E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial might seem like a strange choice for this series. One of the most successful family movies of all time, the Spielberg directed film is not generally considered in the company of the horror films I have previously covered in “Cinematic Childhood Traumas.” But in the same way that Fantasia frightened my friend and fellow blogger, Alyx, in spite of its kid-friendly content, so did E.T. scare me when I first saw it at a young age.
I remember the night my family rented E.T. It must have been in the mid- to late-eighties, well after the initial release, but to us kids, the film seemed brand-new. I have a feeling my father had hyped it up, because I remember very clearly waiting in my family’s mini-van in the parking lot of Albertson’s and dad accompanying my older brother excitedly bringing the video out to the car, piquing my interest in the movie.
Of course, the story goes downhill from here with the events that transpired now a part of family legend. Intensely engaged in the film, I found the scenes in which the sick E.T. comes under medical surveillance and dies heartbreakingly sad and alarming in their implications. As my siblings watched, I snuck out of the family TV room and into my bedroom where I attempted to cry discretely. Of course, a child’s subtlety is typically fairly obvious to an adult. My father found me in my room and attempted to console me. I told my dad I was upset that E.T. had been captured and died, but my dad reassured me that in fact, E.T. would live and escape their clutches. With this reassuranced, he was able to coax me out of my room for the remainder of the screening.
Unfortunately, the film’s final scenes left me no less emotional: I remember a sniveling young Drew Barrymore saying goodbye to E.T. as he flew off in his spaceship and being even more upset by this result.
In the intervening years, I somehow avoided the film in spite of its popularity. I’d see it on television and make it no further than the scenes in which the kids first discovere and become acquainted with E.T. My negative associations were so strong that when theatrical promos for the 20th anniversary reissue appeared, I immediately felt tense and on the verge of tears, much to my family’s amusement. Keep in mind that I was born the same year as the movie, putting me into adulthood when these trailers screened.
Soon after I started the “Childhood Cinematic Traumas” series, the idea occurred to me that I should finally rewatch the film in earnest. Upon doing so I discovered that the film continues to resonate for me in spite of the many years that have passed since I first watched it. While I found some of the familial melodrama a bit obvious, the film’s portrayal of childhood wonder defying the modern impulse toward scientific scrutiny retains its power.
Like any good kid’s film, E.T. is all about the absurdity of the world as adults run it. From the very first series of shots, grown-up characters tend to be framed from the torso down. There are a few exceptions to this rule, of course: the overworked single mom (Dee Wallace) and the scientist (Peter Coyote) who seems to identify with Elliott’s awe over E.T. are both humanized through close-ups on their facial expressions. Several scenes of the scientists and government agents also film these characters’ faces for pragmatic purposes. Otherwise, the film represents teachers, scientists, and government investigators as faceless authority figures.
By contrast, E.T.’s short stature lowers him to the height of the child protagonists, making him physically relatable. In other words, E.T. is less alien to Elliott and company than the majority of adult figures that populate the film. The scene in which government officials donning space suits invade Elliott’s house drives home the point that E.T. poses little threat by comparison to adult-created and maintained institutions.
The scene that struck me most during my recent viewing was the frog dissection scene. I had not thought of it for ages, but as I watched it, I suddenly remembered it. While in science class, Elliott (the impressive Henry Thomas) impulsively frees the frog he is about to dissect and inspires his classmates to do the same. The scene crosscuts to E.T. watching television, specifically a scene in which a man grabs a woman by the hand and pulls her in for a kiss. The film jumps back to Elliott doing the same, and even stepping upon a classmate to rise to the appropriate height to do so, once again drawing our attention to stature.
That scene foretells the disturbing intrusion of the scientists, who use medical apparatuses to study E.T. and preserve him as a specimen just as the science teacher instructs the students to anesthetize and cut open their frogs. It also anticipates Elliott’s efforts to free E.T. with the help of his brother and friends, which easily prove to be the most affective in the film. John Williams’ score, the gorgeous shot of the kids biking across a sun-filled sky, and fast-paced, high-energy mood all prime you for the emotional kick in the ass that is E.T.’s departing thereafter. This is where I lost it: E.T. and Elliott, face-to-face and confronting the realization that E.T. will depart never to return; E.T. touches Elliott’s finger and says “ouch,” knowing this to be a painful exclamation, and Elliott repeats it also.
Of course, none of this is to say that E.T. is a perfect film. In the context of the Reagan Era, one might read the film as a neo-liberal critique of government interference in our lives, a pretty conservative message. To compound that, the product-placement throughout the film reminds us that multi-national corporations run the culture industry. For that reason, the moments when Elliott introduces E.T. to the name brands that compose his world make me cringe. I also hated the CGI adjustments made to the 20th Anniversary Version–just like George Lucas, the re-issue mucks with a good thing in order to advertise this version as “new and improved”–not necessary.
