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.

 

Mob Scene: Dark Harvest

Many works of fiction have featured an Angry Mob scene, but arguably none have employed one to the same extent as Norman Partridge’s 2006 novel, Dark Harvest. The entire plot of the book concerns such eruption of chaotic, hyperviolent street justice. An anonymous Midwestern town acts out a black ritual every Halloween night: the teenage male population of this rural remote is charged with executing “a pumpkin-headed monster,” the October Boy, preventing the cornfield emigrant from reaching the old brick church in the town square by midnight. This ritualistic slaughter is carried out in the interest of continued community existence: the town secures “what it needs to get through another year of raising prize crops from the same old dirt, what it needs to turn those crops into cold hard cash–the whole deal delivered with a king-sized platter of blessings from above or below, depending on who the hell you listen to.”

Locked in their bedrooms unfed for the five days leading up to Halloween night, the teens are whipped into a feeding frenzy. When finally freed for the Run, they are armed to the teeth, wielding “baseball bats and pitchforks,” “butcher knives and two by fours studded with nails,” “bows and arrows and axe handles and scythes.” The teens thrum with dangerous energy, bashing porch-set jack-o’-lanterns as they roam the streets (warm up for the potential showdown with the October Boy). Armed guards posted outside the town’s market, diner, truck stop, and liquor store cannot always serve to curb the mob’s wild appetites–outbreak of deadly food-looting occurs. A gross violation of the rules, which decree that that the teens stay hungry until the dirty deed of leveling the walking scarecrow is done. Then the grim feast can begin (as demonstrated by a flashback to the prior year’s Run): “They came by the dozen, and they ripped the Boy apart and chowed down on those treats buried inside him.”

Partridge compares the imprisoned (pre-Run) teens to “bulls penned up in tight little chutes.” Hitting the streets at last on Halloween, they are described as “running in packs, like dogs turned loose for the hunt.” The figuration of the mob scene grows even more explicit: “Of course, the October Boy knows what stands between him and the church. Packs of teenagers roaming the street like armed villagers in some old Frankenstein movie.” But apropos of a novel in which crossing “the Line” (marking the town limits) is thematized and the distinction between categorical opposites is deliberately blurred (in “a town where winning is just another name for losing“), Dark Harvest does not stick strictly to the Universal blueprint. For all his repeated likening to Frankenstein’s monster, the October Boy is no dumb, lumbering brute. He exhibits admirable craftiness in outfoxing his antagonists, leaving his Halloween-candy viscera as trail bait, and sneaking into town behind the wheel of a hot rod stolen from one of the teens. Frankenstein’s monster famously gets torched inside the old windmill in the climax of the 1931 movie, but the October Boy uses fire to his own arsonist advantage: he sparks a series of blazes as strategic distractions that draw the teens away from the church (and which ultimately combine to engulf the town in a cataclysmic inferno). The “reaper that grows in the field, the merciless trick with a heart made of treats, the butchering nightmare with the hacksaw face,” the October Boy is the very embodiment of contradiction and terrible turnabout. By the sweet, vengeful end of the novel, he is the persecuted monster who beats (with a last-minute assist from protagonists Pete and Kelly, who have discovered the Run’s sinister twist) the angry mob at its own rampaging game.

 

Mob Scene: Midnight Mass

Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass (which evokes both Salem’s Lot and Storm of the Century) is not only the best Stephen King miniseries not actually based on one of King’s works. This convention-reworking vampire narrative also presents an extensive variation on an angry mob scene.

Deliberately paced and highly philosophical (pondering existential questions such as the meaning of life and what happens when we die), the series works as a slow burn, but builds to a blazing climax over the final episode and a half. Midway through the penultimate episode, “Ch. VI Acts of the Apostles,” the faithful of Crockett Island trek toward St. Patrick’s Church (during a slyly arranged, island-wide blackout) for the titular Easter vigil. They carry candles and sing hymns, the image of their peaceful procession forming a stark contrast to the fiery chaos that is about to erupt.

As the mass begins, Father Hill reveals that he is actually the rejuvenated Monsignor Pruitt, and explains that the cause of the miraculous revitalizations that have spread through the congregation came from sampling the blood of an angel (a winged, vampiric creature that the religiously-minded Pruitt has mistaken as holy). The next phase of the revival now involves the parishioners willfully imbibing poisoned communion wine, dying and then being reborn into earthly immortality shortly thereafter. A successful demonstration convinces many of those gathered to partake, and that’s when proverbial hell breaks loose. The gun-toting sheriff tries to stop his son from poisoning himself, but is tackled to ground by a group of mass attendees. When another protagonist picks up the gun and shoots Pruitt, the dark angel flies down the aisle and snatches her off. Oh, and the undead arise as bloodthirsty savages, impulsively pouncing on their unpoisoned brethren.

