Kindertrauma Classic:: Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986)

POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE (1986) may not glow with the bright raw power of its superior predecessor, but its corny heart is in the right place; it sports some great performances, has a fantastic Jerry Goldsmith score (which I’m listening to now), and is the home to more than a few potent as hell kindertraumas. Here are some that spring immediately to my mind; feel free to add your personal favorites in the comments.

Reverend Kane at the Door. Don’t blame the self-confessed, downwardly mobile Freeling family for their temporary digs, shacking up with Grammy Jess (Geraldine Fitzgerald) in Arizona; keep in mind their previous home up and disappeared into another dimension. One day while playing in the front yard Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) spies the same ghoulishly macabre, slinky man, who freaked her out earlier at the mall approaching with an apparent rain cloud over his head. Now, every scene which features Julian Beck’s incredible performance as sinister, deceased cult leader Reverend Kane is gruesomely effective but his attempt to enter the Freeling’s current temporary place of residence really takes the cake. After ignoring every possible not-so-subtle cue that he’s very much not welcome, insulting our favorite father’s manhood while attempting to Jedi-mind trick him, and even getting rebuffed with a whimper by the family dog (the heroic Pooch E. Buzz) he takes his gloves off and cuts to the chase screaming, “You’re all going to die in there!” It’s simple, to the point, and considering the family’s track record, hard to dispute.

The Demonic Tequila Worm. Rightfully frazzled thanks to the current onslaught of supernatural activity, Steve Freeling (Craig T. Nelson) understandably turns to a bottle of tequila to buffer the perpetual chaos. Unfortunately, he also inadvertently swallows a worm from the bottle which houses the spirit of Reverend Kane (aka The Beast), and soon he is cackling like a maniac, hurling hurtful accusations and forcing himself upon his mortified wife Diane (JoBeth Williams). In a last-ditch effort to break through to her husband, who is clearly possessed by an evil entity, Diane reaffirms her love for Steve which results in him puking up a humungous, mucus-covered creature with Kane’s snarling face which slithers away to wreak havoc elsewhere. The scene works as a pure gross-out extravaganza (the special effects are amazing) but hits much deeper on a psychological level as it’s truly disturbing to see such a beloved character behave in such a fashion. Simultaneously, it stokes fears of losing control over one’s actions as the audience has grown to empathize with this character (who may possibly be horror’s greatest father figure). It’s all very off-putting and must be particularly so for anyone who has ever known a loved one who suffered from mental illness or alcoholism.

Lawn of the Dead. Poor Diane Freeling always seems to be a corpse magnet! While processing and grieving the death of her beloved clairvoyant mother Gramma Jess (sorry for the spoiler), Diane has a very bad dream. She’s out in the front yard next to the lovely rose garden she and her mother once planted when a bunch of skeletal hands pop up from the ground and grab her. Worse still, a multitude of decrepit corpses yank her into the ground and then the soil returns to its previous state as if she never existed. There is a multitude of in-your-face dangers carousing about in P2 (even a floating chainsaw) but for some reason, this incidental jump-scare nightmare that pointedly expresses the unanimous fear of the grave is always a direct hit to my morbid heart.

Trauma Scene:: Large Marge in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

You wouldn’t guess that a PG-rated movie that is essentially a love story between a special boy and his special bike would be such a notorious traumatizer but here we are. Of course, knowing that the film is also the directorial feature debut of Tim Burton makes it all that much more understandable.

Poor Pee-Wee (Paul Reubens) is on a cross-country adventure to reclaim his bicycle which he believes resides in the basement of the Alamo in Texas thanks to some shady information from a dubious psychic. At one point in his journey, he is picked up from the side of the road by a gruff, older female truck driver (character actress Alice Nunn) with wild hair and a crazed, unblinking look on her face. She tells Pee-Wee of a horrible accident she witnessed as he stares at her in shock and awe. At one point, as she describes the gruesome appearance of the accident victim, her entire face transforms (with the aid of stop-motion, Claymation trickery) into a bug-eyed howling freak with frazzled hair. As she shrieks so does Pee-Wee and rightfully so.

