CW: Attempted Sexual Assault
How many of us went on a school trip to the zoo? (I did when I was 6) How many of us fell under mind control from evil hyenas? (I was too busy watching the gorillas throw poop.) Anyways, our favorite sleaze bag Xander does both and what happens next becomes, in my opinion, one of the worst episodes, maybe in the series. Buckle up as we delve into “The Pack”.
Do we not chaparone field trips anymore?
We open at the oft-mentioned Sunnydale Zoo, full of teenagers running amok with no chaperones. This will turn out well. Anyway, Buffy is looking over the zoo map where she is accosted by the bullies of the episode. They come by and accost her for no reason other than ‘bullies’. The gang meanders off right before Xander and Willow excitedly come up and tell about them seeing zebras mate, which Willow so eloquently put it Like the Heimlich, but with stripes”. They mosey on for a bit more talking about how this is not a bad trip because of no classes, which Xander (not so) surprisingly loves.
We are then introduced to the seeming loner of the episode, Lance. He is either writing or drawing something as he stares at the chimpanzee enclosed before the group of miscreants approach. They surround the poor kid and treat him like crap for no reason other than their enjoyment. They surround him and before anything bad could happen, they are stopped by Principal Flutie. Lance tells Flutie that everything is ok and nothing is going on. Flutie glares at the gang before leaving.
The cretins decide to reward Lance with a trip to the hyena house, which is closed off. They ignore that and go in anyway. We do need to mention the shoddy way the zoo booked off the hyena house. Anyway, Xander sees this and chases after them. Buffy and Willow follow suit but are stopped by a zookeeper. Xander goes in and interrupts the gang of n’er do wells, leaving Lance to run off. But before they can do anything, one of the hyenas flashes a glow from its eyes, which causes the same from Xander and the bullies.
Xander has changed…by being more Xander
Shock of all shocks, we open back up at The Bronze, where there is no cover for DJ Night. Buffy and Willow are hanging out as besties do, with Willow asking if Buffy noticed any changes from Xander once they left the zoo. Buffy smirks, knowing the reason that Willow noticed as much as she did as she is still head over heels for Xander. Willow tosses the head over heels moment in Buffy’s face, mentioning Angel and his leather jacket she still has. As if on cue, Xander shows up being his usual ‘charming’ self, but hyena-powered. On top of his usual creepiness, we now add smelling Buffy’s hair and munching on her croissant. Then here comes the superpowered gang of bullies who make people move because ‘it was their table’ as well as making a fat joke which makes Xander laugh, to the ladies’ chagrin.
When one goes to a library in school, what do you expect to use it for? Studying? Research? Not even close. If you go to Sunnydale, Giles and Buffy use it for kickboxing practice. After quickly finishing, Giles sends her to class so he can heal. Then we see a POV shot of something low to the ground chasing students in the hallway. Oh no! Killer hyenas! But Buffy is able to pick it up? False alarm, the new mascot got loose. Principal Flutie introduces us to Herbert the Razorback. What exactly is a Razorback? Simply an actual pig with foam dorsal spines, an ill-fitting football helmet, and false tusks.
Dodgeball wasn’t much different than when I was in school
As someone who was short and scrawny, you would think I hated dodgeball. Au contraire, I loved it. However, these were weird rules. No cones to hit to bring out eliminated teammates, no real rules, just random teams throwing the balls. Anywho, on one side had Xander, the bullies, and Lance among the extras. And the other hand Buffy, Willow, and their group of extras. It comes down to Buffy on her side, with the other side consisting of Xander, the bullies, and Lance. Instead of taking care of Buffy and winning the game, everyone turns on Lance and showers rubber ball doom onto him. Buffy rushes to save them, with the villainous group slinking away.
Willow later catches up with Xander to talk to him about his recent attitude change. At first, he mentions going through changes, and perhaps he has some sort of feelings for her. But, he twists it to tell her he is dropping geometry and will not need her to tutor him anymore, while also mentioning her having a ‘pasty face’, causing her to run off. Buffy walked in during the middle of it, walking up to the group as Willow rushes away. She glares at Xander, daring him to say something to her. He simply snickers at her and walks off.
