My Kindertrauma:: Seth S. on Dracula (’31)

He lived down the street from me, and we weren’t really friends. We were merely familiar faces on the bus ride to school and in the classroom, the two kids who periodically discovered each other at the local jungle gym. Perhaps he lived too close for comfort for me as I navigated the 5th grade – he was a bully at school who hadn’t yet targeted me, and I sensed it was always a matter of time – but Bryan (is what we’ll call him) announced to no one in particular as we played at the playground that Friday afternoon that Bela Lugosi’s Dracula would air on a local network at midnight that night. I didn’t know what Bela Lugosi’s Dracula was any more than I knew what TV looked like at midnight. As we took that cyclical ride on the merry-go-round, he asked me if I would be tuning in.

My vocabulary with horror was, then, very limited. I knew Lon Chaney, Jr.’s Wolf Man, and I felt sorry for him. Despite his appearance, Talbot was a victim of circumstance, hardly the monster that would inspire nightmares. But Dracula – even with no knowledge of the character, the novel, or the film – was intrinsically haunting. Had you never seen the 1931 film, you were at least familiar with the cloaked figure bidding you welcome into his castle, eerily celebrating the howling wolves in the distance. None of us have seen the Devil in person either, but we still fear him. I felt the same way about Dracula.

I told Bryan I would be watching, and as I headed for home, I heard him yell that I was probably too scared to see it. I also heard him yell to me that my parents probably wouldn’t let me stay up that late anyway. Mind you: we weren’t friends. And he was wrong on both counts. I wasn’t too scared to tune in; I was, however, incapable of staying awake in front of the TV. I’d fallen asleep before the movie aired that night; luckily, the same station would air the movie again at 11 a.m. on Saturday. I was relieved that I could return to school on Monday, ready to tell Bryan that I’d faced those fears, even if I’d done so in broad daylight. But a family event would keep me away from the television that day, so my dad’s solution was to commit the screening to a VHS tape – that way, I could watch it whenever, even with him. And, consequently, after the sun had gone down. And, as everyone knows, you’re only the potential victim of a vampire once the sun has gone down.

But again I went to bed that night without having seen the movie. I claimed to be too tired, despite my dad’s insistence that we stay up and watch it. Like a silver bullet, the screening was dodged once more. I knew I couldn’t avoid it forever. Bryan was certain to quiz me on Monday morning, so I couldn’t run from the film forever.

Instead, I watched Dracula a little after noon that Sunday. I didn’t procrastinate, wanting to see the picture as early as possible so that it was as far removed from my bedtime as it could be, so I didn’t wait for the company of my father. I was on a mortal mission for my soul, and I couldn’t have this film following me into my dreams. Unfortunately, I’d find that the matinee screening wouldn’t help. It turns out that Lugosi’s Dracula isn’t dependent upon trivialities such as darkness or ambient night sounds to inspire fear. As the Count, Dracula is far more menacing, staring back in silence than we sometimes recall, and director Tod Browning isn’t frightened of allowing the film to take shape in absolute quiet, whether for a few seconds or for entire minutes. Raised on the films of Lucas and Spielberg and Saturday morning cartoons, I knew the value of color: the bright lights and the darkest blacks, but Dracula seemed reared on a different palette altogether, robbing its black and white scenes of any color, of any possibility for hope. There was only dark and “darker.” Tonally, Dracula possesses two moods: “dangerous” and “deadly,” and if the “dangerous” doesn’t terrify you, the “deadly” is in close pursuit at all times. The film, economically paced at a little more than an hour, engorges the production with more atmosphere than one sees in most horror films today, and a day with Dracula was turning into a precarious venture at the very least. But it was Dracula’s unrelenting stare – coupled with that silence and those shadows from before – that I would need to shove into the catacombs of my mind before bedtime, no later than nine that night. His stare seemed to discover me, watching from the safety of my home, in those cinematic close-ups. His stares promised that Dracula knew where to find me at all times.

And yet I felt pretty good as I brushed my teeth that night, ready to share with Bryan how I’d stared into the face of the Prince of Darkness and returned to school on Monday anyway, no worse for the wear. I’d filled the rest of my day with Fleischer Superman cartoons and some G.I. Joe battles on my bedroom floor to erase Dracula from my memory, and I would have enjoyed a peaceful rest that night had it not been for my dad’s fateful reminder.

“Did you watch Dracula today?” he’d asked me. “What did you think of it?”

