I first remember watching Betty White when I was thirteen years old. She had just joined the cast of The Mary Tyler Moore show as the host of a fictitious show-within-showed called the Happy Homemaker. Her character, Sue Ann Nivens, was super cheerful and upbeat while on her show, but was a sharp-tongued nymphomaniac behind the scene and often played the antagonist to other characters on the show.
And she was hilarious.
Given her career before that, I’m sure that I had seen her before she joined The Mary Tyler Moore Show on the many daytime game shows that she frequently appeared in during the 60s and 70s. I’m also fairly certain that I had seen the political thriller Advise and Consent in which Betty played the one and only woman Senator in Congress. But it was Sue Ann who wriggled her way into my heart.
Sue Ann wasn’t the only iconic character she played. Many more people hail her portrayal of Rose Nylund in The Golden Girls. Rose was a very different character–though one who like all characters Betty assayed, had a bit of steel in her.
Being as funny, personable, and playing such a diverse set of characters was an incredible accomplishment. But there was so much more to her than that. There was her activism for various animal charities. There was the time in the 1950s when she defied the network executives that she was letting tap dancer Arthur Duncan (who was black) have too much screen time in her variety show. Betty gave him even more screen time after that. And she became not just someone the gay community idolized, but one of our fiercest allies.
And every person who met her in persons said that neither the personability nor the wittiness was an act. It was who she was.
Betty was famous for loving vodka and hot dogs–and for refusing to apologize for not being into anything more fancy or stylish. So, join me in raising a glass as we bid farewell to the great Betty White.
So, there’s a blog post about writing and plotting that I keep not finishing in no small part because I keep going on digressions that quickly turn into fractal rabbit holes and the next thing I know I’m writing about something so unrelated to the original subject that even when I stop and re-read the string of digressions I have a hard time understanding how I got there.
I decided that this particular digression was worth it’s own post. And maybe if I get the rant out of my system I’ll have one less digression to avoid in the other post.
I have mentioned many times how my mom, who is a both a science fiction and murder mystery fan, would read aloud to me from whatever book she had checked out of the library for herself and picked up at the used bookstore when I was a small child. From a very early age, therefore, I heard a lot of Agatha Christie murder mysteries, and a lot of Andre Norton sci fi and fantasy, and so forth.
Because of the Christies, I have always had a great fondness for murder mysteries, police procedurals, and the like. Which means that I usually watch at least the first episode of any new series in that vein, to see if it might become my new obsession.
But I also have a few pet peeves, and one of them is the serial killer. Some series seem to decide to throw in a serial killer when other plotlines in the series are fizzling out. Some series can’t seem to go a month without throwing in a serial killer plot.
Why do I almost always dislike serial killers in these shows? First of all, fictional serial killers are almost always portrayed as super geniuses who have been getting away with it because no one can keep up with the blazing brilliance. That doesn’t match reality, at all. Most serial killers range from borderline intellectual functioning /(well below average intelligence/) to just a bit above average intelligence.
The reasons that most serial killers manage to rack up sometimes mind-boggling numbers of murders before they get caught are much more mundane. According to FBI statistics, on average only 58% of murder investigations result in an identification of a perpetrator. In a number of cities, that percentage is lower, less that 50%. So the odds are already pretty good that a serial killer will get away with it for a while.
Another big reason is that a lot of serial killers target strangers. There is no social connection between the killer and their victims. Police investigations always focus at the beginning on people who knew the victim. One reason they do this is because it’s easy, once you know who the victim is, to compile a list of neighbors, relatives, and co-workers. Then you got investigate all of them.
The second reason that police investigations always focus on people who knew the victim well first is a kind of confirmation bias. To explain in, I’m going to go on a planned digression.
Several years ago the place I was employed at at the time experienced a number of workplace thefts. Thousands of dollars in hard drives alone was walking out the door somehow. They brought in a consultant to give us all pointers in how to secure our work areas and so forth. This consultant turned out to be one of these guys who is really good at sounding like an expert but not really that bright. And he had apparently never given his presentation to a room full of computer engineers and other kinds of math nerds before. Early in the presentation he had a slide that included a statistic that at most 5% of the perpetrators of workplace theft are ever caught. Sometime later in the presentation he said, "Nine times out of ten the workplace thief turns out to be an employee."
A zillion hands shot up. "But you just said that only 5% are caught, that means the 95 times out of 100 we don’t know who the thief is. At best, you can only so that 4 times out of 100 the perpetrator turns out to be an employee."
It became really painful to watch, because the guy didn’t understand the flaw in the statistics. At all.
That example applies to the cliches that a number of police believe about murders. "It’s also the boyfriend!" or "It’s almost always someone who knew the victim well." Those beliefs are the a result at looking at that 58% or less of the murders that are "solved." I put solved in quotes because the FBI statistics don’t require an actual conviction to designate a murder case as having been cleared, and they don’t take into account the growing number of wrongful convictions that are being discovered through testing of DNA evidence that wasn’t tested at the time.
The important thing is that if we accept the 58% number as a rough estimate of how many murders get solved, that means we have absolutely no idea how many of the unsolved murders were committed by someone the victim knew. At best, it seems that a little over half time someone is charged, it’s usually someone the victim knew. That that’s 51% of the 58% solved, which is less than 30% of all the murders.
Meanwhile the serial killer has gone back to their normal life and never gets looked at by the cops.
A third reason that a lot of serial killers get away with it a lot is not just that thereis no prior known social connection between the killer and the victim, is that a significant number of serial killers target people in various marginalized communities. It’s not just that a number of police don’t think the victims are worth the time and effort (though that is a factor), but that other prejudices and facts of systemic bigotry makes a lot of potential evidence essentially invisible.
The most famous example of this is one of Jeffery Dahmer’s victim. The young man was clearly injured, had escaped the clutches of the cannibal Dahmer, and was begging for help. Except he spoke almost no english. The police who found him handed him back over to the cannibal, because Dahmer was a white guy who spoke well, and he convinced the cops that the young asian man was simply his boyfriend and they had had a lovers spat.
