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4.5 Monster Movie: Tackling A Straightforward, Black-And-White Case

4.5 Monster Movie: Tackling A Straightforward, Black-And-White Case

Shapeshifter film buff
Recreates movie monsters:
Death in black and white.
 

Episode Summary

Against the eerie backdrop of a lightning storm and horror music on the local radio station, the Winchester brothers drove into Pennsylvania in pursuit of a story that a vampire killed a woman at the local Canonsburg Oktoberfest. Posing as FBI agents to inspect the body, they found not the savaged throat their experience led them to expect, but a body with two neat puncture wounds like the depiction of a vampire victim in classic horror movies. After interviewing the witness, who described the killer as a dead ringer for Dracula right down to the slicked back hair, fancy cape, and accent, they were ready to abandon the case as the work of a psycho rather than a supernatural being. Dean, having observed that he came back from death without any of his old scars, decided that his virginity had been restored as well, and set about pursuing Jamie, a pretty bartender, sadly observing when she turned him down that he probably wouldn’t be there a second night to try again.

That night, however, a young couple necking in a car on the local lover’s lane were attacked, and the young man was ripped to shreds. The girl described the attacker as a werewolf in classic wolfman shape, with claws, furry face and arms, a black nose, and ripped clothing. Checking the remnants of the body in the morgue, Sam pointed out that, although the bite marks on the bones showed werewolf strength, the victim’s heart – which a werewolf would have taken – was still there. The sheriff reported that the crime lab identified hair left on the victim as canine, from a wolf, even though the brothers knew that werewolves didn’t grow wolf hair.

Perplexed, the boys stayed on to investigate, and Dean arranged a date with Jamie after all. That night, the guard at the local museum discovered a sarcophagus left on the museum loading dock. As he called a museum authority to report it, he was attacked and killed by the mummy inside it, which ignored the bullets from his gun and simply strangled him. Responding with the local sheriff, the boys discovered that the sarcophagus had come from a stage prop house in Philadelphia, and that the eerie fog around it came from a small pail of dry ice inside the box. Dean left Sam on the scene to finish up with the cops while he left for his date with Jamie, only to discover Jamie being threatened by Dracula. In the scuffle, Dean pulled off Dracula’s left ear and the ribbon around his neck, and Dracula fled, leaping over a gate too tall for Dean to climb and driving off on a motor scooter.

Sam joined Dean and Jamie at the bar, and Dean showed him the ear, proof that what they were dealing with was another shapeshifter, like the ones in St. Louis and Milwaukee, and the ribbon, which came from a costume rental shop. Asking Jamie if anyone strange had come to town recently, they learned that Ed Brewer, the oddball witness who’d described Dracula as the killer in the original attack, was a new arrival, and worked as a projectionist at the old movie theater. Leaving Dean to guard Jamie, whom the Dracula had referred to as his bride, Mina, Sam went after Ed, but learned that he was human and harmless. Meanwhile, Jamie’s friend and sister barmaid Lucy showed up at the bar, ostensibly to collect a bottle of booze to take home, but stayed to share drinks with Dean and Jamie. Dean realized too late that Lucy was the shapeshifter and had drugged them, and passed out before he could do anything. Sam, returning to the bar to find them gone, discovered the bottle Dean had broken and a napkin on which Lucy had blotted her lipstick, and realized the truth.

Dressed absurdly in lederhosen, Dean woke strapped to a wooden table in the basement of Lucy’s house, in a room tricked out to look like a set from Frankenstein. The shifter, again in the form of Dracula, planned to electrocute him, but the doorbell rang, and Dracula collected the pizza he’d ordered and took it to the room – another set, straight out of Dracula – where Jamie was waking up. He ordered her to dress in the gown he’d brought, and explained that he’d grown up being called a monster, and when he discovered the great monsters of the movies, he decided to become them in order to be powerful. Meanwhile, Sam arrived and found and freed Dean, and the brothers attacked. Dracula threw Sam through a set wall into a concrete block one and knocked Dean to the floor, but Jamie shot him with silver bullets from Sam’s gun, and he died. Dean and Jamie enjoyed a satisfying night, and the brothers left the next morning.

Commentary and Meta Analysis

This episode was a pure and utter delight. What it lacked in substance it more than made up for in style, and even though it was deliberately designed to be light and fluffy and funny, it still managed to advance the emotional story of the Winchester brothers. I don’t have a lot of meta analysis to offer, but I do want to look at what this episode showed about the relationship between Sam and Dean, including their changes in attitudes from prior seasons, and the recurring theme of choice both determining destiny and being influenced by expectations.

