My Kindertrauma:: Seth S. on The Shining (’80)

One’s fear of something can sometimes be about repeated occurrences. Seeing something once that sends a shiver up your spine – that’s one thing. Seeing something more than once – worse yet, coming at you in concert: that’s something altogether horrifying. A singular greeting to horror, multiplied by two, one can likely think of nothing worse. It’s a promise to horror. And it’s two-fold.

Now, I’ll admit I saw Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining earlier than I should have in my young life. Luckily, my parents at least had the foresight that I wouldn’t see it until it aired on national TV, but no amount of censorship can really transform The Shining into a family-friendly film. One wouldn’t imagine that the cannibalistic Donner party could be made prime time appropriate either, but that doesn’t stop father Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) from momentarily talking about it with his son Danny (Danny Lloyd). And that’s alright too, because Danny had already learned about it on his own by watching about it on the television. And Jack assures his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall), “It’s all right. He saw it on the TV.” 

Everything is alright on the TV. 

When it came to The Shining, network TV cut from the film much of the blood that came crashing through the elevator doors, washing over the Overlook Hotel’s lobby floor tile. It cut away when Mr. Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) served as a catcher’s mitt for an ax in the hands of an enraged Jack. It certainly blurred out the woman’s naked breasts in room 237, but the network couldn’t easily remove the Grady twins from the film, and they were more frightening to me than anything that had to be cut out. Seeing the film for the first time, I was as alarmed as anyone when little Danny rounded that hallway corner on his three-wheeler to discover the spectral Grady girls waiting for him, and for me – and likely for others – the two were a central source of dread. 

Yet unlike the other elements of the film that needed to be censored for prime time TV, all that made the Grady twins frightening was their portent. What made them terrifying was not an ounce of blood nor the insinuation of violence. It was what the Grady girls introduced to the film, what they beckoned to Danny and the viewer, seemingly echoing to him before the Torrance family moved to the Overlook. “Well, let’s just wait and see,” she says to him. “We’re all going to have a real good time.”

And we would have a good time, over the course of the film. 

We would also have an absolutely horrifying time.

From memory, I can’t write that my parents allowed me to watch the film for its full duration. But they didn’t have to let me watch more than the film’s first 30 minutes to traumatize me, in large part due to the Grady girls. They remain one of the most haunting ingredients of the production. There is something scary about the image of the girls’ dead bodies in that hallway. (Few filmmakers have captured the realistically unnerving collapse of bodies like Kubrick, outside of Coppola or Scorsese.) But more alarming than the image of the girls’ violent demise is the invitation that they first provided to me and the rest of the audience. That’s what remains so haunting about Kubrick’s production. It wasn’t about the more surreal images in the hotel that visit us (and few could discomfit us more than the man dressed in the dog outfit). It wasn’t about the circuitous garden maze that we – like Danny – ran through, trying to escape a murderous father who promised would never hurt us. It’s not even about the nature of the maze itself, an ordinarily juvenile house of seek and discovery, which was only made more terrifying because the playground was suddenly ruthlessly real, even if it was meant to be nothing more than some gravel, landscaping, and subterfuge. 

When I saw the film as a child, the fright of Kubrick’s movie had much more to do with that first glimpse of two girls – not one, but two – in that wallpapered hotel hallway early in the film. It had to do with the manner in which those girls gently usher the audience into the film’s mounting terror. While unexpected, their emergence – welcoming the viewer into another two hours of horror – should have seemed harmless, especially since I saw it like so many other people did on the television.

Even when Jack Torrance tragically promised us: it’s okay as long as we saw it on the TV.

Skinamarink

When I was little, me and my younger brother would play a game where we’d stare at each other’s faces in the dark until we transformed into hideous monsters. The darkness, combined with our imaginations, would produce horrific hallucinatory results and we’d usually end up tapping out amidst screams while scrambling toward the light switch. Writer/director Kyle Edward Ball’s experimental feature debut SKINAMARINK is just such a mind screw and viewer satisfaction with it will likely rely on whatever personal bugaboos they bring to the table. I’ve written before (HERE) about my traumatic experience of being “accidentally” abandoned at a beach house when I was a mere four years old so Ball’s film felt uncomfortably tailor-made for exhuming my core neuorosis. The nightmare tale involves two young siblings who wake up in the middle of the night only to find their familiar home has turned into a HOUSE OF LEAVES-style ambiguous maze complete with disappearing windows and doors, Lego minefields,public domain cartoons and finally, a plastic telephone with a goofy smile that suggests it’s somehow responsible. 

