Tales from the Crypt, Season 2, Episode 9: "The Four Sided Triangle"
One of the reasons I love Tales from the Crypt is because it epitomizes my affection for entertainment that blurs the lines separating high and low culture, prestige and gleeful garbage. The beloved horror anthology's lush production values, powerhouse Executive Producer team (which includes such giants of entertainment as Joel Silver, Robert Zemeckis, Richard Donner and Walter Hill) and star-studded roster of guest stars and writers and producers all gave it an air of quality, appointment television. Tales from the Crypt wasn’t just television: it was HBO.
The appeal of HBO, then and today, is that it’s the gold standard of pay cable channels and the home of some of the best, most popular and best loved TV institutions of all time. Yet HBO also gave us gratuitous nudity with a frequency and abundance surpassed only by its sister station Cinemax.
HBO was and remains classy but it was, and remains, filthy as well. Tales from the Crypt was frequently filthy as fuck but it seldom left you with a desire, no need, to take a long, scorching hot shower to cleanse yourself of all the lingering grossness the way it did with the impressively gross “Four Sided Triangle”, a tale of scarecrow-fucking, sexual assault, casual sadism and most terrifyingly of all, clowns.
Academy Award winner Patricia Arquette lends her offbeat sexuality and intensity to the role of Mary Jo, a troubled young woman living the life of a slave after creepy farmer George Yates (Chelcie Ross) found her in a vulnerable state, fleeing a possible crime, and decided to blackmail her into serving as free, verbally and physically abused labor for him and his hateful battle-axe of a wife who, in a good indication of the episode’s brutality, warns her hubby that it’s perfectly acceptable to beat the help, but killing them is unacceptable.
From the first moment we see him, George is foggy-headed with uncontrolled, uncontrollable lust for his young prisoner. We watch him as he peeps through a peephole at Mary Jo as she milks a cow, the camera taking special care to ogle her nubile body. “Four Sided Triangle” captures the desperate, voyeuristic, prurient nature of George’s interest in Mary Jo, a woman he sees only as a sex object to be taken, against her will if necessary, by appealing relentlessly to the voyeuristic, prurient peeper inside the audience.
Even by the exceedingly lenient standards of the show, “Four Sided Triangle” is sleazy. It’s so overflowing with overtones of sexual assault, and flat-out sexual assault, that for a moment there I thought I was watching any Hollywood movie made between 1967 and 1980.
The heavy-breathing, lustful degenerate keeping Mary Jo a veritable prisoner on his secluded farm isn’t content to merely ogle the object of his desire from a distance so he attempts to rape her. The terrified young woman is hit over the head while fleeing and eventually collapses and passes out before a a hideous, clown-faced scarecrow she imagines has comes alive.
Back at the farm, Mary Jo, who now seems to be suffering some manner of brain damage, gushes non-stop about her “Man”, the scarecrow, and how someday he will make love to her. At night she meets with her scarecrow “lover” and lavishes him with the kind of love and attention every inanimate object secretly longs for.
Farmer George, who, incidentally may be the grossest person in the world, spies an opportunity to realize his life’s goal of defiling Mary Jo sexually so he decides to slip inside the scarecrow’s garish garb so he can trick her into canoodling with him. He unsurprisingly meets a violent end when his equally vicious but less lust-clouded wife decides to demonstrate that what Mary Jo imagines is her lover and soulmate is actually just straw stuffed inside human clothes by stabbing the “scarecrow” over and over again with a pitchfork.
I’m not going to lie: I came to Tales from the Crypt as a thirteen year old boy for the Sexual Suggestions, Brief Nudity AND Scenes of Intense Sexuality but “Four Sided Triangle” is so intensely tawdry and lurid in its sexuality that it made the forty two year old pretty uncomfortable. Even at the start of a brilliant career it was obvious Arquette was a bold, audacious and original actress, whose offbeat sexuality figured prominently in a lot of her most important early roles, like True Romance and Lost Highway.
But Arquette is so relentlessly objectified and abused here that it leaves a weird, bitter aftertaste despite the objectification being not only justified by the narrative but the whole point of the story. The awful would-be rapist can’t see this sexy, desperate young woman as anything more than luscious body parts he feels entitled to grope and molest to his heart’s content, whether she consents or not, so he ends up paying the ultimate price, as does a wife who is similarly evil and cruel, if less crazed with lust.
Despite, or rather because, of its unrelenting nastiness “Four Sided Triangle” made an indelible impression on me as a fourteen year old and holds up twenty-eight years later. It’s a nasty piece of work as well as an early indication that, despite her beauty and youth, Arquette was destined for a distinguished career as a great, gutsy character actor whose resume would be full of choices as audacious as they are inspired.
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