The Nancy Drew Files Case 18: Circle of Evil, 1987, Carolyn Keene
The 80s were…a “you kinda had to be there” decade…

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TRIGGER WARNING: this episode deals with some potentially ugly portrayals of transgender individuals

This episode opens with Howard, a homely record store clerk (played by Martin Neufeld, who we previously saw in The Great Montarro), has turned his home into an obsessive shrine for Angelica, a pop singer played by Vanity, though mostly all we will hear of her output is a cover of Nature Boy. The equally obsessive display he has created at work impresses his boss, as it means the advance woman from the record company might arrange an in-store appearance, but it does rather unnerve the actual paying customers. On his way home from work, he witnesses a smash-and-grab at a storefront, and a, well, mesmer’s bauble the thieves drop. When another passerby accosts him and accuses him of the robbery, Howard tells the man to “drop dead”, which he promptly does. At home, the bauble apparently speaks to him telepathically, and clears up his acne, but is unresponsive when he asks it to make him handsome. And thus Howard leans the mechanism of the curse.

At the shop Ryan is excited about the tickets he’s received to Angelica’s upcoming concert, because Ryan’s musical tastes are at complete odds with his “cool nerd” personality, while Jack has matched a report of stolen goods to an item in the Manifest, the actual bauble of Mesmer. At the record store, Howard’s increasingly inappropriate questions about Angelica disturb the advance woman, so he hypnotizes her into walking out into traffic so that he can steal her backstage pass and take over her position in the tour. He then asks the bauble to make him “into someone she’ll notice,” which appears to mostly consist of taking off the latex around his nose, adding some powder, and perming his awful hair instead of cutting it the hell off. Angelica’s manager, Roger, takes an instant dislike to Howard when he shows up backstage, and Howard isn’t particularly happy that he’s low-man in the hierarchy. So he goes and hides in her dressing room while she’s out signing autographs and spies on her as she undresses. Meanwhile, Ryan and Micki’s investigation leads them to learn that Howard was the eye-witness to the robbery, and the only piece unrecovered is the bauble, and so start tracking him down. When they do, they both note his obsession with Angelica, that people keep dying around him, and that, reports to the contrary, he’s not ugly at all. And for once, they’re ahead of the plot, and realize that he almost certainly has the bauble. While they decide to stake out Angelica, Howard goes to Roger’s hotel room and hypnotizes him into slitting his throat, and then wishes to be Angelica’s lover.

Back at the shop, Jack gives more backstory on the bauble, mostly what we’ve already been shown or had explained to us earlier, with the crucial bit of new information being that you only get to keep whatever the bauble has given you as long as you keep the bauble with you. While Micki and Ryan try to get backstage to see Angelica, stymied by the guards who don’t understand that there are evil magic objects in play, Howard brings the love-spelled Angelica back to his shrine, where she is suitably impressed thanks to said spell. When it comes time to actually follow through with the sex, Howard is reluctant, and comes to the realization that he doesn’t want her, he wants to be her. And so he sort of…merges into her. Micki and Ryan break into Howard’s apartment too late and find only goo on the floor, and rush back to the club to find him. During the performance at the club, which is being broadcast worldwide, Micki notices that the person they think is Angelica is wearing the bauble, and so they snatch it from her when she approaches the audience. This causes Angelica to revert back to Howard, to screams of horror from the audience, leading to Howard’s death when he staggers into some pyrotechnics.

So there’s a long history of portraying transgender people as villains, and it’s pretty clear that the writers of this episode were running with that. You could argue that saving the reveal that what Howard really wants is to be a glamorous woman for a third act twist is an improvement on the usual way the trope plays out, but you could also argue that it just makes it more salacious that way. Even Jack’s “common sense” summation at the end of the episode is ambiguous as to what the “fantasy” that “twisted” Howard was. For 1989, though, while this was pretty far from progressive, it feels not as terrible as most of the portrayals of transgender people I remember. Apart from those issues, this is not a strong episode anyway. Most of the story is on the guest cast, who generally are not very engaging actors. The antique this time is also extremely straightforward, falling into the tit-for-tat of the more generic curses.

A Very Robey 80s

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We get a break from cold opens in a random place in Not Canada this week, as we open in Germany, where two Nazis who have just escaped from jail, apparently, are defrosting the corpsicle of Rausch, an SS commander. After some prayers to Asgard and Thule while waving around a swastika amulet, Rausch comes back to life and strangles the younger Nazi with barbed wire, because I guess that’s just something they left in the dead body’s pockets when they froze it. The remaining Nazi, Mueller, explains to Nazi Zombie Rausch that the amulet will give him life so long as he kills their enemies, which for a Lewis Vendredei brand Cursed Antique is a pretty simple and straight-forward deal. And then what we’re lead to believe are Nazi flash-backs turn out to be Jack Marshak waking up from a nightmare remembering his time in a POW camp during World War 2 (which means he enlisted when he was about 8 but whatever). And to further emphasize that some unknown amount of time has passed, we cut to Rausch killing a WW2 vet, as we find out that he’s been eliminating the survivors of the POW camp where Mueller was conducting experiments on prisoners.

