Season 3, Episode 11: “Year of the Monkey” (Rodney Charters, director; R. Scott Gemmill, writer)
The series displays its usual cultural sensitivity in an episode that borrows heavily from King Lear.
KRIS'S THOUGHTS: This conventional story of a generations-old family curse (not the usual type of curse for this series) has a lot going for it, at least initially: It’s a combination of fairy tale, turning on lessons of greed and honor (and pride); it recalls (and I’m not kidding) King Lear with its ailing (kind of ancient) Japanese father testing his children’s honor and honesty with a set of Monkey statues “brought from the underworld to challenge man’s virtue”; and it has Tia Carrere, who isn’t any better an actress than I remember her being.
Erin: Oh, you magnificent bastard! The Lear stuff was right there and I didn’t pick up on it. This English major hangs her head in shame.
K: We’re not always looking for the same things!
We later learn that the monkey trio, fashioned in the see, hear, and speak no evil mold has granted a kind of eternal life to their possessor, largely because he hasn’t found a single child among his children in many generations who is worthy enough to take on his financial “empire” (a word he uses). Thus, the explanation by one character that “The monkeys allow him to live long, if only he sacrifices his family to them.”Carrere’s Michiko, his only daughter this time around, proves worthy, but she impales herself rather than kill her father.
With Jack, Micki, and Johnny canvassing different parts of the world to pursue the children who possess the objects as a way of testing them (and all this just to get their hands on one of Vendredi’s actual cursed objects), the goals of this episode feel a bit fuzzy. The three kids, two of them total greedy dicks, and the third a pretty cool woman who prefers suicide to standing up to a father who— let’s face it— has killed generations of his offspring (were they all that awful?) probably should have been the focus here, but there’s yet another narrative related to the family’s backstory about thwarted love that isn’t very compelling.
It’s too bad, really, as the originating concept of a cursed object from another tradition could have been a nice variation on Lewis’s “I sold my soul to Satan” version. Even Wax is prompted to do a little digging into the origins of the three monkeys (2015, 398). Otherwise, she’s all logic questions, which this episode definitely begs. It’s filler for me—not good, yet not really bad enough for me to make a “see no evil episodes” joke.
E: Right? It’s in that special “meh” category. For some of these there is a distinct feeling that if they’d given the scripts just one more edit, it could have been much better. It’s the sense of not trying hard enough that bugs me.
ERIN'S THOUGHTS (before reading yours): I am always wary when a white show, with white directors and writers, sets their stories in another culture. I am not well versed enough in Japanese culture to know exactly how far off their portrayal of samurai culture was, but I’m pretty sure the three monkeys (and their powers) was wholly an invention of the show. And the “Year of the Monkey”? What is that supposed to mean, especially since (yes, I looked it up), 1990 was the Year of the Rat. It’s one of those: “Hey, let’s find some vaguely Asian thing and use that!”
Also, how does Tanaka (Japanese) have two children who are Chinese (hi, Tommy from “The Tattoo”!; hey, it’s Cassandra from “Wayne’s World!”) and one who is Filipino?
So, there was an interesting thread throughout the episode, of the father sacrificing his children for his own power that could have been far more resonant than it actually ended up being. Mushashi, too, was one of the first (and maybe only) person throughout the series who didn’t either disbelieve the Curious Goods team immediately, or ignore, or lie, but actually asked a really vital question: “Why should I believe you?” in response to Jack’s insistence that they were not gathering the cursed objects for evil. There is actually no good reason to think that they are trustworthy.
K: Yes, that was a good moment!
E: Finally, the monkeys go in the vault, rather than being returned to the temple they were stolen from? Oy. Is it really that hard to get these things right?
Feh. Not loving this episode, I must say.
Season 3, Episode 12: “Epitaph for a Lonely Soul” (R. Allan Kroeker, director; Carl Binder, writer)
A cogent take on toxic entitlement, featuring a necrophiliac mortician—an episode both of us were surprised even aired.
