Trauma Scene:: The NeverEnding Story & the Death of Artax

Wolfgang Peterson’s 1984 adaption of Michael Ende’s book THE NEVERENDING STORY presents a rich colorful world called Fantasia, which is strewn with many dangers. First and foremost is “The Nothing” which threatens to devour and erase everything in existence if a young hero named Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) can’t find a way to thwart it. If that obstacle wasn’t enough, the dark force elicits the aid of a horrific sharp-fanged giant wolf monster with glowing eyes called Gmork who steadfastly shadows Atreyu in hopes to rip him to shreds. Strangely enough though, THE NEVERENDING STORY’s most traumatizing scene involves neither of these embodiments of evil but rather a mundane, in appearance, swamp. 

Early on in his quest, Atreyu and his trusty sidekick, a majestic white horse named Artex, are required to gain information from a giant turtle named Morla. To find Morla they must first travel through what is known as the Swamps of Sadness. Unfortunately, as one passes through said swamp they are taken over by depressive thoughts and hopelessness. Though Atreyu is at least partially protected by an amulet, Artex the horse succumbs to despair and begins to sink slowly into the mud. Atreyu almost laughs it off at first but then begins to realize his best friend may be beyond rallying. Atreyu desperately pleads with Artex to fight against the sadness that has overtaken him. He begs, “You have to try. You have to care. You are my friend. You have to move or you’re going to die! Don’t quit, Artex!” but to no avail. Suddenly the beautiful white creature has completely disappeared into the mud seemingly never to return and Atreyu is left devastated, lost and alone.

It seems impossible that a children’s film could be so emotionally cruel especially at such an early stage of the story. As heartbreaking as the scene would obviously be to children, it also loudly resonates with anyone of any age who has ever lost anyone. It would be one thing to witness Artex gallantly die in battle or be physically defeated but something about his psychological turmoil and loss of will to exist is especially difficult to grapple with. Most stories directed at children inform us that we have the power to will ourselves to victory (think of Tinker Bell’s resurrection in Peter Pan) but here even the most sincere and desperate pleas and prayers are coldly denied. It’s like a harpoon of reality striking a fluffy cartoon bunny. We don’t really even know Artex at this point in the story and yet of course we do; anyone who has ever loved anyone recognizes how Atreyu feels towards his friend. Death itself is eternally painful to deal with and when it’s entangled with the demise of hope, it’s somehow even harsher.

I’ve never been so happy to deliver a SPOILER ALERT in my life. After jumping through a zillion hoops we won’t get into here, Atreyu’s mission to save Fantasia is a success. Turns out there’s a reason the film and book are titled as they are and The Nothingness ain’t nothing compared to the power of imagination. Phew. During a victory lap we get to see the most comforting image to ever grace a screen, that of Atreyu and Artex riding together in full optimistic victorious glory (I have to say, there’s only two types of people in this world, those who ball their eyes out during this movie and heartless monsters who should be avoided at all costs). I’m almost mad at THE NEVERENDING STORY for yanking on my heartstrings in such a brutal matter but how can I not be impressed that its depiction of loss is more devastatingly relatable than a thousand adult dramas that tackle the same subject put together. Watching it again as an adult, I can tell you it has lost zero of its impact, in fact, due to life experience, I can sadly relate to it even more. Damn those swamps of sadness.

Trauma-scene:: Superman III’s Psycho Cyborg

Some of the most interesting Kindertraumas come from the most unlikely of places. We’re all somewhat prepared for freaky happenings in horror films but few would expect mental turmoil from a comic book sequel centered on the most wholesome flying alien to ever wear tights. To be fair, SUPERMAN III does consciously dabble in darkness when Superman (Christopher Reeve) becomes a rude, drunken version of himself after he’s exposed to impure kryptonite but, as pointed out within the film, our heroes’ bad side leans more toward faulty human than actual evil entity. Instead, SUPERMAN III’s most notoriously frightening transformation occurs to perhaps the least likely character. Make no mistake, the scene in question is not one that unnerved a select few high-strung individuals, this is a capital “K” Kindertrauma that shook many a child. Rarely can you mention the movie SUPERMAN III without someone with the shell-shocked face of a war veteran whispering about, “That robot lady…”

