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All Things Thriller

A Celebration of Thrillers, Noire and Black Comedy by Pamela Lowe Saldana

Ron DeSantis Tortures Sleeping Dogs

I can’t stand Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. And, yeah, it’s personal.

Like a lot of other politicians (of both parties, I might add) I think he’s a pompous blow hard. But that’s not why I can’t stand him.

No. It’s his cruel streak, his over-the-top maliciousness in general and his snidely air that I find truly appalling. But more than even that, it’s his cruelty to sleeping dogs that really gets me.

It’s disturbing. Sadistic even.

I think DeSantis must really hate sleeping dogs, even though he acts like he’s on their side; his actions speak louder than his words. Just look at the way that he treats them:

He gets these huge truckloads of M80 fireworks…you know, those little mini bombs that your mom wouldn’t let your brother get for the 4th of July because they blow off peoples fingers and hands and stuff…

Yeah, those.

He ignites the fuses…he’s got these ball machines all lined up, like they use in tennis or baseball…only he loads them up with the M80s…and he just rains them down, just carpet bombs the you know what out of these poor sleeping dogs.

I’ve personally witnessed this. It’s awful.

The dogs jump up, they’re scared to death. Some of them cower. Some yelp and whine. They all bark and howl. They attack each other. It’s a spectacle.

And if that’s not bad enough, then DeSantis blasts about a gazillion vuvuzelas at them. (I’ll let you google that; they are loud.)

I know…I know. It’s terrible. It really is. But that’s not all. Nope. DeSantis is just getting started.

Then he gets about a ton of raw meat…chicken bones, porkchop bones, all that…and he just hurls it at them...

Yes…while the vuvuzelas and M80s are still going off. It’s like all hell’s breakin’ loose. Of course the poor dogs go even crazier.

But here’s the worst part of it: after he’s done all that, he unchains the gate…you know, where the dogs are…he just opens it up and lets them loose.

Yeah…and they are in a frenzy.

You know, come to think of it, this might really be the worst part…it all depends on your perspective, your circumstances…some people blame the dogs for everything. That’s right. They want to put the puppies in eco-friendly backpacks and throw them into the public pool…after it closes, of course. Be done with it.

Those people just don’t like dogs. They exaggerate things about them, or make stuff up…like they say the dogs have rabies…or they’re inbred…and it’s really sad because I use to know a lot of them. The dogs.

Sure, some were vicious and crazy from the get go, but they were the exceptions. And those dogs…the really mean ones…they don’t sleep.

But most of them–in my experience, anyway– weren’t like that. Not at all. They were just nice, normal dogs…and then DeSantis and his buddies started messin’ with them.

Of course, DeSantis isn’t the first one to get them all riled up. Hardly. But he may be the smartest one. And that’s why I can’t stand him.

And it’s also why he scares me a lot more than the dogs do.

A Brood Of Vipers: My Investigation Into A Child Abduction In Nashville; Chapter Two

The Trek

There was only about six weeks to go before summer break when Tabitha Tuders walked out her front door on a morning like so many other mornings–yet different. She was on her way to 15th and Boscobel where she would wait with other neighborhood kids for the school bus that arrived at eight a.m.

Out the door by 7:45, folks along a route that began two houses from the corner of Lillian and 14th could set their watches by Tabitha’s routine. At 14th, she would turn right and walk up the hill to the next street, Boscobel. There she would cross 14th and continue on Boscobel, walking one block to her bus stop.

On that morning Tabitha carried a report card signed by her parents, usually a custom of little consequence to her. Though whip smart, she was an average student. But recently she had buckled down; this report card had straight A’s. Now, not only was she thirteen–a fully fledged teenager–she was briming with accomplishment, all of which should have turned an already nice morning (the temperature was in the 70s with hardy a cloud in sight) into a really great one.

And so, on the morning of April 29, 2003, Tabitha Tuders began her trek like she always did, on the bustling streets of a tightly packed neighborhood. But she did so with a newly emerging sense of self.

Her bus stop was less than a quarter mile away.

Denizens of Shelby Park

With over three hundred acres of lush greenery that includes a golf course, nature center, dog run, baseball fields and miles of fitness trails, Shelby Park is the crown jewel of historic east Nashville. Opened in 1912, its original acreage was designed for the Nashville “elite” who resided on the east side.

But neighborhoods (even those with ornate Victorian homes) change when hordes of the “heroic underclass” encroach on them, taking advantage of low interest loans and mortgages (i.e., the G.I. Bill) like the veterans of WWII did–the white veterans, that is. And neighborhoods especially change when the strivers move on and are replaced with a more fixed underclass.

