Season 1, Episode 12: “Faith Healer” (David Cronenberg, director; Christine Cornish, writer) (13 February, 1987)
In which a one-and-done Cronenberg takes things to the next level.
The Goods: A fake, disgraced faith healer happens upon a glove that actually gives him real healing powers, but only by passing that disease to someone else.
The Cheese: Mostly, that the mystical glove looks less mystical, and more bought in bulk
The Sins: Greed is the big winner here, although various shades of gluttony and lust are also at play.
Erin: OK, I haven’t watched all of Cronenberg’s oeuvre, but the body horror alone in the episode feels very him. (Also, possibly the grossest/most visceral horror yet shown in the series.) The scabby, breathing lesions (what illness is that? hmm) put me in mind of his version of “The Fly,” which I think came out the year before this aired? The final shot of Fishoff trapped between two dumpsters was not subtle, but I liked it nonetheless. Indeed, the episode feels more like a short film than a television episode, down to the bookended structure of Jerry revealing Fishoff’s trickery at the beginning to Jerry’s final words being “Pray for Me, Jack.”
Kristopher: Jerry says “a crime against every one of you, and a crime against reason”: The pro-science message here isn’t exactly dear to Cronenberg, but the emphasis on broken, disabled bodies very much is. That the glove takes on the disease in a kind of transference is also an interest of Cronenberg’s in parasites, and technology (in parasitechnology) that begets a kind of new sensory organ. That the TV console plays a significant role here is also an allusion to Cronenberg’s other work (Videodrome particularly). Jerry’s eventual obsession with the glove and its potential to heal him is in line with the series trope of otherwise normal folk becoming obsessed with the curse objects, drawn to them. The fact that the swelling dark red pustules that appear on several of the sufferers (including Jerry) isn’t explained is also very much in line with Cronenberg’s sense that modernity and all of its shocks has a physical and psychological impact on the human sensorium and body that we may not yet or ever understand. The idea that the flesh is turning into something new and radically different is very much present here, and it is very likely that Cronenberg brought this specific aspect into play. The sufferers could easily have been physically disabled like several other folks we see here, but the repetition of the pustules, especially on Jerry, seems a Cronenberg-ian touch. Finally, Jerry calls these “frauds and hustlers” “parasites,” which is fitting with the way the glove transfers the curse like a fleshly infection, and very much in keeping with a Cronenbergian reality. His first film, Shivers, was originally titled Orgy of the Blood Parasites.
E: I really liked this episode, even though the actor playing Jerry felt a bit too low-energy throughout to justify the maniacal laugh at the end. Structurally, it felt a bit different; it was nearly 11 minutes into the episode before the Curious Goods’ crew even makes an appearance.
K: I noticed this as well. In the Curious Goods book, Wax notes that Robey quotes Cronenberg as saying that he had no interest in the main characters, and this lack of interest could have, perhaps unintentionally, created a shift in the structure of the episode.
E: The episode offered some decent development on that front; Jack (and the show to some extent) seems to treat them as children (they arrive on bikes at Jerry’s boat!) At the end, though, it acknowledges the sacrifices all of them made to be there; will that hold moving forward?
K: That final scene was clunky in this respect, particularly the acting: “We’re your friends, Jack.” But I liked the further bookending of the humorous “magical cure” vs. science. Ryan’s head cold: “You try magic, I’ll try science.”
E: Other things: the glove was created for a king to ensure the royal family’s health at the expense of the populace, which feels timely right now.
K: Also interesting that an alchemist has the glove made. The silly part is that the glove looks like it was purchased in the sale bin at Montgomery Ward.
E: It’s a nice touch, too, that Fishoff basically tells his audience (on TV , exactly what his healing entails, but by couching it in religious language (healing requires sacrifice) they don’t realize he’s giving them what he probably thinks is fair warning.
K: Another Cronenberg trope, right out of Videodrome, where Brian O’Blivion, a kind of Marshall McLuhan figure, appears on TV on a talk show set, saying “I only appear on TV on TV.”
E: It’s interesting to consider the implications of what the glove does. Beyond the healing and passing on of the disease, it actually restores the faith of the first woman healed. Obviously, both episode length and format doesn’t really allow for this to be explored further, but the idea that a devil-cursed object restores a woman’s faith is kind of fascinating.
K: This is great thinking and beautiful writing! I also noted some interesting factors with the glove. It is coincidentally stumbled upon in a filthy alley; it just happens to do the real work perpetrated by the fraud. Is this the first time we see one of the objects randomly found by someone? The coincidence here is that he needs this “healing” glove. Incidentally, the first actress healed by the glove is in Cronenberg’s Videodrome.
E: Finally, the “sin” in this episode? Well, Jerry names it: Greed. I would argue pride is in there as well. Like “Scarecrow,” Supernatural’s “Faith” borrows (intentionally? I don’t know) quite a bit from this episode. No glove, but a preacher’s wife uses magic to bind a reaper; when her husband heals someone, another individual dies of the same ailment.