I’ll spare you the convoluted details that make up the plot of this comedic PG-rated adventure. Suffice to say that once again Superman is facing a troika of amoral individuals up to no good. In this case the trio (megalomaniac millionaire Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn), his henchwoman sibling Vera (Annie Ross) and his not so bubble-headed main squeeze Lorelei (Pamela Stephenson)) have solicited the aid of one Gus Goreman (Richard Pryor) who happens to be a wiz when it comes to computers. There’s the usual tug of war between the superhero and his enemies and eventually everything culminates in a climax in an underground lair around a giant super computer that we’re told can do anything and has seemingly become sentient. At one point Vera attempts to escape the mechanical beast only to be drug backwards by a laser beam and to be assimilated inside it. With her face visibly anguished, poor Vera has metallic pieces grafted upon her face as sparks fly and her eyeballs turn to silver balls. Suddenly she’s an unwilling robotic zombie clamoring forward with a shocking ragdoll hairdo and lasers shooting out of her face.

On a visual level alone it’s a disturbing display as this once relatively normal person is piece by piece transformed into some kind of TETSUO: THE IRON MAN (’89) by way of STAR TREK’s “The Borg”, half human/half robot hybrid. Adding to the intensity is the clear physical discomfort Vera endures as she is unwillingly overtaken. The resulting creature that emerges walks that freakish uncanny tightrope line between utterly ridiculous and incomprehensibly nightmarish. It’s a bizarre sight to behold that screams of wrongness on a cosmic level. Of course, any reasonable adult would shrug off the entire sequence as high camp nonsense but any kid worth his salt recognizes an unholy abomination when they see one. Ironically SUPERMAN III inadvertently accomplishes what so many techno-thrillers tried and failed at, it actually makes technology legitimately frightening for a spell.

My personal favorite component of this iconic trauma-scene is the fact that it just so happens to involve the late great Annie Ross who I believe is the main reason the cinematic atrocity works so well and is so unshakable. Ross, besides being a legendary accomplished jazz singer who delivered stellar performances in PUMP UP THE VOLUME (’90) and Robert Altman’s SHORT CUTS (’93), should be considered a great friend to the horror genre for her appearances in WITCHERY (’88) and most notably BASKET CASES 2 and 3 (’90 &’91). In Frank Hennenlotter’s brilliant sequels to his cult classic BASKET CASE (’82), Ross portrays Granny Ruth a highly lovable advocate for non-normies everywhere who on occasion breaks into inspirational song. If that weren’t enough horror clout, Annie even provided the speaking voice for Britt Eckland in the masterpiece THE WICKER MAN (‘73). The woman is a legend and it’s all so very fitting that one of the many jewels in her impressive crown would be one of the most memorable and often mentioned kindertraumas ever. A quick cut conveys that after the ultimate computer is destroyed that Vera Webster returns back to her former self (most likely to face consequences) but for many folks who caught this flick at a young age, she’ll be shooting off sparks and blasting off laser beams forever. Some traumas ya just can’t unplug.

Trauma-Scene:: Amityville 3-D (1983)

Hear me out. I have to get this off my chest and I swear I’m not (totally) crazy.  I’m not a fan of a silent house. If I’m not listening to music, I like to have a TV running in the background to keep my negative thoughts at bay. More often than not, I have my lil’ idiot box tuned to COMET TV because that joint is most likely to air something my speed. During the month of November, COMET aired a double-dip of AMITYVILLE 2: THE POSSESSION and AMITYVILLE 3: THE DEMON/3-D at least 4 or 5 times and I always seemed to find myself catching bits and pieces. Let me say first that AMITYVILLE 2: THE POSSESSION continues to blow my mind with how good it is. It’s genuinely scary and creepy (even when watched during the day), I adore DIANE FRAKLIN forever and I honestly think it’s the best possession film ever made besides THE EXORCIST. Furthermore, I’m totally entranced by the score and I think it has some of the most creative camera work this side of THE EVIL DEAD. The scene where we get a POV shot from a floating demonic spirit that stalks and ultimately ravages and enters a writhing body (the practical make-up effects are phenomenal too) I still find incredible to behold.