That’s what happened to great swaths of east Nashville before the hipsters and corporate newcomers converged. Just twenty years ago, glorious Shelby Park was in a state of disrepair–a dangerous hangout for addicts, thieves and perverts like Leslie Paul a.k.a, “Sonny” Duke.

In April of 2003, Sonny was a sixty year old fixture in Lockland Springs, known to ride his bicycle up and down 14th, on his way to and from Shelby Park. He lived on Granada with his mother, just a few houses down the street from Roni Villescaz, one of Tabitha Tuders closest friends.

Before Sonny moved in with his mom he had his own house and a family that included four daughters whom he viciously, repeatedly raped over an eighteen year period. Finally, in 1986, one of the daughters came forward and Duke was charged with and convicted of aggravated sexual assault, but not before he and his son, Leslie David Duke, warned one of the sisters not to testify against him.

As a result, both Duke’s were charged with threatening a witness, but those charges were dropped when the young woman did not show up for court. Regardless, Leslie Paul Duke served over twelve years in prison, escaping for two days in 1992, before he was released in 1998.

Sadly Leslie Paul Duke wasn’t the only debauched soul tooling about Lockland Springs, April 2003. Hardly. Take, for example, the violent saga of rapist and habitual parolee Millard Earl Smith.

In 1986 the then thirty five year old Smith met four teenagers while cruising a park in Murfreesboro, a city thirty miles from Nashville. He invited the teens into his car and gained their confidence by showing them an illegal machine gun he had stowed in a duffle bag under his seat. Then, after taking them for a ride, he sweet talked some alone time with one of the girls while her friends drove to the store in their own vehicle.

Once he had the girl to himself, he put a knife to her throat, raping the seventeen year old in the back seat, a crime for which he was sentenced to twenty years. At the time of this offense, Smith was an experienced sexual offender who had already spent many years in prison .

In 1976, while on bail for attempted rape, he drew twenty year sentence for the rape of a 28 year old woman whom he offered a ride after pointing out something amiss with her car. Instead of taking her to her home as he had promised, Smith took her to an isolated dead end road where he attacked her. Before that, he had been convicted of attempted rape in 1970, earning a one to three year sentence.

On April 29, 2003, Millard Earl Smith was out of prison living with his sister in Porter Heights about four miles from Tabitha Tuders Lockland Springs address. But he was hardly a stranger to her neighborhood. His former fiancé had lived on Boscobel and his father and brother lived on Ordway, both addresses less than a mile from the Tuders home.

When Smith wasn’t working in his brother in law’s garage, he liked to hang around Shelby park where he was known to give kids rides on his motorcycle.

To be cont’d…

Brood Of Vipers: My Investigation Into A Child Abduction In Nashville; Chapter One

A Pretty Picture

Tabitha was two years older. Not that a two year age difference means much, but back then it was kind of a big deal to have a best friend that was thirteen. It made Chelsea feel good. Cool.

Truth be told, hardly anyone could tell their age difference. They were two peas in a pod. Intertwined. More than friends, closer than sisters, they had known each other since Chelsea was two. Their houses were on the same street, just a short walk away. Their moms and dads were friends.

And though they were growing up, their interests and bodies changing, the transition was reassuringly gentle. Yes, they were watching horror movies now, but Scooby Doo was still their favorite.

Sometimes, like when they were in the grocery store line or at the beauty shop, they might hear their moms talking with other moms. The other mothers would say stuff about their daughters like “she’s eleven going on eighteen” or “mine’s thirteen going on twenty-two.”

Not their moms. Their moms just laughed.

Tabatha and Chelsea still liked to play hide and seek, though they were beginning test the boundaries of their world a bit. It was only natural; they knew all the hiding places their yards accommodated–the shed, behind the shrubbery, beneath the the hull of a battered boat. Sometimes they took their outdoor games inside. Neither mom minded. Everybody knew they didn’t live in the best neighborhood. They felt better when they could lay eyes on the girls, fast.

One blonde. One brunette. Both with freckles. Tomboys.

The house is small–two bedrooms, one bath–covered in white clapboard with low ceilings and a front porch only a few steps from the most narrow block of Lillian Street.

Just the right size for Tabitha and her parents, Bo and Debra. Cozy.

Tabitha especially loved her lavender painted room with gleaming white trim. It was a haven where she diligently kept up with homework, listened to music and doodled the names of boys she thought were cute. But it was also a fortress of girly trinkets and stuffed animals–some old, some new—a sacred few baring scars from the rough but loving hands of the child she’d been.