Another example are some of the known victims of Toronto serial killer Bruce McArthur. They were closeted gay men, several of them either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants. They led double-lives which meant that for those that were reported missing, the families simply didn’t know a lot about their lives. At least one victim was never reported missing because his family feared deportation.
There are a lot of other myths about serial killers that almost always are used in these shows, but this evil genius myth is particularly irritating to me. Now, I get it. If the writers’ wrote a serial killer case truthfully, the cops wouldn’t arrest anyone and not get to be shown as heroes. That’s not as fun a story to write.
One easy solution to that problem, in my opinion, is not to write about serial killers at all. Find other ways to put your characters into difficult situations. There are millions of other possibilities. Give them a try.
A group of friends and I have been having a weekly movie night during quarantine. Each of us have nominated some movies, we put them into a rotation in a shared spreadsheet, and each Sunday night we all cue up the movie to stream or otherwise watch together and we text each other comments while we watch, then talk about it afterward. This last Sunday the movie was The Thomas Crown Affair /(the 1999 remake/).
There were at least two of us in the group old enough that we remember watching the 1968 version starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. So while we were contrasting the newer version versus our recollection of the original, a young friend in the group mentioned that the 1960 version of Ocean’s Eleven was awful compared to the newer version. I started to get affronted, but fortunately before I typed anything my second thoughts pointed out that I haven’t watched the old version since I was about fourteen years old.
And I honestly couldn’t say whether I would agree with 14-year-old me about the merits of the movie.
So, since it was available to stream for free on one of the services I subscribe to, I watch the 1960 version of Ocean’s Eleven that night.
Short review: I still really enjoyed it. However, I completely understood why younger viewers would not enjoy it at all. It was a great reminder that no creative work stands in isolation.
More detailed review: One of the film’s greatest weaknesses is that there is virtually no character development. As more than one contemporary review pointed out, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joey Bishop — also known as the Rat Pack — aren’t playing fictional characters unique to this movie, but rather just playing the personas that each had become associated with over the course of several movies and other performances over the years before the release of this film.
Cesar Romero–who was never considered part of the Rat Pack–is essentially playing the same character he played in a large number of movies before this. And much less famous members of the cast (Richard Benedict, Norman Fell, Hank Henry, Robert Foul,, Richard Conte, and Henry Silva to name a few) were all playing a type of character that they were frequently cast as. So for a vast portion of the 1960 audience of the film, the script didn’t have to do any work to establish the characters—the audience knew what to expect when they saw the actor walk into frame.
A further example of this is the recurring gag during the first half of the movie. For no apparent reason, Sinatra’s Danny Ocean keeps doing or prompting others to do things that greatly upset the mastermind of the operation, Mr. Acebos /(played by Akim Tamiroff/). Nothing about this sub-plot ever contributes to the end of the film, let alone moving forward any part of the plot. Tamiroff was an exceedingly well regarded actor who had been nominated for an Oscar a few times in his early career, but by the late fifties he was often cast in roles like this one of a easily excitably, overly worried character. His main role in those sorts of files was the be the easily wound up character who was unnecessarily worried about the ability of the main character to do whatever he was supposed to do for the plot.
Slight digression at this point, Tamiroff was an Armenian-American who was never able to shed his accent, and thus enjoyed a 60-some year career in Ho0llywood being cast as virtually every ethnicity except Armenian. The character he played in 1940′ The Great McGinty is often cited as the inspiration of the character of Boris Badenoff in the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons.
Another big shortcoming of the movie for modern audiences is the heist itself. The way that Danny Ocean’s eleven comrades go about stealing millions in cash from five casinos simultaneously is not even slightly as intricate or clever as the plots of later caper films such as The Hot Rock or either version of The Thomas Crown Affair or even any single episode of the television series Leverage.
But, to defend the movie (which made a tidy profit for the studios at the time), one doesn’t have to ignore all of those deficits. Rather, one should ask what sort of story was it trying to tell?
First, even though it usually presented as a stand-alone movie, that wasn’t at all how the movie executives (nor most of the audience) perceived it. If you were a studio making movies at that time, you didn’t cast Sinatra, Martin, Davis, Lawford, et al, to portray a new and unique character. You cast them to play a particular type of character they had become famous for. Similarly, if you were an audience member going to the theatre to see this film, you were expecting those actors to deliver a certain kind of entertainment.
Second–and possibly most important–this film is not part of the modern genre of caper film. The title itself foreshadows the ending. Early in the film Sammy Davis, Jr. sings a song called "Ee Oh Eleven." The song is about a person who is trying to claw their way out of a less than advantaged background, and almost reaches financial success, but life is a crap-shoot, and the character rolls an eleven, losing everything he had amassed. And that is the clue that was meant to tell audiences what was coming. The title appears to refer to Danny Ocean and his ten army buddies who, as a gang of eleven, are going to do the impossible. But the eleven in the title actually refers to that moment in a game of Craps where the person rolling the dice rolls an eleven and loses everything.
While I was looking things up about the film to make sure I remembered all the details of its release and so forth correctly, I happened upon a quote from a contemporary review of the movie: "In the end, it is just an amoral tale told for laughs."
I think the reviewer who wrote the line thought that it was a scathing rebuke of the film. But when I read the line, my thought was, "Yeah? So?" Because an amoral tale simply told for laughs sounds like a quite wonderful way to spend an evening. We don’t usually come to stories and other works of art hoping for a deeply profound life-changing exploration of a erudite philosophical question.
We just want something that makes us laugh and feel entertained. And there is nothing wrong with that.
I don’t remember when I first saw Hocus Pocus. While preparing this post, I was surprised to learn the movie came out in the summer of 1993. I was quite certain I had seen it long before that. Given when it came out, it is a toss-up whether it was a movie that my late husband (Ray) and I saw it in a theatre, or whether we didn’t see it until later when it was on cable or out of video. I know that since sometime in the mid-nineties that it has been broadcast during every October on ABC- and Disney-owned channels. It always gets high ratings, and the DVD/Blue ray sales have been a reliable strong seller every year. Which might make one wonder why I need to write about it at all, because it seems to be one of the most popular spooky movies, ever.
