by Stephen Graham Jones
Brutal Is the Night: A Review
Remember The Blair Witch Project’s marketing campaign? It was an update of sorts on 1971s The Last House on the Left, except where Wes Craven would have us keep reminding ourselves that it’s just a movie, it’s just a movie, Blair Witch kept whispering that this was actual found footage. Its the same dynamic, though; it was tapping the same sensationalistic vein.
Writer/director Sean Mickles (Abasement, Thirty-Nine) knows this vein very well. And, for Tenderizer, he let it bleed.
As you probably recall, the first trailer was released as a “rough cut,” with the media outlets quoting Mickles’s grumbled objection that Tenderizer wasn’t ready, that production difficulties were built into a project like this, weren’t they?
Speculation was that he just wasn’t ready to let it go, of course.
It wouldn’t be the first time.
Whether actually released with his approval or not, that first trailer definitely had nerve. Just the title at lowest possible right in a “rough-cut” font, then ninety seconds of black screen, punctuated by shallow breathing, the kind that makes you hold your eyes a certain way, in sympathetic response. At the end of it there wasn’t even any large-sized title branded on or swooping in—there were no closing frames. It was all closing frames. It was as if a minute and a half of our pre-movie attractions had been hijacked. Watching it, you had the feeling you could look up at the theater’s tall back wall, see a prankster’s face smiling down at you from the projection booth.
Except that breathing, it was supposed to be actual recorded breathing. From one of the twenty-four victims of the Woodrow High School Massacre.
Neither Mickles nor Aklai Studio ever suggested it, but in the press surrounding the trailers release, Aklai did deny it, and not just in an oblique way, but in a way that felt coached. By a lawyer.
Mickles had no comment.
It was obvious he was part of this junket very much against his will.
Soon enough, another rumor found its way into circulation, from no source anybody could ever cite. But it was so terrible it had to be true. It was that that black screen, that nervous breathing, it was the last voicemail Mickles had received from his six-year-old daughter nearly ten years ago, when she was playing hide and seek with her nanny— when Mickles, according to the reports, assumed she was just carrying the cordless phone with her and had accidentally speed-dialed him.
Whether an intentional call or not, she still suffered the same fate: carbon monoxide in the garage, her new best hiding place.
The rumor about Tenderizer, then, was that Mickles was dealing with his own grief (or guilt) by exploring visuals that breathing could have been associated with, for a girl playing hide and seek on another ordinary day.
If either theory were true—the breathing was from a victim of the massacre, the breathing was from his own daughters accidental death— then the studio should have stopped the project right there. Aklai would have lost a few dollars, sure, but it would have gained some public opinion points, which are finally worth more.
Film is intensely personal, yes, and it can be violently pornographic, but playing either the labored breathing of someone now dead or the last missive from a daughter to a father, that’s combining the two in a way that shouldn’t be flirted with, right? Shouldn’t there be a line?
Six months after that initial trailer, there was the soon-to-be-famous thirty-second spot—perhaps originally intended for network, for primetime—that featured footage culled from on-the-scene news reports, complete with station identifications, license plates, and sports logos blurred over. No, not blurred: smeared over. Instead of scrubbing the pixels or smudging the print, Mickles was showcasing his art-house pedigree. The news footage was playing on a small television, and the legally necessary “blurring” was actually Vaseline dabbed onto the screen. Which is to say those thirty seconds were shot, cut, and piped into a television monitor, then paused and rewound continually to wipe and reapply the Vaseline, a process that would have taxed even a Claymation artists patience. And for what effect, finally?
As with the rest of Sean Mickles’s body of work since his daughters accident, that’s always the question, yes.
Of course, save for one telltale glare of the screen right at the end of those thirty seconds, it takes a trained eye to even clock that it’s a television screen being filmed in the first place. Simply because of what that television is playing: thirty seconds of respondents and interviewees and witnesses to the Woodrow Massacre. Which of course we’ve all seen nearly to the point of memorization. Those easy, iconic moments weren’t the one Mickles chose for this trailer, though.
