What if I were to tell you that there’s an episode of TV that features Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr. trek out to a Chicagoland hotel to brainstorm horror ideas for a cooperative project?
You might not believe me. It sounds like something a horror fanboy would either pitch, or get their friends together to make a homemade version of said idea.
It absolutely exists. It was an episode of the hit TV show ROUTE 66 entitled Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing and was the fourth episode of the show’s third season.
PETER LORRE: “What frightened them in then in the dark ages, it still frightens now. Fear is born into people […] And don’t you sell it short, Boris!”
If you are pressed for time, here’s a brief summary: NAKED CITY and THE NAKED CITY TV show creators Herbert B. Leonard and Stirling Silliphant pitched the idea of two younger men — the over-educated Tod and the suave lady’s man Buz — band together and tour the U.S. and picking up odd jobs along the way to fund their efforts. Unlike just about every TV show at the time, each episode was shot on location, turning ROUTE 66 into a weekly U.S. travelogue.
Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing does take place in Chicagoland.* As previously mentioned, Lorre, Karloff and Chaney Jr. want to brainstorm a project together. Lorre suggests meeting at an innocuous conference Chicagoland hotel ‘The O’Hare Inn’ and they agree. Karloff suggests that they replace their surname with reversed versions of their first name because, sure, that’ll fool everyone.
It just so happens that Tod and Buzz have wrangled a job at the inn as Junior Executives in Charge of Convention Liasons. The job thrills them — especially Tod — as the inn is hosting a large ‘Executive Secretaries of the Midwest’ conference and features a number of attractive women.
TOD, remarking on the number of young women exiting a bus: “What makes you think it’s a convention group?”
BUZZ: “When two or more girls get together and there’s no guy in the group, it’s just got to be a convention.”
TOD: “Buzz, there are things carved in marble with not the one-tenth of content of that last authoritative remark.”
While Tod and Buzz work on wooing secretaries, the three horror maestros finally meet up. Lorre requests a very specific coffin from Tod before Karloff arrives, so he can give Karloff a special reveal.
Tod quickly sees through Lorre’s scheming and suggests that Lorre and Chaney Jr. try their own brand of old-school terror on the secretaries. Chaney Jr. makes himself into one of his classic monsters and matters escalate. Meanwhile, Karloff consoles a secretary who pines for a love who left her.
It’s roughly fifty minutes of self-satisfying indulgence for writer/creator Silliphant but, happily, is also a raucous and memorable crowd-pleasing episode. This might not be the venue we wanted to see all three of these masters together for, but it is a lot of fun.
I rarely link to full episodes, however, if you’re in New York City, you can also watch it for free at the mind-blowing New York Paley Center which is exactly the first work I watched upon my initial visit.
To Chicago residents like myself, there is a difference between Chicago and Chicagoland. A lot of folks who live in Chicago suburbs often say they live in Chicago. Chicago residents often classify those who live outside the radius of Chicago’s L train support as living in Chicagoland.
Every once in a while I completely miss the mark with a film, and I certainly did so with REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA when I first saw it, fucking fifteen years ago.
“Zydrate comes in a little glass vial.”
“A little glass vial?”
“A little glass vial.”
“And the little glass vial goes into the gun like a battery. /
And the Zydrate gun goes somewhere against your anatomy /
And when the gun goes off it sparks and you’re ready for surgery. Surgery.”
REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA (REPO! going forward) musically portrays a BLADE RUNNER inspired dystopian future where massive organ failures wipes out the bulk of the population. The company GeneCo, run by CEO Rotti Largo, facilitates organ replacement and refinement on a payment plan but, if you miss a payment, they’re legally able to repossess organs by any means necessary.
We’re then introduced to Shilo, an extraordinarily pale Alexa PenaVega, the daughter of Ritto’s ex-fiancée and who has rare blood disease. Shilo is overly sheltered by her father Nathan, sinisterly portrayed by Anthony Steward Head. Matters escalate as everyone — including Rotti’s three desperate children, which includes SKINNY PUPPY’s ogHr — work towards their own self-interests.
