Now Fear This: Hellbound: Hellraiser II

Clive Barker, early advocate of acupuncture.

Whenever any halfway decent sequel comes out, critics bust out the boilerplate and claim that it’s better than the original. Yet if you wait a year, talk to actual fans, the number of films where this is actually true drops off sharply. Only a few have held onto the title, movies from franchises with names like Godfather, Terminator, and Star Wars. I would add the second Hellraiser film to that list, with the caveat that it’s not as good as the ones above. Or maybe I just want to use Hellraiser and Godfather in the same sentence.

Hellbound: Hellraiser II is better than the first Hellraiser movie. Depending on your opinion of that first one, I could merely be damning with faint praise. But the Hellraiser franchise, despite only two good entries (and six nigh-unwatchable ones), have a hallowed place amongst horror fans. Part of this is that they’re the creation of legendary horror author Clive Barker, and the first attempt to bring his rather uncomfortable highly-sexual aesthetic to movie theaters. The other is that Pinhead (known as Priest in the original script, or simply “Lead Cenobite” before the fan-nickname took hold) is a great character. Instantly iconic, along with his other three Cenobites, he manages to be both an incredible design while saying some of the coolest shit it is possible for a bad guy to say. How do you not love a villain who tells someone their “suffering will be legendary, even in hell”?

I saw the original Hellraiser when I was too young. Then again, I’m not sure there is an appropriate age for a film so steeped in an extreme interpretation of S&M. I have to chalk this one to the ‘80s being a vastly different time. I did see the movie early enough that I hadn’t even heard the name “Pinhead,” though (and if fact assumed those were nails in his face). I only had the vaguest idea of what was really going on, though the dark brilliance of it all was captivating. There was no one else out there doing what Barker was doing: harnessing the over-the-top sexuality of movies like The Hunger and Cat People, then marrying them with the fashions of Road Warrior and the gore of a slasher picture.

The sequel was just as much of a revelation. The modern blockbuster-driven studio system has done everything it can to remove the quirky corners of movie universes. Every question needs an answer, every line has to have a point. Yet one of the things I love about the time before was the way the movies always seemed to much bigger than they actually were. By leaving these unanswered questions, they created soil rich enough to be strip mined in this modern age. The only reason Terminator as a franchise can spawn five movies and a good TV show from a single low-budget horror movie is that there were evocative speeches and great throwaway lines.

Barker excels at this kind of storytelling. The man cannot write a simple horror short without hinting at some vast mythology just out of reach of the pages. His novella — and yes, all nine (and counting) Hellraiser movies are based on a single novella — creates this idea of angels of sensation, humans who found pleasure and pain so extreme they have been hopelessly mutilated into supernatural beings. These creatures, the Cenobites, can contacted through the use of a puzzle box (known as a Lament Configuration because Barker is the best at naming things). The first movie, written and directed by Barker, is the story of a man who found the Cenobites and now wants to escape with the help of his brother’s wife, with whom he has been having an affair. Kirsty, his niece, is the film’s Final Girl, managing to return her murderous uncle to the clutches of the Cenobites before banishing everyone before she becomes a guest star of Robert Mapplethorpe’s Saw.

The sequel finds her confined to a mental institution. Unfortunately for Kirsty, the institute is under the control of Dr. Channard, a brain surgeon who is absolutely obsessed with the Cenobites.

“Let’s see, Pinhead’s the cute one, Butterball’s the shy one, and Chatterer is the funny one!”

Using the mattress where Julia, Kirsty’s adulterous stepmother was killed, and a crazy person who wants nothing more than to cut the phantom maggots off his body with a straight razor, Channard summons Julia back out of hell in one of the most over-the-top gore scenes in movie history. It seems like a redux of the first, with Julia standing in for Frank, but Julia has motives of her own that are not apparent until much later, creating a far more layered villain. The gore effects here are a triumph, with the most striking scene of a skinless Julia standing in a bloodstained white suit in the middle of Channard’s antiseptic house.

