Posts Tagged ‘horror’
Maybe it’s the strength of the preceding episode, which, true to the Red Dragon arc’s pattern of being brilliant every other week (the first, third, and fifth episodes were amazing, the second, fourth, and now sixth not so much) was as good as this show ever got. Maybe it’s the apples-to-apples comparison of this season’s final hour to the crushing defeat at the conclusion of Season One and the orgy of bloodletting that ended Season Two. Maybe it’s simply the wish that the show go on, with further heights to hit and depths to plumb. Whatever it was, the whiff of anticlimax permeating “The Wrath of the Lamb,” quite likely the last episode of Hannibal we’ll ever see, was unmistakable. Ideally, this de facto series finale would have felt stronger, grander, more final than the fake-outs and gunshots that dominated the proceedings, which, timing aside, added up to one of the season’s weakest episodes. No one will fault you if you wound up wishing for something a bit more, ahem, mindblowing.
Apocalyptic fiction should have the courage of its extinctions. If you’re going to feed damn near every man, woman, and child on earth into the maw of slaughter for our viewing enjoyment, own what that really means: not just full-grown undead versus ragtag survivors, but hundreds of millions of children dying in terrified agony. You don’t have to dwell on it, I suppose, but passing it over in silence to get to the good stuff is aesthetic and ethical cowardice, pure and simple.
So a very dark congratulations goes out to Fear the Walking Dead’s second episode, “So Close, Yet So Far,” for the image of a mom getting devoured amid the ruins of her daughter’s birthday bouncy castle. Sure, doing this just hours after having her cheerfully and audibly sing “Happy Birthday” lays it on thick—you could practically hear the collective groan of millions of viewers going “oh no” the moment the first notes rang out—but it’s better than the alternative.
Whatever its pleasures as a hobby and legitimate value as a means for its mostly young, mostly female practitioners to explore sexual taboos, fanfic has a worrying tendency to collapse the incredible range of potential adult relationships in fiction into a romantic singularity, distorting the totality of human experience just as surely as a black hole warps light. This act of emotional reduction—and reduction’s the right word for it, as both the fannish truncation of “relationships” into the neologism “shipping” and the pruning of the pair names into the portmanteau “Hannigram” semiotically symbolize—hits the possibility of non-romantic male friendship, cooperation, or even enmity especially hard. Is there truly no other way to process the bizarre mind meld between Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham than as their bloody valentine?
The answer, of course, is that maybe there is and maybe there isn’t, but either way the question is irrelevant. This is the way Bryan Fuller, Hannibal’s creator and visionary, is processing that relationship. It may not be the story I expected—not any more than I expected Will Graham to slip into murderous darkness throughout the show’s run rather than remain squarely on the side of the angels—but it’s the story Fuller has chosen to tell, and it’s that story, and no other, that must be engaged by the audience. At its worst, the partisanship of shipping represents a willful refusal of art’s transcendent potential, in which rather than step outside oneself and inhabit the mind of the artist, its adherents force her ideas into a template of their own mentally provincial devising. What better way to atone for its excesses than to go along for Hannibal’s ride, no matter how many left turns it takes?
Given that it’s the most popular show on television, The Walking Dead can pass quite easily for one of the New Golden Age of TV’s crown jewels. The reality, however, is a lot closer to costume jewelry. Despite a grim tone typical of many iconic shows and proximity to masterpieces of the medium like Mad Men and Breaking Bad via their shared network, AMC, the blockbuster adaptation of the surprise-hit comic-book series by writer Robert Kirkman and artists Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard is striking for has so little else in common it has with its antihero-and-auteur-driven era that it gives us a whole lot to chew on.
