NEW BOOK: The Red Ribbon

The cover of "The Red Ribbon"

My new book, The Red Ribbon, is now available on Amazon. It's the first book in a new anthology series, Stories From The Fire.

I have such great memories of telling stories around campfires, at friends’ houses and around our fireplace at home. Some were urban legends, some were just tried-and-true ghost stories passed down, and others were made up on the spot. I checked out books from the library to mine them for scary stories to retell at sleepovers. We had an old record player - the kind built into a console stereo - and with it were records of spoken-word ghost stories from Edgar Allen Poe and other masters of the macabre. While I enjoyed a safe childhood, these stories reminded me that horrors lurked just beyond it.

Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, there were also a glut of horror anthology movies and TV series. The Red Ribbon has many of the tropes of those horror classics. The main characters are teenagers. They are crass and combative with each other and their hormones are raging. Oh, and someone might die.

The mood of this tale reminds me of teenage-centric stories from Tales From The Crypt and the Creepshow movies. They all borrowed heavily from the real-life tropes of teenage life. This is an original story but there are elements of it that may tug at the memories of some readers who remember a similar title or similar characters. That’s what’s so great about these tall horror tales. They seem familiar, even when they are not. And because we think we’ve heard them before, we let our guard down. That’s a mistake I hope to take advantage of again and again in Stories From The Fire.

I remember adults always making jokes about how high school kids are driven by hormones. I think kids at that age feel powerful emotions that are largely untainted by past experiences. Because they have none! They are leaning into the learning curve of both platonic and romantic relationships and, often, they get hurt. Hopefully they live and learn and move on. But I think there is a purity in those powerful first experiences that’s especially compelling to adults. Our teenage years are a common experience. The decisions we make in our teenage years echo into our future, for better or for worse.

The Red Ribbon is a small scale story, told through the limited life experience of teenagers. Long-time friends Jarred and Matt have a friendship so close it’s caustic: a competition consisting of who can cut the other down deeper. Their all-in-good-fun accord is put to the test when a beautiful new girl named Evelyn arrives at school. As both boys try to earn her favor, strange surprises lead them to believe that the quiet new girl may be stalked by something - or someone - from her mysterious past. Though someone’s life may be in danger, they still choose to unravel Evelyn's most carefully kept secret.

It's a short read. About thirty minutes. I hope you enjoy it.

- Micah

My Recent Talk with 'Better Call Saul' Star Rhea Seehorn

It was a cold, dark night when Vince Gilligan's much-lauded drama Breaking Bad went off the air in 2013. The sun came out two years later when Gilligan debuted his follow-up Better Call Saul, a prequel that focuses on Bad character Saul Goodman. The show wraps up its second season this week, and according to Saul himself, Bob Odenkirk, it's "The Rhea Seehorn Year."

I recently spoke with Rhea, the show's female lead. We chatted just after news broke that AMC had renewed Better Call Saul for a third season. In the Emmy-nominated drama, she plays Kim Wexler, a whip-smart attorney ambitiously climbing the ladder at a large law firm where she first met Jimmy McGill (Odenkirk), the man who will one day become the titular Saul. The AMC show is a prequel to the now-legendary Breaking Bad, which was also created by Saul showrunner Vince Gilligan.

Although Saul has yet to reach the ridiculously high stakes present in each episode of Breaking Bad, it brilliantly balances comedic and dramatic elements. As Wexler, Seehorn showcases her chops through a nuanced performance that’s rarely flashy but always compelling. Each week, a layer of her beautiful blonde exterior is rolled back to reveal a hardscrabble work ethic, razor sharp wit and an emotional connection with Jimmy McGill that transcends the boundaries of television.

We talked about the TV shows she grew up on, what she's watching now, and how the special relationship between Kim and Jimmy is created each week.

MH: Have you been to New Orleans before?

RS: I went to Mardi Gras once when I was still in college. I can’t say that it was my favorite thing. I remember thinking, “This is not the city: this is a party.” Then, I came back later and spent a week there and just had the best time. Now, I’d love to go back for Jazz Fest!

