Horror Double Feature: The Damned and The Pact

Well, as the God of Hellfire and I batten down the hatches in central Florida in preparation for a possible smackdown by Hurricane Irma, I thought I’d take the opportunity before the power goes out to run through a couple of horror movies on Netflix for yet another installment of my Double Feature series. So off we go.

First up, the 2013 Columbian/American co-production The Damned (aka Gallows Hill), directed by Victor García. I just kind of picked this one on a whim because I was tired of scrolling through the offerings, and though sometimes when that happens, I stumble across a hidden gem, unfortunately this was not one of those times. It’s not a terrible movie by any means, but it’s not particularly notable either.

Briefly, the story follows American dad David (Peter Facinelli) and his British fiancée Lauren (Sophia Myles) as they go to Columbia to bring David’s daughter Jill (Nathalia Ramos) back to the U.S. so she can attend their upcoming nuptials. Jill rebelled against her dad after the death of her mother/David’s first wife Marcela (Tatiana Renteria), she hates David’s girlfriend for no real reason, and she has been living in Columbia with her aunt, TV journalist Gina (Carolina Guerra), and her boyfriend/Gina’s cameraman Ramón (Sebastiàn Martinez) ever since.

Jill is resisting being taken home to the wedding, and gets all passive aggressive about it, saying she can’t go back yet because her passport is back in her apartment in Medellín. So the five of them pile into an SUV in a torrential downpour and head out there. Along the way, they are stopped by Captain Morales (Juan Pablo Gamboa), a cop who warns them that the road ahead is flooded out, but of course Gina knows everything and convinces them to press on because she’s really familiar with these roads (not much use in being familiar with roads that have been washed away, but whatever). Predictably, moments later, the car gets stuck in the mud and then tumbled off the road by a flash flood. Most of the gang escape with minor injuries, but Lauren has two broken ribs, so they are forced to wade out into the jungle to look for help.

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They soon come across an inn, and a standard-issue creepy old guy named Felipe (Gustavo Angarita) tells them the inn is closed and they need to hit the (nonexistent) pavement. But they eventually talk their way into the inn (heh) and Felipe grudgingly gives them some water and then takes David outside to cut some wood for the fireplace, but not before warning all the remaining interlopers to not leave the front room and go wandering about the house.

After less than five minutes, our heroes discover that all the phone lines have been cut and that no one has signed the guest register since 1978. Shortly after this revelation, Jill and Ramòn decide to do precisely what the old man told them not to, which is to go wandering about the place looking for a bathroom. In the grungy, roach-infested shitter, Jill hears a little girl’s voice coming through the pipes and calling for help. After a bit of investigating, they find out that the little girl is locked in a big wooden box down in the cellar, and decide that they need to rescue her.

In short order, Felipe is knocked out and tied up, and his filthy, obviously creepy daughter Ana Maria (Julieta Salazar) is released. Almost from the moment the kid starts interacting with her supposed liberators, you know something sketchy is up, but our gang refuse to see it until they stumble across the skeleton of Felipe’s wife in the wooden prison box (which is also completely covered in what appear to be written invocations) and a decades-old photograph of Felipe and his family that nonetheless shows Ana Maria the same age as she is now.

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So, surprise, Ana Maria is possessed by a demon, or more specifically by a bruja who was hanged as a witch on that patch of land years ago (hence the film’s alternate title of Gallows Hill) and has vowed to kill all the descendants of the people who executed her. Once Ana Maria is released from the box, the bruja begins to search for a better host among the assembled chuckleheads, but the true nature of the bruja’s endgame doesn’t really become clear until the cop from earlier, Morales, appears and tells the gang that if you kill the person the bruja is possessing, then the bruja will simply inhabit your body instead; thus there is really no way to destroy her.

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This was actually the best aspect of the film, I thought, the idea that you were in a sort of Catch-22 in regards to the bruja: If you killed the person the witch was using, she would just move on to you, and then you would go on to kill everyone else. There was really no way to beat her, which gave the movie a nicely bleak undertone. And I also appreciated the pessimism of the ending, where (spoiler alert), everyone gets killed except for David and his daughter Jill. David is trying not to kill Lauren, who is now housing the bruja, but then Jill kills Lauren to save her dad, thus passing the bruja on to Jill, who pleads with her father to confine her before the bruja takes over and kills him. David ends up being forced to lock Jill into the box that Ana Maria was released from, with just a weary voiceover implying that he’s going to take the boxed-up Jill back home to try to figure out a way of expelling the witch.

