This week, we present you three episodes for your dead-of-winter, Covid lockdown pleasure. Plus, it would be just cruel to split a two-parter across two different posts. ADDED BONUS: All three episodes are streamable in full (for now, at least) below. Enjoy!
Season 1, Episode 18: “The Electrocutioner” (Rob Hedden, director and writer)
A dentist breaks bad, or why we should reconsider the death penalty.
FULL EPISODE BELOW!
The Goods: An innocent man survives his electrocution by electric chair; when that chair is cursed by Uncle Lewis, he procures it to avenge those who put him on death row.
The Cheese: The special effects get a special mention. / The unintentional hilarity of death by electrified doorknob.
The Sins: Wrath, as one would be a bit angry after a botched execution for a crime one didn’t commit.
Kristopher: I think Rob Hedden and Tom Mcloughlin are the only two writers who directed the episodes they wrote for the series, outside of William Taub who wrote and directed the Pilot. Hedden also wrote an episode of the 2002 reboot of The Twilight Zone and a few episodes of the 1980s reboot of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He also directed the regrettable Friday the 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, which must have been his way into this series in particular, despite also having written episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and McGyver!
Erin: I wasn’t blown away by this episode, but there were elements to it that were interesting. Unlike most of the episodes so far, Eli’s motivation was to a great extent understandable; he was unjustly accused and had his life destroyed (as well as losing his girlfriend to murder, something the episode doesn’t really delve into).
K: Yes, this plot bit kind of landed with a thud.
E: There is one gaping plothole that bugs me: Whether the chair was cursed when Eli was electrocuted. I don’t think it was, because the dialogue suggests Lewis bought it after the botched execution, and Eli purchased it from him. But, if it wasn’t cursed, Eli would nonetheless be brain-dead, even if he was physically alive, after exposure to it, so....
K: It seems to me that it has to have been cursed prior to the electrocution, since Eli needs it to fuel himself. Another part of this plothole is … how the heck did he get his hands on the chair that failed to do him in?
E: The black and white portions were one of the stylistic choices I liked; it gave those scenes more of a documentary feel, and I thought that Eli’s recollections—the gathered group laughing at him—did a good job of suggesting the high level of trauma the experience caused. It also gave a pretty good argument against the death penalty through both the botched execution of the wrong man, as well as Eli’s vigilante actions, without being didactic; he murdered no one until after he was killed, suggesting the toll of that type of punishment has far-reaching effects. Having the only survivor (the warden) be the one person who tried to get a stay of execution seems to underscore this. There was also a nice transition between the b & w execution scene, and Ryan working on a lightning lamp, both seemingly controlled energy, but for different purposes.
K: I agree. I thought the episode looked great, and the direction is strong. Another interesting thing is that this ep. centers the secondary actors more than the Curious Goods trio. I liked this element, and it’s likely why the general tone of the episode is more serious.
E: YES! Which is an element it shares with the Cronenberg[link to ep here?] episode, which also decenter-ed the trio. Things that didn’t work: the unintentionally funny district attorney death scene; I have to hand it to the actor; he went for it, but took it beyond over the top and halfway to the moon. Also, the ending was so off from the tone of the rest of the episode—Micki’s hair standing on end—it put me off as well.
K: Totally! Although I laughed out loud at Micki’s hair. The funny thing is, her hair isn’t that much more poofed than usual.
Great opening shot! I wish the entire series looked like this opening! The shadows cast on the walls, the cutaways. It’s like an art film. The innocent man, the suits standing around him (one black guy, oddly), the failed first attempt at electrocution. The framing of the men from below, with the continual dolly passes across them. Rob Hedden had only directed documentaries to this point (Wax, 111-12), and this is a benefit to these backstory scenes.
Eli Pittman as creepy reform school dentist, gassing students and then saying later: “The kids give me just the stimulation I need.” “Let’s have a look at that lower cuspid.” Also, Pittman’s office has a lava lamp! The whole setup is skeezy.
E: Yes, intentional or not, it gives a serious pedophile vibe. Also, a black student is the first to die. Again. The focus on targeting orphans because they won’t be missed reminds me of Buffy’s “Anne” in particular, but perhaps because it’s such a trope.
The episode is well directed. The segues, first the electrocution cutting to Ryan’s lamp; then, the handshake between Jack and the warden cutting to Pitman’s latex-gloved hand. Cool and very stylish. I want to check out Rob Hedden’s other directed episodes and see if this guy has a style.
Dated line: Micki: “I made Xeroxes of everything.”
K: Nice commentary at the Haverstock Reform School with Micki and Jack, ie, runaways and orphans: “That’s not high on a politicians priority list.”