MH: I don’t feel like Mardi Gras stands out that much. The traffic is worse then, but that’s pretty much the way the city is all the time, at least in spirit. Fun film story: I met with Nina Noble and her team on HBO’s Treme to shoot that film’s pilot in New Orleans. We were in this meeting with the New Orleans Police Department and other city officials, and they told us they wanted to do a second line down the street in the Treme neighborhood. Do you know what a second line is?

RS: No, what’s that?

MH: A second line is where a group of people — not necessarily anyone special - get some instruments like a trombone or drums, grab some beers and then play music. It’s a walking parade. In fact, one of the film studios in New Orleans is called Second Line Stages.

RS: That is awesome! I love that.

MH: And they start with like five or ten people, but then people along the way grab a beer from their house and then join you, so at the end it’s like 100 people. And we had to tell production, “Even though it’s a fake second line, real people are going to join you. So, you have to be sure to release all of them.”

RS: I love that. I watch that show Togetherness on HBO. How about the Slow Roll they did when he goes home to Detroit? That is a real thing! I watched a little post-show discussion they did and found that people in Detroit who wanted to revive their city gathered, and started just biking at night with lights on their bikes. Almost an artistic statement, but also to artistically discuss the question of, “How do we reinvigorate different parts of the city?” When they shot a scene like that for the show, real people got on their bikes and joined.

MH: That makes so much sense, because Jay and Mark Duplass are part of the show and they are from the New Orleans area.

RS: Then they definitely know something about second lines! It’s kind of the same thing. It’s local camaraderie for the sake of community without political purpose or agenda.

I grew up partially in Virginia, but I also grew up in Japan and Arizona. I find that the South - for all of the bad things that are sometimes associated with it - has a “village” mentality. There’s a community quality there that is without agenda.

MH: There is just a slower lifestyle down here. Which is sometimes beneficial and sometimes not.

RS: Haha! When I visit my family in Virginia, they tell me, “Just slow it down, slow it down.” New York’s even faster. Even down to the foot traffic and the way public transportation helps to create a group or herd mentality. When I moved out to Los Angeles, I found that there’s a different fast-paced quality here that has its own kind of anxiety built in, but people are a little more relaxed with their time. It’s a subtle difference. People will say, “We’re meeting at 1pm,” and it’s completely acceptable to show up fifteen or even thirty minutes late. And everyone always says the same thing. “Traffic” or “I was in six meetings.” Super late is still rude, of course. But in New York, punctuality is sort of seen very differently. Because of public transportation, everything thinks, “We all had to ride five trains, so I don’t want to hear it.”

MH: You’re on one of the best shows on TV right now, Better Call Saul. So, I want to know what TV shows you grew up watching.

RS: I was obsessed with Nick at Nite from around age nine to fifteen. I watched a ton of TV! I know now you’re never supposed to say, “Oh my God, you let a TV raise your kid!” But I completely sat in front of that TV. I guess we can discuss whether I turned out okay or not.

I was completely obsessed with Nick at Nite and at the time, it was all reruns of classic television. I didn’t know until I was older that many of those shows were not in their first run. I thought I was watching I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched in their first run! I don’t think I knew that they were old shows. I loved them! And many of the 1970s sitcoms I was obsessed with, like Maude and anything Bea Arthur touched, including Golden Girls later. Taxi, Barnie Miller, Soap and Benson. I would watch these all with my mom and my dad. All in the Family, Rhoda, Mary Tyler Moore Show. I loved their timing. Half-hour shows have gotten kind of a bad rap, and half-hour sitcoms especially. However, they can and certainly should be very character specific. There is great drama and humor that’s very character driven in those shows. I was fascinated with all of that.

Then, I transitioned to one-hour dramas and movies. Endless hours of movies. I worked at a video store. Remember those?

MH: Barely.

RS: My sister was a manager and I was an employee. I don’t recommend that arrangement if you have an older sibling…because you will be abused. Haha! But I got to watch as many movies as I wanted for free. And I did that through all of high school. I’ve always been utterly enthralled with and immersed in television and film. I love them and I love books, too. I love storytelling.