For starters, there’s no auteur to speak of. Developer and Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont departed unceremoniously after disputes with the network, and his successor Glen Mazzara lasted only two seasons until parting ways with the show in another impasse before current showrunner Scott M. Gimple took over. And while creator Kirkman remains actively involved, the show departed so radically from his source material almost immediately—another marked contrast from contemporaries like Game of Thrones—that the closest thing it has to a consistent creative vision is that of zombie-makeup guru Greg Nicotero. Though this lack of a singular voice is not necessarily an inherent evil—Darabont’s mawkish sub-Spielbergian sentimentality, to say nothing of his penchant for Wang Chung music cues, is certainly no great loss. But the difference from Davids Lynch, Chase, Milch, and Simon, and their heirs, from Louis C.K. to Shonda Rhimes, is tangible.
More importantly, and alarmingly, TWD’s approach to its own bloody bleakness too often takes the “anti” out of “antihero.” Even the most uninspired post-Sopranos series about the inner turmoil of men who murder people for a living generally pay lip service to the idea that their cathartic explosions of violence do more harm than good, and that our vicarious thrills must be priced against the moral cost of killing. For Rick Grimes and company, however, gore, to paraphrase Gordon Gekko, is good. Yes, the show frequently toys with the idea that the former sheriff and his roving band of zombie-apocalypse survivors have Gone Too Far This Time; in fact, the frequency with which this question is raised indicates the inconsistency of the writing. But far more often, the story serves as an ersatz endorsement of brutality in the name of survival, justice, and revenge, concepts frequently treated as indistinguishable. For The Walking Dead, killing is bad, unless you really really have to or unless they really really deserve it, in which case it’s extremely good. Seriously: When The Wire veteran Chad Coleman’s pacifistic Tyrese finally offed someone, the crew congratulated him like he’d just been bar mitzvah’d.
Normally I’m first in line to blast critics for equating the depiction of atrocity with either the exploitation or outright endorsement thereof. But in TWD’s case, the frequent recourse to redemptive violence in a world where virtually none of its massive audience will experience such situations reads as decadent at best and downright immoral at worst, a nasty and unnecessary exponent of the reactionary potential that’s been buried beneath the zombie-horde metaphor from the start. To treat “What would you do to protect those you care about?” as the central ethical question of our time is to invite the creation of imaginary enemies to justify our mental murderousness against them; the consequences of this paranoid mentality for America are as thick in the air as teargas in the streets of St. Louis.
I reviewed the series premiere of Fear the Walking Dead, and the Walking Dead phenomenon generally, for Decider. I’ll be covering the show there all season, which should be interesting.
TMI time: As a TV critic, you see enough sex scenes to get desensitized. Whether it’s the pneumatically thrusting buttocks of a pay-cable drama or the “let’s show them getting all breathy and frantic as they start tearing at each other’s shirts because that’s basically all we can show” approach of your average commercial-network affair, the stuff just hits a point of diminishing returns after a while. For me, at least, it takes something special to elicit that telltale sign of effective televised sexmanship: a long, low murmur of “fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuudge,” but, you know, not actually the word “fudge.”
So, yeah, the bit where Rutina Wesley’s Reba McClane reenacts holding her face to the power and heat of the sleeping tiger on the lap Richard Armitage’s Francis Dolarhyde instead? Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuudge.
If a lifetime of gorehoundsmanship has taught me anything, it’s that horror is a genre in perpetual conversation with itself. By that standard, “…And the Beast From the Sea,” this week’s Hannibal, is a chattier episode than most. And why shouldn’t it be? If you’re going to bring one of the most iconic monsters in horror history to the small screen, why not cannibalize some of that history in the process?
So take a look at Francis Dolarhyde’s raid on Will, Molly, and Walter Graham’s family homestead. His mesh mask echoes the pantyhose disguise of an earlier incarnation of the Red Dragon, Tom Noonan’s in Michael Mann’s Manhunter. Molly & Wally’s daring through-the-window in-a-bathrobe escape echoes Wendy & Danny Torrance’s flight from Jack Nicholson and the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. The way they burst from the trees into the road to be saved by an African-American motorist passing by feels a whole lot like the end of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, while that motorist’s death so that they might live is reminiscent of one of the shootouts in No Country for Old Men. You don’t needto know any of these reference points; hell, they don’t even need to be things the show is deliberately referring to. They’re just part of the narrative and visual vocabulary of terror available to any astute horror filmmaker. And that’s long before we get to the Tooth Fairy’s Tyler Durden impression.
