Season 2, Episode 5: “Symphony in B#” (Francis Delia, director; Peter Mohan, story; Carl Binder, teleplay)
The series embraces old-school Universal horror, while marking the return of Ryan’s grossest behaviour.
Watch the FULL EPISODE below.
Kris: Do people really bring opera glasses to the symphony, Micki? No, they don’t. It’s clear that Ryan and the “phantom” of the symphony are both going to have their eyes on the same girl (second violinist, Leslie). I like the idea of revisiting classic horror; this is postmodern horror’s way of speaking horror’s language in a kind of echo, and there’s something almost comforting about seeing these narratives recur. This is especially resonant when Leslie follows the haunting music into the Phantom Janos Korda’s basement lair in a fairly direct replication of The Phantom of the Opera. But it’s disappointing when she finally confronts him, and they’ve had a past together, and she reacts with virtually zero shock at the sight of him!
Erin: Huh. I attributed that to recognizing his music, although also, see my comments below re: the actress’s performance.
More allusiveness comes in the character names: Leslie Rains, a clear reference to Claude Rains, who played the Phantom in Universal’s 1940s remake of the original film. And Korda is the name of the vampire played by Robert Quarry in Deathmaster (1972) (the other two films in this series are Count Yorga , and The Return of Count Yorga (1971), but for Deathmaster, they had to change the name of the character). Intriguing as the latter reference may be, it’s a little random.
E: Ooh! I got the Rains reference, but not the Korda one. Nice!
Point of Interest: Clear sign that you’re in urban English Canada: “Theatre Adelaide” on one door and “Adelaide Theatre” on the other.
It’s pretty cool that the phantom gets to score his own murder scenes! Allusions here to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) are interesting with the instrument serving also as the artist’s weapon. The voyeurism sub-theme attests to this as well, and it’s interesting that Ryan’s creepy stalking of Leslie parallels it. Wax also finds this unsettling. Even creepier than Ryan’s stalking Leslie, however, may be Micki’s presumption that “she seems to have some sort of hypnotic effect on” Ryan. Why does it have to be her fault!?
The Cheese: Leslie “waxing her bow” after her sex night with Ryan. I mean, to be fair, she did say earlier that she’s “married to her work.”
E: That made me snort laugh. You win.
The Sins: Lust, envy, greed, and maybe for only the second time gluttony are in play here. The lust is oddly more for power than for the flesh on the Phantom’s part (Ryan’s drive is clear). But gluttony finally comes in where one life of fame seems to be not enough for Korda. I would link this entirely to greed, but in this series greed is often attached to characters who want more of something they haven’t had prior (am I off with this?), and gluttony to more of something they already have. It’s a metaphorical gluttony. Maybe I’m reaching. Erin, swoop in and rescue me from my reaching!
E: Actually, I shall not! I think you are absolutely on target with your read on this, and I’m only envious (mwah ha ha) that I didn’t think of it myself.
The Verdict: Again, there is a sense that season 2 is consistently stronger than season 1, with its unevenness coming mostly in the episodes’ closure. I find this one, like the prior one, intriguing until the finale. At least this episode leaves us with a striking image of Korda having plummeted to land atop Leslie, their bodies forming a twisted criss-cross of death, and later with Ryan listening to Leslie’s last recording, her essence, at episode’s close. The uncomfortable fact that this life’s essence for Leslie was a forced performance by Korda, with her nearly sobbing through it, goes un-assessed after Jack’s statement.
Erin’s Thoughts (before reading yours)
OK, so I looked it up, and I have to give the episode’s writer credit: B# is not really a thing; it’s actually, if I understand it correctly, a stand in for the C note. Given the episode thread on who is really performing Janos’ recordings, this may actually be intentional.
K: Cool! You know, I know that B-sharp doesn’t exist, and because of that I read the episode title as “B-flat,” even though the # stands for sharp. Interesting!
E: Like, but more effectively and subtly, “The Baron’s Bride”, this episode puts me in mind of the black-and-white Universal films, and the parallels to Phantom of the Opera are so obvious as to hardly be worth enumerating, but I’m me, so I’ll do it anyway. Leslie “Rains”; the deformed musician (and later “unmasking”), his first victim a janitor as stand in for stagehand Joseph Buquet, the second victim first chair, as a stand-in for Carlotta. Which, I suppose, makes Ryan the Raoul in this situation.
What works here is that Leslie has more backstory and tons more agency than pretty much any version of Christine Daae. Rather than being an obsessive fan of Leslie, Janos is, well, an obsessive fan of himself. Leslie and Janos are a couple long before his accident, and this may be one of the few times in which the object is given to someone unwittingly; it’s implied but not stated explicitly that the presence of the cursed violin is the reason he survived the accident, adding a more tragic dimension to the proceedings. Also, I liked the fact that while douche-y former colleague stuck teaching violin to clearly untalented people basically says Leslie slept her way to the top, Jack actually counters, to Ryan, that Leslie was more talented than Janos. Ryan’s restrained reaction to Leslie’s death—and the lack of freeze frame—were a nice touch, given his theatrics over Micki’s death in “Heads I Win…”.
Things that didn’t work: opera glasses at the symphony, Micki? Are you homing in on their bowing or something? K: Hahahaha!
The usual conflation of deformity with evil, obsession, and stalking...without acknowledging how creepy Ryan’s behavior toward Leslie is. She could literally not look LESS interested in Ryan when he introduces himself, and yet he follows her to the music store? Is that supposed to be romantic? (I will acknowledge that the fact that the actress playing Leslie played her as if she was on Quaaludes, so perhaps she was supposed to appear interested but conflicted, rather than bored and disinterested.) Janos (Janus?) NOOOOO was genre appropriate but hilarious.