MH: Even a show like All in the Family, which was a comedy, had some really dramatic stuff in it. Not to mention politically sensitive.

RS: Yeah! And not just during the “very special episodes,” which is a lot of what they do now where they say in advance, “It’s going to be a sentimental episode.” They dealt with real issues that they tackled all the time. There are some really smart shows on the air now doing that. There’s a lot of really challenging three-dimensional characters that did not have being likeable as their first priority.

MH: What were the movies you really liked growing up? What were the core that really formed you as a moviegoer?
RS: I loved John Hughes films. I watched them over and over. Every single John Hughes film I’m obsessed with. And Cameron Crowe’s films — which I would sometimes mistake for John Hughes films! I found out Say Anything and One Crazy Summer are actually not John Hughes films.

But I loved them. I identified with different parts of them at different times. Harry Dean Stanton always reminded me of my dad. I loved the humor, I love the real stories. The characters were amazing.

I also loved Paris, Texas, which is one of my all-time favorite films. The movie Brazil. I think about Brazil all the time on Better Call Saul, especially when I’m in the “document dungeon” that Kim is now working in on the show. I tell this to Peter [Gould] all the time: “Part of me wants to pull my desk through the wall.” Remember that scene in Brazil where the offices are so small and gray that the desk is shared through a wall?

MH: Yes!

RS: I think there’s elements of Terry Gilliam’s work, and at a panel the other day, they were saying that they reference the documentary Crumb. There are these fantastical elements in our show that are just slightly outside of naturalism, and I enjoy them so much. It’s a poetic step outside of total realism. Which is just fun. It’s really fun to inhabit that world. It’s tricky, tone-wise, but just such a joy.

MH: I think Breaking Bad, and now Better Call Saul, do that very well. It’s expressed a lot in the cinematography. You can have this really grounded scene that’s pretty realistic, and then you’ll have character moments with very dramatic lighting that are artistic elevations of the show.

RS: Yeah. There’s realism in the beats and some beautiful naturalism and realism in the way characters express themselves to each other. The [creators] let you act it instead of say it. People identify with that more: that people are not saying everything. Usually, in real life, you have to push somebody really far to actually pinpoint their emotions, or articulate why they are angry. We tend to dance around our feelings, or just act them out. And certainly with relationship like with Kim and Jimmy, they write it so well and it’s written to a letter. We don’t change anything. As brilliant of an improv person as Bob Odenkirk is, those scenes are fully written and beautifully so. The writers make this strong foundation and then Bob and I rehearse it over and over so that what can come alive is what’s between the lines. I think that’s what happens when you do have an authentic relationship. Nothing’s at face value when you know somebody that well, and people have really responded to seeing that on screen. It’s the look between the lines and thinking, “What did you mean by that?” It’s having a shared history, and Bob and I remind each other of that. Whenever a character brings something up, it’s very possible it’s not the first time they brought it up. What happened last time they talked about it? Was there an argument? Did it go well? Did it not go well? When you speak to a friend of yours, and you pick what movie to see tonight, you have a shared history about last time you picked a movie. Was it a good one or a bad one? And a smirk or a joke or anything there could communicate that.

They are just so lovely on our set. Our directors and our writers are so encouraging and they create an incredible environment to build that kind of realistic relationship.

MH: You work a lot with Bob Odenkirk, who plays the lead Jimmy McGill, the man that will at some point become Saul Goodman. Your character Kim is his very complicated love interest. The most romantic scenes in the show to date, in my opinion, is when Kim is at the nail salon after hours, and Jimmy is painting her toenails. It’s kitschy and yet romantic. You can see some of that unspoken history that’s there, even though it was early in the show’s first season. What was it like to put those scenes together?