‘Hannibal’ Recap: With a Little Help from My Friends
The decision to reintroduce Abigail Hobbs, the dead daughter of the killer who was killed during Hannibal and Will’s very first case, via flashback, in the middle of a story arc as self-contained and separate from the past as Red Dragon, is a baffling one. Don’t get me wrong — the character brings out a level of paternal perversity from the show that’s awesome to behold. I mean, get a load of the scene in which Hannibal recruits her to help him fake her own death. Her acquiescence is hard to swallow (no pun intended, Will) at first, given her terror of Lecter and her warm feelings toward Graham. But it’s not difficult to imagine the severe Stockholm Syndrome that would kick in when the daughter of a serial killer who forced her to help him find victims is told by another serial killer she’s about to die, but then spared at the last second as part of some grand plan.
This leads to what can only be described as the most erotic faked murder ever filmed. (Move over, Gone Girl, I guess?) Her glee about participating is Oedipally delicious: “Can I push the button?” she asks, referring to the device Hannibal will use to shoot her blood across the room in mimicry of arterial spray, with a tone of voice that would make Humbert Humbert blush. After a langourous bloodletting, during which Hannibal tenderly brushes Abigail’s brown hair back from the ear he will soon slice off and force-feed to his friend, the girl slips off the kitchen counter and into the arms of her murder-daddy. He manipulates her body like a cellist playing his instrument until the moment of release: a slow-motion shot of her blood being expelled from a tube like a vampire ejaculating.
I reviewed this week’s Hannibal for Decider, which is another way to say I was paid to write the phrase “like a vampire ejaculating.”
More impressive still is Richard Armitage’s instant-classic work as Francis Dolarhyde — aka the Tooth Fairy, aka the Great Red Dragon — whom he doesn’t so much play as inhabit. In a recent interview, Armitage said he patterned his (so far entirely wordless) performance on Mica Levi’s avant-garde score for Jonathan Glazer’s art-house horror masterpiece Under the Skin. That a main character on a network television show would be based not a performance but the music from one of the most difficult and surreal horror films ever made is remarkable in and of itself. But beyond that, the connection makes perfect sense. Like Under the Skin, Red Dragon concerns an individual in the process of becoming: making, and perhaps unmaking, themselves into a creature driven to commit monstrous crimes. Armitage’s Dolarhyde stares at his own hands as if only now realizing not just their potential but their existence, and mouths formless syllables as if trying to construct not just speech but the meaning behind it. It’s both easy and instructive to see the parallels with Scarlett Johannson’s nameless predator, another beast slouching toward mayhem to be born.
But there are few parallels, if any, between Dolarhyde’s brutality and that of the series’ title character. After a half-season immersion in Hannibal’s world of refined and decadent Old Europe evil, the blunt force of this new killer could not be more striking. Frederic Chilton, who as played by Raul Esparza could quite convincingly pass himself off as Armitage/Dolarhyde’s twin brother, makes a joke out of the contrast (to say nothing of Hannibal’s ratings woes). “He has a much wider demographic than you do,” he tells Lecter. “You, with your fancy allusions and fussy aesthetics, will always have niche appeal. But this fellow…there is something so universal about what he does. Kills whole families, and in their homes. Strikes at the very core of the American dream. You might say he’s a four-quadrant killer.”
