Okay. Like a whole lotta people I binge-watched The Witcher last week.
Filmed in Hungary, Poland, and Spain (I can almost hear the production location scouts saying stuff like, “Just give me a list of locations that are creepy AF!”) Netflix’s sword & sorcery offering does its level best to fill the hole left in some of us following GoT’s exit.
The Witcher manages to check all the right boxes for a fantasy series.
Amazingly convoluted story dependent on a backstory that spawns generations? Check!
Huge cast of characters that takes us at least 3 episodes to actually learn their names? Check!
Amorphous world-building resulting in a continent large enough for several Earth-sized planets? Check!
Ancient dynasties with barely explained rivalries? Check!
Strange mystic castes? Check!
Dragons? Oh, Check!
A special child with frightening powers who everyone wants to control? Check!
Physical violence with a keen eye to hacking? Check!
Magical violence that blows the CGI budget into the stratosphere? Check!
Lots of horses? Check!
A Super Hot Hero and Villainess Who Really Wants to Be A Heroine? Check and CHECK!
Potentially Epic Romance? Check!
And of course, Scary Bad Guy? Ummm…Check, I guess.
What’s not to love?
Okay, the writing. Almost every episode is penned by a different scribe, but I’ll put this one on creator Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, who provided the scripts for the first and final episodes. The writing isn’t bad, but the story structure is a tad cumbersome. Those of us unfamiliar with Andrzej Sapkowski‘s book series of the same name, spend the first handful of episodes playing catch-up until we realize that we’re being told three different overlapping stories that aren’t happening at the same time. Once that mischief is managed, however, it’s pretty much smooth sailing into pure escapism. Cue the hacking!
EVERYONE is swooning over British actor Henry Cavill, who lucked into the titular role of the series. There’s a reason for that. Dude is hot as hell AND he can act. He also looks amazing in black leather. If you’re missing Viggo or Kit, Henry just might make you forget your pain for a bit.
But there are other standouts in this sprawling cast.
Anya Chalotra (who also looks amazing in black leather) is riveting as the very complex Yennefer. MyAnna Buring goes the extra mile as an actress and then some in her ardent portrayal of Trissaia, the cruel-to-be-kind headmistress of Aretuza, and Jodhi May totally brings it as the powerful but tragically prideful Queen Calanthe. There’s a lot of delightfully diverse woman-power in the cast, which I can only hope serves to light a fire under everyone else’s asses.
The Witcher’s production values range from “eh” to “wow!” The costumes absolutely fall into the latter category. British costume designer Tim Aslam did a magnificent job clothing his cast, and all I can say is that Anya Chlotra must be particularly pleased. The CGI budget (saved mostly for the last two episodes) was well spent, and delivered bang for buck, for the most part. Sonya Belousova’s score is fine. And no one will ever complain about any episode in this season being underlit.
Of particular note is the creation of The Witcher’s own school for Witchcraft and Wizardry…well, just witchcraft, I guess: Aretuza. A cruel and frightening place where you either succeed, or your life essence is taken and used to power the joint. Survival of the fittest at its scariest. Production Designer Andrew Laws and team got Aretuza just right, and it is, in my opinion, the most striking setting in the series.
A lot of what goes on in The Witcher borders on the nonsensical, but oddly, that only seems to add to the overall derring-do of the project. The epic gravitas of tales like LoTR and GoT is definitely missing here, but there is something unique about each character in The Witcher, which provides some internalized gravitas for the viewer.
The story is compelling, the acting is solid, the visuals are solid…its FUN, damnit, FUN.
So, if the dark nights of winter seem darker for want of a rollicking fantasy yarn with most of the bells and whistles you’ve come to love, give The Witcher a try. It sucked me right in, and I hate everything.
I just watched the finale of one of the most audacious feats of cinematic story-telling ever. And now I’m verklempt.
Elliot Alderson, as created by Sam Esmail and brought to life by Rami Malek will remain, for me, the most intriguing character I’ve encountered on page or screen…or even in real life.
When Mr. Esmail dropped his denouement on my head last night, I felt like it was 1975 and I’d just smoked a joint before parking my ass in Introduction to 20th Century Philosophy with a brand new notebook. Everything in our home seemed alive and burning with the endless possibilities this life can offer. Outside the stars glittered in the night sky, singing their siren song of the “what ifs” of quantum mechanics. I haven’t listen to that music in a long time, but the finale of Mr. Robot blew open all those doors in my brain.
