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AKA: Don’t Be a Dummy

I fell in love with the girl at the Puppet Show

We open on a PoV shot backstage during a talent and puppet show rehearsal as a creepy voiceover says, “I will be whole.”  On stage, we have one very off-key Cordelia Chase singing The Greatest Love of All and an exasperated Giles dismissing her. Kind of rude of him, because she hadn’t even gotten to the sparkler portion yet.

Our trio walks in to rib Giles about his assignment as Talent Show Coordinator.  Mr. Snyder, the new principal (RIP Mr. Flutie) wants him to interact with students more.  Snyder overhears this student-teacher interaction and decides that Buffy, Willow, and Xander also need to be more integrated with the school.  As such, they will be required to participate in the talent show. He explains that Principal Flutie was too touchy-feely for his liking, and Sunnydale will neither touch nor feel on his watch.

We also learn that Buffy is wigged by puppets as Sid, our titular puppet, takes stage for his rehearsal slot.  He is actually talking, much to the shock of the puppeteer Morgan.  The rest of the rehearsing students believe this to be an actual ventriloquist act.

In the locker room, we get the creepy voiceover once more as he attacks a student: “I will be flesh.”

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Leave your heart on the stage

Chaos abounds at an additional rehearsal.  Willow has decided that a dramatic scene is the easiest talent they could do.  Sid the puppet starts sexually harassing Buffy and Willow, and he allows Morgan to take the fall.  Or, at least, he partially takes the fall.  Buffy does threaten to turn Sid into a Dura-Flame log.

Principal Snyder and Giles talk about all the misfortunes Sunnydale High has endured recently.  While he would prefer to blame our Scoobies for it all, his current plan is to run a tight ship.  Then a scream comes from the locker room.

Emily, the dancer seen at rehearsal, was found dead with her heart removed.  Giles says some demons will remove hearts, but typically with their claws and teeth.  Emily’s heart was neatly cut out.  All but Buffy assume a simple human murder, until our Slayer reminds them of the Hellmouth of it all.

The Scoobies interview everyone in the talent show in an attempt to trace her last steps.  Everyone says they saw Morgan with her last.  They also describe Morgan as “always rubbing his head and moaning.”  Our sweet Cordy is devastated, because “Emma” was her best friend and the murder could’ve been her.  Never short on an existential crisis, that one.

Buffy talks to Morgan.  He rubs his head a lot. She eventually yells at him after Sid tries to end the conversation.  Morgan makes a half-hearted attempt to explain before giving up and leaving.

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The Slayerettes are all too willing to blame Morgan, but Buffy says being a weirdo doesn’t necessarily correlate with being a murderer.  Giles cautions everyone not to rock the boat with Principal Snyder.  They cannot afford additional scrutiny.

It’s the Puppet Show, not Puppet Tell

Buffy artfully breaks into Morgan’s locker by slamming the lock out of the door.  It is after hours, though, and Principal Snyder does not condone loitering, heart-removing murders, and smoking.  Before Buffy is forced to leave, she sees Sid the puppet’s case is empty.

Backstage, Morgan and Sid are arguing.  Morgan does not want to “do it.”  Sid says he must, because Buffy is clearly the one.  She will be the last one before he is free.

That night Joyce tells Buffy she is excited to support her at the talent show.  Buffy tries to direct her away from doing so.  Her mom tries to dig deeper at what’s bothering her, but eventually encourages her to get some sleep.

And sleep Buffy does – until she wakes to something in her covers.  Joyce rushes to check her room, only to find the bed empty.  Buffy is clearly stressed, and her mom tries to calm her.  Joyce also recommends she not go to sleep with the window open.  Buffy murmurs that she didn’t.

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Cordelia is arguing with Giles about her placement in the talent show.  Her song is sad and sappy, but a rock band is before her.  The mood will be all wrong. Giles stares at her for a moment before saying something about her hair, prompting her to run off in horror to check for herself.  Apparently Xander gave him this tip.

