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Welcome back to Trilogy of Terror, a series in which I take an in-depth look at three related horror films in the run-up to Halloween. This is the first installment in our trilogy; the second will go live October 24, and the third on Halloween itself.

The films I feature in Trilogy of Terror could be films in the same series, films by the same director, films with a common theme, or films with any relationship, really. This year I’m covering Christian horror. Which, evidently, exists.

Part of the reason I chose this theme was that I wanted to watch Harmless.

Okay, let me take that back, because that’s a lie, and we know where liars go. What I wanted to watch was “that movie about the haunted box of pornography.” That’s all I remembered…that unforgettable and thoroughly ridiculous concept for a film that really, truly couldn’t be anything short of hilarious in execution.

For a while, this movie seemed to be everywhere. Sites I frequented were writing about it and friends were sharing the trailer on Facebook. It looked like a riot. It was, so far as I could tell, a found-footage horror film about a man whose family is terrorized by the monster he let loose in their lives…which hitched a ride, apparently, in a box full of pornographic magazines.

I couldn’t remember its title, and I didn’t even know if it had come out…but I knew I’d seen the trailer making the rounds years ago, and surely it couldn’t take that long to make.

And, to be fair, while I had no faith (haha) in the film being good, it wasn’t necessarily doomed from the outset. Yes, it would be low budget. Yes, it would be preachy. Yes, it would be overacted.

But pornography addiction is a very real thing. It’s an actual problem, like any addiction is. And there could possibly be some twisted mileage to get out of turning it into a horror film, with the demon of addiction personified. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I can imagine it working. It would need to be self-aware and at least periodically humorous, but I can see the concept being conducive to exploring addiction — and the way it can tear families apart — in a memorable and interesting way.

After all, isn’t fighting addiction a lot like fighting demons? (The answer is “yes” because that’s exactly the idiom people use to describe that situation.) A movie can bring a demon to life and force the characters (and us) to look it in the eye. The fact that a spiritual filmmaker might see that demon as real and a secular one might see it as a useful metaphor is a big difference, but that shouldn’t in itself dictate how believable or enjoyable the film is.

Unfortunately, it looks like Harmless was never actually made. The trailer lives on, but evidently Rich Praytor — the film’s director — shot footage just for this purpose. They weren’t clips from a film he was making, but rather proofs of concept. I have to give him credit for that. It was a labor of love, and he edited this trailer hoping people would buy in.

I mean that literally. Harmless was a Kickstarter project that failed to meet its paltry goal of $12,500. It pulled in just under $600 in pledges before Praytor saw the writing on the wall and cancelled the campaign.

Of course, as someone who has his own failed Kickstarter behind him, I don’t see that as a specific reason for mockery. Praytor had an idea and he asked the world if it was interested. The world collectively replied, “Nah,” and he moved on with his life. All in all, that’s admirable.

That was in 2012, and as much as I scoured the internet in the hopes that Harmless eventually materialized in some other form, I found nothing. There are sites (including IMDB) that claim it was released, but there’s no evidence of it, the Kickstarter was cancelled, and there are other sources that indeed say the film never happened. The world is poorer for it.

And yet, in 2014, another Richard Praytor film appeared. This one was called The Lock In. And it was a found-footage horror film about teens who are terrorized by the monster they let loose in their lives…which hitched a ride, apparently, in a pornographic magazine.

Harmless may have died, but its spirit rose again in The Lock In. And thus we have this year’s Trilogy of Terror.

Unless it’s relevant to the film — or my reading thereof — I wouldn’t usually bring up outside details of a director’s life. But in this case, looking for Harmless, I came across a lot of information about Praytor. Not as a filmmaker, but as a stand-up comedian. You can watch the nearest thing to a highlight reel here. To his credit, he received an endorsement of his talents from Jerry Jenkins, co-author of the Left Behind series. To his larger discredit, the Left Behind series is by no means known for its quality and completely lacks a sense of humor, so these words of praise are exactly as relevant to his craft as they would be coming from his local butcher.

I’m mentioning this because…well, Christian entertainers gonna entertain Christians. I get it. But what was this tepid, family-friendly chuckle-slinger doing investing himself into two different horror movie projects? If Praytor’s gift is comedy, and that’s the talent he’s honed for over a decade now, and what he uses to speak what he considers to be the language of Christ, then why wasn’t he making comedy films instead? Especially as the premise of a spooky porno book would have to work far less hard to succeed as farce than it would as horror?

I honestly have no idea, and I’m baffled. Praytor’s comedy in that compilation isn’t the sort of thing that appeals to me directly, but there’s clearly room for it. I don’t find it especially smart or clever, but I can’t imagine there are many church-appropriate stand-up comedians jostling for the space he occupies. I’d be willing to believe he’s filling a niche. But having watched The Lock In, I’d be unwilling to believe it was directed by anyone with a single funny bone in his body.

The Lock In is terrible, but that’s not its crime. Many movies are terrible and yet compulsively, deliriously watchable. Mystery Science Theater 3000 launched a widespread appreciation of cheesy movies, and the genuine financial success of things like The Room and Sharknado proves that people don’t always need a movie to be good before they’ll devote their time to it…they just need to get some kind of pleasure out of it. Watching the wheels fall off an inept production does bring along with it a kind of thrill, and it’s one that sticks with us. We could watch hundreds of competent ballet performances, but we’re always going to remember the one in which the lead dancer tripped and fell over.

The Lock In, though, is neither competent nor is it humorously awful. It’s just a bad movie. It’s one that does nothing right, but also fails to do anything wrong in any interesting ways. It’s the kind of movie that might have been made by somebody who spent a few hours reading about what movies were, but had never actually seen one.

Praytor doesn’t seem to know enough about film to even attempt anything interesting, and so nothing in the film is. And when the central threat of your film is a pornography ghost, that’s both a real problem and a big missed opportunity.

The plot is simple enough. (Beware of spoilers for a movie you’ve never heard of and which isn’t available for purchase anywhere.)

On their way to a church lock-in, three friends stop to clean out their car. Justin is the one holding the camera, Nick is the nice one who has a crush on a girl named Jessica, and Blake is a prankster. Blake finds a dirty magazine in a dumpster, and thinks it would be funny to smuggle it into church.

He does, and strange things start happening, such as a garbage can falling over, and somebody off camera turning on a faucet. All of the other lock-in participants vanish, leaving the three teenaged idiots to be mildly inconvenienced in the least inventive ways imaginable. At one point they find another of the participants, but then she vanishes again, so there was really no point. The kids scream a lot, and eventually Praytor hits the 90-minute mark and the film ends.

If that sounds impressively unfun for a movie about a pornography demon, that’s because it is. At every opportunity, Praytor chooses the least interesting way forward. But he does — stopped clock that he is — hit upon a strong concept for the film’s presentation right out of the gate. It’s not original, but it’s appropriate, and it sets the film into a kind of identifiable logic that, sadly, falls apart the longer you look at it.

It begins with what should be a brief interview of Chris, a former youth pastor. I say it should be brief because it actually runs to nearly five minutes, which is a Hell of a long time for a character we don’t know to speak dead-eyed to the camera before the movie even starts.

Chris mentions that footage exists of the lock-in that made him resign from his position as youth pastor, and they’ve edited it down to just the highlights so that the church elders could see what happened. Then there’s a static title card that says:

The following footage is intended for review only by the church board. Any duplication or reproduction is strictly prohibited.

That’s good. It tells us immediately what kind of film we’re going to see (found footage), it explains why this footage happens to be the same length as a movie (it was edited to give a specific audience a beat-by-beat overview of what happened), and it makes us feel as though we’re going to see something important (we’re breaking the strict prohibition by not being a church elder / member of the church board).

That single slide does a lot of work setting the film into motion. Sadly, it’s about the only thing that works, but Praytor at least plays into the kinds of things you can do with the concept. By allowing some unknown editor within the world of his film to “edit” what we’re seeing, we aren’t subject to an hour and a half of unbroken footage directly from the perspective of Justin’s camcorder.

Instead, this was assembled after the fact, with the ostensible goal of providing as full a view of that night’s events as possible, Praytor lets his phantom editor splice in security camera footage, Chris’s interview, and, at one point, footage from a separate recording that has nothing to do with the lock-in but does provide further insight into what’s happening.

That’s all fine. In theory.

