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Freeform’s Dead of Summer
Season 1, Episode 2: “Barney Rubble Eyes”
Directed by Ron Underwood
Written by Ian Goldberg
* For a review of the first episode, “Patience” – click here
* For a review of the next episode, “Mix Tape” – click here
After a decently exciting first episode, Dead of Summer‘s second episode cleverly parodies “Bette Davis Eyes” (made popular by Kim Carnes) with “Barney Rubble Eyes” and I couldn’t be more intrigued to see how that plays out, even if it’s just a hilarious one-liner. I dig how they’re using ’80s songs – at least partly – for the titles in these first two episodes, something I hope continues on.
The second episode starts in the Soviet Union, during 1977, as a little boy named Alexi plays the piano and his family prepares to go to America. Before he heads out his grandfather warns that life needs to be taken, it won’t be given. He hands over a knife. In 1989, Alex Powell (Ronen Rubinstein) lives life as an American, even with all the anti-communist, anti-Russian rhetoric on the radio. He’s also very interested in freedom, naturally. Meanwhile, the campers have arrived – watching by the edge of the forest is The Tall Man (Tony Todd), waiting for his time to strike.
The camp life has started, the kids are rolling in. Alex, Jessie (Paulina Singer), Blotter (Zachary Gordon) and the rest receive them all. When Alex hears a little boy get referred to as a Commie, a Russian kid named Anton, he flashes back to being in America for the first time with his father working in a dry cleaning store. He hears his father get called a Commie. Then he goes on to change his own name to Alex Powell, something all the dumb, prejudiced people can pronounce. In his present time, Alex is a fairly charming, innovative guy. He’s certainly interested in newbie Amy Hughes (Elizabeth Lail). Then he makes things messy by calling her a “Commie sympathiser” because she doesn’t dig the way he talks about the little kid. Sad to see an immigrant come to feel that way about another immigrant, forced into hating himself and then in turn others like himself. A sad comment on American culture, in some respects. Afterwards, he sees Blotter with a sketchy guy, getting a bag of something off him. Hmm.
When Anton isn’t at dinner, Alex finds him in the woods talking to The Tall Man – no one’s there, of course, but that’s his imaginary friend. Oh this is a creepy little moment. Loved it. In his bed later the kid is attacked in the night, in a dream, by The Tall Man; he sees FIND ME branded on his arm, at least in the fog of a nightmare. At the same time, Deputy Garrett Sykes (Alberto Frezza) is plagued with trying to figure out what happened to Dave. His mother worries about him and how the case will affect his mind, though Garrett’s trying to tough it out alone. He’s got Satanism on the mind, as too many officers did in the ’80s when Satanic Panic became a devious bout of hysteria.
Turns out Blotter has that name for a reason – he digs acid, and has his hands on some liquid stuff. Well, Alex tells him: “Couple drops and you‘ll have Barney Rubble Eyes.” Ah, nice little line to go with the title. Then there’s Blair (Mark Indelicato), interested in Drew (Zelda Williams), whom he does not realise yet is a woman. Also, Jessie tries to urge Carolina (Amber Coney) into making “a move” on Alex. Seems the new girl is causing too much friction for a bunch of supposedly close friends. But that doesn’t matter, Alex still wants to get closer to Amy. He asks her out. Puts on some charm by showing how good he is with the kids. Yes, that lures her into a bit of a date in the staff lounge. C’mon, Amy. I mean, he seems like a nice dude. There’s something slippery about him. “He‘ll do anything to get what he wants,” Jessie warns Amy on the side; helping hand, or being a bitch? Cut to October of 1988. Alex goes back to the dry cleaning place where his father worked, trying to get a position there. He pretends not to know the owner. You can tell Alex is someone else behind his mask. In ’89, we’re still with Alex trying to figure out what Anton knows about The Tall Man; the boy has to find him, or else The Tall Man says somebody’s going to die. Uh oh.
When Joel (Eli Goree) goes looking for camp counsellor Deb (Elizabeth Mitchell), he finds himself in her cabin, snooping, and she catches him. I wonder how this quasi-sexual relationship is going to play out? Makes things unsettling almost. Out looking after the kids, Alex and Blotter keep one another’s secrets. We also zip back to ’88, as Alex works in the dry cleaning store. He shares a sad look with Nadia, a Russian woman working there, before heading out. When he heads back in he finds the owner having sex with Nadia, and he turns on the security tapes the owner had previously turned off, then leaves once more.
Back to ’89 – Alex and Amy have their date. A romantic little evening, it seems. Until they head out into a dark bit of woods to an old cabin. One with a piano. Ring any bells? Well speaking of The Tall Man, he lures the little Russian boy to the trees where they walk off, hand in hand.