As I said, all in all, not a great movie; not awful, but mostly meh. The acting was all right, though most of the dialogue was kind of lame and obvious, and though I did like the conceit of the bruja being passed from person to person, on the whole I found I didn’t care enough about the characters for the hopelessness of their situation to have any emotional impact. And honestly, right from the outset, I found most of the characters fairly unlikable. Ramón and Lauren were all right, but the others ranged from bland and useless to actively obnoxious, especially Jill and Gina. They made stupid decisions at pretty much every turn, willfully disobeyed reasonable requests just because they thought they knew better, and generally ended up bringing all this shit down upon themselves. On the plus side, the movie looked pretty nice and had some decent gore, but that was about all it had going for it; it didn’t even have much in the way of scary scenes or memorably creepy visuals.

The second film on the Double Feature tip was actually much, much better, a far more restrained supernatural/murder mystery called The Pact. Released in 2012 and written and directed by Nicholas McCarthy, this movie used atmosphere and subtlety to great effect, mostly keeping the jump scares to a minimum and relying on eerie set-pieces and the quiet building of suspense.

The movie opens with a woman named Nicole Barlow (Agnes Bruckner) arriving at her old family home to put affairs in order after her mother’s death. As Nicole has a strained phone conversation with her sister Annie (Caity Lotz), much back story is revealed with very little in the way of exposition. Annie is refusing to come back for their mother’s funeral because their mother was abusive. Nicole was a former drug addict who was known for shirking her responsibilities, but is trying to make amends with her family and herself by dealing with her mother’s estate and trying to do right by her own young daughter Eva (Dakota Bright). The family dynamic is set up efficiently, and almost at once, we move on to the scary paranormal stuff.

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While Nicole is in the house alone, she starts to hear odd noises and feel some kind of presence. Nervous, she gets on her laptop to talk with her daughter Eva, who is staying with cousin Liz (Kathleen Rose Perkins). The lights keep flickering on and off, and Nicole keeps losing her wifi signal, barely being able to see or hear her daughter. Eva asks her mother who that is behind her, and then the signal cuts out entirely. A terrified Nicole whips around, but sees no one. However, a closet door is open that wasn’t open before. Nicole goes to investigate, and the screen fades to black.

The next scene shows Annie arriving at their mother’s house on her motorcycle. Over the next few minutes, it’s established that Nicole hasn’t been heard from for three days, and that even though Annie initially didn’t want anything to do with her mother’s death, she decided to return to the homestead to find out what happened to Nicole. At first, she doesn’t suspect anything particularly nefarious; she simply assumes that Nicole reverted to her old junkie days, found herself unable to deal with the stress of the funeral, and took off to hang in some drug den someplace.

But then, she makes another attempt to call Nicole, and hears Nicole’s phone ringing from inside the hall closet. Annie finds Nicole’s phone lying on the floor of the closet, but doesn’t find Nicole. Troubled, she heads down to the church for her mother’s funeral, and speaks with Liz and Eva, convincing them to come back to the house with her because she thinks something weird might be going on.

That night, all hell breaks loose as Annie has horrible nightmares about a crying shirtless man in the house, then awakens to see an actual dark figure in the hallway. She grabs a knife and starts giving chase, but is thwarted by an unseen force that starts throwing her against the walls, and as she runs through the place, she discovers that Liz has also disappeared. Terrified, she scoops up the screaming Eva and flees to the police station.

The cops obviously don’t believe her story, though an officer named Bill Creek (Casper Van Dien) seems at least partially sympathetic, since he knew Nicole back in the day. He still thinks that Annie might have something to do with the disappearances, though, and warns her not to leave town.

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Annie refuses to return to her mother’s house, understandably, but while she’s holing up in a seedy motel, she has more of the horrible dreams, and then notices that her phone keeps pinging with an unknown address. Clicking on the map brings up a photo of a park-like area with a bench which also happens to feature a blurry, ghostly female figure in a flowered dress, who seems to be pointing to something.