Until last night I thought I’d been watching four seasons of a show about a brilliant and exquisitely damaged hacker determined to right our world’s singular wrong: greed. But last night, oh, Mr. Esmail, you totally got me. The breadcrumbs were there, but I ignored them. My bad…or my good?
I’m sure there are plenty of fans who are sitting smugly in coffee shops saying, “Oh, I totally saw that coming.” Hmm. With respect, I doubt it. We ALL thought we were watching one show – being told one story – when we were, in fact, being told another, completely different story. I’m sure Esmail’s ending will prove to be controversial, but I thought it was perfect.
Mr. Robot has the distinction of having one hellaciously outstanding cast. They’re all knockouts, but for me, the final season will be forever defined by the jaw-dropping performances of Elliot Villar, B. D. Wong, and Martin Wallström – whose final scene made me weep.
So to Mr. Esmail: for the love of all that’s holy, keep telling stories! Keep taking artistic risks. Keep blowing minds, because those of us who actually give a shit about the state of the world need to be reminded, from time to time, that the universe is a strange and miraculous place.
And Rami Malek and Christian Slater: You both freaking ROCK.
Towards the end of August, Halloween stuff started showing up in all the local grocery stores, looking wantonly ridiculous in the light of summer. But now, as we winnow through September towards October, the black and orange wrapped confections sitting proudly in their cardboard displays nudge that part of me that will always be a kid in love with ghost stories. Spooky Season has arrived!
To celebrate, I thought I’d share one of my darkest secrets: I’m completely addicted to paranormal “reality” shows. It’s true, from Ghost Adventures (referred to as the “Ghost Bro Show” in our house) to Deep South Paranormal, I’ve binged them all, gleefully.
Yes, they’re silly, formulaic syllabub, but I love them just the same. I find them in equal parts hysterically entertaining and sociologically fascinating.
Through the lenses of their film crews, we get to peek inside various homes of middle America where extremely average people absolutely DO believe in spooks…and shadow people, and demons, and even puckwudgies!
I mean, they really do believe. And they don’t have to wait for the Halloween displays of late August to start getting in the mood.
These families, who choose to allow their lives and homes to be laid bare for unforgiving camera crews and fairly unqualified interviewers, live in a perpetual state of terror. Shadow people are stalking their halls. Things scratch their children in the night. Unseen stalkers push them down their own stairs. They feel as though they’re constantly being watched. They hear voices, or worse they hear their own names being uttered by a guttural voice. They hear animalistic growls. They see full-body apparitions floating by the fridge. Their kids are possessed. They’re possessed. There’s a possessed doll in the house. There’s a possessed piano in the house. There’s a portal to hell in the upstairs hallway. There’s a vortex of demons in the guest bedroom closet. They’re suffering from mysterious ailments for which 20 doctors can offer no credible explanations. The list of their claims is as endless as the human imagination.
Ridiculous? Yes. But the fear, just like the struggle, is real. And so the paranormal experts/TV stars are called in. Most arrive in multiple SUVs with more gear than you’d take on an expedition to the Antarctic. Countless cameras are set up while family members are interviewed. Moms cry as they recount finding their 3 year-old talking to an invisible child named “Becky” in their room. Mascara runs and is smeared by multiple dabs by a tissue clutched in their hands, almost always sporting freshly gelled nails. Children are interviewed, and give up amazing stories that always sound memorized. The moms are generally cautioned that a demon will often appear as a child, which ratchets up the waterworks and destroys what’s left of the make-up so carefully applied for the cameras. The most oft repeated line uttered by the women? “This house is going to kill me.”
Now, isn’t that just the perfect freaking metaphor for most of us living in America in 2019?
The moms are almost always interviewed in the kitchen, before giving the paranormal team a tour of the house’s hotspots. The dads, however, when they agree to be interviewed (most are skeptical of their partner’s claims, go figure) are filmed in some kind of “manly” space, like the basement…or the garage. Those who believe, or who have experienced some of the reported phenomena, are vastly more matter-of-fact in their recounting. Although to be fair, some do get a bit teary towards the end. Their most repeated line? “I feel helpless. How can I protect my family?”
Bam! Another succinctly stated fear that we all share, regardless of whether we believe in ghosts or not.
What follows is always the same. The family and their pets are escorted to a local motel and the team dives into the house – at night, of course, because ghosts, demons, and puckwudgies have other shit to do during the day – armed with EMF detectors, Spirit Boxes, EVP recording devices, full-spectrum cameras, REM-pods, and even some dollar store toys for reportedly playful spirits.
