Film Nerd 2.0: Universal monsters, Bud and Lou, and something really scary
One of the conversations we have ongoing right now at Casa De McWeeny is "how scary is too scary"?
It's an important question to ask. My wife is of the opinion that no scary movies is just about the perfect amount for kids who are 7 and 4 years old, respectively. I disagree. I think kids crave stories about monsters and that being scared is an important part of our maturation process as we start to digest the stories we're told.
I don't think you should jump right to "Dawn Of The Dead" for a 3-year-old, of course, but I do think there's a certain amount of anxiety and fear that is enjoyable, especially at a young age when films have a special power over us. You feel films in a different way as a kid. You're still learning about how the world works, and you're still trying to figure out adults, and you're using movies as one of the ways you start to really put those puzzle pieces together.
The question at the start of things is how do you introduce scary material to your kids, and we've experimented with it on several occasions. At the bottom of this article, you'll see links to where I wrote about an early screening of "The Dark Crystal" that absolutely infuriated two-year-old Allen. I wrote about scaring the crap out of both of them in a good way with "Jurassic Park," and their fascination with dinosaurs has only gotten more pronounced since that screening. I wrote about the existential fear that creeped in around the edges of a screening of "Close Encounters," and how I was unprepared for the fear that hit them. I wrote about both the Tim Burton LACMA exhibit and the first screening we had of "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure," and how those scares worked on them.
And in that "Jurassic Park" piece, I wrote briefly about a bad experience we had with "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein." That is the last movie I would think of as a traumatic horror film. In fact, the whole reason I tried the film for him is because it seemed like the right gateway movie. After all, he had this whole series of monster books that were given to him by his godfather when he was young, each one about a different monster or type of monster, and he was already very familiar with the iconography of the Universal monsters. I figured showing them a movie where the monsters were played mostly for laughs would be a good way to ease them in.
What I didn't count on was how much Toshi identified with Costello. When you think about it, Costello is basically just a big kid. And while the movie is often very funny, the monsters are mostly played straight. Toshi hung with it for a while, but there's a scene in the film where Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) has locked himself into his hotel room because he knows his transformation is upon him, and he doesn't want to hurt anyone. Costello goes to deliver some luggage in his room, not realizing that Talbot has already changed. As the Wolf Man shadowed Costello around the room, directly behind him, unobserved, Toshi couldn't take it anymore. He stood up and shook his head at me. "No. No, Daddy. I'll watch this when I'm seven." With that, he was gone.
That seems like a really specific age for him to have named two years ago, but sure enough, this year he seems to finally be developing a bit of a taste for being scared. Rather, he likes watching things that are meant to be scary but that don't actually scare him. That's a fine line to negotiate, and it hasn't been easy finding films that satisfy his very particular criteria. We did finally double back to "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein," and sure enough, he loves that movie now. He's probably seen it a half-dozen times, and now he loves the moments that scared him so badly at first. Because he seemed comfortable with the iconography, we decided to try some of the Universal monster movies and see how they played for the boys.
First up was "Creature From The Black Lagoon," and later that same weekend, the original James Whale "Frankenstein." Watching the two of them so close together, it occurred to me that what make the Universal monsters so different from most horror films is the unmistakable undercurrent of pathos that is so important to the films. Yes, the Gill-Man is freaky, and yes, that image of him swimming along upside down, just below Julie Adams, is one of the great creep-me-out images of my childhood, but there is such sadness to the way he behaves.
The same is true of Frankenstein's monster, and Boris Karloff's work is about so much more than just the make-up. Yes, when you look at him, it remains one of the great bits of design in horror of all time, but it's the heavy-lidded eyes, the attempts at humanity, that make him so affecting. By the time the Monster was lost in the flaming windmill, both of the boys were very upset, but for the Monster, not by him. They were furious about the idea of the raw deal the Monster got, furious that people wouldn't just listen to him, wouldn't take the time to figure out what he was. They both clearly saw Dr. Frankenstein as the villain of the piece, and were confused when the Monster didn't manage a reprieve at the end of the film. They thought for sure people would realize their mistake and learn from it, but at the end of the movie, it appears that the Monster is dead, and they were inconsolable.
Even in the scene that upset me so much when I saw it as a kid, the moment where the Monster throws the little girl into the lake, they saw it as an accident, something that wasn't his fault. All they saw was a being who was never given a fair shot, who was totally misunderstood. I've noticed that when they incorporate Frankenstein into the games they play now, he's inevitably a good guy. They just made the decision, and their entire attitude to the character has shifted.