K: I’m with you. This is Ryan at his absolute perviest; his stalking her is flat-out criminal behaviour.
Not a bad episode; a good beginning with the cross-cutting between the stage and backstage, and interesting ending, but the middle dragged a bit for me. Sin-wise? Envy was everywhere, not just with Janos. Pride plays a concerto here too.
Season 2, Episode 6: “Master of Disguise” (Tom McLoughlin, director; Bruce Martin, writer)
Another Universal homage that tries to sell the audience on Louise Robey's (Micki) acting prowess.
Watch the FULL EPISODE below.
The Goods: I really like the out-of-time feel of the opening scene; it’s largely the set and costumes, of course, but the creeping stalker camera, music and lighting conjure up allusions to films like The Spiral Staircase (1945). The setup, with a star needing a cursed object to stay vibrant suggests this episode almost as a double feature with “Symphony in B#.”
E: YES! One for Ryan, and one for Micki!
The Cheese: It starts early, with the slo-mo and non-diegetic fan blowing Micki’s hair as she passes by movie star William Pratt, ogling him breathily. It looks like a commercial for shampoo or Massengill douche. But it’s less cheese than camp, including the way the actors playing actors overplay their scenes. The reporter, Foster’s, death, for example, is hilarious (though the homophobia behind his fey behaviour in his hotel room, silk-robed and drinking a martini in his bubble bath while watching himself on TV, is off-putting). Death by award! “You deserve an award for it.”
E: Yeah, Foster’s characterization was….a problem.
This has to be the silliest cursed object thus far. What happens when the makeup runs out in this case that has been around since John Wilkes Booth’s time? Also, so much for season 2’s careful logic around the makeup case’s cursed power. Metaphorically, figuratively, symbolically— I don’t really catch a connection between the case being owned by JWB and what it does for its possessor.
Something occurs to me as I watch the sex scene between Micki and Pratt (which looks like a Bonnie Tyler music video) … there’s no saxophone music! Where’s the sexy sax?
E: You’re right! What’s the point of sex sax if sex sax doesn’t sax during sex? K: She sells sex sax by the seashore.
The Verdict: This is an interesting case where the user of the curse generates some interesting sympathy, very likely the most the show has ever conjured. “Please don’t make me do this,” he says as he’s about to have to kill the (cute) gas station attendant to keep up his masquerade for Micki. Ultimately, this episode has more twisted, unsettling pathos a la Phantom of the Opera than the previous one. And the villain is defeated in a fit of tears rather than violence. The homage to Boris Karloff in the end, “a man who made his career playing monsters” but who “was the kindest” and “gentlest” man in Jack’s words, seals this sympathy for the monster, and of course calls back to Karloff’s portrayal of the Monster in Whale’s Frankenstein films. It’s something McLoughlin acknowledges in an interview in the Wax book (203-4): “They [the Universal monsters] all had this underlying empathy” (204). (He also delicately suggests that Robey’s acting range was limited, and that she knew it.)
I want to add something here about the series’ chamber pieces vs. its location pieces. There are times where the more claustrophobic, set-bound episodes really work because they are limited to one space (a theatre, for example), and there is a similar feel about the expansiveness of the location shooting (I’m thinking of you, “Scarecrow,” but also “Pirate’s Promise” and a few others). This episode has both, and I think it’s ultimately a good decision to contrast the compelling set-bound first half with open (though murky) landscapes of the road and roadside motels, etc. At first, I missed the colourful claustrophobic, but out-of-time sense of the movie sets, but the second half of the episode settles in to almost a kind of road movie as Pratt and Mickey sort of escape civilization for a bit to have their romance. This kind of structural parallel is another sign of the maturity in the writing on the series.
E: Agreed on all counts here; there’s more trust in the story, in the performers, and in the audience than was on offer in season one.
Ultimately, a likeable, if not a great episode. But Season 2’s lesser successes are feeling generally stronger than season 1’s.
Erin’s Thoughts (before reading yours): They are really leaning into more of the tropes of the genre this season; I’m not sure if it’s intentional, but this is two episodes in a row that reference the old-school monster movies combined with the performative aspects of the referencing. It’s not quite meta, but not quite not meta either. Even more so than in “Symphony,” the resolution is almost directly lifted from Phantom of the Opera’s resolution, with Micki proclaiming her love for Jeff and that being what stops his murderous plans. The settings of both episodes: a theater and a film set (for a film that seems like a weird combo of period piece and spy thriller?) adds to the performative aspect.
I like that they save the “William Pratt” reveal until the end, allowing those who get the reference immediately to enjoy it without having it spelled out to them. It also plays with other monster movie tropes; in particular, the “quippiness” of the slashers at the time: Gossip columnist Foster hears himself say on television “I think that’s shocking” right before he’s electrocuted; Jeff’s line “you deserve an award for it” right before he bludgeons his co-star with her award. Indeed, the whole episode’s main narrative thread is Jeff attempting to re-write (re-shoot?) the outcome of his previous relationship with Diana (Lamb? A bit on the nose).
Also, props to the show for remembering its continuity: we get the first mention of money, although how Curious Goods supports itself remains a huge question, and the callback to Jack’s past as a stage magician. On the visual front, I liked the distorted mirror and the return of the Cronenberg-esque breathing pustules. Season two is shaping up to be a bit more graphic on that front than season one.
The Cheese: Slo-mo “hey you” scene when William first sees Micki. Also, why have it be John Wilkes Booth’s make-up case...and then have the reality of its curse be in no way related to that? Are we supposed to infer that because Booth assassinated Lincoln, his make-up case is ripe for cursing? The episode is vague about how much time had passed since Jeff went on his rampage, but wouldn’t someone have at least noticed he’d escaped? Finally, the idea that not only Jeff, but the director and producer would agree that Micki’s the better actress? That’s ADORABLE.