K: I noted the line in my viewing notes: “There’s a power that is greater than the both of us that is running through me. Blessing me.” “Yeah, it’s called greed.” But there’s something else here, as well. Yes, pride, but I’m thinking of Jerry deciding that the glove should be used to heal if it can heal. There is a selfishness here, as in the following exchange: “Jerry, you’ve never been a criminal before.” “I’ve never been dying before, Jack.” But I would say that this might be an entry for Envy (the health of others) and even Lust, though not sexualized and likely more in line with Greed. What makes me say Lust is the degree to which the envy of health takes shape in the flesh here, and the focus on corrupted flesh.
Some random thoughts I noted that don’t have to do with the above that much are that the music in this episode is good! It felt a bit different, but I didn’t see a new name in the credits. This is a particularly urban episode, and I like that particular kind of location as a backdrop for people and their compromised flesh. There’s something about the city that feels more toxic than the rural, and this episode could be interestingly counterposed to the previous one. I think the “Shadow Boxer” episode is another one that makes good use of urban locations. But this episode tops it; the docks/wharf carries shades of the apocalyptic ending of Videodrome, and you can see the CN tower in the background/skyline at some points. Last point here is just that the Curious Goods book suggests Cronenberg’s involvement was simply because he knew Frank Mancuso, Jr. (2015, 87).
Season 1, Episode 13: “The Baron’s Bride” (Bradford May, director; Larry Gaynor, writer) (20 February, 1988)
The series goes super low-rent Anne Rice.
The Goods: A cursed cape turns its wearer into a vampire and bedazzles victims with costume jewelry. A magically roofied Micki gets transported to the past, and Jack and Ryan have to both rescue her and inspire an Irishman.
The Cheese: So much cheese that this episode could legally be classified as fondue—including, but not limited to, the dime-store cape and jewel worn by a dime-store Rick Springfield, the unexplained appearance of an actual vampire who owns the cape and lures others to wear it, and a not surprising but still irritating lack of research into actual historical figures.
The Sins: Lust, for what it’s worth.
Kristopher: The cape in this episode is mentioned in the coda of the previous episode. Mickey is talking about it. Forgive me for the rest of these comments reading like half-baked notes. This episode left me feeling distanced throughout. Holy Toronto neighbourhood!!! There is no mistaking it, and it looks like the upperclass area where Margaret Atwood lives.
The Madame/Vampire/Landlord’s acting is really bad. (Also … Vampires?! So, the supernatural in the series is not limited to the cursed objects, then?) I’m glad the landlord dies early (and also unsure of why she’s a vampire already and what this does to the logic of the entire series). / The cape gets a POV shot! Classic way to suggest its draw upon the beholder.
Jack says the house is on Bay Street, a main drag in Toronto. Jeez, the hetero vibes here are nuts. Couldn’t Ryan or even Jack also be attracted to the cape-wearing guy?
Okay, just when I thought this episode was going to be painful, they go even further by bringing the characters into the past. I mean, though this is a trick from Star Trek, this episode feels like and predates a similar use in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Have they met Bram Stoker? His name is Abraham. Yes, the coda confirms it.
The sudden use of voice-over for the vampire-cape-wearer is silly, as is the dialogue: “Tell me where the pain is.” / “It’s in my heart.” Oof. This episode is having a hard time not going down as the “episode where Micki falls under the thrall of a mulleted vampire.” Part of the awfulness here is, I’m afraid, Louise Robey’s horrendous acting. (I’m not a fan, even still.)
This one was a really nice try. A beautifully shot episode that just doesn’t fall together in the way they want it to. The melodramatics (of which I’m usually a fan) are amped up too high, and the outer-framing narrative doesn’t parallel the time-travel/vortex narrative closely enough. Yet Toronto never looked so good in black-and-white as 1874 (was the past color blind, by the way?). And finally, I don’t recall the novel Dracula coming with that inscription.
Erin: It DOES NOT. (See rant below.) And absolutely. I think this would have worked SO much better if the tone weren’t so serious. Playing this material absolutely straight (as they did) only highlights its ridiculousness.
K: So, we have another entry in the Lust category, finally. (Where is Sloth, for heaven’s sake?!) But I must say, this one left me feeling like I’d just read a fan-fiction episode of the series. Inconsequential for me. Signed … Roger Ebert.
E: OK, so I can appreciate the stylistic chances they took here, although the black and white, as you say, just makes everything look grainy and grimy. Perhaps an homage to the Universal monster movies? I didn’t recognize Toronto (having never been there), but I thought it was hilarious that they tell Bram and Caitlin they are from the States.
The idea that vampires are real I guess would fit into the continuity if you bend it hard enough and cross your eyes—the devil is real, so in theory? That doesn’t explain why the landlady is a vampire; did the presence of the cape turn her? None of it makes any sense...which is why I have a theory: This was purely a ratings (or whatever) stunt. I can’t speak for Canada, but 87/88 was kind of a banner time for vampire-themed stuff, at least partly due to the popularity of The Vampire Lestat/Queen of the Damned, which came out within a couple of years of one another. In 87/88 alone: Vampire’s Kiss, The Lost Boys, My Best Friend is a Vampire, Near Dark, The Monster Squad, Robo Vamp, Beverly Hills Vamp… My guess is that the series was attempting to cash in on the vampire’s popularity at the time. Also? Jack’s mention of Whitechapel and the first victim being a prostitute seems like a weird tie-in that goes absolutely nowhere.