In practice, these aspects all fall short. The spliced-in separate recording (which we’ll discuss in greater detail later) doesn’t offer as much insight (or horror) as Praytor thinks it does. The security camera footage could provide a valuable outsider’s perspective, but all it really shows us is a second angle of kids walking down hallways. And nearly all of the film — and certainly all of the important moments — are seen through Justin’s camcorder anyway, usually in extraordinarily (and unwisely) long scenes that positively cry out for editing.

The fact that Chris opens the film telling us it has been edited to just the most important information becomes an unintentional retroactive joke; if you’re editing this down to show the elders that a pornography ghost stomped around their church when nobody was looking, why didn’t we cut out the long scenes of the kids waiting for each other to get ready, making small talk with parents, and sitting at traffic lights?

Admittedly, those are the things that can help with world building in film, particularly at the beginning, when audiences are still getting their bearings. But this footage doesn’t need to build a world; it occupies the same world as the elders who are meant to be viewing it. They know these places, know these people, and know these issues. All they have to see is what happened. Introducing this film as a piece of evidence for church investigation is smart, but incompatible with the actual content of the film.

Praytor seems to want to have it both ways. The scary Blair Witch Project / Paranormal Activity hybrid that traces a tragedy as it unfolds, and a believably mundane buddy film about three youngsters who meddle with things they shouldn’t. But the two approaches are at odds; The Lock In explicitly claims to be one thing, and then relentlessly positions itself as the other.

It’s strange, and the fact that there’s a didactic core to the film that insists viewers never look at pornography at any point in their lives doesn’t do it any favors. It can’t be too scary, because a wide audience needs to see this and be cautioned against the scourge of women who expose their nipples. The boys can’t be too realistic, because teenage boys curse and make crass jokes and do other family-inappropriate things. The Lock In works so hard to make sure it can appeal to everyone that it appeals to precisely no-one.

That’s a gap that all overtly Christian movies struggle to cross. (No pun intended.) Horror movies can’t be too scary, comedies can’t be irreverent, and tragic tales can only be so tragic. These are films pitched directly to the choir, which has always amused me. They aim to teach, but they’re written for those who are already taught. The final product has to be clean and acceptable enough to those who have already learned the lesson, preventing the lesson from reaching the wider audience that actually needs to hear it.

But…who needs to hear it?

In the case of The Lock In, I’m not entirely sure. People who like pornography, I guess. Or at least people who don’t actively hate it so much that they’ll dedicate months of their lives to making a film to convince others that they should hate it, too.

Which is…an odd lesson. If you are going to reach sinners and convince them not to sin, why is this specific sin the one you’re cautioning them against? Why a modern-day parable about the importance of masturbating less? A good number of the Ten Commandments are still pressing concerns for society…do we really need to focus on a deep-cut lesson like this that Jesus himself couldn’t have cared less about?

Once again, though, pornography addiction is a serious problem for those who struggle with it. But I’d argue — with confidence — that the problem is the “addiction” half of that phrase, and not the “pornography” one. Addiction to anything is inherently bad. Even relatively benign addictions sap us of our focus, our money, our time, and drive wedges between us and the people we love. Then, of course, you get into addictions to drugs and alcohol, which additionally sap us of our health and our lives. Further, addictive behaviors involving violence or non-consensual sex acts add direct consequences for others, beyond the addicted individual.

Addiction is absolutely a problem for many people. There’s certainly a scale upon which addictions can be ranked from bad to worse, but addiction to anything should be addressed.

The problem is that The Lock In isn’t about the evils of pornography addiction…it’s about the evils of pornography.

The kids with the dirty magazine don’t struggle with addiction. They just find some pictures of ladies with staples through their stomachs and barely look at any of it. Blake hides it in Nick’s bag as a joke. Nick’s crush Jessica finds it when riffling through his bag for cookies. They immediately get rid of it.

That’s not addiction.

And while the slippery slope possibility is in play — and largely born out by the separate footage we’ll discuss shortly — I don’t buy it. Yes, addiction often has roots in behavior that seems frivolous. It’s just a cigarette. One more beer won’t hurt. Yeah, I’ll pop a pill…everyone else is popping them and they seem fine.

But here, the kids don’t even demonstrate an interest in the magazine. And that’s the interference from the choir again. For these three modern-day Onans to show interest in pornography would be…well, that would be unseemly. And if we want to show this in church, or watch it with grandma, we can’t have that. So even if the kids are meant to represent the first stage of addiction, it doesn’t work. This is even sillier than a movie that shows alcoholism starting with one sip of wine…this is a movie that shows alcoholism starting with an accidental glimpse of the liquor aisle in a supermarket.

In fact, we don’t even get a glimpse of the pornography here, which breaks the reality significantly. Early in the film, the ‘Baters Three find the haunted pornography in a dumpster. Justin, the documentarian, films Blake and Nick as they look at it, but he never attempts to get into an angle that shows the material. Granted, I don’t expect a Christian film to include clear shots of Hustler spreads, but why is Justin filming anything if he’s not even interested in showing his subject?

Instead we see Blake and Nick poring over the magazine and making necessarily vague comments about it. (“Nice little magazine,” says one, referring to the pornography. “They don’t make them like that anymore,” replies the other, referring to the great advances in vagina manufacturing that had been made since the pornography was published.)

But Justin never shows us what it is, which is odd for someone who is meant to be documenting the experience. It’s like someone making a nature documentary by filming some scientists talking about their findings without ever turning the camera slightly so that they could actually film the findings. It goes against every creative and human impulse, and it makes the film feel unnatural. That’s a problem that’s even worse for found-footage films, when the entire thing relies on a feeling of worrying familiarity.

Of course, we could assume that Justin is a bit prudish himself, and wouldn’t want to personally see — let alone film — a dirty magazine. But we know this isn’t true, because at the very beginning and the very end of the movie, we see that he possesses pornography of his own. (Quite why he filmed himself flipping through skinmags at the start of the same tape he’d use to film the lock-in is beyond me.)

The fact that we don’t even get context for what the magazine contains, specifically, means it could be a Victoria’s Secret catalog for all we know. Which is a shame, because periodically The Lock In does bump up against some legitimate concerns.

For instance, Pastor Chris — upon discovering the magazine in the church — chides the boys for looking at something that degrades women, and there’s an actual discussion to be had there. The film doesn’t have it, but people are entitled to that opinion. I personally don’t have an issue with pornography as long as the participants know what they’re doing, are willing to do it, and have the right to say no at any point. If that’s how somebody chooses to makes his or her living, so be it. But I can understand the perspective of somebody who thinks it’s inherently demeaning. I don’t agree, but I understand, and they have every right to express their concern.

The fact that we don’t know what the magazine contains, though, works against that concern. Are we talking about some truly appalling smut? Or are we talking about the lingerie section of a Target flier? I keep referring to the magazine as pornographic, and that’s clearly the film’s intention as well, but its actual nature is never revealed. Pastor Chris could either be making a fair point about being respectful enough of other humans to look away from their bad choices, or he could be a Helen Lovejoy, howling with dismay that somebody modeled a swimsuit.

We don’t know, and without knowing, it’s difficult to invest. There’s clearly a vast spectrum between those two extremes, and without defining the specific point on that spectrum Pastor Chris and the Three Jacks are referring to, we can’t share in either their response or their concern. The underpants catalog can’t be met with the same degree of indignation as the snuff film. So where do we start reacting? Where do we start pushing back? To what degree do we fight to keep it out of our lives?

Whatever the nature of the porn, the kids have to speak with Pastor Chris. He lectures them for a while about how looking at these things is like driving to somebody’s house and spying on his wife through the window, which is objectively wrong in every possible way.

Then he teaches them a lesson by rolling it and making them smoke every last bit of pornography.

Frankly, I think Harmless was the smarter idea for a film. It still would have been terrible, but I can see it making some kind of point. The demon that terrorizes that protagonist’s family could function as a metaphor for the way pornography addiction could (figuratively) tear his family apart. The Lock In doesn’t have those kinds of consequences at its core. Nobody’s in danger, aside from the kids who broke the rules in the first place.

With Harmless, you’d have a family of innocents paying for the sins of the father. The stakes are naturally higher, because they don’t deserve whatever evil or turmoil the patriarch brought into their home. On some default level, you want him to atone for what he’s done and for everyone else to make it out unscathed. Here, in The Lock In, once things go wrong, literally everyone else is whisked away somewhere safe. The three boys are left alone in the church, and anyone who isn’t involved is sealed away somewhere that the bad things can’t get them.