The spillage of the macabre mob from the church precipitates most of the action of the concluding episode, “Revelation.” Under the cover of night and the blackout, the vampire brood swoops across the island, attacking nonmembers of St. Patrick’s and violently converting them. The so-called pious have become the monsters here; these riotous villagers, interestingly, also happen to be the ones wielding the torches. Directed by the maniacal, Book-of-Revelations-quoting church member Bev, they toss Molotov cocktails and burn the innocent out of their homes. But the zealot is overzealous in her scheming, and every structure on the small island ends up razed, so that the vampiric congregation (whose plan is to boat off the island in the coming nights and spread their ghastly gospel on the mainland) has nowhere to take shelter come dawn. The monsters end up torched after all, not by vigilante villagers but rather the rising sun.

Midnight Mass divided audiences when it premiered last fall on Netflix, as many viewers found the show too slow-paced and talky (characters are prone to long monologues/homilies). Over time, though, this clever and thought-provoking series might come to be regarded as Flanagan’s masterwork. I found it absolutely gripping, and loved it from its mysterious opening episodes to its wild mob scene climax.

 

Mob Scene: Witch Hunt

Witch Hunt (1994) is a lesser-known sequel to the popular HBO movie Cast a Deadly Spell (which I covered in my last post, “Harrowing Shadows: 11 More Macabre Masterpieces of Horror Noir”). While keeping the same urban fantasy premise (the practice of magic is widespread throughout mid-20th Century Los Angeles), Witch Hunt is a much different film from its predecessor, and definitely more adult-oriented (in its inclusion of vulgarity and nudity). Gone are the cosmic horror overtones of Cast a Deadly Spell; there’s no Necronomicon-summoned pseudo-Cthulhu monstrosity here (nor any creatures such as werewolves, gremlins, or gargoyles, for that matter). The sense of a classic hardboiled-noir mise-en-scene is also lacking in Witch Hunt, which features plenty of sunlit exteriors and bright office spaces. Dennis Hopper steps into the Fred Ward role of magic-averse gumshoe Phil Lovecraft, and gives quite the lethargic performance. For all its shortcomings, though, the film does have something to recommend it: a clever variation on a mob scene.

Senator Larson Crockett (Eric Bogosian)–who heads the Subcommittee on Unnatural Activities and is driven to rid Hollywood of magic–blames Lovecraft’s friend, the licensed witch Hypolita Kropotkin, for the murder of a movie mogul, and decrees that she be burned alive (not just as punishment for her alleged crime, but for “the enlightenment of the general public”). The staged event that follows plays out like a cross between a political rally and a public execution. Indeed, the wooden stake awaiting Hypolita is propped right next to Crockett’s podium. There’s band-music fanfare (matched by enthusiastic cries of “Burn the Witch!” from the sign-wielding bystanders outside the arena), as well as baton twirlers on stage to warm up the flag-waving crowd. This putatively patriotic gathering serves as a satire on American politics, and a reminder that when it comes to witch-hunting, persecution and power-hunger historically have been interconnected.

But the perversion of justice takes an unexpected turn. The two-faced senator, hexed for double-crossing another magic practitioner, collapses mid-speech, and his inner self literally erupts from the prone body and rises in unadulterated obnoxiousness. Dressed like Andrew Dice Clay, the outed inner-Crockett launches into a profane rant that costs him his Presidential hopes (not to mention his freedom). Thus the attempted burning of the good witch Hypolita spectacularly backfires, as it’s the career of the duplicitous and overzealous politician that gets reduced to ashes right before the public eye. Never has a mob scene proven so redemptive, both within Witch Hunt‘s narrative itself and by virtue of its saving what otherwise would have been an utterly forgettable filmic endeavor.

 

Mob Scenes: Treehouse of Horror XXXII

The non-canonical status of the Treehouse of Horror episodes allows all hell to break loose–and it typically does. Last night’s 32nd(!) installment of The Simpsons‘ annual Halloween special didn’t disappoint, as it proved resplendent with mob violence.

