BORDERLANDS (1990-)

BORDERLANDS has been a long-running horror short-story anthology, one started in 1990 by editor Thomas F. Monteleone. While it’s still going in digital format, I’ll be discussing the volumes released in the 90s. Released by White Wolf Publishing — if you were a nerd in the 90s, you’ll recognize them as pioneers in revitalizing role-playing games — Thomas F. Monteleone assembled four tomes of scary and imaginative tales from some of the best genre writers: Harlan Ellison, Poppy Z. Brite, T.E.D. Klein, Peter Straub, Kathe Koja, Whitley Strieber, and so many more.

For a long time, I only owned two volumes, but I read the others via my friend Chris — who introduced me to the series — and I repeatedly re-read them, especially around October. One story that stands out in particular is F. Paul Wilson’s FOET, of which I’ll let you speculate about given its loaded title, but it has stuck with me since I’ve ever read it; it was a horribly brilliant breath of fetid air that let me know immediately what I was in for with this anthology.

It’s a fantastic collection to take in at your own leisure, and all four volumes featured Dave McKean’s unique collage work as their cover art. I believe there are later reprints that lack the cover, so if you’re ordering used copies online and dead set on those covers, make sure they’re the White Wolf editions. Otherwise, there are newer editions that — while they don’t feature McKean’s covers — reprint the original stories, and the volumes from five and up are all completely new.

Traditionally I eschew direct Amazon links, but it seems to be the way the reprints and new volumes are being distributed:

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09NK9FRKKM

FALLEN ANGELS – Murder, Obliquely (S01E05, 1993)

FALLEN ANGELS was a mid-90s neo-noir anthology on SHOWTIME that I only recently heard of, but the fifth episode of the first season, entitled Murder, Obliquely, features Laura Dern, Alan Rickman, Diane Lane, was co-written by Amanda Silver (THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE and a number of the new PLANET OF THE APES films) and directed by Alfonso Cuarón (CHILDREN OF MEN, ROMA). That’s a stellar team right there.

Murder, Obliquely is also based on the Cornell Woolrich short story of the same name. Woolrich wrote the source material for REAR WINDOW among loads of other very successful works, but by others accounts he had a very unhappy life: he married a woman in 1930 while knowing he was gay; the marriage was annulled three years later; despite being a prolific and successful writer, he was also a self-destructive alcoholic, living with his mother in shithole apartments until she died; then he spiraled out completely and became a recluse until he died.

I mention this because this adaptation of Murder, Obliquely very clearly leans into this background, if you read between the lines. (I’ll note that I have yet to read the short it’s based on.) It’s a Sirkian noir of infatuation — Annie (Laura Dern) becomes obsessed with inherited-millionaire Dwight Billings (Alan Rickman) but he can’t get over his ex, the recently-married Bernette Stone (Diane Lane). The story ends with everyone miserable, as noirs do.

Despite having the gauzy veneer of 90s cable television, it’s remarkable stylish with its costuming and art design — especially Dwight’s art deco home — as well as the dialogue, which manages to be distinct without feeling too broad. If you have thirty minutes to spare, it’s a great way to spend some time.

I don’t think anyone will mind a direct link to a fan rip in this case:

TALES FROM THE CRYPT: ON A DEADMAN’S CHEST (1992, S04E03)

(DVD/VOD) It doesn’t get more 90s than this. Look, this isn’t a great slice of horror, despite it being directed by William Friedkin, but it was vividly seared into my brain. In 1992, I didn’t have access to HBO, but my uncle — who my father and I traveled to Albany, New York to attend his second wedding — did, and my father and I were staying at his place. I spent most of my time that weekend binging HBO, including the 70s KING KONG. However, it’s this episode of TALES FROM THE CRYPT that really sticks out in my mind because, at that point in time in my life, I’d never seen anything quite like it.

I’ll summarize this as quickly as possible, but there’s a hell of a lot of plot in this thirty-minute ep: Danny Darwin (Yul Vazquez) is the lead singer in the band EXORCIST (get it?), and he absolutely hates Nick Bosch’s — EXORCIST’s songwriter and guitarist — wife, Scarlett (Tia Carrere) and the feeling is mutual. As typical for EC Comics protagonists, Danny is a complete and utter shitheel and he treats most folks around him like garbage, but that doesn’t seem to keep groupies from wanting a piece of Danny.

