An American Werewolf In London and The Fly (King Cronenberg Version) are both ‘80s horror films that use slow-burn practical effects as a means of scaring the audience. But there’s another key component to their terror: romance. In each movie, the protagonist’s gradual transformation into a monster happens at the same time as their blossoming relationship with a woman. Even when they get around to killing people, we still feel bad for them because we’ve seen them be tender with someone they deeply care about. We’ve seen them at their most human.
Matt Peters (not Saracen), the everyman played by Zach Gilford at the center of “Tornado,” isn’t a monster, but he does harbor a dark secret that—as with David Kessler and Seth Brundle’s tragic mutations—becomes more dire once he falls in love. The secret goes all the way back to his childhood when, as an adolescent, he masturbated into the toilet so much that it caused plumbing issues for the city’s sewage department. This prompted his parents (Cynthia Stevenson and Jamey Sheridan) to install a septic tank beneath the house.
When a tornado hits their town years later, it uproots the tank and drops it onto a nearby children’s hospital. But the aftermath goes far beyond simple property damage; as attorney Joseph Zagen (Lance Reddick) grimly tells Matt, the employees and patients “are smothered in your seed.” The only way the head of St. Charles Children’s Memorial, the ominous Father Krang (Kurtwood Smith), won’t sue Matt’s family and air their dirty laundry is if Matt lets the hospital amputate his testicles to teach him a lesson. Not wanting to burden his parents with even more financial problems—they lost everything in the tornado—he reluctantly agrees.
Like several other episodes of Bedtime Stories, the comedic success of these early scenes in “Tornado” relies on stone-faced performances from the actors, despite the absurdly profane dialogue. As Zagen, Reddick proves himself a zen master of reciting semen euphemisms with the same deliberate, sometimes cold practicality he exhibited as Cedric Daniels on The Wire. It takes a special kind of actor to say something like “Matt, you unloaded just a tremendous amount of glue into that tank” with such foreboding urgency, and you can’t help but wonder if Riddick’s genre-bonkers jargon in The Guest helped him warm up for this. As Father Krang, Smith gives the gross-out material equally serious stakes by tormenting Matt during his surgery with faith-inspired proverbs. “Just think of our Lord and the pain that he endured” he tells his patient after it’s revealed there will be no anesthesia. Only when Matt lets out an abrupt Howie scream (or as I like to call it, the Mountain Dew scream) does it feel appropriate to laugh in earnest.
Shortly after his surgery, Matt and his coworker Lucy (Rosa Salazar) develop an attraction to each other, although he’s hesitant to go on an actual date because, you know, he no longer has any balls. Lucky for him (or so it seems), Zagen claims to have kept his nads frozen so a doctor friend of his can secretly reinsert them into Matt’s body. The procedure goes smoothly, freeing up Matt to get more serious with Lucy.
It’s here that Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim switch gears from horror to rom-com by presenting a relationship that’s completely sincere in its fuzziness. If you can get past the fact that Matt once had his testes removed from his body, his and Lucy’s dynamic feels sweet, goofy, and honest; not exactly hallmarks of the Tim and Eric style. It’s disarming, in a way. For instance, when the couple makes an abortion joke after discovering Lucy’s pregnant, my first instinct is that they’re being literal. As a longtime Tim and Eric fan, it’s just how I’ve been trained to think. If this were Awesome Show or Check It Out! With Steve Brule, the scene would have followed with a graphic depiction of the procedure offset by the two lovebirds making cute and rubbing their noses together. So much of the output from Abso Lutely Productions thrives on that kind of demented juxtaposition.
But no, the abortion joke is just that—a joke—and why not? Lots of couples like to joke around with each other. Matt and Lucy are actually thrilled about the pregnancy, and when the episode cuts to a year later, they’re attending a Christmas party thrown by Matt’s parents to introduce their newborn girl to the family. You almost forget you’re watching a horror series until Father Krang shows up and drops a big old jizz-filled bomb: the reabsorbed testicles actually belong to him, meaning it was his sperm that fathered Matt’s child. Channeling Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent as an imposing, vulturous figure who spoils the party, Krang takes the baby as his own and calmly walks out the door.
The Faustian revelation sends Matt into a downward spiral where he grabs a cheese knife, screams to Lucy that he needs to cut Krang’s nuts out of his body, and locks himself in the upstairs bathroom. That sounds more nightmarish than it actually comes across, as the sequence is so rushed that it loses some of the emotional impact built up by the rest of the episode. The last shot does little to make up for this hastiness—we’re left with Lucy crying outside the bathroom door, then a closeup of the bloody knife in Matt’s dead hand. As much as I admire the simplicity and restraint of that final frame (and of “Tornado”’s tone as a whole), the ending needs a little something extra, perhaps a graphically violent image to hit us with the gut-punch that the episode winds up for the entire time, but never releases. Imagine if the camera panned out and we saw Matt slumped against the toilet, his severed balls pulsing in his hand as he bleeds out and his eyes glaze over. That’s a statement shocking enough to drive home “Tornado”’s warnings about the dangers of keeping secrets and making deals with the devil. Without it, we’re left with a bedtime story where the main character’s love doesn’t truly hurt—it just stings a little.
- Unlike “Sauce Boy,” Tim and Eric don’t star in “Tornado,” but they do pop up for a brief video-feed cameo. Apparently, they’ve been hired to help write a commercial for the bizarre merger between Dorx Food (a grocery story) and Dorx mobile (a smartphone retailer). It’s a convoluted plot point treated with completely normalcy, so of course it fits in with the rest of the Bedtime Stories universe.
- Maybe I heard it wrong, but I think the episode’s supposed to take place in or around Minneapolis, even though the sewage truck said St. Charles County (the Twin Cities are in Hennepin County).
- Jamey Sheridan’s ability to always display a mischievous half-smile serves him well here, just as it did in The Stand.
- Which of the episode’s many slang terms for masturbation did you like best? I’m partial to “spritzing glue.”
- “The directive is to appeal to young, hip, creative, poor people.”
- “I can’t use my wick because of my oath with God, so I passed my nuggets on to you so you could squirt my goo through your wand and give birth to my child, God’s child.”