Growing up this time of year – as close as it is to the holidays – it was almost daily that I would return home from elementary school to find an errant rain check for a Christmas toy waiting for my parents in the mailbox; or to find the house toasty warm against the cold, snowy afternoon; or to see yet another screening of Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas on HBO. And one year, for at least that holiday season, it was the cinematic milk & cookies that accompanied every school day afternoon. I all but came to expect Emmet & Ma and their timeless story of family & holiday cheer waiting for me when I got home.
The short film – based on a 1971 children's book by Russell Hoban and inspired by O. Henry's “The Gift of the Magi” – was directed by Jim Henson (yes, that Jim Henson) and imbued with all the magic of the maestro’s muppetry. It tells the story of young Emmet (an otter) and his widowed Ma (also an otter), both working odd jobs in order to make ends meet in Frogtown Hollow, even when they're taken advantage of for the work that they do. The two are possessed with an unwavering love for one another, but they're also quietly consumed this year by memories of Christmases with their deceased Pa. He taught them to ensure the happiness of the family, even when his own longing was greater than his entrepreneurial plans.
And Christmas is only days away. Emmet yearns for a new $40 guitar, and Ma dreams wistfully of owning a piano again. Good fortune comes in the form of a local talent contest, then, and both Emmet and Ma commit to winning the grand prize, even if they must secretly compete against one another. To that end, Ma hocks the tool chest used for Emmet's odd jobs so that she can sew a nice dress to wear on the night of the contest. And Emmet, meanwhile, punctures a hole in the base of Ma's wash tub (also used for her work as a laundress) so that he can put together a jug-band with his friends.
From there, the 1977 children’s film is wrought with enough dramatic irony and existential dread to trouble any young person who watches it, even when it's laced with charming backwoods duets performed by the show's two protagonists. (And what grownup viewer hasn't felt some sort of existential dread during the holiday season?) But the film seems to save its greatest nightmares for the narrative’s musically-gifted villains: the Riverbottom Nightmare Band. When they're not obnoxiously revving their motors in town or gleefully terrorizing the citizens of Frogtown Hollow with their overall apathy and disregard for order, they're also a hard rock band not to be underestimated by anyone …
… Especially those hoping to win a talent contest.
Led by the surly Chuck Stoat, Stanley Weasel, Fred Lizard, Howard Snake, and "Pop-Eyed" Catfish also enter the local talent show. The band appears to be the only obstacle standing in the otter family's way for a merry Christmas. Yet what makes the band so horrifying is their complete antipathy to everything that the otters – and the viewer – appreciate. Family, hard work, optimism, devotion – these are foreign concepts to the likes of the Riverbottom Gang, who sing that they despise everything they don't understand, which included young me then .. and even you today.
To the young viewers watching this puppet-populated plot unfold, Chuck and his entourage embody a garish, rebellious response to everything that represents normalcy, especially the spirit of the holiday season. The Riverbottom Nightmare Band doesn't apply to the talent contest out of a heartfelt need to nourish good will, like that of Emmet or Ma. There is nothing selfless and charitable in their desire to perform. Rather, their performance looks and sounds like something that will simply win – and it does (spoiler alert!) – because it can. Like the most unconscious slasher in a horror film, the band outperforms our lovable, musically ambitious heroes simply because that's the way this particular story was meant to end, as a scary story more akin to Halloween than Christmas Eve.
It can sometimes feel today as if the bad guys are always going to win, that the good guys can do nothing to save the day. What's worse, we're sometimes made to feel this way not because we – the good guys – lack the heart or skills or talents or tools, but because the darkness seems to so frequently nudge out the light, no matter how bright its glow.
So even as we reflect upon those childhood moments that taught us that the fight against evil was an insurmountable one, we should try to remind ourselves that no evil truly triumphs when we embrace the strength that we have with friends and family. Perhaps it's only natural that we're reminded of the power of those near & dear at this time of year, even when we sometimes forget that that power is with us throughout the year, not exclusive to the holiday season.
And would that every day be like the one demonstrated in this children's film, however mature in its storytelling. Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas dramatizes a message that should resonate with us all:
Where we simultaneously hope to win an impossibly challenging talent contest and discover that everything we ever needed to be happy was always within the reach of our own open arms.
