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Masters of Horror

Steven Weber in Masters of Horror

This season's Master of Horror series opens with three episodes where the kids suffer for their parents' mistakes, whether in judgment or fate.

Masters of Horror

Airtime: Fridays, 10pm ET
Cast: Sean Patrick Flanery, Meredith Monroe, Matt Kesslar, George Wendt, Branden Nadon, Arjay Smith
Subtitle: Season Two First Three
Network: Showtime
US release date: 2006-10-27
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No kid should ever have to live being afraid.

-- Kevin (Sean Patrick Flanery), "The Damn Thing"

It's hard to be a kid in horror. Really. Not only do you have to deal with the usual blood and gunk left behind by assorted monsters, but more often than not, one of those monsters is going to be your dad, or someone who thinks he's your dad. Ritually set up as the point of audience identification -- vulnerable, fearful, wanting so desperately to trust in the adults around you -- kids in horror tend also to serve as examples. This is what happens when you turn the wrong corner, believe the wrong man, or live in the wrong household.

Just so, this season's Master of Horror series opens with three episodes where the kids suffer for their parents' mistakes, whether in judgment or fate. In the season opener, Tobe Hooper's "The Damn Thing" (premiered 27 October, based on an Ambrose Bierce short story), the son (Ryan Drescher) suffers mightily, then, no matter his efforts otherwise, he passes that pile of pain on to his own son, a cute tyke named Mikey (Alex Ferris). The original son watches in abject horror as his father (Brent Stait) kills his mother (Georgia Craig) with a shotgun (she gurgles on the floor, blood oozing everywhere), then -- after running through the dark night to escape ("Come on, son, come on out, you bastard!") -- hides in the grass while dad is ripped to shreds by a black-oily monster, apparently the "damn thing" dad has been avoiding.

Cut to 24 years later: little Kevin is now played by Sean Patrick Flanery, who's prone to cryptic voiceovers: "I never knew what it was that got to him," he says, "but it killed him. Wasn't much left of me either that night." Kevin is sheriff of Cloverdale, the same small Texas town where all the mayhem occurred, which means he's got baggage. He's also got all kinds of surveillance equipment set up in his home, so much that his wife Dina (Marisa Coughlan) has moved to a trailer rather than live with it, and she's taken little Mikey with her. Dad's looking dangerous, too tense and too irrational to count on, and so she figures she'll wait it out: maybe he'll turn sane again.

The episode includes all manner of stunning Texasness, the sort of gorgeous, saturated, frightening color that Hooper has made famous. "Everybody I ever met," observes Kevin, "has a wound one way or the other. Thing is, you gotta sew it up good and tight. Otherwise it'll just keep opening and one day, you'll bleed to death." And the dark, pulsing red will seep into the dried out brown dirt, splatter on to the camera lens, and generally mark the collapse of borders, as once-active bodies become part of the ravaged landscape.

The "thing" -- oily, gluggy, connected somehow to land-disturbing drilling in Texas -- is a silly concept and poorly rendered, but in the end, it's irrelevant. The film features a couple of spectacular deaths (one fellow slams himself to death with a clawhammer, a girl is literally ripped in half), but the primary spectacle is the bad dad, his heinousness underscored by shots of the son's wide-eyed, sad surprise: the scariest pater in Cloverdale is local confessor Father Tulli (Ted Raimi), who tells gaping Kevin, "Don't be afraid. God loves you... Don't you fucking ignore me!"

"The Damn Thing" is disappointingly literal and unconvincing, gesturing toward horrors that never quite surface. "It's all chaos down there," observes Kevin of the realm from which the oily entity issues. More immediate and familiar, the horrors of "Family" (directed by John Landis) and "The V Word" (Earnest Dickerson) are also embodied by dads. In Landis' vision, suburban fixture Harold (George Wendt) seems a round, innocuous-seeming neighbor, but in his basement, he maintains a workshop where he manufactures the perfect family, by bleaching and wiring together of the skeletal remains of his murder victims.

The film mostly takes his perspective, as he sees his destruction-creations respond to his queries and, in the case of his wife Jane (Kerry Sanomirsky), manifest jealousy at his interest in the new neighbor, Celia (Meredith Monroe). Blond and slender, an "investigative journalist by trade, she mostly stays home while her husband David (Matt Kesslar), a doctor, works at the local emergency room. They've moved to this middle-American everytown from Burbank, where, their bland conversation hints, terrible things happened.

