Facing Your Fears: The Top 13 Movies That Freaked Me Out When I Was a Kid

I loved movies my whole life. There were a lot of things I saw in movies that really freaked me out when I was young. These are the ones that left the most profound scars on my youthful psyche. I give you: The Top 13 Movies That Freaked Me Out When I Was a Kid.

Seriously. Why do this to children?

Seriously. Why do this to children?

13. Pink Elephants, Heffalumps and Woozles. Thank you, Disney, for haunting my childhood with not one, but two very scary songs about elephants. Dumbo (1941) has the “Pink Elephants on Parade” song—where drunk Dumbo and Timothy Mouse hallucinate some truly nightmarish pachyderm-themed imagery. Winnie the Pooh’s nightmare after meeting Tigger was also frightening to me as a kid.

Eerily prophetic of what would happen to the real life Val Kilmer.

Eerily prophetic of what would happen to the real life Val Kilmer.

12. You’re all pigs. Most people might remember a nasty troll turning into the two-headed Eborsisk and ripping his brother in half in Willow (1988), but for me there was a scarier scene. The scene where the evil sorceress turns the army into pigs. It was a particularly jarring morph scene that rattled my young impressionable mind.

Two decades later this image still really bothers me.

Two decades later this image still really bothers me.

11. Pigs are still scary. The song “I Found a New Way to Walk” performed by the Oinker Sisters on Sesame Street. I actually can’t explain this one. Something about those dead-eyed, floppy mouthed, felt pig puppets with no pants singing in that black void really got to me. That the song is frighteningly catchy too only makes it worse. For whatever reason, this clip from “Sesame Street” scared me when I was little and, truth be told, still kind of unnerves me today.

That's a bone-chilling image to thrust into your kiddie space adventure.

That’s a bone-chilling image to thrust into your kiddie space adventure.

10. There’s a wolfman in Star Wars?! The glowing eyes, drooling maw, nightmarishly slow and calculated movement, and that jarring noise he makes are all super scary to a kid of four. I dreaded the Tatooine cantina scene for that reason. Outside of that, the only other thing that ever bothered me in the entire Star Wars universe was when Luke takes Darth Vader’s helmet off. I think it was his scabby head.

Dwight Frye always dies.

Dwight Frye always dies.

9. Dwight Frye dies twice. He got to play two different creepy sidekick guys who die in Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). In the original he is the doctor’s hunchbacked assistant, Fritz, who gets his comeuppance off-screen—although you do hear his cries echo through the moldy castle corridors. When Dr. Frankenstein arrives, the monster has hung Fritz’s lifeless corpse from the rafters. In the sequel he is Dr. Pretorias’ nasty henchman, Karl. The enraged monster throws him off a castle during a storm. Something about the lifeless dummy falling, arms akimbo, accompanied by Frye’s hideous screams is still unnerving in its fakeness.

Alfred Molina's first movie appearance,

Alfred Molina’s first movie appearance,

8. The first 10 minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Spiders, booby traps, impalements, rotting corpses, poison darts, and a terrific sense of suspense—especially for children. Had I stuck around for the grand finale at that tender age I don’t know where I’d be now.

It's the ever advancing closeups that did it, man.

It’s the ever advancing closeups that did it, man.

7. A Hitchcock trifecta. I succumbed to the terror of Psycho‘s shower sequence (1960) and I’ve had trouble with shower curtains ever since. The wonders Hitchcock must have done for the glass shower industry. The Birds (1963) also has some good scares, especially when she finds the dead old man with his eyes pecked out. No one remembers Torn Curtain (1966) and it’s not a great one, but the scene where Paul Newman murders the hitman with the oven disturbed me.

No one ever listens to the old Chinese guy.

No one ever listens to the old Chinese guy.

6. The Gremlins in Gremlins (1984). The sequel was hilarious, but Joe Dante’s first movie was nightmare fuel. It forever changed how I experience the Christmas song “Do You Hear What I Hear?” Those little slimy cocoons and the gleefully malevolent violence that followed really rattled my young, impressionable mind.

Alas, no photos could be found of the nasty executioner guy.

Alas, no photos could be found of the nasty executioner guy.

5. The ugly torturer guy gets sandwich impaled. Remember the crappy Disney Three Musketeers from 1993 with Chris O’Donnell and Tiger Blood? The scene where Oliver Platt fights the jailer at the end is horrific. The guy is big and ugly and sweaty and half naked for starters. Then he gets slammed onto a wall of nails. He twitches and Platt moves in to inspect and he suddenly starts yelling like some sort of animal. Finally the other half of the spike-wall hinges shut—sandwiching the poor bastard in a bloody grid of iron and spikes. Rated PG.

Remember me, Eddie?

Remember me, Eddie?

4. Judge Doom gets run over by a steamroller. I was two years old when I first saw Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). It’s one of my favorite movies now, but when I was little I was scared to death of this movie. The scene where Judge Doom (Doc Brown! No!) gets run over by a steamroller is an unsettling bit of family-friendly horror. That he peels his own flattened body off the floor, sucks some helium to re-inflate himself, pops his eyeballs out, and somehow becomes stronger is just bone-chilling to a two-year old.