After an EXORCIST show, one particular groupie not-at-all-subtly named Vendetta (Sherrie Rose) catches Danny backstage. She unlatches her top to reveal a snake tattoo that weaves across her chest. She begs him to look closer, and the camera leerily leans in as we see the snake take a life of its own, slithering out of her skin to snap at Danny. Danny demands to know who the tattoo artist is, and she says she’ll tell him for a price. (As this is HBO’s TALES FROM THE CRYPT, the price is obviously sex.)

Danny visits the tattoo artist, requests a tiger, but the artist says he’ll find the right tattoo for him. Consequently, he’s left with a giant tattoo of Scarlett across his chest. Danny goes ballistic and storms back to the home he’s sharing with Nick and Scarlett. Scarlett promptly tears into him, and Danny retorts that she’s trying to break up the band.

Fast forward a bit: Danny sees Vendetta at a club, then starts blaming her for setting him up, for giving the tattoo artist the idea to permanently pen Scarlett onto his chest. She recommends a plastic surgeon, and Danny follows through, but is left with a red and raw vague silhouette of the original tattoo that the surgeon notes is “bizarre”. Vendetta then tells Danny that, if he can’t get rid of the tattoo, he can at least get rid of her.

(Obviously, I’m about to spoil the end of the episode, but frankly, you’ve certainly figured out what is about to happen. Also, it’s probably taken me longer to write this summary than it would to watch it.)

Danny then pretends to make amends with Nick, but is intentionally late for their next show to make time to murder Scarlett. Danny then meets up with Vendetta, confesses to killing Scarlett — which she finds “so fucking hot”. Danny removes the bandage from his healing chest, looks at himself in the mirror and sees that the tattoo has fully returned, but instead of Scarlett’s pristine face, he sees it as bloodied and lifeless. He turns to Vendetta, who sees it as the original tattoo — Scarlett’s face clean of blood.

Danny finally appears at the show, goes on-stage to perform and, right as he’s about to let loose, he looks down and sees something visibly moving under his shirt. He runs to the dressing room and a serpent/demon dog creature bursts from his chest. Vendetta relays to Nick that Danny killed Scarlett and, when Nick goes to get revenge, he sees Danny with a gaping torso wound, holding his skinned tattoo in his hand.

Yes, basic EC material, but mostly new to me. While I’d read plenty of horror — I read practically everything that our local library stocked — I’d absolutely never seen anything as graphic as it. The closing shot is what did me in; I barely slept a wink before the wedding, and it’s a bit of horror that I will never fully forget.

(That said, oddly I remember the tattoo being on his back, not his chest, but uh, that’d make it quite difficult to skin off. Not like anything else in the episode fully hangs together, though.)

Please, don’t take this as a full recommendation. It’s rather by-the-numbers and wildly insensitive — even for its time — but that’s par for the series. However, it is stylish, and has some great practical effects work.

https://tftc.fandom.com/wiki/On_a_Deadman%27s_Chest

THE SCREWFLY SOLUTION (2006)

(VOD) THE SCREWFLY SOLUTION — an episode of the SHOWTIME TV horror anthology MASTERS OF HORROR — is an oddity for director Joe Dante. Most of his works play with elements of horror, satire, and slapstick, however there are no laughs to be found here.

Dante’s THE SCREWFLY SOLUTION is an adaptation of James Tiptree Jr.’s short story of the same name. (If you aren’t familiar with James Tiptree Jr./Raccoona Sheldon/Alice Hastings Bradley, she was a brilliant-but-troubled sci-fi writer.) It’s a slightly modernized take on the original short, but essentially the same: scientists try to wipe out a parasitic insect, but the end result causes the insects to infect men and cause them to turn their sexual impulses to violent, murderous ones.

It’s not a subtle piece — and Dante’s adaptation is hampered by some overly clunky Spielberg-ish TV cinematography (too many canted angles, too many tight shots) — but it is extremely effective in showcasing how women rightfully are consistently fearful of of men. I also find it a remarkable piece because it’s also about men being afraid of themselves. This is horror at its exploratory best.

THE ARCHITECTURE OF FEAR (1987)

THE ARCHITECTURE OF FEAR — edited by Kathryn Cramer and Peter Pautz — is a very specific horror short-story anthology concerning architectural horror, horror that’s centered around interior structures. Take Shirley Jackson’s works, which are all classic horror texts that utilize houses in a multi-faceted way: from the looming paranormal events in THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE to the decay of the protagonists’ house in WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE, they’re pieces where the manufactured space factor heavily into the story.