Toshi seemed more confident about his ability to handle scary movies, and he set his sights on the "Jaws" Blu-ray as soon as it showed up at the house. After all, as he pointed out, it's only rated PG. I tried explaining to him that the PG didn't really mean it was okay for him, but that seemed to fly in the face of every other conversation we've ever had about ratings, and he wasn't having it. The problem is that my wife adores taking the boys to the beach, and I know that if they see "Jaws," it will be years before we get either one of them to go swimming in the ocean again. We entered into a protracted series of negotiations, and at one point, he became determined that I would play "Gremlins" for him. The monologue Phoebe Cates had about what happened to her father along is enough for me to disqualify the film. Toshi pushed the campaign by asking me to put Jerry Goldsmith's "The Gremlins Rag" on the playlist I use when driving the kids around, and every time it comes on, they both pepper me with questions about the mythlogy. I've told them the premise, and that music sets such a funny tone of malevolence, so they're just dying to finally see it. Toshi searched for some alternative, the "near beer" of horror movies. Weeks of hunting and campaigning and begging finally ended when Toshi found another Blu-ray on the shelf that was also a PG rating, one that promised all sorts of new possibilities.
"If I can't watch 'Jaws,' can I watch this one instead?" he asked me, handing me a copy of "Twilight Zone: The Movie."
If you know the movie, then you probably know how this ends. I tried to talk him out of it, but by this point, he had already worn my wife down, and she said we should let him try. I made him a deal, telling him that if he could make it through the first ten minutes of the film, then he could watch the whole thing. He agreed, and he ended up in my office with me, his mother sitting in another chair with Allen in her lap. I should have known things would go badly, but then again, they loved the Large Marge moment in "Pee Wee's Big Adventure," and I always think of the jump scare at the start of "TZ" as being pretty much the exact same beat. Context matters, though, and I have to give it up to John Landis for the exceptional skill he showed in orchestrating that opening moment. Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd are great in the casual banter, the game of TV show theme song trivia pretty much baffling both of my kids. They've never even heard of most of those shows, much less seen them so that they would recognize the themes.
Then we got to part of the sequence where Brooks asks the innocuous question, "So, you wanna see something really scary?" And I could feel Toshi tense up. Allen leaned in towards the screen, though, and I realized this is pretty much a perfect summary of the way they both react to things. Albert Brooks shut off the lights and drove in darkness for a moment, and as Aykroyd started to freak out, both of the boys seemed uncomfortable. Aykroyd then tells Brooks that he'd like to show him something "really scary" in return, and he tells him to pull over to the side of the road. What I found interesting is that when it started to freak them out, the boys moved so that Toshi was with his mom, and Allen came over to join me. It didn't even seem like something calculated. They just went to where they felt most safe, and when Dan finally spun around --
-- Allen stood up in front of my chair and loudly declared, "THAT! WAS! AWESOME!"
I looked over at Toshi, though, and he had gone rigid. His face was completely white, and one tear ran down his cheek. I immediately turned the movie off, and then had about a half-hour of fallout to deal with as my wife read me the riot act. While I definitely think the beat is like the Large Marge in the way it's staged and the way it works, the build-up is totally different. Burton and Paul Reuben sell that story in the cab of that truck, but they also exaggerate it so much that you know it's a joke. And the animation on Large Marge's transformation is great, but silly --
-- while the make-up on Aykroyd when he turns around is fairly simple, but definitely meant as a horror design, not a joke.
Allen asked every day for the next week to see the rest of "Twilight Zone," but if one of them isn't ready, the other isn't going to see it. Keeps things nice and even, and with sibling rivalry, that's a big deal. My wife put an official ban on all horror films or horror-related films in the house, which was a crushing upset for both of the kids. Even though Toshi knew he wasn't ready for a real horror movie, he remains fascinated by every creepy thing that comes into the house. I've caught him going through the three big binders of horror movies that I have, 300 discs in each one, looking at the discs and the artwork on them. When one of the Shout! Factory box-sets for "Mystery Science Theater 3000" showed up, Toshi was excited to see that one of the films was "Revenge Of The Creature."
It's interesting watching "MST3K" with them. We've got everything that Rhino and Shout! Factory have put out, almost one full shelf of discs, and the boys like watching movies with Tom Servo and Crow and Joel or Mike. They don't really laugh the same way I do, and certainly they don't get 99.9% of the cultural references, but they view it as an opportunity to watch a movie with their friends. Since Toshi and Allen have most of the Toho Godzilla movies and most of the Gamera movies in their original forms, they don't innately see those movies as bad when they watch them with the bots. Watching a "MST3K" episode with them is like having a movie party with a bunch of rowdy friends, and it's part of our moviewatching cycle to throw one in from time to time. They both immediately noticed that the Gill Man looked different in this film. Allen told me that he looked like he wanted to throw up:
They were confused about why anyone would try to put the Gill Man in an aquarium, and not remotely surprised when it went badly. It's a pretty funny episode, and I had to explain to the kids that the running thread in the host segments about Crow not knowing who Mike is was because they were changing puppeteers at the time. Because we've been watching the series out of order, they already know that the host segments are always changing. This was the introduction of Bobo, the first post-Forrester episode, and they were really entertained by seeing how that was handled. It was a lazy Sunday afternoon, a good way to hang out with them, and there was more talking than watching, which is always a good time. And one of the things that most excited them was when I pointed out a guy who appeared in one big scene at the start of the movie... young guy... goes by the name Clint Eastwood. The boys only know his name right now from "Back To The Future Part III," so it entertains me mightily that their first exposure to the real thing comes from one of his very first film appearances in a bit part. Awesome.