Is it the best episode? No. But the show is on a good trajectory here!
One last bit: Ryan, if you want someone to believe that you are not acting out of jealousy when you investigate their love interest, take a look inside and see how you act toward said person most of the time.
Season 2, Episode 3: “And Now the News” (Bruce Pittman, director; Dick Benner, writer)
A shrink goes full Patrick Bateman in a quest for power and prestige.
Watch the FULL EPISODE below:
Kris: According to Wax’s book on the series, this is one of the five best episodes. Let’s see …
Wow, the opening moments are disturbing. The actress who plays Mary is fantastic! Oh … Bye, Mary.
Old radios and radio programs are cool enough, but a radio news program that conjures someone’s deepest fears is nasty (as is the radio’s sinister design, which looks like a grimacing face). One kill equals one cure —just another ordinary day at the asylum.
Loving “Nurse Shirley Jackson”—not a great actress, but a great presence with a delicious inflection to her line deliveries. They don’t use her much in the second half, but I like her!
Erin: OH MY GOD. How did I miss that? And that gives a whole other level to this episode. I mean, one could read it as just a bit of a wink on the part of the writer, but Avril’s narcissism and deliberately unclear reasoning for her actions is kind of Jackson-ian itself, don’t you think?
K: Ha! Not sure, since I think even Jackson’s most megalomaniacal protagonist (Merricat Blackwood in We Have Always Lived in the Castle) has more believable motivation than this!
The issue of professional jealousy returns in a much better episode than the earlier versions of this theme. Yet, the actress who plays the chilly ice queen doctor, Avril, overplays it a lot. Also, I love that these doctors are using the Looney Tunes version of therapy—confront the patient by tormenting them with the one thing (conveniently) that they fear. (“Deeply rooted fear that drives people to murder and suicide.”) It’s the equivalent of curing amnesia with a second conk on the head. I do like how the radio murders take this literally, as well. There is a sense that the media, and the medium, are more real than reality, and take over the subject’s mind.
It’s a greed story here, where power over others and individualistic self-advancement are the prizes. The other doctor espouses working as a team; but Avril is like the equivalent of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman—only of the medical set rather than the yuppie set.
John Gibson is either a great name or a cliched one for a serial rapist-murderer.
I love the literal logic of the curse here, read to us in the newscast. “As we reported earlier, a case history of Maseo Institute patient John Gibson, which contains the roots of his psychopathology, will be broadcast this evening, immediately following news of yet another violent death at the institute. Stay tuned.”
Some cheese: Ryan uses rubber gloves to get safely across the electric fence? Um …
The violence in this episode is disturbing. And Robey’s performance is actually quite good. What a harrowing scene. And she takes the moment so seriously, she actually drools. I have total RESPECT for her portrayal of the ugliness of the scene, and of the resulting emotions. And there’s a pretty tense follow-up finale scene. This episode manages to balance wild excessiveness with serious tension and uncomfortable laughter. (Not during Robey’s attack scene, of course.) The final opening of the vault, with Robey asking “How are we going to keep on doing this?” has real weight. Even the closing “joke” makes total sense and is also disturbing, with the radio offering to make the recovery of cursed objects easier. Very cool. Wax mentions this as the object almost offering to end its own curse, but what is more remarkable is that Wax doesn’t mention the disturbing sexual violence in the prior scene (and the episode more generally)—the idea of anyone putting Micki in the situation she ends up in is simply horrendous, making Avril the series’ most awful villain thus far (for my money), and the notes of real desperation and terror that Robey conjures up in the scene are the closest thing I’ve ever seen on 80s TV to carrying the emotional weight of rape. Wax in her writeup is more interested in anecdotal information that shows off how many interviews she’s done. It’s a bit of an ugly omission on her part not to address the thematic and emotional weight of this kind of content.
Erin’s Thoughts (before reading yours):
Whoa. If “Pipe Dreams” was a giant leap forward in terms of structure and characterization, so too is this. I don’t have to make any excuses for the plot, for character actions, or even for special effects. Even the last moment of the episode, which usually airs on the cheesy side, with freeze frame side eyes or laughs that tend to undercut the episode, actually works.
Here’s another doctor whose pride dictates their actions. Yet, unlike “Doctor Jack,” who was trying to rehabilitate his reputation (but somehow, that motivation didn’t add up to a good or seemingly logical episode), or having Avril be not taken seriously because of her gender, the episode makes the bold choice of making her the pure embodiment of success at any price, without having to actually put in the work. (How’s that for a Boomer indictment?) By having her boss take her to task for being ungenerous (not sharing methods), undercutting others, but not gendering it means the episode really gives her no excuse for what she does. That means overweening pride is both her motivation and her sin, which I LOVED.
So much good here! Having the radio be the cursed object, the first real mass medium, both “selling” Avril success and turning her into a celebrity is an inspired choice which, wisely, the episode doesn’t feel compelled to lampshade for the viewer.
Other things: Again, Micki and Jack are shown to be smarter and more proactive when Jack’s missing. Ryan’s “frat” excuse is plausible; later, he realizes something is wrong and takes action. As for Robey, she takes a GIANT leap forward here; while continuing down the hallway of a clearly abandoned ward was not the most brilliant move, the assault scene was genuinely terrifying and her terror seemed genuine. Indeed, it made that scene all the worse (in a good way) because she didn’t oversell it, she didn’t get a sudden burst of strength to repel Gibson, and the outcome didn’t appear to be a foregone conclusion. Combined with her reactions after her escape, it adds up to one of the more realistic portrayals I can recall on 80s TV. Cutting the power was a great move as well; it alone didn’t magically save Ryan, but bought enough time for Avril to miss her window, and thus be hoisted on her own petard.