AMITYVILLE 3-D, of course, is another story. It’s just not very good overall. You can kind of feel it fighting to convince itself it’s not a sloppily cobbled together cash-grab/also-ran but it’s never entirely convincing. I’m also not down with giving the vaguely haughty TONY ROBERTS the responsibility of carrying the movie as a lead (especially when the charming CANDY CLARK was right there and would have been way more appealing). It doesn’t help that the special effects range from competent to cringe-worthy and that the most impressive 3-D bit involves a wayward Frisbee. Having said all that, I must admit that there is one scene in AMITYVILLE 3-D that truly gives me resilient heebie-jeebies and leaves me with a vague melancholy ache. Just being real. Critics and audience members alike have every right to rake this flick over the coals but I’ve got to defend this one bubble of effectiveness in the questionable stew.

Suuusssaaan! I could hear that familiar voice coming from the TV in the other room and I know it’s time for that scene again and yeah, I just felt a sting of sad dread. I’m stuck in a loop and this will happen forever. Here we go again: mother Nancy Baxter (TESS HARPER) hears the front door of the Amityville house open and investigates. She sees her daughter Susan (LORI LOUGHLIN) in the foyer inexplicably soaking wet from head to toe. Susan turns to her mother looking almost confused, smiles knowingly then heads up the stairs. “Why are you wet? What happened?” Nancy asks but she is ignored. She starts getting irritated, “What’s the matter with you?” Meanwhile, outside Dad is returning home with groceries and sees that there is some trouble down by the lake. An accident has happened. Mother yells irritated, “Answer me!” as daughter goes into her room and closes the door in her face. At the same time, Dad has rushed to the dock to see what the hubbub is about and it’s Susan…dead (as semi-predicted by a makeshift Ouija board earlier)! She somehow fell out of the boat and drowned!

Mother Nancy hears the ambulance siren. She runs to the lakeside and is told what happened but she can’t accept that the dead girl before her is Susan; it’s impossible because she just left her upstairs in the house! Maybe TESS HARPER is just a great actress or maybe I have some kind of chronic empathy disease but I’m pained by her every word as she angrily rejects the reality in front of her. She runs back up and through the house wildly bewildered calling her daughter’s name to no avail. As she leaves Susan’s empty room the camera lingers on a smiling doll on the bed. John tries to break through Susan’s refusal to accept events but he can’t. In a later scene in a trashed kitchen, we’ll learn Nancy has absolutely no intention of “moving on” and accepting what has happened. She doesn’t believe that other people’s perceptions of events are more valid than her own. She refuses to attend the funeral that, like the boating accident, the audience will never see.

I absolutely get that AMITYVILLE 3 is a lesser film in the franchise (though far from the worst) but something about this sequence resonates with me on an emotional level. I so understand the desire to carve out an alternate reality in your head when life throws you an unacceptable whammy. I also think that in the entire series this is a rare instance that reads like a traditional ghostly occurrence rather than a demonic event. There’s almost an M.R. JAMES tone for this brief little interlude before we get back to rubber monsters jumping out of wells (it’s rather ironic that this flick’s most powerful moment of horror required no special effect beyond drenching a character in H2O). Maybe it’s not enough to elevate the entire affair but I have to respect any horror movie unafraid to look at the cold randomness of death and the uncomfortable psychological ramifications. Anyway, I like the idea that a not great movie can carry within it a pretty great and effective scene (brief as it may be). That might not be the consensus but it’s my version of reality and I’m sticking to it.

