For this month, BFB writers were asked about films that left them scarred. Which movie did they watch way too young? Which film crawled its way into their pre-adolescent brain and left them disturbed for months? It could be horror, but it could also be a vulgar comedy whose joke they understood after weeks of contemplation. It could be a steamy romance that they were not prepared to witness. It could be a slimy movie that they’re a little weirded out about their parents watching in their free time. Let’s see what they chose.
A frequent and beloved ritual in my childhood was the long browse at Blockbuster. My family and I would spend what felt like the length of a Lord of the Rings binge (but was really closer to 30 minutes) searching for the perfect evening mood-setter. One evening, my dad made an uncharacteristically swift decision and he talked up his selection so much that no one argued. The movie he was so excited to watch with us was Deliverance (1972).
I found out later that evening, after a scene of disturbing sexual violence, that he had also unsuspectingly run across this movie in pre-adolescence and he wanted me to experience the same shock and terror that he had. It worked, and I was furious. I was furious because I had been so eager to find out why Deliverance had made my dad giddy at Blockbuster. His excitement was a facade, and I bought it. A couple of Dueling Banjos and an intriguing tone early in the movie seemed to support the impression my dad had created.
My dad did not habitually show me disturbing movies for fun and this was thankfully a one-off event. It parallels, though, another prank he played on my spouse years later in which he got her to try jalepeño jelly, saying, “You’ll like it! It tastes just like sugar.” Had he more accurately described the taste, she might not have despised the jelly. Had he at least told me that Deliverance would be a difficult watch, I might not have a distaste for it to this day.
Deliverance and the jelly offer a valuable lesson in expectations. Audience expectations for a movie are constructed by a number of different factors, including word-of-mouth, prior knowledge of the filmmaker(s), and marketing – from the trailer to simply the title. Each one of these factors contributes to both the box office and critical success or failure of a movie. My young mind’s expectations for Deliverance were developed by my dad’s attitude, only to be shattered by psychological horror, so a generally well-regarded movie ultimately failed for me.
Don’t prank your kids with psychological horror films. End of soapbox.
For this go-round, blessed be the day, my insanity and a nasty head cold have rendered my thoughts brief and manageable. Anyone familiar with me or my work would assume one of two things: I was absolutely terrified as a child and my fear has made me the way I am today, or I was simply born with guts of stone. Alas, neither is true. By most standards, I wasn’t a squeamish kid.
My favorite movies were all by Gore Verbinski, the last mainstream purveyor of the surreal and horrific. His Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, Rango, and The Lone Ranger (cannibalism and all) rank among my boyhood favorites. Sometimes, before I rubbed my brain into an impenetrable callous, horror movie trailers got me to jump. I thought it was gross when poor Alfred Molina was impaled in Raiders of the Lost Ark; I must have been six or seven for that one. That said, none of them left any notable memories.
When it comes down to it, there’s only two movies that have either caused such intense fear or revulsion that it made me forfeit the viewing experience entirely. One is Jim Van Bebber’s The Manson Family, which I first attempted to watch while riding a horrific wave of caffeine and stress-induced anxiety. I tried again a couple of months later, no problems. The second must have been when I was eight or nine, still a wee lad, and that was Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down.
I was at a buddy’s birthday sleepover and, in an effort to be the cool parents, his mother and father relented to a crowd of screaming little boys who wanted to watch a proper war movie. Black Hawk Down was at Redbox. Well, once the killing started, baby Chance was having none of it. Too real, too sad, and too damn loud (my hearing wasn’t busted quite yet). I left the room and played on my DS for a while. Why that movie of all movies did me in is a question that still leaves me dry, I can only assume it had to do with the film’s ostensible realism. Since then, I haven’t tried to watch it again, not for fear of its violence, but for fear of boredom (sorry Ridley, I still love you). Sometimes, I like to think that little Chance was already a discerning cinephile, but he also loved The Three Stooges (2012), so maybe not.
My pick is Spiderman (2002).
Yeah look, I know what you’re thinking. Really? That early 2000s blockbuster about that kid who gets powers from a spider bite and swings around the city in red and blue spandex? Even so, it never was the action that stuck with me, nor the impactful character conflicts, or even the tragedy of Uncle Ben’s death, but was indeed the bone-chilling and enduring performance of Willem Dafoe as Norman Osborn a.k.a. The Green Goblin.
