Season 1, Episode 6: “The Great Montarro” (Richard Friedman, director; Durnford King, writer) (7 November, 1987)
The series goes all The Prestige in the cut-throat magic community.
The Curious Goods team investigates some deaths at a magician competition, with Jack reliving his magician past by going undercover as “Mad Marshak.”
The Cheese: The concept of a magicians’ convention/blood sport has the cheese built in.
The Sins: Pride makes another appearance.
Kristopher: Carrying forward the thin backstory of Marshak’s ties to magic, and deepening it a bit with the fact that he was a magician-performer, this episode has a lot of fun with the type of signposting so familiar to audiences of the Grand-Guignol (shout-out to the work of Mario DeGiglio-Bellemare). Twice, we see the terror-mechanics of the (Houdon?) box skewer a “victim” whose success would have depended on another victim being sacrificed to maintain what the audience thinks is an illusion.
Erin: I’m not certain how common this type of story is, but Julie Siege, who wrote for seasons 4 and 5 of Supernatural, seems to have (intentionally or not) straight-up borrowed this storyline for “Criss Angel is a Douchebag.” (Enchanted tarot cards instead of the Houdin box [ha] but the same result.)
Plus, in “Poison Pen” (1.2, see earlier post), you mentioned Jack at the table with the rope/candle/imminent death scene, making a fun tie-in with this episode.
K: I found this episode a bit light, but I like how the magician’s box literalizes the entire series’ punishment of transgressive (sinful) behaviour: here, pride, I guess. The possession of the box turns people with ugly motivations into even uglier figures—grotesques, even. And both the sense of victim/sacrifice and victimizer collapse (no pun intended) into the symbol of the punishing box.
E: It was a bit light, but so was the tone, which was refreshing. The cast seems to be easing into their roles and interactions with each other and neither the tone nor the mise-en-scene was as gloomy as some of the other episodes. Although, weirdly? Bloodier.
K: The show seems to be developing a kind of fun, consistent doubling motif across episodes: here, Micki and Marshak as assistant and magician (and daughter and father) parallel Montarro and his daughter. Some curiosities: there is another small person in this episode, which makes much more sense in the context of the more carnival atmosphere; the mulleted assistant to Fahteem the Magnificent appearing later in drag is an odd choice; and, speaking of odd choices (and bad hair), what is up with Micki’s stuck-my-finger-in-a-light-socket hairdo? The 80s, I guess.
E: Give me a Chicago summer, and my hair looks like that naturally. Another doubling: names: eg, “Fahteem the Magnificent” vs. “Harvey Ringwald the Sleazebag.” Also, Harvey’s appropriation of a mish-mash of Arabic stereotypes but also the coffin’s “life for life” power. Oh, and the struggling magician (with a similar body type) subbing in for Jack. (Poor guy; nobody cared when they found out it wasn’t Jack.) Finally, Lyla as “The Great Montarro” instead of as the long-suffering daughter she appeared to be. As for the drag; the emcee guy calls it an identity crisis, but because he was also dressed like “Fahteem” in the beginning, I thought it was just another costume.
K: I liked that this episode was kind of a locked-room mystery, playing out almost entirely either onstage, backstage, or somewhere in the theatre with a limited cast of character with whom we become familiar. It’s the world of magic eating itself.
E: For $100,000, no less. That’s depressing.
K: I always think I won’t have much to say about an individual episode (especially the last two), and then I do!
Season 1, Episode 7: “Doctor Jack” (Richard Friedman, director; Marc Scott Zicree, writer) (14 November, 1987)
In which the “Jack” in question is not in fact the reincarnation of Jack the Ripper.
The Goods: Bad medicine, in which Dr. Howlett rebuilds his dodgy reputation with the help of a cursed scalpel that takes a life to save a life.
The Cheese: Canada’s favorite specialty store: Jim’s Knives, in which it’s all knives, all the time. / Hospital security is a joke. / As is the show’s spell-checking department
Sins: Pride is getting quite a workout during these mid-season episodes. Envy also plays a part.
