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!

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.

Kindertrauma Classic:: The Witches (1990)

THE WITCHES is a swirling cauldron of kindertraumas and how could it not be when it’s based on a book from the mind of Roald Dahl (Charlie & the Chocolate Factory), cunningly directed by Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now), enhanced by the genius of Jim Henson (The Dark Crystal), and features a fearless performance by Anjelica Huston (The Addams Family). Some of the frights it delivers are of the creepy and existential variety (a young girl trapped in a painting forever) and some are loud, brazen displays of the hideously grotesque (Huston’s true form as the evil Grand High Witch is truly the stuff of the most vivid childhood nightmares). This PG-rated film can be adorable (talking mice!) and it can be absolutely horrifying (Roeg pulls no punches with Huston’s demise). There are moments of eye-popping creativity but even its quietest respites sparkle with something wonderfully off-kilter and authentically magical.

Luke Eveshim (Jasen Fisher) is a young boy who listens to his grandmother Helga (Mai Zetterling) as she warns him of the presence of incognito witches all over the world (she knows the score because her childhood friend was snatched by a witch and was forced to live out her entire existence pitiably trapped in a painting). She informs him that witches have a purple tint to their eyes, clubbed feet, bald heads (concealed by wigs), and can smell the presence of children. This information becomes very useful when Luke is accosted by such a being while hanging out in his treehouse and especially when he and his grandmother inadvertently spend some time at a seaside hotel that is host to a convention of witches (masquerading as The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children). Accidently, Luke learns of the devious witches’ plans to turn every child in England into mice, is turned into a mouse himself, and must find a way (with the help of his grandmother and a new friend) to stop the diabolical creatures.

THE WITCHES is tons of lively fantastical fun buoyed by Roeg’s endlessly creative and bold direction (apparently Roeg reluctantly edited out even more frightening bits when he witnessed his young son’s reaction to the film). It’s also got an admirable mean streak that ensures the viewer never feels they are safely snuggled in a story with a guaranteed happy ending. What really takes the film over the top is the marriage of Anjelica Huston’s gleefully evil performance and the incredible make-up and special effects provided by Jim Henson’s workshop. As the evil Grand High Witch Eva Ernst, Huston provides as much hypnotic dark charisma under heavy make-up (that took 6 hours to apply and six hours to remove) as without. The character is wonderfully larger than life and absolutely oozing with gloriously grotesque wickedness. No adult or child who witnesses this iconic nightmare creature’s remarkable unmasking is likely to ever forget it. Although THE WITCHES ends up relenting by tacking on a happier ending than the book (to Dahl’s dismay), this flick seeps pure hideous horror art and is a masterpiece of dark fantasy.

Kindertrauma Classic:: Bad Ronald (’74)

BAD RONALD is a made-for-television movie based on a book of the same name by Jack Vance that originally aired on the 23rd of October 1974. In its brief seventy-four minute runtime, it packs many a creepy thrill as it examines the mind of an isolated outsider as he slides swiftly toward a psychotic break. Challenging viewers’ sympathies with the titular character at regular intervals, BAD RONALD juggles a dark character study, a family drama, suspense, and finally horror in a unique way. It’s easy to find yourself scared FOR Ronald and scared OF Ronald at the same time and it’s never quite clear just how “bad” Ronald is willing to get in order to preserve the fantasy world he has armored himself with.

Ronald Wilby (Scott Jacoby) is a social pariah who lives with the knowledge that when his parents were divorced, his father made a deal with his mother (Kim Hunter) to break all ties in exchange for never having to pay child support. One day after fleeing a humiliating experience with an unrequited crush at a pool party, Ronald bumps into his crush’s younger sister who makes the mistake of dissing his mom. Ronald loses his temper, pushes the girl to the ground, and unfortunately, her head hits a cinder block causing her death. He then buries the girl in a shallow grave and heads home. After hearing of the incident, Ronald’s mother crafts a secret room out of a downstairs bathroom where he can hide away from the world and avoid prosecution. The plan works fine for a while until Ronald’s mother dies and the house is sold to a new family. Observing the new residents from his concealed space, Ronald becomes obsessed with one of the daughters and begins to lose his grip on reality. Madness, another dead body, and multiple kidnappings ensue until finally Ronald’s eye is spied in a peephole and he comes crashing through a false wall raving like a madman and is apprehended.