Back at the shop, two more of Jack’s army buddies have to shame him into attending the funeral of the man who was just murdered. Jack learns that not only is everyone from the camp being murdered, but he finds the barb-wire strangle marks on the corpse, and immediately starts suspecting that “the Butcher” (aka Rausch) may be connected somehow. Shaw stays with Jack while he investigates, since Micki and Ryan are out of town, dropping some helpful exposition about how Jack has been having these nightmares for a year. Mueller, meanwhile, still in a German jail, compels Rausch to kill Jack’s other remaining buddy, Simpson. The fact that Rausch is now posing as a right-wing talk radio host calling himself Karl Steiner is, I am sure, not intended as any kind of comment on the format, especially when he keeps dropping the phrase “solution” into his program. His hagriographic interview on his political ambitions is interrupted when his slit throat starts opening again, but Mueller stops him from killing a random person to live, as he still controls him through the amulet, which has been split in two BFF style. And just after Jack learns about Simpson’s death, he finds a listing in the Manifest for a Thule Amulet, because the show isn’t quite prepared to acknowledge non-Lewis based magical objects.

Jack makes plans to interrogate Mueller in Germany, in the process learning about his past escape, just as Mueller tells Rausch that killing Jack will make him immortal. While he’s there Mueller basically tells him…everything he had already figured out for himself, so he turns around and comes back, to find that Shaw is now dead, too. Fortunately, though, he died reading that article about how the hate-mongering radio DJ is really a swell guy, so now Jack knows what name Rausch is going by now. Jack also got Mueller’s half of the amulet, so he uses it to call Rausch out, laying a trap for him in the shop. This mostly backfires, as Rausch manages to get the drop on Jack after all. Rausch completes the amulet, and makes himself immortal, as a bullet in the brain from Jack handily proves. And then Jack cuts the amulet off Rausch, and all his deadly wounds reopen and kill him. And everyone in the Not Canadian media quietly ignores the time a right-wing radio host killed a bunch of vets for no reason.

A solidly “okay” episode. It’s pretty much the Chris Wiggins show, and he does just fine, despite being very obviously much younger than all the other actors playing vets. The story doesn’t quite have the nerve to follow through with some of its concepts, though, dancing around Rausch’s role as a right-wing radio host a bit, never fully committing to the shtick. There are a few too many flashbacks disrupting the flow of the story as well, and that bit of travel to Germany, while logically it makes sense, ends up feeling a bit like padding as well.

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When the title of the episode is “A Friend to the End” and we open in a cemetery, we know we’re in for something slightly twisted this time. In this case, it’s Howard and Marjorie, a nice older couple doing a bit of grave-robbing, stealing the corpse of a boy who died in 1891. They take him to their Not A Murder House style home and place the bones in a coffin, just in time for the foreign au pair to arrive and get attacked by the corpse, which then transforms into a real live boy. Well, relatively speaking. And then we cut from the grainy flashback to a modern art studio, where DeJager is using the Shard of Medusa to create vaguely sapphic statues with the models she kills. When Ryan is too late to save her latest model, Micki decides to volunteer, just in time for JB, Micki’s never before mentioned nephew by her never before mentioned sister is dumped on them apparently for the nth time. Rather than call the Not Canadian Child Protective Services, the pair gives the kid an antique bicycle and tells him to entertain himself at the park, as they prepare to go deal with a stock evil lesbian.

JB heads out to the projects and meets a gang of kids doing stunts on their bitching mountain bikes, unaware that they’re really just amusing themselves by bullying him. Specifically, by daring him to go into the Not A Murder House where Ricky and his parents, and a whole slew of alleged other people, went missing, leaving behind only “blood and gore.” Inside the house is decrepit and rotting, save for a child’s play room in pristine condition, and a voice asking JB to be his friend, prompting JB to run outside and discover that his bike has now been stolen. Back at the shop, Micki and Ryan, who have dealt with time-travelling vampires and doll houses that eat people, are skeptical of JB’s claim to have seen a ghost, and so when Micki and Ryan go off to deal with DeJager, JB sneaks out to the prove there’s a ghost. Instead he finds Ricky, a slightly anachronisic boy, leaving alone in a deserted, decrepit house, who wants his new friend to stay with him but forbids him to enter a specific room, in between having fits and flashbacks to an abusive 19th century father. When JB decides its time to go back home, Ricky asks for him to call the drugstore to send someone over, so that Ricky can kill and eat him as he starts to turn back into a corpse. Meanwhile, back in the B Story, Micki and Ryan manage to get the Shard of Medusa back.