Eventually, after many clues, she and Bill Creek discover a room hidden behind a wall in her family home. It contains nothing but a mattress spring and a bunch of tiny holes in the walls that give a view of every other room in the house. Annie insists that the house is haunted by a ghost who isn’t her mother and is trying to urgently tell her something. After Bill Creek refuses to buy into this idea, Annie goes to an old druggie friend and psychic named Stevie (the intensely spooky Haley Hudson), who is able to tell Annie that there is someone in the closet, and that the ghost in the house wants to tell her something that her mother didn’t want anyone to know about. She also tells Annie that she can see all the abuse that Annie and Nicole suffered at the hands of their mother in the closet in question. Stevie also goes into a kind of fit in the hidden room, where she repeatedly screams the name “Judas,” and everyone sees the eerie specter of the woman in the flowered dress floating up near the ceiling.

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Annie is able to discover that there was an uncaught serial killer in the area years earlier called the Judas Killer, and by putting two and two together, she determines not only that the ghost haunting the family home is one of the serial killer’s victims, Jennifer Glick, but also that the serial killer was named Charles Barlow and was her mother’s brother, a relative she previously did not know existed.

While Annie is finding all this stuff out at the Hall of Records, Bill Creek has been going through some photos he took at the house and is beginning to get on board with the whole ghost scenario. He goes back to the house to check on his hunch, but abruptly gets stabbed in the neck and killed by an unseen individual.

Annie returns to the house later and sets up an ersatz Ouija board in the hidden room where she communicates with Jennifer Glick, who confirms Annie’s suspicions about the Judas Killer. But just as Jennifer spells out the word “below,” a scrawny bald dude emerges from a trap door in the floor beneath the mattress spring. Annie hides and watches the creepy fellow, quickly coming to the conclusion that this is Charles Barlow (Mark Steger), her uncle the serial killer, that he is still alive, and that he has been living behind the walls of the house the entire time, protected by Annie‘s mother.

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After Judas goes out to the kitchen for food, Annie peers down into his basement hovel and sees the bodies of Bill Creek and her sister Nicole (I don’t think Liz is shown, but she’s presumably down there too). She wisely swipes Bill’s gun and there is a tense sequence where she and Judas struggle, Annie is knocked out and tied up in the closet, but manages to free herself, stab Judas with a coat hanger, then eventually shoot him right in the forehead.

In the coda, it is shown that Annie sold the house and adopted Nicole’s daughter Eva, and the implication is that she has now completely turned her life around and left her unhappy past behind her. But at the very end, there is a brief shot through one of the holes in the wall of the secret room, which shows one blinking blue eye. I don’t know if that is meant to say that Judas somehow survived, or if it was just a dream sequence to freak us out, but it was pretty creepy, regardless.

Now, there is another implication here that isn’t really made super obvious, but there were a couple shots of the film that showed that Annie, like David Bowie, had one green eye and one blue eye. After Judas is killed, there is a close-up of his face that shows him to have the same thing. So I’m pretty sure they were suggesting that Judas was actually Annie and Nicole’s father, and that he and their mother had an incestuous relationship. Like I said, they didn’t spell this out, but Annie did make an offhand comment early in the film that she didn’t know who their father was, so I’m guessing that was what that was all about. And to be honest, one of the things I liked most about this film was how it didn’t feel the need to over-explain itself; it just laid out the clues and tendrils and let the audience figure them out.

I also loved the slow build of the tension, the skin-crawling long shots of the hallways and doorways of the house, and the really unsettling glimpses of the ghosts (particularly when Annie briefly sees the ghost of Jennifer Glick with her top half and her bottom half weirdly out of alignment). I also enjoyed that the house was not only haunted by a ghost, but also housed a real person who had been hiding out there all along. The implications of all this family drama left a lot to the imagination, which made it much creepier, in my opinion. There were no flashbacks to Annie and Nicole’s abusive childhood, or to Judas’s former crimes. Everything was kept mostly subtle and limited to one or two mentions, so that the viewer could fill in her own blanks.

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Many times while watching this movie, matter of fact, I was pleasantly reminded of I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, one of my favorite horror films of the past several years. The Pact had that same looming atmosphere of dread, that same framing of mundane household details as sinister, that same ambiguity about where the haunting ended and the terror of the living killer began. It had some fantastically disturbing visuals without going over the top, and even though the story itself wasn’t wildly original, it really sucked you into its mystery and moody ambiance from the moment it began. It’s an impressive debut from director Nicholas McCarthy, and I’ll definitely be seeking out his future work.

