Tatterdemalion (aka Lost Child) is a 2018 horror film directed by Ramaa Mosley from a screenplay by Mosley and Tim Macy. The film stars Leven Rambin and Jim Parrack. It is a welcome addition to horror films that consciously or unconsciously break with the reigning patriarch of horror, Stephen King.
I’ve written at length about my disdain for the novels of Stephen King. (See my King vs. Kubrick January 22, 2019 and Why I Hate Stephen King and Love Stanley Kubrick December 19, 2018 both available at Mozzochi.wordpress.com where I blog as Ghostsofantifascismpast.org). There is no single author more responsible for the infantilization of horror in literature and film than King. From the standpoint of a radical socialist his oeuvre is a cringe-worthy monument to bourgeois sentimentality and an unbearable whiteness of being. His book The Shining stands in sharp contrast to the Stanley Kubrick-directed movie of the same name. The movie, which King famously hates, is a work of art painstakingly crafted from the raw material of a serial typist. King’s approach to horror often involves a gratuitous use of racialized tropes that would shame a klansman, the ‘magical negro’ foremost among them. While we defenestrate confederate and colonialist monuments we should consider much of King’s work as fit for a toss, beginning with all those that anthropomorphize seemingly every object within the ersatz town of ‘Castle Rock’, satirized by the Family Guy cut-out below.
Thankfully, there is something of a cinematic movement afoot that is finally emerging from the dark, all enveloping shadow of Stephen King. It may be inchoate, but it is there. I’m not talking about the no-talent ass clowns Eli Roth and Rob Zombie, nor the talented Jordan Peele or Ari Aster, both of whom unfortunately have more in common with King than most of us would care to admit. No, not there. As is usually the case we have to ignore the big budget productions with all their shock and awe and turn toward the fringes, to a more punk rock -style of film making to find lasting value.
As a socialist, I am also interested in the capacity for such work to theorize proletarian collectivity — the only actually existing threat to our ruling classes, that force which sends a shiver up their spine, the one thing they really fear. Unfortunately, contemporary horror cannot do such a thing without first making a definitive break with the oppressive legacy of Stephen King. After a long, interminable wait, such a break is now underway.
That, and remember, we are always the zombies, they are the superheroes.
Horror Film Genres
Tatterdemalion is a film that moves in the direction outlined above, even if it is not self conscious about doing so. The film sits at the crossroads of four sub genres of horror:
Folk Horror–Often set in rural or de-industrialized hellscapes with poor whites as protagonists. We see abandoned, dilapidated, backwoods anthropologies here. They can be period pieces, like Robert Eggers’s 2015 The Witch, or, like Tom DeNucci’s Almost Mercy of the same year, more contemporary. The first film indulges in supernatural tropes with some finesse while the latter locates the horror humans face within traditionalist bigotries and economic dislocation.
Supernatural Horror–The threats our characters face and therefore the source of the fear and terror they express and we vicariously feel is of supernatural origins. Often these films have a religious element (The Exorcist, The Ring). In the Stephen King thought world it is precisely the reliance on the rational, in the form of a doctor, cop, social worker or politician that is the driving force of the drama, or the MacGuffin. The protagonist must reject conventional authority figures (not necessarily a bad thing) for something else. And here is where the wheels come off. The protagonist often has special powers of perception or a special capacity for violence that must engage with what is most often some form of absolute evil. The social here is reduced to the exceptional individual, a thoroughly bourgeois concept.
Psychological Horror–Here the reliability of the narrator and/or protagonist is questioned; frequently their sanity is suspect. Two excellent examples of this are Donnie Darko and Jacob’s Ladder. Part of the enduring value of both these films lies with the ambiguity of that question: Is it real or are they insane? As an aside, if you ever want to understand the value of a film editor, view the original theatrical release of Donnie Darko, then watch Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut. The editor of the original film essentially saved the director from himself by deftly maintaining the ambiguity of the psychological state of the protagonist; the director’s cut removes this ambiguity and (worse) inserts some dialogue about god, thereby completely ruining the film.
Horror Realism– We can identify the following elements of realism in literature and film and think about how Tatterdemalion stands within this tradition.