RS: We always start by meeting and running the lines together over and over. Just lines. We’re not cementing any kind of performance. We wait until we’re playing with the director to solidify everything, but first we just go over and over it. It gets your brain simmering. When you walk away from that, you’re thinking about what is a reference to the past, and what’s a reference to the future. What’s something that could be taken a different way? Then, we get there, and we do the scene many times and in many different fashions. Another great thing the writers do on this show that comes across so authentically to viewers is that there’s not one obvious arc in many scenes. They take a roller coaster and become very serpentine. You can get almost in an argument, and then it peters out, then it’s a little funny and it starts being ok, and now it’s not!

We ran many versions of that. We tried it a million ways. And then Bob and I, along with the whole great cast,  are actors that enjoy not overly planning how you are going to say every line. Because you get there, and you realize it’s all in the other person’s delivery. It becomes this amazing game of volleyball, and that’s when those moments happen between the lines. You think you know what you are getting ready to say —  as we often do it real life — but then Jimmy delivers his line with a slight sadness. And suddenly I can’t come back as prickly as I planned to. Then, I say my line with a smirk and it makes Jimmy deliver his line back to me in a different way. That’s when I think the audience starts to breath with us. You’re watching a volley back and forth. Nothing can really be planned at that point.

Then, our great directors and our great DP Arthur Albert that will do what’s (oddly) unheard of in television right now, which is hold the shot in a wide or a medium, rather than in an extreme closeup for those moments. Then you are really breathing with the characters, and you can see the whole thing. It’s great. It’s like theater.

MH: One more question. One thing I have noticed about you—in red carpet videos, in EPK interviews, everywhere— is that your eyebrow game is always on point.

RS: Hahaha!

MH: So, I’m wondering... what are Rhea Seehorn’s last-minute makeup tips?

RS: Well, of course, hire great makeup artists! That’s so funny. My eyebrows move independently of each other, which I sometimes have to watch because it can be just a whole circus going on up there, and then people aren’t paying attention to my lines. And I also have a very rubbery face, which is good, but with Kim, I actually have to calm it down. She doesn’t let everyone know what she’s thinking nearly as much as I do in real life. She’s very poker faced. But I’m very aware of it for these interviews, because I can finally let them become unleashed!

MH: Keep up the great work on Better Call Saul. It’s appointment viewing for me and all my friends. You guys are doing great work.

RS: I love that! I think it’s a group kind of show to watch. And thank you for watching!

You can follow Rhea on Twitter at @RheaSeehorn. Special thanks to Odessy Barbu for the photos. They're incredible.

The Time of Gods and Monsters is Come

Does it seem like the summer tentpole season starts earlier every year? If that bothers you, buckle up. The success of the long-in-development Deadpool basically guarantees that it will start in January now, and probably be R-rated. I’m not necessarily against the soon-to-be trend. Deadpool was great! And with the exception of a few awards season hangovers, January and February are usually a dumping ground for bad studio films.

As I write this, Batman v. Superman is about to hit theaters. It signals the true start of tentpole season. The sheer amount of variables Zack Synder was juggling in making Batman v. Superman was incredible, and somehow he pulled it off. He delivered an entertaining film that featured everything fans would want in a showdown between DC Comics' two superstars, while setting up the Justice League movie. It’s a bit more dour than some audience members will enjoy, but it delivers on action and spectacle, the two most important ingredients in a DC movie.

The real triumph of the film was balancing all of the heroics with a capable villain. Jesse Eisenberg was amazing as Lex Luthor. The perfect mix of smart, crazy and diabolical. There will probably be some critics who bring up issues with the film's sheer amount of wanton destruction, but it's balanced out with enough entertaining stuff, it's hard for me to complain.

Oh, and this movie is going to make oceans of money.

The CIA and the Actual X-Files

In the early 1990s, Fox was a broadcast network barely removed from its first fledgling years. In contrast to more mainstream comedies and dramas on the Big Three networks, offbeat shows like The Simpsons and In Living Color were Fox's primetime bread and butter. Fox became a bonafide contender in 1993, thanks to a deal with the NFL and the sci-fi drama The X-Files.

Some of my best childhood TV memories were of The X-Files' first season. Although it wasn't a solid ratings hit until the following year, my family managed to find it. And every week, we gathered to watch suspenseful tales of sci-fi, horror and the paranormal. At some point along the way, after the first film was released, I stopped watching.