SKINAMARINK is currently not playing in many theaters so I had to go far outside my comfort zone to see it on a rainy night in a theater that seemed to have closed decades ago. It was quite the memorable experience, but I would probably decline undergoing it again. This is one of those films that feels more like a spell than an actual production and it’s esoteric as all get out and cryptic on a level that seems more at home in an art gallery than a multiplex. I’m going to assume that many viewers will find this creepy jaunt excruciatingly boring as the lion’s share of the flick consists of vague, off-kilter shots of the ceiling and long dives into a squirmy, grainy amorphous darkness. It’s quite like being hypnotized into a trance-like state and then being periodically slapped into sobriety by cymbal crashes. In other words, it’s most definitely not for everyone and even though it certainly had my number, I’m not sure it was for me either. On the other hand, there are a couple of moments that rattled my psyche in ways that a more conventional horror film could never dream of and I can’t have anything but respect for that. Ultimately, It’s safe to say SKINAMARINK is a singular horror experience but whether that experience is fascinatingly frightening or absolutely aggravating may depend entirely on the beholder. I personally rather dug it as an uncomfortable, inadvertent walk down memory lane.

M3GAN

Ya gotta feel bad for poor little Cady (Violet McGraw) who was involved in a deadly snowplow incident that snatched the lives of both of her parents. Mourning her inconceivable loss she is sent to live with her Aunt Gemma (Allison Williams) who means well but is so preoccupied with work she is anything but maternal. Dear Aunt Gemma is not only smart enough to create incredible robotic toys, she’s also wise enough to realize she sucks at parenting. In a thinly veiled attempt to skirt her responsibilities as a guardian, Aunt Gemma introduces Cady to M3GAN, a lifelike doll that can be programmed to sing off-putting songs and appear to care for her. The bonding scenes between Cady and her new friend are actually quite touching. Unfortunately, although technology often provides a wonderful escape from the messiness of human interaction, the time inevitably comes when the mechanical piper must be paid. In other words, M3GAN goes haywire, and many a (mostly deserving) head happily rolls.

Even though she’s the fresh-faced new kid on the block slyly dispensing dance moves calculated to go viral on TikTok, there’s something warmly familiar about M3GAN. Maybe it’s because she’s assembled from pieces of flicks like CHILD’S PLAY (’88), DOLLY DEAREST (’91), and MAN’S BEST FRIEND (’93) (and of course, she owes THE TWILIGHT ZONE’s “Talky Tina” a hug) or maybe it’s because she shrugs off her innate ridiculousness like a straight-to-video nineties camp fest (think PINOCCHIO’S REVENGE (’96) or RUMPELSTILTSKIN (’95)) but the end result is that she feels like a friend we all grew up with but accidentally lost contact with over the years. There are few surprises up M3GAN’s sleeve (and even fewer if you’ve watched the loose-lipped trailer) but who cares when you’re being reminded at every turn just how fun and crowd-pleasing a horror film can be when it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Then again, as goofy as this movie unabashedly is, director Gerard Johnstone (HOUSEBOUND) provides several lovely moments of pure uncanny creepiness that can’t be denied. There’s a twinkle in M3GAN’s eye and a just-so-smirk upon her face that can impressively unnerve. M3GAN the robot doll may have some technical difficulties but M3GAN the movie was built to last.

My Kindertrauma:: Seth S. on The Twilight Zone

It’s been more than a week since the ball dropped, and I think I’ve finally heard the last of the muffled marching band that’s traipsed its way through my skull since Ryan Seacrest and a skin full of liquor ushered in the new year. In lieu of Tylenol and bottled water, I medicated myself with the annual cable TV marathon of The Twilight Zone, which didn’t allow me to get the rest that I needed because I was glued to those supernatural, suspenseful, and otherwise unsettling stories. And perhaps because of the new year, I’m reflecting on the first episode I’d ever seen of the classic television series: “Probe 7, Over and Out,” thinking about how it changed my understanding of Storytelling forever.