Channard’s other tool is the catatonic Tiffany, a girl who compulsively works puzzles while remaining lost inside her trauma. When he hands her one of the three Lament Configurations he owns(!), she quickly solves it and opens a portal. The Cenobites emerge, ready to carve her into something more disturbing when Pinhead stops them. “It is not hands that summon us. It is desire,” he says, continuing his trend of saying awesome things. He leaves the door open, and soon Kirsty and Tiffany, Channard and Julia, are exploring Hell. It’s about as pleasant as it sounds.

This created a huge springboard for subsequent stories. While the movies that followed this one were increasingly silly — and Hell on Earth is already plenty stupid — the comic series was excellent. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, comics were often the best place to follow a beloved property as it expanded its world. The Aliens comics are vastly superior to Alien 3 and Resurrection and the anthology Hellraiser book isn’t even the same species as the later films. It is the lesson of Hellbound that the comics follow, exploring the idea of the hierarchy that’s already emerging in Hell. At the top, there is Leviathan, a rotating shard that spews blackness and dissonant chords. Why would the lord of a dimension of flesh be a nearly featureless polygon? Why do some of the devotees become Cenobites while others are confined to torment like Frank? The comics spent a lot of ink and nightmares answering some of these questions, and in the process created more Cenobites to add to the menagerie.

None of that would have been possible without Hellraiser II, the last of the good Hellraiser movies. It’s a sprawling story, featuring two worthy heroines going up against the kinds of villains who would make Batman shit his tights. It drops so many hints, asks so many questions, that even my mind, too young to have seen it, was already feverishly filling in the blanks. Much like the Alien series, Hellraiser will always be two movies and then the comics for me. This film blazed the trail, and though it is an oddity, I remain a devoted fan.

I initially thought this was far too popular a movie to be included in Now Fear This. It seems as though the later installments have done what not even Dr. Channard could: it blunted Pinhead’s effectiveness as a horror icon. Now, the first two movies, and especially the superior second, stand as gems waiting to be rediscovered by a new generation of horror fans.

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Best of Yakmala 2015: Invisible Child

title cardOh, yes, there is one more Best of Yakmala inductee for the year. This is the film that almost always gets away … except someone in the group will say a line or invoke Maggie and we all remember. The stickiness in our consciousness made it inevitable that Invisible Child would join the table of champions.

Just not the year we saw it.

From the moment Justin heard about the film via the We Hate Movies podcast (a great source of bad movie options, but not all of them fit the criteria for Yakmala selection), he talked it up as a great discovery. I listened to the episode and immediately order a copy. The film, a 1999 Lifetime-ish movie starring Rita Wilson as a woman who invents a third child, is a delight. Originally screened during a program that featured the bonkers After Last Season and Best of Yakmala 2014 entry Song of the Blind Girl, the film lost out to the true insanity of Blind Girl, but I expected it to win the day. Instead, it won a place in our memories, getting more than one shoutout during episodes of New Satellite Show. This year, it took a seat at the table of champions based on how it just stuck with us.

A British Person, apparently living out of her car, takes a job caring for the children in the Beeman family: oldest daughter Rebecca — known primarily as “Doc” — younger brother Sam and five-year-old Maggie. There’s one important problem with Maggie that father Tim Beeman (Victor Garber) is forthright about from the get-go; she doesn’t exist. Granted, he doesn’t explain why his wife, Annie (Wilson), suddenly decided to carry on with an imaginary daughter until much, much later. British Person, in dire need of cash and a bed, decides to accommodate Maggie. Doc quickly shows her how difficult it can be to take care of an invisible child when playing on the swings outside. Turns out Maggie was her room the whole time.

Doc is, in many ways, the standout character. Played by Mae Whitman (yes, her.), she is something of a sociopath in training. In learning to cope with her mother’s particular brand of lunacy, Doc is adept at lying to maintain the illusion of Maggie. She goes as far as to eat Maggie’s servings at dinner and engineer a finger paintings by the invisible child when the family goes to Sam’s preschool. The film is accidentally chilling for just how convincing Whitman, and by extension Doc, is with bold-faced untruth.

