Friday, July 19, 2013

Satan's Spawn

Book Report: Satan’s Spawn
Written by Richard Jay Silverthorn
Based on FEAR NO EVIL, written and Directed by Frank LaLoggia

"little Andrew will capture your heart..and devour your very soul."

Every once in awhile, you run into a work of art so strange, so ill-considered, so patently bizarre, that it ceases to be good or bad and becomes mysterious. Who made this? What in God’s name were they trying to do here? Who did they honestly think would be into this? How did they convince people to give them money to pay the hundreds of other people they somehow managed to rope into helping them make it? How is this still available, and not yet lapsed into the public domain?

Such is the case of Frank LaLoggia’s baffling 1981 highschool horror enigma, FEAR NO EVIL. I watched it in ever-escalating amazement with some of the most fluent cinephiles I am aware of, and each was forced to admit that they’d never seen anything like it. About halfway through its bizarre 99 minutes, we all had to turn to each other and acknowledge that this little film was so completely alien to us that we honestly had no idea where it was going. When it ended, we still didn’t know. It’s full of recognizable elements, but they simply refuse to add up in any kind of predictable (or discernable) way. When I wrote my review of the film, I said:

What makes this one kind of interesting is that despite all the worn 80s high school tropes on display, the film is surprisingly ambiguous. Everything is so familiar that you feel like you know where this is going, but the film craftily (or perhaps obtusely) confounds your expectations and does something weird instead...It's a Frankenstein's monster kind of movie [built from disparate parts of other films] and I genuinely cannot say with any confidence if that reflects ambition or incompetence on the part of the filmmaker... But the ambiguity makes it more interesting.”

Well, what kind of movie nerd can resist a mystery like that? Certainly not Dan Prestwich, who managed to acquire a copy of the novelization by Richard Jay Silverthorn. Even at a Baby-Sitter’s-Club friendly 247 pages, a novel gives more opportunity than a film to elaborate and offer commentary on the proceedings, so I dove into the reading hoping to tease some answers out of the mysterious tale of Andrew Williams, teenage Antichrist.

Andrew Williams, second row, second from left.

Fortunately for our comparison, the book is pretty similar to the movie. The plot, in fact, is almost identical, which is somewhat surprising considering the book has a different title and the copyright page dismissively acknowledges that the novel (we can call it that because it also states, “this work is a novel.”) is “Based on characters appearing in the motion picture FEAR NO EVIL, written and directed by Frank LaLoggia.” Sounds like the author is distancing himself from the source material, but no, it’s all here: Andy Williams (yes, Andy Williams. And yes, his father is again named John Williams. And no, I still don’t get it) is an 18-year-old high school outsider, bullied by a bunch of exaggerated jocks while slowly initiating his plan to bring about the reign of Satan. Again, you have the prologue with an elderly priest stopping just such a plan that occurred in the past, again you have said priest’s sister teaming up with a milquetoast local virgin to save humanity. Most of the major scenes from the movie are quoted more or less verbatim in the book: the boiler-room sexcapades, the death-by-dodgeball, the dog eating, the supernatural boobs, the passion-play-gone-wrong, the castle, the zombies. Yes, the famous shower-room naked open-mouth kissing prank. It’s all there. The author does elaborate a little bit, offering a few new sequences and a slightly more in-depth explanation about the history of these Satanic kerfuffles. But otherwise, it’s basically a direct adaptation. The additions feel like they could be deleted scenes more than major game-changers.

This is fortunate, because we get to relive these classic sequences through the eyes of an omniscient narrator, who clues us into what everyone’s thinking and helps us resolve some of our major questions, the first and most obvious being “what the fuck?” OK, that one’s a little harder to answer, since a lot of the inexplicable weirdness is still there, reported with the possibly overconfident notion that just because it’s explained it’ll also make sense. Why bestow supernatural breasts on perennial jock asshole Tony Indivino? In the movie it’s completely out of the blue. In the novelization, however, Andy explains himself: “You warned me pot would make me grow tits! Your words seal your fate, pot-head. You will have tits like a woman all your life.” (pg 235)

But, uh, does that really explain anything? Why would that pop into his head? Is the Antichrist anti-pot? As you can see, the explanation the book offers usually raise more questions than they answer.

