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.
Coming attractions have taken on a greater importance now that I have a blog to maintain. With a limited number of new movies to comment upon, trailers provide a source for speculation about what’s next in cinema. Saturday, I attended the very entertaining film The Hurt Locker, and the following trailer screened much to my delight:
Shutter Island is a horror buff’s dream-come-true: Martin Scorcese directing a thriller with a kick-ass cast that includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Patricia Clarkson, Max von Sydow, Jackie Earle Haley, and Emily Mortimer! Casting and directing aside, the concept looks intriguing with questions of psychosis providing opportunities for surrealist hallucination sequences.
Reading further into the production, I also discovered that the film contains flashbacks of World War II concentration camps. Of course, drawing upon the holocaust is nothing new to film generally and the horror genre specifically, and often times, such references are problematic. We need only watch the national news to see how easily Nazism can be thrown around as a political scare-tactic. Something similar can happen in horror films whereby the Holocaust becomes short-hand for pure evil, rather than something to be reflected upon or questioned. This seems to be the case with The Unborn:
The Unborn features flashbacks of Nazi experiments performed by Dr. Mengele on twins in a story about a girl haunted by her twin who died in utero. While I’ve yet to see the film, I find it difficult to grasp how a contemporary story of posession can be aligned with Nazi experimentation. This additional information feels superfluous to the plot and thus cheap and exploitive.
Another recent film brought to my attention by my friend Kristen refers more specifically to World War II with its premise of Nazi soldier zombies:
Dead Snow, a Norwegian production, clearly grapples with issues surrounding national identity and generation. The middle-aged local man critiques the excesses of the vacationing youth by explaining the region’s history in relation to World War II. This narrative could go both ways for me. On the one hand, the representation of the World War II generation as self-sacrificing and the current one as ungrateful seems overly simplistic and a bit conservative; on the other hand, I like the capitalist critique at work. Either way, Dead Snow should provide great fodder for critique!
It remains to be seen exactly how Shutter Island will utilize the war in its narrative, and the trailer gives very few hints. The setting of the mental hospital does suggest, though, that trauma will play an important role in character and plot development. I am hopeful that Shutter Island will utilize memories of war to comment upon the oppressiveness of other institutions.
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.