Still, the film suckered me in with its gorgeous cinematography, amazing performances by child actors, and touching moments. Watching it again proved to me that my emotions as a kid were strong because the film itself was designed to illicit such a response. While I am better able to control my response as an adult, E.T. remains a film that pushes all of my sentimental buttons in spite of receiving an education in the mechanics of film in the intervening years.
This is a guest post by Alyx, aka Feminist Music Geek. Thanks Alyx!
When Caitlin started this section of her blog, Fantasia was the first movie that came to mind. But I was embarrassed to write anything about it. For one, I’m not a horror buff. While I can abide by much of the dark comedy Caitlin writes about (though Todd Solondz‘s filmography is as scary as any torture porn), I’m pretty lightweight when it comes to horror. Actually, it wasn’t until grad school that I even started watching horror movies because I had assumed they were misogynistic as well as scary and violent.
My subsequent cursory viewing habits are largely influenced by Caitlin and other horror fans from our co-hort in the media studies program at UT, many of whom identify as feminists, engage critically with the genre’s gender and sexual politics, and take defiant pleasure in looking at the screen rather than away from it. I try to look at the screen, but I usually cover my eyes.
For another, Fantasia is a cartoon. Obviously animation can tap into deep psychological fears surrounding child abuse, lost innocence, and parental death, especially evident in early Disney movies like Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi. But does that measure up to the horror elicited from movies by Dario Argento, Sam Raimi, and others that Caitlin has discussed? Also, the lady who runs this blog eats Takashi Miike for breakfast. My childhood fear of a movie that features dancing flora and fauna seems like it would be the first sip of her, and her readership’s, decaf.
But the movie is scary. And its scariness begins with Chernabog, the satanic figure of Slavic mythology who perches atop a mountain to raise spirits from the dead and torture them for his amusement. He is the main character of the movie’s penultimate segment, Modest Mussorgsky’s “A Night On Bald Mountain,” and he will take your soul with a speed and force that rivals Aphex Twin and few others.
My first viewing of the movie was in 1990, when Disney released the movie in theaters and on VHS to commemorate its 60th anniversary. I was seven. My mom and stepfather took me to the local multiplex to see it. My mother was particularly enthusiastic about the screening, as it is one of her favorite movies. She first saw the movie when it was re-released in 1956. At ten, she was so enamored with the pairing of classical music with animation that she attended all three showings that day, alone and transfixed.
I had a slightly different reaction. While I loved the fairies from Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite” and the mythological creatures in Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony,” I was unable to sleep without a nightlight for fear that Chernabog would come into my room and turn me into one of his debased playthings.
It’s staggering that this segment was in a children’s movie, as it so effectively melds the terrifying might of its main character with the suspense built into the composition. The first time I saw the screen go black as Chernabog’s eyes lit up the screen and the theme reached its crescendo, I was too scared to scream. I have since run into those evil yellow eyes several times in my unconscious.
For a movie that scared me, I know a lot about Fantasia from subsequent viewings, documentaries, and books. I can tell you that it all but bankrupted the studio when it was originally released in 1940, as cinemas weren’t equipped for the movie’s pioneering use of stereophonic sound and audiences didn’t know what to make of its content. It wasn’t until 1969, after several theatrical runs and truncated versions, that the movie turned a profit, three years after studio co-founder Walt Disney’s death.
I can tell you how important it was to get conductor Leopold Stokowski and host Deems Taylor for the movie, as they were prominent figures who popularized classical music. I can also opine what a shame it is that Disney dubbed radio personality/music critic Taylor’s audio with someone else’s voice for the 2000 release, as his boarding school baritone was his trademark.
I can also tell you what numbers got cut from the final product, including the literal interpretations of Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” and Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” the latter of which Walt vetoed so that the studio wouldn’t appear supportive of the Nazi Party.
Much of this encyclopedic knowledge is due to a time-old affliction perhaps familiar to horror fans and readers of this blog — I became obsessed with my own fear.
In addition to “Night on Bald Mountain,” there are two other segments to Fantasia that also creeped me out. The first was The Rite of Spring.
As a viewer, there are three things that always haunted me about this segment. One is its emptiness, tempered by jolting moments of frenzy. While this compliments the tone of the piece, it also gestures toward this slow-paced, largely dialogue-less movie’s foreignness. There are no traditional speaking protagonists that orient and engage the viewer. Despite being something of a musical, much of this movie takes place in a vacuum, far removed from any traditional notions of community. This segment, along with the abstract treatment of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue” illustrate the movie’s airless otherworldliness, slowly unfolding while at odd intervals sputtering into violent action.
