WARNING!: This week, we invite you to behold an unfortunate double feature of two of the absolute worst episodes of the entire series, one an innocuous dud and one that courts outrage. Come along with us as we discuss ...
Season 2, Episode 7: “Wax Magic” (William Fruet, director; Carl Binder, writer)
We interrupt Season Two’s winning streak with the thud of Lizzie Borden’s waxen axe.
Watch the FULL EPISODE below.
The Goods: This will be brief. “See Jack the Ripper! See Bluebeard …!” The opening speaker/barker loudspeaker tags masculine monsters—one real, one mythical—who targeted women in their violence. This makes it all the more curious that Micki is “away for the weekend till Monday.” And it should have informed the episode’s treatment of a man who captures a woman to make her both his slave and his death-servant. To no avail.
The Cheese: This won’t be brief.
Regarding the opening: Yes, we know what a carnival looks like. A quick set of establishing shots would have been just fine. But this sequence looks like a music video for the Huey Lewis knockoff song that underscores it. It’s not hip to be THAT square.
E: What? You weren’t rockin’ to such deathless lyrics as “deep in the heart of a Midwest night”? K: I grew up deep in the heart of a Midwest night, and I do not approve.
This episode is pretty overstuffed with ideas. I was expecting that the victims of the w/ax(e) murderer would become wax figures themselves (though even this isn’t clearly explained in the end), but Marie’s sudden clairvoyance when she wipes the blood off of the death-bringer’s cloak adds an extra angle. We learn later that it’s Marie (sort of) who is the murderer, puppeted by her husband-captor-creator. Yet we also learn that the cloaked figure is Lizzie Borden in wax. If I thought the initial mention of Jack the Ripper and Bluebeard were a subtle cue to the episode’s thematic concerns, I guess I was giving the writing more credit that it is due.
At the crime scene, within which the cops unbelievably let Ryan wander around, Ryan finds a wax finger and removes it (!), saying it’s a quarter when asked by one of the cops. Impossibly, they let him. Wouldn’t someone trying to remove anything from a crime scene be suspected as the murderer or an accomplice? This moment feeds into one of the series’ continually absurd suspensions of disbelief— that multiple murders occur and the police are, variously: not called, oblivious, or flatly and hilariously ineffective.
The backstory of the curse is so convoluted I can’t even summarize it two seconds after hearing it. We’ve got Madame Marie Toussaud of wax museum fame making a death mask of King Louis, escaping the French Revolution; the handkerchief is payment for the mask (?) and so it takes on power to turn whomever it’s placed onto into a beheader (because Louis was beheaded), and so the wax museum curator at the carnival tucks it into the lapel of the Lizzie Borden wax figure, so that there will be a natural fit for the killer. This is all so stupid that I didn’t even rewind it to listen again to the details. Because I don’t care if I get them right. Because I’m never going to think about this episode again after this post.
Biggest understatement of the series so far goes to Jack, who tells Ryan: “You have to stop becoming so soft-hearted when it comes to a pretty face.” He’s right, though I’d add: “obsessive and sociopathic” to “soft-hearted.” From now on, I’m going to refer to Ryan’s stalkery horniness with, “Oh, look, Ryan’s got a soft heart on.”
E: LOVE IT.
Ryan stops the w/ax(e) murderer by melting her in an earlier scene, which I liked. And of course she follows suit with her melty self-immolation: “It was the only way, Ryan. The only way.” The coolest thing about the episode is watching her melt away. It actually manages to be disturbing in a way that this episode never achieves elsewhere. Wax notes that writer Carl Binder was disappointed in the episode, particularly that the wax museum wasn’t creepy enough. He’s right— the wax museum itself looks about as menacing or uncanny as a bunch of mannequin displays of knockoff fashion at JC Penney (RIP). No, I take that back … JC Penney displays are/were much creepier. The entire episode fails on this note. It takes place at a nighttime carnival, for shit’s sake. It’s convoluted and ridiculous in all the wrong ways. Here I am, kicking into Roger Ebert mode again, but if an episode has as much potential subtext as this one has going for it, and squanders every bit of it at every turn, it could at the very least just be a creepy mood piece. It’s got nothing going for it except that carnival setting that it forgets to use. A total, unforgivable stinker.
Erin’s thoughts (before reading yours): Well, that was certainly an episode.