Do people know about heads and tails anymore, as it applies to film? It’s how you give a scene punch, how you cut run-time: snip as much off the front and back as you can, until only the absolutely vital remains. Because the modern audience doesn’t have time for the rest. In the early days of film, heads and tails were often bought off editing-room floors and spliced into what they called ‘shadow movies,’ where you could tell the story was actually happening in the space just beside the screen. There was an audience for it in the early 1930s, and not just because the theaters those shadow movies played in were cheaper.
That audience never died, either. It just went to sleep for a couple of generations.
Sean Mickles shook it awake.
The moments he clipped for Tenderizers second trailer, they’re the moments right before those witnesses’ and parents’ and emergency personnel’s voices creak on, when they’re looking past the camera, into some unclaimed middle distance. It evokes not so much a fly caught in a web, sensing some many-legged, inevitable shape taking form at the limits of its perception, but a human dreamer waking in that same web, about to offer an excuse to the spider. How this is all a big misunderstanding.
There were eight of these clips, of varying length, none longer than six seconds.
It left us all leaning forward, turning our heads sideways so as not to miss a breath. As if, from the shape those lips were about to take, we could get the word, too.
We wanted one of those people to have got it right, was the thing.
There was truth in them, you could see it in their eyes. They were there, after all. It was still raw, was still happening. Surely one of them was about to stumble into one of those magic utterances that define a generation, that epitomize a decade—a “What we have here is a failure to communicate” sort of thing.
Ich bin ein Berliner.
Go ahead, make my day.
I see dead people.
Except Mickles didn’t let any of that happen.
Instead of closure, he raked the wound open all over again, refusing to let it heal over.
At which point the studio still didn’t pull the plug, and the public didn’t rally, or boycott, or even protest at all.
It was just a movie, right?
Art’s how we process tragedy, isn’t it? And art can’t be right or wrong, it can just be good or bad. To allow it any kind of truth-valance would be admitting its importance, which in turn would make it hard to justify relegating it to the fringes of society.
Watch Tenderizer, though, and see if that argument still stands.
On the heels of that second trailer, then, Aklai (or somebody with Aklai) leaked the “behind the scenes” footage: those very respondents and interviewees and witnesses being interviewed on set, and talking about how many takes the ever-patient Sean Mickles had forced them through in order to elicit a performance he could actually print.
We all nodded, almost glad to have been fooled, if it meant we could disregard the feelings the combination of those first two trailers had provoked.
Except then, of course, and as if by design, grainy cell-phone footage began to surface, confirming that those “actors” in the behind-the-scenes trailer, they’d actually been on scene for the Woodrow Massacre. Just background lurkers, none of them quite ever interviewed. But they’d been there.
I don’t know about you, but that left a distinct hollow feeling in my chest, one it’s hard to tease into words: indecency? transgression? grief? complicity?
And all because maybe these weren’t actors.
Had Mickles found some way to leverage these grieving parents and shy officials and shell-shocked witnesses into playing along with his little film? If so, it was unconscionable. But, where did that leave us, right? Had he had some intimation of what was going to happen at Woodrow that day, and stationed extras in the background? Had he found his daughter at last, hiding in the best place ever, and had she whispered to him, about where to point his camera?
Even Sean Mickles would have called the authorities, had he known.
All that left then was that the real reason for Tenderizer’s delays wasn’t Mickles playing Kubrick, trying to control every last detail, perfect every nuance, dot every visual i, it was simply the cost and the effort necessary for him to find lookalikes. Actors close enough in build and facial features to those “extras” in the background, actors with the craft to adopt this official’s bureaucratic mannerisms, that witness’s faltering delivery, this father’s way of licking his lips like he’s about to say something. Mickles’s makeup team and Aklai’s in-house digital effects could cover the rest.
And, if this was the case (as we hoped), was it then high art or poor taste? And what of us, compulsively rewinding, rewatching frame by frame, trying to wring the celluloid dry? Was it that we thought if we looked hard enough, our media savvy would let us see through to the artifice we so needed in order to distance ourselves from that day at Woodrow High?
But what if these weren’t actors at all? That was the most effective conversation killer.
No more trailers were necessary after this. Tenderizer’s marketing campaign had taken on a life of its own.