Blotter and Carolina are getting close, too. Or Blotter wants to get close to her. He says he doesn’t believe the things written about her on the cabin walls, not realising what we know to be the truth: she’s written at least some of them herself. Out at the old cabin, Alex plays piano for Amy. On that damn creepy set of keys. That can’t be good, can it? The Tall Man’s already afoot. Playing his piano certainly won’t help anything. First, though, we get another flash to ’88 in the dry cleaning store. Alex puts a plan into motion with Nadia. Back to ’89, the spectre of his actions, his grandfather, it all lingers on him. Things finally get serious when Blotter alerts Alex that Anton is missing. All the while, Deb sits with Joel. She tells him she’s a private person. He thinks that means she harbours a secret. She responds coyly, but then they discover the news about the Russian boy. In the trees they hear a scream. The cops arrive later and then their search begins. Nobody’s certain what’s going on, only that a child is somewhere alone, possibly not safe. When Alex finds him he’s sitting in a strange place reminiscent of the drawing he’d been etching out earlier. Deb believes there’s a prowler. Alex and Amy saw him talking to nobody, an invisible friend. Jessie acts like a bitch. Ah, just the perfect stew for a slasher sub-genre trope of the botched investigation.
In ’88, Alex quits his job. He confronts the owner of the dry cleaning shop about having a sex tape with him on it. He’s gotten the job at camp, he wants to project an image of success for people, et cetera. Really, he’s a criminal getting over on another bad dude. A big load of extortion. So the guy we see, the one the people at camp think they see, it’s not who Alex is truly. He’s wearing that mask and it soon slips. Then he does a nasty little thing: he drops liquid acid into Blotter’s drink, all to manipulate his current situation. Oh, Alex. You’re becoming more unlikable by the minute.
Deputy Garrett confronts the guy from the diner, one he thinks may have Satanist aspirations, who’s trespassing on camp property. He decides the dude matches the description of a tall man from the Russian boy’s outing. Back at camp, Blotter is taking a harsh trip down the rabbit hole. He literally watches his own face melt, he sees Alex spew out a terrifying hand. The Russian boy rambles at him. You can see Alex already regrets this dumb, possibly fatal mistake. Out at those stones where the kid was found, Blotter digs up a set of bones: The Tall Man? Has he actually “found him“? When he brings Deb out to the site the bones are gone. All that’s left is Blotter holding the bag, for the drug dealer lurking around, for taking acid, so on. Another harsh move due to Alex’s nasty behaviour. In other news, the biker guy is let free, not held on any charges. And he’s the one now holding the bones of The Tall Man: “It has begun,” he gives as a prophecy to his crew. Maybe real Satanists, or some occult worshippers after all?
As Blotter leaves, to Amy he repeats what Jessie previously said: “He‘ll do anything to get what he wants.” This leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, particularly Amy. Yet Carolina’s happy to see that. Y’know, typical teenage camp sort of stuff.
Alex goes to see Anton. He speaks Russian, suggesting exactly what that owner told him long ago, to change his name. He’s becoming exactly who he didn’t want to be, or shouldn’t have become. No wonder the ghost of his grandfather is kicking around. Oh, and The Tall Man warns of things to come through Anton.
And before the finish, leaving camp Blotter comes in contact with The Tall Man, who points to something we can’t see. We end on Blotter, totally terrified by whatever is approaching, and then it cuts black while the terror unfolds in screams and rotten sounds. Deliciously horrific.
A nice follow-up episode to the first one. I honestly dig the show. Maybe not perfect and there are bits that could certainly be improved upon, though I find there’s enough to make it interesting, and surprisingly there’s a good bit of horror. Nothing crazy, but I think it’s lots of fun. Tame compared to anything wild. Still enjoyable and has lots of places to go from here. Look forward to the next episode titled “Disposable” – could it be named after the Bill Nelson song? Let’s hope, that’d fit perfectly with the atmosphere and tone of the series. Keep up with me if you’re into the show.
The House of the Devil. 2009. Directed & Written by Ti West.
Starring Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Mary Woronov, Greta Gerwig, AJ Bowen, Dee Wallace, Heather Robb, Darryl Nau, Brenda Cooney, Danielle Noe, Mary B. McCann, John Speredakos, Lena Dunham, and Graham Reznick. MPI Media Group/Constructovision/RingtheJing Entertainment/Glass Eye Pix. Rated R. 95 minutes.
Ti West is one of the modern horror directors I think you could say is an auteur in his own right. All of his films have a similar feel, maybe all aside from The Sacrament, as in they’re all done on film (again aside from the aforementioned last of his films to come out), they have the full, rich look of movies from the 1970s and 1980s. Not only that, West is great at drawing out the tension of a film to create atmosphere and to setup excellent uses of suspense.
The House of the Devil is no exception. I’d actually seen this before any of his other work before, and loved it so much I went back to see anything else he’d done I could get my hands on. The Roost is a highly underrated indie horror gem, even Trigger Man – an early attempt at shooting digitally – has its merits. Since then he’s done The Sacrament, of which I’m a big fan, and another fun little spooky flick called The Innkeepers. Loves titles starting with The!