 It’s Like The Good Old Days

Early on, Dean chivvied Sam, who was weighed down by the burden of the approaching apocalypse, into showing a little enthusiasm for the immediate hunt by observing that they couldn’t save the world, at least not now, but they could kill vampires. C’mon, man, it’s like the good old days, an honest-to-goodness monster hunt! It’s about time the Winchesters got back to tackling a straightforward, black-and-white case.

In many ways, watching Dean, this episode felt like a return to the more lighthearted days of season one, when despite his general worry over their missing father, Dean still loved to hunt, when he encouraged Sam to pursue the family business of saving people and hunting things as a means to offset their own loss and misery by helping other people escape the Winchesters’ fate. Hunting answered a need within him and he was satisfied with it, especially having his brother back at his side.

He gradually lost that eagerness, that ability to be content with and even enjoy what he was doing, as the series progressed. At the end of season one, all of his focus had come down to family, to his brother’s fears about his nature and his father’s soul-deep weariness over losses too deep and too many to bear, and his own joy in the hunt was gone. Throughout season two, he struggled with his grief and guilt over his father’s death for his sake and over the burden of the secret John had laid on him about Sam, and with Sam’s deepening fears of the destiny the demon had planned for him and the powers that seemed to be taking him there. Dean seemed to have inherited the full weight of John’s spiritual fatigue on top of his own self-loathing, and when Sam died in his arms, selling his own soul and agreeing to his own death and damnation within a year seemed a small enough price to pay to have Sam back. In season three, as he approached his death, he lost some of that burden – after all, it seemed that he’d at least saved Sam, since the demon was dead and Sam’s powers had vanished – but his hunting was reckless, not joyous, simply because he felt he had nothing left to lose. As the deadline drew near and he recovered his desire to live, he lost his hope, and he died in the expectation of failure, seeing Sam at Lilith’s absence of mercy.

With his resurrection, however, everything has changed again. Not understanding how he came back, he nonetheless reveled in being back, and shortly discovered that Sam was alive and well too. And while he couldn’t explain to Jamie that he was back from the dead, he did share the essential things: that he knows he has a second chance, and that he understands that what he does saves people, and he feels good about that. He’s recovered the core and the balance that he lost back when things began to go dark and John died; he’s discovered his own worth. Apparently it took an angel extracting him from Hell at God’s command for him to understand that he matters, and that what he does matters, but that discovery returned his gusto, his essential joie de vivre. He’s accepting that he’s on a mission from God, and that it’s what he’s always done, what he learned to love to do before crushing responsibility and fear sucked all the joy out of it. Saving people – starting with his brother – and hunting things is now more than just the family business, but it’s a business he knows well, something he knows he’s good at, and the joy is back.

Despite that, things are not back to being what they were. Dean’s literally been through Hell, and that will take its toll. Sam is once again at risk, more than ever before, and that will terrify Dean. But I think he’s going to be better able now to deal with the fear and the pressure because he’s recovered the balance that he’d lost. Dean is an essentially positive creature; I would posit that it’s in his nature to make the best of whatever hand he’s dealt and find whatever happiness can be extracted from it. He’s content with very little, so long as that “little” includes his brother and the knowledge that he’s helped and saved others. It won’t insulate him from future loss, but it will be enough, I think, to carry him beyond the despair that rode him into death and self-damnation before.

Sam has changed as well. What struck me first and foremost about Sam in this episode was his reaction in the very beginning to Dean’s delight in the big pretzels. Childlike Dean positively lit up and went in hot pursuit, but Sam’s reaction wasn’t the martyred tolerance we’ve often seen for his big brother’s proclivities; instead, his smile was just sweet and fond amusement. One of the qualities that makes Dean so irresistible is his innocently wholehearted enjoyment of the little things in life, and while we’ve often seen Sam embarrassed, eye-rollingly amused, or just putting up with it, this time, we saw him taking quiet joy in it. I got the distinct sense that Sam was quietly enjoying having Dean back, and just watching Dean being so thoroughly and happily himself. The eye-roll was back in force when Dean started his blatant, definitely not innocent pursuit of Jamie, but even then, Sam didn’t display the condescension he’d shown toward Dean’s other sloppy romantic pursuits in such episodes as Shadow, Provenance, and The Magnificent Seven. After Jamie had put Dean in his place the first time, to Sam’s open but good-natured amusement, Sam accepted her later decision to take him up and didn’t tease Dean about her again. When he returned to the empty bar after realizing that Ed wasn’t the shapeshifter and initially assumed that Dean had gone home with Jamie, there was no sly innuendo in the voicemail message that he left on Dean’s cell, just a straightforward acceptance that they were together. Sam seems to have attained a new acceptance of his brother.