He doesn't eat people though. He just chews 'em and then throws 'em.

He doesn’t eat people though. He just chews ’em and then throws ’em away.

3. All the deaths in King Kong (1933). The original King Kong has also graduated to one of my favorite movies. Again, it was horrific and brutal as a child. People get chomped, smashed, and squished by a rampaging giant gorilla. Additionally, the budding dinosaur fanatic in me was flabbergasted that the apatosaurus was portrayed as a carnivore.

Nightmare fuel, that is.

Nightmare fuel, that is.

2. Gold guy’s face after getting impaled in Flash Gordon (1980). I never watched all of the ridiculously stupid-awesome movie that is Flash Gordon until I was much older and more appreciative of the camp factor. When I was but a lad, the only portion of this film I saw was the ending where green-cloaked guy with a gold mask comes out and says some dick things before he is thrown onto a big plank with spikes on it. His body flattens on the spikes and then there’s a disturbing closeup of his face: a gross sound-effect accompanies the dude’s eyes and tongue bugging out like worms emerging from a metal apple.

I couldn't find a really good still so you're just gonna have to watch the whole movie.

I couldn’t find a really good still so just take my word for it.

1. Violence and Tarzan the Ape Man (1932). A lot of the Johnny Weismuller Tarzan movies blend together for me and most of them had scary finales where everyone is captured, tortured, or horrifically killed by politically incorrect tribal guys. This first movie was the scariest to me. Never mind the animal cruelty, racism, and the fact that Tarzan is pretty much a rapist who gets lucky when his captive lady gets Stockholm syndrome. For starters, if memory serves, a pack of territorial hippos capsize the explorers’ rafts and then crocodiles get a bunch of the guys. That’s nothing. The ending is where it became too much. The surviving explorers and their porters are captured by a tribe of scary pygmies who sacrifice them to a man in a giant sloppy gorilla suit. One by one they are thrown into the pit. Before Tarzan shows up to graphically gouge apart the ape’s face with his knife, the monstrous primate repeatedly smashes Cheeta (the Chimpanzee sidekick) against a rock—the image of the big faux-ape swinging the smaller doll ape around still haunts me. Finally they use the carcass as a shield against the pygmies’ arrows before the elephants show up to trample their village. Movies were brutal back then, man. Brutal and racist.

(It was also the inspiration for my own shabby attempt at short film with Stewed).

Originally published for net.sideBar on Sept. 18, 2013.

The Eagles Are Coming: Birdemic!

There is a storm brewing on the horizon. Ever so ominously does it gather wind. The dark spectral clouds spread their terrible girth to blot out both sun and hope. Its power will be both awesome and inexplicable…to some. Has cinematic ineptitude triumphed once again? Yes. Yes, it has. James Nguyen’s Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2008) has arrived and it is gradually picking up steam. I’d grab an umbrella if I were you.

...O...M...G...

…O…M…G…

For those of you who celebrate bad cinema and were wondering what—if anything—could possibly follow Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003), wonder no more. I saw Birdemic at a sold out screening at The Silent Movie Theater (a place that has never let me down). There I witnessed firsthand the birthing of a growing cult. And writer/director/producer, James Nguyen, was there to answer questions following the show. It was a night to remember.

birdemic 2

Birdemic: Shock and Terror is the story of a quiet coastal town that is beset by extremely aggressive birds amidst all the human drama of a budding romantic relationship and an impromptu genesis of a makeshift family unit. If it sounds like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), it’s no wonder because Nguyen loves that movie and made this film as a respectful homage to it. Nguyen’s film is decidedly more ludicrous, but, I submit, equally entertaining. Protagonist, Rod (played by Alan Bagh with heightened vapidity reminiscent of Keanu Reeves on a really bad day), is in sales. Rod also has a horny best friend, a hybrid car (that never seems to go more than 12 miles per hour), a plan for inexpensive and efficient solar power, and he just met a girl he went to school with back in the day. Said girl, Nathalie (Whitney Moore who, God bless her, is trying), is a working model that just got a gig with Victoria’s Secret. She and Rod hit it off pretty well despite the absurd awkwardness of their first encounter and their abrasive lack of chemistry. Rod has got it pretty good. Sounds that way, doesn’t it? You’re probably thinking it would be pleasurable enough just watching Rod fill his car up with gas, close ambiguous million dollar sales from his woefully ill lit cubicle, and go on awkward date after awkward date with Nathalie. What more could a movie need? If you’re Birdemic you already know the answer: hordes of psychotically bad CGI eagles and vultures inexplicably dive bombing people (and exploding into flames) that represent a thinly veiled (or perhaps bludgeon-like) plea to stop global warming.

Revelations spoke of this.

Revelations spoke of this.