Kristopher: Marc Scott Zicree is the author of The Twilight Zone Companion, which is a pretty great resource. I had no idea he had such a TV writing pedigree, and he’s also written three novels. This episode opens so well, in shadowy streets with a backlit monster figure, but then devolves into a ludicrous tale of opportunism. So many elements were laughable, from the shop called “Jim’s Knives” to the doctors trying to revive a patient in the corridor when Ryan and Micki enter, to the gun-toting, fanatical, bereaved mother seeking vengeance for the death of her daughter. Of course, she’s kept in the hospital rather than taken to the police. Of course, Marshak has access to her for questioning with no supervision. Of course (?) she manages to break free and get the gun back. What!? Did they keep it with her belongings in the “Patient’s belongings” cupboard?
Erin: At first glance, I thought it was something to do with Jack again; perhaps he’d impersonate a doctor. There was a lot of dumb in the episode, as you so clearly state above. The weird bit is, with Jack out of the picture for most of the episode, Micki and Ryan actually do smart things: Micki (easily) tricks Knife Guy, Ryan tricks Howlett by leaving on the morgue drawers ajar, and the last (cheesy effects) bit with Micki electrocuting Howlett was not a bad plan.
K: There’s also the newspaper article she carries with her in her purse/archive of evidence; the article carries the headline: “Death Stocks the Halls.” Not “Stalks”? Is this a spelling error, or a clever play on words (as in Death “stocks” the halls of the hospital with bodies)?
E: My eyes nearly rolled out of my head on that one. Maybe Death just wanted to be helpful to a struggling hospital. You know, provide PPE, make sure the equipment is sterilized, restock the cupboards.
K: And, seriously, a cursed scalpel? Um. :-/ The Jack the Ripper connection doesn’t work here, as it does, say, in the Star Trek episode “Wolf in the Fold” (OS 2.14), which carries forward the issue of toxic masculinity and misogyny. There’s a great One Step Beyond episode that makes good use of the Ripper theme, as well. It’s a horror staple to revisit this case. But here, it is wasted. Beyond the Ripper’s being believe to be a surgeon, the facts don’t parallel well. The Ripper’s targets were women, and he seemed to have targeted them because they were sex workers, or possibly just conveniently “invisible” to society. But he didn’t slice their throats as Marshak says; he gutted them surgically, with a focus on their female-identifying parts. This is mainly where the episode fails for me. There is a mother and daughter backstory, and the daughter wanted to be a surgeon—why not tailor this to the misogyny theme of the Ripper cases? Instead, we have Marshak put in peril, which could have been a clever twist in another context, but not with the Ripper element in play.
E: Agreed. I’m not sure what it was about 1987-1988, but there was more than one Ripper-inspired media. (I watched “Jack’s Back,” but to be fair, mostly for James Spader.) Also not successful; it’s such a rich text you’d think even a merely competent writer could do something with it.
K: This becomes another locked room scenario, but not as effectively as the previous episode. I do like the horror touch of the medical theatre, with students and/or colleagues observing a live surgical lecture on several occasions. Howlett hopes arrogantly that his “miracle” working can “regild this somewhat tarnished institution,” another backstory that goes nowhere, but could have considering the lurid crimes of the Ripper. Marshak: “he just loves the limelight” and is “turning the medical profession into a three-ring circus.” Cool, but again, more could have been made of the circus of blood he’s creating behind the scenes.
E: I wrote “pacing sluggish” in my notes, and I think that’s one of the problems with this episode. Too much time is wasted on long tracking shots, of Howlett staring at randos without actually killing them; the long sequence in the operating room. Plus, the one bit that could make it understandable (he wanted to be a doctor, but sucked at it) is never built on in a significant way. My notes also say: “Music doing too much of the work of building suspense.” Weirdly, I loved the fact that the way Howlett used the scalpel had so much Wile E. Coyote to it.
K: I’m not sure, but this seems the first time someone has put the cursed objects in the particular way that Micki does when she refers to “the upside and the downside of the curse” — aka the scalpel cures miraculously at the price of other lives. It seems to adequately describe the series’ premise.
E: Agreed; definitely seems to sum up the overall thematics. And, speaking of which: this episode is the first time someone says, “We’re his family” (Ryan about Jack).
K: I suspect I sound like Roger Ebert here (or, worse, Gene Siskel), but this one was a fail for me.
E: Yeah, it was a bit of a dud. To put it mildly.
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.