Careful of eating raw pork
Ah, lunchtime. The most segmented part of the school day. You eating at the same table with the same people every day. We all remember that scene from Mean Girls. The group o’ meanies walks up to a table outside where one of the guys sitting down asks Xander about some singer of a band, like seen at one of the nightly sojourns to The Bronze. Instead of engaging in a deep philosophical discussion about frontmen, Xander and the group of hyena types just glare before stealing their hot dogs and walking off because they smell something less cooked. Their heightened sense of smell leads them to the room Herbert the mascot is in. After surrounding the cage and frightening the poor thing, they all dive in and devour the poor pig.
We then turn to a devastated Willow who is pouring her broken heart out to Buffy. Willow has convinced herself that she is the third wheel and Xander is nicer to Buffy because he wants her (Yeah, that adds up). Buffy reassures Willow and heads to Giles to see if she can pinpoint the problem. She brings him all the warning signs, which he somewhat humorously writes off as him being a teenage boy. Buffy keeps failing to convince Giles that something more than hormones is at work until he mentions about ‘preying on the weak’. It clicks to Buffy of the attitude change after the hyena cage. Before they can get any further into this, Willow rushes in to say that they found a dead…and eaten Herbert.
Principal Flutie, we hardly knew thee
Principal Flutie, rightfully so, is on the warpath as he approaches the group, sans Xander. He demands that they meet him in his office, as he knows what they did. They did themselves no favors with all but admitting it. Meanwhile, the 3/4 of the Scooby Gang not possessed by evil hyena spirits figure out what we knew all along. Giles has the bad news that if they cannot figure out how to stop the possession, there could be some deadly consequences, so Buffy rushes off to find Xander.
CW: Attempted SA Buffy rushes into the classroom that held the former mascot looking for Xander. While looking around and discovering pieces of the poor pig’s spine among other bones, she is surprised from behind by Xander, who is creepier than usual. At more than one point, Xander is able to overpower her, apparently getting stronger is one of the side effects of the possession. Xander starts to tell her creepy things that you know have been in his head since the beginning. The scene cuts just ass he starts to sniff and nuzzle her. The next scene has Buffy dragging an unconscious Xander into the library and into the same cage we all had in our high school libraries. Before anyone says it never went that far, Buffy actually says he tried his hand at ‘felony sexual assault’.
While this scene is going on, they keep cutting back to Principal Flutie in his office with the other hyena-possessed crowd. They slowly surround him as Flutie tries to get to the bottom of the issue, even threatening to call their parents. Before he can dial one number, they all jump onto the principal, kill him, and eat him. Even sadder the camera pans down to a photo on his desk of himself. No significant other, no pets, nothing.
Zoo Tycoon never played like this
Xander finally wakes up in the library cage, while poor Willow is still doing her hyena research all alone in the library. While Willow does seem, genuinely concerned for her friend, Xander seems uncharacteristically the same to her. He seems to finally be over Buffy and lays out how he finally wants to show her affection. Willow once again shows how lowkey clever she is, but goaded Xander into revealing that he is still under the spell.
Meanwhile, Buffy and Giles are talking to the zookeeper, trying to convince him about the hyena possessions. According to the zookeeper, this is a special breed of a hyena (of course it is) that was worshipped by ancient priests. The best way to solve this issue is a reverse transpossesion , but he needs the kids to come to the hyenas. The keeper states that because after feeding and sleeping they will meet up with the rest of the pack…Uh-oh! That means they are coming for Willow at the library. As if on cue, the rest of the ruffians crash into the library to release Xander and go after a scrambling Willow. Just when it seemed like Willow’s time ran out, here comes Buffy and Giles to save her. They decide to split the party with Willow and Giles heading to the zoo right away while Buffy guides the baddies there.
How did Giles and Willow get so dumb so quick?
Back at the entrance to the hyena house, Giles runs inside and leaves Willow outside to help guide them in. The zookeeper in his finest Violet Beauregard robes and facepaint as Giles runs in. With the ceremonial markings on the floor, it takes too long for Giles to figure out that the keeper was one of these high priests trying to gain the hyenas powers, but the teens were able to do this before him. As a reward for him finally figuring this out, the zookeeper knocks him out and stuff him in a closet.
