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.
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.