Bo and Debra Tuders worked hard to provide for their family. Debra rose early to make it to her job at Tom Joyner Elementary on time. She worked in the cafeteria. Bo got up a little later, but not much. He was a short haul truck driver. He could have made more money driving cross country but that would mean not being home most nights.

Tabitha was the youngest of three children and her parents doted on her. She was an easy child to deal with even though, there toward the last, she was a little put out with the situation at the little house. Her big sister Jamie and her two children had moved in. Naturally they slept in her bedroom. They got into her stuff too.

And, naturally, she had to babysit.

It wasn’t that she didn’t love them. She did. No question. It was just that they were cramping her newly emerging style and invading her time and privacy.

Sometimes, after the little house had settled and everyone was sleeping, Tabitha would gather blankets and pillows and creep into her parents bedroom. There she would make a pallet at the foot of their bed and sleep.

Life wasn’t perfect. It never is. But, according to her family and friends, for Tabitha it was good.

The Neighborhood

Lockland Springs has traditionally been a working class enclave of Nashville’s east side,  the eclectic epicenter of artists, laborers, LGBT activists, churches, sprawling Victorian homes and humble GI bill cottages.

Nowadays, gentrification has pocked Lockland Springs; a host of its cottages have been razed and replaced by modern module condominiums and single family homes–many of them luxurious. But some of the cottages have been lovingly restored or–in today’s parlance–flipped. Depending on size and condition, many of these humble abodes are fetching between 400,000.00 to 600,000.00.

Some, more than that.

In 2003 the little cottage at 1312 Lillian would have sold for around 70,000.00. Bo and Debra Tuders still live there. They have chosen to stay put and not cash in on Nashville’s housing boon. It is their home, after all. But most importantly, it is the only home Tabitha has ever known. They want to be there if and when she returns, though they never say “if”. For Bo and Debra it is always when.

It’s a straight one mile jot from the door of the Tuders home to the the door of a similar cottage on Granada Avenue. Just take a right from the driveway, then an immediate left on 14th and follow it north to the intersection of Granada and turn left again. The house is right there, one house from the corner. In the spring of 2003 that’s where Leslie Paul Duke lived with his mother.

Sonny, as he was known, was at one time a friend of Bo Tuders brother. Both Bo and Debra knew him. To them he was just one of many east Nashville hell raisers. Of course they had no idea how Sonny was, or what he did, behind closed doors. If they had known, surely they would have been shocked and appalled.

Surely they would have called the cops.

Brood of Vipers: My Investigation Into a Child Abduction Case In Nashville; Intro

It began before the garden, within the realm of angels . Waxing and waning throughout the annuls of time, it manifests in great upheavals of war, pestilence and genocide and in more subtle displays of the same, in open spaces and behind closed doors.


Under The Carpet

The period was post WWII, 1946-1967. Though seemingly sanitized, infection festered within a culture systematically homogenized. Fevers were ignored, tremors rationalized and incoherence defended.

In 1968 the abscess ruptured. Pus spewed all over mom and pop, apple pie, and just about everything else. It was a powerful purge that wobbled foundations and exposed what lay beneath.

And then came the Seventies.


Prologue

The Men’s Room

My brother and I were raised in a single parent home during the 70s. The parent that did the raising was my mom. Not that my dad wasn’t in the picture, he most certainly was–right smack dab in the middle of it.

Mom wanted to cut all ties when she divorced him, and she could have, should have, but that would have crushed me. So we visited him and he visited us, on occasion, when it suited him.

Even so, I thought he hung the moon. When mom told me that not having a father in the home was hardest on my brother, I barely believed her. If not for the bathroom thing I wouldn’t have believed her at all.

My mother liked to dine out, nothing fancy, usually just the 24 hour diner a few blocks from the house. We would go there when our sitter, Mrs. Hughes, would make something for supper that we didn’t like, which was all the time. Anyway, it happened pretty much like clockwork, my brother (he was four years younger so that would make him about four or five) would have to go to the restroom when we got there. It was usually was my job to take him, so I would…to the ladies room.

Of course he didn’t like that. He wanted to go to the men’s room by himself.

“Absolutely not,” my mother would say.

When he asked why she said, “because it’s nasty.”

Later, when my brother was old enough to go by himself (he was about six or seven then) my mother would still tell him to go to the ladies room.

“All the other boys go to the men’s room,” he protested.

“They go with their dad,” she said.

“Not all of them.”

