The Forsaken: Dead Dudes in the House (1989)

Pop culture junkies like me usually have some forgotten bit of entertainment stuck in the wastelands of our memory, which we can only remember one scene or a few lines from but cannot recall the title no matter what.

For many years, I was tormented by memories of some movie I caught when I was very young on the USA Network. By the way, this was back in the glorious halcyon days when USA showed quite a lot of b-movies, instead of endless Law & Order: SVU reruns. All I could remember was that it was a haunted house movie with a ghost-zombie-something old lady who went around killing some twentysomethings, but the only scene I could remember was when one of the victims climbed a ladder up to a window and the old lady chopped off his hands while he was dangling from the window sill.

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I wondered if my mind might have just made it up, or conflated two or more different movies, but one day while consulting the Google oracle I found the movie did indeed exist, and it was called…Dead Dudes in the House? …Whaaaaaat?

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If the title makes you imagine amateur rappers fighting off zombies invading a house party while busting rhymes, well, I would have assumed the same. But it turns out my cinematic white whale was one of countless low-budget movies made by people who couldn’t afford a distribution deal and let their movies get snatched up by Troma. For reasons only Toxie knows, it was repackaged as some kind of horror-comedy riff on House Party, even though the movie’s cast is lily white, the only music is when one of the victims-to-be sings some rock song and another whistles “Jimmy Crack Corn”, they aren’t all dudes, the (deliberate) comedy is minimal, and, of course, no one on Troma’s box cover actually appears in the film.

So what kind of blast from the past did I end up with? Well, despite the Troma brand and the sublimely deceptive cover, it’s actually a pretty straightforward if more than slightly odd slasher movie in a haunted house wrapping. This movie’s raison de slaughter is that a guy in his twenties, Mark (Douglas Gibson), has bought an old dilapidated house (yes, kids, there was a mythical time when people in their twenties could afford houses!) and brought a group of his friends to, about two decades before it actually became a term, help him flip it. His pals include…well, let’s face it, even by the standards of slasher movie fodder they suffer from personality deficiency disorder, so I called them Jerk Woman, Jerk Man I, Jerk Man II, Nerdy Man, Nice Man, and Nice Woman.

Jerk Man I proves he is worthy of the title when he needlessly smashes a tombstone near the house’s front door and soon afterward Nice Woman discovers a noose in a tree while the crew finds that the front door is jammed. This inspires some foreshadowy banter (Jerk Man II: “Maybe you woke her up, man!” Jerk Man I: “Maybe [the door] is trying to tell you people something!” Nice Woman: “I’d hate to die by hanging!”) To be fair, Nice Woman is actually killed by an electric saw to the back. Touche, Dead Dudes in the House, touche.

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They quickly find that they have much more to worry about than splinters and 1989’s volatile housing market. The doors and windows have become supernaturally sealed and not only is Mark murdered by a mysterious  old woman, but he came back undead and malevolent. To their credit, the crew quickly work out what’s going on, wasting no time on arbitrary skepticism. They also get points for sticking together (not that it does too much good, since their would-be killer has the power to separate them by causing doors to slam shut and become unbreakable). Unfortunately, Nice Woman loses any and all points for falling for the oldest trick in the book: your undead, corrupted boyfriend, despite showing pretty obviously fatal injuries, requesting a hug just before you can go get help.

Also Two Dumb Teenagers from the surrounding rural area enter the mix, for no reason other than they were bored and decided to break into the local haunted house (to be fair, given that I am from a rural area myself, I can testify that, yes, teenagers do get that bored). They too get no points for apparently thinking it’s a good idea to go directly to the source of the singing in a house that should be completely abandoned and engage the strange woman in a casual conversation. No, sorry, I don’t care if she was willing to show her breasts!

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Thanks to the requisite newspaper clipping they stumble across, the gang learns the nature of their tormentor. Forty years ago, an elderly widow named Abigail Leatherby (Douglas Gibson, in what despite the movie’s obscurity should be remembered as one of the greatest dual roles in cinematic history) living with her adult daughter Anna was attacked and viciously stabbed by a home invader. Abigail barely survived, but lost her sanity, and one day murdered a visiting neighbor in the exact same fashion she’d been attacked. A few days later, Abigail died from a heart attack, and Anna buried her on the property before hanging herself. (In one of my favorite touches in the film, Jerk Guy I grins with macabre delight as he hears the saga of Abigail and Anna Leatherby). As is the nature of these films, no explanation as to how poor Abigail Leatherby got borderline godlike powers to terrorize anyone unfortunate to cross her path is forthcoming, but whatever. It’s an elderly woman who can hold her own against Mike Myers and Jason Vorhees! With that kind of a deceptively frail powerhouse working against them, can the surviving fixer-upper crew and Dumb Teenager make it out alive? I won’t spoil it, but I will say you do get an old woman/buff young guy fistfight before the credits roll!

Whenever I talk to people about why I love b-movies and low-budget gems, I try to explain that it’s because they offer some quirky element you won’t likely find in a mainstream production, especially not from the risk-averse and franchise-addicted Hollywood of today. Dead Dudes in the House is a prime example of what I’m talking about. The weirdness of the killer being an old woman (albeit a young guy in heavy makeup) is just the start; instead of being a jokester like so many ’80s killers, she has a wonderfully matter-of-fact approach, with the occasional glimpse of sadistic satisfaction in her hobby.

In fact, this casual exchange between her and one of her victims, Nerdy Guy, where she tries to get him to follow her to his doom, isn’t just my favorite moment in the movie, but would easily rank in the top three in any list of favorite slasher movie scenes.