A few weeks ago, I resumed. From the beginning. If you haven't watched The X-Files in years, now is a great time to start. The show is available in its entirety on Netflix, and thanks to a recent rescan, it's in HD, beautifully restored and color-corrected. I'm also really enjoying actor/comedian Kumail Nanjiani's podcast The X-Files Fileswhich offers great commentary on major episodes and interviews with some of the show's key creative forces. All of this is in preparation to watch the new revival on Fox, which brought back David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson.

But I'm not here to talk about any of that. I want to talk about the actual X-Files.

Declassified photos taken in Sheffield, England. March 4, 1962.

In 1978, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) declassified a trove of documents related to Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs). Many of them were no doubt known to the writers of The X-Files, who chose to make extraterrestrial-related governmental conspiracy the backbone of their classic series. These documents are now available online here, provided directly on the CIA's official website.

This report from 1952 details the sworn, eyewitness testimony of a German man named Oscar Linke. He described an incident near Hasselbach, Germany, which was in the Soviet-controlled portion of the country following World War II. After his motorcycle blew a tire, Linke was walking towards the town when he spotted two men "in some shiny metallic clothing." As he approached them, he saw a large object lying on the ground that looked like a "huge frying pan."

"There were two rows of holes on its periphery, about thirty centimeters in circumference," Linke testified under oath. "The space between the two rows was about 0.45 meters. On top of this metal object was a black conical tower about three meters high." He went on to describe how the object began to spin, rising from the ground.

My first reaction is to cast Linke as a kook eager for his fifteen minutes of fame. But Linke was the former mayor of Gleimershausen, and his testimony was detached and detailed. I don't think Linke actually saw an extraterrestrial vessel, but it's possible he saw something that was a closely held secret of the Soviets. Perhaps some technology crafted in a wartime German laboratory that never saw combat.

Taken over Minneapolis, Minnesota. October 20, 1960.

"Over Badalona, about 10 kilometers away, the object stopped trailing smoke," reads another declassified document. "It disappeared for a few seconds, and reappeared, again emitting smoke, several kilometers farther away."

That testimony was offered by Valentin Garcia in May of 1952. It was one of seven contained in this document, all pointing to some activity over Spain and Northern Africa. The dates were May 22, June 4, June 11 and June 16. The locations were near Barcelona, Tunesia, Morocco and Casablanca.

The majority of my exposure to events believed to be extraterrestrial involves American sites: Roswell, Los Angeles, Mississippi and Arizona. Though these international incidents occurred a half-world away, they describe sightings that are eerily familiar. True believers would say the similarities support the existence of alien life. After all, how could a hoax that spans the globe be so well executed that it fools the CIA?

Earlier that same year on March 29, flying saucers were reportedly seen over uranium mines in the Belgian Congo. "Both discs hovered in one spot and then took off in a unique zigzag flight to the northeast," one declassified document states, sourcing a Commander Pierre. "A penetrating hissing and buzzing sound was audible to the onlookers below."

Commander Pierre of the small Elisabethville airfield pursued the discs in a fighter plane, coming close enough to describe them and estimate their size and rate of speed. "The inner core remained absolutely still, and a knob coming out from the center and several small openings could plainly be seen. The outer rim was completely veiled in fire and must have had an enormous speed of rotation," the report states. It also includes hand-drawn schematics of the discs' estimated dimensions, which you can check out here on the CIA's website.

                    Another fictional story set in Casablanca.

These are but a handful of official documents kept classified for over two decades. There's a massive treasure trove of alien and UFO-related documents dumped into the public domain thanks to the Freedom of Information Act. The CIA hosts these documents online here at The question is: why do they exist at all? True believers would say that they are evidence of the truth. That truth, of course, being that extra-terrestrials have visited Earth. I agree that they are evidence of the truth, but not the truth that Mulder wants to believe.