Later, as she drops a bewildered and still stunned Pee-Wee off at a roadside dinner she says, “Tell them Large Marge sent you.” Dutifully our hero repeats the trucker’s words to the diner patrons who gasp in amazement and point to a nearby shrine/memorial; it turns out Large Marge has been dead for ten years and tonight is the anniversary of her demise!

Large Marge is as humorous as she is freaky and her monstrous appearance is as cartoonish and over the top as the rest of this classic eighties comedy. Still, it’s not surprising that younger viewers might be taken completely off guard with this lightning strike of surreal imagery, especially with the hushed ghost story build-up that is delivered beforehand. Large Marge is the perfect dosage of horror and hilarity and nobody who has seen the film would ever disagree.

Special Bonus Trauma: Pee–Wee’s Nightmares. Pee-Wee experiences very relatable anxiety when he is separated from the love of his life, his cherished bicycle. His emotional turmoil is expressed with Hitchcock-level paranoia and chronic bad dreams. His first nightmare involving a dinosaur chomping on his bike is basically adorable but his second, which centers on a group of hideous clowns preparing his beloved for surgery, is anything but. For a moment there seems to be one doctor who may be reliable and competent but then he takes off his surgical mask to reveal he’s a terrifying clown with a twisted traumatizing grimace as well. All eventually ends happily with Pee-Wee becoming a celebrated hero with a movie made from his many tribulations but you’d never guess it from this horrifying clown-strewn nightmare.

Kidertrauma Classic:: IT: The Miniseries (’90)

I’m not sure I could possibly think of a movie that better captures the essence of the term Kindertrauma than the 1990 TV miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s IT directed by Tommy Lee Wallace. (Its only competition may be the theatrical interpretation of King’s novel or the mighty book itself). Beyond showcasing Tim Curry’s iconic performance of Pennywise the Clown (which scarred a generation), IT distinctly focuses on the horrors of childhood that one can never quite scrape off their shoe as an adult. Interdimensional, shapeshifting, child-devouring monsters from your past are hard to hurdle I know, but so are abusive parents, sadistic bullies, basic bigotry, physical illness, the loss of a loved one and the simple quiet terror of never quite fitting in. The story of IT is a reminder that no matter how much we may move on with our lives or how “well-adjusted” or successful we become, there’s no way to fully escape the events that shaped us.

IT is the tale of a group of misfits known as “The Losers Club” who destroyed an evil entity in their youth which presented itself (mostly) as a hideous clown named Pennywise.

Now adults, living lives of avoidance, dissociation and denial, they are mortified to learn that the monster has returned. Having made a sacred pact long ago, the group returns to their hometown to destroy the creature once and for all. Unfortunately, their adversary knows their every psychological weakness and its powers to exploit them appear to be limitless.

IT: The Miniseries consists of two, roughly two-hour segments (when allotting for commercials). The first part, which focused on childhood events aired on November 18th, 1990 then two days later the conclusion dealing with the modern day adults facing their boogeyman was broadcast on November 20th. Both did exceptionally well in the ratings though the first part is notoriously better regarded with audiences and critics; the final confrontation being deemed a bit of a letdown. IT delivered within its original 192 minutes more genuine, platinum Kindertraumas than could be listed here so, in the interest of space, allow me to list my top five disturbing moments (and please feel free to add your own in the comments):

THE OPENING. The scene in which young Georgie encounters Pennywise in a storm drain is rightfully a classic but I’m equally freaked by our first glimpse of the clown hiding within some hanging laundry on a sunny day. Moments later he has killed a little girl only a precious few feet away from the safety of her mother and home and it still creeps me out.