That’s a serious miscalculation. Without innocence, there is no horror. There’s nothing at stake. The kids who walked into the meat grinder get ground into meat. That isn’t scary…that’s just a process.

Of course, this opens up a further discussion of its own: horror films are often morality tales, which you’d think would lead them to fit quite well with a didactic, Christian approach.

But innocence is relative. In a horror film, a character may be killed because he or she is guilty of a number of infractions. Having sex, disturbing a spirit, or even just walking into a room they were told not to enter. A knife comes down, fake blood spurts up, and we’re on to our next victim. The specific morality changes from film to film (and from villain to villain), but nearly always the punishment comes as a direct result of something the victims did. The killer didn’t like that they did it, and so he or she exacts revenge.

Rarely, though, will those in the audience agree with the killer’s sense of morality. I’m having trouble thinking of an example of a horror film in which the audience is morally aligned with the killer’s perspective. We may well agree that the teenagers shouldn’t have snuck into the woods to have sex. We may well agree that the shifty guy shouldn’t have stolen the idol. We may well agree that the moron shouldn’t have gone into the basement. But in each case, the brutal reprisal is likely far beyond what we would consider fair. These characters aren’t chided for their perceived misdeeds; they’re decapitated, disemboweled, flayed alive.

The horror lies in that moral gulf. If the punishments were fair, they wouldn’t be scary. They’d be just.

Therefore it’s important that however the villain’s moral compass is calibrated, it’s not in alignment with a representative member of the audience. If it were, well…they wouldn’t be a villain. (And even less would they be a monster.)

Do you see the discrepancy? In a Christian film — one which operates under the rule of the Christian God — we don’t have a crazed man in a hockey mask. We have The Lord Above. There’s still a moral code by which the characters are judged and punished, but those punishments can’t be unjust, because they’re meted out by God Almighty.

The Christian God is fair, the Christian God is loving, and the Christian God forgives. If the Christian God punishes you, it’s because you deserve punishment. Exactly that punishment. There’s no room for discussion, because the Christian God is perfect. When Jason hacks you apart, you don’t deserve it. When God does it, you definitively do.

As with the meat grinder, it’s just a process. Horror films nearly always feature a psychopathic presence or force carving its way through people who don’t deserve to die. God — from the perspective of a Christian director and Christian audience — can’t possibly be viewed through that lens. That’s not what He is, and a film meant to bring others to Him can’t — and by no means should — portray Him as a crazed, vindictive killer.

Which means that there is no innocence here. The sinners get exactly the punishment in line with the degree of their sin. That’s not my personal opinion or reading of the film; that’s what it has to be, because the punishment comes directly from God. It must be right. It must be fair. Therefore it must not be horror.

It’s interesting, the fact that two kinds of morality tales turn out to be entirely incompatible. I’d honestly have expected horror to be a fairly useful vehicle for proselytizing before The Lock In convinced me otherwise.

In fact, injecting the actual Christian God into the film — as opposed to, say, some undefined force of goodness — becomes more problematic the longer you think about it. Perhaps the most amusing wrinkle is that of Pastor Chris, whose interview at the beginning of the film occurs at some point after the night of the lock-in, and Chris talks about how shaken up he was by everything Justin captures on film.

Of course, those words turn out to reveal Chris as one hell of a wimp, as the scariest thing in the footage was a garbage can falling over. But before we get to any of that, Chris spells out the fact that what happened was so horrifying, so soul shattering, so disturbing that he had to retire from the church immediately.

Which is the sort of thing that would be fine in a normal horror film. A docent quits his job at a museum after a night of being tormented by ghosts. A gravedigger flees and becomes a shattered hobo after seeing a skeleton claw its way up from the ground. A nurse can no longer bring herself to work with sick people after barely living through a zombie epidemic.

Fine. Your life is one way. Secure, stable, and predictable. A night of terror throws everything out of whack, and you’re unable to find balance again. That’s okay. That’s human.

But it doesn’t work in a Christian film, with a pastor, because you don’t get to run from spiritual warfare. You are called and commanded to fight. That’s why it’s called spiritual warfare, and not a spiritual scuffle happening across the street that you should probably just ignore. It’s “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” not “Quick, Out the Back Door, While Satan’s Not Looking.”

The Christian God commands us to stand firm in the face of the devil. Of temptation. Of evil itself. Both testaments of the Bible are littered with the corpses of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of their faith. They were taunted. Tortured. Killed. They are presented not as fools for clinging to their faith even when it meant their lives, but as heroes. As martyrs. As examples to be followed. Instead, Pastor Chris followed the example laid out in this classic hymn: “When danger reared its ugly head / he bravely turned his tail and fled.”

I know he might have been afraid of dying, but that’s literally what you’re supposed to do for your faith. You can’t even make the argument that by surviving he is able to reach more people, because he stopped being a pastor!

Pastor Chris, from a narrative standpoint, is meant to frame what we’re about to see. He’s a much more easily shaken Rod Serling. Praytor needs him to be so frightened that he quit his job to sell insurance — and cut off all contact with the kids he used to mentor…the children who relied on him…including those who had nothing to do with what unfolded that night — because we in the audience need to grasp the severity of just what went down.

But, from a Christian standpoint, Pastor Chris doesn’t get to do that. He isn’t allowed to see the fiery eyes of the dark lord and flee for his life. He must fight. Must stare the devil down. Must protect his charges. That’s what he’s there for, specifically. Instead, we are left with the mental image of Pastor Chris scampering away to the tune of “Yakety Sax.”

Pastor Chris’s response means he can only function as a comic character, but this isn’t a comedy, and nothing is funny. It also means that he can’t be the wise and honest man of great integrity that the film needs him to be. If he is, then he was a shitty youth pastor. And if he’s not, then his film-opening cautions against what we are about to see are meaningless.

And, again, please remember that what he was shaken up about was footage of a trash can falling over.

I don’t mean to keep harping on that, but for a horror movie, in which a demon is awakened, in which teenagers ostensibly fend for their lives, in which evil itself is on the prowl, and which lasts an hour and a half, you’d expect something more to happen. You really would. And it doesn’t. It’s a movie about haunted pornography, and a trash can falling over is its moneyshot. If that’s not a missed opportunity, I don’t know what is.

In fairness to the film, other theoretically spooky things do happen. Everyone vanishing, for instance. Doors locking of their own accord. The church being thrust into literal darkness. Though Satan, terrified of being cited for yet another OSHA violation, makes sure to keep the fire exit signs lit.

But those things are more for atmosphere (darkness is scary) and logistics (there isn’t a movie if the kids can open a door and escape). In short, those aren’t the scares…they set the stage for scares to come.

And come they don’t.

A few attempts at scares are made, such as when the kids find an irrelevant little boy crouched alone in a room. They go up to him, he makes a demon face, and that’s that. He factors into nothing, let alone any conceivable theme in the film, and doesn’t have anything to do with what came before or what follows.

Strangely — but not surprisingly — the other scare pulls the exact same trick. This time it’s a man in some interview footage the kids find in Pastor Chris’s office. The man speaks about his addiction to pornography, and we get as close as we’ll ever get to the film addressing a real-world consequence of looking at too much porn. In fact, it almost sounds as though this guy is reciting the elevator pitch for Harmless. Might as well stick it somewhere, I guess.

The guy tells his sad tale of addiction and of a sense of creeping horror in his home that he feels while cranking one out to www.actualphotosoffemaleshoulders.com. At some point during the recording, Pastor Chris gets up and leaves the room. (Which seems to be his way of dealing with any spiritual struggle.) The guy makes his own demon face at the camera.

Boo!

It’s not scary — it’s pretty funny — but all the scene did was make me wonder why Pastor Chris filmed this to begin with. What’s he going to do with footage of a parishoner describing his sad masturbation sessions? It’s strange. And didn’t Pastor Chris look at the footage later and see the demon? I don’t get it. What was it for if not for reviewing later? The demon face wasn’t even an illusion that the kids saw; it was actually in Pastor Chris’s film, as evidenced by the fact that we don’t see it through Justin’s viewfinder…it’s spliced in from the original source.

At one point the boys find Jessica shrieking in a closet, which comes as some kind of relief to them, but then she gets abducted by an unseen pornography goblin, or something, and none of them bat an eye. In fact, they later perform some kind of strange puppet show with paper cups to amuse themselves (a cuppet show?), which certainly goes a long way toward convincing me they can’t possibly be in any danger at all. I wouldn’t put on a puppet show after finding out I lost a $20 bill, let alone after I saw my girlfriend get dragged screaming into Hell.