- A focus on every-day-life, on the quotidian details of a community that lends an authenticity to the narrative.
- The use of simple, transparent language, often local dialects.
- The use of non-professional actors and scenes to emphasize the lived experiences of characters. A good non-horror example of this is my favorite revolutionary/anti-war film, The Battle of Algiers directed by Gillo Pontecorvo.
- A social critique that eschews supernatural or psychological explanations for inequality and oppression yet still enjoys a good scare.
- Realism is often closely related to ‘naturalism’, here meaning “the philosophical belief that everything arises from natural properties and causes, and supernatural or spiritual explanations are excluded or discounted.” (Wikipedia. Retrieved 6.9.20). There is a sub genre of horror films call “naturalist horror” which involves real animals (dogs, bees, ants, what have you) attacking humans, but that is not this.
WhileTatterdemalion blends aspects of all the sub genres above, it specifically mobilizes standard conventions of supernatural horror only to subvert those same conventions at the end of the film. There will be a plot twist. And because this film plays with those iconic supernatural tropes popularized by King, only to upend those tropes at the end, this makes it an anti-Stephen King film.
Taterdemalion, scene by scene with commentary.
1:00 A young female in army fatigues wakes up with a start from a bad dream/memory — we’re not sure which — on a bus in a rural area of West Plains, Missouri (Ozarks). She gets off the bus as a freight train roars by a crossroads near grain silos and warehouses.
She is white, about twenty-five years old, with red hair, wearing fatigues and carrying nothing but a duffle bag. Her name is Janella “Fern” Sreaves (pronounced “Shreaves”). Fern sees a woman across the street standing beside a run-down Ford truck. She is Florine, a family friend there to meet her.
Fern is coming back to this town after 15 years. We don’t know why she’s back, only that she is looking for her younger brother. Florine doesn’t say where he might be, but about the run down little house where she deposits Fern, she remarks, “Your daddy lived a hard life. Paid for it in the end.” So presumably her father has passed away, probably the occasion for her homecoming.
Florine warns her about the people who live nearby. Fern doesn’t “believe in guns” and has “no plans to ever use one again.” This suggests PTSD, a common trope of the psychological horror genre, where we are made to doubt the reliability and motivations of the main character, even question their state of mind.
The next day is a service for her deceased father. Fern and Florine are the only two people in attendance. As the pastor begins a prayer, Fern walks away. This further cements our protagonist as a skeptic who will presumably have their awakening later in the film. The director is deliberately leaning into familiar supernatural horror conventions here.
There is a tense encounter between Fern and a neighbor with a shotgun.
Fern is dressed in old jeans, boots, a white t-shirt under a flannel shirt. (Few costume changes for the female protagonist is appreciated here.) Later on at a local bar she drinks a Jack and ginger then hooks up with the bartender for casual, emotionally distant sex. She leaves in the morning, saying only “see ya.”
Through a local cop we find out that her brother is troubled (drugs, assault, stealing) and living on his own. Soon thereafter Fern glimpses a young boy (ten-years-old or so) in the woods near her house, but he runs away. Investigating further Fern finds an abandoned vehicle with a doll and plastic army soldiers inside, as though a kid had been living there. She has a memory of leaving her brother as a child.
14:34 In the middle of the night a man appears with a gas can (hereinafter Gas Can Man) and threatens to burn the house down. He asks if Fern is “Sreaves kin” and explains that “fire’s the only way to get rid of a demon.” Fern convinces him to go away.
The next morning Florine says that if Fern won’t get a gun for protection, then she should at least get a dog.
Fern visits a kennel where a worker asks her if the dog is “for protection against the living or the dead?” Fern says, dismissively, “the living.”
Back at home she opens her dad’s copy of The Living Bible. This is good attention to detail as this particular 1971 rendition of the Christian bible is a favorite among evangelicals and often considered by mainline protestants to be a ‘dumbing down’ of the King James. When Fern opens the bible she finds her dad’s flask in a hollowed out recess of its pages.
