My Kindertrauma:: Unk on Kolchak: The Night Stalker (’74)

When I was a youngin’ there wasn’t anything on television quite as scary to me as KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER (except maybe NIGHT GALLERY’s opening credits). I don’t think I caught the original airings but I believe there was a summer when repeats aired on one of our local channels. Reporter Carl Kolchak (the late great Darren McGavin who visits yearly in A CHRISTMAS STORY (’83)) had somewhat the same demeanor as my dad and that added something extra to the stakes as he butted heads with the supernatural.

One episode, in particular, was particularly notorious in our household. It was entitled “The Spanish Moss Murders” but we knew it as “The Swamp Monster” episode. Every time I caught KOLCHAK’s eerie opening credits, I remember hoping I had stumbled upon that much-spoken-about (at least between me and my brothers) monster of the week outing. Yes, these were the days before VCRs and home media when you just had to settle for whichever episode graciously materialized. A recent re-watch of this particular jaunt (like many an infamous kindertrauma) proved to be not quite as frightening as I remembered, but certainly just as entertaining.

There’s a rash of unexplained murders popping up across Chicago with seemingly little connection except for the fact that each victim’s chest cavity has been crushed. Enter the “Swamp Monster” as played by hulking Richard Kiel (“Jaws” of the James Bond films, another childhood idol) a shambling mass of straggly green vines leaving behind a trail of slime. In a very interesting (and Kindertrauma-friendly) twist, it turns out the monster is the physical manifestation of the childhood fears of a patient undergoing extensive sleep therapy. Things come to a horrifying head when our hero Kolchak realizes the most likely spot for such a creature to hang up his moss-covered hat is the sewer below the city! His plan to bust the Cajun legend come to life is foiled further when (wouldn’t you know it) a truck parks on top of his manhole escape route! The monstrous mound of verdure still looks rather daunting today (especially as he rises from the rat-strewn sewer waters) making it pretty clear why this episode has stuck in the craw of my mind like spinach on a tooth all these long years.

Kindertrauma Classic:: Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)

Affable mentally challenged Bubba Ritter (Larry Drake) enjoys an innocent friendship with a sweet little girl named Marylee Williams (Tonya Crowe). The two spend autumn days in their small Southern town singing songs, playing games, and making flower chains. Unfortunately, their creepy postman Otis (Charles Durning) projects his own ugly thoughts upon them and declares to anyone who will listen that something untoward is going on. One day, to Bubba’s horror, a dog ravages Marylee, and when he carries the girl’s bloody body to safety, her hysterical mother assumes Bubba is responsible! Thinking his worst assumptions have been proven true, obstinate Otis gathers a bunch of his knuckleheaded pals who form a vigilante mob. Meanwhile, Bubba’s mother, who is used to incriminations against her child, suggests he hide in plain sight dressed up as a scarecrow until the mess blows over. Otis, along with his henchman discover poor Bubba’s ruse and assassinate him just before Marylee regains consciousness and reveals what really happened. When Otis and his cohorts go free due to lack of evidence, Bubba’s mother warns, “There’s other justice in this world besides the law” and oh how right she is. As Halloween season commences, all those responsible for the unjust demise of Bubba will come to horrible deaths as an ominous scarecrow is seen haunting the fields.

Directed by novelist Frank De Felitta (Audrey Rose, The Entity), the 1981 made-for-television film DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW is a simple, yet deeply poetic morality tale rife with atmosphere and suspense. Larry Drake’s performance as innocent Bubba is outstanding and if there has ever been a more detestable villain than Charles Durning’s unscrupulous mailman Otis, I’m not aware of said monster. The impeccable cast also includes Jocelyn Brando who shines as Bubba’s mother and the voice of reason and righteousness within the unfortunate chaos. It’s difficult not to get roused by the bigotry and fragrant injustice imposed upon Bubba and his mother and to gleefully luxuriate in the well-deserved comeuppance inflicted on those who deserve it.