“There are lots of weirdos in the men’s bathroom,” she explained to us. “It’s not a good place for young boys.”

It wasn’t until many years later, after I’d first heard of Gacey and Williams, that I learned just how right she was.

My husband told me.


What The F Is Going On?

I was sitting on the floor of our living room when I first heard about it. I’m reasonably sure of this because that’s where I always sat when I watched TV, on green carpet in front of a panel-ray heater, whether it was on or off.

Many years later, after my mom died, I discovered what lay beneath that carpet–rare mahogany floors in beautiful condition.

I remember that the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite was on and the crew was filming live from the lawn of rather unremarkable brick house, if not for a steady stream of grim faced police officers carrying stretcher after stretcher out the front door. An equally grim correspondent–probably Dan Rather–reported that the stretchers bore the shrouded remains of young men, many of them teenagers.

At first I thought the bodies were hidden inside the house, but I later learned that the cops had to break through the flooring to access them. And that’s where they were, in the crawl space, some missing for years, twenty-six of them in various states of decay, stacked on top of each other in shallow trenches under the house.

The owner of the house was a successful thirty-six year old Caucasian businessman from Chicago, active in the Jaycees, who resembled the rotund and grumpy patriarch, Archie, of All in the Family more than than the robotic killing machine, Michael Myers, from Halloween. His name was John Wayne Gacy.

This was December, 1978. I was a thirteen year old kid–only a year younger than some of Gacy’s victims–with a poster of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever on my bedroom wall. It was the first time I was fully cognizant that “serial killers” existed outside the realm of Hollywood, though that phrase had yet to be coined.

A year later history repeated, this time in Atlanta, Georgia. The victims–twenty eight of them–were mostly boys, only these kids were African American and even younger. Several of the them were found in or near bodies of water, and most of them were asphyxiated.

Once again, I found out about the killings from watching the evening news. And like a lot of other people, I immediately thought the Ku Klux Klan must have been responsible. I was wrong.

The perpetrator turned out to be a pudgy, twenty-three year old electronics nerd who patrolled low income areas of Atlanta in a car outfitted with scanners and police lights. His name was Wayne Williams. He was also African American.

What I didn’t know back then, in fact I didn’t find this out until recently, was that there was another series of murders of teenage boys in Houston between the years 1970-73. That killer, Dean Corll, a thirty-three year old electrical engineer, shared John Gacy’s penchant for sexual torture down to a T. For example, both he and Gacy used homemade torture boards outfitted with ropes and both employed what that they called “the handcuff trick” to incapacitate their victims.

The Air Force Connection

Nor did I know that during the years 1970-1980, there were four serial killers–Patrick Kearney, Randy Kraft, William Bonin and Doug Clark–all veterans of the Air Force, who lived in and were active in and around Los Angeles, all preying upon mostly teenage boys at the same time. Or that in Michigan, from February 1976 through March 1977, there was a series of murders never solved–two boys and two girls, ages ten to twelve–known as the Oakland County Child Killer Case, with suspects in or connected to the Air Force.

Like most people, I was blissfully unaware of all of this until four years ago when I started looking into the 2003 disappearance of a thirteen year old Nashville girl who seemingly vanished into thin air while walking to her bus stop. It was only then that I learned of Corll, of Bonin and the others as I began to uncover pedophile rings in trailer parks and foster homes, predatory priests, preachers and pilots and more child victims of killers whose origins began with a vipers nest of depravity in the seventies and before.

To be cont’d…

Full Circle

Under normal circumstances K.K. would have gone Unionville Parkway even though it made her commute ten minutes longer. That’s what everybody does. If you don’t go Unionville you have to take H27 South straight through Scottstown. And nobody wants to do that unless they have to get to the hospital–fast.

Scottstown is bad. Lots of gangs. Lots of dope. Especially over there by Memorial.

Lots of guns there too, but people don’t talk about that. Probably cause there are lots of guns in Unionville also.

Back when she lived at home, our parents forbade her from going anywhere near downtown Scottstown. “Girl, I’ll light you up if I catch you over there,” mother would warn. Dad just threatened to take her car keys; her whole life, he never laid a hand on her.

All the threats in the world didn’t matter though, when Sawyer, Toby and Lady T went dry at the same time. It was rare, but it happened.

When it did, K.K. and her best friend Becca would give Jeremey Johnson a dime bag of the choicest buds to ride shotgun with them. K.K. drove since it was her car. Becca rode in the back. It was Jeremey’s job to motion the fellas over to his window.

“Can you sell me a quarter?” he’d ask.

