Season 2, Episode 19: “The Butcher” (Francis Delia, director; Francis Delia & Ron Magid, writers)
A surprisingly resonate take on the traumas of the past and the dangers of fascism.
KRIS’S THOUGHTS: Another take on the previous episode’s idea of the resurrected body being akin to the cursed object itself, and needing to murder to stay resurrected. The difference is that the killer is puppeted by another who is using him to seek revenge on his enemies. The Nazi obsession with the occult, cryogenic freezing, reanimation, cruel scientific experiments, and an infamous Nazi war criminal called “The Butcher”—the elements work together here nicely, including the return of the Nazi swastika to its occult roots with the Thule Society, an organization of “alchemists and warlocks,” according to Jack.
I’m a little shocked that Francis Delia—the director who thought making the dummy in “Read My Lips” (2.8) a vicious misogynist would be “a fun dimension to that half of the story” (Wax 2015, 214)—would be so creatively involved in an episode this prescient and complex. From Jack’s increasing fragility with the knowledge that he is vulnerable once again to the atrocities of WWII, to the growing popularity of radio personality (and puppeted “Butcher”) Carl Steiner, this episode draws out America’s internal contradictions in 1989 in ways that none would feel were very real until the Trump era. Steiner’s horrendous beliefs sound nearly identical to the worst of Trump and his supporters. We hear from him that “... this country is being held back by deadbeats living on welfare, food stamps and medicare handouts. the people who work for a living are being bed dry.” We hear thinly veiled references to HIV-AIDS with references to “those people out there spreading sexual diseases” and that “an epidemic is spreading across the land, a disease without a cure.” This crisis went entirely unacknowledged by the Reagan administration, and yet here we have it, front and center, confronting American viewers. And we have what will be Trump’s MAGA mantra when we hear Steiner’s goal: “We must restore this country to a position of power. Let the weak, lazy, uneducated get out of the way.”
Erin: And yet...by 1989, the now late Rush Limbaugh had a well-established platform on radio and was considered a rising star, all due to the Reagan-era repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, which is how right wing nut jobs got such a foothold on AM radio. Steiner’s words could have been taken right out of a Limbaugh broadcast, with his listeners (who referred to themselves as “Dittoheads”) right in line with the callers we hear on this episode.
K: Director and co-writer Delia mentions these shows in the Wax interviews, I think. Limbaugh for sure.
Only one voice on the radio stands out amongst Steiner’s supporters, saying, “I think you’re a racist pig.” Others all sound exactly like the current QAnon and other right-wingers who feel America has grown weak because of immigration, sexual politics, women’s rights, and all that “bleeding heart” liberal stuff tagged by one caller. Another called mentions sending “all of them” (presumably immigrants, but possibly AIDS sufferers) “to China, and then nuk[ing] China.” An interviewer in the studio informs us that Steiner is “on the cover of Newsmaker this month” and remarks to him she’s heard “that your days on radio are limited, that your future is in politics.” (Another potential screenshot from this episode comes in the image of the magazine Newsmaker bloodied with Jack’s murdered friend lying on top of it.)
E: That was a brilliant shot, particularly with the blood drop on Steiner’s forehead.
K: It captures not only the darkest underpinnings of Reagan’s politics, but also the current rhetoric of Trump. In fact, almost nothing said by Steiner hasn’t been stated or intimated by Trump. Interviewed by Wax co-writer and director Delia calls the episode a “cautionary tale” and “a horror fairy tale,” and mentions “hate-monger[ing]” and “man’s inhumanity to man” (2015, 277-78).
The episode’s prescience aside, it’s also terrific. It’s incredibly taut and well structured, the performances subdued and carrying real weight. The episode focuses entirely on Jack, and it’s such a wise decision (and possibly a brave one) to leave out Micki and Ryan entirely. Chris Wiggins’ performance in particular is full of vulnerability carrying forward a trauma that he thought he’d left behind (though he still collects Nazi memorabilia, we’ve learned in other episodes). The fact that he isn’t even safe in his dreams is one of this episode’s further strengths. Jack is assaulted from every direction, and so are we.