I love the movie. Spoiler warning: I can’t talk about why I think this movie is worthwhile without giving away a key part of the ending, so if you don’t want to be spoiled, go stream the movie now!
In case you aren’t familiar: the movie begins on October 31, 1693 in Salem, Massachusetts, where the notorious (and elderly) Sanderson sisters, widely believed to be witches, have lured a young girl into their cottage. They brew a magic potion which they force the child to drink, and proceed to leech her life away, making themselves young again.
The girl’s older brother, Thackery Binx, tries to interrupt the ritual and save his sister, but he fails. He is transformed into a black cat by the sisters and cursed to live forever with his guilt.
The townspeople of Salem storm the cottage and find the dead body of the girl. The witches refuse to say what has happened to her brother. The witch sisters are sentenced to be hanged, but before they are executed, the eldest with, Winifred, casts a spell which she claims will allow them to rise from the grave again—one an All Hallow’s Eve with a full moon, if a virgin lights the Black Flame Candle.
Jump forward 300 years, and Max (who will be our protagonist) is a teen-ager unhappy that his parents have moved the family to Salem. Max has an encounter with a pair of local bullies, which doesn’t make him like the new home any better. He is also not fond of the town’s local folklore about the Sanderson sisters and witches in general. He is really unhappy when his parents saddle him with the job of taking his younger sister, Dani, trick-or-treating. But early in the evening they meet a classmate Max has a crush on, Allison.
Because Allison thinks that Max’s skepticism is a bit too cynical, and because Max is anxious to impress Allison, they wind up in the old Sanderson Cottage (which has been preserved as a museum). When Max announces he is going to light the so-called Black Flame Candle and prove that witches are myths, a black cat attempts to stop him. Max manages to light the candle, anyway and the witches rise from the dead.
What follows is horror-comedy romp with some elements of musical theatre thrown in. The black cat is the cursed Thackery (who answers to Binx for the rest of the movie), who has lurked around the cottage for 300 years trying to prevent anyone lighting that candle. He can speak to the three kids, though know one else apparently can understand him. The kids flee, unsuccessfully try to warn the adults that the witches are back. The witches, meanwhile, have perform their life-stealing ritual on some children before sunrise or they go back to being dead, so there is a bit of a race.
At several points the witches capture one or more of the kids. At at least two points the kids appear to defeat the witches. Along the one a long dead lover of two of the sisters is raised as a kind of zombie/revenant who assists the witches in chasing the kids.
Eventually there is a dramatic stand-off in a cemetery, and with a bit of cleverness, bravery, and self-sacrifice, evil is thwarted.
The three witches are played by Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker. It wouldn’t be fair to say that Midler steals the show, because all of the show’s comedy and menace are built around her character. The director, Kenny Ortega, said in later interviews that he told the three of them to play it as over the top and campy as if they were drag queens, and it certainly worked.
I’ve seen reviews that Max doesn’t really have a character arc, and I don’t understand how people can be that blind. In the early part of the film, the bullies are absolutely correct that Max looks down his nose at what he sees as the provinciality of the Salem natives. And when Allison scoffs at his scoffing, it’s clear that she sees his skepticism as performative. He doesn’t believe because it isn’t cool to be credulous. Just as he pretends not to care about his younger sister because, again, it would be uncool to feel warmth or affection for his kid sister. By the end of the film, that pretense is gone, and he doesn’t just take a risk to save his little sister, but he gulps down the potion and forces the witches to kill him in her stead.
It’s not bravado or a clever trick. He doesn’t reveal afterward that he only pretended to swallow it. He swallows it, the witches perform the next part of the ritual. We see his life force literally being taken from him.
Once the witches are defeated, we also get a nice pair of parallel scenes, one in which Max and Dani share a moment, and then because Binx fulfilled his mission, we see a similar scene between his ghost and the spirt of his little sister, who has been waiting for him to join her in the afterlife for 300 years.
Unlike the last campy & spooky two movies I’ve written about, this one came out after I was well and truly out of the closet. So I felt freer to revel in the camp vibe and all it implied. A few times when I’ve found myself in conversation with other queer fans of the show discussing it, I’ve found out that a lot of them like to ask the question: so which Sanderson sister are you? For the record, Ray was definitely and enthusiastically a Sarah. I had to admit that I want to be Winifred, but I’m really a Mary.
The film is funny. It has many nice spooky moments. If you haven’t seen it, give it a try. Maybe it will cast a spell on you, too.
When the original Fright Night came out in August of 1985, I was in my mid-twenties and preparing to move to Seattle to finish my college degree. It was a time when I had virtually no disposable income, so I very seldom saw movies in the theatre. Combine that with the fact that horror movies often give me nightmares (and I’m a sleepwalker, so I would get up in a panic during the dream and find whoever I can in the house, shake them awake and frantically try to convince them there is a killer in the house), I did not see Fright Night that summer. One of my friends did go see it, and his description just convinced me even more that I shouldn’t see it.
Over a year later, I and some friends in Seattle were going to have a movie night. Which at that time involved us pooling some money to go to a video store and rent a both a video player and one or more movies, which we would take back (usually to Club Chaos, which was an apartment share by two of those friends that had an enormous living room) and watch while eating a bunch of junk food. It was often the case that only a subset of the gang would go get the movie, so you were never quite certain what we might be watching.
One of those nights Fright Night was in the mix. At least one of my friends who had seen it before assured me that it was more of a comedy like Ghostbusters than a scary slasher film like Nightmare on Elm Street, so I figured it would be fun.
In the opening minutes, it does indeed seem to be more of a cheesy romp than a serious horror picture… but that’s because the movie begins with a movie within the movie. A cheesy vampire film which are main character is watching on television. The protagonist of the film is Charley Brewster, a teen-ager who loves horror movies, and faithfully watching a weekly show hosted by an actor named Peter Vincent who used to star in a series of vampire hunter movies himself.