There is a whole thing that could have been done with this setting, of the ways in which carnivals are viewed by “townies” and how townies (“rubes”) are viewed by the tight-knit community of a carnival. Instead, like the wax museum itself, it was all stage-dressing. It was easy to twig to the fact that there was some type of Pygmalion situation going on, although I will admit that I wasn’t immediately aware that it was Marie as the Lizzie.
And poor Marie. Once AGAIN we’ve got creepy asshole using magic to control women, but Aldwin dialed this up to eleven and managed to embody every incel trait one can imagine. But almost nobody comes out great in this episode, from Jack saying it’s a “domestic” issue to Ryan Ryan-ing whenever a pretty girl comes along. (Kudos to the unseen Sally for ditching him.) The only decent and relatable character in the episode was Danny (and thank you Ft13th: TS for not making the little person the criminal in this one), and of course he gets killed. GRRR.
K: Just wait till the next one. Oof.
What else didn’t work? Almost nothing worked, from my point of view. Louis’s hanky? Madame Tussaud? OK, we’ve got wax and the hanky, but how exactly is that supposed to bring wax to life? And how did Aldwin get a hold of it? And the police letting Ryan traipse across the crime scene (which, weirdly, had no blood?). The slo-mo fight? (Although, Ryan gets points for the fire idea.)
The melty bit at the end was fairly effective, although it went on a bit too long for comfort. Which might have actually been the point.
BLARGH. What a hot mess this episode was.
Season 2, Episode 8: “Read My Lips” (Francis Delia, director; Peter Lauterman, Angelo Stea, writers)
In which Kris and Erin slog through the worst, arguably most misogynistic (and ableist) episode of the entire series.
Watch the FULL EPISODE below.
The Goods: There is one—and only one—good one-liner in an episode that should have been full of them: ventriloquist dummy Oscar to promoter Bernie as he’s stabbing him: “Keep it, Bernie. It’s your cut.”
The Cheese: I wish there were some cheese to offset this episode’s vicious misogyny, its total lack of awareness of anything, and its near-total lack of humor.
The Verdict: The episode’s logic and tone are completely off, and suspension of disbelief is stretched to an all-time, gossamer thinness. The indecisive tone begins early. Just after the opening routine with Edgar Van Horne and his ventriloquist dummy Oscar, something is really off (and off-putting). The Oscar routines aren’t funny, and the second routine where Micki joins her friend at a show is the wrong kind of uncomfortable. It’s unclear how these routines would draw any audience. Vulgar and “inappropriate” humor is a delicate balance— if you’re going to be offensive, you have to be funny and also suggest that you understand you’re being offensive, and be clear why. I understand that Oscar is an entity all to himself, but the scenes of his misogynistic comments aren’t balanced with anything to give the sense that the writers don’t share it. The episode is the apex (or nadir) of the show’s misogyny, in the sense that it’s seemingly both the underlining theme of the narrative and the force that drives the episode. Here is a case in point, from Alyse Wax’s Curious Goods book (and I read the following passage in the Wax book after I wrote the above thoughts):
Although [director Francis] Delia didn’t write the script, he made the decision to make Oscar the dummy a misogynist. “I thought it would add a fun dimension to that half of the story. Edgar is very dedicated to his lovely, much younger fiancee, but any time he has the dummy on his lap, the dummy is shooting nasty wisecracks at her. To this day, I still think it’s funny because psychologically, this guy is talking out of two sides of his mouth. For reasons that don’t really need to be explained, when he is talking to his fiancee through the dummy, he’s letting out the side of him that really, perhaps, has issues with women. The rest of the time, he is this very dedicated, caring fiance.” (Wax 2015, 214, emphasis added).
When I read this passage, my jaw dropped, and I’m not sure I can say much else about the “for reasons that don’t really need to be explained” line. I mean, this guy directed a lot of the show’s episodes. Misogyny becomes a “fun dimension” to complement a narrative. Fuck this guy.