Buffy tells the rest of the gang that she thinks Sid was in her room last night.  Xander assumes it was a cat, and Giles and Willow are inclined to agree because Buffy has admitted to a fear of puppets.  

Investigation isn’t for dummies

Buffy wants to get Morgan away from Sid so she can talk to him.  Giles has found information about demons that collect body parts to take a human form.  Morgan doesn’t quite fit this theory, though, because he keeps getting weaker while this particular brotherhood of demons are preternaturally strong.

Sid is with Morgan in class, and he is staring at Buffy.  He is also answering the teacher’s questions and causing class disruption.  The teacher puts the puppet in a closet, but he is still talking.  She believes Morgan to be a very talented ventriloquist.  After class she tries to check on Morgan, because he has been acting off lately.  When she opens to closet to retrieve Sid, he is gone.  Morgan said Sid knew to wait for him.

Xander reveals he took Sid so Buffy could talk to Morgan alone.  Xander beats Sid against a desk to prove he isn’t real to a still-wigged Buffy.  While she looks for Morgan, Willow and Giles research re-animation and organ harvesting, respectively. Xander babysits the dummy.

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The dressing room is creepy and mostly abandoned, except for Principal Snyder.  He does a harbinger-esque bit about Buffy not being safe on her own with everything going on lately.  She assures him she can take care of herself.

Willow finds some information on possessed toys that harvest human organs.  Now they want to believe Buffy.  This is unfortunate timing, because Xander stopped watching Sid long enough to do some homework.  When he realizes the puppet is gone, he yelps and jumps on a table.  Willow and Giles do some yelping as well once they learn of the situation.

Buffy, meanwhile, has found Morgan… without his brain.  As she reels back in horror, a chandelier drops on her and pins her down.  Overhead we see the scurrying of tiny, wooden feet.  Buffy works on getting free while defending herself from a knife-wielding Sid. 

Pulling Strings

She escapes and manages to pin Sid against the wall. Then they each accuse the other of harvesting organs in order to become human.  It turns out Sid is a demon hunter.  He got turned into a puppet years ago.  The demon he is hunting only needs a heart and a brain to remain human for another seven years.  It is the last in a line of seven demons; Sid has already killed six.

The group figures if they can find out who is missing from the show they will know who the demon is.  Sid has a plan: Giles will form the Power Circle to hype up the talent show participants while Buffy observes to see who is not there.  Sid comes with Buffy to harass her some more.  What is with these ageless dudes hitting on a fifteen year old? Sid also reveals that he will die once the last demon is dead, and he is relieved by this. 

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Cordelia is not relieved, because she is hit with stage fright.  Giles suggests she picture the audience in their underwear, though they both agree it might be best to leave Mrs. Franklin out of that.

No one (who is still alive, anyway) is missing from the Power Circle.  While Giles gets the show started, Buffy tries to find Willow and Xander.  Sid has disappeared while she was gone, so she must find him as well.  She feels a mysterious dripping when backstage and upon investigation discovers Morgan’s brain.  The demon body rejected it.

Take a bow

Willow searches Morgan’s file.  Though he was one of the smartest kids in the school, his attendance record was shoddy.  It turns out he had brain cancer (hence the headaches).  They believe the demon will go for the next smartest kid in school – Willow Rosenburg.

Marc the magician asks Giles for some pre-show help.  His assistant is a no-show, and he needs Giles to pose in his guillotine.

Our trio determines that the demon could still be in the talent show, since it still needs a brain.  They also realize Giles is a very intelligent person.

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They arrive backstage to see Giles strapped in to the guillotine.  Marc has his head positioned so his “brain can just fall right out.”  Giles asked what the trick is, and Marc says there isn’t one.  Buffy tries to fight Marc the demon while Xander frees Giles.  Sid reappears and helps everyone get the demon strapped into the guillotine and cut off its head.