In the first full segment, “Bong Joon-Ho’s This Side of Parasite,” the Simpsons are accosted by a group of squatters in Rainier Wolfcastle’s basement, who blame the titular family (hired on here to various house staff positions) for their lowly socioeconomic status. These angry Springfielders wield frying pans and pipes, bricks and chains (one guess as to what Crazy Cat Lady is brandishing…). Sideshow Mel’s impalement by the bone ripped from his hairdo kicks off a battle royale that spills out of the house and into the streets, and ultimately leaves Springfield’s citizenship decimated–save for the Simpsons.

Such riotous outbreak would have been satisfactory alone, but is quickly trumped by another mob scene in the ensuing segment, “Nightmare on Elm Tree.” A lightning strike animates the tree containing the Simpsons’ treehouse; it pulls up roots and runs amok through Springfield, liberating its arboreal comrades along the way. A heavily-armed street mob aims to stop the rampage, a group spurred by Homer’s wonderful war cry: “First we kill them, then we hang our hammocks!” The jokes and sight gags come fast and furious thereafter, making for an entertaining carnival of carnage as the trees saw through the would-be lumberjacks.

Treehouse of Horror XXXII‘s sampling of the Dropkick Murphys’ rollicking song “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” in the intro furnished an early hint of a massive-aggressive approach, and the rest of this fun episode certainly delivered on the unruliness.

 

Mob Scene: Love at First Bite

In my last Dracula Extrapolated post, I noted Love at First Bite‘s splendid spoof of the Universal vampire film. The George Hamilton-starring comedy also treats viewers to a classic send-up of that staple of Universal horror movies: the angry mob scene.

Given an eviction notice by the Communist government, Dracula decides to find a new home in America. Before the undead Count can depart, though, he discovers a crowd of locals gathered outside his castle. Viewing the torchbearers and pitchfork-wielders outside, Dracula marvels: “So they’ve come to pay their respects, have they?” The prompt sound of a rock crashing through a castle window bespeaks a much different motive for the mob.

The laughs come rapid-fire as Dracula attempts to make his way to his carriage through the crowd of rough-justice-seeking rustics. While a violin-player serenades the passing vampire with suspenseful music, an opportunistic hawker chants offscreen: “Get your wolfsbane!” The bumbling sidekick Renfield does the exact opposite of quenching the mob’s ire when he tries to defend his master: “What do you want from him–blood?” One of the “yokels” accosts the Count: “You dirty bat, you bit my mother!” Suave but snarky, Dracula clarifies: “No, Alexei, I bit your mother and your grandmother.” Dracula’s parting words arguably pack the most bite, as the Count warns his harassers: “Have your fun, but remember this. Without me, Transylvania will be as exciting as Bucharest on  a Monday night.”

This early scene provides a perfect setup for the rest of the film. It establishes Dracula as a formidable yet admirable character, someone who can handle a dire situation with a cool head and a witty tongue. The playful restaging of the familiar angry-villager scene also points to the satiric skewering of vampire conventions that the remainder of Love at First Bite so entertainingly presents.

 

Mob Scene: Good Neighbors

In her 2021 novel Good Neighbors, Sarah Langan creates thematic resonance through a series of fine allusions. The very title of the book, which the text proceeds to turn into a terrible oxymoron, recalls the refrain from the Robert Frost poem “Mending Wall”: “Good fences make good neighbors.” The setting of the action on “Maple Street” is a firm nod to the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” (the concluding section of Good Neighbors is actually titled “The Monsters Have Arrived on Maple Street”). Repeated reference to “the lonely thing” lurking in the fictional Long Island community of Garden City calls to mind the Lonely One haunting Green Town in Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. The interpolation of faux news articles and excerpts from nonfiction book commentaries about the novel’s events mimics the structure of Stephen King’s Carrie (a book that centers on the catastrophic results of casting out designated others). Langan’s character Peter Benchley echoes the name of the author of another novel about a Long Island town terrorized by a monstrous incursion one summer. Likewise, the Wilde family shares the surname of writer Oscar Wilde, who was demonized in late-Victorian England for his perceived sexual deviancy. Also, Arlo Wilde in Good Neighbors bears tattoo sleeves on his arms depicting the Universal Monsters–those recurrent cinematic scapegoats of angry villagers. Given all this, it should come as no surprise that Langan’s novel contains a prominent mob scene.

