In the new issue of Filmfax, Kipp Friedman (the photographer and author whose father is Bruce Jay, the screenwriter, playwright and actor; and whose brothers are Drew, the caricaturist; and Josh, the writer and musician) wrote an article about the movies that really scared the hell out of him was he was a kid. He and his brothers used to talk their father into taking them to horror movies when they were young, and it brought back fond memories of the horror films I saw with my parents when I was a sprite.
Night of the Living Dead (1968) terrified Kipp. He talks about how his father wanted to leave during the trowel slaying scene, but Josh talked him into staying put. I saw the film at the drive-in with my mother and two sisters, but there was no mention of leaving, regardless of what may had been going through Mom’s mind. Besides, Dad was often on business trips and Mom would take us to the drive-in frequently for economical entertainment—we saw a lot of horror and sci-fi, and I loved going to the “outdoor theater,” as we called it.
In the late 80s I started ordering videotapes from Sinister Cinema and discovered the magnificent Barbara Steele. When I began watching Terror Creatures from the Grave (1965) for what I thought was the first time, a wheelchair-bound character appeared onscreen, and I suddenly thought, “Oh, my God! He’s going to run himself through with a sword later and there’ll be a close-up of the guts oozing out of his stomach!” Sure enough, it happened, and I realized that a dormant memory of a long-ago viewed drive-in film had been triggered.
Kipp also mentions slipping into some sort of hallucinatory haze when he saw the nuclear mutant unmasking scene in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1968). It was trippy, that’s for sure, and Beneath remains my favorite of the Apes films—maybe because I found the apes to be pretty boring after a while and something different needed to be going on.
Around the same time, I went to one of those classic kiddie matinees—the Japanese rubber monsterfest Destroy All Monsters. All of the earth’s monsters have been retired to Monster Island, a kind of resort community for creatures. But when space women take control of the monsters and cause them to wreak havoc on the world’s major cities and release Ghidorah, their three-headed secret weapon, a battle for supremacy ensues.
The scene that really stuck with me occurs was when a scientist realizes his female counterpart is being controlled via implants in her earrings—and he rips them right out of her lobes! She screams, her ears bleed… I think it hit me because it’s a kind of pain I can relate to…not that I’d ever had earrings ripped out of my ears.
TV provided memorable shivers as well. After church every Sunday, we’d go to our grandparents’ house. The adults would gather in the kitchen, drink endless cups of coffee and discuss local politics while the kids would huddle in front of the television, of course. The local CBS station, WSBT, had purchased a package of Universal “B” titles and would run them endlessly on Sundays…after church! Not their horror classics, but rather the cheesy early 60s films like Kitten with a Whip. We saw William Castle’s I Saw What You Did…And I Know Who You Are (1965) quite frequently. It’s about two teenage girls and a kid sister who decide to make prank phone calls while the parents are out, and they happen to ring a man who’s just killed his wife. Of course, he comes looking for them.
My sisters and I often had babysitters. It was the suburban 1960s (and parents’ “date night” was in its prime), so that movie really creeped me out. The house in which the primary action takes place is remote and surrounded by studio-bound fog. Plus, it had a violent shower stabbing scene which Castle intended to rival Psycho (which I hadn’t yet seen, of course), and WSBT ran it more-or-less uncut.
Speaking of sitters, I have a specific memory of watching the 1959 English Herman Cohen cheapie Horrors of the Black Museum with one of mine on a memorable Saturday night. I had to have been been pretty young—no older than six—but I still vividly remember the woman’s eyes being pierced by the spring-loaded spike binoculars and the murderer striking with a kind of portable guillotine poised above the sleeping girl’s bed.
Occasionally, instead of getting a babysitter, we were taken to other parents’ house parties. Once, there was a prime-time network showing of Hitchcock’s The Birds that I watched with some kids I didn’t know—who actually had a color TV!—during one of them, and the scene where Jessica Tandy goes to visit her neighbor and finds him dead on the floor with his eyes pecked out was shown intact. I was only seven or eight at the time, and it was a memorable freak-out.
Later, I’d talk my family into going to all sorts of trashy horror films, motivated by an endless parade of cheesy TV spots. We had a small theater in downtown South Bend, the Avon Art (so named because it ran foreign “art” films during its heyday in the late 50s and early 60s when audiences attended to legally ogle naked bodies). In the early 1970s, the Avon was on its last legs, screening Blaxpoitation flicks and American International’s questionable output.
We saw William Girdler’s Abby, a combo Blaxploitation/horror film (1974) there before it was pulled from theaters as a result of a Warner Bros. Exorcist rip-off lawsuit; the 1974 Juliet Mills epic Beyond the Door (ironically another Exorcist rip-off) and Sergio Martino’s Torso, both heavily cut for an R rating were also screened there. I was particularly disappointed with Torso. The television commercials promised a lot more than was actually shown. I thought I was actually going to see some explicit hacksaw-on-limb action, but it just didn’t happen.
Dad took me to see The Exorcist (1973) on its original release. It was given a hard “X” in South Bend, so he literally sneaked me into the State Theater hiding under his coat. Considering all the mayhem in that film, it might be surprising that the scene that haunted me for months thereafter was the ol’ head-spinner. “Do you know what she did…your c***ing daughter?” To this day, I still find it amazing that it airs on broadcast television with the extreme horror (if not the language) more or less intact.
Dad and I also saw Brian DePalma’s Sisters (1973) at the drive-in. It began to rain about 40 minutes into the film and the windshield fogged up, but so transfixed were we by the plot that we rolled down the side windows and stuck our heads out into the rain for the duration. It’s actually one of the most enduring childhood memories I have of my father. And of course, the violent stabbing scene near the beginning had me hooked from the get-go. She gets him in the mouth, doesn’t she?
Kipp and his brothers actually talked their father into taking them to Last House on the Left (1972), but he put his foot down and demanded they leave before the film was over. I can certainly see why, but I saw it later at the drive-in (of course) as part of the infamous Don’t! triple bill: Don’t Look in the Basement, Don’t Open the Window and Last House. Interestingly, my favorite film of the trilogy was Don’t Open the Window, which of course is the American title of Jorge Grau’s Spanish Let Sleeping Corpses Lie or The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue.
It’s easy (for me at least) to understand why. Last House was slow and talky and had corny music, while Don’t was like Night of the Living Dead—except in color! Again, even though it was cut for an American R rating, the scene that really got to me was the post-autopsy zombie with his chest stitched up (pictured here) lumbering down the hospital stairs.
Speaking of NOLD in color, Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was released when I was 18 and far too mature to “freak out”—or so I thought. Even though the blood was pink and the zombies were blue, the scene near the beginning when the Swat team descends upon the slum to blow away the tenants—and the African-American zombie comes out of his apartment to tear a chunk out of his still-living girlfriend’s shoulder and arm—well, I can understand Kipp’s hallucinatory haze, because that’s what happened to me.
Years later, I met Dawn co-star Ken Foree at a collector’s show, and he told me that he’d recently been involved in a panel discussion with some of the cast…and the shoulder-munching zombie sat next to him. “And he still freaked me out!” Foree said.
That’s what I love about the movies in Weird Movie Village—they’re the gift that keeps on giving.