My first journey into the Twilight Zone was through the 1983 anthology film, but that particular venture – which I took too many times to count – was frequently in broad daylight. The movie frequently screened on cable in the middle of the day, when its frights couldn’t find me watching from the family room floor. But one Saturday night at the age of 10, I stayed up later than I should have, having been assured that I didn’t have to attend Sunday school the following morning. It was a rare treat. The Bible stories seemed both limited in quantity and endless in their telling, and a reprieve would be a relief. Without Sunday school to whisk me to bed early, that night would be special. The house was dark. Everyone had gone to bed for the night. As I flipped channels, the TV suddenly flickered with tones of black and white – that door performing somersaults in the cosmos, that house window inexplicably shattering, that slowly blinking staring eye. I’d been transported to a Twilight Zone the likes of which I’d never seen before, seduced by the show’s musical introduction and the inimitable voice of Rod Serling.

In comparison to many others, this episode isn’t the perfect representation of what the weekly TV could accomplish, but this particular installment tells the story of Adam Cook (Richard Basehart), an astronaut who crash lands on a lush alien planet. While he nurses his wounds, which include a broken arm and a bruised rib, radio transmissions alert him that his home planet will soon be destroyed by its two governing bodies, long entrenched in war. Without a home to return to and with a foreign land to call home, Cook discovers only one other living creature, a woman who calls herself Eve (Antoinette Bower). After some initial suspicion of one another, the two settle upon calling this otherworldly planet “Earth” and determine to build a life there together.

The religious subtext wasn’t lost on me, even if I didn’t come from a religious family. The irony that I was watching a creation story late on a Saturday night and that I would be absent from Sunday school the next morning, however, would take time for me to understand. And what made the program itself frightening was not its dramatic action. Aside from some moody atmosphere, the possibility of nuclear annihilation, and a brief physical confrontation, “Probe 7, Over and Out” possesses little of the terror synonymous with The Twilight Zone.

What made the episode so compelling to me as a child was how it seemed to address the human condition on such a unique stage of science fiction and suspense. “He’s a frightened breed,” Cook tells himself of humanity, after the terrified Eve has fled the comfort of his company. “He’s a very frightened breed.” At that age, I understood the evil of racism and the terror of growing old and even more from the full color anthology film of the same name, but perhaps the more ancient black and white presentation of this television show made its messaging more disarming to me. Perhaps it was the absence of color on the screen and the absence of light in the family room. And it may have had everything to do with the program’s bravery in taking a story so hallowed on Sunday mornings and turning it into a contemporary narrative infused with trepidation, distrust, and fear, all of which the world felt daily in some measure. I didn’t understand at that age that stories could do something like that: so irreverent, so manipulative, so revolutionary. What would be next, I asked myself: beloved fairy tales infused with moral compasses? Famous children’s story characters entertaining dark urges? Origin stories that humanized the great villains of literature? Those questions were as invigorating to me as they were frightening, because their answers lie somewhere in the unknown.

But as a young viewer, I was a little more than intrigued by the potential future of storytelling after that night, not only because I was such a lover of storytelling but also because I suddenly saw my contribution to storytelling rather unleashed, unbridled – like Adam on a distant planet: born anew to create a story that no one’s quite heard like that before. And for a 10-year-old just then learning to understand the natural rules of narrative, The Twilight Zone represented a passport by which to bypass a number of the layovers that I would have felt obligated to make before venturing into this new world of story on my own.

And, of course, I’d see more episodes of The Twilight Zone that would be more terrifying than this one, certainly more inspirational to the young creator lurking within me.

And some of them wouldn’t let me get the rest that I needed.

And none of them were meant to.

My Kindertrauma:: Seth S. on Dracula (’31)

He lived down the street from me, and we weren’t really friends. We were merely familiar faces on the bus ride to school and in the classroom, the two kids who periodically discovered each other at the local jungle gym. Perhaps he lived too close for comfort for me as I navigated the 5th grade – he was a bully at school who hadn’t yet targeted me, and I sensed it was always a matter of time – but Bryan (is what we’ll call him) announced to no one in particular as we played at the playground that Friday afternoon that Bela Lugosi’s Dracula would air on a local network at midnight that night. I didn’t know what Bela Lugosi’s Dracula was any more than I knew what TV looked like at midnight. As we took that cyclical ride on the merry-go-round, he asked me if I would be tuning in.