When a sinkhole opens in the park on Maple Street and a teen girl later falls into the boarded-over aperture, her presumed death is treated as more than a tragic accident. The Wildes are (wrongly) blamed for the mishap, and outrageous accusation soon gives way to vigilante action. Langan expertly dramatizes how discrimination and misunderstanding can devolve into madness and mass hysteria. Just as poor Shelly Schroeder appears to have been swept away by the subterranean currents after falling into the sinkhole, the people of Maple Street are driven along by fear and anger: “They were passengers, riding the momentum of something greater than themselves.” They hatch a mischievous and mean-spirited plan of attack, and proceed to smear their faces with the oily muck spewing from the sinkhole (such primitive masking exposes these adults as the literary offspring of the warring boys in Golding’s Lord of the Flies). The chapter breaks off, and the ensuing one is presented from the Wildes’ perspective, capturing all of their dread and disorientation as they are awoken overnight by the approach of the strangely-disguised horde of neighbors. Arlo’s pregnant wife Gertie bears the brunt of the assault (“Her belly felt like it had been punched by an industrial stapler to the mattress”), only belatedly realizing that she has been struck by a brick breaking through the bedroom window.

It is a sudden, savage act of transgression, a stoning to parallel the ritual violence in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” Gertie’s wounding represents a marked escalation of the hostilities that exist on Maple Street; this central scene (which occurs virtually mid-point in the novel), is soon followed by additional acts of despicable aggression. Langan’s entire book forms a meditation on mob mentality, a concern oftentimes shared via passages of ominous omniscience: “Directed against the wrong person, violence assumes a will of its own. It wants to continue to hurt that person, as if to right the wrong, as if, in some way, to provoke violence in kind, thereby conveying its own legitimacy.”

A further word on Good Neighbors: I cannot heap enough praise on this book (the best one I have read this year, and probably in the past several years). It is American Gothic at its finest, not only in its sounding of the sins-of-the-fathers (and mothers) theme, but also in its attention to the sinisterness hidden behind seemingly idyllic facades. Langan presents a terrifying (and frightfully timely, considering our current cultural climate of intolerance and quick-triggered incrimination) story, told in beautiful prose. The novel is impeccably plotted, demonstrating how individual, sometimes innocent, events can create a chain reaction of chaos. It is suffused with rich symbolism, particularly in the case of the sinkhole, whose noxious, insidiously spreading contents signal the dark and roiling underbelly of suburban existence. Langan’s villains are reprehensible but comprehensible, their monstrous thoughts and deeds all too plausible. Her protagonists, rendered even more real by their imperfections, are easy to relate to, and to fear for. This is the first novel that Langan (The Keeper, The Missing, Audrey’s Door) has published in twelve years, but even if she produced twelve books every year for the rest of her career, she would be hard-pressed to match the dark brilliance of this one. Good Neighbors is an absolute masterpiece.

Mob Scene: Nosferatu

The “angry villagers” scene is closely associated with the Universal horror cycle; indeed, the very concept traces back to the Frankenstein films. But a cinematic effort that predates Universal’s Dracula by nearly a decade also forms one of the earliest instances of a monster-movie mob scene.

I refer to the 1922 German Expressionist classic Nosferatu (an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel). In the film’s closing minutes, the natives of the town of Wisborg are restless with dread, as a sudden outbreak of strange death plagues the area. Seeking a scapegoat, the townspeople mark the estate-agent-turned-lunatic Knock (a knock-off of Stoker’s Renfield and Hawkins characters) as a vampire. Such an identification is not hard to imagine, considering that the shock-haired, rotten-toothed Knock forms a just-as-grotesque double of the frightful Count Orlok.

Knock, who has recently escaped from madhouse confinement, is chased through the streets by a fast-amassing, co-ed contingent of Wisborgians. While the people don’t wield torches and pitchforks, they do toss stones at the gleefully grinning fugitive as he straddles a rooftop. For all his obvious insanity, though, Knock does demonstrate a degree of craftiness. He throws his pursuers off course by hanging his coat on a scarecrow in a field. Belatedly recognizing the ruse, the townspeople pummel the effigy in frustration (one wonders if Knock–whose eventual apprehension occurs offscreen–suffers a similar thrashing when the irate locals finally catch up to him).

This somewhat-whimsical (as emphasized by the accompanying orchestra music) mob scene is a curious one, especially considering its placement towards the end of the film. Perhaps it is designed by director F.W. Murnau to accentuate the horror of Nosferatu‘s climax. Because while the populace is out giving madcap chase of Knock, the heroine Ellen is alone indoors and vulnerable to home-invasion by Count Orlok, who has targeted her for some serious harm.