E: Yup! Hitting all sorts of anti-Reagan-ite highs here: the death penalty, the lack of care for the poor.
K: Did the guy Ryan’s talking to about the unidentified man in the photo just ask him out on a date? Come over and look at my files … after dinner, of course.
E: It’s the “come over and look at my etchings bit again!
K: The dental torture scene has me thinking: seriously, why dentistry? Beyond the ability to get people in a compromising position, it’s pretty random. And no one questions why the dental chair has a helmet. He’s been there a year; I suppose no one has notice the school’s electric bills? Or maybe this is why it has to close?
E: It’s very Little Shop of Horrors…
K: I thought of that, too. The preying on troubled teens makes it that much more sadistic. But the connection between evil dentist and wronged innocent man is pretty thin! This episode (and the show in general) is well shot and lit. The colors are rich, especially in low-light scenes. I guess we’re looking at wrath here, retribution for real harm. He becomes as corrupt(ed) as the system that did him wrong. The episode overall is uneven, but I have to say, I think it has some of the most beautiful imagery in the whole series so far. This, and the “Scarecrow” episode.
Season 1, Episode 19: “The Quilt of Hathor” (Timothy Bond, director; Janet MacLean, writer)
We’re all crazy Penetites livin’ in a Penetite Paradise
FULL EPISODE BELOW!
The Goods: A woman from a local Amish-ish community, calling themselves the Penetites, contacts the Curious Goods crew about a potentially cursed quilt, after a few sect members ends up dead. Ryan and Micki go undercover, and Ryan takes break from creeping on his cousin to make eyes at a reverend’s daughter
The Cheese: A mix of good and bad cheese; Ryan’s inexplicable and obviously doomed romance and a weird duel over hot coals (bad); random 18th-century fantasy segments as a prelude to murder, weird but good.
The Sins: A double pack of Lust and Envy
Erin: Well, there’s always a bit of a challenge commenting on part one of a two-parter. The episode didn’t blow me away, but the more I think about, the more nuance I find in terms of set-up for the next episode. Here is yet another story of someone “plain” turning to evil to get what she (or he, as in “Cupid’s Quiver”) wants.
Kristopher: Yes, definitely a trope in the series.
E: For me, the trope is a bit tired, suggesting women in particular are constantly envying and hating on other women. And yet, that’s not entirely what the episode ends up suggesting, which pleased me. Effie may be considered “plain” but it’s slowly revealed that while she might lust for Reverend Grange, it may be the lust for power that drives her.
K: There is the suggestion that she may be in it for the power, yes. But it’s truly both, since all her dreams involve her looking longingly at the Reverend. The suggestion of power comes from Laura to Ryan, who says the Rev.’s wife holds a lot of sway.
E: The dream sequences, with their low-budget 18-century drag, seem to confirm this: she takes more pleasure in watching the destruction of these other women than dancing with Grange. The fact that Grange himself stands idly by while these dream murders occur could suggest that he is not as he seems either, despite his loud “why hast thou forsaken me” moments. (The young bride against the rules, being secretive about the finances, etc.)
K: I’ll be interested to see in the next episode if the issue with the finances comes up again. He does seem to be sinister in some way.
E: While I don’t think “Penitites” is a real thing, using a fake religious sect at least allows the episode to offer some commentary on religion as a cover/outlet for any number of sins. I mean, aside from Grange’s daughter feeding the horse and singing, it’s all coal fights, shouting, and pitchfork stabbings.
K: Yes on the fake cult as a way of getting at issues, yet why does it have to be an Amish-style religious sect? Seriously, they could get at this using a Presbyterian church community; no need to drag a true minority community through the mud (or coals). It’s actually kind of offensive!
E: “Your dream becomes someone else’s nightmare.”
K: This episode is someone else’s nightmare … mine.
E: Yay for Ryan falling for someone other than his cousin. Also, big laugh over Robey’s hilariously over-the-top reactions to the coal fight.
K: Gorgeous opening, but wow, that dialogue sounds like rocks in the mouth of these actors.
You gotta love an evil spinster, I must say. The Penetite Colony? Also, is this Penetite as in a combo of Penitent and Tight? I guess it would have been transparently worse to just make them Amish? The opening scene made me think it was occurring in the past. It’s funny that the sect is secretive, but Old Sarah Goode has no problem divulging that the reverend’s daughter isn’t happy about her arranged marriage.
