an astronaut and chestburster, respectively, for Halloween

 

24. False (God says it is Selma, but a taunting Homer corrects him: “It’s Patty, chump!”)

 

25. C. “Dial N for Nerder” (which will actually an episode title in season 19 [episode 14])

 

26. TofH III: Simpsons as skeletons

TofH IV: Simpsons as zombies

TofH V: Simpsons as Frankenstein’s Monsters

TofH VI: Simpsons hung

TofH VII: Simpsons felled by the Grim Reaper

TofH VIII: Simpsons electrocuted by skull caps

TofH IX: Freddy and Jason sit waiting on couch, but Simpsons are already dead

TofH X: Simpsons as past characters from TofH

 

27. Cthulhu

 

28. B. Slithers (Smithers is a snake-like character named Slithers in the Harry Potter spoof “Wiz Kids” [TofH XII])

 

29. “Eat my shorts” (Bart interjects this before Lisa can read the actual word “Nevermore” from the poem)

 

30. Sgt. Sausage

 

31. True (although the theme music from Halloween does figure prominently in the episode “Halloween of Horror,” which aired a week before TofH XXVI)