My vocabulary with horror was, then, very limited. I knew Lon Chaney, Jr.’s Wolf Man, and I felt sorry for him. Despite his appearance, Talbot was a victim of circumstance, hardly the monster that would inspire nightmares. But Dracula – even with no knowledge of the character, the novel, or the film – was intrinsically haunting. Had you never seen the 1931 film, you were at least familiar with the cloaked figure bidding you welcome into his castle, eerily celebrating the howling wolves in the distance. None of us have seen the Devil in person either, but we still fear him. I felt the same way about Dracula.

I told Bryan I would be watching, and as I headed for home, I heard him yell that I was probably too scared to see it. I also heard him yell to me that my parents probably wouldn’t let me stay up that late anyway. Mind you: we weren’t friends. And he was wrong on both counts. I wasn’t too scared to tune in; I was, however, incapable of staying awake in front of the TV. I’d fallen asleep before the movie aired that night; luckily, the same station would air the movie again at 11 a.m. on Saturday. I was relieved that I could return to school on Monday, ready to tell Bryan that I’d faced those fears, even if I’d done so in broad daylight. But a family event would keep me away from the television that day, so my dad’s solution was to commit the screening to a VHS tape – that way, I could watch it whenever, even with him. And, consequently, after the sun had gone down. And, as everyone knows, you’re only the potential victim of a vampire once the sun has gone down.

But again I went to bed that night without having seen the movie. I claimed to be too tired, despite my dad’s insistence that we stay up and watch it. Like a silver bullet, the screening was dodged once more. I knew I couldn’t avoid it forever. Bryan was certain to quiz me on Monday morning, so I couldn’t run from the film forever.

Instead, I watched Dracula a little after noon that Sunday. I didn’t procrastinate, wanting to see the picture as early as possible so that it was as far removed from my bedtime as it could be, so I didn’t wait for the company of my father. I was on a mortal mission for my soul, and I couldn’t have this film following me into my dreams. Unfortunately, I’d find that the matinee screening wouldn’t help. It turns out that Lugosi’s Dracula isn’t dependent upon trivialities such as darkness or ambient night sounds to inspire fear. As the Count, Dracula is far more menacing, staring back in silence than we sometimes recall, and director Tod Browning isn’t frightened of allowing the film to take shape in absolute quiet, whether for a few seconds or for entire minutes. Raised on the films of Lucas and Spielberg and Saturday morning cartoons, I knew the value of color: the bright lights and the darkest blacks, but Dracula seemed reared on a different palette altogether, robbing its black and white scenes of any color, of any possibility for hope. There was only dark and “darker.” Tonally, Dracula possesses two moods: “dangerous” and “deadly,” and if the “dangerous” doesn’t terrify you, the “deadly” is in close pursuit at all times. The film, economically paced at a little more than an hour, engorges the production with more atmosphere than one sees in most horror films today, and a day with Dracula was turning into a precarious venture at the very least. But it was Dracula’s unrelenting stare – coupled with that silence and those shadows from before – that I would need to shove into the catacombs of my mind before bedtime, no later than nine that night. His stare seemed to discover me, watching from the safety of my home, in those cinematic close-ups. His stares promised that Dracula knew where to find me at all times.

And yet I felt pretty good as I brushed my teeth that night, ready to share with Bryan how I’d stared into the face of the Prince of Darkness and returned to school on Monday anyway, no worse for the wear. I’d filled the rest of my day with Fleischer Superman cartoons and some G.I. Joe battles on my bedroom floor to erase Dracula from my memory, and I would have enjoyed a peaceful rest that night had it not been for my dad’s fateful reminder.

“Did you watch Dracula today?” he’d asked me. “What did you think of it?”

I can’t really recall the nature of my review before I went to bed – alone, in the dark – that night. All I could think about was Dracula’s ominous stare, its ability to find me in the family TV room, its assurance that it knew where to find me at any time from behind the television set glass.