“Come on.”
“What?”
“It’s your turn.”
“…What do you mean?”
“It’s your turn.”

Okay, the acting is…well, what you’d expect (although for a movie this obscure quite a few members of the cast did go on to have fairly solid careers), and it gets obvious pretty quickly that the crew didn’t have the budget or the know-how for sufficient lighting for the house they were filming in. However, there were some pretty well-paced and downright suspenseful sequences in this film, like Jerk Woman’s gradual discovery of the fate of Mark and Nerdy Guy trying (and failing) desperately to work up the nerve to follow and fight Abigail.

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Granted, the pacing falls back to a snail’s pace in the climax, which really comes across as bloated, especially compared to how well the movie gets down to business in the first two acts. Luckily the film saves some pretty good and gory practical effects for its denouement. Nor are the filmmakers slouches in the creative deaths department.

When I saw this movie as a child, it genuinely freaked me out, even though my precocious self had already been exposed to the oeuvres of Freddy and Jason. I can’t say that Abigail Leatherby stalks me in my dreams now that I am an adult, but honestly I found this lost piece of my youth worth the quest for its rediscovery. It’s just a fun, somewhat off-kilter slasher movie you can catch on YouTube (along with Troma’s other releases) if you got an hour and a half to burn. And while it’s got nothing to do with late ’80s/early ’90s hip-hop, if you got an itch for a slasher flick where the killer is an elderly widow, this will definitely scratch it.

 

Nature’s Fury Blogathon: Birds of Prey, a.k.a. Beaks: The Movie (1987)

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It’s probably no surprise that most low-budget films about nature itself wreaking righteous vengeance upon humanity come with some kind of environmental moral. It’s an easy way to lend some gravitas to a movie from which the audience just wants to get some thrills or, more likely, some bloody deaths caused by otherwise harmless or not so harmless animals. It’s a natural thematic connection, but it’s certainly no coincidence that “killer animal” films as a sub-genre (animalsploitation?) hit its peak in the ‘70s at the exact same time environmental politics first really entered the American public consciousness between the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and the widespread belief that the world was on its way to real Soylent Green-style overpopulation.

This is why I had to check twice to make sure Birds of Prey, a 1987 Mexican-Italian production that was filmed around Latin America, Puerto Rico, and Spain with a few scenes in Rome, didn’t come out ten or so years before its release year. It’s probably even weirder a film that’s such an obvious knock-off of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds came out over twenty years too late. But it makes sense that, given the timespan, Birds of Prey does end up combining its The Birds “inspiration” with the hamfisted environmentalism of ‘70s “killer animals” flicks. Unfortunately, this really just makes Birds of Prey call even more attention to Hitchcock’s own masterpiece than it normally would, since it illuminates all too well one of Hitchcock’s brilliant ideas. Hitchcock never even hints at an explanation why birds across the world have tried to push humanity off the top of the evolutionary hierarchy; they just are. This isn’t really a question over the storytelling challenges of making a “message movie,” but the fact that a threat that spawns from unseen forces, that defies a pat logical explanation, is often more effective,  at least when you have a story where the focus is on everyday characters who just happen to have their lives upended by the threat.

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Instead with Birds of Prey the environmental message is obvious from the first post-credits shot of birds flying around a garbage dump. Only the endless dialogue about climate change from Birdemic may be said to be slightly more obvious. To be fair, there is more to it, sort of; an extended pre-credit sequence that takes place in Machu Picchu where a group of tourists are told by a guide about an Incan legend saying that the souls of the dead will one day return as avenging birds. Later in the movie our protagonist, a journalist named Vanessa, sees a flock of birds after an attack following the trail of smoke and remarks that it’s “almost like they’re following the souls of the dead.” I guess you can interpret all this as an attempt to add some metaphysical ambiguity, even if the environmentalist message remains clear. Or maybe the director just wanted an excuse to put being in Machu Picchu on the budget. Honestly I was kind of surprised that the closing credits had no evidence the film was backed by the tourism bureau of Peru in another Final Justice-esque alliance between a government’s tourism board and a b-movie producer. At any rate, the stuff about Machu Picchu, which hilariously includes a half-serious nod to the idea that the Nazca Lines were made by aliens, has about as much of an impact on the plot as this movie probably had on Peruvian tourism.

Machu Picchu is the film’s most egregious tangent, but not the only one. In its first half the film switches back and forth between its main plot and its subplots with such ADHD-esque speed it almost feels like you’re dealing with one of Roland Emmerich’s sprawling, cast-of-hundreds epics. When the plot does coalesce into something concrete, it turns out it’s about a TV journalist Vanessa (Michelle Johnson) and her boyfriend/co-worker, cameraman Peter (Christopher Atkins). Like any journalist in a movie like this, Vanessa is sick of doing fluff pieces. When she and Peter are sent to cover the story of a poultry farmer who was attacked by his chickens and turkeys and now claims every bird he comes across attacks him. Vanessa “tests” this on air by releasing a canary that has spent its entire life in a cage and the canary scratches the farmer’s cheek. Vanessa and Peter are slightly unnerved, but they soon find stories of bird attacks from across the world are piling up, and soon the Spanish city they’re staying in is about to be hit by a mega-flock of millions of birds. Elsewhere a famous hunter, already disfigured by a bird attack, picks a really bad time to host an outdoor party for his granddaughter, a group of teenagers choose an equally bad time to spend the day at the beach, and a bickering family on vacation decide on…well, you get the idea.