Indeed, Dolarhyde kills with an urgent simplicity that’s more viscerally frightening than the elaborate installation-art, performance-piece slayings that have been the stock in trade of both Hannibal and his several serial-killing rivals throughout the series’ run. The Tooth Fairy uses a gun to commit most of his murders; he needs to end lives as quickly as possible. While he does stage his victims’ bodies in gruesome tableaux, posing them together as one big happy family with the shards of broken mirrors over their eyes and mouths (and in the mothers’ genitals), he actually puts the corpses back afterwards. He has no interest in advertising himself to the world, proclaiming his sick genius; what he does, he does for himself alone. If Lecter is a vampire, Dolarhyde is a werewolf. He is an exclamation point to Hannibal’s ellipsis. All of this is communicated by the show through killing; this is its design. And if it is the punctuation that must end the series, so be it.
I reviewed this week’s episode of Hannibal for Decider. This show is astonishing.
…nearly all of the “Mignolaverse” titles are shot through with a sense of tremendous loss, of mind-warping waste. The world Hellboy and his friends inhabit is a brutal one, rendered unspeakably ugly by a combination of venal people whose minds are too small for empathy and the unstoppable forces they therefore unleash.
Moreover, there’s a specific sense throughout the saga that the violence wielded by its protagonists is futile, even counterproductive. The most gung-ho member of the B.P.R.D., heavily scarred ex-Marine Captain Ben Daimio, secretly harbored an evil spirit that eventually took over and rampaged through the team’s headquarters. An attempt by the artificial man Roger the Homunculus to ape Daimio’s hard-charging attitude led directly to his own death. The depiction of violence as causing more problems than it solves is a self-critique that few superhero stories attempt, and even the ones that attempt it usually ultimately reject it.
Yet Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. soldier on, fighting a menace they are too weak, and too late, to stop. Their goal, to the extent that they have one, is simply to survive, and to preserve what little light and life they can — to write an epilogue for a story that has already ended.
It’s been a long, long time since a path to Hannibal Lecter’s capture was clear. The rules of narrative, to say nothing of Thomas Harris’s source material, dictate that Will Graham would be the man to take the Chesapeake Ripper down. But he and Hannibal had become so emotionally intertwined that it made the profiler’s triumph over the killer increasingly unlikely, at least in terms of it resembling a good old-fashioned arrest.
At the end of Season Two, as we learned for certain a few episodes ago, Will had a chance to stop Hannibal but instead hoped to join him on the run. More recently, he was on the verge of stabbing the doctor to death in the the streets of Florence before fate, in the form of one of Chiyoh’s deus-ex-sniper-rifle bullets, intervened. Either way, Graham was morally compromised in a way that would give any defeat of Lecter a bitter aftertaste (no pun intended). As Will himself puts it during their final conversation, “When it comes to you and me, there can be no decisive victory.”
Turns out he’s wrong about that. Brain Hannibal with the butt of your handgun, plumb the depths of his backfat with a knife, brand him with red-hot iron, truss him up in a pigpen while preparing to eat him alive, and he makes nary a peep. Hurt his feelings, though? Then he’ll voluntarily give up his entire criminal career, so long as it’s Will doing the hurting. “I miss my dogs,” Graham says to his nemesis as they sit together in his cozy country house for yet another heart-to-heart chat. But then he sticks the knife in: “I’m not gonna missyou. I’m not going to find you. I’m not going to look for you. I don’t want know where you are or what you do. I don’t want to think about you anymore.”
Smug until the last, Hannibal tries to tell Will what he’s really feeling: “You delight in wickedness, and then berate yourself for the delight.” That’s the final strike. “You delight,” Will replies. “I tolerate. I don’t have your appetite.” Then comes the kiss-off: “Goodbye, Hannibal.” No more cat and mouse, and no more folie à deux either — Will’s done with the devil for good.
Earlier in the episode, Hannibal told Alana that she never could have understood him. Now it’s his turn to experience that kind of ignorance. Will’s superhuman empathy, the quality that enables him to understand Hannibal through and through, is the exact quality that renders him ultimately impenetrable to Hannibal in turn. Simply knowing that the closest thing he’s ever had to a friend has thoroughly rejected him, even as an enemy, for reasons he will never be fully capable of understanding, is enough to make Lecter give up, if only to ensure their continued connection. Will Graham caught Hannibal Lecter by letting him go.