“Lungs and livers and bladders and hearts /
You’ll always save a bundle when you buy our genetic parts /
Spleens and intestines and spines and brains /
High are our prices but our quality’s the same”
As stated right in the title, this is an opera — a goth-as-fuck rock opera — and has all of the trappings of one: it’s wall-to-wall extremely infectious, emotional goth/industrial songs and Greek chorus and family melodrama.
“My brother and sister should fuck.”
I attended a screening of it at the Music Box as part of the REPO! Road Tour with a post-film Q&A that included director director Darren Lynn Bousman and it grated on me. I found the film sweaty, especially the gaussian blur which felt unnecessarily tacky, despite that it seems to be trying to recreate the look of nitrate film. I did appreciate the moxie of those behind the production, especially Bousman’s efforts which absolutely took advantage of his directorial access to SAW IV’s sets and resources in order to realize REPO!.
“I’m infected /
By your genetics /
And I don’t think that I can be fixed /
No, I don’t think that I can be fixed /
Oh, tell me why, oh /
Why are my genetics such a bitch.”
Upon a recent rewatch, I realized my initial opinion was gravely wrong. Since my first watch, I’ve become a fan of musicals so I was able to greatly appreciate the influence of Sondheim’s SWEENEY TODD, the patter inspired by THE MUSIC MAN’s Meredith Willson, the drama of Andrew Lloyd Webber, the driven emotion of Les Misérables, even the rich history of pirate songs, and a hilariously sick sense of humor. This time around, I saw how it lovingly leaned on the structure of opera and I was here for it.
“DECAF?! I will shoot you in the face!”
I still don’t love the gaussian filter that distracts from the extremely striking makeup and fetish costume design; the Repo Man outfit is especially well-executed. There is way too much exposition, often doled out by finely illustrated comic panels almost certainly included because of budgetary constraints. While I tried to be as concise as possible regarding the plot, this is an extremely dense and ambitious work with all sorts of intertwined conflicts and duplicity and back-story that can feel both overwhelming while also feeling unnecessary.
“How’d you do that?”
“That eye thing.”
“These eyes can do more than see.”
“I know. I mean, I’ve seen you sing.”
“From my window. I can see the world from there /
Name the stars and constellations /
Count the cars and watch the seasons.”
With this rewatch, I simply allowed the film to wash over me and I loved it. There are so many great lines and songs in it and when the exposition lets up, it finds a fantastic flow that will leave you breathless.
“Your mother would be proud, rest her soul, would be so proud of you /
Though you cannot see her /
She is here with you /
We will always be there for you in your time of need /
Shilo, you mean the world to me.”
Paul Sorvino’s work here as Rotti Largo is remarkable. He takes it far more seriously than need be given his stature, all sinister and greed but occasionally sensitive, and his voice will blow you away.
“Maggots. Vermin. /
You want the world for nothing. /
Commence your groveling, your king is dying. /
Rotti, your king, is dying. /
Even Rotti Largo cannot prevent this passing. /
Who will inherit GeneCo? /
I’ll keep those vultures guessing. /
I’ll keep those vultures guessing.”
This is a quintessential passion project. It originated as a theater production shepherded into existence by Darren Smith, then a short film from Darren Lynn Bousman, then this astounding feature film. I’ve noted that often music-centric productions — such as the film adaptation of CATS — have a scrappy charm to them. That sort of pluck and charm is absolutely on display here, that exacting belief in the batshitcrazy creation you want to put in-front of people. I was not prepared for REPO! the first time I saw it, but give it a chance. I was deadly wrong about it the first time around and hopefully you’ll revel in its charms.
It’s hard to imagine now, but back in the day Roseanne Barr was considered a progressive blue-collar feminist, first through her brusque stand-up, then with her heralded sitcom ROSEANNE (who had now-disgraced self-proclaimed feminist Joss Whedon in the writer’s room).
Despite being a pre-teen, I absolutely loved ROSEANNE. Barr encapsulated the type of outspoken, driven woman that reminded me of my own mother, who willfully worked whichever job she could get because she wanted to give back and keep her hands busy. She was restless and smart and witty and the Barr in ROSEANNE mirrored that same sort of mentality and cultural ethic.