But since this is a Best of Yakmala selection, you might be wondering how it’s bad if I’m lauding a (then) child actor’s performance. This brings us back to one of the most important principles in Yakmala movie-watching: intent. Invisible Child, with its commercial breaks and late 90s Lifetime production values, intends to be a serious film about an absurdly specific mental illness. I have no idea if make-believe children is a widespread affectation of a particular disorder, but the film seems to think its as ubiquitous as bulimia and Epstein-Barr Syndrome were in made-for-TV movies at the time. The only problem is that Annie’s affliction is never defined.

Why don't Tim Beeman tell us about his wife?

Tim Beeman always has a bit of a murderface.

Roughly an hour into the film, Tim Beeman finally explains to British Person where Maggie came from. One day, Annie came home with infant formula and other baby supplies. She claimed she’d just given birth to a daughter. At first, he thought it was a joke, but maintaining her reality became a second full time job (his primary job is that movieville staple of architect). But even in this bit of expository dialogue — delivered while Tim Beeman makes a pizza — we’re still left with his wife just deciding to invent a child. There’s not even a pop psychology slant to her malady despite the film’s dead serious tone. This primary flaw in the storytelling seriously compromises the film, but its dedication to its hazy raison d’etre makes it endlessly entertaining.

There are also outright amazing moments, like when Rita Wilson makes a woman wait outside an empty bathroom stall because Maggie is using it, and scenes that make you think Tim Beeman is going to cheat on his wife with British Person. I mean, it’s 1999, you got a hot tub, a British au pair and a man seriously starved for some adult affection. These are off-the-shelf pieces that would lead immediately to infidelity in any other film of this ilk. Surprisingly, Invisible Child chooses not to go down this path. Instead, British Person helps the Beemans maintain Annie’s delusion; going so far as to lie to the child-welfare social worker.

Oh, I have to talk about the social worker.

So, in a normal film, Tim Beeman or Annie would be the antagonist, but since they’re not, the film introduces a social worker desperately looking for evidence of abuse because British Person told her about Maggie. Yeah, structure is not the film’s strong suit, so she really doesn’t become important until the last half-hour. Oh, but what a finale. Tim Beeman, Doc and British Person go to the welfare office to sit before a … I guess a tribunal. He somehow manages to keep his wife and Sam out of the proceedings, but the others all explain away Maggie as an imaginary friend Doc passed onto Sam. Oh, but it’s Doc’s most chilling and amazing performance; have a look for yourself:

We all imagine the grown-up Doc has a collection of women in her basement that she’s conditioning to be Maggie.

So after Doc’s tour de force puts the social worker’s job in peril, the family heads home to learn that Maggie is very sick. Everyone spontaneously says their goodbyes to her and Tim Beeman “buries” her in the yard. The film hard-stops at this point still leaving its primary question unanswered. “Why don’t Tim Beeman kill his wife?”

Despite its whopping story problems, Invisible Child is quite enjoyable. It’s competently put together and rolls fast through its 93 minutes. Mae Whitman and Victor Garber are great talents and they do their best with the muddled script. Its problems also lead to the unintended reading of the film as “A Serial Killer Begins,” which adds to the hilarity of watching it in a group setting. Of our many Best of Yakmala selections, it’s probably the most gentle, but still one of the most memorable.

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Liner Notes: The Last Son of Ahriman

Tentacles! Tentacles everywhere!

Tentacles! Tentacles everywhere!

Between this blog and my feature over at Fanboy, I think I’ve come out as an avid roleplaying gamer at least half a dozen times. For some reason, it still feels like this weird, shameful secret. Probably because it sort of was back before the internet let everyone know that no matter how odd the hobby, there was a vibrant subculture that was at least as militant about it as you were. You like to put oxen on trampolines? Awesome, there’s a name for that. Microbrewer who likes to dress up as personifications of Jungian archetypes? They have a website. At this point, confessing to tabletop gaming is about as strange as admitting you have a breathing addiction.