E: What the hell does that even mean? What a dick. (Also, he apparently directed a porn film called Nightdreams, described in IMDB as: “In an experiment, a pair of scientists use electric jolts to induce a sleeping woman to have erotic dreams” which seems very on-brand for what we’ve seen so far. Weirdly, Nightdreams stars “Dorothy LeMay,” who apparently is no relation to John.) K: Hahahaha! :-/
Also, Oscar or no Oscar, why is Micki’s friend “crazy about” Edgar? He treats her like total shit and has no charisma—and there isn’t even a sense that either of these things were any different in the times before Oscar. Case in point: Edgar brings Oscar to his wedding. The actor playing him does do “crazy” well, however; the scene with him strapped to a gurney in an attic room and startling Ryan with his crazed speech is pretty juicy. John D. LeMay doesn’t seem to be performing his startled reactions as much as just having them.
E: “Crazed” and “creepy” are Billy Drago specialties, believe me.
At about three-quarters of the way through the episode, suddenly Oscar is no longer a dummy, but a little man in makeup? Have I missed some subtle information about the length of time wearing the boutonniere bringing someone back to life? While I find this shift to dummy-fleshiness way more effective than the endless dummy scenes—and the devilishly inappropriate “little man cam” that hues closely to Oscar as he stalks his potential victims in the finale is certainly uncomfortable fun—it’s another sign of this episode being a total mess. Hey, let’s add ableism to our mix of marginalization!
E: It just occurred to me that Oscar biting Edgar at the bachelor party was probably their idea of foreshadowing.
And, for perhaps the final outrage … I’m not sure what to think of Jack’s collection of Nazi paraphernalia (is he really leaving Micki and Ryan to find cursed objects while he is in … Florida? … collecting Nazi stuff?). The idea of Nazi occult experimentation having something to do with Oscar’s inhabited or possessed body—and thus a pink silk boutonniere that Hitler wore to be immortal—is patently ridiculous and as the logic behind a cursed object is about as tenuous as the John Wilkes Booth makeup kit in “Master of Disguise.” [The idea of associating Florida with Nazism is, however, not ridiculous.] Also, my feeling is, if you’re going to dredge up the Nazis’ occult interests (or, frankly, the Nazis at all) in a TV horror show, have the decency to build the intricacies of that history into the episode’s logic or themes somehow. The cursed object here might as well have been a pair of underwear Hitler wore. Or that John Wilkes Booth wore, for that matter.
Sins: Sloth (the dummy does most of the work). And Greed. And Being a Shitty Episode—not necessarily in that order.
Erin’s Thoughts (before reading yours): Wow. That was PAINFUL. Putting aside the fact that ventriloquist dummies kind of freak me out, there was so much wrong in this episode I don’t even know where to begin? With the misogynistic “humor”? With the horrible “rap”, compounded by the camera cutting to an African-American woman in the audience who is attempting to laugh? The lack of any foreshadowing or build up to the reason for the killing until the last act of the episode? Billy Drago’s scenery chewing? (Seriously, that should have been on his business card; you want scenery chewed by a guy who does “creepy” better than anyone in the business, call Billy Drago! Well, actually, you can’t anymore, ‘cause he died. But my point stands.) That the first killing we see is the black guy? The fact that almost every guy in the episode is a misogynistic asshole? Going to the “little people are evil” well again, and the weird-ass tracking/running shot of Oscar at the end? K: I feel serious shame for finding this last aspect twisted and inventively funny. I am a horrible person.
Also, if you’re going with the Don Rickles schtick and nobody makes a “how to get a head in show business” joke upon discovering the agent’s head in the freezer, I feel cheated. K: Totally.
Nobody’s behavior or motivations make any sense in this episode. Oscar wants to be human, but there is literally nothing human-looking about him until nearly the end. Micki wants to get involved with what’s going on with Gabrielle, then she doesn’t, then she does again. Ryan takes Jack’s troubling line from the previous episode of suggesting obvious domestic violence isn’t worth bringing the police in before saying they need to investigate it.. Finally, is that supposed to be a hospital Edgar’s locked up in, or did someone just stick him in a random attic?
K: I thought the attic looked kind of like the undressed set of a shitty 80s sitcom about “middle-class” people living in an area of, say, San Francisco that no middle-class person could ever afford. You know, like Full House or something. E: That’s hilariously accurate; and weirdly, something I talked about in my PhD thesis! K: Legit.
Sins: This whole episode is a sin. It makes “Bottle of Dreams” look like an Emmy contender.
K: Haha, for sure. I do think this is one of the minority entries in the sloth category. Unintentionally so for the writing and directing. This one is like Season One bad for sure.
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.