E: Absolutely agreed. While Micki and Ryan would have offered support, I think Jack would have felt the need to minimize his own trauma for their sakes.
K: Top 5 for me, and probably boots out “Better Off Dead” for the spot!
ERIN’S THOUGHTS (before reading yours): Whoa. There was so much to this episode I almost don’t know where to begin. Particularly the way that it touches on concerns relevant to the time (people like Limbaugh got their start during the time this aired) and that read as chillingly prescient to this sociopolitical moment. There is a lot happening within the episode: flashbacks to Jack’s imprisonment in World War II, the resurrection of Rausch, and “Steiner”’s rising star as a radio personality and potential entry into politics. (Side note: I appreciated the accuracy of Steiner having to leave his radio show in order to pursue a political career, as that is the law in the US.)
I think a case can be made that the amulet—if it is one of Lewis’s cursed antiques, which I’m not 100% clear that it was—is the most dangerous of the objects. Because in the end, it isn’t about reanimating the body as it is about how easily those views take a foothold, perhaps no more so than in times of economic/political crisis and uncertainty. True now, but also true in 1988, with the Iran Contra scandal eroding faith in government (already dented by Watergate), the Black Monday crash in 1987, and the government's deadly denial and inaction on HIV/AIDS.
The greater point, of course, is that Rausch/Steiner himself is just a puppet, an avatar for these ideas that are difficult, if not impossible, to silence. There is always someone who will be receptive, who wants a scapegoat that can be fought and eliminated, rather than the reality of the complex array of factors, including greed and a lack of accountability, all pointing at the upper echelons of society, who too infrequently pay any kind of price for their malfeasance. The final scene, as Jack puts the suitcase in the vault, while Mueller’s words echo in his head. Like Mueller himself, he can be shut away, but the danger persists in returning in a slightly different guise. Like Jack’s own trauma, the past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past. (Stolen from Faulkner.)
I would say the sins here are greed (for more power) inspiring wrath (in the listening audience). The parallels to Trump are chilling, and the messiness of the final conflict (Jack shaking as he contemplates facing Rausch again), the bloodiness and awkwardness of the fight says more about the difficulties of continuing to stand up for what’s right in the face of a very human tendency towards evil than some well-coordinated fisticuffs.
Top five for me on this one.
Final sidenotes: Nigel Bennett was perfect here; if you haven’t seen Forever Knight, he is great in that as well. Also, I can’t prove it, but given that the Thule Society shows up at least 3 separate times on Supernatural, one wonders if this episode gave them the idea to use it as well.
Season 2, Episode 20: “Mesmer’s Bauble” (Armand Mastroianni, director; Joe Gannon, writer)
An interesting—if highly problematic—take on celebrity and gender identity.
KRIS’S THOUGHTS: Well, if I missed the sex sax, the music-video opening of this one has rejuvenated me. I always like when the lyrics of the song telegraph the episode’s themes, here a cover of Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy”: “There was a boy, a very strange enchanted boy. They say he wandered very far.” In this case, as Jack intimates at the end of the episode, the “wandering” that happens is unexpectedly into a feeling of needing another embodiment.
“Don’t you want me?” asks Angelica (Vanity) once she’s been mesmerized by Howard’s wish to be with her. But he doesn’t. Staring around the room in a scene that’s really nicely shot and edited to turn his fan obsession into a desire for radical re-embodiment as the star he worships, he realizes, “No, I want to be you.” And what a transformation scene! Bring out the KY and latex! This kind of scene comes in the wake of both The Howling and American Werewolf in London, with their groundbreaking practical effects, and while it’s not up to par with those, it’s inventive and fascinating to watch.