I was worried that it’d simply be back-to-back haunted house pieces, which I’m not a huge fan of, but the anthology is richer than that. The short stories range the gamut from fairy tales (Gene Wolfe’s IN THE HOUSE OF GINGERBREAD) to meditations on barroom masculinity (John Skipp and Craig Spector’s GENTLEMEN), then leaping to chewing over forbidden, abandoned spaces (naturally, Joyce Carol Oates’ HAUNTING), then mulls over a funeral home worker dealing with the presentation of a corpse (Michael Bishop’s IN THE MEMORY ROOM).

It’s a surprisingly eclectic and substantial collection, and definitely one of the best horror anthologies I’ve read since the iconic BORDERLANDS anthologies. (Fun fact: THE ARCHITECTURE OF FEAR pre-dates them, and the BORDERLANDS anthologies are currently being re-issued! Sadly, not re-issued with the original Dave McKean cover art.)

Practically every story is memorable, but my favorites (including the previously mentioned shorts) were Scott Baker’s NESTING INSTINCT, which captures the odd feeling of settling into a foreign abode, and Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s THE HOUSE THAT KNEW NO HATE, which closes out the anthology, and subverts a lot of haunted house tropes. It reminded me a bit of the classic film THE ENCHANTED COTTAGE.)

Cramer & Pautz really swung for the fences with this anthology, and it shows with their respective afterword and foreward. This is an anthology that takes horror seriously, and gives the reader an exceptional collection of works that, while framed around interior spaces, encompasses a broader area of humanity.

THE TWILIGHT ZONE: COME WANDER WITH ME (S05E34, 1964)

It’s a sad day: Richard Donner has passed away. While he’s rightfully best known for SUPERMAN, he spent -a lot- of time directing television, including an ep of previously recommended ROUTE 66, eps of TALES FROM THE CRYPT, even eps of THE LORETTA YOUNG SHOW, but most memorably, some of the best episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Consequently, I’m re-posting a slightly tweaked version of my prior recommendation of one of his lesser-known THE TWILIGHT ZONE eps:

(Hulu/Paramount+/VOD) This episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE is rarely included in best of lists, which is fair — even if it’s the last-filmed ep -and- directed by Richard Donner — as its story is a bit strained, even by TWILIGHT ZONE standards. Floyd Burney, known as the “Rock-A-Billy Kid” (Gary Crosby), is on the prowl for a new song in a small, unnamed town. He overhears a woman singing and follows her voice as she repeats the refrain: “Come wander with me love / Come wander with me / Away from this sad world / Come wander with me”

The woman introduces herself as Mary Rachel (Bonnie Beecher) and is reluctant to part with the song, but Floyd is insistent. Matters escalate quickly as the rest of the song is revealed.

While the episode is a bit clunky, it’s the song that makes it memorable. -Come Wander With Me- is a brilliantly haunting ballad and, even though the song was never written or recorded in full, a number of musicians, such as Émilie Satt and British Sea Power, have covered it over the years.

Émilie Satt – Come Wander With Me:

British Sea Power – Come Wander With Me:

Hidden Highways – Come Wander With Me:

Original rendition:

A short clip from the ep:

GOTHIC (1986)

(Plex/tubi/VOD/Vudu) This is the predictable final entry in a three-part series of recommendations regarding films about Mary Shelley. It is, of course, Ken Russell’s GOTHIC (1985). Again, I’m no Mary Shelley scholar, and — given this final entry — it should be obvious that I have no interest in discussing the veracity of the portrayal of these real-life persons. (I simply don’t have the knowledge, but I don’t begrudge those that do.)

While GOTHIC is, on the surface, about the storytelling night between Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and Mary Shelley’s stepsister Claire, it’s primarily concerned with Mary and her life and her way of coping with this foursome, which becomes heightened via what one surmises is a fever dream.

GOTHIC is essentially fan-fiction, occasionally slash-fiction and, surprisingly, posits Mary as, for all intents and purposes, the Final Girl, with Lord Byron being the executor of the madness they endure. (Or not; there are many ways you can read it, but that’s my interpretation.)