I took them to see "Frankenweenie" before it came out, and they had a great time with it. There was nothing about it that scared them, not even the crazy bat-mutant creature that shows up towards the end. They were charmed by it, and they both loved Sparky and the Frankenstein jokes and the Bride of Frankenstein hair-streak and the look and the mood. And when the other classmates raise the other dead animals late in the film and they take monstrous shape, the turtle Shelly grows to giant size, and in the Disney theater on the lot, in a packed house surrounded by people, Allen loudly and proudly cried out --
"DAD! IT'S GAMERA!"
And it was like he was a teenage girl in Shea Stadium he was so excited. He was so pleased to have made the connection, and so happy to see Gamera on the big screen. I guarantee they'll make "Frankenweenie" a regular event once it arrives home on Blu-ray. Already they've asked me to play the original live-action version on the "Nightmare Before Christmas" Blu-ray a few times, and they're really intrigued by what's the same and what's different. They like the full-length film better, but they think the real-life Sparky is great. And the Universal Monsters thing that underscores both versions is, of course, an ongoing fetish for the boys.
Finally, things sort of came full circle. Toshi's been sniffing around the Universal "Classic Monsters" box set, asking to see "The Wolf Man," and I'm not sure he's ready. "Frankenstein" has a totally different rhythm than "The Wolf Man," and I think George Waggner's aggressive monster is scarier than Karloff's broken creature. His godfather is a longtime friend of mine, and he's known to the kids by a name that has to do with a birthday gift he got for Toshi several years back, a big puppet theater with all sorts of puppets to use. He is Craig Puppetshow to the kids, and he told Toshi he was going to come see him play one of his final baseball games of the season. Toshi's gotten good this year, and in that final game, he got around the bases a few times, got a few singles, threw for some outs, and in general played his ass off. His coach gave him the game ball, something they do for a different kid every week, so Toshi was in a tremendous mood when he came off the field. He asked Craig to come back to the house and watch a movie, and Craig was able to make the time. The conversation about what to watch began on the way home, and Toshi was trying to use the opportunity to try all sorts of things.
"We could watch 'Raiders Of The Lost Ark' if you wanted," he said, trying to sound like he really didn't care.
"I don't think so, buddy. I think it's still a little rough."
"Well, we should watch something good, so you can show us something really good. Like we could watch 'The Avengers.'"
I had an ace up my sleeve, something I thought Toshi would really enjoy, and it made sense to watch this with Craig. He was the one who gave Toshi those orange Monster books. Craig's favorite film is "Creature From The Black Lagoon," and he had a lot of fun talking to the boys about it. When we got to the house and settled into the office, I turned on Netflix and went to one of the last entries in my queue. Toshi saw it before I even said it to him. "Hey, daddy, can we watch 'Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy'?!" And as soon as he asked, Allen was all about that as well, adding his voice to the mix.
There's not a lot of Mummy in the film, and it's later in the career of Bud and Lou, but like most of their movies, there are a few moments. And those few moments were enough for the kids to belly laugh a few times and talk about why mummies are cool and take turns sitting with Craig and talking to him. One of the things that is most important about the time I spend with the kids during these screenings is that it's time spent bonding with them. Sharing something. By watching with them, you get to see how something works on them, how they react, what delights them, what provokes them, what they get and what they miss. Allen is still The Shadow. He takes his cues from Toshi. He is the first one to say "I get the joke!" and often the last one to actually get it, and it's adorable. He will claim to have knowledge and experience and then immediately follow it with "What is that?" Toshi's the one who is starting to express some very specific tastes.
For example, one of the films that he plays often because it is on the very small list of films my wife finds innocuous enough to have on repeatedly is "The Pirates Of Penzance" with Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt. That's not a movie I would have guessed would resonate, and it's not a movie I showed him. It's just something he thinks is fun to watch. If I had to guess a hundred movies my boys might like, Gilbert & Sullivan would not have even begun to occur to me. That is, as they say, a surprise.
But they like Abbott and Costello. They have probably seen eleven of their films all told now, and they laugh at every little gesture and joke, in the best of the films and the worst of them. They just plain like Bud and Lou. Or more accurately, they like Lou. They are aware that much of the comedy comes from the fact that Bud is a total dick. "Jerk" is the version the boys use, but it's hilarious to me how Bud Abbott just plays this horrible, abusive, insulting asshole, and that's the "straight man" shtick that made him rich. It gets worse as the series wears on and they get older, and in "Meet The Mummy," they're both showing some wear and tear. The boys didn't care. They made me play back two segments after we finished, and then they finally were ready to say goodbye to Craig. Scared certainly wouldn't describe their reaction, so I guess we've made progress from that first gateway experiment with Toshi. There will come a time when they're ready, and I will scare the ever-lovin' blue eyed jimmer-jammers out of the both fo them.
But for now, "Twilight Zone" remains a long way away.
"Film Nerd 2.0" is a regular feature here at Motion/Captured.