Having spent more than a healthy amount of hours as a kid rewatching my copy on VHS, I still couldn’t crack my fear of this particular performance. I couldn’t pinpoint the precise element that frightened me most. Was it his access to military-grade weaponry? His maniacal laughter post-evil deeds? Was it the very animated yet fixed expression on the goblin’s mask, pairing long pointed ears with an evil, sharp-toothed grin?
Even the non-physical aspects disturbed me; the fact that his life was so wrapped around Spiderman on a personal scale and even the fact he spends his nights alone in a giant, empty mansion, plotting, laughing and talking to himself in the mirror. Even thinking about it now as an adult still doesn’t sit right with me.
I recall as a young kid asking my parents countless times if I could sleep in their bed due to my fright. I even asked the kids at school if they, too, feared the dreaded Goblin. In retrospect, considering how much that certain performance affected me does cement to me that Dafoe is one of the finest character actors of our time. He was probably having the time of his life in Spider-Man, even though I wasn't while watching him. Aunt May said it best as she was wheeled into the hospital crying, “those eyes, those horrible yellow eyes!”
Growing up with a single dad meant a lot of junk food paired with adult comedies. Although most of the movies we watched leaned more tame than raunchy, there was one glorious exception: Stripes (1981). The extended cut – because we weren’t animals.
We watched this movie more times than I can count, and with each rewatch, the jokes began to reveal themselves to me. Bill Murray, what are you doing taking a military weapon out for a joy ride? That’s not allowed! In this post-Top Gun: Maverick world, it is honestly very impressive to me that these filmmakers got away with when portraying two best friends joining the Army for shits and gigs.
As Winger, Ziskey (Harold Ramis) and the rest of their platoon (army) crawl their way through basic training, the shenanigans only get sillier and more promiscuous. My poor, young eyes! The movie is not lacking in topless women, and my dad did what he could by tossing a blanket over my head. But I was a curious child and stealthily lifted the blanket just so. In hindsight, I was most likely not slick, and my dad just let me watch the shower scene and that iconic mud wrestling scene for better or for worse.
It’s been a long while since I’ve seen Stripes. I think most of it is out of fear on both my part and my dad’s. I’m not sure if I want to know precisely what I was exposed to at such a young age. I’m sure my dad can say the same. Aside from the nudity, I can feel it in my bones that this film, in classic 80s fashion, did not age well. The plot is loose at best, and the script – although quotable –- has offensive jokes toward women, immigrants, and gay men. Despite its flaws, it is a tempting rewatch; what I remember most is laughing even when I couldn’t completely understand the joke.
I was the youngest child, so it would seem only natural that I was desensitized at a young age by watching my older sisters’ choice movies. Yet, despite my unfiltered access to the Internet, I ended up self-censoring. I didn’t watch horror because I knew it would give me nightmares, and I avoided sex because I genuinely believed that I didn’t need to know about that yet.
I originally wasn’t going to write for this prompt because I felt that my mind was mostly left untampered with as a child. But then I thought about it a little more. And I suddenly recalled a movie that had disturbed me.
I loathe the grotesque. I don’t see any point in it. I thought Henry Selick and Tim Burton were the weirdest dudes on the planet, and I thought anyone who enjoyed Coraline or James and the Giant Peach was doomed to rot in hell. But nothing was worse than Burton's 2005 remake of Willy Wonka, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
For whatever reason, my parents bought the DVD for the movie right after it came out. So, naturally, I watched it many times. As a very small child, I thought that Wonka’s black bug-eye glasses (I referred to them as “chocolate glasses”) were the creepiest accessory known to man. Upon rewatch, however, I understood the genuine horror that was Veruca Salt’s death scene. What in the ever-loving heck was that? She was eaten alive by squirrels? While her father watched? Why was such a concept present in a PG children’s movie?!
I still think about the all-white aesthetic of the room, the chitter-chatter of the carnivorous little animatronic rodents, and her bloody-murder screams as her dad watched her get dragged away. I seriously do not think I could watch that scene again, even today. It is all so morbid.
I have since come around to Tim Burton and his less sadistic movies (Big Fish and Ed Wood are alright), but I will never, ever forgive him for making me watch a little girl (who sort of looked like me, mind you) get pulled down a squirrel hole. And I resent my parents for telling me that if I ever acted like she did, my fate would be the same.
-Josh, Chance, Jack, Grace & Lydia