 

Mob Scene: “Shambleau”

Catherine L. Moore’s classic 1933 tale of alien parasitism, “Shambleau” (one of the most popular pieces ever to be published in Weird Tales), opens with a scene of angry villagers on the hunt. “The wild hysteria of the mob” rings in the streets of Lakkdarol, a Wild-West-type Martian settlement–“a raw, red little town where anything might happen, and very often did.” A “motley crowd” has gathered: “Earthmen and Martians and a sprinkling of Venusian swampmen and strange, nameless denizens of unnamed planets–a typical Lakkdarol mob.” But there is nothing typical about the mob scene that unfolds. The pursuers gripped by “the savage exultation of the chase” strangely slip between referring to their quarry as a “girl” and a “thing.” The observation that “They desired the girl with an explicable bloodthirstiness” also intrigues with its ambiguity, its blurring of the line between attacking and attraction. When the protagonist Northwest Smith, in a burst of chivalry, intervenes and claims that the girl is with him, the mob’s “animosity” instantly transforms into “horror” and “disgust.” The scornful crowd abandons Smith “as swiftly as if whatever unknowing sin he had committed were contagious.”

The furious pursuit of the “berry-brown girl in a single tattered garment” might be construed as the tracking of a runaway slave (Moore also invokes the context of witch-hunting), but what Smith fails to realize is that the townspeople’s repeated chant of the foreign word “Shambleau” is the equivalent of Eastern European peasants crying vampire. It’s not until after Smith invites the girl home that he (slowly) discovers the predatorial threat underlying her exotic, feline femininity. The red turban worn on the head of the creature (who is posited as the potential origin of the Earthly myth of the Medusa) conceals a nest of writhing tentacles that surreptitiously attach themselves to Smith and suck his life-force. What’s worse, this awful mode of feeding creates an erotic feeling–an addictive thrill–in the victim. By story’s end, the curious behavior of the mob in the opening scene is clarified (and the desperate urge to exterminate perhaps justified). The Shambleau was chased after so impassionedly not simply because she was some swarthy, criminal Other, but because she was recognized as the source of the guiltiest of pleasures.

 

Mob Scene: “Rawhead Rex”

“Rawhead Rex” (ranked #1 on the recently-concluded Dispatches from the Macabre Republic countdown) is the ultimate monster story in Clive Barker’s Books of Blood collection. The titular carnivore–“the Beast of the Wild Woods,” the “Lord of the Hardon”–is Barker’s raging, R-rated, phallic-associated answer to King Kong. There’s also a certain Universal-Horror-vibe to Rawhead’s terrorizing of European villagers. It should come as no surprise then, that the story features a mob scene. Or two scenes, if one counts the passing mention (Rawhead’s recollection) of the monster’s capture/live-burial centuries earlier. His hunters used a traditional weapon of the torch-and-pitchfork crowd to smoke the beast out of his lair: “He had been flushed out of his fortress with streaming eyes, confused and fearful, to be met with spike sand nets on every side, and that…thing they had, that sight that could subdue him.”

This all anticipates the mob scene dramatized in the story’s modern-day climax. Rawhead once again suffers from impaired vision, having roasted his own eyeballs while vengefully employing fire against the villagers of Zeal. The real eyesore for Rawhead, though, is the sight of the rediscovered sheela na gig, a stony symbol of female fecundity wielded by protagonist Ron Milton. As Rawhead stands enthralled by the frightful image, he is set upon by his human antagonists. The unsubtly-dubbed “gathering Zealots” attack with their bare hands (“Fists beat on his spine, nails raked his skin”) until someone takes up a knife and savagely hamstrings Rawhead. Immediately, the angry villagers seize the opportunity provided by the beast’s toppling, “overpowering him by sheer weight of numbers.” Rawhead senses his imminent demise yet goes down fighting: “He snaps off a finger here, a face there, but they would not be stopped now. Their hatred was old; in their bones, did they but know it.”

At long last, the Zealots have bested their ancient enemy, but it’s the outsider Ron who delivers the killing blow. Ron, who earlier had witnessed his young son’s head being chomped by the murderous Rawhead, returns the favor by pulverizing the creature’s skull with the dreaded stone: “The King went out…once and for all.” Out, in keeping with Barker’s unflinchingly graphic narrative, in a “brain spattered” blaze of gory.