I reviewed last week’s Hannibal, perhaps the most insane thing ever to air on network television, for Decider. You really need to see the gifs.
Let’s state it for the record: If Hannibal really is over, it’s the most upsetting cancellation since Deadwood, hands down. Both series are, or were, ruthless and uncompromising in articulating the poetically violent visions of their creators through inimitable dialogue and sumptuous cinematography. They’re gifts we’ve been lucky to have, even if only for three seasons apiece. That said, only one involved human bodies prepared like Peking duck, attempted incestuous insemination, beautiful women having kaleidoscope sex, and bone saws slicing through living human skulls. C’mon, NBC, Netflix, and Amazon! Hannibal has it all! And “Dolce,” tonight’s episode, was a veritable garden of unearthly delights — funny, sexy, suspenseful, repulsive, and, as always, absolutely gorgeous.
“Contorno,” last night’s action-packed, bowel-unpacked episode ofHannibal, took visceral (no pun intended) pleasure in kicking the living shit out of Hannibal Lecter. Physical opponents — that psychopathic mental-hospital orderly, Mason Verger and his goons, and of course Jack himself — have gotten the drop on the Doctor in the past, but in each case the action was elegant and elevating, whether Hannibal was being trussed up for the perfect death or engaging in an expertly choreographed hand-to-hand battle with a worthy opponent. None of that this time. This was just a decent guy who’s getting too old for this shit handing an asshole’s ass to him. And man, it felt good, even if he got away in the end. The split from the show’s usual operatic setpiece-violence in favor of this down-and-dirty fight was striking, and provided a surprising and welcome break from the claustrophobic, symbolism-laden slaughter.
And maybe it’s the latent class warrior in me — okay, not so latent, the expropriation of the wealthy really can’t begin fast enough — but it seems as if the show relied on a certain slobs-vs.-snobs schadenfreude to fuel the climactic town-vs.-gown beatdown. After all Hannibal’s posturing, his expensive clothes and fine wine and gourmet meals and high culture, he was for all intents and purposes beaten in a bar fight by a working stiff. Hannibal revels in the perversity of immersing us in this aristocratic killer’s mind and world, but a scene like this shows it’s still wisely attuned to popular desire to watch the effete elite taken down a peg. (The use of Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie” as the soundtrack for this scene smartly recalls its accompaniment of Alex DeLarge’s anti-aristo rampages in A Clockwork Orange.)
It will be left to scholars to determine whether opening “Apertivo,” this week’s ep, with a slow-motion closeup of a bullet entering a man’s face and exiting through the back of his head in a geyser of viscera influenced NBC’s decision to cancel the series days before it aired. But the fact remains: Hannibal is, without exaggeration, one of the most visually and narratively audacious shows in the entire history of television. It’s to the Peacock Network’s credit that they let it get away with murder for as long as they did.
What ultimately keeps “Secondo” from sinking under the weight of its contradictions is the strength of the statements its central characters make about who, and how, they are. Even in a series as quotable as this one, last night was a real power hour. Hannibal on what happened to him as a kid that made him the way he is: “Nothing happened to me. I happened.” Will on why he wants to find Hannibal, a mission that obviously means more to him than just an attempt to catch a killer: “I’ve never known myself as well as I know myself when I’m with him.” Bedelia on the bond between these two mad geniuses: “Forgiveness is too great and difficult for one person. It requires two, the betrayer and the betrayed….Betrayal and forgiveness are best seen as something akin to falling in love.”
Indeed, Will and Hannibal speak about each other with a seriousness and intensity that, while neither romantic nor even sexual, is undoubtedly erotic, even to those of us not given for making lovey-dovey Tumblr gif sets of every pair of fictional characters we enjoy. Which gives his concluding declaration about what it will take for him to forgive Will for deceiving him — the same way he “forgave” his sister for awakening his urges — the thrill of the perverse as well as the horrific: “I have to eat him.” Well, you know what they say: You are what you eat.
