Season 2, Episode 15: “Better Off Dead” (Armand Mastroianni, director; Bruce Martin, writer)
A physician spits on the Hippocratic oath mad scientist/Jack the Ripper-style in an attempt to cure his daughter.
KRIS'S THOUGHTS: “Knowledge unused is ignorance” is carved in the stone mantel of the fireplace. While I assume they found this by happy accident in the home they used for filming (the space [mostly] doesn’t look like a set), it does have links to the mad scientist feature of the scientist’s practice. “I don’t do anything weird,” the sex worker notes. “Neither do I,” Dr. Warren Voss Responds. Riiight. But the motto engraved into that mantelpiece underscores the entire episode’s themes.
“No animal suffers in my lab,” says Voss at one point. The choice of words is interesting. Finally, an episode that at least tries to work misogyny into the thematic tapestry of the narrative (it doesn’t entirely succeed). The pickup of a sex worker is here akin to the robbing of graves in the 19th century (or at least in Hollywood’s or Hammer’s portrayal of such). I also find it fascinating that the … what, spinal fluid? … of the sex worker injected into the man’s daughter Amanda transfers some sort of life essence to Amanda. From the so-called corrupted to the so-called innocent. Dr. Voss seems to have decided which of us lie at the bottom of the chain in experimenting on nonhuman animals and then on human women. Oddly, the notion that the syringe is linked to Jack the Ripper doesn’t really do much for the theme. The episode’s disturbing treatment of both women and children is quite in place without it.
Voss genuinely seems to loathe or at least dread his own work, or at least what it drives him to have to do—clear when he uses the syringe on Linda. He seems to have missed the lecture on deontological ethics in medical school. (Even Jekyll at least experimented on himself in the interest of benefiting humanity.) Yet, at the very least, his methods put human (women) and nonhuman animals on the same level, though that’s a pretty low level. Ironically, for all his efforts and goals, he’s the one most in need of having violent tendencies cured. The masterstroke here is of course the daughter tearing the father to pieces, attempting to eat his flesh. I’m sure the psychoanalytically inclined scholar would have a field day with the drooling daughter attempting to devour the father.
From the opening sequence, to the tense finale, the tone of this episode is decidedly morose and subdued. It’s dark visually, as well and (as always) beautifully shot. The opening sees Voss selecting a sex worker while driving, his car motivating the slow tracking shot across a group of sex workers, all while listening to the classical music that he plays to underscore all of his violent acts. This use of music is a nice touch, and adds something both to the absurdity of the act (and the episode), and to the idea that Voss feels himself to be driving towards a more sophisticated humanity, cutting out its violence to replace it with more soul. Later in the episode, his daughter, coming out of her passive remission, selects her stuffed animals like her father selects his test subjects, passing over some until she settles on one she wants, and the violence she does to that stuffed rabbit when she reverts to violence is again similar to the violence Voss does as a scientist. The episode makes good use of such parallels.
*“I’ve found the physical seat of the human soul. … It doesn’t exist in animals; that’s what makes us different.” Um … what?
*Also, Micki not only goes alone to a place where they suspect the women are disappearing, she enters the house after the lights go out and the front door is unlocked for her to enter.
*Linda is yet another woman who dies after hanging with Ryan—here, while literally on a date with him.
*This episode falls victim to one of the series’ most implausible conventions—that of multiple murders occurring in one relatively isolated space over a period of a day or two, and no one moving to investigate besides the Curious Goods team, who typically has their run of the crime scenes and spaces.