Another part that always stayed with me was the fatal battle between the clearly outmatched Stegosaurus and the Tyrannosaurus Rex. While scientifically impossible, as the two species existed some 50 million years apart, the sequence is brutal.
Finally, the last section, which posits that the dinosaurs were wiped out by drought, shook me. I ached for the doomed dinosaurs, stumbling toward certain death. As an adult, I can’t help but draw analogies between the dinosaurs’ extinction and the present-day threat of global warming. And while the movie makes explicit a known demise, the final shot of the setting sun is, to me, as austere a meditation on mortality as the last scene in Two-Lane Blacktop.
While perhaps the most popular segment in the movie, and the catalyst for turning what was originally to be a short into a feature, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice always left an impression. The main image that stays with me is Mickey destroying the broom. While the broom later appears ominous when it becomes an army of faceless automatons that threaten to drown Mickey, the mouse and his violent actions scared me more.
According to animation historians, this segment marked a transformative moment for the mouse. For one, there was the evolution of his form. In a documentary made for the movie’s 2000 release, animation historian John Canemaker notes that in earlier shorts like “Steamboat Willie,” Mickey was composed as a set of rigid circles, limiting his movement vocabulary. He also had black ovals for eyes, which made him less capable of conveying complex emotions. Animators like Fred Ward were responsible for humanizing Mickey, making his actions and expressions more dynamic. These modifications made him a more alive, relatable character.
It also made him scarier because nice guys don’t commit violence. As the studio’s mascot, Mickey was originally characterized as fun-loving and carefree (note: some girlfriends say he was a jerk to Minnie, but I don’t remember any particular instances). Here, he’s careless, rash, and capable of murder. He trains a broom to fetch water using a spell stolen from his master, only to doze off while the broom mindlessly floods the room. When Mickey wakes up, he decides to solve the problem by wielding an ax and chopping the broom to bits.
Were that not scary enough, his actions are shown off-screen, his shadow projected against a wall. In earlier drafts, Mickey was shown smashing the broom but Walt found this image too frightening and requested that the act be implied rather than shown. As a result, the scene is even more unsettling, not unlike the shower scene in Psycho, leaving the actions ambiguous and open to fevered interpretations.
In the original version, there was a black servant character named Sunflower who appears in the middle of the segment, tending to the white centaurettes. Sunflower was black, prepubescent, half-donkey and characterized in a profoundly racist manner. She was removed from the movie in 1969 and has been taken out of all subsequent prints, VHS, and DVD editions.
It’s shocking that such an image, along with stereotypical images of Amazonian zebras in “The Pastoral” and Chinese mushrooms in “The Nutcracker Suite” were ever acceptable, even as late as 1940 (though more contemporary examples, like AMC’s Mad Men, suggest that blatantly regressive attitudes toward race were still alive and well later in the 20th century and continue to manifest in the present). While I’m heartened that an effort was made to remove such a horrible stereotype from the movie, and can now make sense of why certain images appeared too large for the frame or were given an awkward pan-and-scan treatment on video and DVD, the telling, overgrown absence create a different sense of unease.
For one, my memories of the “Pastoral” have now changed significantly. When I was a girl, my fantasy life was informed by this segment, along with the Nutcracker segment and other movies like The Little Mermaid and Ferngully: The Last Rainforest. I would often run in my backyard or swim in my dad’s pool during summer vacation, pretending to be a centaurette or a mermaid or a fairy.
I also devoted entire murals to these magical creatures who only socialized with their female counterparts and were always topless. Thankfully, my mother never commented on their nudity and encouraged me to keep drawing. My father and stepfather were supportive too, if a little nervous in their suggestions that maybe one of them could use a seashell bra or a dress made of flowers.
I now wonder how my fantasy life was informed by this omission and how it could have changed things if it remained. I asked my mom if it impacted her. She remembered Sunflower from her initial viewing and was uneasy about her rendering, but unsure as to why. It wasn’t until a bit later, when her uncle made an absent-minded racist comment about a black girl they saw in passing that my mom began to process such thinking and what relationship it may have had to the movie’s racist imagery. I’m proud to say that the prepubescent girl who later became my mother reprimanded her uncle.
I also believe there’s cowardice in this omission. I certainly don’t think that Sunflower should be included in the final segment. However, I would appreciate a supplemental documentary that features a historian or archivist mentioning her presence in the movie’s original cut, filmic evidence of that presence, and an explanation of the executive decisions and editing process that ultimately led to the removal. Though Sunflower was configured in a stereotypical manner, she was also a part of the movie and its history and her presence needs to be acknowledged.
Upon review, I am now able to watch Fantasia with new eyes. Much of it is changed for me as an adult, whether for good or ill. But I still have to turn on a nightlight to keep Chernabog at bay.