So, it wasn’t terribly surprising that she was cast as Ruth, the unruly protagonist of the film adaptation of THE LIFE AND LOVES OF A SHE-DEVIL. It was not hard to imagine Barr inhabiting the role of a scorned woman, a woman who undermines positions of authority with the intent to shoehorn her way into a patriarchal society because, well, she did all of that.
However, there’s one major flaw with this adaptation, and that is: Barr is not tall.
As noted in my prior write-up, Ruth’s height is the predominant facet to her being an unwelcome woman in society. To the extent that she goes through major elective surgery to change from being 6’ 2” to around 5’ 8”, which takes the work from being a piece about a scorned and envious woman to outright body horror due to what she is willing to endure to mould herself.
At this point in time in Barr’s career, she was very well-known for being short and stout. The stout fits the Ruth character. Short? No, not at all.
I’m getting ahead of myself, especially if you haven’t read my prior write-up about the source material.
SHE-DEVIL comes across as a simple vengeance tale: Ruth, a plain woman, discovers that her accountant husband — and parent to her son and daughter — is cheating on her with Anne, his romance author client. Ruth decides to burn her life, and their lives, to the very ground.
For the most part, SHE-DEVIL is yet another film that: if you watch it before consuming the source material, it comes across as brilliant. Yes, it casts aside the most extreme acts of the novel, but otherwise its fidelity to Weldon’s book is quite astounding. They could have just lifted the concept — scorned, vengeful woman wrecking the lives of those she feels have wronged her — and ran with it, but instead they recreate most of the non-body horror scenes, almost word-for-word, and it plays! It works!
Part of that is simply because of the cast. I previously harped on Roseanne Barr’s involvement, but motherfucking Meryl Streep plays Anne, the romance author, during Streep’s astounding run of playing absolutely independent but also unwelcome women. Ed Begley Jr. is Bob, Ruth’s accountant husband and, while on paper you wouldn’t think that Begley Jr. could pull off being a philandering, sexy debonair — he usually just plays a mostly innocuous schmuck — it actually works here. A lot of it has to do with his robust and glorious hair styling, but he also conveys a charismatic and alluring type of sleaze.
I honestly didn’t know he had it in him.
Cinematically, it’s rather straight-forward and not handled with much grace, but the main attraction here is the script — mostly cribbed from the novel — and the performances. If nothing else, it feels like it was greenlit to capitalize on the sensation of recent accessible-but-camp films, such as John Waters’ HAIRSPRAY, films that portray women taking charge of their lives through any means possible, but in a darkly comic way.
That means circling back to what isn’t in the film: the body horror. A keen eye will notice that Barr’s Ruth does take advantage of some physical alterations, but nothing so severe as in the novel. Essentially, all of that is dropped, which severely neuters the work.
However, even without that facet, it’s still a powerful feminist film. If you don’t believe me, believe the illustrious and erudite Criterion Channel, which routinely plays it. It is a smart film, however, if you know what it could have been, you might be slightly disappointed.
(Hulu/freevee/Pluto/tubi/VOD) I find Mike Flanagan to be a frustrating creator. He’s very clearly a sensitive, empathic person and he has a familial perspective that surprisingly rare nowadays. While I haven’t read the King novel that GERALD’S GAME is based on, I found it to be an exquisite one-room thriller. On the other hand, I found THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE — a well-executed horror mini-series — to be a severe distortion of Shirley Jackson’s original work, one that serves Flanagan’s themes instead of Jackson’s.
OCULUS, despite being Flanagan’s theatrical debut, is exceedingly confident with its themes and how it explores them. The surface-level premise starts with a prototypical family in the 90s consisting of husband Alan (CSI: MIAMI’s Rory Cochrane), his redhead wife Marie (BATTLESTAR GALACTICA’s Katee Sackhoff), pre-teen daughter Kaylie (redhead Annalise Basso), and adolescent son (Garrett Ryan). Alan buys an antique mirror that possesses both himself and Marie. He ultimately chains Marie up while ignoring the rest of the family until he ultimately kills Marie, has a moment of clarity, then forces his son to shoot him before he can do any more damage.
