I think what’s most frustrating for me about “Stranger Sings,” the first short of two of Creepshow‘s Season 3, Episode 4, is how there are dozens of filmmakers who would kill in this format, within these parameters (and indeed, the show has found a few), and yet two episodes — one from last season and this one here — have been handed over to Axelle Carolyn. Both of her shorts have demonstrated a marked lack of structure and execution, sharing between them a feeling of improvisation and bloat that speaks to saying everything there is to say in the first two minutes or so and then just kind of killing time for the rest of it. There’s no vision guiding the story – no… point beyond maybe showing off for whomever might be impressed by milling around. For as short as these films are, they shouldn’t feel this long. The marked sensation I get from watching this stuff is the second-hand embarrassment you feel when you’re trapped in an auditorium while an ill-prepared performer dies on stage. If I wasn’t committed to recapping this series, I would’ve skipped “Stranger Sings” after a few beats. I’ve not seen her new feature, The Manor. I’m curious now to see if her issues are confined to the short medium.
“Stranger Sings” aspires to arch whimsy, I think, from its punny title to its performances that affect a forced cheeriness that doesn’t, you know, happen by accident. Sara (Suehyla El-Attar) is picked up one day by awkward OB-GYN Barry (Chris Mayers) outside a coffee shop/bookstore as she complains about how the barista misspells her name but, oh well, the macchiato tastes the same either way. There’s maybe a way this line can read as not smug but it would take some work Carolyn hasn’t invested. Closer to the point, and possibly fairer, is that there wasn’t really a unifying principle guiding this work so there was no line against which to hew. This is dangerous because when issues are raised — like how the two monsters of the piece are Black women preying on a white doctor — you better be ready to address them. Sara and Barry engage in Witty Romantic Banter™ and then an ethereal song summons Barry into Sara’s tastefully-appointed duplex. Sara, it bears mentioning because “Stranger Sings” wants me to, is carrying a stack of books the only one of which you could identify is Homer’s Odyssey. This is important because there’s a cool passage in there about sirens. There’s a line later in the short where Sara’s roommate Miranda (Kadianne Whyte) talks about what sirens are and are not and describes the common perception of them as being mermaids. That’s… not the common perception of them and they’re described pretty well in The Odyssey as… look, it’s exhausting to do this. “Stranger Sings” is winking about how smart it is while forcing whimsy: how can one be pretentious, after all, when one is taking the piss? Just watch.
Seems Miranda is a siren and Sara is not, but Sara wants to be and so the plan is to get Barry, who is an obstetrician, to perform a voice box transplant so that Sara will be a siren and Miranda will not? This comes immediately after the tortured explanation of how Miranda is a terrible bird monster making it unclear how swapping voice boxes will make Sara a terrible bird monster. It doesn’t have to make sense, but this is chaotic stupidity. Are we saying instead that the only way Sara can lure men into the house is by having a magical voice? But we’ve just clarified that Sara is better at luring men into the house than Miranda because she’s charming. I guess I don’t know what “Stranger Sings” is trying to say. There are a few potshots at Barry for being a pathetic divorcee who can’t get laid which is unnecessarily unkind given how harmless and kind Barry has been portrayed. They’re monsters, I get it, I get it, but Miranda maybe is less of a monster at the end and this entire exercise is garbage loaded with suggestions it has no business playing around with. You don’t tell a story about sex, a woman’s voice, and transformative elective surgery (performed by a gynecologist – are we equating the vagina with the voice? That would’ve been fascinating had it been executed thoughtfully) without a plan, is what I’m saying. Anyone who’s actually read The Odyssey would know that.
Better by far is Joe Lynch and Joe Esposito’s “Meter Reader” that very quickly establishes a John Ford-ian apocalypse where a demonic pandemic has resulted in a slowly progressive possession of the population, combated, albeit futilely, by a group of people called “Meter Readers.” This group is immune to possession and, with a magical green crystal, able to diagnose and occasionally exorcise infernal influences. A clear allegory for our current plague state what with its conversations about the “essentialness” of going back to the salon and the premature reopening of the world, Lynch lards the piece with a couple of iconic visual cues and an overriding sense of oppressive dread and incipient armageddon. A late coda says that religion and science are both essentially useless in the face of evil, a theme of Friedkin’s The Exorcist as well, with which “Meter Reader” shares DNA along with Ernest Dickerson’s Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight. Best is how the piece details how families are split apart along ideological lines with wilful teen Theresa (a fantastic Abigail Dolan) on the side of caution and reason and her mother (Cynthia Evans) trying to walk the line between optimism and denial. All of it’s told with images lifted from things like The Searchers (another tale of a lost daughter and a father on a “righteous” mission) and The Wizard of Oz in a sequence in which a metaphysical storm descends upon its central family.
I would have liked if there was less time spent in an early exorcism and more time centering Theresa and her attempts to protect her family from dissolution within and pestilence without, and a jokey “bring out your heads” Black Plague reference seems more an afterthought for rueful shock than anything substantive, but “Meter Reader” accomplishes a great deal in a very short amount of time. And though I’m not sure I’m quite ready for straight plague allegories, the film does very much capture the feeling of isolation and doom a lot of us have experienced, not only for the invisible contagion but for how so many of our neighbors have revealed themselves as monsters who wouldn’t mind very much if we were dead. It’s a smart, despairing piece with a nice jump scare during a flashlight/storm cellar sequence – and a delightful serpent’s tail throwaway gag that is what a sense of humor in genre fare really looks like. It’s not perfect, but it’s powerful. I guess I’d rather the one over the other.
Walter Chaw is the Senior Film Critic for filmfreakcentral.net. His book on the films of Walter Hill, with introduction by James Ellroy, is due in 2021. His monograph for the 1988 film MIRACLE MILE is available now.