They crawl around the house all night long, sometimes shouting provoking stuff like, “You think you’re tough, terrorizing women and children?” and often jumping out of their skins when the house settles in response. Their findings are, shall we say, controversial, to say the least…although to be fair, every once in a blue moon, some truly strange and disturbing thing is caught on camera that would make even the most hardcore skeptic say: “WTF was that?”
Sometimes, members of the clergy are summoned to bless the house and/or oust demons. My personal favorite is Bishop Bryan Ouelette, whose business card should read: “Bad Ass Exorcist.” He appears from time to time on Ghost Adventures to do battle with his immortal foe. I seriously like this guy, and should one of our jack russells start talking to me about a dimensional vortex in the master bath, I promise you that Bishop Bryan will be the very first call I make (after I check the THC content of my CBD oil.)
The evidence gathered by the team – usually consisting of a few questionable EVPs, and some shots of orbs – is presented to the family the next day. There are more tears, and then the paranormal stars pack it up and head back home to edit the show. The families, for whom their fears are extremely real, are left in their haunted houses and their haunted lives. Yeah, they signed off to appear on these shows, so any fallout from doing so is completely on them, but still…
Humans feel imperiled and helpless, a potential savior appears – briefly – filling them with hope, and then disappears down the road, having captured pieces of their souls for eventual display as entertainment content for people like me to gobble-up. It’s a perfect Ouroboros of end-times pop culture.
Standing out a bit from the crowd, is The Dead Files, which, like Ghost Adventures, airs on the Travel Channel.
The show’s formula is similar to the others, but with a twist: the house is explored at night by psychic, Amy Allan, who eschews gear like EMF detectors in favor of her own ability to communicate with the dead. Amy is great. She swears like a longshoreman and has probably been bleeped more than any other Travel Channel regular. Is she acting? Is she for real? Don’t know, don’t care. She’s great. She can make a nighttime stroll through a mid-century farm house in Illinois into something that Dante wishes he’d remembered to put in The Inferno.
Her partner, retired NYC homicide detective and former Marine, Steve DiSchiavi does the interviewing during the day. Women in their kitchens, men in their manly spaces. The tears flow, but DiSchiavi runs his investigation like a pro. For example, if the family complains of lights going on and off, he calls in an electrical inspector to go over the entire house. He spends most of his time researching the house’s history and the area surrounding it, working with local police, historians and genealogists. Sometimes he makes an amazing find, like the house was used as a morgue during the Civil War, or there was a horrible triple homicide on the property in the ’50’s. He always gathers photos, death records, and newspaper articles to support his investigation.
Meanwhile, Amy sits down with a local sketch artist, who creates, from her vivid descriptions a scene or two of what she saw in the house.
Everyone then gathers in the house at night by candlelight and Amy describes what she experienced while Steve listens and often validates Amy’s claims with the evidence he’s gathered about the house’s history. There are always a LOT of tears when the sketches are presented, but then Amy actually tells the harried house owners what they need to do to take care of business. She has and will recommend anything and everything from a Voodoo priest to a male shaman between 20 and 30 years-old with a mild temperament. If things are totally fucked up, she’ll sometimes offer to send in her own team of spiritual house cleaners. It’s all show business, but Amy and Steve are Bosses.
So, if you’re feeling the pull of the Spooky Season, but can’t make yourself watch another Friday the 13th marathon, I highly recommend binging one of these shows. When you get past the formula and the on-camera personalities, what you’re left staring at is a true American Gothic landscape as bleak and terrifying as anything from T.S. Eliot’s eternally haunting The Waste Land. Listening to people who look and sound exactly like you and your friends discuss summoning shadow demons, being sexually assaulted by a non-existent entity, and possession as if it’s happening in every home, is truly frightening…and intriguing as hell.
Stephen King, who kinda knows his shit when it comes to horror, declared Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel, “The Haunting of Hill House” one of the “most important horror novels of the 20th century.” I’ll see Mr. King’s assessment and raise it to one of the most important novels of the 20th century, period.
Those of us of a certain age who love horror, had already been thoroughly terrified by writers like Lovecraft and Jackson before King blew into town, and indeed, “The Haunting of Hill House” remains, for millions, the consummate tale of a haunted house.
Who could guess that terrors unimagined awaited readers inside such a harmless looking book?
It’s as though the artist couldn’t bring her or himself to present Hill House in more than an outline form and then covered it with a jungle’s worth of foliage, lest the house notice the effort and…object.
Shirley Jackson’s place in the pantheon of horror masters was won fair and square, and “The Haunting of Hill House” remains the haunted house story by which subsequent efforts are judged.