Still, there are answers here. The most satisfying is the resolution of the question of Andy’s sexuality. As you recall, the film (where Andy is portrayed by Warren Zevon collaborator Stefan Arngrim) gives Andy a distinctively effete manner, seemingly completely uninterested in women and subject to some sexually-suggestive teasing (for instance, the eyebrow-raising naked shower kiss scene). Here, though, he’s all man, even lusting after our terminally uninteresting female protagonist and going so far as to murder her boyfriend out of jealousy. It’s a little less interesting, but somewhat of a relief in such a petulantly Catholic horror story to not have the villain be some kind of swishy pervert. It’s also a good thing because in keeping with the movie --and despite some homophobic language being tossed around by the jocks-- this book is probably the single gayest thing that doesn’t directly involve Jackie O since gayness was invented. I mean, I think every major male character has his genitals described in the sort of poetic detail the book usually reserves only for first-hand encounters with the divine, or, even better, the genitals thereof. Let’s take a look:

  • …”he began to stroke his long, thin penis into semi-erection. The pointed end [the pointed end??] began to redden and expand as his breathing deepened.” (pg 87)

  • “He tugged at his crotch, showing her his dripping stiffness, no underwear under his wet-spotted jeans” (pg 66.) By contrast, the girl here just gets a quick mention: “She also was wearing no underwear”

  • “Tony yanked his bulging crotch through his jockstrap (pg 98)

  • (My personal favorite): “But a downward glance to the the reddening, flaring staff with it’s one-eyed corona, probing, probing upwards to her spread thighs was nothing like the little dimple of her hairless baby brother. It was a serpent” (pg 121).

  • "As with victims of hangings [charming metaphor by the way, thanks for that] the naked lad's penis ejaculated a thin stream of semen into the murky pool" (pg 209).

  • And another weird comparison (by a different girl) to a baby's penis: "...She'd seen her baby brother naked many times, but wasn't exactly prepared for the proportions of a mature adult," (keep in mind, these are graduating high school seniors) and it goes on: “He guided his virgin girlfriend's hand to the rubber stretched over the flaring end of his excited cock. Tonight he'd get in her!” (pg 215).

And those are just a few highlights that a quick flip through the book reveals. But wait, you say, everyone likes penises, that’s not necessarily gay. Perhaps, but then you’ve got a few gems like this laying around..

  • “...Steve glanced admiringly at his smooth, tanned physique” (pg 98)

  • “Ivory bars of soap dripped in gooey semenlike streamers,” (in the all-male locker room shower).

And if you want ultimate proof that this guy Richard Jay Silverthorn does not have a large body of experience with women, well...

  • “ His penis filled her, burst her hymen like a nebulous soap bubble, not a barrier of leather,” (pg 121)

Right? First off, nebulous soap bubble? That’s a highly questionable use of the word "nebulous." But seriously, “a barrier of leather” is the most hilariously inappropriate description of a woman’s anatomy since “you grab a woman’s breasts and they feel... like a bag of sand.” If this dude wasn’t gay before, he better learn quick because once the fairer sex gets a look at his fiction I think his options with women are gonna be pretty limited.

The famous naked show kiss from the movie. Don't be thrown off by the long hair, these are both dudes. One of them is the Antichrist, though, which makes this totally not gay, for real dawg.

More than just gay, though, this is a super gay Catholic novel, so it has that wonderful conflict between wanting to be pervy and transgressive while also needing to feel intensely guilty about it. There’s always someone around to lament that these kids with their drugs and sex and swearing all violate god’s holy law, which puts both the reader and the writer in the awkward position of reading a book with a singleminded fixation on those things but also a profound revulsion of them. It compensates, I think, by making the heroine the blandest possible goody-two-shoes (she chides her boyfriend for profanity!) which makes her blameless in the eyes of God and therefore acceptable to side with. However, it also makes her one of the most profoundly tedious characters ever to grace the blank side of a page. I feel like this carries over to the movie, too, except that she’s so boring I just kind of have a vaguely defined empty space in my memory regarding whether or not she was in the movie at all.

Along with the Catholic guilt comes a nice helping of weirdo Catholic mythology, a welcome addition of color into an otherwise somewhat dry yarn. I mentioned in my original review of the movie that I didn’t realize (if it’s ever explained at all) that the heroine, her crazy old lady sidekick, and the priest from the prologue are supposed to be the reincarnated angels Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael. Here, though, that’s more than clear: it’s elaborated on in detail which borders on the obsessive. God --apparently not the helpful type-- has sent them to be reincarnated on Earth at different times, in different bodies, with no memory that they’re angels or way of getting in contact with each other. Which presents kinda a problem because they’re all boring ass shut-ins who don’t really mingle much. All they need to do is find the Antichrist and read a paragraph or two in Latin (which is probably about all they’re up for anyway) so it should be no surprise that they can barely manage even that.

I actually like this nutty side of Catholicism, though, because it leads to some wonderfully convoluted weirdness that only a true believer could really wrap his or her head around, like the suspiciously “don’t worry it’s not sexual because we’re both angels!” “bonding” that happens between the two female protagonists, or the fact that towards the end the author casually drops, “the rapture had begun... they were the first of the faithful to be taken into Heaven as promised,” and then doesn’t feel the need to elaborate any further or mention it again. That’s the kind of olde-tyme religion I can get behind; the kind where the rapture warrants three sentences of explanation, but by God there’s not a single opportunity to describe male genitals which goes unexplored.