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Even the main plot helps give the movie its disjointed feel, as the first half of the movie just follows Veronica and Peter as they slowly catch on to the growing aviary crisis. Most of these scenes just push the subtext into text into supertext (thanks, The Simpsons). First, before they learn that birds have been going on a rampage, they do a fluff piece on a marksman who can shoot pigeons. Even in professional journalist mode, Vanessa can barely hide her disgust and Peter is shocked when the marksman tells him he does it for pleasure. Of course, it puts a damper on the animal rights, anti-hunting-just-for-pleasure message when you realize that the film is using real footage of pigeons being shot. I rather hope the footage wasn’t made just for this film, although I have to admit the idea of a movie with a strong environmentalist message pulling a Cannibal Holocaust tugs at my black, shriveled little heart. If that wasn’t clear enough, Vanessa and Peter also interview survivors of a bird attack on a Spanish village thirty years ago and together they muse that that the birds are defending their “natural ecological balance” which can be restored but not if “the contamination has gone too far.” Needless to say, once they’ve given their message, the characters never show up again. Preacherus Ex Machina!

If the unsubtle, plot-stopping politics of this movie already turns you off, dear reader, the weird lack of avian mayhem will likely seal the deal. After literally kicking things off with one half of a hanggliding couple having his eye torn out and then sent plummeting to his death by a hawk, the movie opts instead for slow, arty shots of flocks of birds imposed on people, especially a long and completely inexplicable series of shots of a little boy standing in a park among pigeons. Even when the movie sets up a teenage couple on a beach the results are mostly bloodless except for when we get to see the aftermath. This is probably the first time I’ve ever seen a b-movie be coy about showing nubile teens getting slaughtered.

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Also it doesn’t help that this movie has just about as many assholes in it as your typical Internet comments section. Peter is such a louse (although played with a frat boyish sincerity by Christopher Atkins) you can’t help but wonder why he and Vanessa are dating. He even openly reads porn while Vanessa is in the shower (this also sets up one of the most gloriously contrived and unashamed female full-frontal nudity shots I’ve ever seen, which given what I usually watch is really saying something and which suggests that actress Michelle Johnson may have had a no-nudity clause). Most of the family’s dialogue is bickering, even between the family’s prepubescent son and daughter. Vanessa, the grandfather, and his adult daughter come across the only likeable if vaguely defined characters, but even there you’ll be wondering why Vanessa, when the inhabitants of the Spanish town flee the incoming bird assault in a train, seems to have more authority than even the town mayor! Maybe in some parts of the world being a journalist does give you executive authority.

It’s really only the second half where the movie picks up and feels like the foreign imitation of The Birds you were expecting, when the director finally jettisons the environmentalist messaging (for the most part) and the long mood-setting shots. The best part of this entire sequence isn’t the desperate train ride out of the doomed Spanish town which is the film’s real climax, but the subplot where birds terrorize a daughter’s birthday party, forcing the survivors indoors. Of course, it’s not a coincidence that this is also the part of the movie most heavily cribbed from The Birds, right down to the chimney being the means for the birds to launch a home invasion.

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Unlike Hitchcock’s film, which ended on a note as ambiguous as the cause of the bird attacks itself, Birds of Prey does end with the bird-human war mysteriously stopping and a solemn broadcast from Vanessa herself in which she speculates on the causes. It turns out that Vanessa is spot on about it being a “warning”because while an obscure Bible verse flashes across the screen we see it’s the insects’ turn to revolt against humanity! Well, maybe. It’s all kind of muddled, especially if you’re still trying to make all that stuff about the birds being reincarnated from the souls of the dead and the Incans fit. All I can say is that in terms of pure fun Birds of Prey is no Birdemic, but at least it’s not The Birds II: Land’s End.

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The Forsaken: Eunice (1982)

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Although I have plenty of elitist moments, I truly do think American audiences have more of a taste for darker, more biting material than studio executives routinely give them credit for. This is why I always find it depressing when something gets watered down for the sake of marketability. A borderline tragic example is what happened with The Carol Burnett Show‘s wildly popular “The Family” skits about the Harper clan from small town America, particularly the tortured (and torturing) relationship between unhappy housewife and frustrated aspiring actress Eunice (played by Carol Burnett) and her domineering mother Thelma (Vicki Lawrence). Like much great comedy the skits had humor mixed with just a hint of tragedy, like this skit where a game of “Sorry!” hilariously exposes the epic resentments just bubbling inside Eunice’s psyche. And again, like many popular comedic characters, Eunice is not terribly sympathetic, but that’s exactly what makes Eunice understandable. Above all, speaking as someone who grew up in rural America, the skits were deftly authentic. I doubt I’m the only one who felt that way; the characters of Eunice and Thelma became so popular, in fact, that they showed up in character on The Gong Show and Password.

So the sitcom follow-up, Mama’s Family, was inevitable. It debuted in 1983, but only lasted one season. However, a somewhat revamped version would be brought back for syndication in 1986, this time lasting four years. There’s much to be said about how Mama’s Family was a declawed successor to “The Family”, but perhaps the most revealing change was that the heavily-implied-to-be-gay son and successful writer Philip (originally played by Malcolm McDowell and then Ken Berry) was rewritten to be a straight good ol’ boy, Vinton. At least it’s to Ken Berry’s credit that he was able to pull off both personas well. However, the change closest to the spirit of the original skits was that Thelma Harper was transformed from a belittling, hostile matriarch into yet another tough-elderly-person-with-a-heart-of-gold. Because Carol Burnett declined to be a regular, Eunice, except for a few cameos, became an off-screen presence, who in the show’s syndicated run was just known for dumping her juvenile delinquent son Bubba off on Thelma.