It’s easy to figure out that Jessica is there (“left behind,” to use a term I just invented) because she also touched the magazine. But that’s more than a little unfair. She pulled a paper bag out of Nick’s backpack because she thought there were snacks in there. The moment she noticed it contained pornography, she shrieked and reared back, as all soldiers of Christ are commanded to do. She even got on the phone to complain to some unrelated peer that a guy she knows has gazed upon a woman’s flesh.

So why is she being punished? That…doesn’t seem just. Does God (as viewed by Praytor) insist that you don’t gaze upon pornography with lust in your heart? Or does He insist that you don’t even accidentally touch it with the back of your hand? Poor Jessica.

The three boys are then picked off one by one, with the exception of Justin, who stumbles around alone for a while, and then finds himself back at the beginning of the night, as the lock-in begins. Everybody is safe and accounted for, Pastor Chris is giving the same little “don’t do anything I wouldn’t do” speech he gave at the start of the event, and nobody believes Justin when he starts describing the crazy things that happened.

Which in turn makes him regret that never thought to film the entire thing hey waitaminute…

Justin never gets the idea to grab Pastor Chris by the neck and say, “Look, Bozo,” and replay the footage — the evidence — that he’s literally holding in his hand. He doesn’t do anything with it.

Think about that. He has an actual, physical recording that proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that the God they are told to worship and the demons they are told to fear are real. He has proof. He can save every soul in that room just by pressing “play.” He can save every soul in the world by uploading this to the internet. Hell, at the very least, he can claim his one million dollars from The Amazing Randi.

At this point, Justin is an actual prophet. He should be coming down from the mountain with his hair white, preaching the word of God. He should be the modern-day Moses…one who’s actually in a better position, because he was allowed to bring his GoPro up Mount Sinai.

Instead he just shrugs and goes home, amazed nobody else remembers what happened.

And, again, this wasn’t an illusion; it did happen, which is why the footage is being submitted to the church elders and Pastor Chris is selling insurance out of the trunk of his car. This is real. God and Satan revealed themselves to Justin in turn, and allowed him to film their arm-wrestling match. Mere moments later, he rides silently in the back of his friend’s car, on the way home to throw out his pornography.

The ultimate cosmic truth was revealed to him, and him alone. He also has it documented. The fact that he uses this profound, urgent knowledge to give up wanking would be comical if The Lock In had any degree of self-awareness whatsoever. Instead it’s like a man developing super powers, but only using them to warm up his coffee.

The Lock In doesn’t just fail at making its point…I think it unmakes other points. It’s a damp squib when it should be a sensational blast. It’s a can’t-miss premise for a legendarily bad movie that misses the mark of fun entirely. It’s the anti-masturbation screed the world never needed, told through an illogical format and unwatchable clumsiness.

It’s difficult to fault the actors. They’re asked to scream and run in circles far more often than they’re asked to recite lines, and the lines they do recite are clearly not of their own making. (The teenagers all speak like what a 40-something Christian humorist assumes teenagers must speak like.) Their hearts aren’t in this, and I’m proud of them for that. They don’t even get credited in the film, and I’d be shocked if they got paid for it.

Whoever they are, I hope they make it to Heaven. The ridicule they’ll receive from their peers until the day they die for starring in Don’t Touch Willy: The Horror Movie is punishment enough.

Note: Due to the nature of this year’s theme, please keep comments relevant. Discussing the ways in which these films handle theology is appropriate, but bashing or preaching outside of that context is not. Let’s talk about what the films get wrong. Let’s talk about what I get wrong. Let’s not talk about what Christianity, or any religion, gets wrong. There are places to do that, but this is a place where I say bad words at movies.

Around this time last year, my girlfriend introduced me to the music of Carman. I’ve been…fascinated ever since. And, to be frank, I’m shocked that he hasn’t been pounced upon by the relentless mockery of the wider internet.

Let me be clear at the start: I’m not, by any means, suggesting that Carman Licciardello — who performs under the mononym Carman, the spelling of which makes him sound like a Mega Man villain — should be mocked. I’m certainly not calling upon people to gang up on him or anything along those lines. Period. But I am sort of surprised it hasn’t happened naturally.

Carman is a Christian musician. Not a musician who is Christian, but rather a Christian who preaches primarily through music. I’d be tempted to call him a Christian rocker or something, but the guy raps, funks, boogies, honky-tonks, and discos across so many genres that I feel I’d be doing the sheer variety of his output a disservice by calling it anything specific at all.

He’s also terrible.

Like…just…just bad.

No. I take that back. He’s not just bad. We’ve all heard bad musicians before. But Carman takes it further, because he doesn’t just record music; he records short films to go along with his music.

Here’s one in which he moseys into a wild west saloon and guns down Satan.

So…that happened. And this isn’t just some weird oddity of a music video from a strange point in his career. This is who Carman is. This is how he operates. Spiritual or not, you have to admit, this is terrible stuff. And yet…it’s kind of incredible.

I’m genuinely intrigued by Carman, and shocked that I’d never heard of him before. He’s exactly the blend of sincerity and absurdity that you’d think would have landed him on my radar at some point. Christ, this is exactly the sort of thing I look for every year when I curate material for the Xmas Bash!!!!!.

In fact, speaking of the Xmas Bash!!!!!, I was very tempted to include one of his specific videos this last time around. In the end I decided not to. Yeah, anything Jesus-y would fit, but if it’s not about the birth of Christ or Christmas in general, I tend to feel like it’s too much of a reach. So there was no Carman last year.

Fear not: for, behold, I bring you the video I would have shown, in which Carman parades around in lockstep and whacks on an incredibly sexy Satan with a big candy cane.

These are real. These are not supposed to be funny. And yet, when I watch them, I have to wonder if I’ve ever seen anything funnier in my life. In fact, they’re so funny that I try not to laugh, for fear of missing something even more incredible.

He’s creating these works of astounding comic genius without even realizing it. He’s the Jan Terri of Christian fundamentalism.

And while it’s tempting to assume he’s in on the joke, or at least being a bit tongue in cheek, he’s not. He’s deadly serious. He truly believes he’s saving souls, and that’s important to him. His website and any bit of promotional material I’ve seen ascribes specific figures to the number of souls he’s saved. (No clue how you’d tabulate that, personally…) The marketing materials all speak of his intensity. His passion. The great work he’s doing for God.

Not one of them ever mentions the guy’s sense of humor. Here’s why, I’m sure: he doesn’t have one.

This is just who Carman is.

Even when he accidentally channels the scene in which Homer brings Bart to a gay steel mill:

This is real life. I need you to remember that. This is real life. (Though I’ll give him credit for the groove in that one; it’s by far his best, and it deserves a much better song sitting on top of it.)

Carman’s first album was released in 1980. Since then, he’s released twenty-two more. The guy can’t stop.

And we watch.

And we shake our heads.

And we laugh.

But that’s not the extent of my fascination. Sure, some guy writes awful songs and films vanity music videos, and that’s a hoot.

That isn’t all, though. Because my girlfriend was there. And remembers this music from when it was released.

She wasn’t laughing. She was terrified.

She even got dragged to a live Carman concert. (And if you’ve ever wondered if there could be a Hell, please refer to the fact that I was able to string together the words “live Carman concert.”) It was horrifying. The imagery wasn’t silly or campy to a girl that age; it was frightening.

Looking back on it, she sees that it’s all a bit ropey. But at the time, it was scary stuff. She was young and impressionable. Carman had her ear. And he didn’t use it to speak of Christ’s love or God’s plan or eternal redemption.

No. He used it to speak of Satanists, evil, demons, witchcraft, torture, torment. As he does here, in what I can assure you is the least infectious song ever written:

Is that scary? Probably not. But to a child or young adult who has been primed to fear for the safety of his or her soul, Carman’s defiant adventure in the Satanist’s dayroom feels like it has real stakes. Listeners are made to feel like they’ll need to fight every day of their lives. It suggests that conversations with people who think or believe differently than you should be confrontations.