THE SCRAPBOOK. Trippy surrealism abounds as the gang watches an old photo of their town seemingly comes to life. Pennywise is at his most terrifying, boldly declaring to the group his evil intentions straight to their stunned faces. To top it all off, his hand reaches out of the photo book like a mad cartoon! Freddy Krueger would be proud.

THE SHOWER SCENE. Having to take a shower after gym is nightmarish enough without the showerheads attacking you and a clown protruding from the drain surrounded by stop-motion effects and grinning like a malice-fueled maniac!

THE CHINESE RESTAURANT. As adults the gang regroup at a restaurant to strategize their survival. The dinner is more than ruined when the dessert appears to be fortune cookies that mutate and dispel cockroaches, crabs, agonizing baby birds (!) and animated eyeballs. Nice job triggering my every food-phobia.

MRS. KERSH. They say you can’t go home again and why should you when you might bump into a kindly old lady who transforms into your deceased abusive father.

AND SO MANY MORE. The “Turn Back Now” balloon, the voices in the bloody sink, the talking skeleton, the possessed pharmacist, the ghost of Ben’s father, the werewolf, the mummy, the decapitated head, that darn Eddie Bowers and every single appearance of that wacky jokester Pennywise. Beep! Beep! IT is a giant box of assorted nightmares and indelible images and possibly the most epic made for TV horror film ever made (although, yeah, the king crab climax leaves a lot to be desired. But who cares? You really shouldn’t judge an entire meal on a couple rotten fortune cookies).

NOTE: There is a brand new documentary on the making of IT called PENNYWISE: THE STORY OF IT and it’s streaming on SCREAMBOX. It’s an incredibly detailed look at the creation of the miniseries with fascinating interviews with many involved and wonderful tributes to those who have passed. I enjoyed every minute of it and highly recommend IT!

Name That Trauma:: Julie B. on a Bedridden Corpse

Hello Friends!

I have been trying for a few years to find the film that terrified my sister when we were kids, but with no success. It was shown on Sammy Terry’s show, our local late night horror host here in Indianapolis, and we had snuck downstairs to watch it. It was well past our bedtime, and we were never allowed to watch anything that awesome, so this was a covert operation.

It was the opening scene of the film (or very near the beginning) and the setting was a very creepy, very dark Victorian mansion (or a castle?) on a stormy night (Classic!) People are gathered around the curtained bed of an old woman who had recently died, and when they pull back the bed curtains for the reveal, she is in full rigor mortis, eyes staring directly into the camera with a rictus grin.

My sister shrieked and bolted upstairs, we got in trouble, and that was it for Sammy Terry for a while. I was able to torment her with that face for a long time afterwards though, which felt like appropriate payback for ruining a good time!

That was decades ago, but I’d love to find the film to see if it’s as terrifying now as it was then, and because (obviously!) I need to retraumatize my sister.

Thank you so much for your help!

My Kindertrauma:: Creature from the Black Lagoon (’54) By Justin H.Q.

As it is with most children growing up, my sanctuary was my home. Home is where my parents raised me, where my older brother taught me what I needed to know of the world, where my toys promised to teleport me to another world when the earthly one got to be a little too much for me to handle.

Watching horror movies also became a home of mine. Watching scary movies would become a place where I strangely felt safe, mostly because no matter how grotesque or otherworldly or supernatural or unbelievable the monsters that threatened me from the horror movie screen, the more I quickly understood that every horror movie would come to an end, extinguishing the potential for horror with it. As soon as the credits of a horror film would begin to roll, my heart and my mind would shove the terror of its unimaginable creature back into some harmless recess where I knew it couldn’t reach me.

It was make believe, after all.

And I would have to imagine that if horror films have proven to be problematic in my own life then they present a bit of a challenge to others as well. Some people hate horror movies because they are legitimately frightened watching them. Meanwhile, I love horror movies because they remind me of what scares me about everything around me. Because I discovered through a horror movie that home can be a very terrifying place too, and Creature from the Black Lagoon taught me that lesson.