“Just got nickels,” the Scottstown boys would say.

“Give me twelve of ’em then,” Jeremey would say…

One time this guy flagged them down from one of the corners before you get thick into it.

“What are you lookin’ for?” the guy asked.

“Weed,” Jeremy answered.

I can get you the good stuff,” the guy said.

“Let’s see it then,” said Jeremey.

“I gotta take you to the car wash. That’s where my guy is.”

Jeremey looked to K.K for the okay since it was her car and Becca’s money. She said yes. Jeremey told the guy to get in the backseat with Becca. When he got settled, Becca asked him if he had a gun.

“No,” the guy said. “Do you?” Everybody laughed.

They followed the guy’s directions to the car wash. Sure enough an attendant sold them some nickel bags. It was primo.

And that’s the way it would go. Smooth as silk. Despite what everybody said they never had any trouble in Scottstown.

Bad stuff did happen there, though. Real bad stuff.

Like those UTAC kids that got abducted. They were tortured. Everybody was like, “what in the world were they doin’ down there?”

“Buyin’ dope,” K.K. would say.

“Surely they could buy it someplace else,” the conversation would go.

People just couldn’t believe that college students–real college kids, not juco–would buy dope off the street in Scottstown. K.K. was only too happy to educate them even if it that meant exposing her own bad behavior. There was just about nothing she liked more than uncovering hypocrisy.

Besides, she went to junior college herself. That’s how her nursing career started.

Working in Memorial’s emergency room jaded her, though. She already wasn’t the most patient person. And that’s before she witnessed a lot of bad stuff. Man’s inhumanity to man, she called it. She read a lot.

They’d stumble into the ER coughing up blood, shot in the belly, her patients. Or somebody would dump them off in the driveway.

The lengths the doctors and nurses–K.K. called them her team–would go to save a life. Cracking a chest, right there in the emergency room, to slow down the bleeding. It happened.

She talked about that stuff as a source of pride for the first few years. How hard they worked, how sleep deprived they were, how many units of blood they used, only to see those same patients–some of the ones they had brought back from the brink–brain dead from a gunshot to the head six months, maybe a year later.

It felt futile to her. She went through a phase of depression, but got over it.

And then Covid hit. And it was the same thing. Death. Senseless death, but on a massive scale. Like in a war. All these people gasping like fish out of water. Struggling for every breath. Gurney after gurney of them. She dreamed about it.

And it didn’t have to be that way. Not when there’s a vaccine.

Some of the Covid patients would tell her their last wishes before they went on the ventilator, messages for their wife or husband, for their children. She was entrusted because the family couldn’t be with there, even when the patients were dying…

At first K.K. tried to meet the moment, but there were too many patients and too many family members to keep up with. And sometimes the family members were hostile. They believed that Covid was a massive conspiracy orchestrated by the government so they could inject a “data chip” into the bloodstream…or that the government was trying to sterilize them. Crazy stuff like that. Sometimes the patients believed it themselves.

She got cursed at, threatened. A dying patient spent his last breaths trying to spit on her. That’s when she started carrying a gun.

A lot of good it did her. It was in her purse when she got carjacked.

No, the guy just wanted her car. He threw her purse out after he shot her. Two months later he shows up in the ER with Covid. That’s how they caught him. Surreal.

That makeshift memorial on H27…flowers, stuffed animals…candles. It’s huge. The media makes a big deal about it.

K.K. wasn’t a hero. She didn’t think of herself that way. She told everybody she got into nursing for the money. She liked the adrenaline rush from working in the ER until it got overwhelmed with Covid. She was good at her job.

If she was here she’d say, save your money people. No more flowers. No more teddy bears. Just get your damn vaccine.

The Beta-Test (2021), a Film directed by Jim Cummings, Staring Jim Cummings; Black Comedy

So, there’s this guy. He’s a total–I don’t like to use this word–douchebag. His name is Jordin. Jordin Hines. He’s the protagonist in director Jim Cumming’s black comedy, The Beta Test. He is played by him too.

Jordin’s a Hollywood agent with all the accoutrements of his profession–monochrome suits, Magnanni loafers, exacting haircut–but namely it’s insincerity and smarminess that he’s got down to a T. That and prominent canine teeth.

Just a few short years ago men like Jordin ruled the roost in Hollywood, but in the wake of “Me Too” they have become increasingly passe–at least that is what The Beta Test would have us believe.

And it’s not just empowered women who have broken these men’s–how shall we say it–asses. No.

It’s as if the whole entertainment industry is streaming, while they–the agents–are still on cable.