Trauma Scene:: Burnt Offerings (1976)

I’ve got a new odd obsession. I was able to purchase one of those small TV sets with a VCR built inside from my local thrift store ($3!) and attached a converter to it so that it could pick up broadcast television. Not only does it get COMET TV, it gets it on two different channels! So now I’m recording movies just like in the old days complete with commercials (I know that’s a minus now but in the future, it will be a plus). It’s so darn delicious that it feels illegal but nope, this is what VCRs were made for! It’s all on the up and up! Of course, I’ve run out of blank tapes so I’m just picking up any second-hand VHS I can find that’s over two hours long and recording over them! So thanks, RON HOWARD for making such long movies! I have no problem covering up CINDERELLA MAN with GHOULIES!

Anyway, the other night I recorded the classic BURNT OFFERINGS, which was a big late-night TV favorite from my youth (as was PHANTASM which utilizes the same abode).  Even though I naturally own it on DVD, I couldn’t help desiring a VHS version that I can play as I go to sleep and will rewind and turn itself off and not leave me with a repeating DVD menu screen. BURNT OFFERINGS has a plethora of memorable trauma scenes and when I was younger, I might have said the scariest bits involved the last-blast falling chimney, KAREN BLACK’s white eyes or that skeezy, smiling chauffer that pops up from time to time. Today though, I’m leaning toward the swimming pool scene for really delivering the uncomfortable creeps.

You must remember it; OLIVER REED as Ben Rolf is swimming in the pool with his young son David (the underrated LEE MONTGOMERY of BEN, DEAD OF NIGHT, MUTANT, THE MIDNIGHT HOUR, etc.). At some point, he discovers a pair of broken glasses on the pool’s floor that triggers him into becoming a wild-eyed abusive nutcase. One moment he’s playfully tossing his kid under the water but soon he’s dunking him viciously as if he means to drown him. The dubious horseplay becomes so savage that BETTE DAVIS, of all people, is forced to be the voice of sanity in the situation. It’s at this point too that you can’t deny BURNT OFFERINGS influence on THE SHINING. I seem to recall Stephen King complimenting ROBERT MORASCO’s novel in his book DANSE MACABRE and I think that affection must have bled into the Torrance family’s drama. There’s something innately scary about losing your sense of safety around someone you love and especially so when you’re a child and that person is your parent. It doesn’t hurt that OLIVER REED is such a gifted and intense actor whose whiplash flip from kind to clobber-y is pitch-perfect in its harsh abruptness. KING famously lamented that JACK NICHOLSON’s performance in THE SHINING was too one-note for his liking and I can’t help but wonder if what he desired to see was closer to what REED delivers here. In any case, it took me off guard just how unsettling this scene remains and it reminded me how great of a movie BURNT OFFERINGS is, even all these years later.

Do you have a horror scene that sticks out in your head as particularly traumatic? Why not right it down and send it to so we can share it with others?

Trauma Scene:: Alligator (1980)

I was watching ALLIGATOR the other night in honor of the late great Robert Forster when a particular scene popped out at me as exceptionally kindertraumatic. It’s kinda crazy it never struck me as such before and I wondered why I hadn’t noticed it the last time I watched ALLIGATOR (which strangely enough was about a month ago). First off, ALLIGATOR is a great movie. It’s written by John Sayles (PIRAHNA) and directed by Lewis Teague (CUJO) and it’s an action-packed, super sly send-up of fifties-era giant creature flicks as much as it is an inevitable cash-in on JAWS. Forster is brilliant in it and always a good sport when the subject of male pattern baldness arises. I also have to give a shout out to the charming and underrated ROBIN RIKER who we come to find out is the little girl from the film’s opening whose thoughtless parents flushed her tiny pet alligator down the toilet. There’s a very good chance that her long lost pet is the mutated monster eating so many people who actively deserve it (the creature’s attack on an upscale wedding and his subsequent chomping of the film’s various villains in the climax is so gratifying).