I'm open to the possibility that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe and will remain so for the rest of my life. But immediately following that concession to the Lone Gunmen of the world is a recognition of the extraordinarily low probability that first, extraterrestrial life exists, and second, it has travelled across the universe to visit Earth. The range of possible planetary configurations necessary to permit life is, quite literally, astronomically low. Take that in. Astronomically low. We use that phrase figuratively everyday to describe events and outcomes that are unlikely. Here, I'm using it literally. The probability that aliens have visited earth is not only low, it is the benchmark of low probability, hovering just above actually impossible.

     Travis Walton's alleged abduction, as depicted in "Fire in the Sky"

That last paragraph may have read like I'm tapdancing around reality, but I think it's a coherent and clear position. It's also one shared by many in the scientific community, including cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who has mused many times on the matter. In a speech entitled "Life in the Universe" Hawking says: "What are the chances that we will encounter some alien form of life, as we explore the galaxy. If the argument about the time scale for the appearance of life on Earth is correct, there ought to be many other stars, whose planets have life on them. Some of these stellar systems could have formed 5 billion years before the Earth. So why is the galaxy not crawling with self designing mechanical or biological life forms? Why hasn't the Earth been visited, and even colonised. I discount suggestions that UFO's contain beings from outer space. I think any visits by aliens, would be much more obvious, and probably also, much more unpleasant."

Hawking goes on to state, "Maybe the probability of life spontaneously appearing is so low, that Earth is the only planet in the galaxy, or in the observable universe, in which it happened. Another possibility is that there was a reasonable probability of forming self-reproducing systems, like cells, but that most of these forms of life did not evolve intelligence."

With the acceptance that actual alien visitations are an exceedingly low probability, what truth then is contained within these declassified documents? I think the answer is much more terrestrial. In looking at these documents, we're inspecting trees and trying to guess what kind of forest they comprise. There's no need to look across the known universe into the unknown universe to find it. We need to look only at the post-war political climate.

Although the USSR and the USA were allied against Germany and the Axis powers during World War II, they were only united by common enemies. After the second world war ended, the Cold War began. Germany was divided into territories managed by the Americans, the Soviets, the British and the French. Berlin itself was divided into different zones. The documents I reference in this blog post are from that post-war era, where former allies were trying to decide if they would become enemies or remain mere rivals. That decision-making process lasted for decades.

The Central Intelligence Agency played an important role during the Cold War. In many ways, it was at the vanguard of the chilly conflict. In a war that was entirely fought through proxies and through information campaigns, misinformation was a powerful weapon. A cheap and effective way of creating just enough uncertainty in a rival to prevent, or at least postpone, action. If one were to, say, manufacture an extraordinary event where eyewitnesses observed a display of extremely advanced technology, and then arrange for that event to be covered in the local papers, it would most certainly end up on the radars of rivals. And if one of the eyewitnesses was the former mayor of Gleimershausen, it would have to be at least moderately credible. Enough to postpone action.

Another photo released by the CIA

Another photo released by the CIA

How would Soviet officials react to reports in newspapers about displays of advanced technologies? Their reaction would likely be very similar to ours. We read an incredible report and decide it is just that: incredible. They would assume that it is not a highly improbable event like a visit from extraterrestrials. They would assume it was a more probable event. Advanced technology their rivals kept as a closely held secret. They would assume it was the United States, testing stealth technology.

And if you were the United States, what would be the easiest way to push your rivals back into a defensive posture? Would it be to actually create advanced technology that would intimidate them? Or would it be to simply launch a misinformation campaign in the local papers? You could even create "classified" documents that bore the authentic stamp of the CIA, with the intention of leaking them to the Soviets. 

Mulder and Scully were right about one thing: the truth is out there. Whether I've landed on it or not, we can continue to debate as new information comes to light.

The X-Files revival is now airing on Fox. And catch up on the original series, now streaming on Netflix.

I Wanted to See The Babadook

Movie recommendations need to be tailored. As much as I love Game of Thrones, it's not for everyone. And it's definitely not for my mother. Some movies I take under my wing and recommend to everyone. They are often independent movies that are diamonds in the rough. I become a maven for these films because A) they're great, B) they don't have the marketing dollars to find a wide audience, and C) I love describing them. I love honing my pitch to friends and family. And random people at coffee shops. And Radio Shack.