Anyone who was lucky enough to capture this perfectly constructed film on the night it premiered, caught its frequent re-airings, or rented the sometimes hard-to-find Key Video VHS tape can attest that DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW is not only one of the best made-for-TV horror movies out there but also one of the greatest supernatural revenge films of all time (I honestly feel like marching down my street with a “Bubba Didn’t Do It” picket sign as we speak). Loaded with many a memorable moment and a deadly force as sympathetic as it is chilling, this is one uniquely cathartic horror film in which every murder feels absolutely justified.

Name That Trauma:: Jason S. on a Floating Father & an Exploding Statue

Hey! Ran across your site and was hoping you could help me solve this mystery that’s been haunting me for almost 40 years:

I saw this on TV on a mid-summer’s night, probably in June, probably around 7-8 pm, probably 1988 but possibly as early as 1986. We were watching a movie or show on TV at home, possibly on HBO since I think we had it at the time, but also possibly another cable or broadcast channel. A neighborhood babysitter was watching me (age 14-17?) while my parents were out, so possibly a show geared toward the babysitter’s age. She might have also brought over a VHS.

The show was about a family in the suburbs. I remember the plot was divided into two distinct parts (?) In the first part, the show was about a family and the dad was possessed by an evil spirit or something. I remember this one scene where the dad floats flat on his back out of bed down the hallway of the family’s home, upstairs. Eventually/somehow the family works together to rid dad of being possessed and everything returns to normal. In the second part, dad is fine but I remember some evil dude from beyond the grave who was possessing the dad comes to life and starts wreaking havoc on the town, and the family tries to stop him. I remember this one scene where the evil dude busts out of a statue in the graveyard in the middle of town (?)

I’ve seen zero horror movies since (yep, scarred for life), so would be interested to know if this is easy to identify or another curiosity lost to history.

Thanks for the opportunity to contribute!

Halloween Ends

Even though I could have easily watched HALLOWEEN ENDS at home on TV (cuz we got that Peacock channel), I ventured out into the rain to see it at my closest theater. I required the full experience. I wanted to walk through falling leaves past Halloween decorations on my way there and I wanted to absorb the film alongside fellow horror fans and possibly dangerous strangers. Hey, I’ve seen every single movie in the Halloween franchise in the theater on opening day since I was old enough to in 1982 (we’re talking HALLOWEEN 3: SOTW) and I wasn’t about to break with tradition now. The Halloween series is what kickstarted my obsessive horror fandom (when I viewed it on TV while babysitting no less). It holds a very special place in my heart and it has loyally offered me a place to escape and recharge whenever I’ve needed it over the years (which is often). Luck was not on my side this time though as halfway through the movie, the lights came on and there was an emergency evacuation of the theater. It turned out to be nothing (a bomb threat is nothing?) but of course, it felt like the last moments of my life anyway. I guess if I was going to kick the bucket it might as well be doing what I love.

So I walked home. I’d just have to watch the second half of the movie on television. Wait, did this mean I’d have to watch the first part again? Why did that concept exasperate me? Why did that idea produce an audible exhausted exhale? I had to admit it, I wasn’t loving HALLOWEEN ENDS. There was still a chance it could turn itself around and deliver a bang-up finale but the fact remained that I was a bit frustrated about what I’d seen and what the filmmakers were focusing on thus far. Worse still, I wasn’t buying a lot of what was going down. There was an air of hokey corniness wafting through the proceedings that I hadn’t smelt since CURSE or RESURRECTION. My inner Annie Wilkes was taking notes (Did they really expect me to swallow marching band bullies, evil-inducing eyeballs, and super conspicuous sewer hideouts?). I can’t say the counter-intuitive direction it was leaning wasn’t interesting, it just didn’t seem the right time for any of it. I felt like I was trying to read a recipe online but had to scroll through the author’s life story first (or that horrible feeling when you go see a concert for a nostalgia fix and the band says “Now, here’s a song from our new album”. Good ol’ Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) was present and accounted for so I didn’t feel completely abandoned but oh how the avalanche of missed opportunities hurt my head.