Even more fascinating— and gasp-inducing— is the second transformation scene, as Howard, who has become Angelika, performs onstage. When Micki snatches the bauble from Angelika’s neck, we witness a retro-transformation that is a combination of horror and humor (intentional, I think) as we witness Angelika’s fans’ horrified reactions to the spectacle of degeneration into Howard. I laughed out loud at this gleefully gruesome scene.
This episode moves quickly from creepfest, where Howard is one of the least sympathetic cursed object users in the series— always leering and peeping and quick to make the bauble work towards what essentially becomes a tale of his own vanity, and not a real lust for Angelika, to a kind of parody of itself. In keeping with this is the shaving death scene— “A little closer, Roger. … Don’t forget your throat.”—where Howard’s desire to replace Angelika’s manager Roger fixates on having him first destroy his face in the mirror. The implications here are ultimately more grotesque than the actual scene, I’m sure largely because of the limits of what they could do even on syndicated television. [Something to investigate: Moments like this make me think that this show might have indicated a key shift in what television could present, and in doing so, opened doors for what horror TV could do. What else was doing what this show was doing to expand what could be shown on television?]
Erin: Definitely a point to be made about syndicated shows getting a bit more leeway; Tales from the Darkside also had some surprisingly gruesome moments.
K: This is a truly bizarro episode, and I can see how it might reel in the viewers. Vanity was hot at the time (and hot), as were the types of practical transformation scenes featured here as gleeful spectacle. There’s something for everyone here. And yet there’s also a complicated (not necessarily unproblematic) treatment of non-binary gender at the very heart of the episode. Even Wax, whose book usually skirts these kinds of issues, has some on-point but also conflicted commentary that I will address here.
“The 1980s gave birth to the insult, ‘That’s so gay’, and perpetuated the stereotype of ‘you throw like a girl’,” she writes. “So, ‘Mesmer's Bauble’ was a refreshing look at gender identity. Because I don’t think that was meant to be the focus of the story, it made it all the more subtle” (2015, 282). But later she writes:
“What is refreshing about Howard becoming Angelica is that he is not worried about becoming a woman; he just wants to be someone with fame, power, and worshippers. Man, woman, or cow; it doesn’t matter to him. He just wants to be someone else. In fact, it may be less a look at gender identity and more a look at mental illness and bullying” (2015, 282).
Wax semi-unintentionally identifies what is problematic in this representation without seeming to know that she’s done it. She’s correct that the focus on gender identity seems to be somewhat intentional but not the sole “focus of the story,” but her equally plausible comment that Howard “doesn’t really suffer from gender confusion; he suffers from self-doubt and low self-esteem” and ‘damage’ caused “by years of abuse and ridicule” for his looks problematizes his desire to inhabit Angelika as a kind of pathological symptom (2015, 282). Both of these factors are in play in the episode (and in Wax’s assessment of it); thus, the result is an equation of Howard’s gender nonconformity with mental illness, such as PTSD. That’s fucked up. This, not to mention that being gay and being transgender are not necessarily mutual, but Wax (though not necessarily the episode) seems to see them as such. (Preview of crummy attractions: Things get worse with Wax’s comments on the next episode.)
E: Yikes. And I think a tragic misreading; see my comments below. I think that it was all about gender identity, but given the time period, that was as far as they could take it.
K: Wax also quotes director Mastroianni, who notes they wanted to “push the envelope” (282), but he also ‘pushes’ the notion that Howard’s desire to be Angelika was about “entering” her and then really entering her (283). Mastroianni makes Howard’s wanting to penetrate Angelika into an act of (forgive me) double penetration—a leaning towards total domination of her body, soul, and mind. Yet in the scene, Howard’s sexual desire is essentially derailed (neutered, castrated) when he looks at the posters of Angelika with which he’s wallpapered his apartment. The images of Angelika— and the import he gives them over him—overpower him. His real empowerment here will come in his inhabiting her body, not just “entering” or colonizing it for sexual pleasure. The scene and the conceit carry incredibly multiple, potentially conflicting readings. And for this reason, I think this episode— notably following the overt gestures to HIV/AIDS in the previous episode, “The Butcher”— must be discussed in our book as dredging up cultural anxieties in ways that confronted audiences with a real challenge. It’s a text ripe for unpacking.