Lookalikes surfaced, digital manipulation was proven and disproven, legal action was vaguely threatened, petitions were signed, footage the news crews hadn’t had use for was auctioned off then shown to be fake. More than that, Tenderizer’s box office receipts were guaranteed beforehand, simply by the outrage levied against it. People were going to pay to be insulted by a studio capitalizing on their tragedy, and they were probably going to go back for seconds, just to be sure they’d been as offended as they thought they’d been.
To Mickles’s credit, though, Tenderizer doesn’t pander to the sensation-alistic.
The easy route for the film to have taken would have been to “document” or re-dramatize the fateful events of that day—to create a visual bullet-point list of loosely verifiable scenes and already-legendary acts, and lock them together into a sequence that would, hopefully, serve as a sort of pressure-release valve for the nation’s feelings regarding the massacre, and perhaps finally give the shooter or shooters the face and name we so needed, as then we could burrow into the backstory, explain the Wood-row Massacre away as bad parenting, as an example of how the system is built to fail, as a reminder that we should more closely monitor our children’s activities.
Even if Mickles had them wear ski masks the whole time, and even if, after they’d herded their classmates into the front office, he’d stranded us out in the hall to await the explosion that would hide all the evidence, still, at least we’d be in the hall, right? Not forever out at the flapping yellow tape.
But what we really wanted, of course, was all the requisite heroes and last stands, the insistent prayers and secret-but-doomed love stories, all capped by the tearful, lingering, practically trademarked shots on the grand aftermath of violence.
None of which Mickles would ever even consider delivering.
Now, though, at the point where Tenderizer has only screened one time, to a roomful of survivors and parents and dignitaries, and one row of reviewers, there’s evidently a series of images circulating that claim to be the original storyboards for Tenderizer. Not as it is now, but as Mickles had to package it to get funding: a Norman Rockwell’d sanitization of the Woodrow Massacre, complete with a slow list of names at the end.
If he’d shot that, it would have outsold every film of the season, and doubtless been an Oscar contender.
Except Sean Mickles has always calculated success differently, it would seem.
Take Abasement. It was box-office poison for good reason. Not that the premise is unsound: an accountant tells a joke at a dinner party one night and the joke slays, and this accountant starts to believe he might have been a comedian all along. Abasement is his slow, awkward awakening. At its heart, it’s the sports story we all know: believe in yourself, insist that you can win, and you will, even if you lose the game. That was Abasement’s potential, anyway—remember the poster? “Laugh or Death”? It was all set up such that this accountant’s wife could have been waiting just past the footlights, after his first big bomb. Or she could have been the one heckling him from the bar all along, prodding him to be better, to rise to the occasion, become the jokesmith she’d known he was all along.
Instead, Mickles takes us along for the accountant’s fledgling attempts to tell jokes. To coworkers, deli attendants, whomever. And the jokes fail each time, worse and worse, such that, when the accountant starts to laugh at them himself, trying to prime the pump, as it were, his eyes open the whole time to watch, see if it’s working, you want to leave the theater, please.
Worse, it leaves those unformed jokes in your head in such a way that, when you try to sweep them out, they scuttle into an even darker corner.
It’s not for the faint of heart.
It was a first attempt, though. That was the excuse. Mickles was showing promise, he just had a little bit of film school left to shake off. Let him be, he’s coming along fine, so this wasn’t Duel or Eraserhead, okay. It can at least be THX-1138, right? Dark Star?
Thirty-Nine, then, it was supposed to be a new direction, his second chance, where everybody could see the wings investors kept insisting he had.
And we of course know why it was called Thirty-Nine, right? Though Mickles had been charged by Unshelved Productions to re-imagine Hitchcock’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, possibly by returning to Buchan’s source material, the thriller he instead gave us (eight months late… ) had the necessary MacGuffin, yes, but at the end of the very first sequence, he let us look into the case.
Thirty-nine of them.
The central mystery, what’s supposed to supply the narrative tension, it comes not from some cinematic game of Clue, as Hitchcock perhaps would have done it, or even the three-card monte kind of shenanigans you expect to be surprised by in any good caper flick, but from an increasingly uncomfortable meditation on the source of those teeth, and whether or not our point-of-view character is inserting them into the gums of sleeping passengers. And whether they’re even teeth at all.