Understandably Jordin is quite nervous about the state of his career, but he has never developed the necessary people skills to carve out a niche or possessed enough common sense to map out an exit strategy. He hasn’t because he hasn’t had to; he’s an early 30s, white, middle class male. Duh.

Instead he doubles down on rehearsed cliches and ramps up the jittery ticks of failing entitlement. Think of a mime on freebase.

Or Jim Carey.

Incredibly, despite Jordin’s abundant weirdness, he has a perfectly lovely, a perfectly normal fiancé named Caroline. Caroline is dutifully planning their wedding, a mere six weeks away. She asks very little of Jordin–only that he compose and send a few emails. He stalls around about doing it.

One day, Jordin gets a purple envelope embossed with gold lettering in the mail. It appears to be an invitation of some sorts.

He opens it. Lo and behold that’s what it is. And it’s not just any old invitation either. It’s a no strings attached sexual tryst with a stranger invitation. To say that Jordin is interested is putting it mildly.

Of course he doesn’t have the moral clarity to resist, so when he throws the invitation in the trash we know he will soon be digging it out. And we’re right. He’s wary as a weasel doing it too. He reconnoiters. He schemes. He scurries. Amusingly. Cringingly.

Meanwhile, people all over the place are getting these invitations. And there are ramifications. Murders even.

In fact, that’s the way The Beta Test opens–with a particularly brutal, especially disturbing murder scene. Well, it happens in the first ten minutes of the film to be accurate, which is perfectly consistent with it being a black comedy.

Calling The Beta Test a black comedy, though, is like calling a hamburger a sandwich. It is, technically, but that doesn’t really cover it. It’s a social commentary, too. And an erotic/techno thriller. Shoot, there may even be some neo noir mixed up in there.

But I wouldn’t go as far as to call it a mashup. The Beta Test is too aloof for that. Therein lies the film’s vulnerability; it’s confusing and snobby.

There is one thing that the film is crystal clear about, however–Jordin. He’s a creep.

Accordingly, cinematographer Kenneth Wales films him up close and sweaty, while Los Angeles gets the wide swath, tilt angle framing so it looms, hungrily, over the squirming little lickspittle, giving him what he gives secretaries, clerks, wait staff and his fiancé: no respect and a very hard time.

Worth Another Look: Mike’s Murder (1984), a Film Directed by James Bridges; Erotic Neo-Noir

From time to time, I like to revisit films that I don’t like, but that I should. For instance, let’s say the movie got good reviews, has an actor that I really like, is about a subject matter I’m interested in– theoretically I should like it, right?

Right.

Only sometimes I don’t…for whatever reason. Same for just about anybody who likes movies, I presume.

Then sometimes it’s just the opposite–the movie didn’t get good reviews, it has an actor that I really don’t like, so on and so forth…

And for whatever reason, I like it. Go figure.

So this is the first of a series I’ll revisit from time to time–Lord willing. I’m calling it, Worth Another Look.

Betty has a thing for Mike. Even though they’re very different–she’s a respectable, responsible mid twenty’s adult; he’s the same age, but emotionally immature–the chemistry between them is palpable. It’s noticeably more intense for her.

Their relationship is casual. They hook up. Occasionally.

Mike is Betty’s tennis instructor. He is also a petty drug dealer operating on the fringes of the early 80s gay subculture. Betty doesn’t know all the sordid details of Mike’s private life, but she knows he’s shady and that, even in small doses, he’s not good for her. Still she can’t resist him when he summons, and she pines for him when he doesn’t.

Then one day Betty gets a call from a photographer named Sam, a vague acquaintance and a close friend of Mike’s. He tells her that Mike’s been killed–no, it’s worse than that–he’s been murdered, brutally.

Betty recognizes an ache, a jealous lover’s taunts inside Sam’s unsettling voice. Even so she accepts the invitation to his apartment so that they can commiserate. “There are things Mike would want you to have,” he begrudgingly tells her.

Once there, Sam gives her the rundown: it was a drug world hit and the hitters were sending a message. The rest he doesn’t know and doesn’t understand. He tells her that Mike was small potatoes, not important enough to warrant such brutal treatment.

Then he asks if she knows Mike’s friend, Pete. Betty recalls talking to Pete once on the phone, but she’s never seen him face to face.

“Good,” Sam says. He tells her to keep it that way.

Betty’s older friend, Patty, tells her the same thing…pretty much. Patty lives voyeuristically and vicariously through Betty’s adventures, particularly her sexual ones, so she’s not keen on wet-blanketing her friend’s initiative–but, seriously, how dumb can Betty be? Does Patty have to scream it?

