Friday, August 16, 2013

How I fell in love with horror cinema (and movies in general)

The scariest movie I have ever seen was The Wizard of Oz.   

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.
By that time, around age eight, I was already a bit of an unusual kid. I was interested in art and writing; and while other kids were wild for their bicycles, or running around playing soccer, or building car models, my enthusiasms were playing with plastic dinosaurs, building Aurora snap-together models (of dinosaurs, again, and later, monsters) and exploring the fields, forests and ponds of Maple Ridge, looking for snakes, salamanders, and frogs.

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.
I had spent a good portion of Grade One molding dinosaurs out of modelling clay that the teacher had brought to class - we had several on display, and the janitor at the school added to the collection with a couple of almost professional-quality models of his own, which sadly did not survive (I believe he later killed himself - there was a janitor at my school who did, and I believe him to have been the same guy; I sometimes think of him now, this man who made dinosaurs for children, staying late after the school was closed, neglecting his cleaning so he could make this gesture of connection... I don't know much about him but it's sad that a guy who would do something like that would end up taking his own life). In Grade Two, I had a whole diorama of the creatures, complete with fake plastic palm trees and other landscape effects, on the windowsill of the classroom, mostly made to impress a girl I liked. All of that was pre-King Kong, but that there was a logical connection between the models I made with my hands and the models up there on the screen made the film seem, not just magical, but attainable; magic that had a connection to my day to day life. 
That's not to say I was ready for whatever cinema had to offer, though. There is one more formative film experience that needs to be mentioned: the second time I had to be taken from a movie - though it was at a drive-in, not a theatre, with Mom and Dad in the white American Rambler that my Dad used to drive. I had seen images in Famous Monsters of Filmland - a magazine which I had just begun to read, at that point, but would soon become devoted to - of a film called The Land That Time Forgot (1975); and I had seen their cover story on a film called The Food of the Gods (1976). The two films made it to a double bill, out in Surrey, I think, and I spotted the ad in The Province and did a can-we-go-can-we-go on my parents. I remember my father enjoyed 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 story involves a group of American and British soldiers and civilians, whose ship gets blown up, and who end up commandeering a U-boat; a power struggle ensues between the American (b-movie star Doug McClure) and the German leader (British actor John McEnery), and they end up off course in uncharted waters, approaching an unknown island, with an underground passage that leads to a world where dinosaurs and cavemen co-exist. It's by no means a great film; the dinosaur effects have nothing on the O'Brien/ Harryhausen school of effects, and the film is cluttered with half-baked evolutionary theorizing that could have likely been left in the Edgar Rice Burroughs source text (which, written in 1924, was not exactly cutting edge science; I could spot its fallacies even then). Still, I loved it. All three of us in that car together watching that movie might just count as one of the happiest moments of my childhood - along with my parents taking me to see a fossilized dinosaur skeleton at a museum, and playing with my dog, and catching a really big snake in a local pond...
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.
The hornet effects were too godawful to actually be scary: as with the ant effects in Bert I. Gordon's other notoriously bad big-creature feature, 1977's Empire of the Ants, several of the "attack" scenes involve insects held by tweezers being waved in front of the camera, badly superimposed on the action. It's almost at a 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.
Anyhow, so far so bad: the film wasn't impressing me, but it sure wasn't scaring me. The giant chicken confrontation did neither, either. Where the film became too much to bear, however - about twenty minutes into its runtime - is where the farmer's wife - gamely played by Ida Lupino, near the end of her film career - hears a crashing in her basement and goes to investigate. A jar of her preserved fruit has fallen from a shelf; she reaches back behind the other jars to see what's back there - and is attacked by giant maggots!
As I say, I re-watched the film recently, and I must admit, this scene is still unsettling. The effects are great, at least compared to the hornets and chickens; and there's a real nastiness to the way the attack is shot - traumatic music plays, and the film defies realism to have Lupino - instead of pulling her hand back at the first bite - submit to the attack for several seconds, so the camera can linger on the gore. There's a nastiness at work that suggests the film has an ill-will towards its audience, a none-too-playful element of genuine sadism. I don't blame myself for being unsettled - it's a pretty ugly moment. I went pale and felt my stomach turn for a reason, that night at the drive-in. 
And so it went: "Mom, Dad... can we go home?"

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...


Anonymous said...

I remember that janitor who you refer to and his amazing sculptures. I can't remember if it was the same janitor who took his life though. I remember being told he had an 'illness' which was never specified. I concluded he was terminally ill. At the time it was the only rationale I could employ to justify such an action. A nice man who deserved better. D.O.

Allan MacInnis said...

Yeah, my memories are a bit foggy here, too. Mostly I'm operating on surmise - how many janitors could one elementary school employ? But I do remember hearing that *a* janitor at that school hanged himself, sometime in my last year there... and always assumed it was the same one...

I might be wrong, though!

Zbigniew Cylbulski said...

Food of the Gods: filmed on Bowen Island.