Well, from the storm-lashed streets of central Florida, this is the Goddess signing out and urging you to keep it creepy, my friends. And stay safe, all you folks in the path of wrathful nature.

 

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13 O’Clock Episode 39 – The Haunting of Summerwind

Some of our listeners might remember the episode of the TV show A Haunting which was titled “The Haunting of Summerwind.” The house called Summerwind, in fact, is better known as the Lamont Mansion, and a bunch of spooky legends surround the place. Even though the house was destroyed by fire in 1988, ghost hunters in Wisconsin still claim that the area is haunted, and on this episode of 13 O’Clock, Tom and Jenny not only discuss the history and stories about the Lamont Mansion, but also how the facts differ from the episode of A Haunting (which, incidentally, is Tom’s very favorite episode of the show). We also discuss our feelings about other paranormal shows currently on the airwaves.

Download the audio file from Project Entertainment Network here, or watch the YouTube version here. Also, don’t forget to follow the 13 O’Clock Podcast blog, subscribe to our YouTube channel, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.

Karen Black at the Black House with the Black Fence: An Appreciation of “The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver”

You know how sometimes when you’re bored and kinda hung over on a Sunday, and you go poking around YouTube looking for some comforting 1970s horror to watch while you inhale your hearty lunch of homemade Swedish meatballs? And you know how every now and then, you fortuitously stumble across a made-for-TV movie from 1977 that you hadn’t heard of, and how sometimes that movie was written by Richard Matheson and starred Karen Black? Isn’t that fucking rad when that happens? I’m here to tell you that it is quite rad.

The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver is evidently something of a forgotten gem from the late 1970s, and despite its pedigree, hasn’t really gotten a great deal of attention; hell, I don’t think it’s ever even been released on DVD, at least in the U.S. The version I saw on YouTube had been transferred from a battered old VHS tape of the original telecast. It’s kind of a shame, because although this isn’t Matheson’s or Black’s best work, obviously, it’s still a really eerie mystery with a twist ending that totally blindsided me, which is not an easy thing for an ending to do.

Karen Black plays Miriam Oliver, an unhappy housewife straining under the controlling behavior of her buttplug husband Greg (George Hamilton), a hotshot lawyer who apparently wants nothing more than a wife who will dress like a Mormon schoolmarm, pump out babies at his command, and never leave the house or question his authority for any reason whatsoever.

As you might expect, Miriam is getting pretty resentful of the fact that she’s not allowed to work or go to college, and that Greg is pressuring her to have a child before she’s really ready (side note: Miriam’s character in the movie is supposed to be 26 years old, though Ms. Black was at least ten years older than that when this was filmed). She starts to rebel in little ways, like continuing to take her birth control pills on the sly; most significantly, she goes to the mall one day and is drawn to purchase a tight, low-cut red blouse, a blonde wig, some red lipstick, and some snazzy hoop earrings. She puts all the stuff on and is both enthralled and terrified by the fact that she looks like a completely different person. She even starts to act differently when she has her “costume” on, though of course Greg doesn’t really get it and thinks Miriam is losing her marbles. He does kinda try to be understanding, but it soon becomes apparent that Miriam is having a true identity crisis, and may in fact be “possessed,” just as the title of the movie suggests.

See, I neglected to mention that at the beginning of the film (and one other time subsequently), Miriam has been having these really creepy nightmares of attending a funeral and looking into the coffin, only to see herself lying there. She also has recurrent visions of fire, a small bouquet of dark purple or black flowers, and the sounds of a dog barking and a woman screaming. She also keeps seeing a dude with a gray sweatshirt and a sweet pornstache who drives a red pickup truck that inexplicably says “gasoline” on the side. Hmmmm.

On a whim, Miriam rents a cottage on the beach without asking her husband’s permission. He’s pissed, but after he sees how upset she is and how badly she wants it, he agrees that maybe they should rent a beach house so she can get away for a while, but of course he’s going to be the one to pick it out, because he can’t let her have one single thing. He also makes her an appointment to see a psychiatrist, and she seems relieved and compliant, though she tells him she wants to go to the appointment by herself, since he has to go out of town for a trial anyway.