Around the age of 4, I was spending time at my Mamaw and Papaw's house which certainly wasn't anything out of the ordinary. Some of my happiest childhood memories took place inside their home and, usually, on the carpet in front of their RCA TV set or behind their recliners where they kept a handy dandy VHS rewinder so that they could always rewind the tapes before returning them to the video rental store. Yes, fine upstanding citizens, my grandparents. Beverly Sutphin approved! On this day, we were only stopping by for a few minutes and I headed into their wood-paneled TV room to see what they were watching. On screen, I saw a bespeckled man grabbing a late-night snack in a kitchen when his steak started moving across the counter with an icky squishing sound. Before long, the steak had erupted with all kinds of disgusting looking worms and guts and, to make matters worse, the chicken leg he'd dropped after seeing the shock of this spooky steak had maggots crawling all over it.
Thankfully, someone came in and changed the channel before I could see any more, but the damage was done and I was haunted. I figured I'd never be brave enough to watch this entire movie. Who could be? I couldn't even imagine how scary the rest of the movie had to be. It was several years before I got the courage to rent POLTERGEIST and watch it in its entirety and the rest of this scene, where this man rushes into the bathroom and starts pulling off chunks of his face, caused me to run out of the room with a shriek and come get my parents to take the tape out of the VCR for me, because I didn't even want to go back in that room. I was convinced the titular poltergeist had gotten out through the TV during that scene and was about to run amok in our home. Boy, was I glad I didn't see that full scene during my first encounter with the movie! As the years have gone on, I've certainly seen far more graphic films than POLTERGEIST, but I can't say that I don't always gulp and take a deep breath when I'm rewatching it and this scene's about to come on. Some of those early scares have a surprisingly long shelf life.
UNK SEZ: Thanks for the awesome and relatable traumafession, Chris! POLTERGEIST sure offered a plethora of indelible traumas! Folks, make sure you track down our pal Chris Moore’s latest film, the slash-tastic WHEN THE TRASH MAN KNOCKS! It’s currently stalking Amazon Prime and you can check out the menacing trailer HERE!
DeathDream (1974) and Fiend (1980)
Two movies that are almost the same movie. DeathDream is one of the few truly scary films ever made in my opinion. The plot revolves around a soldier killed in Vietnam returning home to his family but not as he was, no, now he is a sort of zombie-vampire hybrid in need of blood to stave off decomposition. It is oneiric, unsettling and genuinely creepy, as are all of Bob Clarks horror outings. Fiend concerns a supernatural entity which possesses the corpse of one, Mr. Longfellow, then proceeds to move into suburbia and begins murdering and eating its neighbors in order to forestall decomposition. The film creates an atmosphere, not wholly unlike Deathdream which I suspect it drew heavy inspiration from. Sure it has it's flaws, but damn it, I like it.
The Penthouse (1967) and The Swimmer (1968)
Two totally tripped out 60's films. The Penthouse sees an adulterous couple in being terrorized in the titular penthouse by a bizarre group of criminals named Tom, Dick and Harry. The Swimmer recounts the increasingly surreal metaphysical journey of Ned (Burt Lancaster) as he swims home through the pools of his friends and neighbors, or rather, who he thinks are his friends and neighbors and comes to realize home might not always be where the heart is, if you don't have one.
Twisted Nerve (1968) and Straight on Till Morning (1972)
Two films about deranged lovers. Twisted Nerve tells the story of a disturbed young man and the insane things he will do in order to woo the woman of his dreams. Straight on Till Morning flips the script a bit and shows the obsession women have with insane men and the lengths they will go in order to be with them.
Blink (1993) and Mute Witness (1995)
Two movies that show murderers don't discriminate against the handicapped. Blink tells the story of a blind musician who receives an operation to allow her to see, but what she sees she doesn't want to; the murder of her neighbor and that now she is being stalked by the killer. Mute Witness takes place in and around the set of a slasher film in Russia where a mute makeup artist is pursued by the makers of a snuff film she happened upon.
Blind Date (1984) and Nothing Underneath (1985)
Two movies about guys who witness murders. In Blind Date, we follow a blind guy as he tracks a serial killer in Greece by way of a tape player that allows him to see and Deanna Troi gets naked. Truly, what more do you need? In Nothing Underneath, an American forest ranger witnesses his model sister's murder in Milan.
A Shock to the System (1990) and American Psycho (2000)
Two horror comedies about killer yuppies. Following an electrocution and after being passed over for a promotion at the large advertising firm he works at for a younger rival and for which his wife berates him, Graham Marshall (Michael Caine) decides to set his life in order by removing from it, all those who have made it miserable, this film was surely an inspiration for the following. No introductions necessary…Patrick Bateman, played by Christian Bale- who coincidentally would work with Michael Caine on his Batman films- just wants to fit in and does so by being rich, powerful, physically perfect and sadistically killing people.