Il Mostro’s crimes were crazy, albeit not quite as crazy as NBC censors blurring out nudity in Botticelli’s paintings while letting people be graphically mutilated onscreen. But they also show that even this criminal supergenius had a period where, like any artist, he learned by copying from the best before moving on to make his own masterpieces. Case in point: the gigantic heart Hannibal fashioned out of the twisted limbless corpse of stupid sexy Antony Dimmond, the smarmy scholar who saw through Lecter’s false identity last week. Though impressive enough on its own, like all great art its full potential is only unlocked when it’s put in front of its intended audience, Will Graham. He envisions its transformation into a repulsive antlered avatar of Hannibal, in a sequence that’s part Hellraiser’s rebirth scene, part Beetlejuice’s sculpture garden, and part Salvador Dalí’s Soft Construction with Boiled Beans.
This is a show that leaves you thinking that maybe the world is a little bit worse for its presence — a mark of all great horror. And whether you’re a fan of the genre or a practitioner, you’ve got to be like Will Graham voluntarily connecting with the worst humanity has to offer. You must be willing to turn to the work and say “just fuck me up.” In this series, that thrillingly self-destructive impulse is invited — and then rewarded a hundredfold with some of the most gorgeous visuals of murder and cooking you’ve ever seen. When you binge on Hannibal, Hannibal binges back. Bon appétit.
Like comedy and pornography, horror is a practical art with a concrete aim; it exists to frighten. This utilitarian aspect makes horror a genre that constantly interrogates its own past, examining how other scary movies scared people in order to refine and surpass them. So like almost all of the great horror films,Under the Skin exists in conversation with its forerunners. The main character’s pattern of luring lonely, horny, pasty men to a decrepit house to be consumed by some nightmare secreted from the floor evokes the plot of Clive Barker’s similar meditation on agony in the UK, Hellraiser; a late-game makeup effect recalls its even more uncompromisingly brutal sequel, Hellbound: Hellraiser II. The circular, ocular forms that dominate the movie’s abstract opening sequence recall not only the baleful gaze of the killer computer HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (a frequent point of comparison in reviews) but also the similar combination of curvilinear shapes and unnerving musical dissonance that kicks off Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (a film with which UtS shares an unarticulated but brutal meat-is-murder subtext, one that’s a lot clearer in the source novel).
Another Kubrick masterpiece, The Shining, earns a visual echo in the bird’s-eye-view shots of the characters driving the curvy roads carved through the rugged region. Its long silent passages, in which our sole window into the world of the film is the monster at its center, force us into her skin in a fashion reminiscent of Norman Bates’s clean-up and disposal in Psycho. Indeed, the ominous hums and screeching strings of Mica Levi’s score place it with Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho, John Williams’s Jaws, and the Ligeti/Penderecki/Wendy Carlos/Rachel Elkind–dominated soundtrack of The Shining at the top of the horror movie music pantheon.
The list could go on—seriously, I cut several entries for space—but it’s important to note this: None of these elements exist to be spotted, per se. They’re not overt references or homages, but rather a bedrock on which the film can be built into something new and unique. Under the Skin uses our shared vocabulary of horror tropes and techniques to create a new language, just like the disembodied syllables we hear the main character murmur over the stunning, dissociative opening sequence evolve into the words she uses to seduce and destroy.
Under the Skin is one of the best horror movies ever made, and one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, period. I make the case for it over at Decider.
You’ve been so unequivocal and public that this book is about the death of Pinhead — full stop, no spoiler warning. Why?
Why not? If I’d been sly about this and not even mentioned the fact that Pinhead — excuse me, the Hell Priest — was going to die, that would have seemed really dumb. It’s actually a really important element of the book, the element of the book which will draw the most attention. He will not be coming back, by the way. That I promise you. There will be no return, no posthumous Frank Sinatra concerts from him.