Finally, the stinger at the end, when it becomes clear that the temptation is specifically tailored to the listener (a targeted ad, you might say), and thus becomes revealing of their particular propensities, sins, or issues.
Did I mention that the scares were actually scary? Doesn’t say a lot for some of the other episodes, but even with 80s-level special effects, this was next level. Definitely a top three for me so far, even without Jack.
Season 2, Episode 4: “Tails I Live, Heads You Die” (Mark Sobel, director; Marilyn Anderson and Billy Riback, writers)
Satanic monks meet a misreading of the Salem witch trials, via a magic coin. Can’t say the show doesn’t have a type.
Watch the FULL EPISODE below:
The Goods: I really like the opening here: intimations of many Buffy openings to come, plus a grave-digging scene that feels right out of a Universal Frankenstein film. And in fact more than Universal this scene and episode in general, with its occult focus, reminds me of Hammer Studios’ films, right down to the bearded Christopher Lee wannabe. And everyone is dressed like it’s the 1880s, not the 1980s. Beautiful color shooting.
Erin: Right there with you on this!
There’s a ceremonial gravitas to the occult ritual scene. Nice detail that the corpse’s fingernails are all grown out. The follow-up scene with Hewitt and the leader has dialogue undergirded by the Satanic panic that was probably on the wane at this point. The logic of the curse is much less complicated in that the coin helps the bearer align with Satan. There’s no “middle-person” to worry about. It’s this-for-that, and you’re the devil’s pet.
The undead figures look very much like those in Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962). The episode’s genre genealogy is clear, though I’m not sure everything in it adds up to a successful effort. The mystical aspects are muddled, as are the coin’s power and needs.
The series’ shift to a more emotional/psychological drive is apparent here with Micki “killed” and the fallout with Ryan and Jack a feature of the episode. The witches of Salem provide the background here, with a kind of 1970s cabal of occultist endeavour to take over the world. There’s a very 1970s Hammer-esque element to this episode. It bothers me when shows like this make myth of the Salem Witch trials; here, the rewritten history is disturbing, linking Hiberia, “Satan’s lover,” to a group of persecuted women who were all victims of patriarchal fears of losing power and viability. The power of storytelling … sucks sometimes.
The postindustrial space of the episode’s secret occult ceremonies again reminds me of a series like Buffy. There is a certain practicality here in the sense that such spaces are cheap to construct (or easy to find), bu there is another aspect here of the remnants of capitalist endeavour. What does one do in late-industrial times when capitalism has fully failed everyone? Make that final step and sell the rest of your soul to the devil, of course.
*Flub: When Jack opens the envelope of evidence, a paper slips out and falls to the floor, unnoticed by all three characters, and apparently by the cast and crew, continuity person, etc.. It’s minor, but also kind of hilarious in that these intrepid investigators would let that “slip.”
*I guess occultist’s basements are still supplied with live gas line feeds for lighting?
*Jack tells Micki to run for the shop and get out of there, and then he does it, returns to Curious Goods, and has the nerve to be shocked when Ryan says she’s not there!
*The cops are universally impotent in the scene where they find Micki dead; the hilarity of it undercuts the pathos, unfortunately. This time it’s John D. LeMay’s turn to overdo it in the acting dept.
*Cool as it is to see Hiberia’s face all covered in wriggling worms, they just said that they hoped “Salem’s clay” would have preserved her after all this time.
*During the climax, Jack almost doesn’t get the knife to the leader’s throat in his “surprise” attack. And Ryan’s dragging Hiberia down a corridor on a stretcher produced a chuckle. Finally, any time we get this kind of “Satan himself! He’s coming!” and that’s his voice! stuff, my interest slips— but this can be the case with this occult subgenre of horror as well. (Satan’s voice, by the way, sounds like Barry White with a hangover.) Also, how long does it take to make a mask? According to this episode, about a minute? Or did Ryan make it before they headed to the coven’s lair?
Overall, this one was pretty good and it’s an indication that season 2 of the series continues to be more interested in realistic narrative and motivation, and darker content. Yet, it feels a bit lightweight, more like a season 1 episode, despite all its attempts to infuse the episode with dramatic heft with the very real possibility of our characters’ mortality.
This episode ultimately feels tight, hermetically sealed. All of the most disturbing elements occurred early on in the setting of the scene. All the pyrotechnics in these “grand” near-apocalyptic finales usually see my interest fade. The coin ends up lost but buried under “100 tons of rubble,” so Jack feels they’ve won. But the episode coda suggests otherwise.
I guess we’re looking at greed here in terms of power, but gluttony and pride tie together in these cases of seeking power at all costs.
Erin’s Thoughts (before reading yours):
The Goods: I love the way this opens like a homage to old Universal monster movies, particularly, and borne out throughout the episode, Frankenstein. That it ends up being a combo of that, and the 80s Satanic panic stuff (I was getting some Polanski vibes here too) should not have worked, but for me, totally did. It may be that Satanic monks are my sweet spot. So, these guys want to bring Satan up, and as far as evil plans go, this episode was tightly plotted and plausible: a life for a life, in order to bring back their big Satanic guns. Also Sylvan, besides being Brother LaCroix in “Poison Pen” is a FAR more commanding presence than Lewis could ever be. That one of the resurrected Satanists was a stockbroker pleased me no end, and offers a subtle little nod to the anti-greed element of the show.
Other things that worked: the resurrected people were gross-looking, and the coin didn’t magically make them look like anything but walking corpses. Everyone at Curious Goods had something to do, so no one character dominated the proceedings. Touches such as Ryan sculpting Micki in clay at the start of the episode (preserving her, so to speak) to Ryan sculpting Micki in clay at the end (saving her) was a great parallel structure the first season wouldn’t have thought of. While it’s obvious Micki wouldn’t stay dead, how she’d come back wasn’t overtly telegraphed. The moment with Jack and Ryan in the shop, with Ryan blurred out in the background, and ticking clocks the only sounds was a great touch. The concept of choice is prevailing theme throughout the episode: choose to stay or go, live or die. Finally, hoisting the antagonist on his own petard is always nice to watch.
