I envy you, I really do.
That is, if you’re like one of the many Kindertrauma regulars who were nearly scared clean out of childhood itself by media such as public service announcements, doll commercials, Claymation cartoons, and DISNEY/SESAME fare. Sure, I was occasionally creeped out by those things, too, but on the whole probably viewed such incidents as welcome moments of quiet dread. After all, I was too being traumatized by the blood ‘n guts of cinematic material aimed at adults…
A child of divorce, I can’t recall a time when my father didn’t take me to the movies every Sunday. The problem is, he took me to the movies he wanted to see as I guess this was his set-aside time each week to catch up on both current releases and classics at the revival houses… or just to check out the latest grindhouse offerings on 42nd Street. This was New York City in the 1970’s, a wonderland of high-, middle- and lowbrow film culture rubbing shoulders with each other and confusing impressionable little kids like me.
The first grownup movies I recall seeing “officially”—meaning, my mother was aware of these outings, unlike earlier ones—were screened as part of a PLANET OF THE APES mini-fest. One of the titles was 1971’s ESCAPE, the topic of a recent excellent Traumafession by FilmFather who sums up my feelings pretty well. By “mini-fest” I mean that in this pre-home-video age, it was common practice to re-release older films in a cycle to play on the same bill as the new installment. So I remember seeing several of the APES movies back-to-back, a nonstop parade of grim violence and sympathetic characters being killed off.
Speaking of sympathetic characters getting the axe, the only movie I was so terrified of that I just couldn’t cope at all was THEATRE OF BLOOD (1973). By all accounts this is a worthwhile movie, but to this day, nearly forty years later, I still haven’t been able to bring myself to watch it. Fairly early on the dramatic structure/tension of the film is made clear—VINCENT PRICE is killing off, one by one, those whom he feels have slighted him. Since I was either seven or eight when I sat there in the darkness watching this, I’m not sure that I grasped that the victims were cruel theater (oops, “theatre”) critics, and certainly the film’s campier aspects were lost on me. All I understood was that that people were being murdered… horribly, graphically, inexorably.
This itself probably wouldn’t have been an issue for me. I would have just gripped my armrests harder and gutted my way through. But one of the upcoming victims was played by ROBERT MORLEY, whom I already knew as a pitchman from the British Airways TV ads of the time. His persona in these commercials? The charmingly harmless chubby man who just wants to be your friend. And VINCENT PRICE was about to ensure that he wasn’t going to be anyone’s friend, ever.
“No, Daddy,” I remember pleading, “I don’t want him to kill the nice fat man and I know he’s going to kill the nice fat man.”
After attempts at shushing me didn’t work—in fact, I was getting louder and whinier and more desperate by the minute—my Dad grabbed my hand and led me up the aisle and out in the sunlight. I had already been crying for some time.
My Dad’s anger/annoyance at me was palpable, undeniable. Which is partly how I know I must have been terrified out of my gourd: it would have taken a lot of conviction on my part to defy him to the point where we had to leave the theater (not: “theatre”). And of course I understood his anger and did not find it unreasonable. After all, I had ruined his Sunday-at-the-movies plans with my juvenile anxieties over a bit of gruesome bloodshed.
But even now I don’t blame him for his response—I’d been subjected to plenty of other screen-trauma by this point in life, so why was I over-reacting in this one particular case? In truth, though, I was probably so terrified during earlier movies that I couldn’t find my vocal cords to protest. One horror flick that left lasting marks on my tender brain was TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972). The anthology set-up meant a new type of terror was introduced every ten or fifteen minutes, so in effect the movie attacked my childhood from multiple angles. In particular, the famous JOAN COLLINS segment with the murderous Santa Claus was taboo-bashing to a seven-year-old’s fragile psyche. In a way it’s a proto-slasher sequence, and so helped fuel maniac-at-large fears for me for years to come (e.g., around campfires). Also, another reason I think this segment impacted me for life is that as an adult I perversely find the most compelling theme to be when two evils square off against each other, and that’s what we have here since COLLINS is a murderer herself.