In the famous final scene, when the teeth finally spill onto the floor of the train and wriggle for the shadows of insteps and the black caverns between luggage, that persistent rattle we’ve come to associate with them, it’s not just missing, it actually leaves a sort of gaping cavity in the soundscape.
The result of that missing familiar sound is that it makes your tongue, completely independent of your instructions, check your own teeth.
And then you check them again.
It’s this more than anything else that’s responsible for Thirty-Nine’s brief theatrical stay—who wants to be in the dentist’s chair?—and Mickles’s contentment with that response, his refusal to explain or deny or do anything more than shrug and turn away, it’s likely why the studio licensed him for the handle-with-care content of Tenderizer.
With Abasement and Thirty-Nine he had proven he didn’t have it in him to flinch anymore, that that response had, perhaps, been burned out of him by finding his daughter in the garage on the fourth day. With Abasement and Thirty-Nine, he had proven that he was more concerned with art than receipts. That he had vision, and that he would insist on it at the cost of all else. To borrow from another era, Mickles had established that he didn’t think the public deserved its spoonful of sugar.
Where many directors anesthetize us with spectacle, charm us with frivolity, Mickles is more interested in laying eggs in our subconscious. Or perhaps in squeezing them from a bloody cuticle, then rubbing his finger on the insides of our skulls.
And, of course, had his daughter not played that one game of hide-and-seek, what director would we have then? What set of movies?
We’ll never know.
And now it’s time to talk about what I just saw.
You already know the movie’s premise, of course—no, the conceit, the logline: the Woodrow Massacre happened over the course of forty minutes between two and two-forty on the afternoon of March 9th. But what happened that morning?
This is Tenderizer.
You don’t even need an epic-voiced announcer for it.
And, true to its promise, there’s no violence whatsoever in the film’s seventy-one minutes. Actually, had Aklai wanted, they could have petitioned the ratings board for a G, based solely on content.
All that happens for seventy-one torturous minutes is that an unnamed person has a handheld video camera, and is making a last circuit or tour of his or her house. As if taking stock. As if recording each item. Lingering on this chair, that painting, while a memory surfaces unseen, behind the camera.
Unseen but specifically felt.
It’s an elegy is what it is. For a violation that’s yet to take place. It’s a suicide note without any words, it’s a bitter apology, it’s an explanation if we’ve got the eyes to see. One last look around before stepping into the fire.
Worse, there’s a quality to it that suggests a sense of waiting. A distinct willingness to be convinced not to go through with it, like the day could have gone either way from here.
Except we’ve all already gone through that day.
Tenderizer never would have gotten that G. Were triple-X in fact a real rating, not a marketing ploy, Tenderizer likely would have required that mythical “fourth” X. It doesn’t need NC-17, it needs an NC-300, because America isn’t old enough to be seeing this yet. And by the time it is, it should know better.
What the two trailers had done was get us locked into considering options that were never really on the table at all.
This isn’t Mickles’s daughter’s accidental last voice mail, and it isn’t the digitally scrambled faces of the bottom-feeders of the acting world. And, all those production delays? They had to have been staged.
I’m saying this to keep you away. But I know it’s not going to work like that.
We are what we are.
This is what I propose: somehow or another, in the months following Woodrow, Aklai Studio came into possession of the actual shooter’s actual video recording from before the Massacre—likely it was mailed before lunch that day, perhaps with the title already in place—and, to insulate themselves from it, Aklai attached a controversial, difficult-but-capable director. A director known for leading the audience down suspicious paths, and then leaving them with the light failing.
Tenderizer is real, though. Even if it’s not. And this isn’t because of any chain of possession or documented provenance that surfaces. And it’s not because of the padded envelope that probably showed up in Aklai’s general delivery later that week, while we were all still watching them sift through the rubble on television.
Tenderizer is real because it’s real.
Even without the shadow of the coming massacre draped over it, it would be just as haunting, just as cloying.
It’s something about the actual succession of items, something both profane and instinctual—I can’t articulate it any better than that, I’m sorry.
Maybe “succession” is the wrong word, though.
No: procession. Like for a funeral.