Now the show wasn’t terrible, if only mostly because Vicki Lawrence’s portrayal of even a more cliched and less bitter and manipulative Mama Harper was still so memorable. But it did not make its mark on the landscape like, say, Golden Girls (which happened to snatch up Betty White and Rue McCallahan, who were involved with the pre-sydnication Mama’s Family). I have no doubt that it is because it simply lost most of that satirical and unflinching perspective on working-class, rural family life that made the original skits such a hit.

Of course, I don’t blame the makers for any of this. As I’ve said many times many ways, the Reagan era was not a good period to look for sitcoms with an edge. All things considered, shows like Small Wonder and Full House still made Mama’s Family on its better days look like an uncompromising commentary on American mores (well, maybe not the episode where the Harper clan ends up in Hawaii…).  Still, it’s hard not to mourn for what might have been, especially when you’ve watched the now forgotten spin-off TV movie, Eunice, which managed to take the darker undercurrents behind “The Family”  and bring them even closer to the surface.

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At the least, the TV movie’s plot is definitely something that wouldn’t have made it in Mama’s Family. The story follows the life of Eunice, who dreams of becoming an actress. Her brother Philip also has grand ambitions of becoming a writer. Philip seizes a chance to crash with a friend in Queens right after graduating from college, despite the protests of his mother Thelma who was instead counting on him being satisfied with a reporter job at the local paper. Eunice stays behind, hoping to making her start in the local community theater. Instead she marries a hardware store clerk, Ed Higgins (Harvey Korman), who wasn’t her first choice for a boyfriend, much less husband.

In New York, Philip becomes a successful novelist and screenwriter, eventually relocating to Los Angeles and enjoying national fame. However, the more successful he becomes, the more alienated he is from his uneducated family, who can’t even bring themselves to really comprehend much less discuss his literary accomplishments (or him being gay, for that matter, although it’s never quite spelled out; this was 1982, after all!). Meanwhile Eunice resigns herself to a life of envy and desperation, especially once Ed leaves her for a younger woman, her son Bubba runs away and disappears for good except for one painful phone call to Eunice, and her other son Billy is arrested for some unnamed crime and incarcerated. Eunice takes a job as a cashier at a dime store, but her real career is living with and taking care of Thelma. It’s even implied that Eunice has become an alcoholic, or at least is well on her way to becoming one (which was one of the darker if easily overlooked elements to “The Family”).

The day of her mother’s funeral, Eunice gets into a fight with her uptight, richly-married sister Ellen (Betty White), which causes Eunice to break down in grief. After Ellen leaves, she tries to also lash out at Philip, but the normally softspoken Philip has a breakdown of his own, and finally screams at Eunice that no one has ever stopped her from trying to be an actress but herself. In words that any creative who feels held back by the people in their life should take to heart: “And if you really want to be an actress, take a chance! Stick your neck out! Get off your butt and do it!” But in the end will Eunice finally break away from her own self-loathing and her self-imposed obligations and try to live the life she’s always wanted?

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This is all pretty heavy stuff for characters that started out as part of a comedy skit. Indeed, even by today’s standards, you’d be hard pressed to find outside literature a story that suggests that maybe, just maybe, for some people fulfillment can’t be found in family life and in compromising hard on their ambitions. Nor does the movie, unlike Mama’s Family, offer any nice, pat, sitcom-friendly characterizations. Eunice is indeed selfish and self-absorbed to the point of narcissism, but her struggles and frustrations still ring all too true. Thelma Harper like her later sitcom incarnation truly loves her family, and if her husband’s brief appearance in the movie and the dialogue about him are any indication was for all intents and purposes a single mother. However, her idea of “maternal support” includes none too passively aggressively slapping down any desire or ambition she deems unrealistic or which will take her children away from her sight, from her son’s decision to move away from their hometown to her daughter just wanting to try to date an athletic and academically successful classmate. Even Philip, while easily the most conventionally likeable character, is suggested to have not tried too hard to bridge the widening gap between him and his family created by his education and success.

Really, it’s at a point where Eunice is almost more of a dramatic character study than a comedy, which I imagine probably put off some fans of the skits. The jokes are fewer and the ones that are there are overall more subtle. Rather than the rip-roaring, facial expression-fueled screaming matches between Eunice and Thelma, there’s quieter character gags peppered in the dialogue, like:

Thelma: Anybody want coffee?
Philip: Not me, Mama. Caffeine doesn’t seem to agree with me.
Thelma: Well, good God, what next? I hope you haven’t gotten any other crazy ideas since you were here last.

Even something that looks like it’s just an extended jokethe tragic fate of Eunice’s beloved pet rabbit, Fluffyends up pushing Eunice to total devastation over her mother’s death in a disarmingly brilliant bit of acting from Carol Burnett. It’s one of those great moments in TV history where the studio audience is unsure whether or not to laugh.

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There are quite a few great subtle character moments too, like Eunice nearly repeating her mother’s harsh words to her when answering a phone call from her prodigal son Bubba. Or Philip’s ever diminishing attempts to communicate with his mother and sister until he finally storms off to visit a (supposed) old boyfriend.

I might be biased in really enjoying this movie and wishing it had more of a place in the cultural memory. For one thing I’ve been a big fan of Carol Burnett for as long as I can remember; for another I perhaps relate a bit too well to Eunice, for reasons I won’t get into (but people who know me will perhaps be able to call me on right away). Still, I do think most people, especially those who have enjoyed the original skits, should head over to YouTube and watch it.

After all, there is at least a little Eunice Harper Higgins in all of us, especially those of us who are frustrated creatives.