When first introduced to the creature, I imagined that his physical image alone would give me nightmares when I’d see him ambling about on the screen. But I found that I wasn’t afraid of him at all. On the contrary, I gravitated to the creature. I wanted to understand this thing that looked nothing like me but seemed to feel things that I could also feel. To my understanding, he loved nature. He appreciated beauty. He felt at times like he was different (and that didn’t always feel like a normal feeling).

And when I watched Creature from the Black Lagoon as a child – like the creature – I suddenly felt threatened too.

But I wasn’t threatened in a horror movie by some malformed creature that defied description. In fact, I was threatened by people who looked – for want of a better word – normal. Like real, everyday human beings. And they were invading this creature’s home and they were discarding their cigarette butts into this creature’s home and they sought to abduct the creature from his home. To my way of thinking, Creature from the Black Lagoon is a home invasion film, and the creature itself is the victim. And if I’d come to understand anything about the sanctity of the home, it is that you must always defend it.

Somehow, then, I understood that every home on my block was part of the neighborhood watch program. Were my family far from home, someone would defend our house if threatened by a burglar. And if a fire threatened to burn my home to the ground, a fire brigade would save my house from a smoldering fate. And if a tornado warning was sounded over the radio, the rest of the family would whisk away to the basement, and my dad would stand watch on the house’s front porch, waiting for the first glimpse of a cyclone. And I knew my father would provide first-hand accounts of the storm’s assault on our home rather than be whisked away by terrible winds himself. I knew at all times that my house was protected in these ways.

But watching Creature from the Black Lagoon as a child, I would never have thought that normal people could be monsters, that people seemingly as similar to and familiar to and innocuous as you or I could inspire terror by entering my home – especially with me in it – by taking my home from me or by removing me forever from my home. One could imagine, then, that my sympathies lied with the creature when I watched that film. To this day, my sympathies still do. Even when I rewatch the movie today, I hope that the conclusion will somehow be different, despite the fact that I’ve seen it so many times. I champion the gill man and hope that he will not only save his home but perhaps even discover sympathy, if not love. And for those familiar with this classic Universal monster movie, you know that the monsters win, in the end. The heroic creature, alternatively, does not.

And I’ve since moved far away from that house that I once called home. That house where my parents raised me, where my brother taught me what I needed to know of the world, where my toys promised to teleport me to another world when the earthly one got to be a little too much for me to handle.

And I’ve tried hard since then to forget the lesson that I learned there – watching that 1954 film – that sometimes, the monsters win. Sometimes, home is a place – like a memory – to be abandoned, when it both cannot be defended and when the movie always seems to end the same, no matter how many times you watch it.

Name That Trauma:: Rob B on Psychics & Seances

Hey, guys, this is my second post here. I received some help from the fan base about another movie I was trying to identify, and I was hoping you could help me with a couple of others, to wit:

1) I believe this first one was a made-for-TV movie from the 1970’s. It begins with an old man (I believe it was Will Geer or a similar actor) out in the country, examining the ground closely as he walks along, eventually finding the spot he seems to be looking for; he buries a knife by the handle with the blade sticking up out of the ground, and walks off looking quite satisfied. I honestly can’t remember anything else that happens until the moment of truth at the climax of the movie when a physical fight breaks out between two of the characters (m/m, m/f?) and the antagonist falls backward, right on the blade of the knife that was buried so cryptically at the beginning of the film which saves the day. Obviously some kind of psychic foreshadowing took place at the beginning, and I seem to remember the theme of more second sight related activity during the film but that’s about it — the very beginning and the very end.