Charley lives with his mom in what seems to be a typical 80s movie suburb. And someone has recently moved into the empty house next door. Charley hears strange noises and even a scream coming from the old house, and becomes convinced that the new neighbor, Jerry Dandridge, is a vampire who is luring women to his home before feasting on their blood.
Charley’s best friend is “Evil Ed” who loves those horror movies even more than Charley does. But he doesn’t believe the neighbor is a vampire. Charley’s girlfriend, Amy, breaks up with him because of his obsession with the neighbor. And, of course, Charley’s mom and the police also all fail to believe him.
So Charley tracks down the actor, Peter Vincent (who hosts the aforementioned weekly horror show at one of the local stations, so lives in the same city), and tries to get him to help prove that the neighbor is a vampire. The actor doesn’t believe him either, and points out that he’s just an actor—the vampire hunter he played was fictitious.
Amy, meanwhile, has become concerned about Charley’s mental health, and she hires Vincent to pretend to test the neighbor and then prove to Charley that the neighbor isn’t a vampire. And so the actor (who thinks this is some easy money) puts on his costume and grabs his character’s equipment bag and visits the neighbor. In the course of the discussion, just as he’s leaving, Vincent pulls out his pocket mirror while getting something else out of the pocket, and realizes that Dandridge, standing behind him, has no reflection.
While there had been a lot of humor in the movie at this point, and not much in the way of gore, the tone was paranoid rather than a laughfest. And that tension ramps up from this point, as the vampire starts stalking Charley, Charley’s mom, and Amy threatening to do terrible things if Charley keeps telling people about him.
This is also where we start getting more of the transformations and start seeing more of the death scenes explicitly.
Dandridge kills and turns Evil Ed and sends Ed to kill Peter Vincent and then Charley. The scene where Dandridge stalks and corners Evil Ed in what has to be the most labyrinthine alleys to ever appear in a movie, is remarkably chilling, even though we never see a hint of blood.
Ed doesn’t succeed in killing Vincent, who burns him with a cross and forces him to flee by leaping out of the apartment’s window. Ed beats Vincent to Charley’s house (Vincent is on his way to warn Charley), and they have a fight during which Evil Ed transforms into a wolf, but he still winds up impaled through the chest with a broken table leg.
Dandridge has, meanwhile, lured Amy to his house and has started the process of turning her into a vampire, trapping Charley in a room with her slumbering body so that she can feed on Charley when she rises. Vincent manages to help Charley escape, and then the two of them have a protracted fight with Dandridge, before eventually killing him and, since Dandridge died before Amy ever drank the blood of another, she reverts to human and all is well (or as well as it can be, given that a number of people have died on screen by this point).
The special effects are all practical effects, this is before the era of CGI, and some of them haven’t aged quite as well as others. Some of the creature effects looked cheesy even in 1986. I don’t think the effects are the reason this movie never gave me serious nightmares.
No, I think that’s because I spent a lot of the movie trying to decide if all the gay subtext was going to come out in the open. And also not feeling free to comment on any of said subtext because, while it is true that two of the people in that friend group were part of a very tiny number of friends who I had come out to only a few months before (though come out is a strong word, since it began with, “I think I’m gay” and quickly morphed into, “Or I’m bi—yeah, that’s it. Not completely gay after all!” which was so not true).
It was clear to me that Charley wasn’t into Amy or even the idea of making out with her as Amy was interested in him. There’s even a moment before Amy breaks up with him where she is angrily trying to get him to stop looking through the binoculars at the neighbor and come have sex with her, for goodness sake.
It was also clear that Evil Ed had the hots for Charley. I’m sorry, totally straight teen-age boys don’t joke about giving their male best friend hickeys and so forth as often as Evil Ed did.
The scene where Dandridge corners Ed in the alley and talks him into giving in without a fight is very much written and acted as a seduction. They never make it completely clear what the difference is, but just being killed by a vampire isn’t enough to make the corpse rise later as undead. The vampire has to choose to do it, and given how he talks Ed into surrendering, it seemed to imply that the other person’s consent was part of the situation. Though the later seduction of Amy seems to involve some sort of vampiric mesmerism, so maybe consent isn’t exactly the right word.
The movie ended with Charley and Amy back together, in Charley’s bedroom, where he looks out the window at the once again deserted house next door. He turns to Amy just as we see a pair of glowing red eyes appear in one of the windows of the house. And as the movie fades to black, the last line of dialogue is spoken in Evil Ed’s voice: “You’re so cool, Brewster!”
Vampires often are metaphors for sex, so it isn’t surprising that scenes where a male vampire is stalking a male victim will be homoerotic. But some of the earlier stuff between Evil Ed and Charley are a bit different.
Most of Fright Night isn’t played for laughs. My friend’s assurance that it wouldn’t be nightmare inducing wasn’t completely wrong… though I personally think that on a scale of Ghostbusters to Nightmare on Elm Street that Fright Night lands smack dab in the middle. It is one of the spooky movies that fairly regularly figures in my Halloween movie marathons, and I have to admit in no small part because I keep thinking how much better things would have gone if Ed had simply declared his love for Charley early on.
Just as I’m sure that the sequel wouldn’t have been the awful mess it was if Evil Ed had been the villain, as been planned. Alas, Stephen Geoffreys, who played Evil Ed, turned down the chance to be in the second movie in order to play the lead in another horror movie that flopped even worse than Fright Night part 2 did. Geoffreys appeared in a couple more movies that didn’t do well, then he spent the next dozen years or so appearing in gay porn films under a couple stage names. Since 2007 he’s been getting work in various horror and action films.
Anyway, with its 80s hair styles, sometimes cheesy effects, and the unresolved gay sub-text, Fright Night makes for a good popcorn movie, and not just at Halloween.