Newly orphaned, Ryan (now played by Brenton Thwaites) is institutionalized for years, while Kaylie (DOCTOR WHO’s Karen Gillan) floats around, spending her time trying to track down the mirror. She finally finds it and, when Ryan is finally given a clean bill of mental health and released, she pitches him an elaborate plan to destroy the mirror, to destroy the entity in it, forever.
In other words: it’s comprised of Flanagan’s major recurring themes: fractured families, brothers and sisters coping with loss and hurt and trauma, psychotic breaks, and obsession. You might be inclined to include addiction — Marie being chained up, Alan ignoring the world to the point where his children have nothing to eat — but I’m not completely confident in claiming that.
There’s another way to read the film, of course. This a work explicitly created around uncertainty of vision, of the reversible image of mirrors. I’ll keep my reading deliberately vague as to not lead potential viewers into how I perceive it, but it has depth if you want to seek it out.
The heart of the film is brother/sister bond, another strength of most of Flanagan’s works. There’s a care and interaction there that some folks simply cannot fictionalize, and it was delightful to see that represented on the screen.
While OCULUS is a stirring and expertly crafted film, my favorite part of watching it was my endless speculation as to the whats and whys and how it would be resolved. It’s a film that ignites your imagination, one that you’d walk out of a theater excitedly discussing the myriad possibilities of the film. The end result wasn’t as wild as where my mind went, but it was still extremely satisfying.
The Strange Bargain of Murder, She Wrote’s The Days Dwindle Down
(This is a repost of a previously penned look at this singular MURDER, SHE WROTE episode from my old tumblr.)
(Freevee/peacock) Please note: this article contains major spoilers for both the film STRANGE BARGAIN as well as the MURDER, SHE WROTE episode The Days Dwindle Down (Season Three, Episode 21).
A killer confronts the person they’ve framed, confesses their crimes, then threatens to take down the wronged man or woman. The police, waiting in the wings, swoop in and safely apprehend the killer. The wronged person sighs with relief and ‘The End’ appears on the screen.
This is the closing sequence of many movies, including the little known 1949 RKO noir film STRANGE BARGAIN. The audience assumes that the ex-suspect can move on and return to a normal, humdrum domestic life. What if they were wrong?
The Days Dwindle Down, the 21st MURDER, SHE WROTE episode of the show’s third season, asks that very question but it does so through the lens of the film STRANGE BARGAIN. By utilizing footage from the movie and casting the major players in the same roles, it tasks writer/amateur detective Jessica Fletcher with solving a crime that, for thirty years, was considered a closed case. It’s a particularly interesting concept — one that I haven’t seen attempted in any TV shows prior or since — and it elevated the normally conservative MURDER, SHE WROTE to a TV event that likely won’t be repeated any time soon.
The episode opens with Georgia Wilson (Martha Scott) overhearing Jessica Fletcher discuss her “real-life sleuthing” with her agent. Georgia pulls Jessica aside to ask for her help: her husband, Sam (Jeffrey Lynn), was just released from a 30 year stinct in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, but they can’t move ahead together without finding out who Sam was doing time for.
Ever the optimist, Jessica offers her help and listens to their tale. The story, told through flashbacks utilizing scenes from Strange Bargain, detail Sam’s struggle: while going through a financially turbulent period, Sam (at the request of his wife) requests a raise from his boss, Malcolm Jarvis. Instead of bargaining with him, Malcolm immediately fires Sam, citing both his, and the investment firm’s, poor fiscal condition. However, Malcolm proposes a solution to both of their ills: Malcolm is so cash-desperate that he had taken out a substantial life insurance policy, and he planned to kill himself and pose the scene so it looks like murder, allowing his wife and son a secure future. What’s in it for Sam? $10,000. All he needs to do is to complete the tableau by firing a few shots inside the Malcolm’s study after the suicide, and then dispose of the weapon.