Carman knew, and knows, that. He embraces that. You and I can watch these and laugh, but he’s not making them for us. We’re lost, as far as he’s concerned, and good riddance to us. He makes these songs, these videos, these harrowing concert experiences for those who are already scared. He taps into those insecurities, and tells his listeners that they’re right to feel insecure. Carman ministers terror. He’s inept enough that you and I think he’s a harmless clown. But to those who don’t know better, he’s a source of spiritual anguish and actual nightmares.

That’s interesting to me. Carman is far from the only person to preach a gospel of fear, but he is the only one whose methods resemble a fantasy episode of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. See, for instance, this video, the CGI in which makes Rapsittie Street Kids look like Finding Nemo:

Legitimate kudos for the literal reading of “God is my co-pilot,” though.

Part of me wonders how spiritual Carman actually feels. Certainly Christianity is important to him, at the very least because it gave him a career and a platform for his awful, awful talents.

But then you learn that he sold his house to self-finance a film that he wrote, in which he plays a retired boxer who ministers to children.

I’m not kidding:

That’s all lovely. Then you actually watch the film, and see that there’s almost no ministry or even spirituality in it at all; it’s just Carman showing off his muscles, seducing a much younger Latina, and at one point blowing up a truck full of would-be assassins. It’s Carman the action hero, when he promised his audience Carman the man of God.

Of course, that’s just ancillary material. My girlfriend and I did watch that film — it’s called The Champion, if you hate yourself — and had a good laugh at just how accidentally immoral (and often non-sensical) it turned out to be. But Carman isn’t a filmmaker; he’s a musician. If you’re going to understand the contents of his heart, his music is what you’ll need to focus on.

And, even there, something about Carman just rings false. No, I don’t enjoy his tunes, but at the same time they don’t feel…genuine.

I think I’ve figured out why. There’s something missing: there’s no humility.

When you think of godly people or godly characters or even the godly humans you encounter in the Bible, you see humility. You see other things, of course, but humility is a pretty big aspect. It’s a bit of a running theme. Hell, it’s an example.

But Carman isn’t humble. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed this in the songs embedded above, but God and Jesus get some basic lip-service now and then. It’s Satan who really interests him. It’s Satan who keeps making cameos. It’s Satan who seems to inspire Carman more than God does. God gets a “yeah, thanks” every so often; Satan gets six verses and a chorus.

In fact, there’s a lot of Christian virtue that just isn’t…there. Like, all of it. Yes, we’ve seen that you’re willing to bitchslap Satan six ways from Sunday, Carman, but where are you helping the needy? Being there for someone in need? Standing up for the oppressed? Loving the neighbor who wronged you? Donating your time and money and energy to fight for the rights of your fellow man?

Why isn’t that stuff in these Christian songs? Why wouldn’t that stuff be in Christian songs?

I find this all to be both amusing and unnerving. Carman’s method of spreading the word of God is done in a way that honestly seems better suited to delivering the message of Satan. It’s prideful, defiant, unwilling to listen or engage, self-concerned, brutal. It’s all swagger and bravado and bluster. It’s full of spite and anger. It’s self-righteous. It’s mean.

I don’t know. I’ve never met the guy. I have nothing against him, and I find his output deeply funny. I hope you do, too.

But I also think of him a pretty amazing character. One I’d be proud of having written. Mainly because I think he’d make for a perfect protagonist in a cautionary tale.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

Merry Christmas, everyone!!!

Okay, okay, it’s a week late. I would have loved for this to run on Christmas week, but there wasn’t much I could do apart from either a) review the show out of order or b) review two episodes in a week so that this could run sooner.

In regards to A, I didn’t feel that would really be fair. I know continuity isn’t one of ALF‘s strongest points, but if I decided to jump all around and resequence the episodes, I couldn’t be sure that I wasn’t missing information that would have helped me to understand something better. ALF is a lousy show, but I want to make sure I’m appraising its actual lousiness, and not confusing myself into finding new issues that aren’t really there.

In regards to B no fucking way am I reviewing two episodes in a week.

What I decided to do, for those that missed it, is host a live stream of this episode the week of Christmas. I’m writing this review in advance of that, because I don’t want to accidentally include anything you guys might have said, or have my opinions colored by the immense outpouring of love and affection that I expect happened when we all watched this together. So, yeah. That was the best I could really do. If you don’t like it, go start your own ALF review project. And if you do, let me know, so I can stop mine.

Anyway it’s Christmas Eve in the Tanner house! Willie and Kate are laying in bed reading old Christmas cards, which shows just how desperate they are for any excuse to avoid having sex with each other. ALF comes in wearing his stocking on his head and waving a noise-maker around, announcing that he hid all the eggs.

Yes, it’s stupid. But, you know what? I’m always going on about how ALF should be getting Earth things wrong, and that’s what’s happening here. So, God help me, I actually like this. Granted, he should be misunderstanding much more than this…but while you could conceivably base an episode around ALF misunderstanding the concept of a museum, or how the bus lines work or something, Christmas is truly a goldmine.

It’s a more or less global event, after all. No matter where you are, within any culture that chooses to celebrate it, you’ll find it tangled up with all sorts of traditions and and connotations and iconography that make perfect sense to you, because you’ve lived with it all your life. To an interplanetary interloper, however, it would be absolutely baffling. And it would lead to literally countless ways for the creature to misunderstand what’s happening around him.

Birthdays, for instance, might seem a bit silly to an alien, but you could at least explain them pretty easily. “So-and-so was born on this day, however many years ago. Every time another year passes, we celebrate and give him presents.” That might sound silly to the alien, but there wouldn’t be too much room for confusion.

Think of everything attached to Christmas, though. The birth of Christ. Who wasn’t actually born anywhere near Christmas. The co-opting of a Pagan holiday so that Christians could avoid detection. Christmas lists. Carols. TV specials. A tree that you bring inside and decorate. Stockings hanging over a fireplace. Presents sneakily dropped off in the middle of the night. Eggnog. Santa Claus. The North Pole. Flying reindeer, elfin toymakers, milk and cookies…

The list goes on. And I’m just describing the stuff that would come to mind for me. An Englishman would probably add Christmas crackers to that list. A German would shout a lot. You get the picture.

So, yeah. This is the right thing to do. Especially since the fact that during the course of the conversation ALF confuses it with Easter, New Year’s and Halloween proves that he’s trying. He’s not being a dick, for once. He’s just lost. We Earthlings have an awful lot of holidays and they each come with their attendant traditions and mores and preparations. He’s mixing them up not because he wants to ruin things, but because there’s too much for an outsider to keep straight.

This is good. This is the right way to do it. Even ALF’s inevitable fit of destruction is well-intentioned:
ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

He chopped up the Christmas tree for firewood. For once, though, I’m on ALF’s side. Did Willie and Kate really wait until Christmas Eve to explain to him what the tree was for? It obviously wasn’t decorated yet, so unless somebody told him differently — and we see here that they did not — how would he know that this particular tree at this particular time of year is just supposed to sit inside covered in tinsel and baubles? He doesn’t know this shit. ALF is right and Willie and Kate are in the wrong here. If that’s not a Christmas miracle I don’t know what is.

It’s also justified by a funny exchange. (This early in the episode? Is this actually going to be a good one?)* ALF tells Willie that he has a surprise, and then Kate shouts from the next room for Willie to come quick, because ALF did something horrible to the tree. Willie asks ALF what he did, and ALF says, “I don’t want to spoil the surprise.”

See? This isn’t ground-breaking stuff, but it’s fully competent comedy. It’s really not that hard!

And look at that lighting through the window! They actually went through the trouble of making it look like that sort of dull, hazy, early-morning sunshine, and it’s even shining from a lower angle onto the set than it is normally. That’s some impressive detail for this show right there.

We’re off to a good start. Heck, by ALF standards it’s a great start. There’s enough potential absurdity in the idea of an alien celebrating his first Christmas that there really should be no problem filling out 21 minutes. Right?

…right?

…fuck you. You know that’s not right.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

The credits are just the normal sequence…no superimposed snowflakes or sleigh-bells or anything. Once they end we see everyone dressed up for Christmas, I guess. I don’t know what ALF is wearing. It looks like red suspenders, but then later he gets up and I can’t tell if it’s really a ribbon draped over his shoulders for some reason, or if the suspenders they made for the puppet are just horribly tailored.

Also Lynn is wearing what I assume is a Christmas sweater, but it’s hard to tell because it always looks like she dressed herself right after hitting her head in a car accident. I’m not even sure if it’s supposed to be an ugly sweater. I mean, it is, but it’s no worse than anything else she wears any other day of the year so who knows.