Since the middle of last week, I’ve been working on a post about a new indie horror film and some true crimes that may have inspired it. Like many of my previous posts, it’s become a sprawling stream-of-consciousness kind of piece already exceeding 1000 words, and I still have another film I would like to incorporate into the entry. So, rather than expedite that post, I decided to wrack my brain for something a bit more manageable to write about in the mean time, and I remembered this incredible film I watched several months ago called The Innocents.
This 1961 film based on the theatrical version of Henry James‘ The Turn of the Screw and adapted by Truman Capote stars Deborah Kerr as a young governess to two orphaned children adopted by their wealthy uncle. The uncle tells Kerr’s Miss Giddens that she will be sent to his country manor where the children live with a few staff, and that he expects not to be bothered with any matters relating to the children. Undeterred, Miss Giddens travels to the estate where she meets Flora, the niece, while the nephew Miles attends boarding school. While Miss Giddens settles in and gets to know the charming Flora, she receives a letter from Miles’ boarding school indicating that he will be sent home due to bad behavior. Oddly, however, Miles acts much like his sister when he returns, quickly winning over Miss Giddens. But strange things start to happen around the estate, such as the scene below:
The figure of a man also begins to appear to Miss Giddens, and after some investigation, she learns that the children’s previous governess, Miss Jessel, and the groundskeeper, Quint, died under strange circumstances. She also finds out that the couple carried on a sexual relationship, and that their lack of discretion may have perverted the children. As a result, Miss Giddens attempts to purge the children of the demons that she believes possess them. Her efforts to draw out a confession from the children ultimately result in tragedy. Miss Giddens traumatizes Flora, prompting the housekeeper to take her away, and upon forcing Miles to admit that Quint possesses him, Miles dies. Here is that final scene:
The Innocents intrigued me in part because it deals explicitly with children and sexuality. Specifically, the film’s protagonist believes in ideological constructions of childhood as a period of innocence and psychological vulnerability. As a result, the discovery that the children may have witnessed sexual acts proves deeply troublesome for Miss Giddens. Interestingly, it’s Giddens’ cure that kills Miles in the scene above, rather than the ghosts themselves. I prefer, then, to read The Innocents as a cautionary tale about the damaging impact of adult paranoia with regard to children’s sexuality. Obviously, I’m reading somewhat against the grain, given that the text seems invested in presenting the space of the house as genuinely haunted, but I believe that the film’s outcome supports my interpretation.
The kiss at the end of the above scene also proves to be a fascinating element of the film. According to IMDB, the film’s executives worried about how audiences would react to the scene. I wonder what it means that Miss Giddens, after prodding the child to admit that he sees the ghost, kisses him so intensely. The moment seems filled with regret, leading me to wonder if Miss Giddens questions her insistence on confronting the children.
Despite my reading, the film’s trailer replicates the very discourses of childhood innocence that I believe fuel the protagonist’s paranoia:
Notice that the trailer explicitly labels the film as “A new and adult motion picture experience” (my emphasis). Given that pulpy horror films of the fifties often appealed to children and teenagers, it makes sense that the film’s advertisers would seek to establish the film’s artistic credentials by labeling it “adult.” But I also see the label as a warning to parents: you can attend this film, but please don’t bring your impressionable children. Again, the mentality that the film may corrupt children in the same way the ghosts supposedly possessed “the innocents” create an odd parralel between the text as narrative and the film as exhibited material.
Of course, horror films have gone on to explore this very notion of text as destructive force within the narrative. One famous example, the American version of The Ring actually uses audio from The Innocents in the cursed tape that dooms the film’s protagonist. Here’s that tape, and you can hear Miles’ muffled singing about 40 seconds into the clip:
That the filmmakers of The Ring used portions of The Innocents was likely an intentional alusion to the latter’s themes of corruption through witnessing lewd acts. While The Ring and other films such as Videodrome explicate the themes implied in the trailer for The Innocents, neither specifically refers to generation as making victims more vulnerable to the images presented in the tapes. It’s the generational factor and the film’s focus on sexuality that distinguishes The Innocents from other texts concerning haunting.
When I was about five years old, my younger brother Paul and I often went to a babysitter down the street after school. Her house was a great place to hang out because things were pretty relaxed: there were arcade games around for amusement and the most bad ass, giant jungle gym, which clearly rivaled my own family’s rickety, aluminum swing set. It was a place where we could get away with a lot of shenanigans, but where we were generally safe and secure. However, things occasionally got out of hand. One time I attempted a cherry drop from the bars of the jungle gym and ended up bumping my head. Paul managed to fall headfirst onto a metal bowl full of popcorn and cut his ear so bad that he needed stitches. I have a feeling that such incidents would be frowned upon in this age of helicopter parenting in our hyper-litigious country, but they were pretty run-of-the-mill occurrences at our babysitter’s place in the late eighties.