I’ve written more than once about the fact that actual scary movies give me nightmares. And I’m the kind of sleepwalker who, when having a nightmare, I will go around the house waking up everyone I can find and tell them very emphatically that we are in danger and need to come up with a plan to defeat the killer/monster/demon/alien that is trying to break into the house. So generally speaking (with some big exceptions) I avoid a lot of horror movies. On the other hand, I love Halloween, and I love spooky movies, particularly funny spooky movies. So this next confession will not surprise some of you: when the cheesy parody horror movie, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark came out in theatres very breifly in 1988… I actually went to a theatre and paid full price and saw it. My (now ex-)wife, and a couple of our friends accompanied me, and we all paid for the experience. One of those friends is a mostly-straight friend who said upfront that 75% of the reason he was willing to go was because he had lusted after the horror host Elvira (played by amazing Cassandra Peterson) since high school.
A few years later, one of the few disputes that I had with (at the time my soon-to-be-ex-wife) Julie while we were splitting assets was who would get to keep the VHS of Elvira: Mistress of the Dark. Of all the things to argue over it was one of the dumbest, I admit… I’m just happy that we got through all that and now, 29 years later, we’re good friends and can laugh together about such things.
As it happened, my first husband, Ray, loved the movie, and we owned it on VHS and upgraded to DVD before he died. And my husband Michael thinks the movie is funny and is more than willing to watch it with me about every other Halloween, so, yay!
But, let’s get to the actual movie. Outside of the movie, Elvira is a horror host (played by Peterson) who had a syndicated sci fi/fantasy/horror movie show on various cables for years. The movie proceeds on the conceit that Elvira is a real person, not just a character which Peterson plays, and when the local California station she appears on gets a new owner who sexually harasses her, she gets fired. But she isn’t upset because she’s about to open a show in Las Vegas… except her agent informs her that the show in Vegas will only go forward if she can put up $50,000 of the production cost.
Right after she says she doesn’t have that kind of money, a studio intern knocks on her dressing room door to tell her she has a telegram. According to the telegram, her Great-Aunt Morgana Talbot, has died and that Elvira is a named as a beneficiary in the will (“I didn’t know I had a good aunt, let alone a great one.”). So Elvira drives across country to the quaint town of Falwell, Massachusetts for the reading of the will.
What follows is a parody of several old horror movies (and a few Lovecraft stories), but even more a parody of all those movies about small minded small town people being against outsiders, et cetera. While there is one scene that is a direct take-off on Flashdance, the majority of the movie is a retelling of Footloose with Elvira in the Kevin Bacon role.
And the movie is funny. I mean, Edie McClurg should have gotten an award for her hilarious turn as Chastity Pariah, hypocritical council member.
Elvira’s great-aunt doesn’t leave her any money, just her house, her book of “recipes”, and her pet poodle named Algonquin.
The kicker is that Morgana was a powerful witch, the book is actually a very old and potent grimoire, and the poodle is actually a familiar. Elvira spends much of the rest of the movie figuring this out, and slowly learning the Morgana’s brother, Vincent, is the evil warlock who killed Elvira’s mother, Divana, and that possession of the book is going to decide the balance of supernatural powers for the next century.
In between, Elvira tries to iniiate a romance with the very hunky but virginal owner of the local movie theatre, becomes a hero for the town’s teen-agers who wish the town was less backwards, and has various misadventures trying to use the mystical book. I know the movie is set in Massachusetts, but some of the more jokes in the sequence where she mistakes a potion to conjure a demon for a casserole recipe resonated extremely deeply with my southern Missouri/Oklahoma soul, okay?
Part of the meta of the movie is that Elvira, despite being played by a cisgendered woman, is essentially a drag queen. And while what little other queer subtext is very, very sub, that 80s drag queen/queer camp vibe is extremely strong in the movie. All of the villains are either defenders of the old Traditional Family Values notions or the even more ancient Toxic Masculinity tropes, while Elvira and her supporters are champions of Everyone Is Valid, and Being True To Your Self is More Important Than Pleasing Societal Expectations.
Which is very queer. So even though the vast majority of the sex and innuendo in the film is quite hetero, there is simultaneously an extremely strong non-hetero message being promulgated throughout.
At the time when the movie came out, I was still trying to pretend I was bisexual, which I very dysfunctionally saw as being half-heterosexual. I was trying to walk an extremely difficult tightrope. And this movie seemed to walk a similar tightrope… but when I re-watched it, I began seeing that the tightrope was as false as Chastity Pariah’s moral superiority.
Eventually, the camp sensibilities and the sex-positive subtext of this movie was one of the many examples that helped convince me to stop trying to compromise my true self.
And years later, it’s just an extremely funny movie to watch during Halloween season. And what more could you ask for?
A lot of people have linked to the comments by people like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and so forth denigrating the modern superhero movie as not being “real cinema”, not being narrative, having more in common with an amusement park ride than a “proper movie” and so forth. And many other people have posted counter arguments, but most of the counter arguments I was thinking were being a bit too timid in their defense. And then Cora Buhlert weighed in: Old Directors Yell at Clouds – Pardon, Superheroes. And she nailed it:
My initial reaction to Martin Scorsese’s remarks was, “I could say the exact same thing about his films. I tried to watch them, I really tried, and I’ll never get the hours I spent sitting through Taxi Driver or Gangs of New York back. But I’m sorry, I just cannot connect with the kind of white dude arseholes who are the protagonists of Scorsese’s movies.” I may never have been a superhero, but I find Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow and the rest of the gang much more relatable than anybody in Taxi Driver or The King of Comedy or Goodfellas or Casino.
I mean, really, it’s quite rich for a guy like Scorsese to accuse any other filmmaker of not being able to create a narrative. I had immediately gone to Gangs of New York myself as the perfect example of the kind of failed storytelling usually defended with “but that’s what happens in real life!” The difference between fiction and real life is that fiction has to make sense. That’s what narrative actually means: making sense out of events by tying them to a thread of meaning. Gangs of New York (and every other Scorsese film I’ve sat through) set up all sorts of narrative threads, places metaphorical guns on mantlepieces, that are simply ignored or forgotten in an ending that can be boiled down to: “Life is unfair and meaningless and you, the audience, are stupid for not realizing it.”