Damn, I’m catty. I’m like Joan Rivers, but with all of my original skin.

Lynn is sitting on the couch, disentangling Christmas lights. That’s absolutely something that folks do around the holidays, and it’s a nice touch. I’m actually pretty impressed that they would bother to give her something appropriate to do rather than sit her motionless on the couch, waiting in awkward silence until it’s her turn to talk.

At the table, though, ALF and Brian seem to be sorting branches into piles. I assume they’re the branches from the tree ALF chopped up, but what are they doing? Organizing them by size for later storage? Why not throw them out? I honestly have no idea what they’re meant to be doing there.

Willie is out getting a new tree, and ALF says that he hopes he makes it home before it starts snowing. Kate explains that it doesn’t snow in their part of the state, but ALF explains that it has to snow, because it’s Christmas; that’s what he learned from all the Christmas stuff he’s been seeing on TV.

Again, this is good. I like that ALF has no actual experience of Christmas, and so needs to piece things together from what he’s told and what he sees. Again, this is evidence that he’s trying, which is a lot funnier than having him be a dick all the time. Good intentions with unfortunate outcomes fuel great comedy. Rampaging dickitude is just tiring.

It might seem a little silly that ALF would believe weather patterns were dictated by a holiday, but compared to everything else we are expected to believe around Christmas — whether it’s that the Son of God showed up and saved us all from Hell or that an old man in a flying sleigh is watching our every move — isn’t “snow is guaranteed to fall” a relatively small absurdity? It works. It’s not a stretch. It’s organic.

ALF outlines all of the things that he learned from Christmas specials, and he concludes by folding in some imagery from that old commercial where Santa Claus rides a Norelco razor through the snow. Guys, this is getting dangerously close to funny. Was the writing staff visited by three spirits in the night or something?

While they decorate Lynn and Kate find some of the eggs that ALF hid, making for one of those very rare moments in this show where something that happens has anything to do with something else that happened.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

Willie comes home with a fake tree in a box, and the episode is still being good. I honestly don’t know what happened, but Willie gets a nice little speech here with actual character work as its punchline. He explains that he drove all over town to find another tree, but everybody was sold out. At one lot he found a tree, but it was being auctioned off to the highest bidder. Willie says he left when the bidding reached $100, because he has his pride.

That’s funny. Not almost funny, but actually funny and it got an actual laugh out of me. He then says that the tree came with a can of simulated snow, and ALF says he should have gotten a second can so that they could build a simulated snowman.

IT IS REALLY NOT THAT HARD TO WRITE COMEDY THIS IS NOT BAD

Anyway, ALF is disappointed that this is the replacement, because he wants a real tree. This might be the first sign of real weakness in the episode — why exactly does he care when he doesn’t have any experience with either type of tree yet? — but it’s certainly not the last.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

The family hears some carolers outside and they go to the window to watch them. I shouldn’t have been so quick to compliment the lighting crew earlier, because now for some reason it looks like they’re staring into the fiery ball of ultimate carnage that’s six seconds away from colliding with the Earth.

Kate, Lynn and Brian decide to go with the carolers, because they can see the writing on the wall and don’t want to be around when this episode inevitably falls apart.

There is one more good joke after they leave, though, when ALF says that on Melmac you would never let children go caroling. Willie asks him why, but ALF says he can’t explain, because “you’d have to know Carol.” Yeah, that’s Fozzie Bear level stuff, but there’s a reason we like Fozzie Bear. It’s not the quality of his material…it’s the charm behind it. For the first time since the Jodie episode, ALF has some charm behind it.

I know you guys don’t like it when I enjoy things, but I’ve got give credit where it’s due. Don’t worry; I start cursing later, so you can skip down to that if you want to.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

We jump ahead a little bit in time, and we can’t see the tree until Willie steps aside to reveal it. I don’t know if this bit of blocking was done on purpose, since there’s no laughter that wells up on the soundtrack, but it is pretty funny. It’s an effectively shitty prop, and a nice example of the show’s low budget actually working in its favor and strengthening the reality.

Willie hates the tree, and he and ALF decide to go chop down a real one from the same place he and Kate used to chop down trees years ago. It’s certainly a contrived premise, but it’s at least playing out in a reasonable, rational way: it’s a holiday, something went wrong, Willie wants to fix it before the family gets back.

Again, not groundbreaking, but it’s better than, say, having it be Willie’s birthday, and so he finds out his wife slept with Joe Namath, then he decides to jump out of a plane.

Seriously dudes, that one sucked.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

Willie and ALF sit in a fake car and pretend to drive while some stock footage of a forest plays behind them. They explain for our benefit that they can’t find the place Willie used to go to cut down trees, which I definitely buy if it’s been a long time and it’s dark out, but it is a little bit silly that he doesn’t just pull over and chop down one of the tens of millions of trees we’re watching him drive by right now.

ALF is navigating. He tells Willie to make a turn onto a road that’s not actually there, and they end up in a ditch. You know, there was a scene in the American version of The Office where Michael drove into a lake because his GPS told him to turn there.

I never had a problem with that because I thought it was a nice — though admittedly absurd — joke about the way we rely on instructions rather than trusting our common sense, but apparently a lot of people felt that that was “too stupid” for the show and were turned off by it. Maybe I just didn’t think that way because the show was already pretty fuckin’ stupid, but what do I know.

Either way, I bring that up because while it might be pretty dumb to drive into a lake because you’re used to trusting your GPS, what happens here is infinitely more moronic. Willie doesn’t see a road, but he takes ALF’s word for it that it exists…despite the fact that he can see there is not a road there and he is driving into a ditch. What’s more, ALF is an alien. He doesn’t know this area. How could he? How could he even know how to read a map properly?

Obeying a GPS makes some kind of sense because you’re deferring to what you assume is an authority on the subject. Here Willie is actively disregarding what he actually sees happening in order to defer to somebody who unquestionably knows nothing about what’s going on.

In a word, it’s bullshit.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

Anyway the family comes home from a night of caroling, and they find the tree unfinished. They read a note that Willie left, and start to worry because he left it a while ago and he’s still not home.

Then they hear somebody else singing outside, and their door opens to reveal…

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

Mr. Ochmonek! Holy shit! We haven’t seen this guy in…ten episodes! Jesus.

I was excited because I thought this meant we’d find out what happened to his wife, but…nope. We don’t even find out why he came over. It’s really bizarre.

He kisses Kate under the mistletoe, and there’s a funny enough moment when he passively demands some eggnog, but what, exactly, is the point of this scene?

When I first watched the episode I thought the payoff would be that he goes out to find Willie or something, but instead he just shows up for about a minute and we never see him again. What’s he doing on Christmas Eve without his wife? Why is he here? Nobody invited his ass.

It’s like ALF thought it would be nice for us to see a beloved character again, but that doesn’t work when we’ve only seen the guy once before, ten weeks ago, and didn’t even care about him then. “Hey, everybody! Remember your old pal Mr. Ochmonek?! No? Well, here he is! Merry Christmas!”

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

By this point the episode is almost totally off the rails. (In a very short time, it will be totally off the rails.) They sure did squander all the good-will the first act managed to build up.

ALF and Willie are still stuck in the car, which should be a promising enough situation. Especially as Willie starts to tell ALF about the Christmases he had as a kid, and the fact that they always had a real tree and so forth.

This should be nice. Maybe a bit maudlin, but so what? It’s Christmas Eve. Willie can reminisce and wish he was with his family. In fact, this moment would ideally tie right back into the first scene, with he and Kate reading the old Christmas cards. This speech should end with him realizing that somewhere along the way he lost sight of what made Christmas really great, or something, and got hung up on how things looked.

I don’t know. I’m not saying that would be good. But it would be sort of neutrally lame in a well-established way. Instead it’s Willie and ALF in a car and a story that literally gets abandoned because the writers don’t want to figure out a way to turn it into anything.

Stuff like this is why I feel as though we’re watching these characters act out the first draft of the script; they write the story up to a certain point, realize they’re no longer interested in doing what they planned to do, and then just skip over things or abandon them.

That’s okay. I’m a writer, too. Not only is it a given that you’ll end up following a different narrative path than you might have expected, but it’s a good thing as well. Your job, then, is to write this better story as it revealed itself to you, and then go back and fix things (if not completely rewrite them) so that this new story makes sense. What you don’t do is what this show does weekly: leave everything exactly as it is and hope to shit your audience isn’t paying attention.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

As if on cue, hey look, a dream sequence. Lucky us.