The vignette I feel obliged to spotlight occurs well within the movie when the alligator is in full rampage mode clobbering anyone unlucky enough to get in his path. In a suburban backyard, three little boys are playing pirates with the two older kids bullying the youngest (who is blindfolded) toward the end of a diving board (pretending it’s a pirate’s plank) and into the deep end of the pool. Unbeknownst to the trio, the titular alligator is (understandably) taking a much-needed dip in the pool! Now, where every other film known to man would utilize this scenario for suspense only to have the kids realize their blunder and escape at the last minute, this flick has the kid fall in. Not only does he fall in, shortly thereafter he is shown colliding with the scaled abomination and not long after that, the pool is turning blood red signaling that his and the alligator’s encounter didn’t work out so good for at least one of them. I guess considering ALLIGATOR’s debt to JAWS it shouldn’t be that shocking that a tyke might end up on the wrong side of an animal encounter but something about this scene feels extra vicious (and perhaps darkly humorous).

Mostly though, I can’t help feel sorry for the two older kids who have to live forever knowing they are responsible for their sibling’s death. Plus I can’t help empathizing with the blindfolded kid who became alligator dinner because the initial prank seems like something my older brothers would have done to me without pause. Anyway, I’m not sure if this macabre scene would float in this day and age but it sure has bite.

Trauma-Scene :: The Wiz’s Subway Horrors

If you’re going to create a work inspired by L. FRANK BAUM‘s THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ chances are you are going to end up with something kindertraumatic. The classic 1939 movie has its witch and flying monkeys. The 1985 sequel RETURN TO OZ has its Wheelers and decapitated heads and THE WIZ wields a truly alarming subway scene. Get a load of a masked puppeteer whose puppet offspring transform into giant slinky ghouls, trashcans that develop sharp teeth and tiled columns bent on crushing anyone hapless enough to walk by. It’s whacked-out, weird, gaudy and nightmarish and so very OZ-some…

UNK SEZ: Subway scene, YOU are truly insane but lest we forget, there are many freaky images to withstand in THE WIZ. Here are some other slices of WTF? from the 1978 musical free of charge!

Trauma-Scene :: Fire In The Sky

When a group of good ol’ boy loggers return from the woods missing one of their group, foul play is suspected. Nobody wants to believe their tale of watching their buddy get abducted by an alien space ship. Days later the missing man reappears naked and injured and eventually recounts his experience through a vivid flashback. FIRE IN THE SKY (1993) which is based on actual accounts (!), is more of an investigative thriller than anything else. Its small scale, dialogue driven nature though, may mislead you into thinking that it doesn’t also house one of the most trauma inducing scenes ever filmed (don’t believe me, check out these unsolicited testimonials HERE.)

If you are an adult it’s scary, if you are a kid it’s super scary and if you are a survivor of alien abduction, well, then it’s just plain unwatchable….

NOTE: More scary aliens HERE!

Trauma-Scene :: THE BEST LITTLE GIRL IN THE WORLD Gets a Check-Up

the best little girl in the world

In the hazy, gimlet-soaked recesses of your Aunt John’s mind, the year 1983 holds two distinct memories:

  1. ‘70s pop superstar KAREN CARPENTER succumbed to anorexia nervosa
  2. My middle school health class teacher, in an attempt to educate her students about the death of Ms. CARPENTER, traumatized a room of sixth graders by making us watch her taped-from-the-T.V. VHS copy of the 1981 telepicture THE BEST LITTLE GIRL IN THE WORLD

The movie, despite its stellar cast of JENNIFER JASON LEIGH, CHARLES DURNING, and JASON MILLER, did little to hold the attention of our rambunctious class. Collectively, we groaned at the JONI MITCHELL title track (“Songs to Aging Children Come”) and I remember we were more interested in watching the commercial breaks than the movie itself.