He’s also obviously come into his own as a solo hunter since he was on his own, and Dean clearly has accepted that. Dean had no qualms or hesitation in leaving Sam alone with the case to go meet Jamie when they still had no answers, and Sam displayed no resentment for Dean ducking out of the craziness. Later, after Dean’s encounter with the shifter, the brothers were again perfectly in synch on their respective roles; Dean gestured, and Sam went after Ed leaving Dean to take care of Jamie. Neither one had to advise the other; they simply knew their jobs and went about them. Sam confronting Ed was downright scary, right up until the moment when he sheepishly realized that he had the wrong guy. Returning to the bar, he was quick to assemble the clues and charge to the rescue.

In the end, Sam agreed with Dean that it felt good to be back on the job. And while he ribbed Dean knowingly about his choice of world, if the world could be a movie, there was nothing but love in his teasing. For that moment, whatever may come later, they were in harmony again, and that harmony was much closer than it had been when the series first began precisely because of all they’ve been through together since Dean first turned up in Sam’s apartment.

I Have Chosen … Elegance

The shifter tried to justify himself to Jamie. In his speech, he echoed two concepts that have thundered throughout the series: destiny and choice. He protested that real was being born the way he was, and having a father who called him a monster and tried to beat him to death. He said that no matter where we went or tried to hide, people always found him and tormented him, calling him a freak and a monster. When he saw the old horror movies, he decided to take charge of his life by becoming those monsters, by becoming strong and commanding and feared. He turned an epithet into an homage and built his life around it. He chose to become what he saw as the best example of what everyone already said he was.

The unspoken implication in the shifter’s story, however, is that he might have chosen differently if his lifetime experience had not revolved around the presumption that he had to be a monster. I have to wonder whether there might be other shifters living in the Supernatural world who never turned evil because they were born to parents who were able to accept them and raise them to believe in their own value, who taught them to use their skills to blend in rather than stick out. How different might the shifter’s story have been if someone had befriended and accepted him before he turned into a killer? Was his transformation into a monster simply the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy, and not a predetermined destiny at all?

As with Jack the unwitting rugaru in Metamorphosis last week, the shifter served as yet another obvious analogue for Sam. All three carried the potential for a particular destiny within them: Jack and the shifter were born with it, while Sam’s was imposed on him when he was still a baby. We were teased last week with the possibility that Jack, who’d been a good and loving man, might have been able to overcome his nature, if Travis, automatically assuming the worst, hadn’t threatened his wife and unborn child and forcibly pushed him over the edge. This week, we saw the shifter accept that if everyone thought him a monster, he would simply become the best monster he could be.

One has to wonder whether these stories are meant to suggest that the greatest danger to Sam might be the expectations of others – and of himself – that he will turn evil; that his “destiny” may be nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy that might come true only because he believes that it will, either because of his own fears or because everyone else seems to expect that it’s inevitable.

I’ve never believed that Sam is fated inevitably to go dark, because to me, this show has always been fundamentally about choice, including both the choices these characters make for themselves and the choices they make for others. Every choice has an effect. Choices can be good or bad, or a combination of both. Mary chose in extremity to make a deal that both returned John to life and set the course for future tragedy. John chose to sell his soul to keep his oldest son alive, with staggering consequences for Dean’s sanity and self-worth. Sam chose to remain good and true to himself and his values and refused to play Azazel’s game, and died as a result. Dean chose to sell his own soul to bring Sam back to life, and with that deal, unwittingly made Sam the key player again in Azazel’s as-yet-unknown endgame. Sam, probably seeking in desperation for a way to get Dean out of Hell, or to get revenge for him if that proved impossible, chose to cultivate the powers he’d previously feared. Now, having been told by Dean that God and His angels think what he’s been doing is wrong, Sam has announced his intention not to use his powers again. Who knows what will happen next? I think that the temptation to use his power will inevitably arise, and what will happen then? Are his powers intrinsically evil, such that using his powers would always be wrong, or are there right ways he could use them?

I think that what Sam and Dean choose from this point on is what will determine the course of events with respect to their futures. Whatever happens to them, I think that how they choose to face it and deal with it will determine the outcome. I still believe that Sam can choose the light and the right despite the demon blood that Azazel fed him. But I also believe that no choice, whether for good or evil, would come without price, and if the price looks too high – if, for example, choosing the right course apparently meant having to let Dean die again – the right choice may be prohibitively hard for Sam to make. As long as Dean believes in and supports him, though, I suspect that not even the expectations of thousands of others – not even of angels nor of himself – would be enough to predispose Sam to fall, although I would be very surprised if he didn’t stumble along the way.

