Season 1, Episode 2: “The Poison Pen” (Timothy Bond, director; Durnford King, writer) (airdate: October 10, 1987)
In which Gossip Girl meets Sister [well, Brother] Act, complete with flying guillotine blades!
The Goods: The series settles into what will become its season one formula: starting the episode with the individual in possession of, or about to take possession of, one of Uncle Lewis’s cursed objects. The first of two series episodes devoted to cursed writing utensils (the second will be season three’s “Mightier Than the Sword” [3.10]), “Poison Pen” starts with the monks of “The Eternal Brotherhood” debating the potential sale of their building; the abbot who opposes the sale ends up taking a literal flying leap as a mysterious hand writes his fate as a portentous prediction. Is the monk in question psychic, or does he cause these things to happen? (Spoiler alert: It’s the latter, powered by a cursed fountain pen used by a criminal posing as a monk.) Micki and Ryan go undercover as monks to retrieve the object—though between Micki’s looking like a supermodel in a cassock, and Ryan’s incessant wisecracking, it’s difficult to believe even the dumbest of the brotherhood would buy into their ruse.
The Sins: The first of many many entries into the “Greed” category. Lust also plays a part.
The Cheese: Besides Micki and Ryan dressed as monks, that is … This episode also has both flying guillotine blades and flying abbots. / It also has Jack’s questionable ornithological (er, cryptozoological?) opinions: “Giant Chilean Condors: they’re the worst kind!” / Oh, and there’s this bit of dialogue between Jack and Brother Lacroix:
Jack: “I thought you were meditating.”
Lacroix: “But I am … premeditating!”
The Verdict: We're just getting started ...
Erin: Ryan’s wisecracking dialogue and sartorial choices are giving off serious proto-Xander Harris (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) energy. Add to that the continued creepy cousin flirting, but this time overshadowed by creepy monks...especially Brother Drake’s spying on Micki as she showered, with a close-up on his eye. Psycho homage? Also, I have to call out the pervy directorial choice for the camera to linger on Micki in her underwear. My guess is that it was being played (somewhat) for humor, but it went on a bit longer than necessary.
Kristopher: Well, we are at the tail-end of the Slasher cycle, so lingering on Robey’s model form is I suppose both a prerequisite and (possibly?) the series making an in-joke (as you suggest) towards such prerequisites. Let’s hope! The Psycho homage is for sure, also in the episode’s gleeful (sinful?) humor. Brother Lecroix struts around like a Diva. He reminds me of a combination of Lost in Space’s (1965) fey Dr. Zachary Smith, and equally fey villain Jafar in Disney’s later Aladdin (1992). I love the moment when he momentarily guffaws when he finds out the real Brothers Simon and Matthew were killed due to his curse! He also has my vote for best line, with the “premeditating” bit (see “The Cheese” above).
E: Cloistered Catholic communities also offer a reliable, Gothic creep factor (see: The Name of the Rose ); note the flagellating monk in the background as Micki and Ryan walk down the hall in their first monastery scene. But, “The Eternal Brotherhood”? Speaking as a lapsed Catholic, that’s not the way monasteries are named. That, and the opening shot crow, made me think they were secretly vampires.
K: Interesting thought. (And I like crows.) The whole brotherhood here felt very cultish, it’s true. They also weren’t very observant. Micki looks nothing like a boy, and Ryan’s gee-whiz Xanderisms make him stick out like a sore Monk. That being said, I liked Marshak’s line that things could’ve been worse while he glances at a skeleton in the dungeon. Also … this monastery has an effing dungeon! The climactic scene there with Marshak tied down and waiting for the candle to burn through the rope that activates the guillotine is pure Poe (a la “The Pit and the Pendulum” ). The intertextuality here is very much of the horror genre; the mystery-quest scenario is also right out of Poe, but the allusiveness to other horror tropes (your point about vampires, for example) keeps this show original. I’m really enjoying it.
E: Practical effects employed were very effective in this episode, especially the bed-crushing scene. Flying abbott and soaring guillotine blade, not so much. Points for trying, though.
K: I also noticed Timothy Bond’s direction. His use of camera movement is extensive; his camera is nearly always shifting and tracking. He directed nine episodes of the series. I’ll keep my eye on this, as it might be interesting to see what individual directorial styles are at play here. Canadian director William Fruet (who directed ten episodes in total) is the director of The House by the Lake (1976), Funeral Home (1980), and most famously, Spasms (1983). He also directed episodes of Tales from the Darkside (1983-88), the 1980s reboot of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1985-89)and Poltergeist: The Legacy (1996-99). This point just trails off into nowhere, but the point is, this series seems to have nurtured or attracted some significant talent behind the camera.