Similarly, the regulations around TV and movie watching seemed much more flexible than my household’s rules, which is why I write this entry about The Gate, a 1987 Canadian film starring a very young Stephen Dorff. I must have been about six years old when I saw this PG-13 horror film at my babysitter’s house, yet I remember my response to this day.
The basic plot: a young boy, Glenn, (played by Dorff) and his older sister, Al, stay home alone while their parents go on vacation. Through a series of random events, Glenn and his friend Terry accidentally open a gateway to a hellish world through a hole in the backyard. In their vulnerable state, little creatures terrorize the kids. One scene in particular sticks out in my mind as particularly terrifying: in the midst of their distress, the parents show back up unexpectedly much to the kids’ relief; however, the parents turn out to be demonic mirages used to trick the kids. I also vaguely recall a scene where the telephone melts in the older sister’s hand. All of this frightened me because it played upon my fear that if left alone, bad things would happen to me. Here’s the trailer:
Today, I wonder if a movie like this marketed to children would even be feasible. When first released, The Gate fared well at the box office, earning about $13 million according to Box Office Mojo and justifying a sequel. Poltergeist, Critters, The Witches, Gremlins, and their sequels also featured kid protagonists and/or puppet creatures attractive to children. With PG or PG-13 ratings, these films were easily accessible to young viewers and parents could feel comfortable letting their kids watch them. Such movies seem to have dwindled as the nineties progressed, possibly due to the increased concerns of parents or merely due to changes in taste. These days, an animated film like Coraline most closely resembles this kind of kiddie horror, and the similarities between the two are slight.
The kiddie horror genre, embodied by The Gate, may have been a product of the growing phenomenon of the latchkey kid during the Reagan Era. The film itself reflects the anxieties that a latchkey kid might have: concerns about safety and the ability to reach parents in a time of need pervade the film. The Gate shows its age in other ways: eighties fashion (i.e. crimped hair, spandex, and neon colors), politically incorrect insults (i.e. “retard,” “fag”), and vinyl records abound. The special effects verge on hilarious, with claymation monsters dominating the latter half of the film. I do appreciate, however, that the film uses actors in their teens and pre-teens, something you see infrequently in horror films these days.
On the whole, watching The Gate brought back a lot of memories, but failed to impress me, aside from the brief uses of surrealist imagery. Admittedly, the film may have been somewhat compromised by how I viewed it–a DVD copy of The Gate is difficult to come by, so I watched it on YouTube–but more likely, the film’s clunky pacing and silly plot twists prevented me from engaging with it entirely. The elements that did interest me, such as sister Al’s struggle to define herself in terms of teenage femininity, failed to develop into anything substantial. Still, the film reminded me of the specificity of my childhood viewing experiences to my socioeconomic conditions, and for that, it was well worth a revisit.
The monstrous child is making a comeback in recent independent horror films. For instance, the upcoming film Orphan features a young recently-adopted girl who harbors a deep dark secret and terrorizes her new family. Adoption advocates (including Leonardo DiCaprio) have protested the film, which initially used the tag-line “It must be hard to love an adopted child as much as your own,” a line uttered by the film’s primary antagonist. The tagline has since been changed and the line of dialog replaced, but pro-adoption groups remain frustrated by the film’s concept, title, and marketing.
At this point, I feel that taking a stand on Orphan would be premature–I’d like to see the film first and get a sense of how the text grapples with the hot-button issues. Texts like this can be incredibly tricky to pin down, and readings against the grain are often possible. When I watch the trailer, for instance, I can’t help but immediately interpret Esther as a queer figure in her traditional family, and I am curious as to whether or not such interpretations support or refute the concerns of adoption advocates.
Orphan reminds me of a similar film called Joshua, which plays on many of the same themes of the alienated child within the nuclear family. The film stars Sam Rockwell as Brad and Vera Farmiga as Abby (she is also in Orphan), parents who have just had their second child, a baby girl named Lily. Their older son, Joshua (portrayed by Jacob Kogan), struggles to adjust to his new sibling, while Abby worries that her severe post-partum depression after Joshua’s birth will recur with their new baby. Though these worries seem unfounded initially, tensions in the household rise because of Joshua’s peculiar behavior. For instance, during a game of hide-and-seek, Joshua takes his baby sister from her crib, causing his mother to panic. After much searching, Abby returns to the crib to find Lily safe and sound, and Abby wonders if the whole scenario was hallucinated. These strange incidents persist, gradually leading Brad to believe that Joshua may be a sociopath. After Brad’s mother dies under mysterious circumstances while watching Joshua, Brad asks a psychologist to visit with Joshua. After the session, the psychologist expresses concerns that Joshua is being physically abused, which Brad denies vociferously. At the climax of the film, Brad takes Joshua and Lily to the park, where Joshua taunts his sister by stealing her pacifier. The scene ends with Brad beating Joshua publicly, prompting his arrest and the children’s placement with their uncle, Ned.