“Damn, girl! Cut him loose. It’s not worth it! He’s literal dead weight.”

But Betty can’t. She’s numb without Mike’s electricity. So she starts asking questions. Her inquires lead her further into the labyrinth of Mike’s other life where his was and hers is cheap.

In 1984 Mikes Murder was a commercial failure and a critical flop. Of it, New York Times reviewer Vincent Camby wrote,

“… a case might be made that Mike’s story is a cautionary one, that his fate represents the corruption of innocence, but this movie appears to be less interested in fate than in making Los Angeles low life seem as exotic as it is dangerous.”

Ouch.

But perhaps Mike’s Murder had the misfortune of being judged by another, much more stylized erotic neo-noir of the 80s, Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat. (Just go along with me here…it’s possible.) Whereas Body Heat is unquestionably the better film, it is also on the opposite end of the erotic neo-noir spectrum.

Mike’s Murder is a quiet, under-stated film that comes to a slow boil. Director James Bridges unobtrusive style does not objectify his subjects or exploit their circumstances, but that is not to say that the film isn’t hot, it is. And while it may straddle the boundaries between noir and thriller, it is unabashedly erotic.

It’s compelling, too–and terrifying. The last 20 minutes comprise one of the most on the edge-of-your-seat endings in all of cinema.

But it’s the camerawork of famed cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos (Major League, A Bronx Tale, Risky Business) snaking through the neighborhood haunts of Los Angeles as Betty drives–mostly in broad daylight–that brands Mike’s Murder with genre defining atmospheric dread. (We are unaccustomed seeing L.A. this way–cookie cutter middle class–at least those of us who have never lived there are.) And it’s Debra Winger’s performance as, Betty, the girl next door, mourning the tragic death of a young man gone before his time and her own, all too brief, sexual awakening that hurts and haunts.

The Cuts That Cure, a Novel by Arthur Herbert (2021); Medical Thriller

It would be hard to commit yourself to the practice of medicine, especially as a surgeon–a general surgeon to be exact. You would have to dedicate–I don’t know–at least fifteen years to schooling. And that’s just the tip of the ice burg.

All the stress. The browbeating from superiors. The tightwire dance between life and death. The dodging bullets of malpractice because everyone, no matter how brilliant, makes mistakes. The “we did everything we could” talks with the family. The sleep depravation. And so on.

And so forth.

But the “honor” of handling someone’s intestines, of piecing a liver back together, of stemming a hemorrhaging spleen, yes, of saving life and limb makes it worth it. And if not that, then the money and the prestige should do the trick…except when they don’t. That’s the predicament character Dr. Alex Brantley finds himself in within the roughly three hundred pages of Arthur Herbert’s–himself a general surgeon–medical thriller, The Cuts That Cure.

Better suited as a general practitioner than a general surgeon, Dr. Brantley is burned out and in deep medical school debt. Then, to add serious bodily harm–torture, really–to insult, a badly burned baby turns up in the E.R. and it’s evident that the child has been purposely scalded. It’s the final straw. Dr. Brantley quits, but not before he disfigures the white trash baby mama/daddy car with a tire iron.

And he’s just getting started.

Alex–don’t call him Dr. Brantley anymore–checks into a no-tell-motel and attempts suicide, only to wake up disappointed in a psych-ward. He does his mandatory time in said psych-ward before making his way to a small town in the scrubby draw of the Texas hill country. There he settles in an efficiency apartment above the garage of a kindly old land lady, but not before he rescues a dog–24 hours away from euthanasia, of course.

He hires an attractive lady lawyer to help him wiggle out of some of his medical school debt and pays the rent as a high school science teacher where one of his students happens to be a burgeoning serial killer. The kid’s name is Henry.

Okay. Now we’re cookin’ with Crisco.

Only we’re not.

That’s cause author Herbert keeps takin’ the damn skillet off the damn burner. He kills Henry off with about another one hundred fifty pages to go.

Sure, there’s sub plots and parallel narratives, stuff like that going on. That’s the problem. The plot thickens to the point of embolism.

Let’s see, Alex takes up with a dubious real estate lawyer–not sexually, everybody’s respectfully heterosexual here; besides that, the lawyer has a paunch–who introduces him to a notoriously evil cartel lieutenant and the elegant but even more evil jefe of the cartel. (Yeah, you guessed it, the cartel boss is long winded. He likes to tell stories.) And, well, you know…every cartel needs a doctor on the payroll.