2) This was a British production, also from the 1970’s (at least the video quality makes me think so) and involves a wealthy widow (I believe) who is trying to make contact with her deceased husband (or family member) on the other side. She has recently made the acquaintance of a somewhat younger man and they begin to develop a relationship as the age gap is not so pronounced. He accompanies her to one seance which involves people seated around a table, questions being written down, sealed into envelopes, and placed in a basket; the medium, a rather portly, middle-aged woman, opens the envelopes one by one and answers the questions, until the younger man jumps up, snatches the wig off of the medium’s head (“she” is actually a female impersonator) and explains the con and how it works with the help of a confederate concealed among the “guests” (it’s quite clever when it’s explained, actually.) This cements the widow’s feelings for this younger man (and his for her, ostensibly) as genuine, which, as we find out, they are not, as he is really an unscrupulous fortune-hunter solely after her money. At another seance at the climax of the movie, a Native American warrior appears and manages to kill this fortune-hunter by shooting him with several arrows that manifest themselves physically, thereby rescuing the widow from his dishonorable ambitions.

These titles of these two forays into the realm of the psychic and seances have eluded me for some time, and any help anyone could give me in identifying them would be greatly appreciated, Thank you, as always!

Kindertrauma Classic:: Return to Oz (1985)

RETURN TO OZ (‘85) deserves a great deal more respect than what it is often granted. It’s safe to assume that 1939’s THE WIZARD OF OZ is held in such high regard that critics simply could not accept such a wildly divergent interpretation of L. Frank Baum’s “OZ” books (even if it was more loyal to the original source material). Well, THE WIZARD OF OZ being a great, beloved classic movie does not stop RETURN TO OZ from being an incredible, one-of-a-kind, dark fantasy film. Director Walter Murch (best known for his editing and sound work on such fine films as the GODFATHER TRILOGY & APOCALYPSE NOW) delivers a gorgeously gothic and terrifically trippy steampunk world like no other that is equal parts amusing and menacing and he obtains wonderfully grounded work from the human cast while making impossible creatures convincingly come to life (with the help of many gifted claymation and practical artists including members of the Jim Henson Company). RETURN TO OZ conveys the bizarre, dream-like world of a child’s imagination perfectly while being a gentle reminder of the importance of friendship (especially of the non-human variety; my favorite kind), teamwork and devotion in a dangerous, unpredictable world.

All that being said, any OZ movie worth it’s salt, be it the OG, THE WIZ or RETURN has got to deliver on the kindertrauma front. The land of OZ is just not the land of OZ unless it’s freaky as all hell and full of heinous child endangering witches, beasts, and monsters (oh, my!) Naturally RETURN is no slouch in this all-important area so lets take a look at its boldest strokes:

THE SANITARIUM. What better way to kick-off a colorful, high-spirited romp than visiting a dour mental institution that looks like it was painted by Edvard Munch during a particularly depressing period of his life? It’s six months after Dorothy Gale (a remarkably restrained and convincing Fairuza Balk in her screen debut) first visited Oz and Auntie Em (Piper Laurie, everyone’s favorite maternal figure) and Uncle Henry (Matt Clark) are worried the tyke is so delusional about her experiences that some good old electro-shock therapy is in order. The poor girl is first made to acknowledge that the electrotherapy machine has a smiling face and is soon strapped down to a squeaky wheeled gurney and prepped for the procedure. Luckily for Dorothy, there is a power outage due to a lightening strike and a kind girl frees her from her straps. The girl informs Dorothy that the screams she has been hearing are coming from previous recipients of the procedure who are now “damaged” and locked in the basement! It’s all very stressful and it could be said that the trauma triggers Dorothy into dissociating to the degree that she must travel back to Oz in order to process it all.