It’s a short lived win, though, as Micki and Ryan get back to the shop to find DeJager holding JB hostage. She gets away with the Shard and JB throws a tantrum when Ryan continues to insist that he’s making up stories about Ricky. Because Ryan knows where his priorities should lie. Ryan goes over DeJager and Micki stays with JB, who sneaks out again the next day when Micki forbids him to see Ricky again, prompting her to actually stop and think and so quickly finding evidence that, yep, the Not A Murder house is actually a Murder House! And not only that, but the owners were corresponding with Lewis Vendredei and bought things from him! Micki rushes off to save JB, who turns on Ricky when he sees the boy try to kill a cop, and winds up trapped in the corpse storage room under a broken stairwell. Ricky gets the jump on Micki when she arrives and is about to kill her when JB pleads with him to let her go because they’re friends, at which point either the magic runs out or Ricky relents, and turns back to a pile of bones. And so JB goes back home learning an important lesson about friendship, and Ryan fails to stop DeJager from escaping.

This is one of occasionally frustrating episodes the series throws out, because it’s so close to being good but just misses the mark. There’s some ambition going on here, with some interesting lighting and camera angles used to build suspense, but the child actors making up the bulk of the scenes using those techniques take you out of the story a bit. There’s also the rather jumbled Shard of Medusa subplot, which is nice in that it’s another “one that got away” story, but it’s a big hook to use and not really do anything with. Then there’s the fact that we have two queer coded villains here, the stock Evil Lesbian, DeJager, who is only in that subplot that doesn’t go anywhere, and the fey dead boy Ricky, whose almost obsessive attachment to JB reads like subtext trying to break through the limits of what the censors would allow with preteen characters. We have both a regressive queer and an almost maybe kinda sorta progressive but not really queer in the same story, and it creates a bit of whiplash.

A Very Robey 80s

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In the balmy 1982 of Not Canada, a gambler is bragging on the phone to his bookie how his “new system” will wipe him out. So it’s no big surprise when said gambler gets shot moments later. In “the present”, in the same sitting room, Donald Wren (played by recurring guest Denis Forest) smashes the television and argues with his mother about his gambling debts, so we can presume like-father-like-son thanks to narrative causality. A supposition confirmed when Donald hides in his mother’s shop, leaving his mother to deal with the guys he owes money to and presumably the same guys who killed his father. Angelo, the nice mob enforcer, punches out Ma Wren and breaks Donald’s hand before ransacking their home/thrift shop for anything of value to cover Donald’s debt, eventually finding a World Series ring. When Angelo puts it on, he’s thrown and dragged around the room, making a good facsimile of being beaten to death. When Donald takes the ring back from the corpse, the gemstone on the ring shows him the name and number of an upcoming horse race. So, World Series ring that kills people and then predicts the outcome of sporting events. Lewis was apparently reaching the day he crafted that curse.

Back at the shop, Ryan and Micki are hitting a dead end trying to track down a 1919 World Series ring (shockingly), which is the very first item that Lewis cursed. Since the ring was connected to a team that threw a game, and the original owner died, they decide to check out local gambling connections for reasons. Meanwhile, “Mister Macklin”, head of the local syndicate is none too pleased to hear that the guy he sent to rough up Donald has gone missing, and dispatches another goon. In the meantime, Ma Wren tracks down Micki and Ryan, and tells them that she’s lost the World Series ring that her husband used to predict the future and she fears that Macklin has it now, and that she sat on this information because, well, when you know you’ve got an evil cursed object in your house and someone writes to you out of the blue offering to buy it, trusting that they’ve got good intentions isn’t the smart move. And Donald, for his part, kills the goon sent to squeeze more money out of him.

Since it was apparently a slow news day in Not Canada, Micki and Ryan spot a front-page news article about Donald winning big on a bet, who is currently going around flashing wads of cash and bragging about how he’s going to bust Macklin-just as his father did before being killed. Oh, and he kills a barfly who gets mouthy at him. Ma and the cousins track Donald down to a bar, where he promises his Ma that he won’t use the ring anymore, really. So Micki decides to stay at the bar and seduce Donald for the ring, because obviously that’s a lie. Which rather backfires when, after getting in the car, Donald notices Ryan following them and accuses Micki of working with Macklin. He pulls over and tries to force the ring on her, and she only manages to get away when Macklin’s real goons show up. When Donald refuses to tell Macklin how he’s winning, Macklin takes a finger, because damn, this episode wasn’t brutal enough. And then Ma shows up to try and help and only gives Macklin more leverage, while Micki and Ryan hang about outside. Ma keeps trying to manipulate Macklin into putting on the ring, even as the action moves to an underground boxing match next door to Macklin’s club. When he finally does, and beats himself to death, Donald has a full psychotic break, and Ma shoots him, just like she shot her husband. And so Micki and Ryan let an admitted double murderer walk free.

Fairly mediocre episode, all things considered. Apart from the mentioned hook that it’s the first thing Lewis cursed, the ring isn’t very interesting and the way it works is fairly convoluted, even by this show’s standards. It’s also a fairly bloody episode, though relatively light on gore in comparison to some, but with several lengthy sequences of people being brutalized. It’s also another episode where the regular cast are pretty much spectators to the main action, which is fine when the guest cast is given a compelling story, but Donald is one of the more pathetic folks to end up with an item, and to be honest, you’re mostly just waiting for something terrible to happen to him.

A Very Robey 80s

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