I can’t really recall the nature of my review before I went to bed – alone, in the dark – that night. All I could think about was Dracula’s ominous stare, its ability to find me in the family TV room, its assurance that it knew where to find me at any time from behind the television set glass.

And perhaps that was still a little too close for comfort for me.

Violent Night (2022)

It’s that time of year when we celebrate peace on Earth and goodwill to our fellow man so why am I chuckling at Santa Claus (STRANGER THING’s David Harbour) shoving a hand grenade down someone’s pants? Oh boy, am I a sucker for slapstick. It’s probably because I’m very wimpy and abhor confrontation in real life that cinematic violence hits me right in my funny bone and allows me to gleefully release all my repressed rage. VIOLENT NIGHT is a symphony of brutal bashings set to holiday music and remarkably, it also allows plenty of space for warm-hearted holiday sentiment. A movie that features EVIL DEAD-level carnage yet still gets me misty-eyed is exactly my cup of spiked cocoa. It’s a no-brainer that I’ll probably watch this flick every December until the day I die.

It’s Christmas Eve and the highly dysfunctional and partially estranged Lightstone family gathers together to lock horns and bicker about money with malicious matriarch Gertrude (a perfectly cast Beverly D’Angelo). Little do they know that the help they hired to serve them for the evening are masquerading mercenaries led by one “Mr. Scrooge” (Jon Leguizamo). Luckily for the Lightstones, everybody’s favorite home invader, Santa Claus is also in the house and plans to protect good-hearted daughter Trudy (Leah Brady) at all costs. It would be cruel to give away the plethora of ITCHY & SCRATCHY meets HOME ALONE booby-traps Scrooge’s hapless henchman are forced to endure and folly for me to attempt to estimate the impressive body count. Instead, I’ll simply say that VIOLENT NIGHT delivers over and over again just like Santa’s infinite bag of toys and if you’ve been good this year, you deserve to see it.

Traumafession:: Unk on A.I. Artificial Intelligence

I was an adult when A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE was released in 2001 but I’m going to write a traumafession about it anyway. Let’s call this a post-childhood kindertrauma. Ya see, there’s this one scene in the movie that really curb-stomped my morbidly empathetic heart to such a degree that it stained the rest of the film with a pungent depressing aura that I could never quite scrape off my shoe. It’s not a scary scene at all; it just feels like an impenetrable wall of dejection. Like that swamp of sadness that claimed Artax the horse in THE NEVERENDING STORY (’84).

Henry and Monica Swinton (Sam Robards and Frances O’Conner) are mourning a child who was put into suspended animation until his disease can be cured. In the meantime, they adopt a mechanical boy named David (Haley Joel Osment) to ease their loneliness and program him to love them just as if they were his real parents. One day they get the great news that Martin, the son they birthed has miraculously recovered and can return home. Unfortunately, their “real” son is a real brat who is jealous of David and commits to tormenting him. While being teased at a family gathering, David becomes frightened and grabs Martin to protect him and they both fall into the pool. David’s desperate grip is so great that he nearly drowns Martin. Afterward, David is seen as a threat and it is decided that he must be returned to his manufacturer and destroyed (!). Momma Monica can’t go through with the hideous betrayal and instead leaves him in the middle of the woods (!) crying and pleading for a second chance. I find the abandonment of David, horrifically cruel and difficult to process. What the hell is wrong with these people? How can they live with themselves? With only a teddy bear for companionship, David treks on experiencing multiple perils but my mechanical brain glitches and cannot move forward. The rest of the movie will forever be a blur.

Why am I thinking of this now? This past summer I met a cat in my backyard and named her June. She stopped by a couple of times a day for food and I found her company soothing. As we bonded I became worried for her safety but could not bring her in due to the fact that she was clearly nursing kittens somewhere. By some miracle, we eventually found all of her kittens (6!) and were able to bring her inside where she could nurse them until they were old enough for adoption. Cue a montage of glorious days with bouncing kittens everywhere until inevitable reality barges into the room. Well, we were able to find homes for two of the kittens but the experience of choosing who would be separated from their siblings and sent to safe but scary new environments was some SOPHIE’S CHOICE-level torture for me. I couldn’t stand the fear in their eyes and it was like sawing off an invisible appendage. So that’s it, I can’t let another go. We are going to have a lot of cats (8!) now because I can’t stand the idea of them feeling like unwanted robots even for a moment. This is all Steven Spielberg’s fault.

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.