Queer elements of the text distinguish Joshua from the standard monstrous child movie. Joshua, with his perfectly coiffed hair, slightly effeminate mannerisms, impeccable wardrobe (he’s always wearing a tie), and interest in music and art, easily reads as queer. Joshua’s relationship with his gay uncle, Ned, reinforces this reading. Joshua gravitates toward Ned whenever he is present, and they share their love of music together by playing duets on the piano. During one of the film’s more effective scenes, Joshua performs “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” periodically hitting flat, high pitched notes that twist the songs angelic sound. While Joshua’s parents look puzzled by the performance, Ned appears moved by the rendition and says he’s hitting every note perfectly. By rendering this lullaby strange, the performance is essentially “queer” in the sense of “differing in some odd way.”
While these touches might make Joshua a queerphobic text since Joshua is both queer and monstrous, a more nuanced reading could also be drawn. While the film heavily implies that Joshua is disturbed, it consistently denies the viewer of scenes which show Joshua enacting violence. When Joshua’s grandmother dies from falling down a set of stairs, for instance, the camera cuts away so that the viewer never knows for certain whether Joshua pushed her or if she simply slipped. Scenes which do show Joshua saying or doing strange things never rise to the level of blatant violence. The aforementioned hide-n-seek scene, for instance, doesn’t really show Joshua physically hurting anyone, but merely playing a game that could be perceived as manipulative. In other words, one could argue that much of the hysteria surrounding Joshua results not from Joshua’s particular actions but from the projected emotions of the adults that surround him.
The final scene could support this assertion: Joshua, now living with his uncle, performs a song of his own creation called “The Fly.” The song’s lyrics refer to the parents’ efforts to save Joshua, and the uncle’s feeling that Joshua “never missed a note.” Here’s a video of the song performed by Dave Matthews (who wrote it specifically for the film):
On the one hand, the lyrics could be interpreted as an acknowledgement of Joshua’s sadistic impulses (e.g. tearing the wings off a fly for pleasure); on the other hand, there’s something genuinely touching about the song’s references to a lack of acceptance by the family and a feeling of acceptance from the uncle. In essence, it’s a lullaby expressing desire for a queer family and rejection from the traditional straight family.
There’s validity to reading Joshua as a story of queer monstrosity, but I also believe one could see the film as a quest for a queer family. These readings are not mutually exclusive, but operate in tandem, complexifying the text and offering a range of meanings to the viewer. Ultimately, Joshua demonstrates that even the monstrous figure can illicit empathy and complicate ideological readings of a text.
My dad is what communications theorists call an “early adopter“–always on the cutting edge of technology, he purchased video cameras, computers, and VCR’s long before these items were standard in American households. For a brief time before I could fully appreciate it, my family subscribed to HBO from which my dad would record movies for all of us to watch. Growing up, these tapes served as our primary video collection, since purchasing manufactured videos cost triple what it does today. To get the most bang for the buck, there would often be three films on a single tape and movies would be recorded over.
This technological savvy and frugality led directly to one of my more frightening movie viewings, Jagged Edge (1985). I must have been about six years old when I decided to watch an old tape of The Nutcracker ballet. Static cut into the movie about twenty minutes in, and the HBO introduction played. Curious about what would follow, I continued to watch the tape. I remember an establishing shot of a house on a dark hill, before cutting to an interior shot of the house. In a bedroom, a woman slept peacefully when suddenly, a masked man emerged from behind her headboard wrapping ropes around her neck.
I cannot remember anything else after that except my shocked reaction. For years thereafter, I feared that my room might be broken into and that I could be murdered. I also worried about a stranger hiding behind my headboard (which I now realize to be totally absurd since there’s not enough room behind it to hide). One time, my brother Paul hid under my bed and grabbed my ankle as a joke, to which I screamed and cried in response
Last weekend, I re-watched Jagged Edge over the internet, confronting the text head-on. The first scene (the only one I actually watched as a child) differs greatly from the way I remembered it. The killer does not emerge from behind the bed to strangle the woman, but rather ties up the victim with ropes before opening the front of her night gown and holding a knife up to her chest. I must have repressed this detail, because to me as an adult, it was the most frightening part of the scene. The next shots show the crime scene being examined by police officers. Above the bed, the word “bitch” is scrawled in blood, suggesting the killer’s misogynist intentions.