Sam refuses the offer, but Malcolm won’t take no for an answer. The night of the planned suicide, Malcolm calls Sam and tells him he’s going through with it. Sam rushes over to Malcolm’s home to prevent him, but he’s too late: Malcolm is lying face down in a pool of blood, gun by his head. On his desk is a personalized note to Sam, along with an envelope containing $10,000 dollars. Sam decides to follow through with the plan, partially out of guilt, and partially because of the money. He takes the note, the gun, and the cash, goes outside and fires two shots through the office window, then disposes of the gun at a nearby pier. He cleans the remaining blood off of himself and the car, but it’s to no avail; he ultimately ends up becoming the prime suspect for murdering Malcolm, chased by Lieutenant Richard Webb (played by a pre-Dragnet Harry Morgan), a war-wounded cop with a bum leg, a hooked cane, and a record for always getting his man.
Jessica takes all of this in and immediately concludes that there’s no way Sam could be the murderer, and she agrees to investigate further.
This is where certain facts from the film are conveniently — and permanently — excised from The Days Dwindle Down: Strange Bargain actually had a happy ending, an ending that didn’t involve Sam going to jail. The closing scene sees Sam return to Malcolm’s home where he confesses to Edna Jarvis, Malcolm’s wife, that he didn’t kill Malcolm; instead it was an act of suicide. Consequently, there would be no insurance money. He hands over the $10,000, hoping to wash his hands of the whole affair, when Edna informs him that she knew of Malcolm’s plans to kill himself, that she approved, and even coordinated alibis for herself and her son to ensure that they would avoid suspicion.
Edna explains to Sam that she had her doubts that Malcolm would follow through, so she returned to the house to listen for the gunshot and, when she failed to hear one she enters, only to see Malcolm standing, gun reluctantly hanging by his side. He simply didn’t have the wherewithal to go through with it. “Malcolm was a weakling. I had the courage to do what he couldn’t do. […] It really was suicide, in a way,” she explains. “He just needed someone else to pull the trigger.” And so she did.
She points a gun at Sam, noting that the police will find him dead — another suicide — and she’ll be in the clear. She pulls the trigger, misses, merely grazes his arm. A cane stretches into the frame, hooks her arm, and Lieutenant Webb bursts into the scene, knocks Edna’s gun to the ground, and the police drag her away. Webb explains been following Sam for days, that they heard everything, and Sam is now absolved of any blame. Georgia rushes in, holds him tight, as he recants: “Darling, I made a terrible mistake but I’ll never make another one.”
“Oh yes you will,” she warmly retorts. “You’ll make lots of them. Not like this, but you’re a man and men are always making mistakes. Even women make them sometimes.” The End. Credits roll. *
Lacking this information, Jessica hits the trail alongside Sam’s son Rod (The Brood’s Art Hindle) – a cop, determined to prove his father innocent. They start off by interrogating all living offspring, including Richard Beymer as Sydney Jarvis (presciently acting very much like a proto-Benjamin Horne). From there, Jessica slyly tracks down Malcolm’s old secretary Thelma Vantay (played by June Havoc instead of Betty Underwood) and asks her if Edna, Malcolm’s wife, could have shot him.
“Mrs. Jarvis couldn’t have murdered anybody,” Thelma plainly states.
Jessica shoots her a quizzical look. “You mean, she was …too nice?”
“She didn’t have the guts!”
After discussing the case with the Wilson family over a nice home-cooked dinner, Jessica heads back to her hotel room for a fitful rest, only to awoken by a gunshot that found its way into her hotel room chair. The next morning, the cops procure the bullet and note that it belongs to a .38 revolver: the same type of gun that killed Malcolm. Unfortunately all of the prior Jarvis case records are missing, thwarting any attempts to match ballistics.
Jessica, undeterred, tracks down Edna Jarvis (played by Gloria Stuart, as Katherine Emery had passed away), and finds her in a nursing home, barely aware of her surroundings but zealously guarded by Sydney.
Conveniently, Jessica receives a phone call from a stranger purporting to have something that may help her investigation. Jessica taxi’s over to meet the man and is greeted by now-retired Lieutenant Richard Webb (still played by Harry Morgan, whose performance has loosened up over the years). He reveals that he has had the case record the entire time (“My Lindbergh baby,” he quips) and they confirm that the bullet fired into her chair was from the same gun. On the subject of Thelma, Malcolm’s secretary, Webb remarks that “I figured she was playing bedsheet bingo with the boss.”