The Verdict: This is a violent, disturbing episode, akin to “And Now the News” (2.3) in its focus on the violence done to people in service of curing others. Yet the difference here is that the villain of the former episode was driven by lust for power, while here, as Jack states at the end, the drive is partly “for love,” and partly for the benefit to humanity. Voss seeks, like Henry Jekyll, to isolate the violence from his subject, his daughter, while in doing so creating what would be an army of female Hydes had he not killed most of them. Wax remembers that the episode came with a content warning, noting that it might have been one of the first such warnings on TV (253, 255). Hilariously, though, as she adds that it’s clear why the episode came with the warning, she concludes: “violence at the hands of a child always touches a nerve” (254). The episode’s most disturbing scenes feature violence done to women and children (and the suggestion of such to caged animals), but there is very little violence done “at the hands of a child,” until the very ending when Amanda attempts to shred and devour her father (but only ends up pushing him to his death, darnit). While disturbing, that scene also comes with real narrative-based satisfaction.
The writer here is Bruce Martin of “Master of Disguise” (1.25) and "What a Mother Wouldn’t Do" (2.6). Neither of these episodes achieves the levels of pathos and gruesomeness that this one achieves, but you can see a sensibility here. The small details, the allusions to other horror texts (Phantom of the Opera, Rosemary’s Baby), the more psychologically motivated crimes, and the way the cursed objects are tied to them. But in this episode, nothing feels excessive (in a good or a bad way, really); it just feels taut, controlled, and carefully constructed and directed (by Mastrioanni in his first time directing [Wax 254]).
This one may have slipped its way into the top five for me. When I look at the list below, particularly the bolded episodes, I see “Shadow Boxer” (1.8), “Tales of the Undead” (1.10), “Faith Healer” (1.12), ”Pipe Dream” (1.24), and “And Now the News” (2.3). I guess I’d be willing to bump “Shadow Boxer” to get this one into the top five, but it’s a tough decision!
ERIN'S THOUGHTS (before reading yours): Well, that was SUPER disturbing. I loved how it very subtly suggested the old 50s mad scientist movies without actually resorting to cobwebby labs and thunderstorms. Indeed, there is enough creep factor when one considers how some medical breakthroughs came about (Tuskegee experiment, anyone?). It makes the inscription on the fireplace: “Knowledge Unused Is Ignorance” take on another level of horror that again, the episode doesn’t push, merely suggests.
This is a tightly constructed episode, despite the dodgy science involved. I think I’d have fun contrasting this episode’s “science” with Dollhouse, and the similar ideas of the soul/humanity locus in the brain. (Also, Voss’ “No animal suffers in my lab” not only reduces the women he experiments on to animals—literally and figuratively—but reminds me of Topher referring to the Actives as “bison”). He’s attempting to restore his daughter’s “humanity” (that he feels responsible for) while losing his own, an irony, again, that the episode trusts the viewer to make without pushing it. The contradiction of both wanting to sympathize and the way that Mastrioanni sets and lights certain scenes (the opening drive in which he’s trying to choose his next victim is a case in point; lit cold, so it’s clear “lust” isn’t a factor, but still creepy) is great, and puts this high on the list for me. Jack the Ripper is referenced again, and again it’s hard to really see the connections (aside from targeting prostitutes), but this is miles better than “Doctor Jack.”
Also, a special award for the cab driver and his facial expressions. Well done, sir. (And thank you for injecting a bit of humor into the gruesome proceedings.)
K: Hahahaha! You’re right!
Finally: I was getting serious Exorcist vibes off the girl they cast as Amanda. Well done!
K: I think it’s director Mastroianni who says he was inspired by The Exorcist (in Wax book).
E: Not sure what sin is here, unless maybe Pride?
Season 2, Episode 16: “Scarlet Cinema” (David Winning, director; Rob Hedden, writer)
A rare, prescient examination of toxic over-identification, in an episodic tribute to classic horror.
KRIS'S THOUGHTS: At this point in our great Friday the 13th: The Series re/watch, I become really excited to see what the next episode has in store, and this is partly due to the series having become something of a respite for me from other responsibilities. Nothing pleased me more than to see the opening images of “Scarlet Cinema,” with its cinephilic college kid watching Universal’s The Wolf Man in a nearly empty cinema, mouthing every word of the film’s lines along with the actors, and reacting to every blow of violence with a freshness as though he’d never seen the film. Friday the 13th: The Series has often alluded to classic horror cinema, and to see this episode celebrate some of the origins of American horror, particularly through the lens of a cinephilic dreamer, was really moving. (And the really excellent young actor they cast to play film student Darius Pogue looks like a teenaged David Cronenberg.)