The next morning Florine is there with soup. She comments, “Ain’t exactly Little House on the Prairie, is it?” Fern is exasperated with Florine’s mothering and tells her to leave. Florine responds that “it’s bad luck to ask a person to leave before they’re finished eating. I’m doing you a favor by staying.”
The dog runs away. She pursues it to no avail, then while walking in the forest a timid voice says, “Hello.” It’s the boy from yesterday. He is dirty, dressed in rags and very skittish. His name is Cecil.
Fern asks him if he wants to “come over here.” He just looks. Then she says, “Do you want me to go over there?” He nods. She convinces him to allow her to bring him to her home.
20:00 Gas Can Man sees the two of them walking home and yells at Fern, “where’d you get that boy?” She and Cecil ignore him and continue to the house.
Fern tells Cecil the house was her Daddy’s. Cecil asks if a “Howler” got him. Fern says no, “unless it poured liquor down his throat.”
Fern calls social services. They can’t get there until tomorrow. Cecil picks some local flowers as a thanks to Fern for letting him stay.
23:00 Fern starts coughing that night. Cecil wakes Fern up holding two small birds he has caught saying, “I’ve got breakfast.” Fern replies, “What am I supposed to do with those?” Cecil responds, “I’ll show ya.” Cecil de-feathers and cooks the tiny birds in an iron skillet.
Fern does not feel well. She asks the boy if he has ever gone to school? He replies that he would like to. Can he read? “No ma’am,” he sheepishly replies.
A pickup truck pulls into the dirt yard. It’s the bartender from the other night, Mike, whose other job is as a social worker.
“Hey, Cecil. How is it you came to live in these woods all by yourself?” he queries the boy. Cecil doesn’t answer and physically recoils as Mike takes his picture. Mike shows him it is okay by lending him the phone.
Mike tries to convince Fern to keep Cecil awhile longer so as to avoid immediate foster placement. We learn that Fern knows all about foster care, because she was in it herself from ten to eighteen years of age. But she says Cecil is “a survivor” and besides, Fern describes herself as unfit to care for the boy. Mike says she is fit. He leaves Cecil in her care and says he will straighten out who Cecil’s kin are. Fern is not happy keeping him there. There is some tension between Fern and the boy.
Again Fern isn’t feeling well. Cecil says, “Maybe you’ve got a ghost. You oughta burn your daddy’s dress shirts. If that doesn’t work I’ll catch you a rattler and give you a bit to eat.” Fern says, “I don’t believe in ghosts.”
Mike canvasses the local homeless population trying to find someone who knows Cecil. This is one of a number of scenes where the director does not use professional actors; instead the camera slowly pans across the faces of local inhabitants. It reminded me of the anthropological technique of ‘participant observation’, used in a good way. When he looks for the picture on his phone to show someone, it is gone. Cecil did have the phone for a few minutes, so it’s plausible that he erased it. Or, if he’s a ghost, perhaps his image cannot be captured by modern technology? Again, the director is playing with these tropes.
That night Cecil asks Fern if she believes in monsters. She says no.
The next morning Florine picks the two up so a local ‘country doctor’ can check Fern out. Upon meeting Fern the old doctor immediately says, “You’re a Shreaves.”
“How could you tell?” responds Fern.
“It’s in the eyes,” he says matter of factly. “Shame about your folks. Drugs sure have a way of hollowing people out.” An oblique, yet devastating comment.
Fern describes her symptoms: Headaches, can’t sleep, coughs, etc. adding that she can’t rest because she recently took in a kid. The doctor asks, with alarm, “You took in a boy? From where?”
“Found him in the woods,” Fern says.
The country doctor goes out to the waiting room and interrogates Cecil: “Who’s your lord and creator?” Cecil looks at him bewildered.
“Where’d you come from boy?” Cecil doesn’t respond. The doctor shakes his head.
Fern says, “What was that about?”
Doctor: “Old stories around these parts. Some lies, many true. You’ve got to take that boy back to the forest, Miss Sreaves…There are some sicknesses that medicine just cannot cure.” He gives her a slip of paper with the word “Tatterdemalion” written on it.