Buhlert makes some other points that I was thinking while reading the various screeds:
Because for all their flaws, today’s superhero movies are a lot more diverse in front and behind the camera, then the highly touted movies of the New Hollywood era, which were made by and for a very narrow slice of people. It’s no accident that directors, actors and characters of those movies are all white and male and either Italian-American or members of some other immigrant group (the characters in The Deer Hunter are all descendants of Russian immigrants). There are a lot of people who never saw themselves reflected in those movies – women, people of colour, LGBTQ people, people who are not American – and who likely never much cared for those movies either, because the big Scorsese or Coppola fanboys are mostly white dudes themselves.
Not all superhero movies are diverse. I mean, I was hardly the first person to point out that several of the franchises featured blond-haired, blue-eyed protagonists who were playing by and white actor named Chris, for goodness sake! But just as one example, the best Captain America comics (And the movie moments) have been the ones created by writers who never forget that inside that supersoldier body, deep down, Steve Rogers is still the not-able-bodied asthmatic kid who understands what it means to be powerless and to be bullied, and who has the empathy and hope necessary to fight for the powerless.
Now I am a comic fan of old and like superhero movies. And so the current golden age of superhero movies is a dream come true for me, where I finally get to see plenty of characters on the big screen that I never expected to see there, in well made movies with excellent actors, great production values and stories that capture what made the comics so compelling. However, I also realise that not everybody likes superhero movies and I know the pain of cinemas being full of some genre of movies you don’t like. After all, I felt the same during the glut of westerns (and anybody who hates superhero movies should remember that the glut of westerns lasted from the silent era into the 1970s, i.e. almost fifty years), the glut of Vietnam war movies in the 1980s (and WWII movies in the 1960s), the glut of gangster movies in the 1970s/80s (and the 1930s) or the glut of romantic comedies in the 1990s. Oddly enough, however, I never hear the usual suspects complaining about too many westerns or war movies or gangster movies, though romantic comedies, Star Wars knock-off space operas and even the mini-trend of YA novel adpatations approx. ten years ago all got dinged. Gee, I wonder why that is.
It’s another example of that phenomenon that I called “applause from the wrong crowd.” Movies that are aimed at that narrow slice of cishet, white, male, able-bodied people are “proper cinema” and anyone in the audience who isn’t a member of that demographic is expected to watch with quiet admiration. We’re not supposed to expect to see our own stories on the screen. We’re not supposed to expect to see our issues addressed in the tales on screen. And if somehow something slips through that does include us, or tell our stories, we’re not supposed to cheer it loudly and enthusiastically.
If I keep going, I’m just going to devolve into ranting on my own. Buhlert makes a lot of other good points about the kinds of stories that superhero comics and films tackle well, the kinds of movies that are being squeezed out by the current focus on blockbusters, and other topics along the way. You should really go read the whole thing.
I saw this great, short post on Tumblr some time back that I thought I would expand into a series of posts about writing. I thought that I recorded the name of the Tumblr blog that I lifted it from, but when I went into my note a while later, it wasn’t there. I didn’t really want to steal it without attributing it, and for some reason it hadn’t Googled the quote until today.
People should probably learn the difference between “plot holes” and “things I didn’t like” or “things the franchise plans to explain in the future” or “things film makers didn’t think they needed to explicitly explain because they thought you had critical thinking skills”
—Gina at ahandsomestark.tumblr.com
I was reminded of this quote while reading some gripes about the recent Captain Marvel movie—complaints that echo criticisms of other films, books, and shows that all happen to have one thing in common: the protagonist isn’t a cishet white male.
To stick to Captain Marvel for a minute, the particular complaint is that it is supposedly a bad movie because Carol’s final battle with the bad guy doesn’t involve her defeating said bad guy without using her superpowers. Now read that again: guys who claim to be superhero fans are angry that the superhero used her superpowers to defeat the bad guy. Not only that, they claim this failure of the superhero to not use her super powers is bad plotting.
Of course, they didn’t phrase it that way. And when someone called them on it, asking them why they expect a superhero in a superhero movie to not use super powers, they twisted themselves in a knot trying to say that wasn’t what they were saying.
And you know what, they are sort of correct on that. I mean, it is exactly what they’re saying, but it isn’t what they mean. What they mean is that the moral victory that Carol achieves at the end of the film isn’t the moral victory they think she should achieve. They can’t even see what the victory is, because they are so deeply immersed in societal expectations of gender roles that they can’t perceive it.
Several times in the movie the audience is shown, as she gets fragments of her memories back, Carol climbing back to her feet after getting knocked down. That is a fairly standard part of any hero’s story, right? No matter how many times you get knocked down, you stand back up and keep fighting. The part these guys don’t understand is it isn’t just about being physically knocked down—it’s also about the guys yelling at her to stay down, telling her that she doesn’t belong there, telling her she isn’t good enough, telling her that the only worth she has is what they have given her.
Overcoming that constant message is the point.
Members of marginalized groups understand that. We’ve spent our whole lives being told that who and what we are isn’t good enough. We’ve been told that our worth comes from what they have given us. We’ve been told that only if we become like them will we amount to anything in the world. We are told to be quiet, do as we’re told, act more like them, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
The whole point of Carol’s arc is that she has been lied to, manipulated, and put in a position where her power is limited by the liars. She was always good enough. She was always strong enough. But she believed the liars. And her triumphant moment at the climatic battle is first the moment when she throws off the shackles and embraces the power that was always there.
An even more important moment is when the man who has been lying to her day in and day out for years, who falsely told her that the only reason she had anything was because he gave her his blood, who kept telling her she was too emotional, and that she would never be good enough if she couldn’t come down to his level and win under his rules (rules that are very specifically designed to ensure her loss). Her triumph was when she realized that her worth had nothing to do with his approval.
When she refuses to stoop to his level and blasts him in the face, that was an incredibly big deal. Because the enemy she was always facing was the abusive, manipulative, toxic system that he represented.
I understood how important that moment was because for me it reasonated with the moment in my teens when I finally realized that every time my dad had been telling me that I was broken, worthless, not man enough, et cetera, had been a lie. The moment I stood up to him, and then walked away from him was an important victory.