Click this link to view the trailer.
These overtly sexist details struck me most as I re-watched Jagged Edge. The film centers on the investigation of the crime the opens the story, with Jeff Bridges playing Jack Forrester, the husband of the victim and the prime suspect. Glenn Close plays Teddy Barnes, a high-powered San Francisco attorney who reluctantly takes on the case; however, soon enough she becomes convinced of Jack’s innocence, and the two sleep together as they prepare for trial. Information revealed during the trial tests Teddy’s faith in Jack’s innocence, but ultimately she believes him and successfully argues for his acquittal. After celebrating the verdict, Jack and Teddy have sex once again, but Teddy discovers crucial evidence in Jack’s home that links him to the crime. In the final scene, the masked man threatens Teddy with a knife, and she shoots him and before pulling off his mask to reveal Jack’s face.
This film clearly falls into eighties feminist backlash territory in spite of Teddy’s intelligence and success as an attorney. Ultimately, Jack manipulates Teddy into believing he is innocent before attempting to kill her, revealing that in spite of her power, she remains vulnerable as a single woman. What’s more, the film problematically contains several scenes in which Teddy’s two children openly complain about her separation from her husband. These touches seem to signal that Teddy is influenced by feminism to some extent, but they also suggest that she has put her career ahead of the happiness of her children, and, in part, her divorced status puts her at-risk for Jack’s manipulation. What might be most insulting about Jagged Edge is the implication that working women will put aside commonsense standards of professionalism (i.e. DON’T SLEEP WITH YOUR CLIENT…WHO IS ACCUSED OF MURDER) for the sake of romance. In summary, the film seems to be a product of its era in the vein of Fatal Attraction (also a Glenn Close film).
There’s also some interesting white guilt going on in the film. Teddy in part chooses to represent Jack to challenge an old colleague from her time as a DA named Thomas Krasny, who represents the state in the case against Jack. Early in the film, Teddy attends a funeral for a man named Henry Styles that she helped put away with Krasny but who she later found out was innocent. Henry’s mother, who is black, scolds Teddy for showing up at the burial. After the verdict is announced, Teddy proclaims Styles’ innocence to the press, explaining that Krasny suppressed evidence that would have exonerated Henry. While the film deserves credit for presenting an injustice by white people in power against a black man, it seems like the subplot’s primary purpose is to create tension between Teddy and Thomas, and to present Teddy as a principled person. The film does not explore the issue any deeper, nor does it explicitly mention race as a factor in Henry’s discrimination.
Still, I must admit that I enjoyed Jagged Edge in spite of its ideological problems. It captures a particular era stylistically and ideologically with a splendidly convoluted plot, melodramatic performances, and lots of sex and violence. The writer, Joe Eszterhas, also penned Basic Instinct (1992), a similarly problematic but pleasurable film. While Jagged Edge lacks the knowing wink of Basic Instinct, its twist-and-turns plot does offer some moments of suspense, and Close and Bridges perform the material well. It may not have aged well, but that’s part of the fun of watching it: you’re horrified by the ideologies, rather than staging of the murder.
The first slasher movie I ever saw was Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. This viewing occurred in the basement rec room of my parents’ house when I was about twelve years old. I was with my ten year-old brother, Paul, and the two of us were trying to keep ourselves entertained on a Saturday night. Our parents allowed us free-reign over the tv as long as we could choose a program amicably. Often, we would stay up until one or two in the morning on weekends cruising the various cable offerings. It was in these circumstances that we came upon Jason Lives.
Up until that point, my experiences with horror films had been limited and unpleasant. I had watched a few movies as a youngster that made me fearful of the genre (more on those later). I worried about nightmares and was particularly concerned that my reactions in social situations (i.e. slumber parties, etc.) would be embarrassing. As a result, I typically avoided scary movies and protested when they were played at friends’ houses.
Yet, somehow, my brother and I ended up watching enough of Part VI to get completely freaked out. I say “enough of” because we didn’t watch the film from start to finish; we likely parked on the channel for a minute or two–long enough to see a scene in which Jason mercilessly kills a couple after they get a flat tire. I remember in particular the killing of the female character, who opens her wallet, credit cards spilling out, in an attempt to buy Jason’s sympathy. Of course, Jason dispatches her without hesitation, and the filmmakers heightened the kill’s impact with a first-person camera angle from the victim’s perspective.