Also: his whole interaction with the cape and its effects, the episode suggests, leads to Bram Stoker’s success as an author. Brings up a similar question to the healed woman getting her faith back in the previous episode. (I am overthinking. I know.)
Some things I liked: Caitlin standing up to Vampire Rick Springfield. Ryan running to get the “Room to Rent” sign to stake the vampire landlady. The cape POV shot. Also, Bram’s line, as true then as it is today: “I’m beginning to think you Americans can’t be too right in the head.” NAILED IT, BRAM.
K: Agreed on all of these. If these elements had been presented less seriously, this episode could’ve been hilarious.
E: Some things that drove me batshit: Dracula as “greatest masterpiece”? Whatever, show. Also? I know there was no internet in 1987, but still! Forget the fact that there are some questions about Stoker’s sexuality—that’s something no US show would have dealt with in 1987—but his wife’s name was Florence, not Caitlin, and she was involved with Oscar Wilde before she married Bram. Apparently after his death she sued the studio who made Nosferatu for infringement, so even a modicum of research would have unearthed her name. Louise Robey’s acting.
K: Louise Robey’s acting nearly always drives me to distraction.
E: All in all, not great.
Season 1, Episode 10: “Tales of the Undead” (Lyndon Chubbock, director; William Taub & Marc Scott Zicree, writers) (30 November, 1988)
The show takes a giant leap forward into awesomeness.
The Goods: Jay Star, creator of seminal comic book character Ferris the Invincible, uses his work to enact revenge on those who betrayed and cheated him.
The Cheese: All cheese contained in this episode appears to be intentional, although Ferris’ costume IS a bit on the janky side.
The Sins: Wrath, for Jay; Greed, for pretty much everyone else around him
Erin: This is really interesting, particularly since there are two opposing sins at work here: greed (Carmine, the boy in the comic shop, Mrs. Forbes stealing and selling Star’s unpublished work), and wrath: Jay Star himself. It’s hard not to sympathize with Star, living, as Micki and Ryan and Jack do, in “a world of cruel miracles”...and it’s an interesting acknowledgment/repentance moment as he is dying: “How does it feel to be a hero?”
Kristopher: I've noted these lines below as well, and the "cruel miracles" one is, I think, key to the entire series premise.
E: Other fascinating parts: “Ferris” the Invincible? So, Iron Man? Now, my knowledge on this might be spotty, but if I recall correctly, there was quite a bit of backstabbing and screwing over in the comics industry, But this seems….particular, and its ringing a bell. Jack Kirby, maybe? It also acknowledges how many of the early comic book writers and inkers anglicized their names. It makes the episode feel simultaneously like a throwback and oddly prescient. The effects around the transformation; while Ferris looked like a 50s-era b-movie alien, using comic panels for the transitions was an inspired choice.
K: This production history of comics angle is really interesting. The Iron Man connection is one I didn’t make, even though it’s perfect: Iron Man is a friend to a youth who believes in dreams and hope. The episode handles with both reverence and bitter irony. Yes, the name-changing aspect is fascinating in the U.S. context in particular, especially with all the references to the comics series starting in the 40s, after the war, and of course the racist and xenophobic fallout in the 50s. As I note below, the transformation comic panels stuff is borrowed from/inspired by George A. Romero’s Creepshow, which is the best comic book movie of all time. :-D
E: Yes! Even down to an oblique reference to the comic code adopted in the 1950s, with Star saying certain issues he drew were too violent. It was also surprisingly kind to comics fans, that is, Micki voicing the “I don’t get it; it’s immature” viewpoint, with Ryan offering nuance to why it appealed to him. In the end, she seems to meet him halfway.
What is the provenance of the “want to see my etchings” line? It’s a joke I’ve seen so many times (books, movies, tv shows), particularly in stuff from the 1970s/1980s, but never actually knew where it came from?
K: No idea. It even sort of appears in Cameron’s Titanic. Hey, wanna come over and pose for me naked while I draw you? I wonder if it is a remnant of some 19th century (or earlier/timeless) pervy thing?
E: I googled it, and apparently it was commonly used in Philip Marlowe novels; ironically, apparently...and then just passed into the general population as a joke. Finally, it’s interesting that Micki and Ryan get WAY better at figuring things out when Jack isn’t around. This is the second time (same with “Dr. Jack”, also written by Zicree) that Jack’s absence brought their skills to the fore.
K: Yes, I mention below that it’s odd that Jack isn’t around. Do they mention why? I didn’t catch it.
E: At the beginning of the episode, they say something about him going to a conference, I think? I need to re-watch to catch it.
K: Here, the object definitely draws the user, but the clever aspect is the lure of collecting and fetishizing around the object. Ryan, too, and the mention of getting “a PhD in comic art” indicates his particular interest in the books, a new detail in his fascination with them, and a bit of backstory on his (lost?) dreams, following Micki’s own episode of loss.
E: I know I’ve drawn this parallel before, but I can see so much of [Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s] Xander’s characterization in Ryan, with this episode being his “Zeppo” in some respects. Also, you’re right; both this episode and “Root of All Evil”, both at the near-midpoint of the first season, resolve/deepen both Micki and Ryan; sort of an unofficial two-parter.