Dorothy’s rescuer (Emma Ridley) becomes Princess Ozma, scary Dr. Worley (Nicol Williamson) becomes the dreaded Nome King, creepy Nurse Wilson (Jean Marsh) becomes evil witch-princess Mombi and her twisted assistant (Pons Maar) transforms from a squeaky gurney operator into the ring leader of…

THE WHEELERS. Not long after Dorothy has returned to Oz with her pet chicken Billina who can now talk (Toto wisely hangs back in Kansas for this outing), she encounters some graffiti warning “Beware the Wheelers.” Soon she is surrounded by these cackling creatures with wheels rather than feet and hands who roll across the terrain doing the bidding of Wicked Witch placeholder Mombi. Wheelers are notorious for freaking out younger viewers as well they should be; they’re objectively alarming, chaotic creations who straight forwardly threaten to kill Dorothy by throwing her in the deadly desert which will turn her to sand (although it’s not much worse than Aunt Em’s threat to make stew of Billina if she fails to lay eggs).

HEADLESS MOMBI. No, we’re not in Kansas anymore but we’re not in the Oz we know and love either. The Nome king has turned all the residents of Oz into stone and Mombi has gone and grabbed a bunch of their severed heads for herself which she keeps in glass cabinets and wears as her own when it suits her. When Dorothy is captured by Mombi, her plan of escape involves procuring Mombi’s “Power of Life” powder which she keeps in a cabinet with her favorite noggin. Of course Mombi wakes up, all the decapitated heads wail and Dorothy narrowly escapes the rampaging witch’s headless body. No doubt about it, it all screams pure unadulterated horror.

Don’t worry, Dorothy can handle it. She looks fear in the face and soldiers on. She makes awesome new friends along the way like Tik-Tok, Jack Pumpkinhead, a flying couch with a green moose head called a Gump (it’s a long story) and wins the respect of every single reasonable person in the land of Oz. At one point the manipulative Nome King even offers Dorothy a free trip home if she’s willing to abandon her friends and it’s obvious the very idea is unthinkable to her. Nome King and Mombi (as well as jerk-offs Doctor Worley and Nurse Wilson) clearly don’t know who they’re dealing with! Sure, RETURN TO OZ can sometimes be a dark and threatening journey for some younger viewers but I’d say the sometimes frightening dangers it presents only serve to make its larger message of perseverance and loyalty all that much stronger.

My Kindertrauma:: Sesame Street Episode 847 (’76) By Unk

Once upon a time in 1976, Margaret Hamilton reprised her role as the Wicked Witch of the West from THE WIZARD OF OZ (’39) on Sesame Street. It didn’t go over so well; the episode freaked out many a child, there was a barrage of complaints from parents and the episode was pulled from future airings. Interestingly, the previous year, Hamilton appeared on Mister Roger’s Neighborhood where she explained to the delight of children everywhere that her role as the witch was only make-believe. For some unknown reason, the folks of Sesame Street decided to throw all that goodwill into Oscar’s trash can by suggesting that kindly Hamilton, sans green make–up, was in fact the evil witch in deceitful disguise; a witch who threatens to turn Big Bird into a feather duster! You can watch the unearthed Sesame Street episode HERE & the Mr. Rogers episode HERE and please don’t mind me if I utilize this occasion to tell you about the time when as a kid, I met a horrifying witch myself!

I’m guessing I was seven or eight when I was sent to sleep-away camp. It seemed exciting at first and I could not get my head around the fact that some of my fellow kids were crying and homesick. Were they crazy or just babies? I assumed both. I was pretty happy to be somewhere new and unfamiliar and I had recently learned a new sport that I was actually good at called “bumper surfing.” Ya see, cars drove real slow as they passed through the campgrounds so if you saw a truck go by, you just jumped on the back bumper and rode it for a spell. What could possibly go wrong?

One day I was talking to a camp counselor when the perfect truck with a fat bumper drove by. With the arrogance of an ignoramus, I cut the counselor off mid-sentence and basically advised them to “hold that thought” as I ran toward the vehicle, jumped on the back, and took it for a jaunty ride. I returned to the camp counselor to find a look of complete horror on their face about what they had witnessed. They asked if I knew the people in the truck and I shrugged and said no. Their eyes widened. I was told my actions were so severe that a demerit would not suffice; I had to go speak to the head of the camp!

