Thursday, October 08, 2020

Monsters Binge: "The Match Game"

In “The Match Game,” four teenagers -- Jody (Ashley Laurence), Paul (Byron James), Matthew (Sasha Jensen) and Bev (Tori Spelling) -- decide to spend the night in the old Waverly Mansion, which stands on a thick swamp called Becker’s Pond.

As night approaches, the group decides to play “the match game,” wherein each teen lights a match and tell a portion of a horror story, until their match dims. Then, the next person lights a match, and continues to tell the same story. 

Little do the teenagers realize, however, that one of their number boasts the power to make the stories come true.  

And therefore, on this night, monstrous old Herbert Waverly (Tom Woodruff Jr.) will rise from his watery grave in misty Becker’s Pond to take vengeance on anyone he finds trespassing in his home...

“The Match Game” is such a great capsule of the late 1980s, in part because of its cast, in part because of its rubber-reality nature. 

Regarding the cast, it is headlined by Hellraiser’s (1987) Kirsty, Ashley Laurence, and by Halloween IV’s Sasha Jensen. 

Intriguingly, Jensen’s character, Matthew, is killed the same way  in “The Match Game” as his character, Brady, is in The Return of Michael Myers. There, his head is crushed by the Shape. Here it is crushed by Herbert Waverly.

More intriguingly, perhaps, “The Match Game” feels like a missing link between the rubber-reality films of the late 1980s and the post-modern horrors of the 1990s, like Candyman (1992), In The Mouth of Madness (1994) or Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994).  

Specifically, the story involves a ghoul at the bottom of a swamp who comes to life because he is “created” in a fictional campfire tale (or thereabouts) by four teenagers. 

Paul’s energy, specifically, brings the rotting Herbert Waverly to horrid life, and the monster can only be dispatched when Paul conceives and repeats aloud an ending to the story.  “We made it up,” Jody notes “But you brought it were. We have got to finish the story!

In this case, finishing the story means limiting the corpse’s life to one night, and suggesting that by light of dawn he must return to his watery grave.  That’s precisely what happens, and “The Match Game” suggests that evil can’t be vanquished, at least not fully, until its story is told to an appropriate conclusion.  

Again, this idea would be treated (with greater depth) in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.  That brilliant film acknowledges the fact that children, listening to bed time stories, need closure in their tales, or the story's monster can roam free in their psyche.

This is also one episode of Monsters that eschews humor or irreverence and goes right for the horror jugular.  There’s a moment here when one of the match game participants, in the dark, discusses the rules of dealing with Waverly. If he looks you in the eye, “Don’t look back. Don’t look into his eyes. One look will drain the soul from your very body.” 

Poor Tori Spelling learns the hard way that this warning is not hyperbole.

But the horror of the episode is carefully constructed from a filmmaking standpoint as well, not merely through chilling dialogue. Specifically, long takes are deployed. At one point, we move around the players of the match-game in a long, slow circle, as the story continues, develops, and grows ever more menacing.

Like “Sleeping Dragon,” this is one episode of Monsters that I saw on its original broadcast in 1988, and I remember, afterward, that “The Match Game” troubled my slumber. That's appropriate, because the episode reminds us that the greatest power in the world is that of imagination.

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