Willie drifts off and dreams about his family in the living room. Nothing is different except for their clothes, which, to be honest, change every day anyway and so this is no evidence of Willie having any creativity whatsoever.

Everything is pretty much as it really is back home, except that Mr. Ochmonek isn’t drunkenly fumbling around with Kate’s tits. Willie comes home, in the dream, with the same fake tree he had before, only this time the family loves it.

He says something about how glad he is that an alien doesn’t live here, which implies that things are happier in this fantasy without ALF. I’m glad that Willie’s awareness of the fact that ALF bends his life over and fucks it every chance he gets is manifesting itself in some way…but I do wish it was manifesting itself as a brutal screwdriver attack on the alien instead.

Kate says that she thinks the tree is leaning too far to the left, so she calls the tree repairman. When he shows up, it turns out to be ALF.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

I think it’s funny that in both of Willie’s unnecessary dream sequences so far, ALF shows up for even less necessary reasons. Did Fusco insist on being in every scene, even if his character had jack-shit to do with anything?

Willie panics because ALF is an alien or something. I don’t know. Neither do the writers; they’re just running out the clock. “Oh, Tannerbaum” started out just fine, but then nobody on the staff knew where to go from there and so we’re getting silly dream sequences with just a few minutes left in the episode because that’s easier than actually wrapping up anything that happened earlier.

Anyway ALF the tree repairman has to take the tree back to the shop to fix it, and Willie gets upset and tries to keep the tree. He and ALF tug on it for a while. I half expected the credits to come up at this point and make it abundantly clear that the people making this show literally stopped giving a shit at this precise moment.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

Willie wakes up only to find that there is a real tree in the car with them, because ALF went out and chopped it down while he was sleeping. Willie feels bad, and there you go. That’s your Christmas moral: don’t ever dream mean things about an alien, because while you are dreaming them that same alien might be doing nice things for you.

Amen.

It starts to snow, a park ranger comes up and gets mad at Willie for cutting down the tree without a permit, ALF hides under a blanket, and he and Willie whisper “Merry Christmas” to each other. Sweet holy barf did that episode fall apart.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

Fortunately it’s Christmas Eve, and as per tradition every adult male is allowed to commit one crime of their choice without there being any consequence, so the Tanners get to keep the tree.

Nah, I’m being wry. Willie does say that he had to pay a fine, but honestly I’m not sure why he still gets to keep the tree. If you caught me stealing the Scales of Justice from in front of the courthouse, I’d expect to be hit with a fine or something, sure. I wouldn’t expect that after I paid the fine I’d get to keep them, though.

It’s bizarre. I don’t know. Who cares. ALF gets a ViewMaster and the episode is over.

Merry Christmas you fucks.

——
* No.

On the eleventh day of Christmas, Zach Kaplan gave to us…

How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

Every nerd has something they collect. Some try to track down every issue of their favorite comic book, some relish rare video games, and others are simply satisfied with collecting themselves after a brutal de-pantsing. I collected the work of Dr. Seuss.

Growing up, my bookshelves were filled with all number of works by Seuss, both under his usual monicker and pseudonyms Theo LeSieg and Rosetta Stone. I had rare books like his risqué adult novel The Seven Lady Godivas, collections of his World War II-era comics and advertisements and a copy of his terrible movie, The 500 Fingers of Dr. T. My father would back-order out-of-print works for me, and my favorite place to visit was the book store. So, needless to say, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! was the only special that fully suited my youthful Christmas needs.

Like most of Seuss’s books, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! outlined an important message: Christmas doesn’t come from a store; it comes from the warm feelings of those we care about, and a sense of fun and togetherness. Christmas day is in our grasp, as long as we have hands to clasp (sorry, stump-o’s).

On its surface, it’s a sentiment that doesn’t look like much. Of course, with the wonderful rhyming patterns, made-up words like “chimbley” and winning illustrations, it wasn’t hard to make the message a more appealing one. But as a Seuss-o-phile, this resonated to me on a different level. Seuss’s stories were generally allegories for big, important things – Yertle the Turtle is Napoleon or Hitler, Horton Hears a Who is about the bombing and occupation of Japan (and dedicated to “My Great Friend, Mitsugi Nakamura of Kyoto, Japan”), The Butter Battle Book is about the Cold War. Why place the meaning of Christmas alongside such incisive analyses?

Religiously, I grew up in a household that none of my largely Christian schoolmates could fathom without a few questions. My mother was raised Episcopalian, but I don’t remember her ever being religious. My father is Jewish, but again, not very religious besides observing the high holy days and Hanukkah – though even the former practice began in my adolescence. Every year, we celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas. I have fond memories of decorating our Christmas tree and lighting our menorah, illuminated as it was by an array of Christmas lights.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

I called myself a “reform Jew”, but I think all along I knew I was atheist. No matter how hard I tried to convince myself, I did not believe in God. Even without going to church every Sunday, God was assumed to exist by everyone around me – and, thus, that I believed as well. I sat by while friends called other friends “stupid” for not believing in Him before I was out of the atheist closet myself.

I was surrounded by Christianity in my suburban Texas town. Churches were everywhere. A girl that I liked was baffled by my disbelief in the miracles of Jesus. I uncomfortably sat through an assembly that was described as a talent show for teachers, where one instructor gave a brief but passionate Evangelical sermon. The Daily Show came to my hometown to interview members of a group who, in reaction to the building of a mosque, held pig races on Friday nights. A barbecue restaurant I drove past every day was in the news a few years ago for its refusal to take down a graphic image of an Iranian man being lynched. It wasn’t hard for me to develop some mixed feelings about religion, and subsequently about Christmas. Doctors told me that my heart was dangerously close to shrinking three sizes.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, the TV special, brought the wonderful world of Dr. Seuss straight to America’s sets every year, and that was a special thing for me. Without having something like that, I may have become a much more bitter person than I did. It brought the story to life, and it didn’t need Jim Carrey’s signature jumping and screaming to get it done.

It only expanded on the kernel of goodness that was the original novel, along with the memorable voice acting of Boris Karloff and the chasm-deep tones of singer Thurl Ravenscroft, also known for his famous portrayal of Tony the Tiger. It also gave color to the world of the Whos, whose existence in the book was originally limited to Seuss’s stylistic choice of only including the color red. For the budding literary geek I was, turns of phrase like “you’ve got termites in your smile,” “your heart’s a dead tomato splotched with moldy, purple spots” and “your soul is an appalling dump-heap overflowing with the most disgraceful assortment of deplorable rubbish imaginable, mangled-up in tangled-up knots,” stuck in my memory and inspired me to create fiction of my own.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

But let’s return to my original query – why would a Christmas special be written by Dr. Seuss, whose most accomplished pre-children’s work was his co-authorship of Design for Death, a 1947 Academy Award-winning documentary about World War II and the occupation of Japan? As a child, however, my reverence for Seuss assured me that I ought to trust him on this one, to enjoy Christmas in spite of my schoolmates’ bemused bafflement at what they considered a devastating personal flaw in me.

I was reminded to not get too annoyed by the constant barrage of carols every time I went to a store, and to remember that Christmas doesn’t have to be about religion – it can be about togetherness and love. And it reminded me that not everyone who had faith was the barbecue bigot down the street.

Today I fully identify as an atheist. And yet every year, my wife and I set up our Christmas tree, deck our halls and watch Christmas special after Christmas special. The Grinch may have tried to steal Christmas, but he gave me a very important gift – an understanding that even though the world isn’t perfect and that there will always be closed-minded people, Christmas should be a celebration of what we have in common, not a magnification of our differences.

Thank goodness I have hands to clasp.

Tomorrow: Spend Christmas Eve with Ebenezer. No, not that one.

On the eighth day of Christmas, David Black gave to us…

"Christmas Special," The League of Gentlemen

In the run up to Christmas in the year 2000, The League Of Gentlemen published A Local Book For Local People and I wanted it. I was pretty certain that I wouldn’t get it for Christmas as my mother was unlikely to buy me a book that purported to be wrapped in human skin. It’s a scrapbook collecting together newspaper articles, leaflets, postcards and letters about, to and from the people of Royston Vasey. It’s fantastic. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Comedy tie-in books are never this good. I bought it as a Christmas present to myself and pored over every page. Nestled towards the back of the book is an illustrated short story called “The Curse Of Karrit Poor,” which I skipped right over. I looked at the pictures, but I never read a word of it and I can’t explain why.