Years later, this scene stuck out in my mind as the one that frightened my brother and I so much that we attempted to watch Disney’s Cinderella as a corrective measure and, when that failed, slept in my parents’ bed; however, my brother reminded me recently that another more disturbing scene scared us shitless. It features a teenage couple (post-coitus, of course) driving down a road in a camper. The male drives recklessly, while the female passenger stumbles about the camper before Jason pulls her into the bathroom. Again, I remember clearly the way the scene was shot: an extreme high angle reveals Jason in the cramped bathroom covering the girl’s mouth before jamming her face into the camper wall; the film then cuts to an exterior of the camper, where an impression of the girl’s screaming face emerges from the steel. Back in the interior, Jason exits the bathroom and walks slowly toward the male driver, who can’t hear Jason approach because of his loud rock music. Jason then stabs the driver’s head, and the film cuts to the camper flying over an embankment and crashing. Jason, of course, rises from the wreckage unscathed and the terror continues.
That I had repressed this scene speaks to its power, but that I recalled it so easily once I was reminded of it also suggests its impact was indelible. I could remember the camera angles and shot sequences so clearly. Normally, a film’s construction was of little import to me as a kid, but studies on perception of time actually show that a our senses during times high stress heighten, allowing us to perceive of time as passing more slowly. Something similar happened when I saw Part VI, as I recalled particular shots and editing patterns years after the fact.
While the camera angles contributed to my stressful response, the sexual overtones in the latter scene scandalized my inhibited pre-teen self. The implication that Jason punished the teens for their sexual activity played into my belief that sex was dangerous. Carol Clover and others have written about this element of the slasher at length, so I won’t revisit that discussion. Instead, I invite you to watch Alice Cooper‘s video “Man Behind the Mask,” a song written specifically for Part VI that perfectly captures these themes of puritanical justice:
I’ve since revisited the Friday the 13th series, watching Part VI about a month ago. The film begins with Tommy Jarvis, who killed Jason in Part IV, digging up the grave of the deceased villain with intentions to burn Jason’s corpse. Instead, a bolt of lightening revives Jason and kick-starts a blood bath. Tommy alerts the local authorities of Jason’s resurrection, but his pleas are dismissed and Tommy is jailed. Meanwhile, Jason kills a trio of paintball players, a drunken gravedigger, and a slew of camp counselors. Luckily, the sheriff’s spunky daughter develops a crush on Tommy and springs him from jail to pursue Jason. The two track Jason down and lure him into Crystal Lake, where they first shred his face with a boat propeller and then chain him to the bottom of the lake with a large boulder as an anchor. In spite of the triumph, the film concludes with an ominous shot of the submerged Jason opening his eyes, suggesting that he will return for yet another sequel.
As the plot outline suggests, Part VI is a campy affair. More surprisingly, it understands its status as trashy entertainment. The dialog alone demonstrates the writer’s humorous take on the project. For instance, after Jason’s presence becomes known at the re-opened Camp Crystal Lake, one sarcastic young camper asks another “So, what were you gonna be when you grew up?” There are more than a few knowing winks at the audience, with lines like, “I’ve seen enough horror movies to know any weirdo wearing a mask is never friendly.” Such lines anticipate Scream’s self-referential humor and nods to fandom. This humorous approach, along with bad acting, 80s mise-en-scene, and cheesy music make Jason Lives my favorite installment of the series.
Which brings me back to the disparity between my initial response and that upon re-viewing the film years later. As a pre-teen, I’d not yet accumulated the cinematic experiences that allowed me to see Part VI as merely a product of generic formulas that could be anticipated and mocked. Having seen many slashers since, I can now laugh at Jason Lives even as certain scenes disgust me. I have some mastery over these texts, and I must say, that’s a very liberating feeling.
While researching horror films in grad school, I came across a few interesting articles that took an ethnographic approach to the genre. One such article interviewed college students about traumatic childhood experiences of watching scary films; interestingly enough, subjects reported frequently about the impact of watching movies like The Exorcist, Jaws, or Halloween at too tender an age.
These articles fascinated me in part because I had similar experiences. For years, I avoided horror films in part because of a few psychologically scarring incidents as an impressionable youth. Case in point: my brother and I caught snippets of Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI on cable, and afterward, Jason Voorhees frequently appeared in my nightmares. Even after I started watching horror films in middle school, I refused to watch Friday the 13th movies until I was in college.
But in the interest of self-reflection and maybe a little therapy, I’ve decided to revisit my most traumatic cinematic reception experiences from childhood. I’m interested in better understanding my frightened responses, and also reflecting on the ways that these films may have shaped my later viewing experiences and tastes. What’s more, I plan to use this exercise as a way of demystifying those texts which previously had so much power over my imagination–what may have seemed frighteningly realistic as a child might now come across as gloriously campy. Finally, this series will give me a chance to consider the ways memories can be impacted by emotions, since I expect that much of what I recall about these initial viewing experiences won’t quite jibe with the text as I see it now.
These entries will likely be a combination of confessional tales, film reviews, and self-reflection. First up will be the aforementioned Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI. Check back for the entry soon.