BAD RONALD is in an awkward position when it comes to delivering scares. For most of the runtime, the audience has been led to sympathize with Ronald’s plight and most of the tension comes from the fear that he might be found out. Yet, when an innocent family is in danger and Ronald’s sanity clearly begins to unravel, gears are switched and anguish and concern are stoked over what he is actually capable of. No matter your level of empathy for Ronald though, the idea of a person secretly hiding in your walls and spying on you is inescapably unnerving. I’m sure many young folks went to bed after viewing BAD RONALD on TV (it was a late-night staple for decades) with their imaginations ignited with thoughts of some unseen presence hiding nearby, quietly watching and waiting.

Positive (not to mention creeped-out) word of mouth has kept BAD RONALD notorious for decades. Happily, it’s one of the lucky few TV movies that have been consistently available on home media from VHS to DVD and more recently Blu-ray (Note: the latter two of which sport an applauding quote from this very page on the back). Something about this tale of an antisocial misfit covertly lodging within a family’s walls has kept Ronald’s legend alive and spreading like a whispered urban legend (there was even a short-lived popular band named after the telefilm). Ronald himself may have been a shunned outcast but the film that bears his name couldn’t be more popular among those who enjoy classic made-for-TV horror. Now, go check your walls for peepholes.

Kindertrauma Classic:: Don’t Go To Sleep (’82)

On December 10th, 1982 ABC aired the horror-thriller DON’T GO TO SLEEP at 9PM. This “ABC Friday Night Movie” was produced and directed by Richard Lang, executive produced by Aaron Spelling & Douglas S. Cramer, and written by actor/screenwriter Ned Wynn. The unique production combined BAD SEED-inspired evil child elements with the popular slasher movie formula of its day while still tightly embracing the heart of a classic gothic ghost story. The end result (in my opinion anyway) is arguably the best made-for-TV horror film of its decade.

When recovering from the death of a child maybe it’s not a good idea to move into a house with the address of 13666.

Dad Phillip (Dennis Weaver), Mom Laura (Valerie Harper), daughter Mary (Robin Ignico) son Kevin (Oliver Robins), and cantankerous grandma Bernice (the great Ruth Gordon) are hoping for a new start after eldest child Jennifer (Kristin Cumming) died in a tragic car fire. All’s well until the ghost of Jennifer seemingly appears before Mary, vocalizing a grudge that won’t be satiated until the entire family is dead. Is Mary mad as a hatter and hallucinating her sister or has her devious sibling really come back for revenge? In any case, burning beds, iguana-induced heart attacks, rooftop falls and baths with electricity ensue. Eventually, Mary is prime suspect number one and is fitted with a child-sized straight jacket and shoved into a padded room where she recounts the genesis of the horror and becomes the poster child for those suffering from middle child syndrome everywhere.

Two scenes, in particular, seem to have been seared into viewer’s memories deeper than others. One involves a pizza cutter being used as a threatening murder weapon (hey, this was during the eighties slasher boom when literally no tool found in a kitchen, garage, or barn was out of bounds as an instrument of death), and the other concerns the movie’s door slamming mind-blowing closure. The latter delivers a visual so eerie that it boggles the mind how it could be so perfectly constructed without some kind of trickery. I won’t spoil much here but it presents the creepiest Cheshire Cat grin I pray I’ll ever have to witness. Not since I think, THE HAUNTING (‘63) has a singular image carried so much phantasmagorical weight.

Momentary lapses toward soap opera histrionics aside, DON’T GO TO SLEEP delivers an exceptionally dark vision of family dysfunction, sibling rivalry, grief, and finally insanity. Unlike the same year’s ghost spectacle POLTERGEIST (which shares actor Oliver Robins) there’s no “phew!” happy relief ending and few family members survive. You may need a neck brace for the way this movie’s mood swings from campy to cutthroat to undeniably uncanny and back again. Absurdities abound (that pizza cutter!) but don’t be surprised if this TV movie’s final image is difficult to shake from your brain.