I ended up watching it three times hoping it would click with me but it never quite did (and I loved both previous installments from David Gordon Green and his cohorts). The new characters and actors did fine (Rohan Campbell particularly) but I’d much rather they were given their own film to play around in rather than this one. I’m getting the feeling I’m meant to decide definitively whether I love it or hate it but I don’t think I could ever really hate a HALLOWEEN film. I’m so grateful to get to hang out with my pal Laurie Strode again and listen to John Carpenter’s incredible score that I’ll quite honestly (and perhaps sadly) take whatever scraps I’m thrown. I enjoy simply being in Haddonfield and that will likely always be the case. There are fragments of this film that I’ll always appreciate (even if it’s just a chance encounter in a grocery store) but the catharsis I craved eluded me. I’m not mad, I’m too busy mourning what could so easily have been (the vision of Laurie, Lindsey, and Allyson taking turns pummeling Michael will just have to live on forever in my head). Oh, Haddonfield, so much to answer for; I admire your audacity but sometimes less is more.

Name That Trauma:: Lighthouse Ghost on a Dead Wife, a Cabin, & an Attacking Puma

I can’t be certain what year the movie was made, but I and my entire 7th grade class saw it in 1982. Our teacher seemed to think she’d reserved a Disney movie or some other kids’ film. I have searched and searched to find the name, production company, country of origin, anything, because I would love to revisit this weird short film with no dialogue. Here’s what we saw, as well as I can remember:

We see an old man bringing home his beautiful new wife, who looks about 30 yrs younger than he is, into a one-room cabin in the woods. The entire thing is set inside this cabin. They clearly have her expressing innocence with the eyes and the shyness, and then we see them living life. She’s cooking for him, etc, he looks happy, there seems to be much emphasis on her beauty. She dies- I can’t remember why/how. He’s devastated but lays her on the table and brushes her hair, puts her prettiest dress on her, etc, readying her for burial. But there’s a puma outside and he can’t go outside. He’s trapped in the house with his dead wife. The puma then seems to be stalking him, trying to get in, yowling outside, and eventually, the cougar breaks through a window, into the house, knocking over the lamp, and the man grabs his gun, but can’t see where the puma is. Then in the darkness, there’s a huge ruckus, the man’s breathing all freaked out, the puma screaming, and then silence. The man’s breathing is still (understandably) freaked out. His shaking hand finds and manages to light a candle. His dead wife is still on the table but the cougar is gone except for the bloody paw sticking out of the dead wife’s mouth. He gasps, which puts out the light again. The movie ends.

This is where the class, a mix of silence and uneasy laughter, just sat there, and my teacher said, “Maybe you all don’t need to tell your parents about that.” And said she’d be reporting the movie to get it out of the school catalog.

Trauma Scene:: Willy Wonka’s Boat Ride

The 1971 PG-rated musical fantasy WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY is based on the book CHARLIE AND THE FACTORY by frequent kindertrauma inducer Roald Dahl (THE WITCHES, JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH, etc.). Having initially spawned from the mind of Dahl, exactly zero people will be surprised to learn that freaky, bizarre, and unsettling things abound in the film. Diminutive, scornful orange-skinned, green-haired men bounce about, a shady creep known as Slugworth stalks amongst the shadows and it’s clear any musical outburst revealing a lack of character may result in premature death. Still, no scene of presumed child torture and eradication that takes place within the movie can compare with the notorious transitional scene involving wacky Wonka (Gene Wilder) transporting his guests via Loompa-powered paddle boat through what appears to be the bowels of Hell.