Roleplaying was essentially on-the-job training for my present career. I spent a lot of time creating characters and telling stories. By the time I started writing books, I already had a couple decades of spectacularly unfocused practice. I have mined my games for characters in previously published work. Vassily “the Whale” Zhukovsky was a ghoul in my Vampire game, while Heather Marie Tooms was originally a dude and my character in a short-lived Hunter game. Nothing I’ve written has quite as strong a connection as my most recent novel The Last Son of Ahriman.

When I was given the opportunity to join a long-running already-in-progress Champions game, I wanted to play a character that drew on my favorite parts of ‘70s comics, specifically horror, cosmic power, and dark, gothic heroes out for revenge (there’s an issue of Rom Spaceknight that bridges this gap perfectly, and is one of the Rosetta Stones of my aesthetic). Cosmic horror was pioneered by Lovecraft, and yes, I am a huge fan of both his work and the RPG it spawned. I took these ideas and created a magical hero whose power source was the very Outer God he was sworn to fight. Fighting fire with fire is one thing. Fighting Cthulhu with Cthulhu is another thing entirely.

“Well… he’s at least a little less non-Euclidean now…”

Because of the versatility of Champions, I was able to do some weird stuff. My favorite was a semi-uncontrollable telekinesis that was actually a swarm of shadow gremlin things who liked to cause as much trouble as they could. This made it into the book largely intact, because, come on. I’m only human.

In fact, a lot of it did. After writing The Dollmaker I was looking for something a little more lighthearted. Of course, there are puppy funerals that are more lighthearted than Dollmaker, so this tale of a boy orphaned and forced to take his brother’s birthright to restore his sister’s soul qualified. I intended Last Son as a comic book novel (hell, the title references one of Superman’s nickname). While it has horror elements, I was a bit surprised when its eventual publisher straight-up called it horror. But my horror is the black tar heroin of the genre, so anything less doesn’t quite cut it. I thought that this story of a high school kid would be a fun change of pace, and let me explore this YA thing I’d been hearing so much about. I decided the best way to approach it would be to write the kind of book I would have wanted to read at 14-16.

While Simon’s origin story in the book was the same (he got a name change, though, because I used that character’s name elsewhere), I knew I had to give him a supporting cast. Photon, Multiman, and Densiton weren’t going to be around. Also, selling the idea of superpowers and cosmic horror was going to be a bit of a problem as well. So I complicated it from a character standpoint by giving him a supporting cast, and simplified it by making all other superpowered characters into mages.

I don’t remember if the idea of the Fallen Mages was in the original Champions character. I want to say yes, but I created him something like fifteen years ago. You could tell me I originally gave him Arby’s based powers and I’d at least entertain the thought. I know that the conception of the Order of Ahriman came from seeing The Empire Strikes Back when I was little. Yoda’s warnings about the Dark Side, both that it was easier and that a single slip-up would forever turn you evil, pretty much haunted me since hearing it. Empire was the first movie I ever saw in the theater, though I was much too young to really understand what was going on. Apparently, a lot of hands were cut off in preschool games of pretend after that.

So this idea, that Falling was incredibly easy and almost a good idea gave me the drama. Ahriman, which was who was I now calling the star/planet/god now (Zoroastrianism, you know, for kids!), was a known threat. The only ones who could stand against it were those who siphoned its power to fight it, and summoned monsters from it. They were also ticking time bombs ready to transform into Darth Vader at a moment’s notice. It would be easy for the other mages in the world (part of the origin, as the founder of the Order of Ahriman was some other kind of mage before figuring out how to link himself to Ahriman) to think that the cost outweighed the benefit. We see a little of them in the first book, and we’ll see a whole lot more in the second (already in second-draft form) and the third.

Simon was a challenge to write, and I’m not sure I entirely succeeded. He’s lost his parents and his older brother — who he worshiped but also resented in that way only younger siblings truly understand — and he’s accidentally bound himself to an Outer God. He’s consumed with grief at the same time an insane monster is infecting him with evil. Plus, he’s kind of awful. I’m hoping that the change he goes through, from being too wrapped up in himself on the way to being a hero is a real one, and I hope that people will stick with Simon through his early dickishness to the end.