E: I can see why they’d make up a religious sect, particularly in the 1980s. The Moral Majority assholes were (and still are) complaining constantly about how they were portrayed in the media. Although, at the risk of sounding flippant, the Amish aren’t big TV owners, so I can’t imagine they’d be mounting a letter-writing campaign over it. Oddly, there were some Amish-centered TV shows in the 1980s, and Harrison Ford in the movie Witness, so it might also be another instance of trend-leaping, like with the “Baron’s Bride.”
K: If it were at all believable, it could be cool. But the writing isn’t committed enough to getting the details down in terms of consistency. This is strict cult, but everyone is killing, bashing, and raking people over coals! Wait, what is the pretense for bringing outsiders into a secretive sect? A lost quilt, really? Sarah, who brings them to the sect mentions “envy” by name, so I guess we’re there. Lust comes next. This episode promises to give us a smorgasbord of deadly sins.
Micki’s hair actually looks good all tied down. Ryan seems to be leading the investigation with his boner. This whole setup is really off. A secretive sect (cult) that is extremely strict, yet one of its members, Effie Stokes, uses an evil quilt to kill people, and the sight of his betrothed dancing with Ryan fills him with rage and violence. Also, I wonder how Effie discovered the quilt’s powers?
This episode is hilarious, but not for the right reasons. Ryan’s acts are ridiculous, but the sect is full of contradictions. Considering their knowledge of punishments like The Cleansing, they’re rather cavalier in the degree to which they break codes and decorum. At least the dreams seem to be intentionally campy, especially the one in which Sarah dies. The Reverend’s “Where is thy justice?!” from Sarah’s death becomes a funny shriek. Ryan’s falling in love with Laura and seeing something in the cult lifestyle is truly ridiculous. This is Ryan— comic books Ryan, rock music Ryan. The breaking of character here seems to be a characteristic of the semi-anthology format.
Alyse Wax writes of this episode’s “strong female point of view” (?) that “The Pentitites are, surprisingly, not a patriarchy” (127). Um … ? Interviewed by Wax, the writer, Janet MacLean, mentions the “Witness-style romance between Ryan and a chaste member of the sect” (127). Also, in Wax is the following, which is pretty funny:
“Story consultant Marc Scott Zicree has but half a memory of this episode: ‘I remember, in-house, Bill [Taub] and I were not pleased with “Quilt of Hathor,” but I don’t remember why’. MacLean was pretty surprised when she saw the final cut on television. ‘I’d written a fight between Ryan and Matthew, but it hadn’t included a fiery pit! I remember watching that scene in total amazement’” (128).
Season 1, Episode 20: “The Quilt of Hathor: The Awakening” (Timothy Bond, director; Janet MacLean, writer)
Alternate title: The Quilt of Hathor: The Reverend’s Revenge
FULL EPISODE BELOW!
The Goods: In part two, Effie gets her comeuppance when she and the Reverend get quilt-y, and Ryan gets framed for all the bad things that have happened and sentenced to die.
The Cheese: A tie between every scene that picks up Ryan and Laura’s love story. / The freeze-frame of a shocked Ryan at the end of the episode. / Jack channelling Robert Stack during the “Previously On” segment. / That subtitle, which has nothing to do with the episode. At all.
The Sins: See part one, above.
Erin: OK, first off: What does “the awakening” refer to? I think there might be a bit of a joke to the title, as the quilt’s power lies in sleeping/dreaming. Ditto on the inquisitor’s name being Holmes.
Kristopher: So true. The awakening should be of these folks to their internal paradoxes and hypocrisies. Yeesh.
E: Again, this is in many respects a standard issue mob mentality/religion closes minds type of tale, and yet, like the previous episode, it gains a bit more nuance on further inspection. Effie spends so much time being the nightmare for everyone else that she doesn’t twig to what happens if that moment is shared until she’s actually in the dream, with both Effie and Grange trying to kill one another. It also affirms what was suggested in the previous episode, when Effie talks of the “passage to the power God has ordained for me.”
K: Yep, I make a parallel observation below around the Rev.’s own power being threatened. It’s funny Effie wouldn’t think to question what might happen if she got under the quilt with another.
E: As with other episodes, it seems to draw people who already have a proclivity; while never really expanded on, Grange was clearly doing shady things, and using his religion as a cover for it; timely. (The complaints from conservative whiners about how religion is portrayed on TV would do well to look at the various and high-profile religious/church-related scandals during the late 1980s as a reason.) A quilt cursed by Salem witches that leads to someone being burned at the stake? A bit on the nose.
