Things That Go Clunk in the Night

Illustration by Wes DuvallPhoto: Courtesy of Showtime

J ust in time for Halloween, Showtime rolls out a second season of Friday-night screamies. A screamie is to fright flicks what a quickie is to sex—all business, with no time for foreplay or postcoital cancer sticks. The idea of Masters of Horror is that such directors as Dario Argento, John Carpenter, Joe Dante, Mick Garris, and Stuart Gordon round up the raffish likes of William Forsythe, Elliott Gould, Ron Perlman, and Meat Loaf to star in hour-long down-and-dirty pulp-fiction featurettes. Last fall, we got homicidal hitchhikers; killer Lolitas; voting zombies; and an odd hour that combined string theory, ghost rodents, and child sacrifice. This fall, we’re promised naked women smeared with ooze, guilty parents murdered by their own children, demonic seeds, supernatural raccoon pelts, and a cannibalistic George Washington.

I’ve seen three of these, and they’re passable. In “Family,” written by Brent Hanley and directed by John Landis, George Wendt shops at suburban malls and junior highs for various human types—motherly, sisterly, teenybopped, little-boyish—whom he removes to his basement for a mercy killing and an acid bath, after which he dresses up their skeletons to watch television. In “The Damned Thing,” written by R. C. Matheson and directed by Tobe Hooper, a boy who’s seen his own father murder his mom and get disemboweled by an invisible fury grows up to be Sean Patrick Flanery, sheriff of a small Texas town that suddenly goes crazy just like his father, with the priest worse than the reporter, before everyone must confront the true face of terror, which looks surprisingly like Peak Oil. In “The V Word,” written by Mick Garris and directed by Ernest Dickerson, two boys dare each other to break into a funeral home and look at corpses; they find, instead, Michael Ironside, a vampire doing a Jack Nicholson impersonation.

It can’t be said that the crop of made-for-Halloween TV movies have used their extra length to advantage. Pumpkinhead III: Ashes to Ashes, a sort of Law & Order straight-from-the-headlines rip-off about the mortuary that dumped the dead bodies it had promised to cremate, even wastes the signature talents of Lance Henriksen, who should have gotten as much face time as the demonic swamp monster he turns into, a cross between a Spielberg velociraptor and the Mother of All Insects from the Alien series. But Pumpkinhead is more interested in Okefenokee sociology—that freak-show South existing only in the B-movie imagination where misbehaving characters out of Carson McCullers all suffer from inbreeding, pellagra, coprophilia, and hysterics. Whereas The House Next Door exhausts every single extra minute on close-ups of Lara Flynn Boyle’s mad eyes, disbelieving face, and straitjacketed self-embrace as she realizes the dream home next to hers is a telepathic pile of evil, killing marriages, children, and pets. The housing bubble has definitely burst.

Leave it to The Simpsons to laugh at Halloween, even though it’s a week late because of playoff baseball. “Treehouse of Horror,” the eighteenth such show in eighteen (!) seasons, consists of three segments: “Married to the Blob,” in which Homer, sick from green meteorite goo, gets so hungry he eats teenagers, umpires, Germans, and Dr. Phil; “The Day the Earth Looked Stupid,” in which Orson Welles fools Springfield but then real aliens really do invade, expecting to be greeted as liberators after Operation Enduring Occupation; and “You Gotta Know When to Golem,” in which Richard Lewis, straight from Prague, makes Catskills jokes and kills people till he’s paired up with Fran Drescher. Golem, by the way, will be explained to Bart: “Like Alan Dershowitz, except with a conscience.”

It’s been a decade since Robbie Coltrane starred as Dr. Edward “Fitz” Fitzgerald, the overweight, booze- and nicotine-addicted, compulsive-gambler police psychologist who reads minds, browbeats suspects, and infuriates everybody from his fellow coppers to his own wife, in Cracker, a series of eleven British TV mystery movies written by Jimmy McGovern. So when the character returns to Manchester for his daughter’s wedding after ten years in Australia, life and art are happily coincident. This wounded Philoctetes is, as always, “pissed and obnoxious.” And, as always, Jimmy McGovern has more on his writerly mind than whodunit. The murder of an American stand-up comic by a British ex-soldier is an occasion to think about the Brits in Northern Ireland, the Americans in Iraq, terrorism, torture, and “the abuse of humanity.” The thinking, the acting, and the cinematography are all equally cunning and caustic

The Simpsons’ Halloween specials aren’t just an annual tradition; they’ve minted their very own stars: drool-prone aliens Kang and Kodos. The tentacled invaders have appeared in all seventeen previous “Treehouse of Horror” specials, including the notorious “Citizen Kang” segment in 1996, in which they abducted Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, and Homer. “Aliens! Bio-duplication! Nude conspiracies!” cries Homer. “Lyndon LaRouche was right!” When confronted with the newly elected President Kang, Homer says, “Don’t blame me. I voted for Kodos”—thus inspiring the Madison, Wisconsin, ska band I Voted for Kodos.

Masters of Horror
Showtime. Season Premiere Friday, October 27, 10 p.m.

Pumpkinhead III: Ashes to Ashes
Sci Fi Channel. Premieres Saturday, October 28, 9 p.m.

The House Next Door
Lifetime. Premieres Monday, October 30, 9 p.m.

The Simpsons
Fox. Season Premiere Sunday, November 5, 8 p.m.

Things That Go Clunk in the Night