Of course she skips out on the appointment, and instead puts on her slutted-up garb and heads for the beach house. A dog starts following her around, and seems to know her. She ducks into a bar in town, and as she does, she decides that because she has a new identity, she should have a new name. She sees a sign with the word “sandy” on it, and decides to call herself Sandy.

But oddly, as soon as she sits down at the bar, the surprised bartender addresses her as Sandy and asks where she’s been. Freaked out, she says her name is really not Sandy, but the bartender says she looks just like Sandy, a girl who always used to come in there. Even the drink she orders is the same one Sandy drank all the time. The bartender asks the two other shadowed figures at the bar whatever happened to Sandy, and one of them says that she moved away.

Then Miriam sits at a table near the dance floor to enjoy her drink, and who should sleaze up to her but Mr. Sweatshirt von Pornstache, the guy from her dream. She’s afraid of him, as well she should be, because he is crawling all up in her space, insisting she really is Sandy and she needs to stop lying about it. He won’t fuck off when she tells him to, but luckily Miriam is rescued by an extra from Saturday Night Fever, who asks her to dance. She tells him she can’t really dance, and indeed, at first she’s all awkward and shit, but then she finds her groove and starts disco-ing like a champ, just like those chicks on “Solid Gold.” Naturally, this makes Pornstache even more suspicious, because of course the way she dances is exactly the same way that Sandy used to.

So Miriam is getting more and more wigged out (pun very much intended) because Pornstache keeps stalking her around town, and she has the funeral dream again while she’s at the beach house, only this time the dream ends in a huge conflagration, through which Pornstache leers menacingly at her.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, because I was thinking the same thing, but I can assure you that what you are thinking is not actually what’s going on. And if you don’t want the ending spoiled, you might want to stop reading at this point. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

So, you are thinking, as I was, that Pornstache killed Sandy by burning her house down, and that Sandy’s ghost is possessing Miriam, right? I mean, the word “possession” is right there in the title.

This is not what is happening. Kinda close, but much weirder.

So Miriam gets back into her regular Mormon drag, realizing that hubby Greg is gonna be home from his trip soon and she’d better skedaddle back to the unhappy homestead. But the dog that’s been following her won’t get out of her car, and finally she gets exasperated and asks a neighbor who the dog belongs to. He says it’s Mrs. Dempsey’s dog, and that Mrs. Dempsey lives a couple blocks away in “a black house with a black fence.”

Again, I know what you’re thinking. It’s a black house because it’s all burned, right? And Mrs. Dempsey is Sandy, and Sandy’s dead, right? WRONG. We really need to quit trying to guess how this is going to end, you guys. When Miriam finds the house, it’s just a regular un-arsoned house that for some reason is entirely painted black.

An old woman answers the door and says that yeah, the dog belongs to Mrs. Dempsey, who is away until later that evening. This woman is just house-sitting, apparently. The old woman calls the dog Henry, which freaks Miriam out for some reason, and then she’s freaked out even more when she sees one of those pots of black flowers on the windowsill. Then, as she’s leaving, she glances through a window of the house and sees a painting of a girl who looks very much like her, with blonde hair, a tight red blouse, and hoop earrings. Miriam loses her shit and asks the housesitter woman who the girl in the painting is, but the old woman doesn’t know. She says that Miriam should come back after seven and talk to Mrs Dempsey, so Miriam resolves to do just that. By the way, Pornstache has been lurking around this whole time, so there’s also that.

Miriam then passes another neighbor, and asks if Mrs. Dempsey had a daughter. The guy doesn’t really remember at first, but then he says that he thinks he recalls someone mentioning that Mrs. Dempsey indeed had a daughter who died five years before. AHA!!! See, Sandy IS dead!!! WRONG AGAIN. I TOLD YOU TO STOP TRYING TO GUESS.

Meanwhile, back at the Greg Oliver Prison for Matronly Breeder Wives, hubby has returned from his business trip and is calling around to try to find out where his errant wife has gotten off to. He finds out that she skipped her shrink appointment, and surmises, correctly, that she probably went to her beach house. So he heads on over there in order to give her a good talking-to.