K: The transformation scenes are cool, borrowing heavily however from Romero’s Creepshow (1982) in the episode’s slipping from live action to comics drawings. The effect of meshing the comics and real world, and a fantasy story in one of the comics of a man becoming an armored fighter, Ferris the Invincible, is interesting here.
E: That reference (Creepshow) completely passed me by, and the borrowings the show engages in are vital, so thank you! (I’ll note here that the series iZombie, which is loosely based on a comic of the same names, does a similar comic panel to live-action transition at each act break, although I would suppose they probably “borrowed” that from Heroes). In some respects, the “cursed objects” are the stories themselves.
K: There is, of course, the greed angle, with Peerless Comics, who “cheated him out of Ferris” (Mrs. Forbes) Great line: “The worms always know where the bodies are buried” (Jay Star) And also “It’s a world of cruel miracles; nothing surprises me.” (Star here seems to state the entire series’ premise.)
Ryan in this ep., at least initially, is at the center of a proof narrative, the witness to something that others will have to see to believe. Noel Carroll calls this a “disclosure narrative.” (Or so Star wants Ryan to believe.) Nice reversal of the threat in the scene where Star seeks out the thief, risks death, and then kills him, and great touch of Ferris’s head hitting the basement ceiling lamp, knocking it in Psycho-style, after he kills Mrs. Forbes, the caregiver.
There’s a real pathos to the ending: “Tell me, boy … how’s it feel to be a hero?” Ryan seems to be grieving the loss of Star, and of course his childhood fantasies (and career dreams?) in the coda. A small detail in this scene, but a fun one is that in the end Micki is plowing through the comics series (“I just want to see what happens”).
E: This is the better type of connection between the two, I think. Leave off all the romantic stuff; the parallel codas here and in “Root of All Evil” have the two reaching out to one another during a difficult time.
K: For me, this episode encapsulates all of the series’ concerns, its inspirations in the world of comics and pulp horror mags (and their moralizing narratives), and it deepens the connection between Ryan and Micki in relation to a mutual understanding of how powerful these stories are/can be for youth. It’s the series essentially commenting on itself, and on the origins of 20th century horror. It’s a keeper.
E: ABSOLUTELY agree.
Season 1, Episode 11: “Scarecrow” (William Fruet, director; Marc Scott Zicree, writer) (6 February, 1988)
The show goes on the road to find that the real estate business is murder.
The Goods: After receiving a confusing letter about one of the missing objects, Micki and Ryan hit the road to a struggling small town where at least one resident, Marge Longacre, is doing quite well. To no one’s surprise, her success is due to one of Lewis’s cursed objects: a scarecrow that kills anyone who stands in her way.
The Cheese: A murderous scarecrow and a greedy developer, but the Scooby-Doo cheese here is surprisingly effective. / Ryan’s thematically convenient backstory was a bit clumsily introduced to play such an important role.
The Sins: Greed predominates in this one.
Erin: This is an oddity on a couple of levels; I think this might be the first instance where they have to travel a significant distance for a case; most seemed to occur nearby. It’s also the closest to a “slasher” that the series has offered so far, both in subject matter and tone. Is it weird I found the woman’s head, which seemed to move, delightfully gross?
Kris: Agreed. I liked it from the start. And there were some nice, gruesome touches that weren’t handled too seriously (possibly to the detriment of the tragedy of this poor kid).
E: I liked that the anti-capitalist thread isn’t as obvious, but still there. Marge Longacre (ha!) is using Charlie to buy up any number of farms in an obviously struggling economy. She’s using the economic misery of others to expand her holdings. Basically, she is not only using the scarecrow (a proxy object for her own ends, like all of the artifacts), but also using Charlie (and his son Nick) as proxies as well. She might be the most purely evil character (despite the influence of the artifact) that the series has shown so far.
K: Yes, she seems truly opportunistic and motivated by murderous greed. How did she come upon the scarecrow though?
E: More Ryan backstory, making his jump into the fray, particularly when Jordy is in danger, much more believable. Also, he’s not great at fighting, which is accurate and a nice character beat.
K: I liked how the brother story tied into the Jordy narrative, and their kinship, even if the baseball thing seemed a little hackneyed (and its role in the backstory death kind of unimportant). The baseball represents an innocence that has ended in the past and is ending in the present for Jordy, though, and this ties it to the X-Files episode “Home.”
E: Other bits I liked: 1) The silly, and yet scary, jumpscare when the scarecrow rises out of Micki’s bed; 2) the visual bookends of the sunrises and the scarecrow crossbeam; 3) the sheriff overhearing Micki and Ryan’s conversation, as one of my least favorite tropes is the “let’s move two feet away and talk in normal voices; certainly no one will overhear” bit; and 4) Micki taking decisive, if wrong-headed, action by locking the sheriff in the closet.
K: Yes, I found all these last bits very silly, but also lovely fun.
E: What was less successful was understanding Marge’s motivation. I’m guessing greed, but we don’t get much backstory for her, beyond the fact that she was married once; the opening sequence also suggests some kind of druidic reference, but that’s never expanded on.
K: Yes, this aspect was weak.
