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.
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.