Soon our heroes (heroes?) are on the lam from their avian attackers. They pick up some new—and just as emotionally and intellectually absorbing—characters along the way. SPOILER ALERT: some will not make it to the end of the movie. FORTUNATELY: all the characters have the memory/attention span/I.Q. of goldfish thus rescuing the movie from getting bogged down in the senseless mourning for the dead. When a little girl can go from crying about eagles mercilessly slaughtering her parents on the roadside to complaining she wants a Happy Meal in only a few hours, you know this movie is not terribly preoccupied with the human condition…unless perhaps it is all a metaphor or scathing social satire (she was all smiles a few minutes after their death when presented with a Gameboy).

The screeching mayhem unravels the town and stretches the wills of all who fall victim to it, until at long last the birds just decide to leave. The end.

Hair?

Hair?

I’m getting sidetracked because it’s not about the plot. The hilarious acting, writing, directing, music, and cinematography all work together (or not) to make something that by all accounts and reasoning should be atrociously unwatchable, yet somehow this movie succeeds. Never before has nothing working together resulted in so much mirth…well, maybe not. Bad movie aficionados will recognize the obvious charm of excessive delusion. Wiseau’s The Room, Sam Mraovich’s Ben and Arthur (2002), Claudio Fragasso’s Troll 2 (1990), Rick Sloane’s Hobgoblins (1988), Antonio Margheriti’s Yor, Hunter from the Future (1983), Cetin Inanc’s Turkish Star Wars (1982), George Barry’s Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977), Harold P. Warren’s Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966), Vic Savage’s The Creeping Terror (1964), Nicholas Webster’s Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), Phil Tucker’s Robot Monster (1953), etc. are all watched today by happy movie schlock buffs. James Nguyen’s Birdemic: Shock and Terror takes its rightful seat right next to the films I have just mentioned. And I’d rather watch these movies than the perplexingly popular Transformers.

Just hangin' out. Hangin' out. Hangin' out with my family. Havin' ourselves a paaaaarrrrtay.

Just hangin’ out. Hangin’ out. Hangin’ out with my family. Havin’ ourselves a paaaaarrrrtay.

Why do we remember and celebrate names like Ed Wood (Plan 9 From Outer Space, 1959) and Coleman Francis (The Beast of Yucca Flats, 1961) while we tend to completely whitewash from our memory names like Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, 1939)? It is because these filmmakers, for better or worse have conspired to say something personal. They put all of themselves into their work. They were earnestly attempting to capture some of the greatness of the films they themselves loved. For some reason their failure is so complete that they achieve a kind of immortality. No one will remember a mediocre or merely bad movie, but everyone will remember the epically awful. There is a greatness and a power in that.  So I ask, did they really fail? They bring happiness and joy to millions of people. Is that not what good films are trying to do? Why do I still watch Godzilla movies? Because they delight me.

Eagles and vultures only known natural enemy: coat hangers

Eagles and vultures only known natural enemy: coat hangers

But what of the filmmakers themselves? Are they not distraught and humiliated that their finest work is presented as a laughable sideshow and monument to their own ineptitude at the craft they have devoted their lives to? Some are, yes. Denial, vanishing into obscurity, devolving into drugs and alcoholism, suicide attempts, etc. are all examples of some of the coping mechanisms of a few of these directors. Some, however, do find the humor in it all. It may not have been the recognition they were searching for, but their films are being celebrated and enjoyed by generations. That’s a magic that can only exist on its own. It’s a magic that cannot be manufactured. They had to believe in their work or it wouldn’t be funny.

James Nguyen

James Nguyen

James Nguyen seems to be taking things well. I’m glad. I don’t know whether he understands everything about his film or exactly what is fueling its mounting popularity. He knows people laugh at his movie. He knows he didn’t have the money he needed to fully realize his vision. He knows it didn’t work the way it was supposed to. Seeing it in the venue I did—a sold out midnight screening—really made the experience too. Like the cult following The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), people jam-pack the theater and shout at the screen. Movie-going becomes much more lively and informal for films like this. It’s a special kind of audience with their own unique electricity in the air. It reminded me of the first time I saw Troll 2. It was with a large group of people, some had seen it already, others were new to it, but we all had a blast. People curled up into balls of mirth and collapsed rolling in the aisles for Birdemic. Mr. Nguyen brought that happiness to us.

I think what we learned today was that mankind is the real vultures and eagles.

I think what we learned today was that mankind is the real vultures and eagles.

Nguyen is currently winding up for a sequel (set to be released this September). As he grabbed the glasses on my face and jerkily jiggled them, he crazily announced it would be in 3-D. Will it go the route of the Turkish Star Wars and Hobgoblins sequels; too self-aware to duplicate the unexpected magic of the original? Let’s hope not. In the meantime, let us support James Nguyen and his cock-eyed vision that is Birdemic: Shock and Terror.

[Update: The sequel has been completed and I wait with bated breath to see if it will live up to my ambivalent expectations…I have been informed that it is fun, but nowhere near the wondrousness of the original.]

 

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” April 13, 2010.