Like any story which appears genuine about it’s kooky religious angle, there’s still some uncomfortable ground to be covered. As with last month’s DANTE’S INFERNO (which unfortunately did not turn out to be the sequel to DANTE’S PEAK that I assumed it would be), there’s enough punitive moralizing here to make you start to wonder what the hell God’s problem is, anyway. When one strapping young lad commits suicide to avoid having to worship the Dark One, the Devil laughs,”for no self murderer shall attain heaven,” which seems like a pretty dick move on God’s part. Seems like there ought to be some extenuating circumstances, and one of them obviously should be when you’re about to be raped to death by the Devil as punishment for articulating your loyalty to God. And of course, it goes without saying that the heroine’s virginity is a matter of no small obsession to the text, which finds her rejecting her fiance’s sexual advances on several distinct occasions (the text tells us, “he loved her enough to stop” -- as opposed to what, raping her?). Most unexpectedly, the book also confirms one of the more interesting aspects of Arngrim’s portrayal in the movie version: although Andy is indeed the Antichrist, and isn’t above a little murder, he also seems to have human emotions, feeling affection and insecurity and even, at one point, regret. I guess this is easier for Catholics to deal with, since they’re already down with seeing Jesus as both wholly human and wholly divine (which according to my math totals 200%, not an easy feat even for the creator of the universe), but to us heathens it makes it hard to be completely unsympathetic to the Antichrist when you’re given an intimate view of his more vulnerable moments. Kinda weird, particular since I suspect anyone reading this novel probably has some experience being bullied by the high school jocks to whom Andy eventually serves up an overflowing antique china platter of piping hot revenge. But wait, are we supposed to be siding with the murderous Antichrist? I guess I’ll never understand religion.

There’s also, predictably, a dig at atheists: In one chapter, Andy has a long conversation with a priest, demolishing the guy by asking completely legitimate questions about the reality of God (“funny that there have been no miracle since the advent of photography and television” he scoffs). Thanks asshole, doubters are living in sin, we get it, go back to writing your Satanic rape scenes like Jesus obviously would want. That’s kinda a  bringdown (especially since the priest doesn’t even bother to meaningfully answer him, and we’re supposed to think it’s a good thing). But my favorite uncomfortable Catholic line comes later, when the non-virgins (who, predictably, will all die horribly by the end of the book) give their friend a condom with the words: “Since you’re Catholic you can’t get an abortion and your folks will make you keep it,” as if us everyone else gets abortions like they’re impulse buys at the checkout counter. “I’ll need a pack of smokes, a lottery ticket, and, hmm, better throw an abortion in there. Ooh! And some skittles.”

Alas, there is no "About the author" to accompany this image of him.

Ultimately, all these details add up to an inescapable conclusion. The book makes one thing clear about the movie: It’s a really weird plot. Even when explained in more detail, the whole thing seems kind of inexplicably put together. It feels like John Waters doing a high school remake of THE EXORCIST. Or a ham and butterscotch taco. These are good tastes, but what are they doing together? And when you add the mystery of why in the hell someone would go on to write a novelization of the same plot under a different name, I think we may just have proof of direct intervention from extra-dimensional superbeings. I mean, how else do you explain that? 

Writer Richard Jay Silverthorn did have one connection to the film: he appears in it (as Lucifer, an image of whom amazingly is actually in my original review) and also did makeup and visual effects. Other than that, he has done nothing else whatsoever that leaves any record that could be revealed by an exhaustive internet search. However, IMDB does note one other work: “COLOR ME GAY (1973) - this student film was written, filmed, produced, directed, and edited by Richard while he was at the University of Rochester, New York.” Now, I’m not saying a straight guy couldn’t have directed a gay (or colored, I guess) film while attending the UoR. But uh, I still think that might be a relevant piece of evidence, if I may say so. IMBD also claims that LaLoggia sold him the novelization rights for $1*, so that at least means it wasn’t a huge financial loss for the poor guy. Other than that, though, the enigma of FEAR NO EVIL / SATAN’S SPAWN appears as impenetrable as ever. What's the deal with all this weird crap? Like the Satanically-reanimated zombie near the end of the book who wonder aloud who won the 1963 World Series, ("he had been a baseball fan in life," the text tells us unhelpfully) we'll never know for sure**. But, at least when the inevitable remake arrives in a few years, we’ll have already learned to embrace the mystery.

*although it also calls the novel “Satan’s Child,” while my copy and the only image available of it on the internet clearly names it “Satan’s Spawn.” So take that with a grain of salt.

**Incidentally, it was the Los Angeles Dodgers, sweeping the Yankees in four games for the first time in history. Not sure if that's a metaphor or something.

1 comment:

  1. ...what struck me about the quoted passages from the book are that they manage, just in those passages, to use several of our prompt words (either already on the site, or the docket to go up in August) from Prompt & Circumstance. And now I'm just looking at all our prompt words and thinking how they could be used to describe penises. Ugh. I can't imagine how many prompt words may be contained in the entire text...

    On the flip side, if this guy wants to submit this book to our fall issue, fuck, I guess we'd publish him. Rich, if you're out there reading...