With this movie, West throws back to the ’70s/’80s Golden Age of Horror, not deliberately making a period piece but still harkening directly back to that time by use of similar techniques, camerawork, music, and aesthetic filmmakers were in the habit of using. Essentially, The House of the Devil ends up as West’s scary love letter to movies he grew up, the vibe of filmmaking happening at the time which influenced him, as well as he gives us a slow burn horror rooted in the false Satanic Panic especially prevalent during the 1980s. If you don’t like a slower paced film, this won’t be for you at all. If you don’t mind letting a horror build, letting it grow on you, then give it a shot; you will not regret it.
Trying to get out on her own, away from terrible roommate living, college student Samantha Hughes (Jocelin Donahue) ends up taking a mysterious job babysitting for Mr/Mrs. Ulman (Tom Noonan & Mary Woronov). Mysterious due to the fact the Ulmans don’t have a child. The job is, in reality, for Mrs. Ulman’s mother who lives with them. After some negotiating, Samantha gets a massive payday all for a single night. Her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) tags along to make sure everything is fine, and though not entirely satisfied she leaves Samantha at the house, almost literally in the middle of nowhere with the Ulmans.
And once they leave, Samantha slowly begins to feel as if something isn’t quite right in the big old house. Not to mention a young man named Victor (AJ Bowen) blasts Megan’s face off just a little ways down the road.
Nobody ever told Samantha babysitting would could be so hard.
There are lots of things to admire about The House of the Devil. While big films often try to go for period looks – such as how Martin Scorsese for instance did the different portions of his Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator according to how films looked at various instances throughout the 20th century – it is’t often an independent movie, horror at that, will try and emulate the particular look of certain decades. West not only shot this on film, but 16mm film, which gives it a great look that was very popular in the 1980s. Other ways West achieves his retro feel is through the zooms, nowadays a technique you’ll mostly see done through use of a dolly shot. Even right at the beginning with the freeze frame on Samantha, music playing, movie title in big block letters; totally ’80s style, through and through. Down to the fact this was the only movie since A History of Violence in 2005 which got released on VHS in one of the clamshell style cases, this is a unique and fun indie horror. So there’s a quaint charm about West’s film I feel gets lost on a lot of people who don’t care about any of that. Should you care? Well, that’s totally subjective. Me, I think there’s a certain artistry involved with all the care that goes into making a movie into more than just a movie, but instead making it become an experience. The House of the Devil, for me, has always been a solid horror while also very much being a horrifying experience all around because of its style.
When Samantha puts her ear close to the door, asking if “everything’s all right in there”, the slow and brief reveal West gives us of the Satanic-like markings, the bloodied corpses on the floor is shocking. It’s not shocking like the scene is going to make you gasp, or lose your breath and hide away. This shot and the scene is shocking in that you’re not expecting such blatant nastiness right behind the door. Even how slow West shows us what’s in the room is incredible, as I was expecting something more along the lines of the ‘mother’ in the dark, looking sinister in the corner, or anything close to that. Instead, it’s a pretty ballsy visual, such that West announces at this moment things are definitely going to start getting savage. At some point, anyways. Afterwards there are more moments of horror later like this, and also some key shots of very dreamy imagery in certain scenes. Generally, West strikes a nice balance between these two methods.
When Samantha discovers the full extent of what’s happening in the house (think: drinking blood from a horned skull), the plot takes us into the depths of horror. Mixing subtle creepiness with plenty solid doses of nasty violence, the finale of the film plays out with pumping adrenaline in a sequence washed with blood. In particular, a few shots remind me of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, almost homage-like cuts to a hooded demonic character much like how Friedkin made several subliminal cuts to the Pazuzu demon in his film.
Most of all, I found the atmosphere of the film combined with the characters pretty damn eerie. Such as the Ulman family themselves. First there’s Tom Noonan whose creepiness knows no bounds, never once calling back to his stint as The Tooth Fairy a.k.a Francis Dolarhyde in Michael Mann’s Manhunter, which is an unfair criticism of his acting I often see when he plays in horror movies; here, his character is all its own and he plays it quietly with great nuance. Then Mary Woronov does a spectacularly unsettling job with the character of Mrs. Ulman, even in the brief time she’s actually onscreen. Of course, Jocelin Donahue as Samantha is a perfect fit – she’s an ongoing yet at times quiet sort of person, but there’s a strength Donahue gives the character which is really great and adds something to the story. Throw in AJ Bowen and Greta Gerwig as interesting, smaller characters, and I’ve got to say West’s screenplay is a tight one with plenty of intrigue and none of the heavy, sagging exposition of other horror movies trying to spell every last thing out through dialogue.
This is a great film, 5 stars in my book. Ti West could’ve done a typical slasher with this, however, he opts to draw on his biggest influences from the ’70s/’80s and some of the real life yet fake claims of Satanic Ritual Abuse from decades ago, crafting a unique indie horror experience. Great and classic sensibilities show in the way West handles his directorial duties, as well as his writing. I can’t say anything else except for: watch it. Maybe you won’t dig it. But those who are into a slow burn, atmospheric type of horror, it’s full of that and it’s only a little over an hour.
Let me know what you think of the movie in the comments below, as long as you can be civil and have a proper talk!