KRIS’S THOUGHTS: A number of the episodes of Friday the 13th: The Series have titles that don’t quite fit the subject matter (“Wedding in Black” [2.21] among them), but none so much as this misnomer, whose titular mortician Eli, while lonely, is about the least sympathetic cursed object user in the series.
We open on a portrait of a forebear, here Neville Morton, founder of Morton Mortuaries, but the episode will turn on the actions of Eli, a solitary mortician whose loneliness, we learn, will make him susceptible to a cursed mortician’s aspirator, of which he comes into possession accidentally.
Erin: Was it accidental? It did seem as if he was subtly drawn to it when he saw it in the back of his fellow mortician’s van.
K: Maybe I meant coincidentally? Serendipitously? Certainly not fortuitously?
The exchange between the driver of the death van that brings in a new “client” for Eli, along with the aspirator, which was apparently used to murder someone (either I’m not clear on these details, or the episode isn’t) is classic, offering the perhaps expected crass commentary of two men who deal in death as a business: “Just a kid. Motorcycle accident. It’s gonna take plenty of cedar and wax.”
Eli initially seems sympathetic. As he begins work on the motorcycle victim, he remarks: “The mysteries of life, the universe … now, you know everything. Don’t you?” He then pops on some classical music and digs in. But, later, doubts as to whether this guy is a kind, thoughtful metaphysical ponderer who sees his job as a fine art, are confirmed by his decision to reanimate the 25 year-old dead wife of one of his clients because “All my life I’ve been alone, waiting for someone like you. Our destinies brought us together.”
With so much to do in a 45-minute episode—getting Jack and Micki onto the scene as our intrepid investigators being primary among them—there’s no way the script could follow through on the perverse and disturbing implications of its main scenario. But what’s there is provocative enough. Eli’s resurrection of his new “bride” Lisa (the first of two in the episode) results initially in a kind of a living doll, a reanimated body with no will and no memory that doesn’t know what it’s doing, even when it embraces him. Eli consummates his new relationship with Lisa (whom he renames “Deborah”) in this state, the shades of abduction, rape and necrophilia disturbingly upfront in his actions. Will she spend the rest of the episode prone to the manipulations of perhaps the show’s most perverse cursed object user? No, in fact. She will regain some memory, recognize fiancee Steve just before Eli kills him and reduces him to ash, and ultimately decide to die in flames as the mortuary burns down. The moment alludes back to James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935), with Karloff’s monster intoning “We belong dead.” It’s no surprise that the moment will recall a classic Universal horror film, since director Binder’s script for a previous episode, “Symphony in B#” (2.5), evokes Phantom of the Opera and the later independent horror classic Deathmaster (1972). The Glenview Mortuary over which Eli presides is also a castle-like building left in ruins in the end.
E: Ooh, star this! Clearly this is an element of Binder’s work!
K: Totally. He’s one of the series’ best writers (and he also directs an episode or two).]
The Curious / Goods:
*The show airs in 1990, but again the date reads a year earlier. A sign of production context.
*As Eli raises his second “bride” to a seated position on the gurney, her bones crackle.
*There is a continual balance between the gruesome reality of death and the fragility of the body, and the spiritual accouterments we heap onto these things to deny them in the effort to find closure. The mortuary’s chapel with its open casket and artfully displayed body feeds into a corridor of clinical whiteness that connects the chapel to both the embalming room and the apartment where Eli lives. The fine separation between where we live and where we die is collapsed together here into a single space.
*In the climactic scene, we have three women victims, and Micki manages to coax the newly resurrected second “bride” to release her from her constraints. Micki is able to save herself but not the two others, who, again, “belong dead.”
*Director Kroeker notes that the effect of the aspirator plunging into the bodies of the living and dead in the episode had to be censored because one of the sponsors, an unnamed car company, requested cuts (in Wax 2015, 404).