K: You’re catching some subtleties that I didn’t notice. The ticking clocks moment went right by me (I just didn’t have the time). I found the clay sculpture thing a little forced at the beginning, and felt it was largely abandoned by the end, but I suspect if I were to rewatch with your comment above in mind, I’d catch the clever structural parallels here.
The Cheese: Emotional scenes are difficult; Ryan’s first reaction wasn’t too bad, but it went a bit over the top in the scene with Jack. Also, Jack? It’s “hanged” not “hung.” Unless you were talking about something else. Finally, this is less cheese and more perhaps the writer not thinking it through, but I was highly uncomfortable with the conflation of Sylvan claiming “we’ve been hunted and persecuted” and Hewitt’s accusation of sacrificing babies...it trends dangerously close to “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” shit to sit well with me.
The Verdict: Really liked this episode a lot. Satan monks, surprise death, homages, corpse-y corpses, and neither the Curious Goods nor the Satanists making idiotic moves marks this as a (qualified) winner for me.
Sins: Pride, mostly, and Greed (power).
Season 2, Episode 1: “Doorway to Hell” (William Fruet, director; Jim Henshaw, writer)
Is the doorway to hell for Uncle Lewis or the viewer?
Watch the FULL EPISODE below:
The Goods: On the first anniversary of his death, Uncle Lewis (and Satan!) attempt to escape Hell and open a nice bed and breakfast. Kidding. To wreak Satanic havoc, obviously. Shenanigans, involving both the Curious Goods crew and a couple of robbers on the run, ensue.
The Cheese: Too many instances to enumerate, as is the case in pretty much every episode in which Uncle Lewis plays a large role.
The Sins: Uncle Lewis (and Buddy, one of the robbers) are greedy bastards, of course.
Kristopher: Why on earth do we need a recap of the horrendous “Bottle of Dreams,” which is in itself a recap? Oof. Yet, do I detect a distinctly different framing here of the series as less semi-anthology and a tilting a little more towards a season arc format? Or it’s possible that they just want to start the new season with an echo of the context that started the first, so they can shift back to a more episodic structure for the rest of the season. Jack returns from the “realms of darkness” via Rashid’s incantations, and all is wrapped up at the end, with only the intimation of the return of Lewis with Jack’s final comment.
Another episode with a kind of hybrid tone: the crime story and the haunted mansion story. You mentioned the series stepping it up with “Pipe Dreams.” A further step might be to relocate the team to Vendredi’s mansion, which is a pretty cool setting. It’s also prime real estate. Selling it might give the Curious Goods folks some income; how do they survive, by the way?
Definitely getting a queer vibe from the young hottie being pulled back into a life of … crime … by his crimelord buddy. Their dialogue at the beginning has undercurrents of a past “relationship.” And then they go shack up in a haunted mansion.
Erin: Dude, yes. It did not help that Buddy’s shotgun-concealing duster looks like he borrowed it from The Lost Boys’ Sam Emerson’s wardrobe.
K: Hahaha! Totally!
Am I horrible for finding the Lewis V. backstory tedious? It’s largely because they haven’t developed the Lewis-Jack past very well, and mere mentions of Lewis’s occult past aren’t enough—they need an episode or two or three devoted to exploring this. That said, I don’t like the actor who plays Lewis, so it’s difficult to care. It would help if he came across as more sinister than a creepy old uncle who thinks he’s cool but who’s really just a buffoon.
E: No, I’m with you. Also, the southern-fried accent and attire really grates. (Man, I’m all about the fashion today.)
K: My first thought upon Micki seeing the eggs frying is “Jinkies! What would a ghost need with fried eggs?”
So, according to what we see of the guy being pulled into the mirror by Uncle Lewis, the “realm of darkness” that Jack mentions is essentially a funhouse set with fake leafless trees and cool red backlighting.
E: And creepy insulation! Don’t forget that.
K: And when you get pulled in and possessed by Lewis, you become a ghoul with bad Mr. Hyde makeup that looks peculiarly like brownface. Possessed by Lewis: another homoerotic note in that Lewis keeps saying “I’ve got this body …”
Okay, the cool part of Micki and Ryan’s being trapped in the hell dimension is that they’re like lost children with Jack the surrogate father searching for them. But when Jack is in there with all the screams, the funhouse aspect feels out of place again. In the Wax book, writer Jim Henshaw talks about the first season having exhausted everyone with its ambitions. He also says they tried to inject more “logic” into the stories (161). The idea was to tie the cursed objects more to a logical connection to character and to a psychological realism. If this episode is supposed to be an example of that, then they’re running out of the gate behind.
Overall, this one is a beautifully shot stinker.
E: Dear Friday the 13th: The Series: Why would you think that immediately reminding viewers of your worst episode would be a good way to start the season?
What a weird episode, and one that 1) breaks the narrative pattern of the cursed object, and 2) relies more so than most on viewer knowledge of previous episodes. Like the Doorway to Hell hot house, this episode is quite sweaty...both the characters and the narrative itself. Everything is dialed up to 11 here, and nobody quite sells it. (Also, pro tip, Micki: Never wear white when going to abandoned houses.) It’s absolutely stuffed and therefore a hot mess. You’ve got Buddy (the tempter) and Eddie (reformed criminal trying to put his life together); the anniversary of Lewis’s death; and the opening of hell and possible apocalypse. Geez, episode, save some for the rest of the season! The fact that it starts with Eddie seems to imply it’ll be his story, but nope. Poor Eddie is just a pawn, first of Buddy, then Lewis...but most of all the writer.