E: Supernatural’s “Scarecrow” shares a nice bit of narrative DNA with this episode, although their “Scarecrow” made the pagan god connection obvious, as well as the town’s complicity. Also, Micki and Ryan’s drive out of town (in an old black car) was giving me SPN vibes as well.
K: Absolutely. I really like the episode’s overall tone, and again the locations are a major part of this. The time of year is a little late for harvest, but it’s great for atmosphere. It’s more of a wide-open episode in this sense as well, after several close-quarters episodes. I think William Fruet’s direction in terms of space and location here is one of the stars (though his direction of actors leaves a bit to be desired). The kid was good.
I already liked it as soon as it opened, but I love scarecrow horror. Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981) was a great TV movie that used the trope as a kind of retribution, and also had a mentally disabled man at the story’s center (here, the story detail feels a little unnecessary). Jack is away to find the Icarus feather; I wonder if this was the reason in the prior episode as well. I also wonder why they’re sidelining him, though I don’t mind his absence. There’s a lot going on here. A gimp-closeted insane son, a father-son backstory, a suspicious wife (what was she planning to do before she got scythed?), a greedy landowner.
There is kind of an odd Golem aspect to the way the scarecrow is used as a means towards protecting a community here, or at least a community secret. Anyone who knows about it has sold their souls to the devil. I say odd because the Golem figure is usually deployed in the interest of community, and not against the larger community. The religious aspect is stripped from the girue here, but it is a story that was also influential on Shelley’s Frankenstein. Here, it’s attached to a kind of folktale about ensuring a good harvest. It’s super-cool, if a little diffuse in what it’s supposed to represent in the episode.
Louise Robey doesn’t use a stunt double in the chase scene where she’s being attacked. I appreciate this.
This one definitely felt like an X-Files or Supernatural episode. The investigators are on the road, the locations are in part the star of the episode, and the monster is tied to a kind of mystical and folkloric usage by locals.
E: Yes, let’s star this one as an “influential” one, if not germane to the series as a whole.
K: Quick side note. Wax's Curious Goods book explains what was to have happened to the heads; they were to have been buried in the ground for crop yield. According to Zicree, the camera was going to pan down after it starts raining, and the water would wash off some of the heads. The interesting aspect of this is that production realities caused them not to be able to show the heads—too gruesome. Zicree also had a fleshed-out backstory for Ruth, whom he sees as a killer prior to coming across the scarecrow. (He even likens her to the governor in The Walking Dead with his trophy room.) (Wax 2015, 80-81). They also discuss the location as a significant factor in the episode’s unsettling tone (81).
Zicree also cites hillbilly horror and To Kill a Mockingbird and Truman Capote as influences on a list of episodes that he sees inflected with a sort of American Gothic vibe (Wax 2015, 83).
Season 1, Episode 8: “Shadow Boxer” (Timothy Bond, director; Josh Miller, writer) (21 November, 1987)
An aspiring boxer takes a supernatural shortcut to success.
The Goods: Tommy, a petty criminal who works at a boxing club, is desperate to get in the ring, despite the fact that the club’s owner thinks he has no talent for it. A pair of cursed boxing clubs help him achieve his twin goals of success and revenge.
The Cheese: A low-cheese episode; however, the spellchecker needs to be fired.
The Sins: Wrath gets its first entry, with an envy chaser.
Erin: A vast improvement over the previous installment; we get a bit of a backstory and shading for the week’s antagonist—a petty criminal who thinks the world owes him something—that makes narrative sense and works well with the object in question. It’s a challenge, with this semi-anthology structure, to thread the development needle for a character that only appears in a single episode; writer Miller did a good job here in providing enough characterization to make his actions comprehensible without grinding the story to a halt or justifying what he does. I think you’ve mentioned this before, but does the object “call” the user, or corrupt them? It seems that the former is more common here than the latter.
The “shadow boxer” effect was well done, and the way to defeat it (another win for Micki figuring that out) made sense. Points, too, for continuity: Ryan’s comic book love, the world’s most patient fiance, the police suck/are incompetent/can’t understand.
Also, the episode was a good blend of the comedic and serious, and provided some development for both Ryan and Micki. Some good moments: “He grades his pizza boxes?”; the discussion about justice vs. law; Micki taking the time, with a knife to her throat, to indicate that Ryan is NOT her boyfriend. Ryan accessing his dark side.
Finally, there are some actual consequences. Tommy follows them to the shop and puts them all in danger; Kid Cornelius’s concern over whether he had a role in Tommy’s brain injury. (Also: bonus points for not killing the only black character in the episode.)
Kris: The similarities in what we picked up on are compelling. The Red Shoes aspect of this episode is cool, from the folk tale by Anderson, but also the 1948 film by Powell and Pressburger. I’m sure it’s not fully intentional. And the shadow effect looming on the alley wall above the gym owner is so cool. Really unsettling. And such an easy effect to achieve. It’s pretty evocative, and it tags one of the series’ key themes: doubling.
Ryan’s attachment to comics is deepened; he’s shown reading one at the beginning. And later: “I had to trade in my only copy of Green Lantern #3 to get these developed.” On Tommy’s locker “Terrible” is spelled wrong; is this show offering a running theme on misspellings and poor word choice?