You know how in magic, in spells, words are supposed to have an innate, possibly occult power, and, when recited in certain orders, they can enact the user’s will on the world?
Tenderizer has found the visual analog to that.
Mickles isn’t the dreamer, this time out, but the weaver.
And he’s hungry.
It gets to the point where you’re in such lockstep with the film that it ceases to be a film altogether. Worse, you can almost guess what the next item is going to be, much in the same way you’ve been conditioned to know which note follows which in music. You may not be able to quite guess that a B-flat is coming up, but you do hear the slight clang when that B’s sharped, don’t you? Even if it’s your first time through this piece of music.
It’s the same with Tenderizer.
Thirty minutes in, you’re dreading that fork, that lap blanket, that skateboard-scarred baseboard with such intensity that when the viewframe catches it at the edge of its demure green lines, then settles on it as if relieved to have remembered it, you can feel fingers lightly on your back, worms wriggling in your hair, something unnamable and blind rising in your throat.
If this isn’t actual footage recorded by the shooter, then Mickles has seen that footage, anyway, and mocked-up the interior of a similar-enough house, planted the same items, crawled across them with a torturously slow camera.
As if that’s not bad enough, then—I’m trying to inoculate you here, yes; I’m trying to protect you—the viewfinder drifts as it has to, to the promise of the foggy sliding door just off the dining room table.
Into the backyard.
Into the rest of this day.
No, you’re saying, watching it. Shaking your head please.
You’ll look through your fingers, though.
The film-school graduate in me of course catches the all-too-obvious edit as the camera passes across the threshold of this sliding door, and I fumble for the term, the technique, come up empty-handed. What it is, simply, is Mickles reminding us that this is a film we’re watching. The jangly cut is visual shorthand for a clumsy splice—it is that clumsy splice.
In another film, it would break the spell.
In Tenderizer, it only deepens it.
Next, the film critic in me tries to interpret the meaning behind the sunny day over this backyard. The blue skies that weren’t hovering over Woodrow on March 9th, or that whole week.
Is this heaven?
Though we hear a dog, and expect a dog, what that green frame finally settles on is the lower legs of a little girl, in a swing.
Whether the recording actually stopped at the screen door, this playback now showing what the shooter had been recording over—another day, before all this—or whether this is actually Mickles’s own daughter spliced in and memorialized, the way that girl’s toes point at the ground, then catch it, it’s so natural, so complete, so hollowing, so familiar that you might realize you’ve stopped breathing.
And then, in stark contrast to the contemplative quality of every other sequence in the film, the camera starts to flip around, panning across the side of the house—a house—catching the sky reflected in a bedroom window, a rake leaned up against brick, a patio set rusting at the welds, and comes to rest on what that little girl’s seeing, on the person holding this camera, and then the shot stays there for maybe a second, a second and a half.
It’s enough to see that no one’s there. That no one’s been there the whole time.
And what you see next, it’s what you first saw of Tenderizer all those months ago: that famous “black” trailer that wasn’t a trailer at all, but the last ninety seconds of the movie.
Except now the ragged breathing, it’s yours and yours alone.
Welcome to the new world.
About the Author
Stephen Graham Jones is the author of sixteen and a half novels, six story collections, a couple of standalone novellas, and a couple of one-shot comic books. Stephen’s been an NEA recipient, has won the Texas Institute of Letters Award for Fiction, the Independent Publishers Award for Multicultural Fiction, a Bram Stoker Award, four This is Horror Awards, and he’s been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and the World Fantasy Award. He’s also made Bloody Disgusting’s Top Ten Horror Novels, and is the guy who wrote Mongrels. Next up are The Only Good Indians (Saga) and Night of the Mannequins (Tor.com). Stephen lives in Boulder, Colorado.
About the Narrator
Eric Luke is the screenwriter of the Joe Dante film EXPLORERS, which is currently in development as a remake, the comic books GHOST and WONDER WOMAN, and wrote and directed the NOT QUITE HUMAN films for Disney TV. His current project INTERFERENCE, a meta horror audiobook about an audiobook… that kills, is now a Best Seller on Audible.com. His website for creative projects is Quillhammer.com.