E: There is a theme here: can you escape your past? that should have been highlighted but gets lost in all the theatrics. It’s too bad, because there’s actually something here that surprised me. This might be the first “meta” episode of the series, in a subtle way. You’ve got numerous references to “this isn’t TV,” combined with most of the cast watching things through mirrors...as well as Eddie and Jack being pulled or stepping through mirrors into a different realm (think, too, of Ryan being pulled into the TV in “Double Exposure”). Finally, Rashid’s final line: “I did it with mirrors” is, of course, a reference to Agatha Christie’s They Do it With Mirrors, in which the bad guy is named Lewis...among a few other similarities.
K: I didn’t know this. I just chuckled at the intimation of Rashid’s auto-voyeuristic sexual proclivities.
E: I would mark this episode as a failure, with a better episode trying (and failing) to get out of this episode’s mirror.
Season 2, Episode 2: “The Voodoo Mambo” (Timothy Bond, director; Agy Polly, writer)
Family reunions are about to get AWKWARD.
Watch the FULL EPISODE below:
The Goods: The wastrel son of the owner of a plantation in Haiti comes across a mask—with an attached spirit—that promises him power and wealth. The spirit, however, has her own agenda.
The Cheese: The return of Ryan acting like a creep around women. Yay? / The amazing healing of Ryan’s neck wounds. / How the object was defeated was sadly anticlimactic.
The Sins: Greed and Lust for power and privilege.
Kristopher: This is Agy Polly’s only writing credit, and there’s no information on her otherwise. Because this episode has such a didactic history-lesson aspect to it, it seems like she might have been a scholar or expert on voodoo. The Wax book offers nothing; she spends nearly the entire writeup talking about how she fears snakes, and then interviewing Suzanne Coy, who played Laotia about how she’d never done horror before. Wow, this book just doesn’t get it.
Interesting that they insert black-and-white documentary footage of voodoo rituals while Jack explains the origins. The episode right away frames itself as an antidote to misunderstandings of voodoo. Tying the secondary story to a spoiled white rich kid (Karl Walters) who’s squandered family money based on coffee plantations in Haiti, echoes of slavery that we’re all too familiar with now, and that likely flourished in Reagan’s morally bankrupt 80s.
Ryan’s predatory gaze on the daughter of the voodoo priest is disturbing. The interesting parallel here is that after the first death (which is really quite gory and well directed, with cutaways to a screaming Black woman’s face underwater), the voodoo goddess attached to the mask by curse (“It is I who made your father’s plantation flourish”) initiates a kind of relationship with Walters, just as scenes of Ryan on a date with voodoo daughter are occurring. The intercutting here makes it clear that the two relationships between white men and Black women aren’t so different, despite Ryan’s (ostensibly) more evolved sensibilities. But still, that look he gives her. Yeesh.
Erin: I second that “yeesh” and raise you a blargh.
K: The scene following the second death is cut in a curious way as to largely privilege the male voices explaining the backstory. Micki is nearly cut out of the scene (she gets one close-up after she asks a question). Stacey enters to tell the story of the voodoo priestess, Laotia, a threat to men. The dynamics here are interesting: the editing largely cuts the women out, but the threat is of a feminine curse. Stacey and her grandfather, Hadley, stand on interesting sides of a dynamic—he, denying that she saw anything supernatural, and she, fully believing in what she saw during the ritual.
I find bird attacks really unnerving, and the attack on Ryan doesn’t disappoint. When he shows up later, though, he says, “a crow got me, in the neck,” and one second later he has a little scratch on his face and his neck looks just as deliciously smooth as ever. Ahem.
The social integration of white and Black is interesting here, especially since the Haitian community seems otherwise so segregated. Ryan and Micki and Jack are like the only white folks walking through the ceremonies; yet the camaraderie between Jack and Hadley (Hedley?) is natural.
Once again, the logic of the curse makes good sense here. Four elements, four voodoo guardians of the elements, and the holder of the mask must destroy them to give Laotia her “new body.” Things get a little fuzzier though when Laotia captures Stacey—I guess because she represents the next generation of guardians?
Kind of a dud climax for a rather good episode otherwise.
E: Well, that was a VAST improvement on the previous episode; it broadened the story world and those in it; I’m curious if this is something that will continue as the story moves forward. One thing that was a challenge in season one is, to a great extent, the isolation of the Curious Goods trio; they had one another, but there was no real sense of a broader community (except the one Halloween party and the occasional old friend of Jack’s or boyfriend of Micki’s).
There is a massive critique of colonialism here; although the past referenced here is fairly recent, it suggests, quite rightly, that the scars left by slavery and exploitation are not easily cured. I found myself massively uncomfortable with entitled white douche (EWD) being called “master,” even though in both instances (father and son), she is conforming to their stereotypes in order to get what she wants. Yet power dynamics and powerlessness are an ongoing theme; one could certainly garner more sympathy for Loatia than Leslie (the murdering mom from “What a Mother Wouldn’t Do”); she too is willing to sacrifice others for herself, but how big a role to the circumstances of her life and those around her play? (I may be giving this more thought than it warrants.)
K: I don’t think you are. The dynamics here are in some ways as interesting as they are in Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie, with white “masters” presiding over what is essentially a slave plantation, yet also where the voodoo tradition and Black culture ultimately really do pull the strings, despite even the mother trying to infiltrate and puppet them with her science-based manipulations.
E: Generations play a huge role here as well. Note that Stacy’s attempts to warn the other Legbas (all of whom are older than she is) is dismissed to their peril. Laotia wants more life at the expense of her granddaughter (among many others). EWD is pathetic and lame and wasted the family fortune (remind you of anyone?); he has no interest in working for anything, and yet sadly, that’s clearly more preferable than his father, who was clearly horrible and did anything to make money and wield power. On both sides, then, you have an older generation with no sense of responsibility to the younger, and focused entirely on their own needs and wants, regardless of cost.