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Yes, This Really Happened: The Ghostbusters Fought the Cenobites (Sort Of)

If you were expecting me to talk about a certain controversy over a certain upcoming remake, where both sides are either First Amendment-hating radical feminists or raving misogynists nauseated by just the thought of women starring in a franchise film (at least that’s the impression I’m getting from Twitter), then you don’t know this blog! Rather than talking about the pointless Internet pop culture controversy of this five minutes, I’m much more interested in writing about the time another new “progressive” Ghostbusters team fought the Cenobites from Clive Barker’s Hellraisersort of.

deadliners3This is probably the closest you’ll ever come to the Cenobites officially sharing the screen with a Disney logo, by the way.

The episode in question, “Deadliners”, was in Extreme Ghostbusters, a sequel series to the hit Real Ghostbusters animated series, where a semi-retired Egon mentors a group of college students who have been recruited into becoming a new Ghostbusters team. The group itself was a sort of time capsule into the PC concerns of the late ’90s. There’s Eduardo, a snarky Latino; Kylie, a genius goth girl; Roland, who’s black and “does machines”; and Garrett, an athletic paraplegic. Of course, as is so often the case when a team of creatives try too hard to be sensitive, there are visible cracks in the PC edifice. In this case, the one Latino on the team just happens to also be the team slacker, and the black guy is still the one who does not have much of a role except the guy who drives the car, despite being established as the team techie. It’s perhaps not all that surprising that only Kylie, the one out of the team who feels like a fully fleshed-out character not conceived of by some committee, has made the most appearances out of this team in spin-off comic book media.

Honestly, although I’ve watched at least half the show’s run over the years, I’ve never warmed up to it like I have Real Ghostbusters. Don’t get me wrong; it’s objectively true that this show is a huge step up from what Real Ghostbusters became after it got its notorious makeover from a studio-mandated team of children’s entertainment “experts.” Also it holds up better than you’d assume a show called Extreme Ghostbusters would today. It has a personality apart from its predecessor, doesn’t really try to just copy-and-paste the original characters (even Kylie, who serves much the same function on the team as Egon, never comes across as just Young Fem Egon, at least in the sense that she doesn’t seem to have some quirky personality disorder), and even the show’s art style is one of the better examples of the manga influenced-style that was so popular in the era.

The show also had a darker edge than what the Real Ghostbusters had even in its classic phase. As we’ll see, it didn’t hesitate to have nasty, downright morbid things happen to innocents. Of course, the show also often blunted its own edge. For instance (again, as we’ll see), whatever mayhem and horrors the ghosts inflict on civilians would always get reversed by he end of the episode. I suppose there was no way around it, and in the ’90s it was something of a miracle that a Saturday morning cartoon could be this out and proud with its horror elements. It does make for some pretty inconsistent tones, though, which, well…you guessed it, we’ll see.

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Okay, I’ll finally get to it. The episode “Deadliners” kicks off with some poor kid who works in a diner being restrainedthrough intestinal-looking ropes, no lesswhile the trio of hideously disfigured beings, later referred to as the Vathek, prepare for surgery. Not only does the audience get a bit of a view  of a pan of torture devices, but we get a shot of hooks and chains that totally makes the Hellraiser influence plain.

They even kind of get the motives of the Cenobites right. I mean, obviously they can’t mention the idea from the original movie and the novella it’s based on, The Hellbound Heart, that the Cenobites experiment with the extremes of pleasure and pain and as a result are sought out by hedonists. But we do get this:

“Flesh. To our specimen a suit of skin.”

“To us, sculpting clay.”

“A blank canvas promising infinite aesthetic possibility.”

It’s not the same, but there’s still the same sense of the Vathek acting as extreme artists and explorers in human experience (just in physical appearance instead of sensation) and, depending on how you look at it, also preserving the idea that they think they’re doing their victims some kind of favor. And this is all capped off by the audience losing sight of the Vathek and their victim, hearing only a scream.

You can almost hear the censors snoring.

Much to my own disappointment, though, the opening was the most Clive Barker-y thing in this episode. We get to the Extreme Ghostbusters, who are engaged in the kind of lighthearted bickering which was more interesting if you were a kid in the ’90s and remembered the bland friendliness most protagonists had with each other in ’70s and ’80s cartoons, but which now as an adult makes you wonder if these people just secretly loathe each other.

They’re watching a news report about J.M. Kline, who had mysteriously disappeared for months. Obviously it’s meant to invoke R.L. Stein, especially because the TV reporter refers to him more than once as a “children’s author.” I think the screenwriter was still trying to slip more Clive Barker references past the goalie, especially because we see that the covers of J.M. Kline’s books look like this.

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Can you imagine a book like that making it to kids’ hands past the moral guardians who freaked out over Goosebumps and even just Harry Potter?

While the Ghostbusters talk about Klein, it comes out that Eduardo is a fan and Garrett is an aspiring horror writer, enamored not of the craft but the potential Stephen King-esque fame. Because Garrett is so arrogant, though, his latest story is just Mary Sue fic of Twilight proportions. I do understand why they wanted the one handicapped character to be confident and even a jock, but at least in the episodes I’ve seen it’s less confidence and more being a narcissistic ass.

Naturally it quickly turns out that the news report ties in with their latest assignment, the disappearance of the waiter and ghost sightings around a rural diner and bed-and-breakfast, both of which happen to be near Klein’s mansion. At the bed-and-breakfast Ghostbusters encounter not just the Vathek, but their deformed victims. The Ghostbusters’ proton beams do seemingly destroy the Vathek, but they can quickly and effortlessly rematerialize, so the Ghostbusters barely manage to hold their own, much less save the bed-and-breakfast staff and guests and Roland from being captured by the Vathek.