Willow hears Buffy running in with the gang close behind. Being one of the intelligent ones, Willow readily agrees to get her hands tied and the keeper putting a knife to her throat because they need a predatory act for the transpossesion. Willows finally yells that it was a trap all along, causing her to stop and get tackled. Before they could finally finish her, the keeper screams something in another language, causing all the hyena souls(?) to transfer to him. So, here we go, the final battle between him and Buffy. Could someone with all the souls topple here when she had trouble with one soul? Nope, a quick couple of blows and she throws the priest/druid cross-class who gets eaten by the hyenas.
Couldn’t be more tone deaf
The episode closes on the gan reviewing what happened in the past few days with Xander not remembering what happened while he was under the spell. The girls brush it off before he runs into Giles. Giles talks about no mention of memory loss, meaning that Xander remembers everything he did during the episode. So, do we use this as some sort of character development and see Xander grow as a person. Does this cause a rift between everyone? Do we use this as a teaching tool on SA? Nope, we end on whimsical music and never speak of it again.
In closing, this would have been a pretty good and interesting episode if they never had that scene. But by keeping it, trivializing it, and brushing it under the rug, it really put a huger sour note on the episode. The way such a sensitive topic was handled really put this as the weakest episode of the season, maybe of all time. The big blemish on an overall solid first season.(1.5 / 5)
Remember, if you buy anything from the links provided, we get a little $ back!
Goosebumps, The Haunted Mask
Based loosely on the 1993 story of the same name, The Haunted Mask begins sort of partway through the first episode.
We’re introduced to a character we haven’t seen much of so far, named Isabella.
Isabella’s life doesn’t seem great. She’s all but invisible at school. She is responsible for taking care of her little brother. It seems like her only real joy is bullying people online. She was the person who tried to get Allison’s party canceled by sending the invite to her parents. Why? Because she is a very unhappy person.
Despite trying to get the party canceled, she decides to go anyway. At the Biddle house, a voice calls her down to the basement. There, she finds a mask.
The mask inspires her to do wild things. She wanders around the party, flirting with everyone. And she has a great time.
Several days later, after Isaiah breaks his arm, Isabella brings an expensive drone to school to get shots of the football team’s practice. Unfortunately, Lucas breaks it fooling around. And Isabella, tired of being ignored, says some awful things to him.
When her mother grounds her because she took the drone without asking, the mask compels her to do some awful things.
I would first like to talk about the storytelling structure in this season. It appears that we’re going to be getting the events of Halloween night multiple times, from multiple points of view.
I love this structure. It’s unique, and it allows for more mystery in a shorter period. It’s also more complex, showing just how much madness was happening, while just showing one part of the story at a time.
Another thing I appreciated was the evolution of the character Lucas.
On one hand, it’s easy to be angry at Lucas. Even if he thought the drone belonged to the school, it’s still kind of a selfish move to break it.
But Lucas just lost his father. We don’t know how yet, but we know from Nora that his death caused Lucas to start doing things like jumping on drones and skateboarding off the roof from his bedroom window.
We all mourn differently. Losing a parent as a teen is awful. So while we can all agree that he’s being a problem, he’s also being a sad kid working through something hard.
And the same can be said for Isabella.
Look, we still don’t know what the adults of this town did to make Harold Biddle haunt them. But we do know that these parents are messing up in all sorts of other ways. And Isabella is suffering from parentification. She’s being forced to play mom at home while being ignored by her classmates at school. Even without the mask, I could see her lashing out and trashing the house.
Finally, I love Justin Long in this series. His visual comedy was fantastic here, as he falls through the hallways. But he also manages to be scary as hell. His creepy smile and jerky movements are enough to make anyone’s skin crawl. I honestly can’t think of a living actor who could have played this better.
What didn’t work
If I have one complaint about this episode, it’s the music. It’s not terrible, but it’s not great. Every song seems like it’s just screaming what the characters are thinking. Which isn’t really what I’d consider the point of a soundtrack.