Structurally, this also worked really well. The curse was logical, Laotia was a smart villain (she knew exactly how to manipulate EWD, calling on his sense of entitlement, flattering him, and assuming he was racist and/or sexist enough to dismiss any thought she might have an agenda in getting him to put on SCARY DEATH MASK. I mean, DUH). The interspersed black and white scenes were a good touch (I looked it up; they are from a 1947 documentary called Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti).
K: I knew the footage looked familiar. I love Maya Deren. Watch Divine Horsemen below.
E: The resolution was a bit weak; Ryan pushes the mask out of her hands? Also, I can’t speak to the accuracy of how Haitian culture or voodoo was presented, but at least the characters of color got to tell their own story, rather than having it filtered through Jack (mostly; he does have a long monologue at the beginning).
Watch Divine Horsemen by Maya Deren below:
Season 1, Episode 25: "What a Mother Wouldn’t Do" (Neil Fearnley, director; Bruce Martin, writer)
In which a mother’s heart will emphatically NOT go on if she can’t save her child.
The Goods: A pregnant woman, faced with the death of her unborn child, encounters Lewis, who provides her a crib that will ensure her child will live, but only at the expense of others.
The Cheese: Leslie’s (the mom in question) over-the-top performance
The Sins: Envy (of others who have kids), and Greed (more life for her child, no matter what)
Kristopher: Abortion at the forefront here. Yikes! But the issue isn’t carried forward very far. Too bad; horror is about being uncomfortable, but once they abandon the discomfort of abortion, the episode plays like a dark comedy. Oh no, the baby’s crying! We’d better go out and kill someone to pacify her!
I like that initially we’re in a past narrative here with Louis/Lewis Vendredi selling the cradle to the expectant aborter—er, mother. Alas, the baby is born. According to Wax, the mother “Leslie Kent is one of the most sympathetic curse-users in the series” (153). Um, no. In fact, I find her a hilarious caricature, a reading the episode supports in scenes like the one in the park just after the birth, where she’s sitting on a bench with an empty wheeled carriage waiting to kill the doctor, and reading Rosemary’s Baby! Hahahah!
Erin: Oh lord. I really should read the Wax book; that is a tragic mis-reading of Leslie’s character, and I don’t think that was Martin’s intention, given the way she was written. It is, however, not out of line with that era’s portrayal of women who a) wait to have children and thus “age out” of easily getting pregnant, or b) the bullshit “baby hunger” that women were told they should feel instead of having a career. (See: almost every romantic comedy of the 1980s, and Fatal Attraction.)
K: This is a twisted idea, the baby that shouldn’t be alive is kept alive in the cradle by murders that feed it. The Titanic backstory is kind of cool, the seven people on a lifeboat refusing to take the cradle and that being related to the seven necessary deaths to keep the child alive. Lewis Vendredi has conveyed the Titanic narrative to the young mother; the folkloric aspect here of stories that need to be transferred to remain alive is interesting. Even more so than the baby kept alive by death(s).
E: Ooh, I like that! And it’s not a bad metaphor for these types of series: urban legends, folklore, etc kept alive for a new generation, no matter how horrific they are.
K: Acting note: The babysitter actress is really great, like, way better than all of the secondary actors in the show, and some of the main ones (I’m looking at you, Robey).
Overall, this was a solid episode, with a premise that might have been mined for more disturbingly political material. I’m glad the babysitter ended up with the baby, even though she became a little creepy and sinister. That last shot and bit of dialogue on the bus reminds me of Shirley Jackson stories.
E: See below; I had the same thought! It’s interesting; abortion on TV in the US has always been a fraught topic; I can count on one hand (still!) how many series have actually addressed it, and with one exception it is always either a “very special episode” (see: Maude) or borderline horror (woman driven nuts by having had one, or nearly dies after a botched one). (If you’re curious, the single exception I know of is Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s episode “When Will Josh and his Friend Leave Me Alone?” in which it is treated as something someone does for her own reasons, with no moralizing or horror.) There is a surprisingly broader subtext here, whether they intended it or not; the late 1980s were when groups like Operation Rescue started targeting clinics; the violence they employed was justified, in their view, because they were “saving babies.” Whether this episode intended to problematize that point of view or not, that’s pretty much what they did: it doesn’t present her behavior as OK because she’s saving a/her child. Given the time period, that’s a surprisingly nuanced take.
K: This is a really great observation around context. This episode becomes a bit like the “Badge of Honor” episode in the sense that its unevenness speaks to the 80s socio-political context; awkward and uneven, but important.
E: Unlike some of the first season episodes, I found this one to be fairly logical: seven people died for refusing to help a child in distress; thus the curse requires seven deaths to save a child in distress. (It also confirms what’s been suggested but I’m not sure explicitly stated: Lewis “writes” the curses. And again we have the return (which seemed less emphasized in some of these later episodes), of the object drawing the person.
Speaking of nuance: it was nice to see a less emotionally fraught conversation about the toll of the work on the Curious Goods crew, and the way Ryan acknowledges that it means they see the “worst” of people. Building on that going forward?
K: Nice observation. I’d like to think they’ll build on this. The Wax book includes interviews (also mentioned above) that speak to the attempt to create a more psychologically realistic series, particularly around character motivation and the logic around the curses.
E: Other things that showed there was thought (and occasionally humor) going on in this episode: Leslie reading Rosemary’s Baby while sitting on the park bench.
K: Totally! I love it!