The rub in "Family," recalling Joseph Ruben's The Stepfather (1987), is that Harold's concept of the ideal family is all about compliance and perfect surface. Harold labors rather gleefully in his basement -- blasting gospel records as he removes skin, blood, and organs, smiling when "grandma" promises to be a better mother to him than that "lousy whore that gave birth to you ever was" -- and keeps a photo of Dick Cheney, his model for effective fathering. When he tires of Jane's carping, Harold sets his sights on Celia, whom he imagines speaking to him the way he imagines his dead family speaking to him: rather than talking about the neighborhood, she's saying, "David has a really small penis. I bet yours is big!"

When his "daughter" Sarah (Hailey Guiel) sees her parents argue and worries that Harold wants to "replace" her, he insists that all he means to do is give her a new sister. The following day, he heads to the local high school where he scopes out potential additions, teenagers who look, to him, as if they need to be rescued (as one appears to address him, "No one will miss me. I hate my life. I'd be better off with you. Come take me. I won't put up much of a fight"). Perhaps most creepily, Harold's faith in his "calling" is figured as pseudo-religious, inspired by his gospel records and sure that he will be saving the girl he follows home in his car, the most mundane and dreadful child predator of our collective, TV-fueled imagination.

Kids in "The V Word" also appear to be in need of saving, which of course leaves them vulnerable to predation. Kerry (Arjay Smith) and Justin (Branden Nadon) spend their time playing "Doom" and imagining life without their deleterious family members. Justin is especially miserable that his father -- now living elsewhere with his secretary -- is so abusive. "You can't pick blood," the boys believe, "But you can always pick your friends." Just so, Kerry encourages Justin to ignore his bad dad: "Don't let your old man make you bitch up."

To prove himself, apparently, Justin gets Kerry to go along with him to see a dead body, specifically, a boy their age currently embalmed at the funeral home where Justin's cousin works. Though Kerry initially resists ("That would be some creepy shit," he notes), they finally head on over in the dead of night, both hoping to find themselves, apart from their families (while Justin's is plainly broken, he says that Kerry's is equally dysfunctional, looking like "rejects from Good Times"). And here they find, appropriately, their next parental figure, the bloody-mouthed vampire Mr. Chaney (Michael Ironside).

The funeral home turns almost instantly scary, its dark hallways suddenly filled with organ music (apparently issuing from the cousin's bloody iPod) and punctuated by stairways designed to ensure leg-breaking falls. Efforts to seek help are useless: when Justin calls 911, the male operator rejects his pleas as a prank ("Halloween was last month, you little shit") and his dad tells him to call back in the morning. Without help from adults (their well-meaning moms leave messages on the answering machine, wondering how they're doing), the boys are on their own, which means they'll be fathering themselves (Mr. Chaney being an absolutely bad dad, understanding his relationship with his victim/progeny Kerry as one of possession: "He's mine").

The dilemma they face is not unusual for movie vampires, but they embody it in a particular way. The black Kerry's family never appears on screen, while the white Justin, abandoned by his father, does appreciate, to some extent, the fact that his mother Carolyn (Lynda Boyd) finally comes home -- too late! -- with his little sister Lisa (Jodelle Ferland), who gives him the finger across the dinner table. That mom arrives bearing garlic pizza is a joke, but also marks her role here as boundary: she represents her son's former existence, among the "living," while his father is the emblem of life-sucking fear and self-destruction.

Dickerson's film is the creepiest of the first three in this season of Masters of Horror. Grappling with the ways that race images and racism still set the terms for familial expectations, it offers, in Kerry and Justin, very different responses to the bad dad problem. They reach very different decisions about their own futures within this system of abandonment and fearfulness, decisions framed by having to "live being afraid."

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Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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Film

'Foxtrot' Is a 'Catch-22' for Our Time

Giora Bejach in Fox Trot (2017 / IMDB)

Samuel Maoz's philosophical black comedy is a triptych of surrealism laced with insights about warfare and grief that are both timeless and timely.

There's no rule that filmmakers need to have served in the military to make movies about war. Some of the greatest war movies were by directors who never spent a minute in basic (Coppola, Malick). Still, a little knowledge of the terrain helps. A filmmaker who has spent time hugging a rifle on watch understands things the civilian never can, no matter how much research they might do. With a director like Samuel Maoz, who was a tank gunner in the Israeli army and has only made two movies in eight years, his experience is critical.

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