This one makes my top 20, for these ‘doubly penetrating’ reasons alone. It’s troubled and troubling, but it confronts 80s audiences with gender identity in ways I’m sure weren’t on the general radar.
Finally, to say that this episode’s primary sin is “vanity” (ha!) would do it only partial service. And “envy” doesn’t quite capture Howard’s desire for different embodiment. It’s difficult to reduce this one to a morality tale.
ERIN’S THOUGHTS (before reading yours): Well, here we are at the only episode I remember watching, the one I thought was an episode of Tales From the Darkside for years. (Possibly because the Curious Goods crew don’t appear immediately.) And it is, surprisingly, still pretty disturbing, particularly the “I want to be you” scene’s literal gooeyness. There is a LOT to unpack here, from celebrity worship/stalking to Howard’s obvious borderline personality disorder, and it’ll be a combination of both my initial read (back in my early teens) and this re-watch.
Let’s talk about fashion. Howard’s long flowing duster (both pre- and post-bauble) and the soft, feminized look of his clothes was absolutely in line with the aesthetic at that time. (Check out Sam Emerson in The Lost Boys.)
K: I owned a long shirt like this. Man, how was I so successfully in the closet?
E: I love you, man.
For all its conservatism, there was an undercurrent of gender-bending, whether it was Boy George or Dee Snider. This sat uncomfortably with the rampant homophobia of the time (which is likely why guys like Synder did it; it was less solidarity and more “in your face, establishment!” type thing.
I suspect that this episode was pitched as one about the dangers of celebrity culture (that is, he wants to be her because he wants to be adored), and yet the transgender aspects are so strong as to be completely unavoidable. Being soft-spoken with long hair was, of course, code for “gay” in the 1980s, but for me, that’s not quite what’s going on here. Howard CLEARLY is uncomfortable in his own skin (skin is a huge thing, note; he asks the publicist what Angelica’s “skin” feels like), but while the episode seems to suggest it’s because he’s unattractive, the scene with Angelica in his apartment pushes it far in the other direction. Note that the focus is on his body, the way he cups his pectoral as if it is a woman’s breast. This reading is of course complicated by the stalking and Howard’s obvious BPD, so it’s impossible to view it as trans-positive, and yet Jack’s remark at the end was surprisingly non judgmental: “He didn’t know what he really wanted until it was too late.” (I’d love to hear scholar Cael Keegan’s take on this in his “Bad Transgender Object” series of articles.) Howard ends up being the “nature boy” Angelica is singing about.
K: Absolutely, Cael’s take, and that of several scholars/friends I know here, including Trish Salah and my partner, Cory Legassic. I told him about the episode, and he sort of cringed, but maybe I’ll ask him to watch it with me. We should ask Cael to check it out.
E: It taps into cultural anxieties about celebrity, gender identity, stalking, and sexuality in uncommon ways.
Sin: I want to say vanity (of course!) but honestly, I’m having a hard time pinning it down. Envy I think comes closest.
Vanity (RIP) was actually one of Prince’s proteges (you probably knew that), who embodied and played with any number of cultural expectations himself.
K: I did! And there’s a funny anecdote in the Wax book where a director says she was always drinking espressos to stay awake, and so was very jittery for some scenes. Someone else (or perhaps Wax) adds that it was more likely that she was hooked on crack cocaine at the time.
E: Based on?
The Most Sensitive Remark Award goes to the unnamed lady at the hotel: “You know what these rock ‘n’ roll types are; always killing themselves.” Give this lady a job at the NIMH!
E: Oh! One bit I forgot to mention: The guy who played Howard in this episode was also in “The Great Montaro”; the magician that hanged himself while dressed in women’s clothes. Make of that what you will.
K: I suspect it’s a bit of inter-series intertextual allusion. Good eye!
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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.