Millions of women who watch Captain Marvel recognize that moment because they all have had a time where they realized they don’t have to please and prove their worth to the awful, lying people and the system that has been holding them down. Their value does not derive from pleasing a man or serving the needs of men—their worth comes from within.
Her character arc is not going from powerless to powerful—her arc is about going from oppressed to free. Just because it wasn’t the arc you were expecting, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a character arc, nor a worthwhile one.
Finally, if you really think that somehow you were robbed because at the end she didn’t engage in a meaningless fist fight with the lying dude at the end, tell me why everyone in the theatre back in Raiders of the Lost Ark burst into shouts and applause when Indy was confronted by the unknown sword-wielding man and he merely pulled out his gun and shot him.
I’ve started this blog post many times, but I either find myself wanting to pull my hair out at the mental gymnastics the haters (who claim to be TrueFans) keep putting themselves through to try to make their arguments that up is down and two billion plus one billion equals zero… and I keep giving up. When the craziness first came to my attention, back in those bygone days when the first trailer for The Force Awakens sent them into a tizzy of anger and outrage, I figured it was just an age thing. Right? I was 17 years old when the original Star Wars came out, and I had watched the Watergate scandal unfold and take down a corrupt president a few years before. I understood that the Empire was a corrupt government founded by people who had, at one point, been treated just as any other politician proposing what ideas that some people disagreed with who turned out to be fascists who destroyed the old government, and that the Rebellion was being led by the remnants of what had been the opposition party before all of that. In other words, I understood that every single plot element in the original Star Wars was about politics.
These other folks, who whine and rage about the new movies, I just assumed they were closer to the median age of the typical internet user. Their first exposure to Star Wars had been to see it on a TV at home, possibly when they were too young to remember the first time. It was just something that was always there. Whereas I saw it as a great movie that changed the way the genre was perceived as well as creating a seismic shift in all of pop culture, to them it had always been there. And they had been too young to understand that the word “empire” was inherently political, just as the phrase “rebel spy and a traitor” was also inherently political.
Oh, how naive I was just a few years ago. I hadn’t realized that the problem was much deeper than that.
Before I go on, a few other people have examined in depth a couple of the issues at hand, and rather than try to construct the same analysis, you should go check these out:
The latter post, by the Aaron Pound, is extremely helpful in this discussion if for no other reason the two tables showing how all of the movies in the Star Wars franchise have done at the box office, and comparing them to other franchises (expressed in millions of dollars):
Please note: when adjusted for inflation, the original Star Wars made three-and-a-quarter billion dollars at the box office—that’s $3,252,000,000! Notice, also, the big drop-off that The Empire Strikes Back suffered, and then how the number went down a bit more for the third movie, The Return of the Jedi.
Now let’s look at the other chart (also in millions of dollars):
Aaron assembled this second chart to show how a single-character movie in a large franchise fares in comparison to the main courses, if you will. The Avengers and its sequels have made a whole lot more money than each single-character movie in the Marvel universe, and so we shouldn’t be surprised when Solo made a lot less money than The Force Awakens. Unfortunately, at least some execs at Disney didn’t understand this, otherwise they wouldn’t have authorized re-shooting almost the entirety of the film, bringing the cost of making Solo up to approximately $250 million (and then spent about $150 million promoting).
For the record, I liked Solo a lot. But I went into it knowing that because it’s a prequel, it will not cover any new ground. They had to show us how Han and Chewie meet, they had to show us how Han wins the Falcon from Lando in a card game, they had to show us the Kessel run. Those beats have to be hit. And because we’ve seen Han’s story play out in the original trilogy and The Force Awakens we already know who the love of his life will be, and he won’t meet her in this movie. Right? And when we meet Han in the original movie, he’s an established smuggler and scoundrel who owes money to at least one dangerous crime lord, so we can expect that this prequel will be some sort of criminal action-adventure movie. Therefore, it is nearly impossible to make this a movie that’s going to blow anyone’s mind.
They delivered a solid heist movie that did show us parts of the universe that the other films have mostly glossed over. It isn’t a bad movie, it’s just the sort of movie more likely to make $400 million than $1 billion, which can’t justify the amount they spent making it.
The angry guys who insist that this is more proof that some how the franchise whose main movies are earning more than a billion each is betraying true fans and so forth, don’t understand how the blockbuster movie industry works, compared to, say, the book publishing industry, or the gaming industry, and so forth. A cadre of true fans can make books profitable, but any group of “true fans” in any genre is simply too small a group to generate a billion dollars in revenue for a single movie.
Because the “true fans,” the kind of fans who argue about the economics of the cloud cities or who are dying to see the back story of characters in the original films are going to number in the thousands, at most. Whereas to make the sort of money that The Force Awakens made, you don’t just need millions of people buying tickets, you need at least 100 million.
And when you consider that the so-called “true fans” who are making this argument are the same guys who are angry that one of the leads of the new movies is a black man, and are furious that the primary protagonist is a woman, and are absolutely livid that another lead character is a chinese woman—well, that just means this is an even smaller fraction of the audience than simply people who are nostalgic for the original trilogy.
And with that belief system, well, it’s clear that they aren’t aligned with the light side of the force, either. That ain’t the force you’re feeling, guys—it’s hate.
Scary movies give me nightmares. And I have been known not just to talk in my sleep when having a dream, but I’ve been known get up, find other people in the house, shake them awake and urgently tell them about the thing that is in the house trying to kill us. This is why I almost never watch scary movies. Fortunately, sleepwalking in general happens less often the older we get, so it’s slightly less of a problem than it used to be.
So frequently friends will tell me about how awesome a particular horror film is, and I’ll just smile and nod.
There was one movie, however, that people kept bringing up again and again. Not just people I knew. Army of Darkness, I had been assured be even a few critics, was a masterpiece of cinema–hilarous and scary all at once. And the star is Bruce Campbell, whose work I had loved in The Adventures of Brisco County Jr, for instance.