Why, oh why, then, did Amblin Television/Paramount Television and producer/writer/director Mike Flanagan conspire to take this pristine example of American Gothic literature and crap all over it? And why did Netflix take a look, shrug its corporate shoulders and say, “Yeah, sure why not?”
There be spoilers ahead, matey.
If you’ve already watched this catastrophe and loved it, just…go away. If you haven’t watched, but are planning to because you love Jackson’s book, or Robert Wise’s perfect 1963 film adaptation, go back! If you’re determined to proceed, beware.
Jackson’s creepy and ultimately terrifying Hugh Crain, whose titanic personality infests every inch of the house he built for a wife who would never set foot inside the monstrosity…alive…has been morphed by Flanagan into an oddly jejune flipper of houses played to perfection as a young father by Henry Thomas.
And played to equal perfection as the older, world-weary and perennially haunted, PTSD survivor by Timothy Hutton.
A flipper of houses? Yes, dewy-eyed Hugh and his somewhat wifty wife, Olivia (the excellent Carla Gugino) have somehow acquired Hill House which they intend to renovate (over a mere summer!) and sell for YUGE money. I guess Mr. Flanagan forgot what happened to real estate in the ’90’s.
The entire re-imagined Crain clan, which includes Hugh and Olivia’s five children, Steven, Shirley (!), Theodora, Luke and Nell, move into Hill House and the haunting begins.
Flanagan’s story toggles back and forth between then and now. Then, he focuses on the children’s experiences in the house, and now he focuses on what those experiences have produced. Luke has become a heroin addict. Shirley has become a mortician. Steven has become an author of books about hauntings. Theo has become a child psychologist. Nell has become a widow. Hugh has become estranged from his family, and Olivia has become dead.
Every episode alludes to the terrible events of the family’s last night in Hill House in which Olivia’s life was claimed by the spirits that literally prowl the carpeted corridors with abandon. By the time I groggily fired up the final episode and observed Flanagan’s big reveal, my only response was: Oh.
Here’s the deal: Jackson’s story was so freaking terrifying because you never SAW anything. You heard things, disturbing things. Who could ever forget the pounding on the walls? “God! Whose hand was I holding?” remains one of the scariest lines ever committed to paper. (Spoiler: Flanagan decided we need to SEE the ghostly hand in question. Sigh.) Jackson’s characters THOUGHT they saw things, out of the corners of their eyes. The phantom black dog that leads half the group out of the house on a chase, leaving the real Nell and Theo alone and ripe for an epic ghostly encounter. The breathing doors…I’ve literally got goosebumps. Jackson knew that the suggested unknown is what really wriggles into our hypothalamus and gets it to command our adrenals to start blasting out cortisol and adrenaline.
Not so with Mr. Flanagan, who has populated his Hill House with an army of corporeal ghosts, some straight out of the Asian horror film handbook, and some from Mr. King’s inviolate cabinet of spooks. Some are menacing, and some are just silly. But poor Hill House is lousy with them. Here’s the kicker: if you don’t LOOK at them, they’ll pretty much leave you alone, so just pull those covers over your heads, kids.
A word about the Dudleys.
Mrs. Dudley gave birth to every single crazy old man or woman who warns the Scooby Gang not to proceed. As created by Jackson and portrayed by the great Rosalie Crutchley in 1963, Mrs, Dudley convinces us from the beginning to GET OUT. Her husband, Mr. Dudley is a nearly silent presence of menace. Flanagan decided that the Dudley’s needed reinvention. His Mrs. Dudley, played by the always amazing Annabeth Gish, is a kindly soul, who happily interacts with the family, while her husband is a somewhat goofy aged hippie who is also always around to lend a hand. In one scene, Gish is placed front of an angel statue so it appears that the celestial wings are actually hers. Flanagan, you bastard!
Anyhoo, Flanagan plucks elements from Jackson’s novel like the last vulture to arrive at the rotting corpse. He takes unforgettable lines and moments and tosses them into his word salad teleplays to whatever character can catch them. He averages 2.5 thoroughly horrible theatrical monologues per episode. His characters are completely uneven, and most are just cyphers. Nothing about the family Crain is ever truly explained, leaving us with overly drawn out examinations of moments in characters’ lives that have little to zero interest because so much is missing from their backstory. We know WHAT they are, not WHO they are.
But Flanagan’s biggest crime was his casual omission of the main character in Shirley Jackson’s story: Hill House.