When I originally outlined the series, I identified three goals for Simon. The first was restoring his sister’s soul. The second two are the basis of the second and third books. It felt organic to do this kind of trilogy, writing the book I wish I could have read then. The irony is that while I couldn’t have read it, Simon as a Champions character was only a few years away.

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Nay for Comics

It’s a good thing I’m sick today and cannot write a full appraisal of what’s been going on in comics this week, because between the Batgirl variant cover and the Chris Sims debate, I’m left only thinking “nay for comics.” I know I try to keep my irregular comics column positive, avoiding the ongoing inequities and abuse that occur in its fandoms and business practices, but it’s hard this week not to look at them as they stare in me in the face and bubble up to the surface with friends taking opposite viewpoints from my own.

However, I am also feverish, sneezing and otherwise unwell, so I think, for now, I’ll just ask a few questions the last few days have brought up for me.

1. At what point does a legitimate concern become “backlash”, “outrage” or the cries of the “moral police?” At what point is okay to discount a group’s concerns? In the case of the Batgirl cover, DC Comics and artist Raphael Albuquerque chose to take the legitimate concerns with the cover — showing Batgirl as a helpless victim at the mercy of the Joker, echoing back to her apparent rape in The Killing Joke — and accept them at face value, removing the cover from its upcoming variants cover program celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Joker’s first appearance. A friend complained that DC was too weak-willed to publish the “controversial” cover and suggested this was censorship. It left me questioning at what point a corporation’s choice not to do something is a valid as their choice to do something. If corporations are given the same rights and responsibilities as people, are they not allowed to reconsider one of their marketing initiatives?

2. At what point do we truly accept that people have changed? Over the weekend, I went to a party manly attended by friends from college. Several noted a certain change in me from the vitriol and contempt I once held for just about everything (even something as silly as Julia Roberts — a person once referred to only as “Eric Roberts Ugly Sister” on this very blog). Disclosure: for the later half of the 2oth Century, I was an asshole. My angers led my thoughts and, well, at some point I learned empathy and awareness. It short-circuits so much anger to be able to see beyond yourself. It’s also led to an overall sense of well-being in myself … though, I’d be lying it I didn’t admit that it’s still tough some days to avoid general negativity. I bring this up because of Chris Sims and his apology for being a shit seven or so years ago to Valerie D’Orazio and leading the active and constant harassment of her in various online quarters. Since nothing disappears on the Internet, at what point do we forgive someone for their younger days and ill-considered actions? Do we punish a person filled with hate five years after they’ve learned better? Ten years? Twenty? The Internet also shows us that Sims has worked actively against his old proclivities and yet … it still feels like some sort of atonement is required. Should he lose his upcoming writing gig at Marvel for helping to shatter a former Marvel writer’s livelihood and interest in comics? Should he resign from Comics Alliance despite using that platform to decry the very bullying he perpetrated years before? To bring it back to empathy, at what point do we extend our awareness to his mea culpa and not assume he’s just trying to cover his own ass?

Clearly, these are not easily reconciled issues; and as comics — both the artform and the industry — grows up, it must confront more and more of these topics at blinding speed. But, hopefully, we will soon be able to shout Yay for comics again sometime soon. Until then, let’s keep growing. We’ll be better off for asking these questions and trying to find answers.

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Yakmala: Barbarian Queen

Not quite sure where the extra barbarian came from.

I first became aware of Barbarian Queen in the distant days before Yakmala when I went to a friend’s house for a bad movie night. Remember when I complained about all the rapeyness in Deathstalker? Well, this one is so bad, my friend posited that the world of Barbarian Queen operates entirely on a rape-based economy. Yeah… so that’s the kind of thing we’re dealing with here.