I eagerly awaited The League Of Gentlemen’s Christmas Special that year and when it finally arrived I was not disappointed. The opening sequence gives us Royston Vasey in the snow, a mutilated robin, yellow snow and a controversial Nietzsche quote on the church noticeboard. It’s a very cinematic sequence in a very cinematic episode of a very cinematic TV show and a step up from some of the other quick gags that opened earlier episodes.

It’s Christmas Eve in Royston Vasey and Bernice Woodall, the town’s vicar, is visited by three characters each seeking solace. Bernice is a fascinating choice to be our guide. The joke that the irreverent Reverend with lipstick on her teeth and a confessional full of cigarettes is presumably an Atheist and possibly the least charitable person in an uncharitable town is one that wouldn’t have sustained her for an hour. We see her character develop here as a result of each of her three Christmas encounters.

Charlie enters the church to deliver a very late and myrrhless nativity scene and takes the opportunity to tell Bernice about a recurring dream he’s been having. We cut to Charlie and Stella line dancing, putting up Christmas decorations and arguing. Charlie and Stella are among my favourite characters and I absolutely love that they get this first vignette. Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton gave their relationship such depth that it always deserved to be explored further. The initial idea of the earlier sketches of the couple arguing for the benefit of a third party grows into to a brilliant short story with a fantastic twist. Liza Tarbuck, the Eyes Wide Shut coven who do voodoo and Stella’s mask are all wonderful, while the slow hand clap is unremittingly bleak.

We return to the church for one of my favourite moments in the entirety of television history: Charlie’s pause and subsequent answer to Bernice asking “In your heart of hearts, do you love your wife?”

Charlie departs and is soon replaced by another storyteller. Andrew Melville is fantastic as the old Matthew Parker, but I must confess that for years I was convinced it was Mark Gatiss in heavy make-up. He takes us back to 1975 in Duisberg in Germany and into the home of Herr Lipp. This is another short tale with another brilliant twist that I certainly didn’t see coming and a raft of sexual innuendo and references to Vampire films. Gatiss and Shearsmith are wonderful as Frau Lipp and young Matthew Parker respectively, but the truly astonishing thing about this segment is that Pemberton manages to take a grotesque character, not to mention a sexual predator, like Herr Lipp and yet give him a genuine sense of pathos all the while being very funny into the bargain.

Herr Lipp: Sometimes the inside of something can be beautiful, even if the package isn’t…well…isn’t.

And later:

Matthew: Leave me alone.
Herr Lipp: I will try.

"Christmas Special," The League of Gentlemen

Out goes Parker and in comes a bloodied Chinnery for our third story as the vet tells the vicar about his great-grandfather.

Bernice: Oh God, it’s getting like bloody Jackanory in here.

The resulting tale is as rich and classy a slice of Victoriana as the BBC has ever produced. Frances Cox, Freddie Jones, Boothby’s bicycle,  “next door,” and seeing Chinnery as his own great-grandfather are all great.

Boothby: Now then, lad. Old Majolica sings your praises and that’s good enough for me. I can offer you a hundred a year, food, lodgings and unlimited use of a bicycle. What do you say?
Chinnery: I’d be delighted.
Boothby: Capital! I think we’ll get along well. There is only one other matter, my senior partner, Mr. Purblind, is an invalid. He occupies the last room on the third floor. He never stirs from his bed from dawn till dusk…save to go for a wee.
Chinnery: You wish me to visit him?
Boothby: On no account! Mr. Purblind is a very sick man. The slightest disturbance is abhorrent to him. Do you hear me?
Chinnery: Yes, sir.
Boothby: All my doors are open to you, Chinnery. Except the ones that are closed.

For their part, Shearsmith and Pemberton’s creations Boothby and Majolica are wonderful, with the former’s bicycle obsession and the latter’s evil echo of Series Three’s Dr. Carlton being particular highlights.

Purblind: Touch them and see!
Chinnery: No…no, I…I mustn’t!
Purblind: Feel them! Feel the knackers!

In spite of his warning (and probably because of it), Chinnery later finds himself in Purblind’s room where the old man tells him the story of how he came to be cursed to kill every animal he came into contact with. The effect of Purblind’s story builds through the brilliant use of shadow puppets to the surprising reveal of a unique necklace and via a gleeful moment of Freddie Jones swearing. Chinnery feels the knackers and unwittingly takes Purblind’s curse upon himself, but dismisses the possibility as “cheap mummery.” His return to his London practise and a simple surgical tap that is but “the work of moments” causes an animal massacre of epic proportions.

Majolica: Another vet has touched the monkey’s bollocks. And now you and all your descendants shall suffer the curse of Karrit Poor!

There’s that name again. Every time I watch this I mean to search out my copy of A Local Book For Local People to read about the curse of Karrit Poor in “The Curse Of Karrit Poor.” I never do. We return to the present day and Bernice convinces Chinnery to get back to work.

Throughout its first two series, the show referenced and alluded to a great many horror films, but uses its Christmas Special to pay tribute to an often overlooked subgenre: the portmanteau film. These are films made up of shorter stories united by framing device. It was a subgenre that I was previously unaware of, but examples include Dr. Terror’s House Of Horrors (1964), The House That Dripped Blood (1970), Tales From The Crypt (1972), New York Stories (1989) and Four Rooms (1995).

"Christmas Special," The League of Gentlemen

The absence of Tubbs and Edward really allows some of the other characters to flourish and the portmanteau sequences allow the Gentlemen to have their cake and eat it too. Did those events happen as described? Will Stella be framed for murder? Is Herr Lipp a Vampire now? Is Chinnery’s inability to keep a patient alive the result of the curse? Possibly, but would it really matter if the only thing that really happened were the sequences set in the church? I don’t think so, because they are arguably the most horrific of all.

The framing story of Bernice has given us flashbacks to her childhood and reveals that her mother was abducted at Christmas when she was eight years old. She is invited by three visitors to reassess her attitude to Christmas and she does mellow as the evening has wears on. To the point that she inspires Chinnery, plans to do nice things for her parishioners on Christmas Day and, potentially a first, she apologises to someone. Bernice’s childhood catches up with her as Santa Claus comes to town again and this time he takes her away with him. Papa Lazarou’s fleeting appearance here serves to cement him as one of the most horrifying television monsters. Not only does he steal Christmas, but he undermines everything that has happened to Bernice all night. Even after the life changing visits of Scrooge’s three ghosts, it would probably have brought his new demeanour to a brief conclusion if he had been kidnapped and inserted into an elephant on Christmas Day.

There was a definite shift in style as the series progressed. While the first series could be legitimately described as a sketch show, the second was more of a sitcom. Now with the benefit of hindsight it’s easy to see the Christmas special as the bridge between that and the more comedy drama style of Series Three. Not least because they dropped the laughter track and the funny thing is that you barely notice here

The three onscreen members of The League Of Gentlemen are rightly applauded for their acting abilities, indeed we can all be grateful that three of Britain’s best actors were on screen at the same time, but in complimenting that aspect of the show let’s not ignore the writing and the fourth Gent, Jeremy Dyson.

The genius of The League Of Gentlemen is their juxtaposition of highbrow and lowbrow. They can take a brilliantly intricate and rewarding story about voodoo revenge and dismiss it as a cheese dream. They can take a potentially one note character with pun for a name and single entendre dialogue and play him with complexity and honesty. They can make a sumptuous Victorian horror story full of intrigue and have the entire thing revolve around the cupping of a monkey’s lovespuds. They can take something as potentially sentimental and syrupy as a Christmas special, force its bitter central character through the wringer, make her learn a lesson and then ultimately prove her right all along. They take a central tenet of sitcom, that characters don’t develop, and then they earn it.

Here I am twelve years later and I’ve finally gotten around to reading “The Curse Of Karrit Poor” in A Local Book. I liked it. Not more than the TV version, but I liked it. The one thing I found most comforting and reassuring was that it also takes both the high road and the low road.

“A story so fantastic that it might seem to have sprung from the ravings of some brain fevered Eastern mystic. Or a twat.”
–From The Curse Of Karrit Poor, being the reminiscences of “Dr Edmund Chinnery R.C.V.S.”

Tomorrow: A very adult show for children reminds us of just how far apart these phases of our lives can be. (Not intentionally, obviously.)

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