Miriam, still being tailed by Pornstache, returns to the Dempsey house, and here’s where the big bombshell finally comes to light. Mrs. Dempsey answers the door and sees Miriam there, her face partially in shadow. She seems REALLY cheesed off, accusing Miriam of playing a sick joke on her. Mrs. Dempsey asks who she is, and when Miriam says her name, Mrs. Dempsey is all FUUUUUUUUUUUCK YOOOOOOOOOOOOU. Then Mrs. Dempsey turns on the porch light, sees Miriam’s face properly, and calls Miriam Sandy. Miriam protests, and asks about Mrs. Dempsey’s dead daughter in the painting. Mrs. Dempsey says that the painting isn’t of her daughter, but is a portrait that her daughter painted of her best friend Sandy. “THIS IS MY DAUGHTER,” Mrs. Dempsey shrieks, thrusting a framed photograph at Miriam. “THIS WAS MY DAUGHTER MIRIAM.” And right there in the photo is matronly Miriam, complete with librarian bun and giant seventies glasses.

What in the Samuel Langhorne HELL is going on here, you may wonder? Okay, pay attention. Five years before, Pornstache (whose real name is Mark) was supposed to marry Sandy, but she broke up with his ass and he didn’t take it too well. One night when Sandy and Miriam were at Sandy’s house, Pornstache showed up and set Sandy’s car on fire. The fire spread to the house. Sandy got away, but Miriam and Sandy’s parents died in the blaze.

So basically, the Miriam we’ve been following through this whole movie really WAS Sandy the whole time. She just felt so guilty that Miriam had died because of her that she dissociated and took over Miriam’s identity. As Miriam, she met and married Greg, and only after several years did fragments of her actual identity start filtering back to her. That was why, at the beginning of the movie, that “Miriam” kept telling Greg that she felt suffocated and that she wanted to be her “real self,” though she couldn’t articulate to him who that was. Deep down she knew she was really party-girl Sandy, but Greg had only ever known her as staid, conservative Miriam. So there you have it. No possession, no ghosts, nothing supernatural at all.

At the very end, Pornstache tries to kill Miriam/Sandy, but she is saved when Greg arrives just in the nick of time. She tells him who she really is, and he seems surprisingly okay with it, unless he’s simply planning on calling the men with the butterfly nets after the credits roll. That seems like the kind of dick move he would pull.

Gotta say, I really enjoyed this quite a lot, and I don’t think that was just the remnants of last night’s alcohol talking. The funeral scenes in particular were eerily surreal and creepy as hell, and the whole thing, while rather slow-moving, was intriguingly spooky and mysterious. Karen Black was absolutely great as the unstable Miriam, and George Hamilton was appropriately assholish, without seeming like a cartoon villain. And as I said, the ending, when Mrs. Dempsey handed Miriam the picture of herself, literally made my jaw drop. I didn’t even care that the whole “possession” title was a misnomer; I was just so pleasantly shocked by this bizarre twist that I did not see coming in any way, shape, or form.

Fans of Karen Black, Richard Matheson, and eerie 70s mysteries would do well to give this a chance, and hopefully someday it will get a proper high-quality release, because it really is quite a good example of made-for-TV horror from that golden decade. It was a total accident that I came across it, but as Bob Ross would have said, sometimes there are happy accidents. 🙂

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.

“The Expulsion”

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“Thanks for calling CastOutCo, we’re steamin’ mad at demons. How can I help you?”

“I’m not sure whether I should be calling or not.”

Father Buck rolled his eyes, aiming another pencil at the ceiling tiles. “What seems to be the problem?”

“It’s my son. I don’t know where to turn…”

The woman started talking, and Buck made some peremptory notes, and then began doodling on the edges of his legal pad. The symptoms she was describing were fairly typical; Buck already had all the information he was likely to need, but it made the clients feel better if they were allowed to vent.

When the woman paused to take a breath, Buck jumped in. “We’re awfully swamped, but I think I can squeeze you in this afternoon at two-thirty, if that’s okay.” He glanced up at the wrestling calendar tacked to the wall of his cubicle; there was nothing written there.

“Thank you. Yes, as soon as possible.” Her voice was forceful and harsh through the phone, as though she really wanted to say, You’d better get your ass here yesterday, buster.

“See you then,” Buck said, and almost hung up, but then remembered to tack on, “Thanks for calling CastOutCo.” The woman had already rung off. Buck put the phone back in its cradle, hoping the manager hadn’t been listening in.