Tagline: No man can touch her naked steel

More Accurate Tagline: Pretty much everyone is going to touch whatever they want

Guilty Party: Writer Howard R. Cohen, who also wrote the first, fourth, and possibly third Deathstalker movies, Emmanuelle 5, eight episodes of Rainbow Brite, and a couple episodes of something called Lady Lovelylocks and the Pixietails. I don’t know if that last one is a Saturday morning cartoon targeted at girls or something you see on Cinemax after midnight. Maybe both.

Synopsis: In what we now have to acknowledge is Howard R. Cohen’s trademark, we open on a rape. Those had to be really upsetting episodes of Rainbow Brite is what I’m trying to say here. This time, a pair of black-armored men capture blonde Taramis by the river. Fortunately, it’s an ‘80s movie rape instead of a ‘70s one, so we don’t have to stick around and watch.

Then we’re at a peaceful village of barbarians, where everyone is dressed like a bunch of butt rockers doing an offensive Native American video. It’s the wedding day for Amethea (Lana Clarkson), and Argan (some guy reading off cue cards). While they fret over Taramis (she’s Amethea’s sister), a whole bunch of black armor guys come in, rape, kill, pillage, and cart off everyone as slaves. The only ones that remain are Amethea, wimpy Estrild (Katt Shea), and badass Tiniara. They decide to head off to rescue their pals. Unfortunately, they are wildly, recklessly incompetent at nearly everything.

Which is why they were quickly hired by DC Comics.

On their first stop, they find a bad guy outpost where Taramis is being held. She has also been at least mildly brainwashed here, though I’m not sure how much brain there was to wash in the first place. Amethea and Tiniara ruthlessly butcher the bad guys using a combination of cautious stuntwork and flinching swordplay.

Then they run into a band of surly rebels. I never caught their names, so I’m calling the leader Eyepatch for obvious reasons, and his daughter Jody, because she looks like every character from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s named Jody. Jody is all for joining Team Barbarian Queen — which for her mainly consists of standing about fifteen feet away with no expression on her face — but Eyepatch thinks they’re troublemakers. Eventually, they get the good guys into the bad guys’ walled town through an underground passage beneath a cloth-dyeing facility.

Taramis wanders off, and when Estrild follows, two guards capture Estrild, rape her and throw her into the dungeon. And the rape is just that perfunctory. It’s like how these assholes stamp passports or something. Amethea finds the captured menfolk being trained as gladiators, and then she and Tiniara get captured. Great job there, ladies.

It’s time for torture, because that’s what kind of movie we’re watching. Tiniara momentarily escapes, but is swiftly killed. Estrild gets thrown into the brothel/sex room where ladies service the gladiators. Taramis decides to become the kept woman of the bad guy leader. Amethea escapes — pretty awesomely for this movie, and we’ll get there — and somehow manages to engineer what is almost a plan.

The rebels suck, but there’s a lot of them. The gladiators are awesome, but there’s only a few of them. The plan kind of happens, and like everything else, it’s a total fiasco. Amethea fights the lead bad guy, who is this old fat dude, and she can’t even take him. Taramis has to snap out of it and shank him from behind.

But hey, the good guys won.

Life-Changing Subtext: Women can do anything a man can do, so long as they don’t mind being raped.

Defining Quote: “You went first last time. This one’s mine.” This is said by the guards right before they assault Elstrild. She’s a major character, and this is the respect the narrative shows her. It’s like they were checking the script and were all, “Howard, we have a mistake here… I don’t think Estrild gets raped.” “Oh, shit, we can just throw a little pickup scene in here. Good catch, man. Good catch.”

“Welcome, Mr. Cohen. I have such sights to show you.”

Standout Performance: I don’t know the actor’s real name or the character’s name, but the guy who runs the brothel thing that serves the gladiators is Varys. He’s not actually Varys, but he totally is. Only he throws a ridiculous fu manchu mustache on top of it, and plays the whole thing like that jerk on The Simpsons who says, “Yeeeeeees!”

What’s Wrong: Cohen appears to have been trying to make a distaff version of Deathstalker. This was a viable low-budget genre at the time, and it was chiefly known for people wandering around in not much clothes. Makes sense to grab a couple ladies from the nearest Ratt video, give them some swords, and film the results. I also — and this might be from the time I live — think that he was trying to make something at least a little empowering, albeit with the leering objectification of the time. As the synopsis hopefully makes clear, he did not succeed.