The episode hones in well around the issue of toxic masculinity and misogyny. The subtext is pretty consistently developed. Micki “the skirt with the camera” plays it up to infiltrate the boxing scene as a journalist. And Tommy in the diner scene nearly blows past the consent boundary. There’s a genuine dread to this episode. The shadow boxer is a terrifying idea. Later, Micki’s rage (she calls Tommy a “slime”) is palpable as a quasi-feminist response. I say “quasi” because it’s not clear she knows why or or on what to focus that rage. She removes herself from the company of her friends, and then is attacked in her bed at knifepoint. Tommy’s first threat to her is actually a better reference to Jack the Ripper than the previous episode’s: “You make one sound, and I open you up.” During their confrontation, Micki, under duress, still manages to mutter, “I’m not his girlfriend” when Tommy warns Ryan that “your girlfriend” will die. He then kisses her cheek, and later suggestively puts his knife blade up her nostril. He threatens to destroy her “pretty face.” Her major offense to him?: “Stringin’ me along like that, making me think you liked me.” Rounding out this theme is Ryan, who can’t resist putting on the gloves.
Another interesting note is the way Micki’s camera confuses the shadow. I love this idea, especially since the episode turns on photographic evidence of the gloves (and later of the shadow boxer itself). This also is one of the only times so far where the cursed object can be battled and disabled (with technology). Later, they disable it with light only, and I wish they’d stuck with photography, like the scene in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, where Jeffries disorients his attacker with photo flashes.
Micki asks “What the heck is the shadow?” in an interesting inadvertent reference to The Shadow in psychoanalytic theory. This works well with the show’s focus on masculinity, misogyny, and with the show’s broader focus on doubling.
So far, for my money, this episode would be one I’d like to tag as quintessential and effective. Top 10, at least.
E: Wholeheartedly agree.
Season 1, Episode 9: “Root of All Evil” (Allan King, director; Rob Hedden, writer) (28 November, 1987)
In which a gardener goes full Rumplestiltskin.
The Goods: In a deliciously Marxist move, an old garden mulcher literally turns human bodies into cash and tempts ex-con Adrian into horrible acts; Micki’s erstwhile fiance Lloyd finally shows up, and says good-bye.
The Cheese: Both Ryan and Lloyd take turns being creepy and gross to Micki.
The Sins: Greed.
Erin: OK, I really liked this one on both a narrative and visual level. It actually surprised me at a few turns, particularly around Lloyd, and the sound effects for the mulcher were disgustingly awesome. The “fires of hell” lighting on the faces of those using the mulcher was a nice touch as well.
So, sin-wise: greed, obviously, down to the biblical source for the episode title (and the pun). For all its simplicity, I found the episode to be surprisingly layered. First, the return of the anti-capitalist thread: a “devil” machine that puts a literal value on human life. One that was built during the Great Depression, no less. You even get a bit of an EC Comics morality play ending: Adrian was worth nothing. His “friend” (the homeless guy in the park) refers to him as a “kissy-faced pimp,” suggesting Adrian already thought in transactional terms before being introduced to the mulcher. You have the rich lady introduced as seeming to ignore the “little people” who work for her: the car splashes mud in Adrian’s face, feeding his resentment. Yet it ends up being more nuanced than that: she takes the time to learn her employees’ names and praise their work, and is interested in giving back to the community.
Not sure if you watched Veronica Mars, but Adrian was played by Enrico Colantoni, who also played Keith Mars (Veronica’s dad). I bring that up only because class differences were a major part of the series. Given this episode was Colantoni’s second role ever, it’s interesting that he stars in an episode for which class differences feature so strongly.
Other things I liked/was surprised by: There’s a visually intriguing shot about two-thirds of the way through the episode, in which Jack and Ryan are discussing what Micki will decide to do about Lloyd. The way King shoots this, with the two standing by the ironwork grill, is lit so that the hatchmark pattern imprints on their faces, visually suggesting that they are trapped as much as Micki by Uncle Lewis’ actions.
Second: Almost everything around Lloyd. One, that he shows up at all...and does it in the creepiest, most asshole-ish way possible (trying to catch her cheating). Two, that he actually finds out what they’re doing and Micki shows him the vault. I expected him to storm out; I did not expect him to come back...although he goes with the whole condescending: “I believe you believe it” bit. He’s lame, but he’s not evil, giving their break-up more weight and a more human dimension.
Least favorite moment: the return of creepy Ryan, just when he was making so much progress. When Micki tells him someone is outside her window and watching her dress, Ryan’s response is: “Do you blame him?” GROSS, DUDE.
Kris: Micki begins feeling trapped in this crusader-investigative role. And responding to what you’ve written above, I agree that the other two are framed as similarly trapped. I like your observations on the staging of the moment between Ryan and Jack discussing Micki. Good eye!
This cursed object definitely attracts its “users.” The gardener whose attracted to it is cute!
Ryan’s horniness for Micki is full force in this episode. It makes his guilting Micki for shirking her moral duties in going off with her fiance a bit less compelling. And Lloyd’s response to Micki’s “He’s my cousin”—“Only by marriage.” … Um … ???!!! I just don’t get it.