I was taken to a large tent and instructed to wait outside. I watched the silhouette of a hunchback hag scramble about within and it was straight out of SUSPIRIA even though I hadn’t seen that movie yet. Eventually, I was summoned by the decrepit woman with glassy eyes and harangued for what seemed like terrifying hours. I remember none of her grizzled gobbledygook except her closing sledgehammer statement, “If I wanted to kill myself then I should go ahead because nobody would miss me when I was gone.” Hmmm, ok, that stung. I held it together until I made it back to my tent and then I lost it. I started crying just like those crazy babies I had previously looked down upon. The old witch was right! I could feel it in my bones. Nobody would care if I lived or died. The world would keep turning and it’s possible my parents would be nothing but relieved. The witch had cursed me with this terrible knowledge that was always there but I had been pathetically blind to before. I would never be happy again!

Yet somehow I eventually got over it and camp wasn’t so bad after all. Once during a hike, we saw nude sun-bathers on the beach! Incredible! I also painted an owl on a smooth, round rock and I can still see it in my mind’s eye today. That owl was wise and understood everything. That owl was a sage symbol of my inner fortitude and my recently obtained ability to drag myself out of psychological quicksand. That owl rock had divine power! I’m pretty sure my dad threw it away.

NOTE: Witches are like bats and opossums and are actually really great and don’t deserve negative stereotyping. This tale takes place very long ago so I hope all the kind witches reading this will forgive my youthful ignorance and not curse me.

X (2022)

One of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had going to the movies in many moons is when I went to see Ti West’s X. It just looked so glorious on the big screen with its huge skies, stark horizons, and broad, eye-popping aerial shots. It’s like an exquisite painting that uses every inch of the canvas properly, a perfectly designed iconic flag I cannot resist saluting. And of course, it stands on the shoulders of giants proudly declaring its loyalty to horror greats like Hitchcock, De Palma, Carpenter, and especially, the one and only, Tobe Hooper. Yet I forgot to post about it and the reason for that is that I talked about the movie so much to myself inside my head that I honestly thought that I had. But I recently snagged a copy on DVD and watched it again so now’s the perfect time to remedy that.

It’s 1979 and Wayne Gilroy (Martin Henderson) has a brilliant plan to take advantage of the burgeoning home video market by producing a porn movie. He gathers together the perfect cast with his main-squeeze, starry-eyed Maxine Minx (Mia Goth), leggy blonde bombshell Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), and the generously endowed Jackson Hole (Kid Cudi). Helping out with directing duties is RJ (Owen Campbell) who brings along his meek girlfriend Lorraine (Jenny Ortega) to handle sound. The film is to be called “The Farmer’s Daughters” so Wayne rents out a rustic farmhouse in the middle of Texas (actually New Zealand) from two of the scariest oldsters you ever laid eyes on. Things get off to an uncomfortable and shaky start and go swiftly downhill from there. I’m not going to give anything away but it’s like watching that “American Gothic” painting by Grant Wood being ripped to shreds by an alligator but both the figures in the painting and the alligator are aging and decomposing at an accelerated speed.  

There’s nothing quite like watching a horror film made by someone who truly loves the genre and X sends off love letter vibes in every frame. There’s a certain type of eerie, menacing magic going on here that truly transports; it’s like strolling at dusk through a midsummer night’s nightmare and when the you-know-what hits the fan the horror is palpable and feels as ancient and ubiquitous as time itself. My public service announcement is that if you suffer to any degree with gerascophobia (fear of aging) make sure you bring a blanket to hide under while watching this movie. I’m pretty sure I grew a gray beard and developed liver spots before the end credits.