Flash of Competence: If you like ‘80s hair metal women, you could do a lot worse.

Best Scenes: There’s a character I really enjoy for no reason. In my notes he’s called Mustache, and he basically looks like one of those fat Coney Island strongmen from like 1850. Somehow he discovered time travel and appears in Barbarian Queen as a gladiator. He’s initially a rival for Argan, but then he joins the rebels, but in the final scene he decides, nope, he’s a double-traitor. It’s like he was written as a wrestler who can’t decide on his alignment. Maybe the whole story is a tragedy about Mustache’s undiagnosed Bipolar Disorder, and when Argan hugs him to death (that’s seriously what happens), we were supposed to weep.

Transcendent Moment: I mentioned that Amethea kills the torturer. It’s how she does it that’s special. She’s tied to this rack and the more she struggles, the tighter it gets. Because this is the kind of movie we’re dealing with, the torturer decides he’s going to rape her. Turns out, that was the wrong thing to do. Amethea has been super into her Kegels. She wraps him up and just squeezes like a python trying to get a bunny to pop. And it works. The torturer, panicking and in agony, unties her. Then she pushes him into a vat of acid.

Prince later wrote a song about it.

Barbarian Queen is pretty much everything bad about this specific subgenre. It’s a shame its occasional goofy charm is mired in all the misogyny.

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New Satellite Show Episode 23: Wanna Try?

An episode meant to celebrate Supergirl’s noncontroversial TV costume becomes a super-sized discussion of our final Best of Yakmala 2015 entry, “TalHotBlond.” Clint rants about the upcoming NIMH remake/prequel while Sarah attempts to outline a new TV series about a ghost stripper trying to find a place to live. Supergirl’s costume also gets discussed. Host: Erik. Panel of Experts: Justin, Sarah, Clint.

Click here or subscribe on iTunes.

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Lifetime Theater: Amanda Knox: Murder on Trial in Italy

Like the majority of the civilized world, I spent the latter half of last year listening to Serial. While I can’t call my interest an obsession — a friend of mine has taken that term and now holds it in a death grip she will never release it from — I was enthralled by the story of Adnan Syed. I’ve always had an interest in true crime, I suspect because I have yet to be a victim of anything truly horrible, and thus it’s darkly entertaining rather than PTSD-inducing. One of the more irresponsible, yet completely irresistible, consequences of the true crime genre is that it pretty much guarantees you’re going to speculate and even decide on everyone’s guilt or innocence. You know, that whole thing that we have a ridiculously complicated justice system to deal with. We’re not going to get the full story, but the format, whether it’s movie, podcast, article, or anything else, makes us feel like we are. So by the end of it, we “know” who is guilty and who is innocent, and that’s kind of a terrible thing.

Except, come on, we all know Jay did it.

This week’s movie is one such example. I read the case in the two phases of public opinion it went through. I had assumed everyone was on the same page about Knox’s guilt, but after talking it over with friends, that appears not to be the case. Then again, my entire knowledge of the case comes from the original news coverage, some later articles, and of course, this production from the good people at Lifetime. What do I actually, for sure know? Not much. Yeah, I’m a published detective novelist, but that doesn’t mean I know shit. If I try the case entirely from what I’ve seen? Foxy Knoxy is innocent.

This is another one of those movies that feels like it’s straddling the Lifetime of the past and the Lifetime of the future. It’s the story of a mother and a daughter (and two father-figures who have like three lines of dialogue between them) persevering over a corrupt system more interested in slut-shaming than justice. It’s also a Law & Order-ready retelling of a famous case. Unlike some of the other recent Lifetime productions, that really look like they’re trying to look like, you know, actual movies, this one is shot almost like a sitcom, with the overwrought performances the casual viewer has come to expect. Yes, there are times where this retelling of the tragic murder of a young woman is fucking hilarious. I feel like maybe Meredith Kercher deserved better.