Like Dean, I’m not a religious type, but I do believe in redemption and salvation, and the power of love and trust. Sam has a solid human core, and I have to hope that his Winchester upbringing will triumph in the end.

Production Notes

I’m going to run out of space before I run out of words of praise for the production values on this episode! From the vintage WB logo to the classic credits roll on the clouds, from the brilliantly evocative mood lighting (really loved the bar of light across Dracula’s eyes stolen from the movie, and all the hard shadows and sharp transitions) by Serge Ladouceur to the hilariously overwrought full orchestral background musical score by Jay Gruska (which not only invaded the car radio, but even carried all the way through the end credits instead of the usual music, something I don’t recall them doing before), from the wonderfully cheesy set design by Jerry Wanek to the great casting of the guest actors playing Jamie (Melinda Sward) and the Dracula version of the shifter (Todd Stashwick) – I loved all the details. And while I never expected to have the Toccata from Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor on my Supernatural playlist, it made me laugh out loud to hear it – not to mention hearing what it abruptly segued into!

Ben Edlund’s script was hysterical, both following and simultaneously lampooning all the usual requirements for a 1930’s monster movie, right down to deliberately clunky dialogue and a villain who never gets around to his endgame because he explains himself too much, and then proceeds to deliver a grand speech before he dies. That he flipped the classic story in the end to have the “damsel in distress” be not only strong and spunky but also the one to actually bring the monster down was delightful. My only quibble was that Dean, as the established horror movie fan of the two brothers (remember Hollywood Babylon?), should have been the one to recognize the “Mina” and “Harker” names from Dracula. And I wonder whether they told AC/DC in advance about using guitarist Angus Young as the source for the boys’ aliases? Kripke did say in L.A. that AC/DC were fans of the show, after all!

Robert Singer’s direction, while hitting every homage to classic horror films right down to duplicating specific shots and angles, kept the Winchesters essentially true to themselves even as what went on around them achieved campy levels. I also enjoyed Nicole Baer’s editing, which combined with Singer’s shots to recreate some classic horror movie moments, and laughed out loud for the shrinking circle/closing iris transitions ending acts, not to mention the “Intermission” screen halfway through!

What really worked for me was that, under Singer’s fine hand, Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki as Dean and Sam played true to form despite the insanity around them. Their characters took the situation seriously and succeeded in it, despite having to deliver some intentionally awkward lines while staying in sane character as other guests went intentionally and appropriately over the top. Since they stayed real, the story worked as a true Supernatural story despite the cheese factor. I could appreciate all the laugh-out-loud things (like the interview with Ed Brewer in the bar, the girl survivor of the werewolf attack slurping her drink while talking wide-eyed about the werewolf that killed her boyfriend, Dracula escaping on a Vespa and tooting the horn, and Dracula dealing with the pizza delivery boy) while I never stopped caring about Sam and Dean. It was just an especially wacky case involving some exceptionally wacky people.

The show was a visual treat. The black-and-white was stunning, and perfect for the tale. It didn’t hurt at all that both Jared and Jensen have lovely bone structure … All of the shots that played on classic monster movies were a treat, from the “Pennsylvania” sign morphing into a “Transylvania” sign when the lightning flashed, to the shots of just the wolfman’s arms and their shadows, to the mummy rising out of the crypt, to the shadows of Sam and Ed on the theater scrim. I loved the shot with the camera on the morgue slab looking up at Sam, Dean, and the sheriff, and then sliding back into the wall with the door shutting to close the scene, as well as the classic shot of Dean’s drink multiplying and spinning around in the old overused shorthand for “your drink was drugged” and Lucy stamping a boot down on the camera playing Dean’s face with her “End scene” line to literally end the scene. Those hoary old chestnuts can only work now when you’re lampooning them, but the simple fact that they’re all instantly recognizable made them absolutely perfect here.

The set designers obviously had a field day with all the construction. The basement redone as film sets was really funny, especially as the flimsy set construction was revealed by Sam first putting his foot through the plywood “oak” door and then getting thrown through a “stone” wall. Unless I’m mistaken, I think there was some forced perspective construction going on in there, intended to make the doors and the overall set look bigger than they were; when you see Sam come through the door into the Dracula bedroom set, the door, which looked massive to the camera before it opened, suddenly seemed to shrink as soon as Jared’s Sasquatch self filled the opening to provide a proper perspective.

