Friday, August 16, 2013
How I fell in love with horror cinema (and movies in general)
It helps that I was five years old at the time. My parents had taken me to see the film at Maple Ridge's long-since-defunct Stardust Theatre. It was, I believe, my first time in a movie theatre; it was certainly my most traumatic experience in one. I was reduced to wailing and hysterical sobbing in fear for Dorothy, whose jeopardy at the hands of the dread flying monkeys was simply too much for me to witness. Mom and Dad had to take me from the theatre; I didn't get to finish the film until years after that, on TV, where things were less intense.
You might think I'm revealing a flank on this one, exposing a bit of my soft white underbelly, but the truth is, I'm kind of proud of that reaction, impressed that a film could affect me that deeply. It says something about The Wizard of Oz, of course - but also something about me, that my engagement with the experience, as a child, was so utterly sincere and wholehearted. It's the right way to watch a film (though ideally you stick it out til the end). A lot of kids fidget, chatter, run around the aisles if you let them; I was totally focused on and emotionally invested in the movie theatre screen, even if what I saw there totally freaked me out.
I like to think that that bad experience was what sunk the hook in me, that being so overwhelmed by the emotions The Wizard of Oz stirred in me that I had to be taken home - in effect, being "beaten" by the movie - made me regard films as a challenge, and perhaps helped cultivate the desire to take on more and more challenging film fare. Whether that meant braving gore or the years I spent renting, some fifteen years later, anything I could find with subtitles in the video stores of Maple Ridge, I certainly grew into someone who wanted to confront unfamiliar and difficult cinema - someone who regarded movies, as Wes Craven has said, as a sort of "boot camp for the psyche." That aspect of myself began somewhere, and it seems logical that those flying monkeys had something to do with it.
Plus how could I not be fascinated by something that had such power to effect me?
I can recall vividly my next most important film experience, as well - also involving a projected film, which took place in elementary school a few years after that. (I saw lots of movies on TV, but somehow the most formative cinematic experiences of my childhood took place during actual projected screenings, so I got it right there, too). We were led into the school auditorium to watch a projected print of the original 1933 version of King Kong.
Other kids have stories about winning goals or home runs; I have stories about the time I put leeches on my arm, to see if their bite hurt, and see how hard they were to get off. (Easy, if you've got a lighter; one of the bigger kids showed me that you just needed to get the metal on the lighter hot and put it next to the leech and it would curl up and let go).
Anyhow, for a kid like that, King Kong was cinema heaven. I had probably seen other movies or TV shows involving dinosaurs before, since I was so fascinated by them, but I had seen nothing on the level of Willis O'Brien's stop motion animation. Whether it was by accident or design, our class was led into the elementary school gymnasium after the film had already started, such that the first thing I remember was the raft scene, where the intrepid adventurers have their raft toppled by a long-necked dinosaur. From the moment that creature - guess I'll call it the defunct name of "brontosaurus," because that's what he was to me then - stuck its neck out of the water, I was hooked.
The Land That Time Forgot quite a bit - a perfect father/son movie, in a way, since it had dinosaurs and Germans in a U-boat. My mother mostly enjoyed our enjoyment, I expect.
The Food of the Gods, however - the second feature on the double bill, after it had gotten good and dark - was by no means as wonderful an experience. It had looked great on paper - I thought I was ready to see people menaced by giant rats - but it quickly proved too much for me to take. Shot on Bowen Island, which I didn't realize until I recently revisited the film on DVD, it deals with a substance that bubbles out of the ground that, when fed to animals, makes them grow to gigantic proportions. A farmer and his wife feed it to their chickens (and yes, folks, there is a giant chicken attack in the movie). But local hornets and rats and other creatures get into the stuff, too.
Birdemic level of badness - especially since hornets held with tweezers (curled sideways, wings folded, legs and antennae twitching) look utterly nothing like hornets that are flying.
My recent viewing of the film is in fact the first time I have gone back to finish watching it (a past attempt was aborted when I saw how baaaad the film was). Glad in hindsight that I got us out of there, because (as someone who had pet gerbils, around the same time) I probably wouldn't have liked all the scenes in which real rats are shot or exploded or otherwise subjected to real deaths for the sake a cheap special effect. I've never really understood that sort of thing. It's like the real snake deaths in Sssssss and Stanley; who would go see either film but a snake lover, and what snake lover would want to see snakes get killed?
The Food of the Gods is a nasty little movie, really, without much in the way of redeeming qualities, though connoisseurs of bad cinema might find something to enjoy in it, or perhaps the residents of Bowen Island: it is very recognizably a BC-made film...
Whether Food of the Gods provoked me to try again with horror films, by upsetting me so much, I cannot say, but it certainly didn't stop me. A couple of years after that, I caught a double bill of Dawn of the Dead and Phantasm, with my father, in Mission - another very important film screening, for me. Then came Alien, and Altered States, and Friday the 13th, and An American Werewolf In London - all R-rated, so I had to get my father to take me to those, too; he was terrific about that, really. Those were good nights out, important movies to my childhood self, and I still have great fondness for all of them.
There were other films I watched and loved as a kid - I had somewhat weird fascinations for character dramas like The Big Chill and Ordinary People, and for years was obsessed with a late night screening of Husbands that I caught on TV (one of my first trips to the Pacific Cinematheque was to see the film projected as part of a tribute to Cassavetes, shortly after he died in 1989). But for me, the love of cinema began with a fascination for horror and weirdness, and I doubt I would have ever been so passionate about movies if it hadn't been for those damn flying monkeys...