Later, back home, Fern asks Florine about the Tatterdemalion. Florine says, “that’s an old one” and tells a story about a boy banished to the trees who cannot come out unless someone carries him across a supernatural divide. “He’ll make you love him. The whole time stealing your health, life, years ahead. They say that’s how he stays young forever.”
“And you believe that?” asks Fern.
“This place is built on stories,” says Fern “some of them true, most of them horse shit. Folktales come from necessity. Kids like me was gettin’ lost in the woods; so they made up the ‘Howler.’ You know: they tell kids stories to scare ’em into staying out of trouble. Works, too.”
Fern responds: “Yeah, but why would anybody need a story about a Tatterdemalion?” Florine doesn’t answer.
This exchange is an important key to the film, and demonstrates the ability of the writers and director to transcend the limitations of this genre by providing effective social criticism. We find out the answer to this casual question near the end of the film.
Florine proceeds to tell Cecil to go to the bathroom and wash his hands, then pours salt on his chair. When Cecil returns he sees the salt and rather than sit on the chair with the salt or clear the salt from the chair, he chooses to sit on another chair altogether — further ‘evidence’ that he is a Tatterdemalion.
The next day Fern returns to the woods where she first encountered Cecil. She finds a crude hut made from tree branches and rags. Inside there is an old Life magazine with a mailing address on Old Hickock Road.
Fern is still not breathing well. She tries to trick Cecil into telling her the name of his mother. But he won’t say. He only reveals that, “Momma died when the baby came out. They both died.” Cecil adds that he can’t tell her why he was living in the woods because she doesn’t believe in monsters.
Fern’s hair is falling out.
She decides to go out to a bar and proceeds to get hammered. Inside a young tough asks Fern to go outside and she tells him, “No.” He then grabs her by the hair and drags her out the door, yelling at patrons, “this is family shit, alright!” Once outside we discover that it is her little brother, Billy. He pushes Fern, then knees her in the stomach while screaming that she ripped their family apart. Fern says she was just a kid. He says he doesn’t want anything to do with her. Social worker Mike intervenes, drawing a gun on Billy, who leaves.
Fern is drunk as shit, throwing up outside the house. She tells Mike he has two more days to find another home for Cecil. Cecil, overhearing this, throws a tantrum, runs out of the house and stops at the edge of the woods. He then turns and asks why Fern doesn’t want him. She says it’s complicated.
“I step in there [the woods] you’ll never see me again. Is that what you want?”
“I just want your family to know you are okay,” replies Fern.
“I don’t have any family anymore. I told you that.” Then he runs off.
Fern pursues him and convinces him to come home.
Later that night she visits the Gas Can Man at a makeshift campfire nearby. He’s burning a Pawpaw tree and talks at length to Fern about the devil and how fire is necessary to cleanse evil. He says, “Yer gonna keep getting sicker…We got a saying around here. If they ain’t yer kin, don’t let ’em in.”
Fern: “Have you actually seen a Tatterdemalion?”
Gas Can Man: “I ain’t never seen Australia either, but that don’t mean it ain’t there!”
This last is a delicious bit of logical fallacy. The Gas Can Man, a sorcerer figure, subtly shifts the burden of proof from the claimant back to the skeptic by asserting that a proposition (the boy is a Taterdemalion) is true simply because it has not yet been proven false (Australia exists even though he’s never been there). Then, this argument from ignorance is extended when Gas Can Man asks Fern, “Need a little proof?” He gives Fern three nails to place in a triangle above the doorway of her house. “A Tatterdemalion is a demon,” he says, “and a demon is a witch. There ain’t no witch that can enter when he sees this in the shape of a triangle. No ghost, no demon, nothin’ not of this earth.”
Here instead of Occam’s Razor we get Occam’s Broom.
60:20 The next morning Billy comes up the road.
Fern tries to express her regret to Billy. But he is still enraged and blames her for the dissolution of their family. Cecil physically protects her from Billy, who runs off when Cecil says “I needs her.” The director is milking the supernatural horror tradition here.
Fern asks Florine why she didn’t take the kids when their parents abandoned them. “My Red had a real taste for drinking. Beating on me. He would have been real nasty to kids. Besides, I didn’t want to sacrifice my life for someone else’s kids.”