Sid says the heart needs to be taken out as well to truly end things.  He stabs the demon’s chest then slumps over.  Buffy picks up the dummy with some reverence just as the curtains rise.  Principal Snyder looks at the scene and asks if the puppet show is avant-garde.

In our only concurrent-with-credits scene of the series we see Buffy, Willow, and Xander struggle with their Oedipus recitations, to a smattering of laughter in the audience.  Willow runs off frightened.

“All I could think of was Mr. Marbles.” – Trav’s one sentence review of this episode.

I have a lot of fun with The Puppet Show.  It’s a monster of the week with a huge ick factor and some fun plot twists.  We also get the introduction of Principal Snyder, who is a fantastic side character.  5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

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Movies n TV

Goosebumps, Go Eat Worms

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We’ve reached episode four of the 2023 show Goosebumps. This one is titled Go Eat Worms, based on the book released in July of 1994. And so far, it’s the story that has been furthest removed from the source material. However, I think it’s the story that got the biggest glow-up.

Cover for Goosebumps Go Eat Worms.

The story

This episode is the first that doesn’t jump back to Halloween night. And it largely focuses on Lucas having a really bad day.

He wants to perform a jump on his dirt bike. He gets everything set up, then chickens out at the last moment.

Unfortunately, that means he gets home just in time to catch Nora and Colin kissing in the car.

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Technically there’s nothing wrong with this. Nora’s husband is dead and Colin’s going through a separation. But there’s no reason to expect Lucas to feel this way. And he does not. He goes to school and decides the best thing to do is tell Margot.

That honestly makes sense. At least, more sense than anything else he does.

Seeing how upset Margot is at this realization, he wants to make her laugh. Being a child who should never see Jackass, he decides to eat a worm in front of her. Margot’s face says it all at that moment, as she realizes there’s a strong possibility this boy is going to be her stepbrother and he is eating worms.

Of course, those aren’t any worms. They came from the Biddle house. And they do the bidding of Harold Biddle.

What worked

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It’s pretty clear at this point that the only adult willing to listen to the kids is Nora. The only other one who might have listened was Margot’s mother, who appears to have vanished entirely.

And while this is horrible for the kids, it’s kind of what we should expect in a show for kids.

Content for children and young adults should have heroes who are children and young adults. That was one of the great things about the Goosebumps books, and most of the great stories meant for kids. Coraline, Stranger Things, Ms. Perrigrins School for Gifted Youngsters, Series of Unfortunate Events. These stories all have a young protagonist who has to face the monster without their parents and win. It reminds me of a wonderful quote by Neil Gaiman.

Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

I also loved the action scenes in this episode. I didn’t know I wanted to see a giant worm monster chase someone on a dirt bike through the woods, but I’ve seen it now. And that was pretty great.

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Finally, this episode tackled some really difficult topics. Not the least of which was how suicide impacts the family left behind.

That’s a pretty heavy thing to talk about, and it was approached well. This is one of the things that horror does well. It allows us to discuss the things we’re afraid to discuss. To face our real fears. Not the fears of haunted masks, killer worms, or prophetic cameras. It lets us talk about divorce and death and mental health crises in a way that feels more approachable because it’s side by side with the monsters.

What didn’t work

Unfortunately, this was not a perfect episode. And a lot of my issues are about Luke.

Will Price in Goosebumps.

Now, this is not the fault of the actor, Will Price. But he does not look young enough for this role. Some people in their early twenties can look like teens still on TV. The rest of the ‘kids’ are adults. Miles McKenna, who plays James, is 28. But Price looks significantly too old. And it’s distracting.

I also hated the jumping from scene to scene when Luke took Margot to his house. They didn’t do anything there that couldn’t have been done at school. There was just no need for a scene cut. Scene cuts should be kept to a minimum if possible because it’s distracting and runs the risk of taking a viewer out of the story.

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All in all, though, this was a really good episode. It was touching, exciting, and still managed to be funny. So far, this has been a really solid season of horror television. And we have more than half a season yet to go.