With a sigh, he buttoned up the shirt of his uniform, which looked like something a priest would wear if he moonlighted as a motorcycle mechanic; it was black, with a faux white collar and an embroidered name badge with a little orange cross stitched on it. Buck slid his feet off the desk and crammed his black cowboy hat onto his balding pate. He couldn’t hear a peep in the office; the other associates were probably sleeping or cruising the Internet for underage girls. Business had been tanking, and it was all thanks to Big Pharma—parents were generally unwilling to fork over obscene amounts of cash to an exorcist when they could just stuff their kid full of Ritalin.

Buck got up from his chair, causing the chair and his back to squeak in protest. He hoped this tinpot operation could stay afloat until he retired; he was too old to go pounding the pavement for work, and besides, banishing demons wasn’t really an in-demand skill in the job market these days. He sighed again, heavily, and glanced at his watch. If he left now, he’d probably have time to stop and get a beer.

At two-thirty-eight, after three beers and a bowl of nachos, Buck pulled his rickety Ford to the curb in front of the client’s house, which was a typical faceless suburban confection painted in trendy Mediterranean hues. There was a dark green minivan in the driveway, with a sticker on the back proclaiming that their kid was an Honor Student at Insufferable Brat Middle School, or some such crap. Buck scowled.

The woman had the door open before he’d even got all the way out of the car, and she looked exactly as he had expected her to: Pinched, too skinny, with meticulously styled brownish hair and high-waisted jeans. Buck smiled and raised a hand in greeting, but she just looked at him with a steely expression. He muttered under his breath as he retrieved his box of supplies from the back seat.

Once inside, the woman didn’t even offer a drink or so much as a how-do-you-do; she just marched through the maze of cream-colored hallways, leaving Buck to scuttle along behind her. She stopped on the threshold of what looked like a sitting room, and thrust her finger forward.

The boy sat stoutly in a red recliner, his feet dangling an inch or two from the floor. Behind him were the tangled wires and controls of a forgotten video game, and clutched in his hand was a half-eaten Ho-Ho. He considered his mother and the stranger with flat-lidded eyes.

“What’s the kid’s name?” Buck hissed out of the corner of his mouth.

“Logan,” the woman hissed back. Then she moved aside and let Buck into the room.

“What’s up, Logan?” Buck put his box casually on the floor at his feet. The boy glanced down at it, and then looked back at him. “Something going on I should know about?”

The kid burped, and Buck got a cloudy snootful of root beer and Ho-Ho filling and brimstone. “Who are you?” Logan asked.

I’m Spartacus, kid, who do you think? Buck smiled. “Just someone who wants to help you. My name’s Father Buck.” He wasn’t really a father to anyone or anything; he’d never even done that cheapo ordaining deal on the Internet. The titles were company policy.

Logan’s face puffed up like an egg sac and turned a livid shade of green. The exorcist ducked in case the kid was going to spew, but all that came out were words. “He doesn’t need any help, wretched human,” the kid croaked, in a voice rather reminiscent of intestinal gas. “I am in…um…complete control now.”

Buck pulled up a nearby chair and sat facing the boy. It looked like it might be a long afternoon. “And who, pray tell, might you be?”

Logan’s face deflated in an instant, and he was again a normal, contemptuous pre-teen. “You already know my name is Logan. Are you retarded or something?”

Buck sighed inwardly. The beer and nachos seemed to be having a neighborly dispute in his digestive system. “I know you’re Logan. I’m talking to the other person inside of you.”

Logan just looked at him quizzically, but then the swollen green face returned. “You’ll never free the child from our crutches…I mean clutches!” The shining red eyes glanced to the left, as though consulting an invisible someone standing just behind the recliner. Then they fixed on Buck again. “Try anything you want! Dunk me in a tank of holy water! Read me boring bits of the Bible! Stick a silver crucifix up my nose and…uh…call me Sally!” Another small burp escaped the demonic maw. “Oh! And…um…your mother wears army boots?”

On top of the indigestion, Buck’s head had begun to pound. This was exactly what he needed today; this demon was only a damn trainee. He had dealt with a few of them in his time; trainees were usually a bigger pain in the ass to exorcise than fully accredited demons. Buck reckoned it had to do with the trainees’ inexperience, their desperation to succeed at their first big possession. Trying to ignore his throbbing temples, Buck said, “Junior demon third class, I want to talk to your supervisor.”