This episode was shot and originally intended to be aired as the third episode in the season, immediately following Are You There, God? It’s Me, Dean Winchester. In a recent interview with SFUniverse.com (http://www.sfuniverse.com/2008/10/15/behind-the-camera-with-supernaturals-robert-singer/), director Robert Singer indicated that the shuffle in episode order came at the request of the network, which was nervous about doing such an out-of-the-box episode so early in the season, so the initial heavy mythology stories aired unbroken and the experimental episode came fifth. There are a few things about this episode design that probably would have worked slightly better had it aired earlier, as originally intended, specifically including clarifying the passage of time so Sam’s “five months” line in Metamorphosis would have been easier to place; and putting the reference to Dean having come back with no scars and showing both his renewed zeal for life and the novelty of Sam’s quiet happiness in having his brother back closer to the time when he was resurrected. The lighthearted nature both of the episode and particularly of Dean’s attitude would also have played a little better closer to his actual resurrection and before both Dean’s trip to the past in In The Beginning and his learning that Sam had been lying about his powers and about Ruby in Metamorphosis.

I think that all of those comments are small things, however, and I also think that the momentum of the season was probably improved by putting In The Beginning and Metamorphosis first, particularly for viewers new to the series and for those particularly impatient for answers to the questions long sown by the underlying story arc. Sam’s focused absorption in the beginning on the whole serious “end of the world” thing worked equally well in either location, as did Dean’s attempt to draw him out and get him to lighten up a bit. The relative ease between the brothers could be readily explained by Dean having decided to accept Sam’s assertion at the end of Metamorphosis that he was through with using his powers, and given that Dean was resurrected in mid-September, it’s easy enough to accept that he would still be getting used to the novelty of being alive again, and in a body miraculously healed of all its old scars as well as of the wounds that killed him.

Speaking of which, I’ll bet the makeup folks cheered when they read that script, crowing that the next time Dean took his shirt off, they wouldn’t have to listen to fan complaints about the makeup and continuity folks having screwed up by not providing appropriate scars for the wounds we’ve seen Dean take! I find it interesting that the scars are gone, but the anti-possession tattoo remains. Nice selective healing job by the forces of Heaven, there!

My parting comments are really just more things that made me laugh. Dean’s whole “rehymenated” trope was hilarious. Dean’s scratching of his constant sexual itch is, to me, his least attractive character trait, but it’s an undeniable part of who he is, and since he looks for equally casual sexual partners out to scratch the same itch, I can’t complain. And when it leads to this level of comedy, I wouldn’t want to!

I enjoyed all the incredulous silliness that Jensen brings to Dean – his reactions to Ed and to Dracula were priceless! – but I also liked watching what he brought to his attempt to explain to Jamie how his recent experience had changed him. I think we’ve all been waiting for the Blues Brothers “I’m on a mission from God” line to come out, but I don’t think any of us guessed that Dean would be so quiet and thoughtful in using it. I loved hearing him confirm what a lot of us had thought: that he came back from death renewed in more ways than one, and that he’d rediscovered something he’d been missing ever since John died. Serious points in a silly episode; something at which Supernatural excels!

I also thought that Jared did himself proud in the comedy department with this episode. I’ve heard him say at cons and in interviews that he doesn’t think of himself as being particularly funny as an actor, and that he’s much more comfortable doing dramatic scenes than comedic ones, but I’m with Robert Singer: I think Jared’s selling himself short. His facial expressions and the timing of his delivery were both spot-on in this episode, both in terms of straight-up comedy – like his attack on Ed that dissolves in embarrassed confusion when he realizes that Ed isn’t the shapeshifter, his “Hansel” snigger to Dean, and his reactions in all of the scenes involving Dean’s preoccupation with sex – and in terms of gentler humor, like his simply happy reaction to Dean’s delight in the giant pretzels. That was a beautiful performance all around.

Finally, I had to laugh at one little tiny glitch in the show, and don’t ask me why I noticed it; all I can say is, it cracked me up. When Sam picked the lock on Lucy’s house and headed in to rescue Dean, I couldn’t help but notice that the deadbolt never moved when he supposedly picked the lock. Of course, since Dracula never set the top latch either, maybe he simply hadn’t locked the deadbolt when the pizza guy left, and Sam found the door actually already unlocked … yep. That must be it!

I think that Monster Movie may just have moved to the top of my “funniest Supernatural episode” list. It certainly made for great and hearty laughs!

And I’m ready for more angst, now …


Tags: ben edlund, dean winchester, episode commentaries, jay gruska, meta, robert singer, sam winchester, supernatural, supernatural university
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