I like how Micki’s fiance comes and goes through the bedroom balcony like Dracula. The score always accompanies the two of them with this sort of erotic saxophone phrase. And I just noticed that the saxophone comes back (though a little less sleazily) to suggest a connection between Ryan and Micki when she stumbles into his “Welcome Home” surprise setting.
Having just finished the episode, I’m not as sure its strengths outweigh its weaknesses, but your commentary has made me appreciate it more, especially visually. It’s hard to pull off something suspenseful and broody (in terms of the moral decision by Micki to stay or go, and the issue of fidelity, faith [in people], and trust being so pervasive) when nearly the entire episode is shot in a sunny garden. And yet, what better place to speak of sin and morality and killing the one who believes in you (the gardener and his supervisor, Smitty; the gardener and the Rich lady) than an idyllic garden. One that, not to mention, is to be opened to the public with the monies allotted to it.
E: Nailed it. The "garden" I think is key here. The writer may have been more subtle that the show has been thus far; combined with the biblical title, placing a story about greed and temptation in a garden is, in retrospect, obvious.
K: Here is where I found the eps’ working class politics a little muddled, though. Or maybe they’re just subtle. I’m used to these morality-tale horror episodes being ramped up with the caricatures, but the rich lady is, as you say, genuinely interested in making her staff feel valued. And yet she does so in an infantilizing way (particularly in that scene where she’s standing with all her rich sophisto friends behind her).
E: Yes! It's the very definition of the noblisse oblige, and yet she does feel that obligation. Also, clearly had a genuine love for her departed husband.
K: The working-class focus is the most compelling thing for me here. Desperation driving one to betray anyone, rich or poor, into cash. Interestingly, there are connections here to Stephen King’s “The Mangler,” and certainly to Tobe Hooper’s more politicized film of it that appeared in the mid-1990s. The backstory with Micki and Lloyd tried hard, but doesn’t convince me. Oddly, as creepy as Ryan is, the connection there is more believable. Still, this is a key episode for combining these things in quite a cocktail of backstory and morality tale.
Season 1, Episode 6: “The Great Montarro” (Richard Friedman, director; Durnford King, writer) (7 November, 1987)
The series goes all The Prestige in the cut-throat magic community.
The Curious Goods team investigates some deaths at a magician competition, with Jack reliving his magician past by going undercover as “Mad Marshak.”
The Cheese: The concept of a magicians’ convention/blood sport has the cheese built in.
The Sins: Pride makes another appearance.
Kristopher: Carrying forward the thin backstory of Marshak’s ties to magic, and deepening it a bit with the fact that he was a magician-performer, this episode has a lot of fun with the type of signposting so familiar to audiences of the Grand-Guignol (shout-out to the work of Mario DeGiglio-Bellemare). Twice, we see the terror-mechanics of the (Houdon?) box skewer a “victim” whose success would have depended on another victim being sacrificed to maintain what the audience thinks is an illusion.
Erin: I’m not certain how common this type of story is, but Julie Siege, who wrote for seasons 4 and 5 of Supernatural, seems to have (intentionally or not) straight-up borrowed this storyline for “Criss Angel is a Douchebag.” (Enchanted tarot cards instead of the Houdin box [ha] but the same result.)
Plus, in “Poison Pen” (1.2, see earlier post), you mentioned Jack at the table with the rope/candle/imminent death scene, making a fun tie-in with this episode.
K: I found this episode a bit light, but I like how the magician’s box literalizes the entire series’ punishment of transgressive (sinful) behaviour: here, pride, I guess. The possession of the box turns people with ugly motivations into even uglier figures—grotesques, even. And both the sense of victim/sacrifice and victimizer collapse (no pun intended) into the symbol of the punishing box.
E: It was a bit light, but so was the tone, which was refreshing. The cast seems to be easing into their roles and interactions with each other and neither the tone nor the mise-en-scene was as gloomy as some of the other episodes. Although, weirdly? Bloodier.
K: The show seems to be developing a kind of fun, consistent doubling motif across episodes: here, Micki and Marshak as assistant and magician (and daughter and father) parallel Montarro and his daughter. Some curiosities: there is another small person in this episode, which makes much more sense in the context of the more carnival atmosphere; the mulleted assistant to Fahteem the Magnificent appearing later in drag is an odd choice; and, speaking of odd choices (and bad hair), what is up with Micki’s stuck-my-finger-in-a-light-socket hairdo? The 80s, I guess.
E: Give me a Chicago summer, and my hair looks like that naturally. Another doubling: names: eg, “Fahteem the Magnificent” vs. “Harvey Ringwald the Sleazebag.” Also, Harvey’s appropriation of a mish-mash of Arabic stereotypes but also the coffin’s “life for life” power. Oh, and the struggling magician (with a similar body type) subbing in for Jack. (Poor guy; nobody cared when they found out it wasn’t Jack.) Finally, Lyla as “The Great Montarro” instead of as the long-suffering daughter she appeared to be. As for the drag; the emcee guy calls it an identity crisis, but because he was also dressed like “Fahteem” in the beginning, I thought it was just another costume.
K: I liked that this episode was kind of a locked-room mystery, playing out almost entirely either onstage, backstage, or somewhere in the theatre with a limited cast of character with whom we become familiar. It’s the world of magic eating itself.
