Horror often doesn’t get the credit it deserves. True, there’s usually some slicing and dicing going on, but at its core, horror stares into what makes us afraid and articulates those fears as something we can see and, ostensibly, face. Most of the time, our fears take the form of the supernatural or monstrous that must be overcome. The Masters of Horror series on Showtime did a great job with making our fears into actual boogeymen, from the need to reclaim a sense of feeling and human connection (Chocolate) to abortion (Imprint, Pro-life – both of which will get a deconstructive treatment at a later date) to homophobia (Sick Girl). Some are better than others, but the one that sticks out for me is Incident On and Off a Mountain Road. The story draws a stark comparison between the deformed psychopath Moon Face (John DeSantis) and husband Bruce (Ethan Embry), using the contrast to amplify that the more horrifying monster is the abusive human husband.
|Sorry, this isn’t going to be the worst thing that happens to you.|
This one is not too difficult to unpack. Based on a short story by Joe R. Lansdale (the same mind that brought us Bubba Ho–Tep), it’s a very good adaptation of source material thanks in part to the co-writing efforts of Don Coscarelli and Stephen Romano. It’s well-scripted and fluid: Ellen (Bree Turner) attempts to fend off Moon Face after stumbling across him in the wild. In between her use of survival techniques to ultimately dispatch her pursuant, we get flashes of Ellen’s life with Bruce. Bruce demonstrates survivalist tendencies and an unhealthy need for power early on: he’s verbally aggressive on their first date, which seems to be a turn-on for Ellen. Despite that our crazy meters are going off and we’re mentally yelling for Ellen to run back to town like it’s free donut day at Dunkin, she still hitches her cart to Bruce. He begins getting critical: her shooting’s not good enough; she’s not taking their training seriously; she needs to be prepared for when the world goes to hell in a handbasket. He also begins physically isolating her from friends and the general population, and effectively cuts off the dialogue when she attempts to tell him that his behavior is scaring her. When she’s finally had enough and decides that she wants out of the marriage, he beats her and rapes her, telling her, “You’re acting like a fuckin’ whore, I’m gonna fuck you like a whore.” Here we have it, folks: the oldest way to cut a woman down. When Ellen won’t behave like a good little possession, Bruce refers to her as a whore and fucks her without consent. Strips away all worth, all feeling, all sense of esteem and self and reduces her to a supposedly dirty creature that you can pay to do anything you bodily want, disregarding her consent and agency of her own body. If we hated Bruce before, we really hated him immediately after this incident. Moon Face just wants to kill Ellen and make her part of his collection; Bruce wants to own and demean her. From the perspective of a woman, Choice B is infinitely worse because it breaks us down into something we never want to be: powerless victims that blame ourselves for getting into this mess in the first place. Sometimes, the worst that can happen is someone you start out loving taking away all control over yourself and invading you in every painful way possible.
By the way, in reference to the rape scene: does the storm look familiar? It’s the same style lightning storm from their first sexual encounter, where Bruce flips Ellen onto her back after a brief interlude of her dominating on top. Their sexual relationship, in a sense, begins and ends with a struggle for dominance. (A quick side note: in the short story, Lansdale has Ellen tie Bruce up in a set of sheets while she unintentionally beats him to death as punishment for his transgressions. That we get to see Ellen choke the life of out him with a belt is incredibly satisfying for the audience. Can’t tell you how many rape victims and families of rape victims that would like to take a crack like that against an attacker.)
Ethan Embry’s portrayal of Bruce really made this one for me. Allow me to fan-girl for a moment: he can easily slip in and out of every role he touches, and damn have there been some good roles that could easily get associated as being him. When he acts, I don’t see Ethan Embry – I see the character that’s wearing his skin, the nuances of a character with his own motivations/hopes/fears, and that’s a fine place toa arrive as an actor. Okay, fan girl switch is off now. Here’s what works in this piece: his Bruce starts off as a guy that’s a bit overly passionate about sociopolitical issues but also demonstrates some signs of self-deprecation and caring, and as an audience, we buy this based on body language and facial expressions. We can understand a bit why Ellen would write this behavior off (especially if you have that one family member that’s a bit too passionate about politics but is otherwise fine to be around), even though we’re uneasy as an outsider looking in (because HORROR STORY). The fact that Embry looks like the Everyman made him all the better for the part: he didn’t look overtly nutty – he wasn’t the classic creep you’d expect to systematically subject his wife to mental abuse; he’s rather normal in this respect, as most abusers tend to appear. Had this been someone more broody or physically imposing, Ellen probably would have bolted immediately; instead, we get a cute guy that looks pretty harmless. When Bruce proposes, we see joy on both their parts, proving that there’s something feeling in there. When he shows that he’s obsessed with weaponry, the facial expressions become all-consumed and deathly serious; this alarms us, as it’s supposed to. As he barks out, “I know you have potential. I will not let you prove me wrong,” he’s conveying that it’s not about Ellen; he doesn’t want her to succeed as much as he wants to be right. It wasn’t the survival techniques that mattered to him at all: it was his ability to control Ellen and her progress. That message was very clear for me, and with another actor, I fear that it would have been lost. We thus watch him go from someone who has some weird tendencies to someone who’s a controlling bastard, and he looks just like your dad, brother or boyfriend. We get to see how the cycle of abuse starts and progresses for this victim. By the time the rape rolls around, we’re cringing because we know what’s coming before he makes his declaration of intent: it fits the pattern of escalating control, and he demonstrates it through body language. We’re scared right along with Ellen. We actively hate Embry’s Bruce because in that moment he presents Bruce as someone we know, and by this association, we are vulnerable to the same abuse to which Ellen is subjected. To make me hate you in an instant? That’s someone who knows his stuff right there.
By the end of the installment, it’s rather clear that what Bruce subjected Ellen to is far worse than what she triumphed over with Moon Face. She faced a pattern that so many men and women face every day: the charming falling in love phase, the isolation, the verbal abuse, and finally, the physical and sexual violence. Luckily enough, Coscarelli and Romano adapted the short story well and directed an even better actor. I’m reminded of Margaret Atwood’s famous quote when I think of this piece: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Incident On and Off a Mountain Road exemplified this notion. Women (and some men) are afraid that the men in their lives will demean and kill them; it’s up to us to fight back when we need to. Coscarelli seems to indicate that yes, we all have it in us to defend ourselves. In this incident, the fear is faced and conquered on two occasions, despite that our heroine is a bit worse for the wear. If Ellen can make it through, there’s hope for us yet.