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 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.

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Goosebumps, Cuckoo Clock of Doom

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Named for the 28th installment of the original book series, The Cuckoo Clock of Doom has the least in common so far with its source material.

Thankfully, the story isn’t negatively impacted by this. I can honestly say so far that these episodes just keep getting better.

The story

After the last episode’s explosive ending, I’m sure we were all more than a little worried about James. I for one was worried we were going to have an example of the Bury Your Gays trope on a kid’s show.

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Cover of R.L. Stine Cuckoo Clock of Doom

Thankfully, that’s not the case.

We go back in time again to Halloween night, and this time we see what James was up to.

Mostly he was up to trying to flirt with his crush. Everything seems to be going well until James lies about being interested in football.

He tries to leave the house, but instead finds himself back at the basement door when Isaiah is trapped and the cuckoo clock is going off. James then shows a remarkable amount of genre savvy and tries his best to escape the house. Each time he does, we see another version of him walking away.

Eventually, he devises a plan to break the clock at just the right moment, but not before he gets some intel on his crush’s favorite team so he can score a date.

Back in the real world free of the time loop though, James finds that he has far more worries. Every time he tried to escape the house, a duplicate version of him was created. And all of those duplicates are waiting for him.

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Back at the Biddle house, though, there’s a surprise waiting. One of the James duplicates has brought Harold Biddle a box. A ventriloquist dummy-sized box.

An empty box.

What worked

The effects of this show so far have been wonderful. When the other characters hit a James duplicate, it doesn’t just die. It explodes in a Nickelodeon-style wave of slime. This is just fun, and I’m kind of sad there doesn’t appear to be more of the duplicates around.

I mean, I wouldn’t rule it out.

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Ana Yi Puig in Goosebumps.

Did I mention that these duplicates appeared to smell like watermelon Jolly Ranchers when they exploded? That was a visceral detail that was both alarming and terrific. They could have smelled bad. They could have smelled like rotting plants or people. But no, they smell like candy.

Of course, the characters continue to steal the show. Margot and Isaiah could be said to be the main characters, but everyone comes into this with main character energy. They are all funny, all capable, all smart. And they all seem to care about each other.

I loved that James and Isaiah talked about how they were feeling. I think it’s important that we’re modeling that for young men. They talked about what was bothering them, and they made up.

Finally, though, we have to talk about Justin Long again. His acting in this just keeps stealing the show. He dances like a cartoon and jumps from joyful to violently furious at a moment’s notice. The character doesn’t know how to act, and watching him fail to act right in front of people never fails to make me laugh.

What didn’t work

I honestly can’t say that anything didn’t work in this episode. But there is something about the show that I, at least, don’t like.

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There’s no real blood or gore. There’s more blood when I eat an actual jolly rancher because I always cut my tongue on them.

Now, this show is pretty clearly not for kids and young adults so there’s probably not a lot of need for too much gore and violence. But if the bloody stuff is more your style, like me, the lack of it might disappoint you.

Fans of the Goosebumps books will know that everyone ended with a twist. And the show so far has been no different. And the ending of this episode has been the best so far. The tension of Margot’s mom’s impassioned reaction, blended with the revelation that Slappy is somewhere in town is just too much. I can’t believe we’re only three episodes in and I am this invested. I hope you are too.

Viewer beware, I suspect things are going to get a lot worse for our characters before they get better.

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4.5 out of 5 stars (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.

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Goosebumps, The Haunted Mask

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Episode two of Goosebumps was honestly more fun than the first. It was dark, funny, infuriating and wonderful. Best of all, it has a killer twist ending.

Let’s discuss.

The story

Based loosely on the 1993 story of the same name, The Haunted Mask begins sort of partway through the first episode.

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Cover of R.L. Stine's The Haunted Mask.

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.

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What worked

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.

Ana Yi Puig in Goosebumps.

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.

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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

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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 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

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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.

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