There’s a lot to unpack in this film, far more than I can do justice to in a simple post, so I’ll just note a few highlights and leave it at that:

  • As usual, Russell has a ton of visual anachronisms, one of the boldest being the hexagonal ceiling molding designs, which are then mirrored when Mary finds herself as a prisoner.
  • It portrays Mary as someone who doesn’t buy into Percy’s ‘free love’, and touches on her problematic pregnancies.
  • I just happened to be going about this three-part project as I was reading MEN, WOMEN, AND CHAIN SAWS, which spends a significant amount of time talking about horror films’ handling of eyes, then Percy seeing nipples as eyes, which MEN, WOMEN, AND CHAIN SAWS author Carol J. Clover touches on regarding the feminine masochism viewing perspective, and yeah, there’s not more perfect film for that than this.
  • I’ll also note: I first saw this film at what I think is absolutely the perfect time in one’s life, in my mid-teens, thanks to my friend Chris, although I do know I spent a lot of time staring at the LaserDisc cover well before actually watching the film. I hadn’t re-watched it until today. It is far crazier and hornier than I remember, and I can’t believe we got away with watching it while his parents were away.

My friend Mark pointed out two other Mary Shelley films, both released in the late 80s, which I have yet to watch — there are DVDs available of both, but they can’t be streamed — that I hope to catch, and perhaps you may be interested in them as well:

ROWING WITH THE WIND (1988):

HAUNTED SUMMER (1988, which certainly backgrounds Mary, but is very much about her):

And, of course, here’s the trailer:

THE TWILIGHT ZONE: COME WANDER WITH ME (1964)

(Hulu/Paramount+, S05E34) This episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE is rarely included in best of lists, which is fair — even if it’s the last-filmed ep and directed by Richard Donner — as its story is a bit strained, even by TWILIGHT ZONE standards. Floyd Burney, known as the “Rock-A-Billy Kid” (Gary Crosby), is on the prowl for a new song in a small, unnamed town. He overhears a woman singing and follows her voice as she repeats the refrain: “Come wander with me love / Come wander with me / Away from this sad world / Come wander with me”

The woman introduces herself as Mary Rachel (Bonnie Beecher) and is reluctant to part with the song, but Floyd is insistent. Matters escalate quickly as the rest of the song is revealed.

While the episode is a bit clunky, it’s the song that makes it memorable. -Come Wander With Me- is a brilliantly haunting ballad and, even though the song was never written or recorded in full, a number of musicians, such as Émilie Satt and British Sea Power, have covered it over the years.

Émilie Satt – Come Wander With Me:

British Sea Power – Come Wander With Me:

Hidden Highways – Come Wander With Me:

Original:

It’s worth noting that, for some inexplicable reason, the episode is titled ‘Come Wander With Us’ on Netflix.

FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE SERIES (1987-1990)

(DVD) Before WAREHOUSE 13, there was FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE SERIES. This series — which has no Jason, no Camp Crystal Lake, absolutely nothing to do with the FRIDAY THE 13TH films whatsoever — has one of the earliest TV ‘cursed collection of objects’ storytelling engines I can think of.

The show’s conceit is easy enough: two cousins, Ryan (John D. LeMay) and Micki (pop musician and model Robey) inherit their uncle’s antique store and, after a brief interlude featuring Ryan acting far too lecherous towards his cousin, they start selling off every item in the store to anyone interested. Through a horrific incident, they quickly realize that each item was collected by their uncle for a reason: they’re all powerful artifacts that should be locked up. Thankfully, their uncle created a meticulous ledger, and now they get to go scouring to find all of the artifacts they shouldn’t have sold in the first place.

The first season features a litany of Canadian talent, including Sarah Polley in one of her first TV roles, classic character actor (and The Old Man from MILLENNIUM) R.G. Armstrong as the original antique store owner, the previously mentioned Robey, and more. They even snagged some top-shelf directors for the first season, including David Cronenberg (who clearly was given carte blanche to shoot whatever he wanted to, and of course he trotted out a shit-ton of cancerous tumors) and Atom Egoyan, both of whom inject a bit of auteurism into the traditionally staid field of 80s television.

The recognizable guest stars and directors ebb as the show grows older though, which is fine because it finds a comfortable groove over the first two seasons. Then, in the third season, John D. Le May exits the show via one of the strangest — and oddly affecting — character exits I’ve ever seen, only to be replaced by Steve Monarque as ‘Johnny Ventura’, who is exactly what you’d expect from someone with a name like ‘Johnny Ventura’. (John D. Le May would later go on to be a featured player in JASON GOES TO HELL, completing the circuit between the show and the film.)

FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE SERIES is a show that probably survived for three seasons based on faking out folks, luring them in with the promise of weekly Jason slaughters, but I fear it’s has been forgotten because of how many were burned by that very promise. While the show had few highs, it also had few lows — it’s solid comfort food and eminently re-watchable, which is more than I can say about the films.