Kylie is able to connect the dots, thanks to Eduardo recognizing the Vathek from one of Klein’s books, and finds out that the Vathek are entities who have to use a writer and thier work as a conduit to appear in the material world (just imagine the Vathek channeling themselves through Fifty Shades of Grey). With Kylie’s requisite diagnosis out of the way, the remaining Ghostbusters take the fight to Klein’s mansion. There they manage to rescue Roland and find that Klein himself is also a prisoner, literally chained to a desk to write a new book whose completion will end with the Vathek permanently manifested in reality.

Although he is busy being a jackass, to the point that he almost turns his proton pack on one of the Vathek’s converted human victims even though it doesn’t pose any direct threat, Garrett does figure out that the Vathek can be defeated by taking over Klein’s writing. In a genuinely funny twist (un-twist?), Garrett is too crappy a writer to come up with a way for the Vathek to be logically neutralized, so Eduardo simply destroys Klein’s typewriter and manuscript with a proton beam, banishing the Vathek from Earth. All the Vathek’s victims revert to normal (boo!) and Klein writes a new bestseller about his encounter with the Ghostbusters, describing Garrett as the “loudmouth guy in the wheelchair.”

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It’s hard to judge the episode without getting stuck on the Hellraiser-esque intro, which managed to feel more faithful to its inspiration than some of the later sequels in the Hellraiser series! But once you’re past the intro, the novelty isn’t quite as stark. The designs of the Vathekand some of their victimsare still grotesque, and the unseen horror of what the Vathek exactly do to their victims is effective, but you do wind up on more familiar, if slightly darker than normal, late ’90s Saturday morning cartoon territory.

As I mentioned above, though, this was an issue with the show in general. Real Ghostbusterspre-executive meddling, anywaydid a better job of balancing its darker elements with the overall lighthearted core of the show. This was true even when the show tapped into the bleak universe of H.P. Lovecraft, at least until Cthulhu was shown to have one hell of a grudge against Coney Island. It’s still an entertaining episode from a slightly-above-average animated series of the time, but things like the Vathek’s victims acting completely normal after the Vathek are banished despite basically being mutilated and brainwashed is a bit too jarring, at least to an adult viewer.

If you’re still not satisfied, you know someone out there is hammering out a War & Peace-length Pinhead versus the original Ghostbusters fan fic epic, if they haven’t already!

R.I.P. Stefano DiMera (1982-2016)

As my first real post I defended daytime soap operas and bemoaned their slow decline into extinction in the United States. Perhaps neatly but unintentionally proving my own point about the entire genre being culturally blacklisted, I haven’t talked much about them since, even though I genuinely, honestly do still watch General Hospital.

How’s that for an out-of-the-closet moment?

Although I haven’t really seen an episode since college, I am still fond of Days of Our Lives, even after the show became a barely coherent parody of itself in the ’90s thanks to notorious head writer James E. Reilly, who is probably known even outside the soap fanbase, if not by name, for doing the Exorcist rip-off storyline on Days and then starting the so-surreal-it-should-have-been-performance-art soap Passions. Since his regime, the show has sort of snapped back to offering that brew of romance and domestic and medical drama and gloriously but somewhat reasonably implausible adventures all surviving American soaps more or less offer. As of this writing, and in spite of my own grim predictions, the show is still puttering along, even though as I understand it the budget has still been sliced so thin Days’ fictional city of Salem is down to maybe five sets.

Anyway, it came to my attention that this year the show’s greatest—and for many years since his first appearance in 1982 core—villain Stefano DiMera was killed off for good, after many resurrections and fake-outs. I know what you’re thinking, but sadly this one will stick. The actor who has played Stefano from the start (except for one very brief and inconsequential appearance where he was played by another actor), Joe Mascolo, suffered a stroke that left him wheelchair bound. So the show made the decision to give the character an epic send-off, where he basically commits suicide through the “goading a grieving, vengeful archenemy” method, mocking his archenemy Hope Brady over the death of her husband.

Why was said archenemy vengeful? Ironically it was for the one crime Stefano didn’t commit, the abduction and torture of her husband Bo who died from an untreated brain tumor.

stefano3As you could probably guess from the name, Stefano DiMera started out as a crimelord, one thinly disguised as a suave, cultured international businessman and who loved opera (before you cry stereotype, though, keep in mind that it’s probably not a coincidence that in real life Joe Mascolo is an opera buff). He first arrived in the sleepy Midwest city of Salem at the behest of his son Tony (who in soap opera fashion turned out to really be the son of Stefano’s gardener who had an affair with Stefano’s wife Daphne, which let Tony pursue a relationship with Stefano’s biological daughter Renee without worrying about the “i” word, since Renee was the daughter of one of Stefano’s mistresses, but that’s another story). From there, he made Salem the new base of his quasi-illegal operations, until he was shut down by local cop Roman Brady. Supposedly Stefano then died of a heart attack, but of course that didn’t happen, and instead it set up one of those feuds between a working-class family and a billionaire dynasty that can only happen in soap operas.

Well, okay, later in the ’00s it was “revealed” that Stefano knew about Roman and the Brady family all the time. The vendetta started way back in interwar Ireland when a nun from the Brady family had a torrid affair with Stefano’s father, a traveling salesman. The family shame drove her to fake her death (because soap opera, of course) and his grief turned Stefano’s dad from a loving into an abusive father, which drove Stefano into a lifelong crusade to become rich and powerful enough to screw with a working/lower-middle class Irish-American family for revenge. And you thought DC’s and Marvel’s retcons were shameless.