Maybe it’s just a curse on RL Stine. None of his projects can ever have good soundtracks aside from the theme song.
Unlike the original Goosebumps series, there were moments in this episode that did startle me and unnerve me. Which is wonderful. And while it’s still clearly for kids, it’s something anyone can sit down and enjoy. I’m very excited for the rest of the season. But what do you think? Let us know in the comments.
(4.5 / 5)
If you’re a fan of my work, please check out my latest story, Nova, on Paper Beats World. New chapters launch every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
Goosebumps Say Cheese and Die
Released in 2023, Goosebumps is the latest in a line of content based on the insanely popular children’s book series with the same name. And if you’re here, I’m guessing I don’t have to tell you a lot about Goosebumps. Most horror fans are at least passingly aware of the colorful covers, dark plotlines, and surprise twist endings. Some of us even have a few of the original books lying around.
With so many good and bad versions of the original stories floating around, I was unsure how to feel about this brand-new series. I was sure, however, that I had to watch all of it. Especially with the infamous Slappy appearing so prominently in the advertising.
So, how was the first episode?
We start this episode with a flashback to 1993, and a young man named Harold Biddle. We don’t spend a lot of time with him. He comes home from school and goes right to the basement. There he starts writing some concerning notes in his journal. This is interrupted when a fire consumes the basement, killing him.
We then flash forward thirty years to the real start of our story. The Biddle house has just been inherited by a man named Nathan Bratt, played by the delightful Justin Long. He adores the place but is less than thrilled when a bunch of teens crash it for a Halloween party.
The teens end up not being thrilled either.
Now we come to our real main characters, Isaiah, Margot, Allison, and James. It is the four of them that planned the ill-fated party.
While in the house, Isaiah finds a Polaroid camera. He starts taking pictures of his friends, only to find that they don’t come out right. One of them, Allison, shows her on the ground in the woods, terrified for her life. Another shows Margot in a panic next to a snack machine.
Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that he eventually sees both of the girls in those exact situations. The real trouble comes when Lucas takes a picture of him, and it shows him on the football field, horribly injured.
All of these near-death experiences seem to be caused by the flaming spirit of Harold Biddle. And it soon becomes clear that the adults of the town likely know more than they’re willing to tell about what went down at the Biddle house thirty years ago.
For someone who grew up with the series, and is therefore of a certain age, the first scene of the episode was a lot of fun. It oozed 90’s vibe in a way that’s immediately recognizable to most, and familiar to my generation. Well, insomuch as wearing flannel and coming home to an empty house is the pinnacle of being a 90s kid.
It was also fun for the constant references to books in the original series. Blink and you missed them, but I saw the Cuckoo Clock of Doom, Haunted Mask, and Go Eat Worms. These make sense, as they each have their episode this season. But I’m sure I missed a few. Please let me know in the comments.
That was a lot of fun for someone who grew up with the series. But it wasn’t so constant and all-consuming as to distract from the story. Someone could have never read a Goosebumps book in their lives and just enjoy this episode of television.
More importantly, younger viewers can watch this and feel like it’s for them. The main characters aren’t the parents, they’re the kids. And it’s clear even in this first episode that, even if it was the grownups who caused this horror, it’s going to be the kids that fix it.
This is a series that is for kids. And that’s great. It’s introducing a whole new generation to a series in a way that feels like it can be theirs just as much as it was ours when we were kids.
What didn’t work
All that being said, the story also felt a little dumbed down. A little too predictable. There was one line that particularly irritated me in this regard. When Nora goes to see Isiah’s dad in the hospital, she just flat-out says, “The children will suffer for the sins of the fathers.”
Not only is that just a bad line, it’s also a lazy one. It’s awkward and unrealistic. People simply do not talk that way. And we frankly didn’t need this information dropped on us. It was pretty clear during the football game that at least some of the grownups in town were going to be involved with this when we saw Nora recognize what was happening to Isaiah and try to stop the game. Kids are smart. They would have figured this out by themselves.
