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 Forbes stealing and selling Star’s unpublished work), and wrath: Jay Star himself.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).
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.