K: In the episode’s context, totally. Yet, the persecution of “witches” in Salem Village (no one was burned, but many were hung or drowned) leaves the source of the curse here feeling a bit on the wrong side of history and ethics. They might have gotten their history right, at least! The folks who were suspect as witches were those who were thought “queer,” in all the senses of that word, with the addition of racial difference. This cult is super-duper white, too, adding a further taint to this misrepresentation of history. I found it really problematic.
E: And yet: Holmes ends up being surprisingly open-minded. He not only doesn’t take Grange’s words as truth—preferring to conduct his investigation before coming to any conclusions—and nails Brother Matthew’s spurious motives for pointing the finger at Ryan. “We encourage converts.”
K: Yes, I liked this character, and the actor’s performance of him.
E: While it was obvious Ryan/Laura couldn’t last, it was a decently nuanced good-bye, with Laura’s reasons for staying less about repression and more about guiding the community. She is no longer “trapped” by the traditions but actively choosing them.
K: Thematically/narratively sound for the episode, but man I felt this scene was still really weak.
E: Cheesiest moment award: A tie between Ryan’s wide-eyed, freeze-framed final moment in the episode, and Jack’s “previously on” voice-over that sounded so much like Robert Stack on Unsolved Mysteries that I thought for a moment is was a bizarre cross-over. “Alone...with a killer!”
K: Hahahaha! These are truly good ones. But still the cheesiest of the cheese (not the dream-campiness, which I love, but the truly unintended cheese) are any scene between Ryan and Laura. Oof!
I’m going to come back to the beauty of the setting. It’s one of this show’s strengths. The snow scenes are so gorgeous. Speaking of, Ryan looks really cute in his Pene-tight duds. Effie giving Elder Florence the equivalent of a locker-room towel snap with the quilt is priceless. But in the dream where she kills Elder Florence, the latter isn’t asleep. Calling script supervisor/continuity!
E: I’m not gonna lie; I was digging him in that too.
K: Ryan to Laura: “The less you know, the better.” Oof. This episode turns much more strictly around power, and these themes are the most interesting thing about it. The Reverend acts because his authority is being challenged, with others seeing the deaths as attached to him in some way, and raising a “furor” in his words, “claiming witchcraft.” Ryan’s interview with him is interesting, the secular son trying to convince the god-fearing cultist of the very real presence of the supernatural power of evil. Ryan in this interview raises the specter (haha) of power in terms of Effie’s interests in marrying the Reverend, and suggests (like the brethren, in a way) that his power might be under threat. The Reverend response as men with power do— with accusations, denial, and attempts to downplay the crisis.
Plot hole: have six months really passed since the death of the Rev.’s last betrothed? That is, has Ryan really been here six months? Or is expedience the rule here?
E: That one I do think they explained; it had been six months since the first murder, but the other elders were like: “Fuck that rule; get thou married already.” Although WHY anyone would say yes after 3 other women died is beyond me.
K: Totally. The dream sequences really are deliciously campy and fun. I guess this is the first time we get to see what happens when two manipulative dreamers lie under the quilt, and the Reverend’s true colors come out. (Note that he wakes up far from the marriage bed, with his hand in his crotch.) The scenario is interesting because he turns on Effie (turning on him) in the dream, but her death could be his undoing rather than his release, since suspicion will turn further to him.
The Reverend walks under a ladder when Inquisitor Holmes arrives. Guess his faith doesn’t extend to superstition. (Side Note: Holmes’s carriage driver is kinda hot.)
Kudos for Laura (such a bad actress) storming away from Ryan and having to straddle a fence to get away. Not even a door to slam. Painful acting from her in the following scene, and the writing, too: “I’ll write you every day.” (Wouldn’t that be even more painful than just saying goodbye?) “Do not forget thy hat. … something to remember me by.” Like, she’s not super-upset that he’s leaving. Buh-bye, Felicia!
E: Right? And in the final shot he’s got the hat on his lap like he’s in seventh grade. Maybe that was what woke him up, all surprised?
K: Interesting in a potentially homophobic (?) way that when the dream involves two men, it isn’t shown. (Men are never campy.) The Reverend’s dream’s effect is shown on the inquisitor, and his attempt to dream Ryan out of existence is all outward action.
E: Right? I would have LOVED to have seen that dream; I’m imagining Holmes in a deerstalker and some foggy London streets. (I mean, is it always the 18th-century banquet, or is that Effie’s kink?)
K: Hahaha! True. Or, since this is the Reverend's dream-gig, I picture it looking something like the Claude Frollo "Hellfire" musical number in Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame. And Holmes just gets burned up in the Rev's flaming spew. (Hot)
E: DUDE. YES.
K: Sometimes fun, sometimes excruciating … this one leaves me feeling a bit yanked (not that erotically) in two directions.
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.