The green face registered childlike surprise, and then quickly reverted to a grimace that was apparently supposed to be terrifying. “What are you talking about, pitiful human? I’m an all-powerful…what? No, I can do it… Oh, all right!” In an instant the petulant green visage dissolved into a much less human countenance, reddish and reptilian. Yellow eyes with cat-slit pupils regarded Buck with impatience. “Yes?” its deep, gargling-drain voice said.

Buck reached into his supply box and produced the standard-issue silver crucifix, then held it at arm’s length in front of him. “I command you and your acolyte, in the name of all that is holy, to leave the body of this boy in peace, amen, et cetera.”

The supervising demon blinked. “Yeah. Well, look, can you do me a big favor and not bust my chops here? I mean, the trainee’s gotta learn this possession jazz, right? You understand.”

Buck had expected this, so he put down the cross and retrieved a vial of holy water from the box, which he proceeded to open and sprinkle liberally onto Logan’s pudgy shins. The flesh sizzled a little, but remained unblemished. The demon rolled its eyes. “Hey, didn’t the kid just tell you that none of that stuff was going to work? You been watching too many Hammer movies or something?”

Buck pulled his worn Bible from the box and began reading from it, but he’d only got through one paragraph before the demon waved its hands for silence. “Okay, put a sock in it. I’ll make you a deal,” the supervisor growled. “Let the trainee do his possession thing, pass his test, get his certification, and then I promise we’ll leave the kid alone and go possess someone else. Would that make you happy?”

Before Buck could answer he realized that Logan’s mother had breezed into the room and was standing so close behind him that he could feel her breath riffling his hair. “Yes, Mr. Demon! Please leave Logan alone. In fact, why don’t you go possess that Taylor slut down the street? She’d probably enjoy it.”

Buck closed his eyes. The headache was starting to make him see stars. “Ma’am, if you’ll please let me handle this…”

The woman cast a furious glance down at Buck. “The demon offered a deal, and if you’re too pigheaded to take it, then I will.”

Buck was trying to explain to the woman that demons were actually not renowned for their honesty and their stringent keeping of promises, but she had already marched past him and planted herself directly in front of the demon, hands on hips, ass muscles clenched. “I agree to your compromise,” Logan’s mother intoned grandly.

“Well, hallelujah,” said the supervisor, and in a flash Logan’s face lost its lizardly appearance and reverted back to being puffy and green. “Hail Satan!” the trainee demon shouted exuberantly, then opened its froggy mouth wide and released a massive column of fire straight at Logan’s mother.

Buck instinctively shielded his eyes, but he could still feel the searing heat of the infernal flames as they consumed the woman utterly. She hadn’t even had time to scream.

When at last the heat had dissipated, leaving only a thick greasy stench like overdone pork, Buck reluctantly took his hands from his face and stared at the human-shaped tower of ash that teetered before him. When he exhaled, the tower collapsed into a cascade of papery black flakes that came to rest in a neat pile on the ecru carpet.

“Oops,” said the trainee demon.

The lizard face was back again, yellow eyes seeming to blaze like exploding suns. “Oops? Oops? Is that all you have to say for yourself? All you had to do was levitate the chair with the kid in it, maybe do a bit of freaky writing across his pasty midsection, but no! You had to go torch an innocent woman who’ll be going to heaven now, her soul lost to us forever! Junior demon third class, you fail!

The green face returned blubbering. “But sir, it was just an accident…let me try again…”

“Try again? You’ll be lucky if I let you scrape old hoof shavings off the bottom of the Styx. Now come on!” Logan’s face went through one more horrible transformation, from reddish rage-filled lizard to sobbing greenish egg sac, and then he was just a regular boy again, his cheeks pink from exertion. His stomach rumbled and he looked down at it.

Buck was still sitting in his chair, unable to process what had just happened. A strange wind, perhaps caused by the departure of the demons, stirred the pile of ashes and scattered them in a pattern that looked sort of like an angel, if you squinted hard. Buck stuck his toe into the pile. Well, there goes my commission, he thought glumly.

Logan, who had been watching Buck’s actions with an elaborate lack of interest, took one last look at the blackened cinders that had once been his mother. Then he turned his chair toward the television, stuffed the rest of the Ho-Ho into his mouth, and picked up his video game controller.