So you can pretty much guess where this is going, some whiplash inducing twists and turns notwithstanding. Hey, it is a thriller–and a medical one at that.

Herbert does a respectable job, especially considering that this is his first published novel; he is a surgeon after all. Nonetheless, though his hands are deft with a scalpel, no doubt, perhaps he should dial it back on all the plot juggling until he has a bit more experience. Just because you can pull off a laparotomy and a face lift at the same time doesn’t mean that you should.

The Kindergarten Teacher (2018), a Film by Sara Colangelo; Psychological Drama

So my Halloween entry this year is not conventional in terms of horror (I don’t know why I intimated “this year”; I’ve never done a Halloween post before) that is, unless you are a parent of a gifted child. (That’s not true. I know exactly why I intimated. I’m being conversational. Anyway…) If you are–a parent of a gifted child–prepare to be terrified.

I would like to think that my children are gifted…they are grown…

My youngest qualifies, I’m quite certain. She’s a classically trained artist. She did a portrait of her hero, Lee Van Cleef, as the character “the bad” of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, that is so good it made me weep. She captured the hardness in his eyes and his bird of prey-like nostrils and septum exquisitely. (She rolls her eyes when I say it’s my favorite. “I did that years ago,” she says.)

My oldest is a gifted arguer. She would have been a great debate coach, or possibly, even a lawyer. She’s certainly smart enough. For instance, she keeps me up to date on all the things that I say that nobody’s saying anymore. Yeah, she’s still doing that…but now it’s because what I say is so horrifically offensive as opposed to just being “uncool”. She’s a stay at home wife (and, I hope, a soon to be mother.)

So yes, both of my children are gifted.

But I digress.

In director Sara Colongelo’s 2018 drama, The Kindergarten Teacher, Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gylenhaul) fits the “those who can’t do teach” trope to a T–within her own mind. And that’s a tragic thing, because when we meet her she is interacting with her charges so effortlessly, so gloriously that it is born to her–she, the sublime guide to a magical, mystical world where children imbibe their senses with paint, with songs, with shapes. With wonder and laughter, too.

As Ms. Spinelli, the teacher, Lisa does not dictate knowledge, she invites it in. Fittingly, she loves poetry and is a perfect judge of it, though sadly, unbeknownst to her, she is an example of it too.

Lisa takes an evening poetry appreciation class. There, her poems are dissected and deemed unremarkable by a tediously abstruse professor (Gael Garcia Burnal) a diagnoses she mercurially expects and accepts.

At home Lisa is happy enough with her chubby hubby, Grant (Michael Chernus) and their teenage children Josh and Lainie–it’s just that none of them care to share the lens that she sees the world through. To be fair, Grant makes an attempt to. It is not lost to him that Lisa is way hotter than he is, but that’s not why he indulges; it is his nature. And he loves her.

Their son, Josh, a handsome athletic senior who wants to join the Marine Corps, loves her too, as does daughter Lainie, a whip smart honor student, seemingly destined for the Fortune 500. Their feelings, clearly evident but sometimes selfishly, normally, expressed, are inconsequential to their mother. They keep their noses in their phones and prefer the company of their peers, behaviors that Grant sees as typical, which is precisely why Lisa finds them so offensive.

One day, she observes a student walking back and forth, composing verse:

Anna is beautiful. Beautiful enough for me.

The sun hits her yellow house. It is almost like a sign from God.

The student is hers, a smallish boy with pensive, yet intrepid black eyes. His name is Jimmy. He is already her favorite.

Enamored, Lisa feverishly jots down what he recites. She presents it to her poetry class as her own, not to steal it, but to test its greatness. The professor and the class love it. She repeats the process with a another of Jimmy’s poems, The Bull. It too, is enthusiastically received.

Lisa draws nearer to Jimmy, enveloping him in her powerful wings. She steals him away to the bathroom where she prods him to expound upon all he sees. She gives him her cell phone number and tells him to call her Lisa.

Meanwhile, Meghan, the teacher’s assistant, notices Lisa’s attempts to isolate Jimmy. She is wary, but unsure; Lisa is discreet.

Then the nanny discloses that Jimmy’s father, a successful nightclub entrepreneur, has enrolled him in T-ball. Lisa is convinced that the boy’s artistry will be stamped out, if not for the sake of athletics then for commerce. She connives permission from the father for some alone time with Jimmy.

The Kindergarten Teacher is an elegant study in the intrusion of obsession, by way of depression, in an otherwise beautiful and enigmatic psyche. Be warned. It will steal you.

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