Fern puts the nails above the doorway in a triangle. She tries to have Cecil go into the house but he stops at the doorway, looks at the triangle and, enraged, starts punching Fern and asking why she put the nails there. “Because I need to know what you are. You think I can’t see that my hair is going gray; that I’m sick?”
Cecil says, “You shouldn’t have done that,” and runs off.
66:00 Mike returns and dismisses Fern’s superstitions, telling her, “you got scared and tried to find another way out of it.” Fern responds, “Just take him away.” Mike takes Cecil to a foster home with other kids. Cecil is heartbroken.
Fern finds Billy in a homeless encampment down by a river and they talk about the night they were abandoned by their father. Fern, Billy and their mother were waiting for their father in a car. The father left and never came back. Their mother died, presumably of an overdose, in Billy’s arms. Fern tried to get Billy to leave with her, but he wouldn’t. They were both young children. Fern tries to give Billy the key to the house.
Billy asks, “What about that boy?”
Fern states, “I know what he was.”
“What was he?” asks Billy.
“Don’t act like you don’t know. I saw the way you ran off when you saw him.”
“I ain’t run from him. I ran from what he stirred up inside of me.”
Fern states, “That kid’s a Tatterdemalion.”
Billy explodes: “No! That’s a bullshit story made up so folks can justify not taking care of kids like me.” He adds, with complete assurance, “I used to visit our daddy now and then. You know he hated this time of year, when the Pawpaws are blooming [pointing to the same type of flower that Cecil brought Fern as a gift earlier in the movie]. Terrible allergic. He said it felt like they were stealing his breath.” The wheels in Fern’s head are now turning.
About the house, Billy, exasperated, tells Fern, “Four walls and a roof ain’t gonna fix what’s wrong with me. Someone should make a home of it. Start new… Go save someone worth saving…Get out of here!”
Fern goes home and throws the flowers and the vase they are in out into the yard.
Fern asks an old timer about “Old Hickock Road”. He says, “You’ve got to cross the river” to get there. The symbolism here is of the ferryman crossing the River Styx. Fern is crossing from the world of the living to the world of the dead. And indeed it is the world of the dead — we discover this is where Cecil’s family lived and there are wooden and nail triangles all over the place. It is a squalid and ramshackle collection of plywood and chicken wire hovels. Fern discovers a shack with the same old Life magazines she found in the woods along with some iron shackles, presumably where Cecil was confined. Going into the main structure she knocks, but no answer. She enters and finds a decomposing body inside. It is that of Cecil’s father.
The police are summoned. Fern goes to get Mike, telling him she made a terrible mistake. They both go to get Cecil. At the foster home Fern calls him by his full name: Cecil Philmont. Cecil says his dad was right to punish him, and that if he exposes “the family business” the ‘Howler’ would come for him. Fern says she will protect him from now on. Together they go back to his father’s house and burn it to the ground. (Cleansing).
At home, Cecil sings Fern a plaintive, heart wrenching song:
“I am a poor, wayfaring stranger
traveling through this world alone
there is no sickness, toils or danger
to that good world to which I go
I’m going there to meet my father
I’m going there no more to roam
I am just going over Jordan
I am just going over home.”
Later Mike tells Fern about the Killdeer bird and how the mother bird will fake an injury to its wing in order to lead predators away from her eggs, “babies she hasn’t even seen yet.” Protecting children is an instinct that everybody has, he says, but sometimes you just have to wake it up.
The penultimate scene is of Fern, Cecil and Mike at a community dinner. Lots of suspicious looks, including from the country doctor. Cecil, visibly uncomfortable, wants to leave.
At home that night Gas Can Man breaks into the home and drags Cecil out into the woods. Fern must decide whether to use her father’s pistol to get him back (background noise of helicopters and gunfire, again the PTSD trope). She takes the gun and runs into the woods after Cecil. Fern finds Gas Can Man at his fire, puts the gun to him and asks where he took Cecil. He points east. Off she goes. Fern finds Cecil in the woods, but Cecil firmly believes what everyone is saying. “You thought I was a demon. Other people think I am. My momma and daddy both died. I think there’s something really wrong with me. I’ll go away. Far away from here. Keep you safe.” The wind comes up.