Just kidding, no one goes to Radio Shack anymore. My 2014 maven movie was The Babadook, a true return to Hitchcock horror. It's about a single mother and her son, both of whom are plagued by the violent death of her husband. The son, Samuel, creates trouble at school and at play, and he fears a monster is lurking in their house. It's a fear that the mother, Amelia, soon begins to share with him, as evidence builds of a sinister presence that surrounds her. I've recommended it to everyone. I'm recommending it to you.

You should see this film. I'm telling you that straight away. And because I'm about to get into some spoilers, proceed with caution, dear readers of internet nonsense. This movie is exponentially better if you watch it without knowing anything about it. Don't even watch the trailer, which is itself a filmic masterpiece. That's right: the trailer for this film alone is better than almost any horror or suspense film I have seen in theaters in a few years.

Spoilers, ahoy. (for The Babadook, The Exorcist and The Omen)

Jennifer Kent, the director of The Babadook, is a master, using light and sound to terrify, all while honoring the story at the center of the film. While most recent horror films trade almost exclusively in jump scares, The Babadook earns everything. Even scenes that seem like mundane setup - such as meetings with school staff - are paid off in fulfilling fashion.

The anchors of the film are actors Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman, who play mother Amelia and son Samuel. Their performances are tremendous, among the best of last year, across all genres. Horror often gets short shrift come awards season (with the notable exception of The Exorcist and The Silence of the Lambs), but these performances were prime, easily worthy of Oscar nominations.

The first act sets up Samuel to be a troubled child, an homage to classics like The Omen, where a baby was the anti-Christ, and The Exorcist, where a girl is possessed by the devil himself. He looks strange and acts even stranger. Bizarre behavior at school and in social settings with other children not only misdirects us from the true source of trouble - his mother's depression - but it also aligns the audience with the mother. Who hasn't been around a troubled child and pitied their parents? Who can't sympathize with a single mother trying to recover from the tragic death of her husband? This is one of The Babadook's great achievements. It humanizes depression and calls out to us to help those in grief. Ultimately, Samuel is his mother's savior: he holds on to her humanity, even as unrequited grief threatens to kill them both.

By the end of the film, it's clear that the Babadook isn't some demon coming to haunt Samuel. The monster is grief itself, a seven-year-old beast that Amelia hasn't yet confronted. It doesn't possess her, like Reagan is actually possessed by evil in The Exorcist. It grew within her, over the course of seven years, until finally she chose to face it. And face it she does, with her son in her arms, she summons all of the strength in her and then some, screaming, "You are trespassing in my house!"

That moment is incredible, mother and child protecting one another, as the Babadook hides in black shadows. His face is hidden. Only his long fingered hands peeking out, and the faint outline of his unnaturally long arms. And after the confrontation, Amelia tucks the Bababook away in the basement, only to revisit grief when it was necessary and under appropriate conditions.

We barely see the Babadook. On my first viewing, I saw this as a strength of the film, a mature artistic choice that focused the attention on the relationship between Amelia and Samuel, rather than the titular antagonist. It kept the emphasis on the story as an analogy for the struggle to deal with lingering grief, mental illness and other kinds of psychosis.

And yet, after a recent rewatch, I found myself wanting to see the Babadook. I wanted to see the beast. And I think it may have made for a better viewing experience. I think it could have been done without sacrificing the artistic integrity of the project. Think again of films like The Exorcist and The Omen. They, too, tease the audience with something wicked, which may this way come. But in those films, we saw the face of the devil. I mean that figuratively. What we saw was confirmation of the truth. The protagonists weren't crazy. They were normal people who were actually seeing something extraordinary, and the text of the film confirmed that.