Call me a purist, but honestly I prefer the old origin, where Stefano just became fixated on Roman Brady and by extension his family because he (and his wife, Days uber-diva Marlena) were two of the few people who ever bested him. There’s a beautiful simplicity in that.

Oh, and also, the son of that nun and Stefano’s father became John Black, another of Stefano’s victims and archenemies. Except that got retconned. Maybe. Except we never find out who that kid was. John Black has had, like, eight different origin stories. I want to keep this obituary less lengthy than War & Peace so let’s move on.

stefano2As convoluted as his history and motivations became, there was actually something simplistic yet operatic behind Stefano, thanks in no small part to Joe Mascolo’s performance which combined Old World bombast with low-key menace. As a character, Stefano had the dedication to the famiglia you would expect from an old-school Italian villain. Maybe too much dedication, given that he had three wives and at least seven mistresses, along with nine children (two of whom were adopted from the family of one of his own murder victims, natch). Sadly all his children had a habit of ending up evil and/or insane and/or dead, despite and often because of Stefano being the original helicopter parent (sure, your dad might pay to have your car fixed even in your 30s, but would he arrange to have a pregnant lookalike pretend to be you because in your paranoia you think your husband will leave you for his believed-dead but suddenly returned love-of-his-life the minute he finds out you miscarried and thus discovering he has no parental obligations to you and your baby? No? Didn’t think so).

Of course, the various teams of writers who worked on the show didn’t plan over the course of decades for the DiMera brood to all have tragic fates. But it did get remarked upon within the show’s universe, and ended up being one of those happy accidental themes you get when you have a fictional universe with many architects. A loving, generous father whose own idea of love is so twisted that it ends up destroying everyone around him despite the sincerity and depth of his feelings? That kind of thing, if you can forgive me for being so obvious, puts the opera in “soap opera.”

stefano6 But really what made Stefano so much fun was that, like modern soap operas themselves, a messy but glorious hodgepodge of genres. He started out as a mob boss with a crooked corporate magnate shell, but then became an international terrorist, a political powerbroker, and a gothic supervillain whose habit of returning from the dead (Wikipedia even has a list of all the times he beat the Reaper!) had a supernatural edge. After all, he liked to call himself the Phoenix and claimed that he was immortal because, by being the seventh son of a seventh son, he fulfilled some old family legend. If you think I’m exaggerating with “supervillain”, consider that he had an island populated with pink-uniformed Amazonian henchwomen.

Keep in mind this was long before James E. Reilly made Days of our Lives “weird.”

stefano5But, despite traditionally color-coding his minions, Stefano was actually quite progressive. After all, in one of his plots to get close to Marlena to abduct her two children to “replace” his dead daughters Renee and Megan, he had no qualms with disguising himself as an old woman, “Mrs. Lafferty.” In other words, he was an evil Mrs. Doubtfire long before the movie!

stefano4But what obituary of a crimelord/terrorist/mastermind/tycoon/supervillain would be complete without a list of his greatest hits?

°   Arranged to have his sociopathic nephew Andre receive plastic surgery that made him the lookalike of his estranged thought-to-have-been son Tony, then kidnapped and imprisoned Tony so that Andre, pretending to be Tony, could start a serial killing spree that Roman would be framed for (to save himself from being discovered, Andre did also kill Stefano’s own daughter, Renee, for which Stefano left Andre for dead. Of course, this didn’t stop them from working together again years down the line. See, Stefano does have a forgiving soul!)
°   Planted a bomb at Salem’s opera house set to go off during a performance, killing the city’s top citizens in one swoop, all for revenge against an entire city.
°   Faked the death of cop Hope Brady and brainwashed her into taking on the identity of a dead associate/lover of his, a member of a European royal family who moonlighted as an art thief.
°   Was involved in not one, but two men becoming brainwashed and shopped around as assassins for hire.
°   Filled a hospital with poison gas to hold all the staff and patients hostage and forced the hospital’s chief of staff to give him a kidney transplant from an unwilling patient, the aforementioned John Black.

And he did all of this with flair, a smile, and a hearty laugh. I’ve written before about how I tend to sympathize more with villains and outcasts than with heroes, but, damn, if Stefano didn’t make evil look like a lot of fun, even if it rarely worked out for him.

And Joe, the odds are extremely good that you’ll never read this, but I sincerely hope you have a long and comfortable retirement.

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Doctor Who – The Seeds of Death (1969)

seedsofdeathIn the late 21st century, the dominant mode of transportation is the transmat, which allows the instantaneous teleportation of all people and objects to anywhere on Earth or Earth’s moon bases. However, the main relay station for the transmat station on the moon is attacked and taken over by Ice Warriors, unbeknownst to the transmat operations crew on Earth. The director of the relay station manages to sabotage the transmat equipment before one of the Ice Warriors kills him. Threatening the surviving technicians, the Ice Warriors try to force them to jury-rig a way to Earth.

Meanwhile the TARDIS lands at a space exploration museum. The Doctor plays a recording about transmat technology but is rudely interrupted by a man with a gun, Professor Eldred, the owner of the museum. Eldred is bitterly skeptical that anyone has any interest in his museum; since transmats became widespread, public interest and funding in space travel dried up. Eldred is getting his chance to shine, though, since the head of the transmat operations center, Commander Radnor, and his assistant, Gia Kelly, know Eldred has been secretly working on a rocket and need it to investigate what’s gone wrong on the moon. The matter becomes even more urgent when one of the technicians on the moon managed to get a vague warning back to Earth and ends up killed by an Ice Warrior for his trouble. Unfortunately, there are no trained astronauts available. Jamie suggests using the TARDIS, but Zoe points out it could overshoot by a “few million years.” So the Doctor volunteers to pilot the rocket himself.