Erin: Agreed; sadly, it seems as if his last acting credit was in a 1992 episode of Forever Knight.
K: The story here is so compelling that the first 15 minutes of the episode feature only one short scene (under two minutes) of the Curious Goods crew refurbishing and repairing the shop, Ryan chiding Micki for calling their work “redecorating” because the shop would “lose its charm.” Ryan, too, seems to appreciate the cachet of the vintage, as Darius does with his fascination with vintage horror cinema. The attraction to the vintage (cursed) object itself makes so much sense in this context; Darius enters the pawnshop and sees a tri-lens camera (it appears to be a Kodak multi-turret 16mm camera) that he simply must have. The cursed objects in the series often draw the eventual user/owner, but here the draw is to an entire cinema culture.
Oddly, because of Ryan’s pervy, stalkerish behaviour across past episodes, it’s reads as homoerotic when he stops in to watch some of The Wolf Man, suddenly notices Darius there, leers at him a bit, and then decides to stalk him back to his place. Typical behaviour for Ryan when he has his “soft heart on.” Or maybe I’ve been to too many cruise-y cinemas.
E: Hee! Well, it read like that to me too, particularly when he kind of tried to invite himself into Darius’s room. HoYay aside, there are so very obvious parallels between Darius and Ryan...
K: Darius’s midterm film project (or at least what we see of it) is a basic murder scene intercut with scenes from The Wolf Man, but the “real” footage is that of the death of bullying classmate Blair Westlake. The moral riot act read to Darius by Professor Schwartz, who calls the film “unconscionable” isn’t as harsh as Wax would have it in her discussion of the scene. If it hadn’t occurred in front of the entire class, comments calling what is essentially a snuff film “a classic example of incredibly irresponsible filmmaking” are on the mark. “You have duplicated the tragic death of a fellow student,” he adds, not realizing the footage they watching is real in the context of the episode.
The logic around the cursed object is a bit shifty this time around. So the cursed film camera first records the targeted subject, and then when viewed through later, projects the death desired by the holder who looks through it. Here, the kills are informed by Darius’s werewolf obsession. The targeting and stalking of Ryan, however, occurs at the same moment, so the logic here is a bit confusing. The scene stops only because the kid stops looking through the lens. Jack’s explanation doesn’t quite cut it: “It doesn’t just bring a movie character to life, it allows the owner to become that character.” Interesting that Darius’s “wish” granted by the camera would be a life tragically cursed, as the film The Wolf Man frames its curse. What is the allure of being this kind of monster, suffering, alone, his will usurped by cyclical urges he cannot control. Ryan asks as much in the episode’s coda, Jack responding: “Oh, I guess it was his way of acting out his movie fantasies, his of having all the power that he never had in real life.”
E: I think it would be interesting to draw a link here between this episode and Supernatural’s “Monster Movie,” as the antagonist in that film has a similar obsession/identification with Hammer/Universal monsters as Darius.
K: Cool. I don’t think I’ve seen that Supernatural episode yet!
Wax quotes writer Rob Hedden: “Wish fulfillment with a Faustian tradeoff plays a huge part in those who obtain an evil antique, so I went in that direction: how about a kid who dreams of being his favourite movie monster, and a curse camera grants him that wish? Being a classic horror staple with carnal appeal, a werewolf seemed like a good choice.” Um, okey dokey! For the record, I’d choose the Invisible Man or Dracula, if I were limited to the Universal films. I’d like a little control over my power, and being able to seduce people with my eyes (and transform into a wolf or whatever whenever I effing want, like Drac), or to play pranks on them (or watch them shower) unobserved, like Invisible Man, seems more appealing.
