Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Not the Dummy Slayer

Was there ever a time when ventriloquist dummies weren't creepy? The oldest film I can think of to portray one as possessed by a demon is 1945's Dead of Night. 1964's Devil Doll, a B movie starring William Sylvester, used the same concept ridiculously enough to later be featured on Mystery Science Theatre 3000. So by the time Buffy the Vampire Slayer aired an episode called "The Puppet Show" in 1997, it was very old hat indeed and ripe for a new direction.

Pairing it with the basic premise of Buffy is a pretty good leap in itself. I think it might be difficult for some young people to-day to understand what Buffy meant to the pop cultural landscape. Before Buffy, TV shows and movies could be scary or funny but rarely both. There was a funny episode or two of The Twilight Zone or the intros and epilogues for HBO's Tales from the Crypt series, but mostly these things were aberrations and very far from mainstream or network TV. To find Buffy's ancestors, one might look to Evil Dead 2, or maybe Peter Jackson's Dead Alive. And, of course, Twin Peaks, as always. Maybe the best analogy is Scoopy Doo, a comparison explicitly drawn by Buffy, but Scooby Doo was never really scary and certainly never had the dramatic weight of some of Buffy's episodes.

There was something exciting about the idea that Buffy's quips or relationship issues could be featured just as prominently as a ravenous demon or ghoul. The box most people were taught to see horror in didn't generally allow a world of any credible size. The humour on Buffy sometimes strengthened the horror by adding an element of unpredictability while the humour was strengthened for being a particularly potent comedy relief for the horror. It may be difficult for younger people to understand now because media has conditioned them to be more jaded than Buffy's original audience, just as Buffy's original audience was more jaded than the kids who threw up during screenings of Night of the Living Dead.

And then Buffy met a demon dummy. Or is it a demon dummy? Is even the Buffy concept enough of a spin? In any case, I like the nervous, addict-ish performance from Richard Werner, the actor who plays the ventriloquist. He and the dummy are introduced as part of the school talent show in which Buffy and the gang are forced to participate by the new principal.

Introduced in this episode, Principal Snyder is played by a simmeringly deadpan Armin Shimerman (best known as Quark on DS9). I love the simple, understated menace in which he casually mentions his predecessor was "eaten". Hilariously, he seems to put it down to the man being too sensitive to student needs. I find this character much funnier now than the last time I watched this series.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is available in a lousy cropped format on Amazon Prime.

Twitter Sonnet #1419

A dizzy height's restrained in helm and cloak.
A shiny floor supports the empty boot.
A number burned behind the heavy smoke.
A dry and brittle tree retracts its root.
The cherry night was fading fast for blue.
A picture thought repeated shots of eyes.
The lighting caught a slow convening crew.
They pass on foot to carry east their pies.
The shadows sought betimes were something sick.
In trials meek the bolder heart withstood.
The absent tear revealed the hungry tick.
There's something waiting now that can or could.
The waving fish was waiting 'neath the tide.
The giant whale'll offer us a ride.

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