It’s also a really tired trope. Freddy and Jason after all, are both killing young people for the sins of their parents. It was a big part of the storyline in Hide. And while I get that this might feel relevant to the next generation who are all paying for the mistakes of Boomers that Gen X and Millennials have not done enough to solve, it’s also a bit lazy. I just feel like, if this is going to be our main story, it could have been a better one.
But this isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy this episode. Overall, it was a fun start that left me with lots of questions. I’m excited to see where the rest of the season takes us.
(4 / 5)
If you’re a fan of my work, please check out my latest story, Nova, on Paper Beats World. New chapters every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
The Dead Take the A Train Review: Queer Magic and Monster Mayhem
“Julie crawled onto the table, straddling her intern, both hands around the knife. She torqued it downward, cursing. Brad shrieked harder.” -pg 57, The Dead Take the A Train by Cassandra Khaw & Richard Kadrey
The Dead Take the A Train is the first book in a duology by authors Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey. It was published in 2023 by Tor Nightfire (like the Scourge Between Stars, which I reviewed here). I was not previously familiar with Kadrey’s work, which most notably includes the Sandman Slim series. However, I was introduced to Khaw through The Salt Grows Heavy (review here), which I absolutely adored in all its twisted, gory glory. Therefore, I was thrilled to pick-up The Dead Take the A Train, which promised similar heart in a modern cosmic horror package.
In The Dead Take the A Train, a magical fixer named Julie must hunt down eldritch monstrosities threatening the lives of those around her. To do this, she has to go up against her shitty ex, a questionable angel, finance executives, and her own sobriety. When an old friend shows up, Julie is terrified to find herself making a retirement plan that doesn’t involve getting murdered by a demon.
The Dead Take the A Train is reminiscent of N.K. Jeminsin’s The City We Became, with both featuring queer characters tackling eldritch horror plots in New York City. In the same way, the novel was reminiscent of a gorier version of Dimension 20’s Unsleeping City actual play series. However, it clearly carves out a space for itself among the droves of cosmic-horror inspired love letters to New York City. For one, it is mostly unconcerned with borough beef, which (not to sound like a curmudgeonly Midwesterner), is so refreshing. The book also has a relatively novel way the world works, which helps it stay memorable.
Overall, I really liked The Dead Take the A Train. First off, the characters are fun and easy to root for. Julie is a mess in pretty much every aspect, but her bad decisions are understandable and she is charismatic. Her romance with her friend, Sarah, also serves to make Julie more likable. It helps that the villains are so easy to hate too. What’s not to hate about rich Wall Street assholes engaging in human sacrifice? Speaking of which, I liked the juxtaposition of corporate Wall Street and cosmic cultists. The actions taken were evil, but more importantly, they were just business.
The prose was flowery, but not quite as much as in The Salt Grows Heavy. So, if you struggled with Khaw’s other works for that reason this may be a much easier read. Personally, I enjoyed the prose in both. There is quite a bit of gore in The Dead Take the A Train, but I didn’t find it to be overwhelming. I think you could still enjoy the book if you don’t love gore, though maybe not if you have a weak stomach.
One of the largest issues I have with The Dead Take the A Train, is the lack of clarity in power levels of the various characters. Especially since all their forms of magic work in different ways, it is sometimes unclear the level of danger present. This can also sometimes create room for plot holes. For example, Julie has a friend who is tapped into anything and everything happening online. This is an absurdly powerful ability (and is used as such). But there were moments where the main conflict probably could have been avoided or solved using that power. It also felt odd that no one else in this thriving magic community felt strongly about stopping a world-ending catastrophe. Because of this, the magic underground of NYC could feel smaller than I think was intended.
Having been familiar with Khaw’s work previously, The Dead Take the A Train clearly feels like a mix of Khaw’s style with someone else’s. This could be a boon or a hindrance, depending on your view of Khaw’s distinct prose and storytelling. Either way, if you are interested in learning more about the process or the authors, check out the interview they did for SFF Addicts Podcast!
I recommend The Dead Take the A Train, especially for those who are fans of modern urban eldritch horror. The book is an even bigger steal if you are looking for danger, gore, and queer characters. Check it out! And keep your eyes peeled for the next book in this duology.