One of the technicians, Fibbs, escapes and finds a safe place to hide, but the other surviving technician, Fewsham, complies with the Ice Warriors by rigging up a way to temporarily repair the transmat system. Kelly takes the opportunity to take the transmat up to the moon to finish repairs, believing Fewsham’s claims that the station director went on a rampage. In another part of the base, Fibbs manages to kill one of the Ice Warriors with concentrated solar power, although this also has the effect of messing up the one way for Eldred’s rocket to hone in on the relay station. Luckily Fibbs gets in touch with the Doctor through an emergency broadcast and helps him safely land the rocket. Unfortunately, soon after arrival Zoe finds that the rocket still got too damaged to travel back to Earth and the Doctor is captured by the Ice Warriors.

Since their already harsh and limited habitat on Mars is dying, the Ice Warriors plan to use the transmat to teleport pods around the Earth containing a Martian fungus that will absorb oxygen and “martiaform” the Earth, killing Earth life while making the planet habitable for Martian life. On Earth, the pods manage to start affecting the climate and causing the deaths of humans, even as the shut down of the transmat system starts causing social chaos. Back on the moon, Zoe succeeds, at the cost of Fibbs’ life, in sneaking through some maintenance corridors to the main control room, where she cranks up the heat, murdering all the Ice Warriors in the station.

The Doctor, Jamie, Zoe, and Kelly return to Earth via transmat, but Fewsham tricks them into leaving without him. Experimenting on the fungus, the Doctor discovers it’s vulnerable to water. Jamie and Zoe go to a weather control station to have rain made to combat the fungus, but an Ice Warrior has already been there to kill the sole technician and sabotage the control panel. In a broadcast to Earth, Fewsham manages to trick the Ice Warriors into giving away the homage signal of an invasion fleet from Mars on route to Earth, sacrificing his life. Finding out that an Ice Warrior was spotted near the radio station, the Doctor rushes over there to help Jamie and Zoe. Designing a makeshift weapon with a solar energy device, the Doctor destroys the Ice Warrior and fixes the weather control station.

Armed with a fake homing signal designed by Kelly, the Doctor returns to the moon and confronts the remaining Ice Warriors. Although the Ice Warriors figure out his plans, the Doctor tricks them into thinking they’ve thwarted him at the last minute, when in reality the fleet has already fallen for the fake signal and gets drawn fatally close to the sun. Jamie appears via transmat and helps the Doctor dispatch the last remaining Ice Warriors. Back on Earth, as Eldred and Kelly get into a heated debate over reviving rocket technology, the Doctor and company slip away.

Our Future History

Good news! By at latest the last decades of the 21st century, solar power will be commonplace, weather control technology will be perfected (at least to the extent that rain can be generated), and the hassles of airplane travel will be a thing of the past because everyone will be using instantaneous teleporters. The bad news is that the technology of transmats seems to have created a society that’s so complacent space exploration is basically non-existent and that it can’t function without the transmats because apparently no other forms of transportation are readily available.

Continuity Notes

This series introduces Doctor Who‘s answer to Star Trek‘s transporters: transmats or “t-mats” as they’re mostly called here.

It’s strongly implied, but not spelt out, that Ice Warrior society, or at least their army, operates on a caste system with different ranks wearing different armor. Also by the 21st century the Ice Warrior species is dying out, reducing their numbers so much that despite having superior military technology they can’t just conquer Earth through brute force. This rather puts the Doctor sending an entire fleet of them hurtling into the sun in a darker light, especially if you’re use to the new series and its (occasionally) more pacifist interpretation of the Doctor…

Comments

The Second Doctor battles his true archenemy: foam!

I kid, sort of, but really this is a prime example of how old-school Doctor Who made the most out of so little. The actors playing the Ice Warriors visibly have a hard time getting around in their costumes, and there’s plenty of scenes of the Doctor and random security agents solemnly fighting their way through soapy foam, which originates from “pods” that are obviously balloons. And yet, unless those elements are insurmountable for you (in which case, you really shouldn’t be watching ’60s Doctor Who), there are genuinely thrilling moments to be had here, like Fibbs’ escape or whether or not Fawbsham’s heroic turn will lead to his doom. Doctor Who had long made it clear even by this point that anyone not on the TARDIS crew can die (and on rare occasions not even then!), but I don’t think any previous series exploited that to such good effect.

Plus this series seems to break the mold when it comes to characterization. Even the better Second Doctor serials tended to draw from the same pool of stock characters (i.e., the hardcase authority figure who cracks up when faced with an unprecedented crisis), but here we have a cowardly man who believably becomes willing to commit to a heroic sacrifice, a heroic man who at one point suffers a debilitating panic attack that almost derails Zoe’s plans, and a woman who is dedicated to her career but never slips into cliched “soulless professional woman” or “strong independent woman” territory. But I particularly liked Professor Eldred, a man genuinely in love with rocket technology but extremely and understandably embittered by how society has abandoned it for transmats. The idea of society becoming too dependent on a form of technology was probably not an original theme even in 1969, but a disillusioned scientist whose passion has been tossed away by society was a unique angle to approach it with. Even if it’s not entirely believable that society would ignore all other forms of transportation (after all, we still have transcontinental trains in spite of the option of air travel), there is something all too relateable to Eldred’s rage over dedicating himself to a field of knowledge that the wider culture has deemed unimportant on a whim.

Well, maybe it’s just relateable to me…

What else can I say? I enjoyed this one immensely, and recommend it to anyone who wants to test the waters of Doctor Who‘s black and white era.