But this entire segment is just a warm-up act in TALES FROM THE CRYPT. Poor PETER CUSHING‘s being picked upon—itself a resonant theme for kids, or at least for me—and then returning from the dead with that hand thrusting upwards from the wormy grave! That moment is still thudding away somewhere deep inside me. And then the topper, somehow beyond that: the red, raw heart as the end punctuation both to the story and to a disturbingly rhymed Valentine’s Day verse. Wow, that’s like something that’s made intentionally to flow into the deeper, darker currents of a kid’s imagination…
In fact, this movie had it all, now that I think about, every type of grisly nastiness including revenge-gore: I also suffered a soul-concussion thanks to the segment that ends with the bad guy being chased down a narrow, razor-lined corridor by an attacking dog. Being sliced to ribbons has never been more visceral for me, even in movies when, unlike here, they actually show such the slicing on-camera. In any case, TALES FROM THE CRYPT, aside from ruining me forever in terms innocently enjoying the movies, not to mention my social/moral development, also seemed to speak to me—indeed, it was as if the unspeakable had been uttered aloud. The things you imagine at night when the lights are off, the supreme scariness of dogs, knives, cemeteries—all of this was now reality to me. It was a strange form of validation, knowing now that things this evil and tragic existed in the real world—for of course that’s what the movies were to me: they were real because they existed outside of my head. Forget about their being “fictional”—that distinction carried little weight at the time and probably still doesn’t.
My Dad also took me to museums and arthouse theaters for horror when it screened as part of festivals or repertory programming. At one museum (NYC’s MOMA?) I recall sitting through numerous European silent films, and looking back, I realize that some of these were probably German Expressionist classics (CALIGARI, NOSFERATU) since they seemed quite familiar when I saw them in my late teens a dozen years later. At the time, they were captivating but for the most part didn’t hit me in the gut.
One hugely notable exception on the Euro-front was a film that so traumatized me that I didn’t know its title (or even if I imagined the film itself) until decades later. That’s how strong my repression of it was. Anyway, SPIRITS OF THE DEAD was another anthology film, with three famous directors each trying their hand at a POE adaptation. Released in the late ‘60s, I must have seen it in revival four or five years later. There are three stories in this film, but LOUIS MALLE’s “William Wilson” segment so horrified me that I later blocked out all memory of the others. The erotic S&M undertone (overtone?) was, I’m guessing, inappropriate for an under-ten child, with one key scene showing ALAIN DELON whipping a too-sexy BRIGITTE BARDOT. But the scene that lifted the top of my skull and then proceeded to stir my brains with a sharp spoon featured a dissection by DELON on a still-living young woman. I believe he’s interrupted, but that’s beside the point, which was… YOU MEAN YOU CAN CUT UP SOMEONE LIKE YOU CUT UP YOUR DINNER? YOU MEAN SUCH STUFF CAN BE SHOWN IN MOVIES? YOU MEAN YOUR OWN PARENTS CAN TAKE YOU THESE MOVIES?!?
Okay, enough shouting. The bottom line is that these movies, and a lot more in addition, messed me up irrevocably… but in a good way. After all, I’ve earned my living over the years in large part from horror. So what—and whom—do I have to thank for that? In short, maybe it wasn’t a “problem,” as I described it earlier, that my father took me to the films he wanted to see, but rather a blessing…
UNK SEZ: Thanks Peter for the super deluxe traumafession! I envy your seventies era 42nd street memories. I think I was eating Wonder Bread in Alison Park, PA at the time, terrified by car headlights beaming light on my bedroom ceiling and a poorly placed clown painting. For all you folks out there who don’t know our friend and early (meaning essential) supporter PETER GUTIERREZ, he is an author, journalist and now with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: REANIMATED, a DVD producer!
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: REANIMATED is a fresh new look at your favorite ROMERO classic created by a collaboration of a multitude of artists and fans of the original film. If you haven’t already seen it, check out the trailer below to get an idea of what’s in store for you! You can snag a copy HERE and why don’tcha check out the official website for more info HERE!