Jessica enlists Rod, and the two scurry back to Ms. Vantay and, after a few rounds of good cop/bad cop, manage to squeeze out the admission that she deduced Malcolm hadn’t killed himself, and figured Sydney was covering it up. Sydney had been perfectly willing to pay her hush money but recently had fought back, knowing she couldn’t go to the cops without being brought up on blackmail charges.
Jessica and Rod gather Sam and Georgina to see Sydney in his drawing room, setting the stage for the big reveal. After quite a bit of verbal sparring with Jessica, Sydney eventually confesses, claiming that he killed his father, and he breaks down the events via more Strange Bargain flashbacks:
Sydney states that he saw Sam when he discovered Malcolm’s body in the study. He followed Sam to the pier (indicated in the flashback by black-and-white loafers) where he fished the gun from the water, just in case any prints were still left.
Jessica listens intently, then clucks at him. “You didn’t really kill your father at all, did you? Aren’t you really covering up for your mother?”
Sydney paces between two portraits of his parents while trying to explain away Jessica’s conjecture, but it’s no use. He sinks into a nearby chair, defeated, and reveals that, yes, his mother did kill Malcolm. Through another flashback, we see that it was an accident: Edna happened to enter the study when she saw Malcolm, poised with a gun to his head. She struggled with him, attempting to wrest the gun from him, but it went off and Malcolm was no more.
Considering the narrative dissonance, it’s not surprising that there was no mention of the film’s closing scene now. In fact, all of Sydney’s flashbacks are markedly different from the source footage. His shoes are inserted in the flashback footage, as is Edna’s tussle with her husband (they don’t even try to hide Edna’s casting change). It’s tough (but not impossible) to explain these discrepancies away as unreliable narration on Edna’s behalf, that she shot Sam in self-defense, that she was lying to protect Malcolm’s legacy and therefore Sydney’s, but the fact that it’s never even mentioned 30 years later is glaring.
At the end, everyone’s happy (or, at least as happy as they can be). Knowing Edna’s state, Sam doesn’t want to press charges, and they feel they can move on with their lives. The resolution fits the MURDER, SHE WROTE formula of exonerating any female suspects, and defangs Edna in particular. In short, the murder and the resulting events have been whitewashed. Thanks to the lack of morally ambiguous characters, STRANGE BARGAIN was hardly noir before The Days Dwindle Down, but Jessica’s deductions turn it into something else entirely.
I wasn’t familiar with STRANGE BARGAIN when I first saw The Days Dwindle Down, and I sought it out simply to see how the MURDER, SHE WROTE writers incorporated the source material. I assumed that The Days Dwindle Down had reversed whatever had been decided at the end of the film, that the events in the film were reshuffled or re-contextualized to put a different spin on the source material, or that the episode would at least would play with point-of-views and unreliable narration. While the concept and Jessica’s sleuthing was intriguing and well-executed, the reveal was far weaker, and far less interesting, than the tepid source material. Ideally MURDER, SHE WROTE would have been tweaked to accommodate the film and the characters’ needs; not the other way around.
The Days Dwindle Down aired almost exactly 28 years ago, the same span of years between the episode and STRANGE BARGAIN’s release. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before (if anyone else has — note that I’m not counting franchises or TV reunions — please chime in) and it may be another 28 years before see something like it again. I do believe The Days Dwindle Down to be the most experimental, noteworthy episode of MURDER, SHE WROTE but, while I still bemoan the end result, I heartily recommend it to anyone that will listen. Just make sure to watch it first, and STRANGE BARGAIN second.
STRANGE BARGAIN is currently unavailable to stream, and is only available as a Region 2 DVD.
For a more comprehensive look at STRANGE BARGAIN, click here.
(freevee/Plex/Pluto/tubi/VOD) WOLF CREEK is the first film from Australian Greg McLean — I previously wrote about his second film, the creature feature ROGUE — but WOLF CREEK was what made me take note of him. While WOLF CREEK is ultimately a slasher film, it prioritizes the human experience, and revels in it as much as possible. It’s a slow burn of a character drama, of youths exploring their freedom for about the first half of the film, and it’s quaint and peaceful and safe. Then it takes a hard left-turn, as some lives do.