Kindertrauma Classics:: Burnt Offerings (‘76)

Robert Marasco first wrote BURNT OFFERINGS as a script for a film meant to be directed by Bob Fosse in the late sixties. When that project fell through, he turned his ideas into a 1973 novel that was successful enough to be given its own film adaption. Fate probably had the right idea because this time, TV horror heavyweight Dan Curtis (DARK SHADOWS, THE NIGHT STALKER) was enlisted to bring Marasco’s story to the screen. William F. Nolan (who adapted two of Richard Matheson’s tales for Curtis’ TRILOGY OF TERROR) reverted Marasco’s novel back to screenplay form adding more than a few frightening concepts of his own. The resulting movie would have little impact theatrically but a generation of TV viewers would eventually end up traumatized by it just the same.

Ben Rolf (Oliver Reed), oldster Aunt Liz (Bette Davis), wife Marian (Karen Black) and son Davey (Lee Montgomery) decide to spend the summer in a glorious, though visibly ill-kept mansion. The entire family is sick of city life and Ben just can’t say no to the marvelous, low-cost offer to rent the place they’ve gotten from strange siblings Arnold (Burgess Meredith) and Roz Allardyce (Eileen Heckart). The only stipulation is that the duo’s elderly shut-in mother who resides in an attic suite and is likely to be never seen, must be given a tray of food three times a day. Things go swimmingly well at first but soon everyone in the Rolf family is clearly negatively influenced by the house; Marian becomes obsessed with housecleaning; Aunt Elizabeth loses all her spunky mojo; and Ben begins to have visions of a creepy chauffer from his childhood along with murderous urges towards his son. Moreover, each time a family member takes a psychological blow, the house appears to grow stronger as if it’s thriving upon their mental anguish.

BURNT OFFERINGS uncoils quietly for much of its runtime but every so often it cleanly lands a strike that leaves lasting scars. Ben’s hallucinations of a smiling chauffer/hearse driver (Anthony James) are particularly memorably dreadful. This lanky harbinger of doom can easily be seen as a precursor to such cinematic grimacing ghouls as A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET’s Freddy Krueger, POLTERGEIST 2 & 3’s Reverend Kane and “The Tall Man” from PHANTASM (Note: BURNT OFFERINGS & PHANTASM both utilize to great effect the Dunsmuir-Hellman Historical Estate as the location for their horrific happenings).

If BURNT OFFERINGS wasn’t exactly built as an Oscar contender nobody seems to have informed the cast, all of whom bring their scene-chewing, A-game to the material. One truly disturbing scene involves Oliver Reed’s Ben transforming from protective father to rage-faced monster in an instant. While swimming in the backyard pool with son Davey, Ben turns an innocent moment of horseplay into a near drowning incident. The parent-on-child violence is hard to behold at any age and the sequence skillfully stokes both a parent’s fear of losing control of their emotions and a child’s fear of being physically overtaken by a suddenly unrecognizable guardian. Stephen King has admitted to being a fan of the original book and it’s not hard to believe at least some of the horrifying nature of this pool scene dripped its way into his THE SHINING.

BURNT OFFERINGS was not a success with audiences or critics upon release. In a decade very welcoming to supernatural elements in film, it actually lost money. No matter though, Dan Curtis’ more familiar stomping ground, television would eventually insure that Marasco’s tale left its rightful mark upon viewer’s psyches. I can tell you from experience that this was a movie that played very often in late night syndication and perhaps it just naturally worked better on the more patient small screen. It’s a film that offers no happy endings, that spares no one (look out for that falling chimney!); a wicked chiller with a many-pronged downbeat conclusion (one fate even mirrors Curtis and Black’s previous brilliant effort, TRILOGY OF TERROR). Like most horror films, It’s especially powerful when viewed right before bed, when the mind is more vulnerable to the unsettling vibes it delivers. Critics and cynics can scoff all they want, like the house it depicts, BURNT OFFERINGS will always quietly have the last laugh.