E: For $100,000, no less. That’s depressing.
K: I always think I won’t have much to say about an individual episode (especially the last two), and then I do!
Season 1, Episode 7: “Doctor Jack” (Richard Friedman, director; Marc Scott Zicree, writer) (14 November, 1987)
In which the “Jack” in question is not in fact the reincarnation of Jack the Ripper.
The Goods: Bad medicine, in which Dr. Howlett rebuilds his dodgy reputation with the help of a cursed scalpel that takes a life to save a life.
The Cheese: Canada’s favorite specialty store: Jim’s Knives, in which it’s all knives, all the time. / Hospital security is a joke. / As is the show’s spell-checking department
Sins: Pride is getting quite a workout during these mid-season episodes. Envy also plays a part.
Kristopher: Marc Scott Zicree is the author of The Twilight Zone Companion, which is a pretty great resource. I had no idea he had such a TV writing pedigree, and he’s also written three novels. This episode opens so well, in shadowy streets with a backlit monster figure, but then devolves into a ludicrous tale of opportunism. So many elements were laughable, from the shop called “Jim’s Knives” to the doctors trying to revive a patient in the corridor when Ryan and Micki enter, to the gun-toting, fanatical, bereaved mother seeking vengeance for the death of her daughter. Of course, she’s kept in the hospital rather than taken to the police. Of course, Marshak has access to her for questioning with no supervision. Of course (?) she manages to break free and get the gun back. What!? Did they keep it with her belongings in the “Patient’s belongings” cupboard?
Erin: At first glance, I thought it was something to do with Jack again; perhaps he’d impersonate a doctor. There was a lot of dumb in the episode, as you so clearly state above. The weird bit is, with Jack out of the picture for most of the episode, Micki and Ryan actually do smart things: Micki (easily) tricks Knife Guy, Ryan tricks Howlett by leaving on the morgue drawers ajar, and the last (cheesy effects) bit with Micki electrocuting Howlett was not a bad plan.
K: There’s also the newspaper article she carries with her in her purse/archive of evidence; the article carries the headline: “Death Stocks the Halls.” Not “Stalks”? Is this a spelling error, or a clever play on words (as in Death “stocks” the halls of the hospital with bodies)?
E: My eyes nearly rolled out of my head on that one. Maybe Death just wanted to be helpful to a struggling hospital. You know, provide PPE, make sure the equipment is sterilized, restock the cupboards.
K: And, seriously, a cursed scalpel? Um. :-/ The Jack the Ripper connection doesn’t work here, as it does, say, in the Star Trek episode “Wolf in the Fold” (OS 2.14), which carries forward the issue of toxic masculinity and misogyny. There’s a great One Step Beyond episode that makes good use of the Ripper theme, as well. It’s a horror staple to revisit this case. But here, it is wasted. Beyond the Ripper’s being believe to be a surgeon, the facts don’t parallel well. The Ripper’s targets were women, and he seemed to have targeted them because they were sex workers, or possibly just conveniently “invisible” to society. But he didn’t slice their throats as Marshak says; he gutted them surgically, with a focus on their female-identifying parts. This is mainly where the episode fails for me. There is a mother and daughter backstory, and the daughter wanted to be a surgeon—why not tailor this to the misogyny theme of the Ripper cases? Instead, we have Marshak put in peril, which could have been a clever twist in another context, but not with the Ripper element in play.
E: Agreed. I’m not sure what it was about 1987-1988, but there was more than one Ripper-inspired media. (I watched “Jack’s Back,” but to be fair, mostly for James Spader.) Also not successful; it’s such a rich text you’d think even a merely competent writer could do something with it.
K: This becomes another locked room scenario, but not as effectively as the previous episode. I do like the horror touch of the medical theatre, with students and/or colleagues observing a live surgical lecture on several occasions. Howlett hopes arrogantly that his “miracle” working can “regild this somewhat tarnished institution,” another backstory that goes nowhere, but could have considering the lurid crimes of the Ripper. Marshak: “he just loves the limelight” and is “turning the medical profession into a three-ring circus.” Cool, but again, more could have been made of the circus of blood he’s creating behind the scenes.
E: I wrote “pacing sluggish” in my notes, and I think that’s one of the problems with this episode. Too much time is wasted on long tracking shots, of Howlett staring at randos without actually killing them; the long sequence in the operating room. Plus, the one bit that could make it understandable (he wanted to be a doctor, but sucked at it) is never built on in a significant way. My notes also say: “Music doing too much of the work of building suspense.” Weirdly, I loved the fact that the way Howlett used the scalpel had so much Wile E. Coyote to it.
K: I’m not sure, but this seems the first time someone has put the cursed objects in the particular way that Micki does when she refers to “the upside and the downside of the curse” — aka the scalpel cures miraculously at the price of other lives. It seems to adequately describe the series’ premise.
E: Agreed; definitely seems to sum up the overall thematics. And, speaking of which: this episode is the first time someone says, “We’re his family” (Ryan about Jack).
K: I suspect I sound like Roger Ebert here (or, worse, Gene Siskel), but this one was a fail for me.
E: Yeah, it was a bit of a dud. To put it mildly.
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.