E: The presence of the aquarium on the kitchen counter underscoring the “water” motif. And the most effective, in my opinion; the whole scene as Debbie’s preparing to take a bath is shot low, almost from a “child’s-eye” perspective. That was next level, seeing as she is about to be sacrificed to help a child.
K: Didn’t notice these latter two details. Good eye!
E: Also: that baby was really cute, but I was getting a sort of Jackson-ian vibe off that bus trip at the end.
K: Absolutely, yes!
E: While, aside from the baby shower, it doesn’t show Leslie interacting with a group of women—particularly women with kids—I think it’s implied that she is envious of anyone with a child. Greed is also a factor, as she wants more time and more life for her sick child.
K: That makes sense. I definitely think envy is intimated, as you say, in the very circumstance, and greed even more so in the fact that she will have this baby even at the price of introducing a child into the world who may suffer because of her selfish need to have it.
Season 1, Episode 26: "Bottle of Dreams" (Mac Bradden, director; Roy Sallows, writer)
A bottle episode meets a clip show to produce the worst episode of the season.
The Goods: Ryan and Micki get trapped in the vault with an artifact that makes them relive their worst memories, and worse, tortures both them and the audience with endless clips of past episodes.
The Cheese: Everything. Everything is the cheese.
The Sins: Sloth, on the part of the entire cast and crew.
Kristopher: Wax attributes the clip reel style of this episode to a massive and long writer’s strike. It’s really too bad. The framing story is really weak. The only cool effect is when Micki and Ryan keep slipping into the “nightmare” (aka, previous episodes’ climaxes), there are some cool video effects where we see the magnified video frame edge. Because the series was shot on 35mm, this video hypermediation is really interesting—an awareness of the medium on which people are watching the show, despite its origin on film.
Rashid: “Something is trying to get through!” (Answer: a good episode.) I fast-forwarded through the recapped episodes.
Erin: Best line of the rewatch so far goes to you!
K: Jack’s entry into the “nightmare” seems to have put him in that place where Carol-Ann goes in Poltergeist. He sees his son there, which is creepy and twisted. Chris Wiggins doesn’t exactly give it his all (in Canadian slang, “give-er”) in this scene.
Wow. This is the worst episode by far of the season/series.
In Wax (156-7), there is some detail on how the strike affected the show. Apparently there was a serious shift in the creative staff as a result. Zicree felt alienated, and William Taub seems to have left. It will be interesting to see how Season Two stacks up considering that the “roll” Zicree feels they were on with Season One, essentially ended here. I just scanned through the episode credits for seasons two and three, and Zicree is gone. Here’s hoping the show finds its footing anew.
E: Yup, this was the opposite of good, although understandable (to an extent) given the circumstances of the ‘87 writer’s strike. It combines two staples of mainstream US television of the ‘80s—the bottle episode (I see what you did there, show!) and the clip show—and in neither instance well. It is possible to have these constraints and still produce a good episode; nearly every series (particularly of this genre, because of the expense) have bottle episodes as a way to balance the budget ahead of the finale: “Older and Far Away” on Buffy and “Spin the Bottle” (I see what you did there, Joss!) on Angel are examples of how it can be done logically. Clip shows have generally gone out of fashion (I remember reading that the Aaron Spelling-produced series Charmed did one or two in the 2000s, but, Aaron Spelling. What do you expect?).
“Bottle of Dreams” falls into every pitfall one can imagine, not just of the clip show and bottle episode, but episode narrative and structure more generally. Rando guy in a turban shows up (way to avoid stereotypes!) with the cursed object (weird sped up editing on his exit; did you notice that?), prompting Micki and Ryan into the vault. Why both? The clips go on for way too long, and there seems to be no logic to them. Why is it Micki’s nightmare that prompts the “Scarecrow” clip? Wasn’t it way more traumatic for Ryan? The last-minute revelation that Jack had a son who was a powerful psychic. (Why couldn’t that have been the episode?)
K: Agreed. It was a really cool idea, and could even have framed this entire clip reel episode, instead of two guys standing and staring at a jug.
E: Also, literally every shot of Micki screaming showcased her boobs. It made me think that the framing “party” at the start was basically to put Robey in a slinky dress and then shoot every reaction scene in the vault as if she’s having the world’s most terrifying orgasm.
K: Indeed. And this may be my favourite line of yours thus far as well.
E: So, yes. BAD. But there were a few bright spots. Actually one. Despite the fez (aren’t fezs Turkish?), I rather liked Rashid; I wouldn’t mind seeing more of him. He was low-key, got some of the best lines (“Satan won’t fight fair”) and basically told Lewis to fuck off. In fact, we could trade Micki for Rashid; I’d be good with that.
K: I wonder if you’ll still like Rashid after his second (and final) appearance on the show, in “Doorway to Hell.” I find him unbearable and unbelievable. In the Wax book, the actor talks about how he had to put on the accent. Um, yep, it sounds like it. Literally, all Rashid ever does is stare at some object with wide eyes and make silly pronouncements. I find it hard to sit through. Regarding trading Micki for Rashid, I suspect you will feel differently when you see her performance in “And Now the News”!
E: That’s a bummer. ‘Cause it seemed like in this episode the actor seemed simultaneously aware of the ridiculousness of the material and leaning into it at the same time, which I appreciated.
K: That rings true. He’s aware of hamming it up. But it just sort of stops there for me! All of the interviews in Wax testify to that fact that they really liked that character, and that even though he doesn’t really appear again, it feels as though he is a major part of the series going forward.
Onward, to season 2! . . .
Critical Rewatch #1
Friday the 13th: The Series aired in syndication from 1987 to 1990. It boasts a large fanbase but almost no scholarly commentary. This episode-by-episode critical blog on the series is part of a research project by Erin Giannini and Kristopher Woofter that will include the series in a scholarly monograph on horror anthology TV series in the Reagan era.