That’s the crux of the story. Meredith Kercher was a British exchange student studying in Perugia, Italy and living in a house with three other young women, including Amanda Knox of Seattle, Washington (played here by Hayden “the Cheerleader” Panettiere). I have no idea if the depiction of Perugia is accurate, but if it is, holy shit, the streets are paved with weed there. It’s less a town and more an object lesson in why parents should never allow their kids out of the country. That was probably the intent of the movie in the first place. “See, if you go to Italy, you’ll have premarital sex with a creepy Italian programmer, do all the drugs ever, then get implicated in a horrific murder.”

Knox returns home one morning after a night of sex and drugs with the aforementioned programmer, Raffaele Sollecito to find a little blood in the bathroom and a locked door. The cops fortuitously just show up and break into Meredith’s room (the door’s locked and she never does that), and find her dead on the floor. The cops quickly focus on Knox, whose alibi is shaky, whose behavior is strange, and who gets fingered (not like that) by some inconvenient, though not damning, eyewitnesses. They even get a bit of a confession from Knox, who also implicates her boss, Patrick Lumumba. Open and shut, right? Let’s do to her whatever it is Italians do to criminals. I’m guessing feed them substandard lasagna and table wine?

When you’re here, you’re guilty of a crime.

Not so fast. Here’s the thing: there’s really no physical evidence implicating Knox (or, obviously, Lumumba). The extremely salacious tale cooked up by the prosecution — an argument turned to gang rape turned to accidental murder — looks to be just that. The only witness against Knox is the guy they eventually convicted of committing the murder, and he got a reduced sentence in exchange for the testimony. As for Knox implicating herself, it was like the Italian cops read up on how to elicit a false confession. Well, not the cheesy montage part. That was all Lifetime. As was the weird focus on that scene on her water cup. This… this is not the best one of their movies.

Meanwhile, Marcia Gay Harden plays Knox’s mom, who would also be the POV character for who Lifetime imagines their average viewer to be. So while Amanda herself has some flaws — sex, drugs, and not cleaning up the bathroom — Edda Mellas (she remarried, and still is on good terms with Amanda’s father) is allowed to be relatively perfect. Lifetime moms come in two varieties, the steely matriarch who crushes opposition with righteous cowgirl lightning, and the weepy-yet-determined mama who didn’t ask for this, thank you, but she’s going to get through it one way or the other. Mellas is the second, and she kind of doesn’t, as history has conspired to make this Lifetime movie end on a bit of a down note. Knox was convicted of the murder and got twenty-six years.

Because the Italian justice system was based on the Roman system of “let’s all drink water our of lead pipes and see what happens,” it’s completely bananas. Knox appealed and won her case, but then was re-tried (double-jeopardy is not a thing over there, except on Jeopardy), and convicted again. I think she even got a worse sentence the second time, too. Knox was no dummy and now lives in the States. While I’m certain the Italian government would like her extradited, the State Department has presumably replied to any such requests with a few condescending chuckles.

So why is Knox still convicted in the minds of the public? Well, there’s the obvious: she might have done it. I don’t think she did because of my deeply flawed understanding of the case. I think that a drooling press corps — the term “paparazzi,” is, after all, Italian — took a pretty American college student who was enjoying the freedom of living in Perugia and again, this place seems like a nonstop ‘70s party, and assigned her guilt. Some of this was due to her having a lot of sex and attempting to smoke her weight in hash, but isn’t that the purpose of college? As for why she might not have been super-deeply effected by the murder on an emotional level: She knew Kercher for all of two months. Remember, the best motive the cops could come up with was “they fought about cleaning the bathroom.”

So what did we learn? “Foxy Knoxy” was a nickname that comes from her pee wee soccer team, suggesting that if I ever have a daughter, I won’t let her play soccer in Seattle. We also learned that the Italian police are just as devoted to false confessions as the LAPD, and that if they get one out of you, don’t implicate anybody else. Unless they promise you reduced jail time, in which case go nuts.

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