“It’s the Howler!” cries Cecil.
Fern shoots repeatedly into the woods (at the Howler) then tells Cecil she’s got him. The Howler is gone forever, so too the Taterdemalion. They embrace.
End of film.
Fern’s younger brother, Billy, becomes the unlikely, heart-wrenching and tragic source of Fern’s redemption. Her moral clarity is achieved only through the recognition of the lost child that is her little brother; her correct course of action can only be embraced when she frees herself of the self-loathing she feels for not having been able to save her brother as a child.
Tatterdemalion is a set up, brilliantly and deftly executed. The film holds that superstition and the supernatural often serve to obscure social evils. But, that’s not all. The film also insists that much folklore is born from necessity, that is real lived-in communities with real life problems, and have logics that can be understood and overcome.
Tatterdemalion is also effective at executing thrills and chills without creating caricatures of poor people, nor glorifying rural poverty and superstition as the key to defeating evil. There is at least the outlines of a collective protagonist sketched here. This is something the Stephen King thought world can never supply.
Fern strikes me as from a region where fundamentalism is woven into folklore. Such passion and fanaticism can have both positive and negative aspects. For instance, both the Ku Klux Klan and the radical abolitionist John Brown were influential in these parts. These Scots-Irish, working class, close knit communities have long been subject to the vicissitudes of rural displacement and brutal poverty. It would have been easy for this director to disparage these people, as so many other film makers do, as ignorant and left behind, lumpenproletariat refuse who are unfortunate victims of dangerous superstitions. Thankfully, that’s not what takes place here.
Instead, Tatterdemalion works within supernatural horror conventions so as to subvert — through a plot twist at the end — those same conventions. We think we are watching a standard treatment of a Stephen King novel, only to find out that we are not, although we must wait until the end to discover how and why this is the case.
What about that key question Fern asks? Why would a community need to invent the story of the Taterdemalion? What necessity, what purpose would such a morality tale serve? Such a tale rationalizes child abuse and neglect. How do we go about preventing child abuse and neglect? The film answers this question through its participant observation, which is to say social, approach to poverty and addiction. The answer, the film seems to say, is altruistic service. Fern is in the military and while she suffered from her tour of duty she eventually uses the skills she learns there to protect Cecil. The other major institution that plays a positive role here is social welfare through the character of Mike. Add to these two institutions (the military, the welfare state) the family-in-formation that Mike and Fern represent and we have an answer as to how to overcome the obstacles Cecil faces. Pretty bourgeois, but still better than the crap on offer by King.
So the bit about how folktales come from necessity is crucial here, and wonderfully nuanced. The film reminds us that folk tales have many dimensions. They can serve to protect us from real danger, e.g. discourage children from wandering off into the woods; yet also injure us by walling off ‘outsiders’ who are not ‘kin’, and thereby justify child neglect.
I was waiting for the obligatory Native American trope, the dream catcher moment, but thankfully it never came. Unlike King, this director has a rootedness that is admirable; a respect for people, if you will, that feels real. The conflict that eventually comes into focus is that between those folktales of necessity rooted in an unjust social system that rationalize leaving orphans to the tender mercies of the Ozark woods and the real world efforts on the part of wounded soldiers and social workers to care for such abandoned human beings. Note also that the trope of the CPS social worker sent to separate a family is not present here; just the opposite. Would this film be as effective if set within a commensurate Black community? If not, why?
In a way, the Stephen King antihero horror movie has been born, a necessary precursor to the larger project of building proletarian collectivity. While Tatterdemalion does not offer us the only force which can offer true liberation, not least because there is no working class self organization and collectivity here, it does offer a break with a set of presumptions that are, in a sense, killing us. Of course, there can be no such thing within the Stephen King thought world (now, with Hulu’s Castle Rock, a thought universe like that of Marvel or DC Comics). First, one must break with that world. Then, one can begin to conceptualize proletarian collectivity. Tatterdemalion helps us do the former and, unlike much elsewhere, at least suggests the latter.
All that said, we should be mindful of this aphorism: ‘When you strike at the king, you must kill him.’