Jack really takes on the elder sage role here, protecting the others with a gun loaded with silver bullets. With Ryan, Micki and Carissa, Darius’s love-object and fellow student, trapped by the wolf in the vault, it would have been very cool had one of the cursed objects assisted them in killing it. That said, Ryan’s using a piece of old silver nitrate film from the camera to strangle Darius is a clever enough kill, the film strip burning through the throat of poor Darius.
It’s difficult when we see a number of good episodes in a row to figure out just where to slot this one. I really liked the previous episode, “Better Off Dead,” but is it really better than this one? Maybe just a little. I would put this one on par with “Shadow Boxer” (1.8) or “The Playhouse” (1.12), definitely a top-20.
ERIN'S THOUGHTS (before reading yours): You know what really pleases me in an episode like this? When it’s clear that the writer either knew what they were talking about or did their homework. Silver nitrate was used in early filmmaking, and for an added bonus, if I remember correctly, was unstable and combustible, which is the reason why some films of that era no longer exist. (It also serves as a handy metaphor for Darius himself.) Also, the pretentious douche, Blair Westlake, referencing Eisenstein was absolutely perfect: guy with his own car, car phone (expensive as hell in 1988), and a name like Blair referencing Soviet realist cinema basically tells you everything you need to know about him. As for Darius, I found him quite believable; I’ve been that audience member who knows every line in a film...and he’s still young enough (and appears younger in terms of maturity) so that line between fantasy and reality is still a bit blurry.
I didn’t actually end up taking a lot of notes on this one, because I found myself just watching and enjoying. The interspersing of The Wolf Man scenes should not have worked as well as it did, and yet it was absolutely perfect in this instance. There are some quibbles I’ll get to later, but only quibbles.
Darius’s characterization works well here; he’s not entirely unsympathetic—the fact that Blair laughs at and bullies him helps with that—and yet there’s a whiff of the incel about him at the same time, particularly around Clarissa, who seems to like him as he is (and thinks Blair is an asshole), and yet he’s too afraid to talk with her. Jack’s line about being “poisoned by his own fantasies” is applicable both in terms of his ambitions and his relationships. That he literally chokes on both works really well.
The classroom scenes, being all pedagogical, set the terms for the episode’s debate on what constitutes good/responsible cinema, as well as pushing the episode itself into metatextual territory. I liked that Prof. Schwartz was not at all dismissive of Darius’s claims about “scarlet cinema” and rather nicely punctured Blair’s pretentiousness. Later, he attacks Darius’s film on two fronts: derivative (recycled footage) and irresponsible (a snuff film he doesn’t realize is real), but the episode itself does not necessarily attempt to answer what films’ responsibilities are. Given the penchant for putting a button on the proceedings at the end of the episode, I’m glad of that. (Would have been rather disingenuous for a horror series anyway.) What makes it meta, for me, is the way that the series itself builds on/references its predecessors in a way that itself could be viewed as “derivative” or “recycling.” In a weird way, he got his wish of a cinematic existence, even with Jack quoting his favorite film as he died.
Sins: Envy fueled by wrath.
So, some quibbles: OK, the camera “called” him, but the episode made it unclear whether it was because it was from his favorite era of filmmaking or, you know, the evil. Still not entirely clear what it does. I mean, I know what it does for Darius, but what does it do for someone else? Also, it stretches credulity that the professor wouldn’t have turned that footage over to the police, at least because it references the extremely recent and seemingly unsolved death of a student. I mean, I know they’re incompetent, but….
K: I really wish they had done a bit more than they did with the student film. All it is, is a recut of the murder scene with footage from The Wolf Man. Why not a little one-minute art film inside the episode; the same “snuff” style vibe could be there. It seemed clunky in the way this series’ intercut scenes tend to be (for me), and, as you’ve said before, one in several examples of the way this show doesn’t entirely trust its audience to get it.
E: Quibbles aside, this is in my top 20, definitely.
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.