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Something Weird on TV: Monsters Part Seven – Cheap Monsters

“Habitat” may just be the most inexpensive episode of Monsters ever produced. It’s essentially a one-woman show for Lili Taylor (The Conjuring; the shitty remake of The Haunting) that takes place entirely in a single, intentionally nondescript location. Taylor plays an aggressively independent young woman who agrees to an experiment in which she spends months in solitary confinement, doing tasks set out for her by aliens that she never sees or hears.

Though the episode does technically deliver some monsters – two identical aliens in immobile masks – in order to keep to the show’s remit, it’s mostly just Taylor slowly going crazy from isolation and randomness. The “twist,” such as it is, is the sort of sub-Twilight Zone thing that you might expect. The aliens have been studying humans and saw that we keep hamsters and such under similar conditions, but deduce that we are hypocrites because we don’t enjoy being kept the same way.

It’s directed by Bette Gordon, who has helmed a couple of previous episodes of the show, but perhaps more interesting is the fact that the script comes from novelist David Morrell. You might not know Morrell’s name, but not to worry, you know the name of his most famous character. He’s the guy who invented Rambo.

As if to salvage somewhat the tired ending of “Habitat,” our next episode is the world’s most obvious – and pointless – retelling of the myth of Circe. You know, the witch who turned men into pigs. Despite the fact that this is painfully obvious from the jump, the script actually tries to play coy with it ‘til the end, never actually using the witch’s name.

Our Circe here is played by veteran theater, film, and television actress Jodie Markell, but the real selling point, for star power, is Steve Buscemi, the same year that he would appear in Tales from the Darkside: The Movie.

“Bed and Boar,” as the episode is known, is directed by Sara Driver, who also provides a voice on the phone. Driver, Buscemi, and Markell are all regulars in Jim Jarmusch flicks, which may explain some of the odd listlessness of this episode. There’s something about just watching Buscemi try to record expenses from his sales job while the couple in the next hotel room over are having a loud fight that’s more compelling than the episode’s actual plot.

The screenplay comes from David Odell, who should really know better. He’s written a lot of much better stuff than this, from some 48 episodes of The Muppet Show to The Dark Crystal to… well hell, I’ll commit, even the Masters of the Universe movie is probably better than this. More to the point, he’s also written other Monsters episodes, including the much better “Pillow Talk” from season 1.

A surprising number of otherwise-jokey episodes of Monsters deal with child abuse. Without digging too deeply into that, though, the most interesting thing about “Mr. Swlabr” is that the titular creature – a wise-cracking rubbery puppet in the annoying Rollergator vein – is voiced by a person with the unlikely moniker of Rockets Redglare.

Before he became a character actor in films like Big and Trees Lounge, Redglare was a drug dealer and purportedly bodyguard for the Sex Pistols. Indeed, at least two authors have claimed that it was Redglare who killed Nancy Spungen in the Chelsea Hotel, either directly by inflicting the stab wound that took her life, or indirectly by supplying the Dilaudid that Spungen and Sid Vicious were doing on the night of her death.

Redglare is another frequent Jarmusch collaborator, and there’s probably a reason that someone who isn’t me is privy to why so many actors and personnel from Jim Jarmusch movies are showing up in the middle of season 2 of Monsters. But I don’t know what it is.

“Mr. Swlabr” is followed up by “Perchance to Dream,” the rare Monsters episode that doesn’t feature a monster. In this case, though, there’s no shortage of special effects, despite that. The story concerns a guy who got hit on the head during a mugging on the subway. Ever since then, he hasn’t been able to sleep – but he’s still dreaming, at least after a fashion, and his dreams are manifesting in the real world.

The episode kicks off with a very nice but very unnecessary miniature shot, as the camera swoops down through miniature streets, through the gates of a miniature university, and into the window of our lead, who is already experiencing these weird visions. The visions include a bleeding chair, a vicious book, and a giant nun who swats at him through the window with an equally giant ruler.

Ultimately, our protagonist has to venture into the “dream world” in order to confront the “dark, bestial side” of himself, which takes the form of the mugger. Pretty much everything in the episode is a constant barrage of stagey special effects, from cheat lights to giant toys to matte shots and forced perspective. There may not be any creatures in this one, but there may also not be another episode of Monsters that looks quite this weird.

Though the teleplay comes from Michael Reaves, a frequent writer on Batman: The Animated Series and Gargoyles, the look of the episode can probably be laid at the feet of director Paul Boyington, who is better known for doing special effects on films like A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 and the Tobe Hooper remake of Invaders from Mars.

As it happens, “Perchance to Dream” is followed up by an episode from another name associated with Batman: The Animated Series, none other than Paul Dini himself. Dini is obviously capable of writing good material, but “One Wolf’s Family” suffers from being another dud comedy episode, in which a family of werewolves are appalled when their daughter begins dating a were-hyena, seemingly as a showcase for the Stiller family, including Jerry Stiller (father of Ben), his actual wife and comedy partner Anne Meara, and their real-life daughter Amy Stiller.

Fortunately, we’ll be closing out our night with a return to form, and probably the best episode of this bunch, “The Offering.” You can attribute that to a pretty great monster, director Ernest Farino, a special effects guy who previously helmed a couple of other good episodes, including season 1’s “Mannikins of Terror,” and the teleplay, which comes from author Dan Simmons. Yes, the same Dan Simmons who wrote The Terror. He also penned another episode of Monsters, but for it we’ll have to wait until season 3.

That’s it for tonight, but join us next time as we close out the second season of Monsters, beginning with Debra Hill (producer and screenwriter of some of John Carpenter’s biggest hits, including Halloween) directing some subway cannibals, adapted from a story written in 1939.