E: I’m enjoying the anti-capitalist thread thus far; greed/lust for power drove Uncle Lewis’s deal...which is tied to commerce. Rupert Seldon and his partner—both criminals before, it seems—hide out as monks, and make the Church complicit in everything that follows. (Nice axe-ing, pervy Brother Drake!) That’s two stories in which greed is the primary motivator.
K: Yes! Greed and real estate. It’s funny, my head is perpetually in Scooby-Doo mode, because one of my initial notes was, “Like Scooby-Doo, the episode turns on a real estate deal.”
Season 1, Episode 3: “Cupid’s Quiver” (Atom Egoyan, director; Stephen Katz, writer) (airdate: October 17, 1987)
In which incels can be traced back to 15th century Italy.
The Goods: A series of murders occur connected to a seriously ugly cupid statue that ends up in a frat house. (Like, seriously ugly: it looks like Freddy Krueger with a bow and arrow.) Maintenance man Eddie Munroe steals the statue, and once he figures out what it can do, goes full Phantom of the Opera on the girl he’s obsessed with.
The Cheese: Ryan continues to be weird about cousin Micki.
The Sins: The episode would want us to say Lust, but really Wrath is the sin at play here.
Kristopher: The backstory around the Cupid of Malek (1453 Italy) is a kind of ugly duckling tale, but also a tale of misogyny—the would-be lover is first a serial killer of women, and then one of a group of “college guys.” “They must fancy themselves as loverboys or something,” says one character. Next shot is through the crosshairs of a camera lens. In the case of stalker Eddie Munroe, the camera isolates the woman’s body parts as Eddie’s eyes would. I like this. It’s not the camera (aka the series’ perspective) ogling Micki’s bum in underpants. Here, it’s a particular gaze motivated by character that we get to inhabit. The series often puts us right up next to the perspective of unsavoury characters, challenging our allegiances in ways that divert viewers to other aspects of the episode, including cinematography and script. The viewers have to figure out not only where their allegiance lies, but just what it is about the scenario that attracts them. Eddie, it turns out, is not a Sigma Delta Chi member, though he wears one of their shirts. The setup is stacked in almost allegorical proportions, like a kind of fable.
Erin: My notes basically say: “Oh, it’s about incels!” While I could write for hours about the dodgy way “love” is defined throughout the episode, I was pleasantly surprised that neither the camera nor the dialogue seemed to suggest the viewer should sympathize with Eddie (or the bar patron at the beginning).
K: On an interesting note of generic tropes that other series will pick up, Micki and Ryan pose as cops in this episode, a la the much later Supernatural. Also, yes, “love” isn’t really the object here. The men in the episode in possession of the statue don’t want to date these women; they want to consume them, to destroy them. This makes it all the more delicious that our resident elder Jack Marshak spikes the frat party’s punch bowl with sodium pentathol—like, he totally roofies the frat boys!
E: Micki also gets the great line, in response to Ryan’s “he’s got a serious problem”: “Not as serious as hers.” The bar is low, but not bad for the era.
K: Eddie takes a girl at a bar to a place that he calls “a beautiful spot, lots of lovely flowers.” Again, love here is violent. It’s about not just possessing but entirely consuming the beloved. Like Nick Cave’s song, “Where the Wild Roses Grow,” this is the kind of mythical, idyllic place of death where a person destroys a lover so that no one else can have them. As soon as the pursuit in both cases is over and the woman says, “I love you,” the next move is to destroy them. As he watches his date being stung to death, Eddie mimes “I love you” into the truck window and draws a heart on the window. Chilling. By the show’s rules so far, the cursed object will only, ultimately, perform or serve evil; the cupid falls only into the hands of killers, or perhaps draws only them. This series “rule” will change and be compromised in later seasons/episodes.
E: I think even here the narrative leaves it open as to whether those affected will kill regardless, or if the cursed object brings violence out of them, a la “Billy” from Angel (1999-2004). And like “Billy,” why is the effect only on men? I’m not trying to make a gender parity argument here, just think it would be interesting if the episode had explored a man using it, and a woman using it for the same reason.
K: Yes, and as we’ll realize with more episodes under our belts, this series misses (or intentionally skirts [haha, no pun intended]) many such opportunities. The chase scene between Ryan and Eddie, for example, misses the chance to have Eddie “sting” Ryan with the cupid, thereby bringing him under Eddie’s power. But I’m sure the suggestion of homosexuality was probably too much for even a syndicated show in the late 80s. Too bad. Cool post-industrial space for the climactic set piece, with the two guys chasing each other around a kind of steely web, like monkeys.
E: It would have been fascinating to see that dynamic; still, if my recollection of 80s-era North American TV serves me, would have been followed by a chest-pounding assertion of masculinity that would be embarrassing to watch.
K: "No homo,” I guess. Also, have I mentioned that I’m not really a big fan of this episode’s ‘Canadian darling’ director, Atom Egoyan? There, we mentioned his name in the writeup.
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.