Unsurprisingly and as usual, a major reason that I hold this film in such high regard is because of the people in it and the humanity it displays even in its darkest moments. Writer, director, producer, and editor Ti West gallantly makes a point not to look down upon, judge, or mock his rag-tag team of complicated yet personable outsiders. In one simple scene, they explain themselves and their outlooks and you kind of have to admire their freedom and ability to live outside societal norms unapologetically. It doesn’t hurt that Britney Snow’s Bobby Lynne sings a surprisingly moving rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” which seems to momentarily stop the world from spinning. X is simply great filmmaking that is capable of conjuring up a cornucopia of emotions, horror being just one of them. Now, I better go buy some hair dye to cover this gray and maybe get some Geritol and prune juice while I’m at it. (Sobs quietly). Hey, why didn’t I get a senior discount when I bought my movie ticket!?! Whippersnappers!

The Black Phone (2022)

Is modern life so bleak that THE BLACK PHONE, a horror-thriller concerning a boy who is abused both at home and at school and is abducted and kept prisoner by a devil-masked lunatic known as “the grabber” is somehow the feel-good movie of the summer? Yes. Don’t blame the messenger. I’d even say it covertly sports the poignant reminder that we all survive and exist thanks to the acts and sacrifices of those who passed before us.

Ergo, I’d like to thank all my guardian angel ghosts out there. I see you and I’m mentally pouring one out to you.

Finney Blake (Mason Thames) is an affable 13-year-old living in an inadvertently hyper-stylish suburb in the aesthetically appealing golden year of 1978. Because he is modest and unassuming, most of his time is spent trying not to be beaten by marauding bullies or his brutish alcoholic father. Luckily he has a fantastic relationship with his younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) who has inherited their deceased mother’s psychic gifts (and is routinely punished for them). Shortly after Finney’s only friend and protector becomes yet another missing boy in their neighborhood, Finney himself bumps into a horrifically bizarre character driving a very conspicuous Magician’s Van filled with black balloons. It doesn’t end well. Finney finds himself in exactly the type of single mattress basement lair all sane minds fear. This one has a phone though- and it receives calls from his captor’s past victims who are generous enough to share helpful advice.

Director Scott Derrickson and screenwriter C. Robert McGraw have already made it abundantly clear they know how to deliver the creeps with their previous collaboration SINISTER (2012). But whereas that film sometimes strained credibility in regards to human behavior, THE BLACK PHONE (based on a story by Joe Hill) has enough heart and soul to fully immerse you in the nightmare it’s selling. Much credit goes to young actor Mason Thames’ portrayal of Finney who comes across as a fusion of the grounded stalwart Laurie Strode (as played by Jamie Lee Curtis) in HALLOWEEN (’78) and the mournful and inquisitive every-kid Mike Pearson (as played by A. Michael Baldwin) in PHANTASM (‘79). He instantly reads as someone you know or have known and if you don’t recognize him it might be because you were him. Ethan Hawke is equally convincing as the chuckling twisted predator who thankfully keeps his monstrous cards close to his chest. And who among us can look the gift horse of a hilarious supporting part delivered by the incredible James Ransone (SINISTER 1&2, IT: Chapter II) in the mouth?

THE BLACK PHONE is able to elicit sympathy for its characters in a way that is sadly too unique in modern horror which ramps the suspense up to stellar heights. It wants to scare you silly on one end of the receiver but the other end wants to remind you that maybe with a little help from some friends (living or dead) all of us are capable of sticking up for ourselves, fighting back, and finally treasuring those closest to us. As a kid from the seventies, I couldn’t help but appreciate how it presented a very recognizable sun-bleached world to me full of humiliations, aggravations, injustices, and the frustration of always getting a busy signal when you give Jesus a ring through prayer.

Ultimately, THE BLACK PHONE is a great reminder that horror films can do so much more than scare us, they can also inspire us to be brave in the face of what seems like insurmountable odds. It’s frightening, yet ultimately exhilarating; like an unholy cross between THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and THE KARATE KID. Additionally, if you needed an extra reminder to stay the hell away from black vans this fine flick provides that too, and in spades.