In reading, I couldn’t help but think about your own life. You’ve been working on this book for years—
Yes, I have been working on this book for years. But I also had a coma, and lost my mother, my father, and the young man who was almost my son, and a lot of other terrible things in the meantime. Even though it might seem that I’ve been diddly-daddling instead of actually writing, a lot of that daddling has been because I was unconscious. I, uh … I take the Fifth. [Laughs.] I’m making a joke of it, but there have been some pretty damn horrible times of late. I’m only just now, after some many years, priming to leave the house. I’ve only been out of the house five times in the last few years. I am now well enough to, actually, finally leave the house. [Sardonically.] Hey, what about that!
In the midst of all this, you revealed that you supported your writing career in the early days by working as a hustler.
Was that really such a revelation? I was surprised. Maybe I hadn’t talked about it in the past, but I didn’t think I’d hidden it too much.
I got the sense that that was a painful time in your life to revisit.
It was, and yet it wasn’t. It was humiliating many times. It was stultifyingly boring much of the time. And it’s bad sex, mainly. [Laughs.] But you can’t have everything. It kept me in bread and cheese through a bad time in my life, fiscally. But do I want to go back to hustling anytime soon? Nope.
For my Grantland debut I spoke with Hellraiser director Clive Barker about his life, his health, and the death of Pinhead. His new book The Scarlet Gospels, which contains exactly that, is in stores today, and it is furious and empathetic and takes no prisoners.
Lord of High Places is my new tumblr collecting images of monstrous birds, for purposes to be revealed. Watch the skies.
The most terrifying television show of 2014 debuted without fanfare at four in the morning the other day, and like the dead lady in The Shining’s Room 237, you had to pass through layers of comforting illusion to uncover the horror within.
Unedited Footage of a Bear starts out as just that: a static shot of a big brown bear, soundtracked by the cameraman’s whispered enthusiasm about the critter’s size (and, for some reason, his ears). After thirty unassuming seconds, an equally innocuous ad for what looks like a prescription allergy medication starts up, with all the usual tropes. A loving but harried mom in a bucolic suburban setting lives in an adenoidal fog, unable to attend to her plucky rugrats, until some pharmaceutical magic wipes away the haze. It’s soon clear this isn’t the real deal — the kids are too shrill, the mom too sickly, and the side effects too numerous for this to be anything but a parody. After all, this is Adult Swim, Cartoon Network’s nighttime block of largely bite-sized shows for adult audiences with the audiovisual munchies. Riffing on commercial culture is what they do.
But before you can say “Happy Fun Ball,” the music slowly fades out, the mother’s smile cracks and fades, the yellow police tape of a crime scene looms into view, and the nightmare begins. What follows is eight minutes of pure dread, involving menacing phone calls, crazed doppelgangers, terrified children, attempted vehicular homicide, an ear-splitting soundtrack, and the most harrowing portrayal of psychosis this side of Titicut Follies.
If that bait-and-switch sounds familiar, you’re likely one of the millions of people who caught Too Many Cooks fever a few weeks back. Like Unedited Footage and saccharine drug commercials, TMC took an overfamiliar airtime-filler, in this case the opening credits of a late-‘80s sitcom, and slowly skinned it alive. Lurking within the corny comedy is a machete-wielding killer who stalks his countless castmates through their credit sequences, and eventually remakes TMC’s tv-reality in his own dark image, as if his evil is strong enough to warp the videotape used to capture it.
Too Many Cooks became a viral sensation, and put Adult Swim’s “Infomercials” initiative — an entire series of satirical stand-alone short films by a variety of AS-associated writers and directors, all of them dropped on unsuspecting viewers in the small hours without so much as an official slot on the schedule — on the map. And it cut to the heart of one of TV’s strangest secrets: Adult Swim, Cartoon Network’s live-action stoner-comedy block, is making great horror on the regular.
Works cited: Twin Peaks, Marble Hornets, The Philosophy of Horror by Noël Carroll, Pim & Francie by Al Columbia, and Sam Peckinpah’s Salad Days.