Fearing a mutiny, our teacher stopped the film and struck a deal with us along the lines of if we still hated it after the doctor’s office scene, she would gladly put the film away and we could go back to reading about hygiene, acne, or whatever the usual lesson plan entailed. Foolishly, we called her bluff, agreed to keep watching and this is what we saw:

With the simple drop of a medical gown, a pre-teen chorus of thirty or so horrified gasps reverberated around the room. Needless to say, we watched the rest of the movie in disturbed silence waiting for another peek at JENNIFER JASON LEIGH’s emaciated ribcage. Instead we only got the death of a spunky, pre-THIRTYSOMETHING MELANIE MAYRON.

the best little girl in the world

Long out of print, THE BEST LITTLE GIRL IN THE WORLD is currently available on YouTube starting HERE. Did anyone else have to watch this in junior high health class?

Trauma-Scene :: Teresa’s Fateful Excursion in THE LEOPARD MAN

The three collaborations of producer VAL LEWTON and director JACQUES TURNER are glorious testimonies to the power of restraint. I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE and CAT PEOPLE are undeniable horror classics and THE LEOPARD MAN from 1943 contains a segment which I think may be the duo’s most successful stab at cinematic tension. In my opinion, it’s downright kindertraumatic…

As the scene begins the audience is well aware that a black panther has escaped captivity and is roaming around the outskirts of a small New Mexico village. Inside a humble abode a young girl named Teresa is goaded by her mother to go out into the night and fetch some corn meal to make tortillas. Teresa pleads with her mother to allow her to skip the chore until morning or until such time as when a leopard is not stalking their village. The battle axe mother insists and soon Teresa is out in the velvet black night on a completely unnecessary (it’s not like ma ran out of smokes) corn meal run.

When Teresa finally gets to the store she finds that it is closed and that the shopkeeper has a similar temperament as her won’t-budge-an-inch mother. The shopkeeper tells Teresa it is too much of a hassle for her to open her door and hand over some corn meal. This means poor Teresa has got to go to the late night joint farther away and also has to cross under a super creepy bridge. After a tense paranoid trek she does make it to the larger store with the more reasonable operating hours. Inside she gets her goods, tells the shopkeeper to stick it on her tab and then whiles away a couple of moments staring at some mechanical birds in a cage that once fascinated her in her youth. Whatever future plans that Teresa imagines while glancing at these birds will never come to fruition. Dare I say that if she had not stopped to daydream she may have made it home alive? Seconds really do count in situations like these!

Now with bag of corn meal in hand, it’s back on the road for our gal and yet another psychologically strenuous confrontation with that creepy bridge in order to return safe. Thanks to the magic of you-tube you can watch what happens to poor Teresa next….

Can you believe that went down? Besides this scene being seriously suspenseful, I think I also love it because it reminds me of the fantasies I would have in my twisted youth. You know the ones, your parents or a teacher forces you to do some menial crap or punishes you for something and then you start thinking about what if this or that happened and then they’d be sorry! You imagine them all crying at your funeral! Boy, that would show them! Sorta like in A CHRISTMAS STORY when poor little Ralphie daydreams about going blind from all that soap his mouth got washed out with! Oh how his parents would wail in regret!

Besides that personal revenge fantasy element I’m sure Teresa’s journey resonates with anyone who has had to walk home late at night by themselves. THE LEOPARD MAN has several other scenes that utilize this universal fear almost as well. (Worse still, one hapless victim finds herself locked in a graveyard!) As it turns out, that kitty you saw in the clip (feline movie star “Dynamite” who also starred in CAT PEOPLE) is really just a scapegoat for a far more sinister threat. The title may have you expecting a B monster movie but as is the case with most LEWTON flicks, it’s merely a lure. THE LEOPARD MAN certainly has its fair share of horrific moments but expect thriller, noir, mystery and quirkily written romance elements as well. In other words kiddies, my advice to you is, never judge a LEWTON film by its title, never wash your kid’s mouth out with soap and never ever get conned into going out on a late night corn meal run!