And perhaps that was still a little too close for comfort for me.

Violent Night (2022)

It’s that time of year when we celebrate peace on Earth and goodwill to our fellow man so why am I chuckling at Santa Claus (STRANGER THING’s David Harbour) shoving a hand grenade down someone’s pants? Oh boy, am I a sucker for slapstick. It’s probably because I’m very wimpy and abhor confrontation in real life that cinematic violence hits me right in my funny bone and allows me to gleefully release all my repressed rage. VIOLENT NIGHT is a symphony of brutal bashings set to holiday music and remarkably, it also allows plenty of space for warm-hearted holiday sentiment. A movie that features EVIL DEAD-level carnage yet still gets me misty-eyed is exactly my cup of spiked cocoa. It’s a no-brainer that I’ll probably watch this flick every December until the day I die.

It’s Christmas Eve and the highly dysfunctional and partially estranged Lightstone family gathers together to lock horns and bicker about money with malicious matriarch Gertrude (a perfectly cast Beverly D’Angelo). Little do they know that the help they hired to serve them for the evening are masquerading mercenaries led by one “Mr. Scrooge” (Jon Leguizamo). Luckily for the Lightstones, everybody’s favorite home invader, Santa Claus is also in the house and plans to protect good-hearted daughter Trudy (Leah Brady) at all costs. It would be cruel to give away the plethora of ITCHY & SCRATCHY meets HOME ALONE booby-traps Scrooge’s hapless henchman are forced to endure and folly for me to attempt to estimate the impressive body count. Instead, I’ll simply say that VIOLENT NIGHT delivers over and over again just like Santa’s infinite bag of toys and if you’ve been good this year, you deserve to see it.

Traumafession:: Unk on A.I. Artificial Intelligence

I was an adult when A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE was released in 2001 but I’m going to write a traumafession about it anyway. Let’s call this a post-childhood kindertrauma. Ya see, there’s this one scene in the movie that really curb-stomped my morbidly empathetic heart to such a degree that it stained the rest of the film with a pungent depressing aura that I could never quite scrape off my shoe. It’s not a scary scene at all; it just feels like an impenetrable wall of dejection. Like that swamp of sadness that claimed Artax the horse in THE NEVERENDING STORY (’84).

Henry and Monica Swinton (Sam Robards and Frances O’Conner) are mourning a child who was put into suspended animation until his disease can be cured. In the meantime, they adopt a mechanical boy named David (Haley Joel Osment) to ease their loneliness and program him to love them just as if they were his real parents. One day they get the great news that Martin, the son they birthed has miraculously recovered and can return home. Unfortunately, their “real” son is a real brat who is jealous of David and commits to tormenting him. While being teased at a family gathering, David becomes frightened and grabs Martin to protect him and they both fall into the pool. David’s desperate grip is so great that he nearly drowns Martin. Afterward, David is seen as a threat and it is decided that he must be returned to his manufacturer and destroyed (!). Momma Monica can’t go through with the hideous betrayal and instead leaves him in the middle of the woods (!) crying and pleading for a second chance. I find the abandonment of David, horrifically cruel and difficult to process. What the hell is wrong with these people? How can they live with themselves? With only a teddy bear for companionship, David treks on experiencing multiple perils but my mechanical brain glitches and cannot move forward. The rest of the movie will forever be a blur.

Why am I thinking of this now? This past summer I met a cat in my backyard and named her June. She stopped by a couple of times a day for food and I found her company soothing. As we bonded I became worried for her safety but could not bring her in due to the fact that she was clearly nursing kittens somewhere. By some miracle, we eventually found all of her kittens (6!) and were able to bring her inside where she could nurse them until they were old enough for adoption. Cue a montage of glorious days with bouncing kittens everywhere until inevitable reality barges into the room. Well, we were able to find homes for two of the kittens but the experience of choosing who would be separated from their siblings and sent to safe but scary new environments was some SOPHIE’S CHOICE-level torture for me. I couldn’t stand the fear in their eyes and it was like sawing off an invisible appendage. So that’s it, I can’t let another go. We are going to have a lot of cats (8!) now because I can’t stand the idea of them feeling like unwanted robots even for a moment. This is all Steven Spielberg’s fault.