Interviewed for the Wax book, director Kroeker notes that the episode is “all about the destructive folly of control” (403). Um, okay. It’s also one of the more “aware” evocations of that control relating to white male privilege. Here, the position of power over life and death, and the rights to a woman’s body, are all centered in Eli’s (and, if we include the cursed object itself, Uncle Lewis’s) horrendous acts. There is one last detail that fits this notion as well— that the cursed aspirator was ‘rumored’ to have been used first by mortician Nevill Morton himself, possibly to kill his own wife.
E: Bringing in his work on “Ariel” would be really relevant here, as that episode revolves all around the way River’s body/brain was invaded/changed for the Alliance/Blue Sun to control her.
K: Interesting. I just took a look at Kroeker’s work, and he did Dollhouse and Supernatural, and a bunch of other stuff, as well.
This one may crack the top 25 for me.
ERIN’S THOUGHTS (before reading yours): I did not expect to like this one as much as I ended up doing so. With the title, and the start of the episode, it seemed as if the episode was pushing sympathy for Eli. And yet, it really didn’t. If they’d wanted to garner sympathy, there are any number of tricks they could have employed: a brief flashback of a lost love, or a tragic accident (a la “Badge of Honor”). Instead, Eli comes off as super creepy from the start, with the possessive way he touched Lisa’s corpse. (Steve seemed put off by it in that first scene; as if Eli was grossing him out in a way he couldn’t quite define.)
K: My cursor will battle your cursor for supremacy! Ahahahahaa!
E: It’s Cursor Thunderdome!
E: Eli was grossing ME out in a way that I could totally define.
K: Hahaha. Word. And the way they attempt to recover him from the creepy-ass presentation in the rest of the episode (as you say next) just doesn’t work.]
E: Never mind Micki’s assertion of Eli’s loneliness at the end “driving him mad”; that was, as I mentioned above, way more than the story as seen on screen suggests. I was surprised at how in no way did the episode shy away from the necrophiliac aspects of Eli’s behavior; the scene with Lisa lying corpse-like on the bed as he moved in on her was….yikes. For a Bush-era episode, the portrayals of Eli and Lisa, as well as Micki’s appeal to the newly resurrected Linda, showed a (sadly) surprising awareness of both gender dynamics and the reality of what this really was: a man who couldn’t deal with developing any kind of normal relationships, due to a desire for control.
K: Yes! Smart.
E: Yet, because neither Binder nor Kroeker even really hint at the reasons for it, it allows us to read it as not just Eli’s problem, but maybe a privilege problem. (I mean, how many episodes of this show alone feature men who do horrible things because they feel it’s “owed” them?)
K: Again, we share the same brain.
E: Micki’s “he’s going to abuse you” speech was absolutely on point, and Lisa and Linda embracing in the flames, choosing to be at peace, was moving.
If there’s one aspect that didn’t quite work, it was Micki and Jack’s stubborn insistence that Steve was imagining things in his grief. (This may have been plausible in season one, but not at this juncture.) And yet it also kind of did work, because in an episode about control and gender, they basically “well, actually”-ed him. Steve’s “Don’t apologize for me,” was an interesting combo of Micki both dismissing Steve’s concerns/feelings and deferring to Eli.
Finally, Allan Kroeker is actually a familiar director to me. Not only did he direct a number of Forever Knight episodes, but “Ariel” from Firefly, “True Believer” from Dollhouse, and “Faith” from season one of Supernatural. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to watch those eps again and see if there is a signature style….
K: I’d be into that. ;-) OH! I just realized that Kroeker also directed “The Long Road Home” (3.15). That’s a good one!
E: Ooh, and it occurs to me that not only “Ariel” is about control, but also SPN’s “Faith” (a preacher’s wife controls a Reaper to give her husband healing powers and punish those she thinks are “sinful”) and DH’s “True Believer” is about a religious cult.
This is definitely a top 20 episode for me.
K: I do like it, and I am easily convinced on this one. I think that what might bump it out of the top 20 for me (if there isn’t room) is how much it’s trying to do, and the sense that it feels a bit overstuffed. The implications in the script are so large, it feels weird to not have them more fully, excessively explored. And then again, this is commercial TV, and we are at the mercy of the sponsors.]
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.