Jackson’s Hill House is a living breathing entity. It sits in the New England forest, waiting, patiently. It allows the Dudley’s to keep it running – during the day – and it keeps it’s own counsel during the night…in the dark. Hill House is often portrayed by artists as having eyes, so palpable is its personality. A house born bad and now ruled by a single entity: Hugh Crain. Hill House is larger than life…
…and it certainly isn’t something that a house-flipper would buy and renovate in a freaking SUMMER. As described, Hill House is at LEAST 8,000 square feet, probably closer to 10. It would takes YEARS to renovate such a beast. Flanagan’s Hill House is merely a work in progress. There’s black mold to contend with. Windows to replace. Blueprints to create. It’s a container of spirits, but is, itself, without life. And therein lies the ultimate shame of this truly terrible adaptation.
That, and Flanagan has – for whatever reason – provided his adaptation with a relatively HAPPY ENDING which plays over COUNTRY WESTERN MUSIC. What the literal fuck? AND he has decided in his delusional hubris to change one word of Jackson’s final line that morphs the entire project into a treacly salmagundi as usually found in more wholesome fare like, “This is Us.”
The acting is superb. The scripts suck (especially those monologues). The production design is a boring monochromatic mush. (I smell Tisch grads.) The omnipresent video flare (which prevents true black) is unforgivable. The acting is superb.
Mike Flanagan: you suffer from the presumption of interest. I suggest you make a pilgrimage to Shirley Jackson’s grave in Vermont (in which she’s still spinning, trust me) and apologize.
‘Tis the season. I highly recommend watching or rewatching Robert Wise’s faithful 1963 adaptation, staring Julie Harris and Claire Bloom for real scares that stay with you. And no matter what Mike Flanagan says, Hill House remains a solid part of our collective unconscious. It’s that inexplicable place that is just bad because it was always meant to be bad. And whatever walks there, walks ALONE.
I don’t know about you, but I have a bad habit of saying “Yeah, sure! I’ll do that!”
When I was approached to direct Young Frankenstein at Theatreworks in New Milford, CT, my first thought should have been: I better read the script before I say anything…remember what happened when you agreed to direct Dirty Rotten Scoundrels without reading the script?
But there was no thought. Just a “Yeah, sure! I’ll do that!” that flew out of my mouth like a fruit bat zeroing in on a ripe banana.
I’ve directed a lot of shows, and I thought I’d seen and done most of what I was most likely to encounter in theatre until I finally sat down and read Mr. Brooks’ script.
To be fair, Young Frankenstein isn’t exactly great American theatre. It is, however, a beloved and revered piece of our collective comedic mythos. Only those of you with the stoniest of hearts don’t crack a smile for at least one of the terrified horse whinnies that dutifully follow the mention of the iconic Frau Blucher.
But the script! Mel Brooks basically took his screenplay, reformatted it for the stage, and added a LOT of music.
I’m sure that all sounds well and good, and you’re wondering what on earth I have to blather about. Well, I’ll tell ya what I have to blather about: Spectacle musicals taken directly from the screen to the stage.
Now that I’ve directed several of these beasts, I have this to say to the show creators: Since a huge part of your residual profits from these shows occur AFTER they’ve closed on Broadway or the West End, take a moment to consider what community theaters all over the world have to put themselves through in order to properly produce something that you spent millions on.
It all rests on this: There are no traditional black outs between scenes, just the mystifying: “…as we transition to…”
Transition to? Sub-text: this was a jump-cut from one location to another in the film.
Musicals like Young Frankenstein are filled with jaw-dropping transitions. With a dollar and a dream, you can make these transitions happen quite nicely. The thing is: most community theaters only have dreams, not dollars.
So why even attempt such shows? Because audiences want to see them. Actors want to be in them. Set designers want to design them. And crazy people, like me, want to direct them.
So, getting back to my message to the men and women who create these monster shows: Out here in the hinterlands, where a budget for a musical like Young Frankenstein wouldn’t even have covered the catering for the first read-through with the original cast, we’re learning. And while we learn, we create. We problem-solve and improvise. We’re self-taught. We turn ourselves inside out making your transitions happen. And we never back down from the challenges left behind in your scripts. At this point, there’s probably more talent for this work out here in Community Theatreville than exists in all your unions…combined.
There’s no feeling in the world that compares to pulling off a show like Young Frankenstein in a house with less than 200 seats. Of course we haven’t opened yet, but we will on May 4, and the Heavens will tremble at our audacity, despite the impossible transition-filled screenplay script.
To my sisters and brothers around the world, I salute you! We do what we do with virtually no money, buoyed only by our love of theatre and the support of our loved ones and our communities. Imagine what we could do with the resources a show like this one originally consumed!
Transition to: the Heavens trembling at the thought.