Kindertrauma Classics:: Salem’s Lot (’79)

Two horror titans joined forces on TV screens across America on the night of November 17, 1979 when CBS aired SALEM’S LOT. Tobe Hooper, who helmed the blood curdling THE TEXAS CHINSAW MASSACRE (‘74) and Stephen King, the mind responsible for the horror juggernaut CARRIE, were a powerful combination few could prepare themselves for. As if having their living rooms invaded by sights guaranteed to rob them of peaceful slumber wasn’t diabolical enough, viewers would have to wait a full week until November 24 for the miniseries’ jaw-dropping conclusion. At the time both horror masters were playing outside of their comfort zones. King’s novel was more expansive than anything he’d attempted before, juggling an entire town of characters as he scrutinized a vampire infested PEYTON PLACE as it careened toward Hell, while Hooper pointedly steered his trademark manic, ultra violence toward the eerie and uncanny.

Novelist Ben Mears (David Soul) returns to his hometown of Salem’s Lot determined to confront and ultimately be inspired by a childhood fear. Once upon a time, he broke into the town’s notoriously haunted Marsten House and he has been forever unable to shake what he encountered within.

As it turns out, Ben finds that the ominous mansion has been recently purchased for one Kurt Barlow by his shady henchman Richard Straker (James Mason). Strange happenings, disappearances and murders begin to contaminate the town and we come to understand that Barlow is actually a hideous vampire bent on devouring all in his path. As the town buckles under Barlow’s menacing will, Ben finds allies in love interest Susan Norton (Bonnie Bedelia) and teenage horror movie fan Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin) who has witnessed his family and friends meeting horrific fates firsthand.

Although created for broadcast television, in the hands of Hooper, SALEM’S LOT offers a plethora of unforgettable nightmare inducing imagery. Taking liberties from King’s novel, Barlow is presented as a silent ghoul unnervingly inspired by Max Schreck’s Count Orlok in NOSFERATU (‘22). No matter how brief it may be, his every appearance stuns with the power of a lightening bolt. Even his possessed undead victims (Mike Yerson as played by Geoffrey Lewis for example) are horrifically demonic in appearance complete with otherworldly glowing eyes and serpentine, hissing voices.

As much as SALEM’S LOT offers a chocolate box assortment in the indelible scares department (did I mention the death by antler impalement or Mark’s parent’s heads being knocked together?), there’s one sublimely pitch perfect moment of abject terror that stands (or floats, rather) above the rest. After a frightening abduction in the woods, a young boy named Ralphie Glick goes missing while his older brother Danny escapes stunned. Later as Danny prepares for sleep, Ralphie appears before him in his bedroom widow smiling deviously, scratching on the glass and hovering about in an eerie fog that appears to roll in reverse. Everything about the scene strikes a cord of discomfort. Devilishly, the mortifying set up is returned to again when an infected Danny mirrors the same routine upon his pal Mark (who is fortunately versed in horror cinema and makes wise use of a handy cross).

Viewership for SALEM’S LOT was so great that there was talk of using the miniseries as a springboard for a weekly series. Reviews were mostly glowing (in fact, Blu-rays feature a blurb on the back from yours truly declaring it, “One of the last truly great gothic vampire films”) and the success further solidified Hooper and King’s reputations as masters of the genre. The productions’ portrayal of vampirism proved influential as well. Almost overnight the (then popular) image of vampires as darkly romantic love interests reverted to visions of them as soulless parasitic monsters associated with death and decay. In 1987, Larry Cohen delivered a half-hearted, tongue-in-cheek sequel called A RETURN TO SALEM’S LOT but it did little more than stoke nostalgia for the original and in 2004, a respectful remake was attempted for cable television that boasted a game cast but far less potent scares. As of this writing, yet another adaptation has been announced, this one destined for a theatrical release. It’s impossible to say what future visits to the fictional Maine town of Salem’s Lot will unearth but it’s quite clear you can’t keep a good vampire down for long.