In those films, the real danger was thinking it was not real. In The Exorcist, Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) had encountered the demon Pazuzu before. Father Karras was the skeptic. He knew he was seeing something extraordinary, but believing in actual demonic possession was a belief too far. It isn't until Karras sees the demon leap from the possessed girl Regan into Father Merrin, promptly killing him, that Karras believes the demon is truly real. And we as the audience have to see it, too. We would have to see it in real life to believe it. We have to see it in the movie, too.

In The Omen, the boy is the antagonist, along with those the devil sends to protect him. The bridge we must cross is believing the boy is actually the anti-Christ. It's the same belief that Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) must come to hold. There are certainly incidents that prepare him to believe. He finds out his son died in childbirth, and was swapped for an orphan. But it isn't until he travels to the grave of Damien's birth mother, and finds a jackal buried there, that he believes. The fulfillment of the biblical prophecy that the anti-Christ would be born of a beast. We actually get to see the jackal, and we join Thorn in his belief.

If we could have seen more of the Bababook, what would we have seen? Perhaps it would have been the face of Amelia, or a pitiful cypher of her healthier self. It could have been the face of her husband, a form the beast takes earlier in the film. Or it could have been a new face, one of such evil it would have captured culture in a bigger way than The Babadook ultimately has. Every special effects makeup artist in the business would salivate over such an opportunity. And I think it would have made the emotional climax of the film more satisfying. When the Babadook's arms slip back into the darkness, it doesn't feel like a defeat, or even a knockdown punch. It feels like the Babadook will explode again onto the screen, pushing the audience to its emotional limits and personifying the titular evil. That never happens.

Within the film, showing the beast at the very end would have made great sense. In seeing the beast, Amelia would finally have confirmation that she is not the Babadook. She isn't the evil. She and her grief are not identical. She may not be able to rid herself entirely of it, but she is not identical to it. It is an "other," a thing that can be observed. And we the audience would have also observed it with her.

The Babadook is a beautiful, terrifying and excellent film. I'm still incredibly impressed with Jennifer Kent's direction, and she should be offered every high profile directing gig in Hollywood. But I still wanted to see The Bababook. Now, I will have to live with a hundred terrible fan interpretations every Halloween instead.

- Micah

NEW BOOK: The Angel

The cover of "The Angel"

My newest book, The Angel, was just published by Option Books. It's a short story set in the world of cave diving.

I’ve never been scuba diving. It seems nice, though. Pick a locale in the Florida panhandle, or off the coast of Mexico. There’s plenty of clear water, beautiful fish and sunlight. Surface in seconds whenever you’d like. But who the hell wants to go cave diving? Trapped underwater and under rock. No radios. No communication. It’s one of the few places where technology cannot help you. I just can’t understand the mentality that brings divers to attempt that kind of challenge. My hope is that neither can anyone else. It makes that world a great place to tell a story.

For years, my focus has been on stories that could be told under the constraints of low budget filmmaking. The Angel emerged in direct contrast to that. Shooting in caves, under water and in tight spaces is just not something you want to attempt without a significant budget. Even with a very large budget, it’s miserable. Ask the cast of James Cameron’s The Abyss. This short story was liberating in that I was free to truly explore. I was free to describe something I will never experience, and never film. Unless you want to give me a lot of money to make this into a film. Then, let’s do this.

My approach to The Angel, and to writing in general, is pretty simple. I hope I can explain it by describing an experience I love: rewatching movies with friends. Watching an amazing film for the first time is a truly great experience. I’ll never be able to watch The Empire Strikes Back or Jurassic Park the same way I did the first time. For me, an equally great experience is rewatching that film or tv show with other people. Rewatching The Usual Suspects or Game of Thrones with the uninitiated is wonderful because I know what’s coming, and they don’t. I get to both anticipate what I know is about to happen, and have this rewarding existential experience with my friends, who don’t know what’s about to hit them. It’s great!

Writing is the same experience for me. It’s walking through Blockbuster (R.I.P.) and selecting the experience I want to go on with my friends. Now I consider you a friend. So I look forward to coming over again and sharing another experience with you.

You can now find The Angel in Amazon here. It's about a thirty minute read. I hope you enjoy it.

- Micah