I should mention that for the most part, horror and related stories almost never cause me to have bad dreams. And I have written stories and designed gaming scenarios that has caused more than one friend to scoff mightily at the idea that I can’t watch scary movies without nightmares. What can I say? I don’t think it should be that surprising that things I see only in my own imagination will have a different effect on me than things I actually see with my eyes.
Eventually, my friend Sky and my husband Michael convinced me to watch Army of Darkness. I sat on a couch between them, and I am not ashamed to say that at times I was clutching both their hands, and I hid my face in a shoulder during some of the bloodier scenes.1
But I also laughed my ass off. It was wonderful! The film is a great and irreverent take on the notions of chosen ones, reluctant heroes, and merciless evil. It finds so many ways to put humor into situations no person would be expected to survive.
And, yeah, I had a few nightmares that week, but fortunately not the kind where I was screaming in my sleep or shaking my husband awake.2
In case you aren’t familiar, Army of Darkness is a sequel. In 1981 Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, and a bunch of friends (include Sam’s brother, Ted) made a lowish budget film The Evil Dead, in which Campbell first played Ash Williams. The plot is that a group of five college students go to spend a weekend at a cabin, find an old tape recorder, play the tape which proves to be a voice reciting from the cursed Book of the Dead. The spell unleashes a bunch of demons that possess members of the cast, mayhem ensues. The mayhem got gorier and gorier as things when along. As the possessed cast kills each other off, their bodies (and sometimes only parts of their bodies), are reanimated and continue to cause ever more grisly, brutal deaths.
A few years later, with a bigger budget, they made Evil Dead II which begins with a reshot and re-edited summary of the first film then picks up where the first left off, with Ash battling both the demonic books (now renamed Necronomicon Ex-Mortis) as well as the demons it summons.
And then Army of Darkness follows Ash’s adventures when he was magically transported by the 1300 where he has to fight an entire army of the evil undead, now given the name Deadites. The third film amped up the humor significantly, with a lot of the horror elements used more for comedic effect. It was still scary, though. This film was by far the most successful in the series.
A fourth film, titled simply Evil Dead is kind of a remake and kind of not. Bruce only appears as Ash in an after credits scene.
As time went on, I became a bigger and bigger Bruce Campbell fan. Not such a big fan that I went back and re-watched the earlier movies, nor the recent remake. But when a couple years ago it was announced that Starz would be showing a horror comedy series based on the series, I was quite excited. Because of the licensing and distribution deals that the Raimi brothers and Campbell had made to get the later films produced, they couldn’t make direct references to the most successful of the movies. They could reference the plot and characters of the original film, and use some elements (the name Deadites and Necronomicon Ex-Mortis), but that left them plenty of room.
Ash vs Evil Dead picks up the story of Ash as he’s well into middle age, using cheesy stories of how he lost his hand (in the first movie he had to cut it off because it was been possessed by a demon, while somehow he remained in control of the rest of his body) to seduce random women in bars. In an alcohol- and pot-fueled haze, he allows one of these women that he persuaded to come back to his small trailer, to read “poetry” from his old book, and evil is back.
What I love about the character of Ash Williams is just how much of a hero he isn’t. He’s a pathological liar (who is usually bad at it), he hits on women constantly, he says lots of casually racist and sexist things, he boozes too much, he drives while drunk and stoned, and so forth. He occasionally tries to run from the danger, but somehow he always manages to pull himself together and try to kick evil’s ass.
It’s a style of anti-hero with a long career in storytelling. I find it fascinating how closely Ash fits the mold of Samson (yes, the Old Testament Biblical character). The Biblical Samson is not, by any means, a holy guy. In the original Hebrew scripture, the word for “to have sex” appears a few dozen times in total–nearly two-thirds of the use of the word occur within the portion of the book of Judges sometimes referred to as the Samson saga.
Seriously, one of those Biblical stories involves Samson partying at a brothel for hours. The Holy Scripture literally says that he screwed every single woman in the brothel so many times that they were sore and some could barely walk and they pleaded with him to go home. Drunk, Samson staggers through the city. But the gates of the city have been locked, and the Philistines have set an ambush, intending to jump him while he is drunk and worn out from all the sex. But before they can, Samson simply tears the gates down and stumbles home.
And this is my favorite part: the scripture says he dragged the gate behind him for miles without remembering that he still had hold of it, and only midway home noticed, and he tossed it into the middle of the field before sneaking into his mother’s house and crawling into bed.
Ash Williams of the Evil Dead series doesn’t possess Samson’s legendary strength, but he manages to survive being beaten, battered, flung great distances, burned, stabbed, run over by demon possesed vehicles, et cetera, et cetera.
Yes, the series was crazy and gory, with literal buckets of blood being spewed all over the actors and sets. But it was also hilarious. Although the Deadites are undead, the show isn’t a zombie story. For one thing, the Deadites are fast. They aren’t mindless. The demons that inhabit the corpses are able to access the memories of the deceased, so they taunt the heroes along the way. They make plans and concoct schemes.
In other words, they aren’t a mindless threat, they’re actually bad guys.
I’ve had a lot of fun watching Ash’s adventures on the small screen the last three years. I was sad to learn that it wasn’t being renewed, but also happy for all the laughs we’d gotten along the way. Bruce has announced that he is retiring this character—if there are any more Evil Dead stories to tell, Ash Williams (or at least not this Ash) won’t be a part of them.
That’s okay. Ash showed us that you don’t have to be perfect to be the hero. He’s earned some rest.
1. I’ve learned there are things I can do to reduce the severity of nightmares I’ll have after watching a scary movie. Watching on a small screen helps. Being able to pause or walk away when things get too tense is extremely helpful.
2. I’m more likely to wake him up by saying something angry than to scream, truth be told.3
3. I also have gotten better and making myself wake up. Seriously, just a few weeks ago a dream started to have some elements from one of the gorier scenes in a recent episode of the series, and me in the dream said, “No, I don’t not want to have this nightmare! No!” And I woke.4
4. I didn’t wake my husband up in the process, so I don’t know if this was one of the times when I said outloud the thing I was saying inside the dream, but there have been occasions in the past where I did exactly that.