“What is this, a freak out?” rightfully yelps Violet Beauregarde, as the surreal nightmare journey begins. As the boat enters the swirling tunnel, flashing psychedelic hues twirl and ooze across the screen and then give way to shocking images of gnawing insects and slithering snakes. Passengers become nauseated as the speed intensifies and a giant eyeball appears and is then eclipsed by a horrendous FACES OF DEATH-worthy close-up of a live chicken with its head being chopped off by a cleaver; even the movie’s antagonist Mr. Slugworth materializes with a judgmental glare before vaporizing. Just when you think it couldn’t get any worse, Wonka begins to sing a deathly dirge with the cadence of a mournful phantom…

There’s no earthly way of knowing

Which direction we are going

There’s no knowing where we’re rowing

Or which way the river’s flowing

Is it raining? Is it snowing?

Is a hurricane a blowing?

Wonka’s voice becomes more desperate, intense, and frenzied as the boat and lava lamp colors accelerate…

Not a speck of light is showing

So the danger must be growing.

Are the fires of hell a glowing?

Is the grisly reaper mowing?

Yes! The danger must be growing

For the rowers keep on rowing.

And they’re certainly not showing

Any signs that they are slowing!

Even the most hardened and cynical of Wonka’s morally challenged guests are beyond terror and fear that their fates are sealed. Just as the pulsating nightmare reaches a fever pitch, spoiled Veruca Salt demands that her father make it stop. Mr. Salt yells at Wonka that they’ve gone far enough, Wonka agrees, and then WHAM: they’ve reached their brightly lit destination and all is (relatively) normal again. Somehow the group’s trust in Wonka appears to be instantly restored but I (and many other young viewers, I’m sure) never looked at the guy the same way again.

Smile (2022)

Writer/director Parker Finn’s SMILE had my number from the get-go and appears to have been reading my diary. My very first kindertrauma involved haunting smiles (SATAN’S TRIANGLE (‘75)) and multiple freaky grimaces have haunted my psyche ever since (the ending of TV-movie DON’T GO TO SLEEP (‘82) is particularly culpable). Everything about SMILE from its sterile psychiatric setting, rampant paranoia, discombobulated protagonist (a flawless Sosie Bacon), aversion toward the familial, and trauma-fueled denouement was singing my name (albeit through clenched teeth). Remarkably though, SMILE went and pushed me even further than I was prepared to go. This is a horror movie that is not afraid to take the gloves (braces?) off, shelve subtlety, and roar directly in your face. I would never give away the multitude of surprises this flick has rolled up its sleeve but suffice to say, my jaw hit the popcorn-covered floor on more than a few occasions.

Well meaning psychiatrist Rose Cotter (Bacon) attempts to help a student who recently witnessed her professor beat himself to death with a hammer. Since the incident, the poor girl claims to have been haunted by a free-floating malignant entity that threatens to kill her and reveals itself by somehow entering random people and creepily smiling.  Rose is of course skeptical until the student freaks out and commits suicide in front of her, basically announcing, “Tag! You’re it!” Now Rose is seeing super shady smiling people everywhere, receiving phone calls from beyond, and destroying all her professional and romantic relationships by acting like an absolute lunatic. It’s clear she has to find a way to break the curse she’s under soon or she will be the next person to die horribly and pass the supernatural cootie on. All this may sound familiar to fans of THE RING and IT FOLLOWS but SMILE offers a disquieting downward spiral all its own. Once Rose’s life is upended by the unknown force, the whole world seems to change around her and the alienation and profound paranoia she feels is palpable.

SMILE is beautifully done. Finn’s direction is superb and there’s always something going on visually to back up Rose’s sudden estrangement with her once familiar world (I was reminded of Philip Kaufman’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (‘78) on several occasions). The score by Cristobal Tapia de Veer is like nothing you’ve ever heard before and does wonders enhancing the film’s off-kilter atmosphere. The acting too is spot on; Sosie Bacon makes you believe the impossible and fearlessly disassembles herself piece by piece on screen. Scary, thrilling, and with a moving undercurrent that urges you to let go of guilt from the past, SMILE is everything I hoped it would be and substantially more.