Posted by Richard Harland Smith on July 23, 2010
My posse has changed over the past few years. Now that I’m a father of two kids under 5 years old, I don’t get out to many rep screenings or conventions and I turn down most invitations to sneak peeks and movie premieres. As such, I don’t hang with the black tee shirt crowd anymore and find I’m commiserating with other parents online … and a (perhaps not) surprising number of these are horror lifers who either carry the creep torch blog-wise or actually make horror movies. I decided to corral some of these horror dads for a roundtable discussion of the challenges involved in raising children when one’s tastes run to the grotesque and arabesque (to put it diplomatically). My guests are a diverse clutch of individuals. In strictly alphabetical order:
JEFF ALLARD is the creator of the horror-themed film blog DINNER WITH MAX JENKE. In addition to writing for such websites as SHOCK TILL YOU DROP and CINEFANTASTIQUE, Jeff is a contributor to the upcoming slasher movie overview Butcher Knives & Body Counts (Dark Scribe Press) and is the proud father of 5 year-old monster artist extraordinaire Owen.
DENNIS COZZALIO toils by day in the awe-inspiring world of DVD subtitling and writes his blog SERGIO LEONE AND THE INFIELD FLY RULE by night, by dawn, and in all other nooks and crannies of time and space. One of his favorite horror movies is FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969). He would also like you to know that the unrated version of Joe Johnston’s THE WOLFMAN (2010) is well worth your while, and that he’s currently nursing a crush on Marion Davies, version 1928. His lovely daughters, Emma, 10, and Nonie, 8, are genuinely, googly-eyed insane, in the best of all possible ways.
(Both SERGIO LEONE AND THE INFIELD FLY RULE and UNEXPLAINED CINEMA were recently cited for excellence by the Film Society of Lincoln Center.)
PAUL GAITA has contributed to The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, The New York Times, MTV and Amazon.com. His horror-related credits include pieces for Fangoria, Ultra Violent, Rue Morgue, Famous Monsters, and the legendary Sleazoid Express. Paul’s best work to date remains his collaboration with his lovely wife Christy – their daughter Tess, who turned 1 this month.
NICHOLAS MCCARTHY‘s work as a writer and director has been shown at The Sundance Film Festival, the Seattle International Film Festival, the Cine Vegas Film Festival, Screamfest, the Palm Springs International Festival of Short Films and many others. In Los Angeles, Nick cofounded the Alpha 60 Film Collective in Echo Park, where he oversaw the production of hundreds of micro-cinema films. When not being paid to write horror films, he stares out the window. Daughter Agatha (born July 5, 2009) has grown up in the shadow of a giant NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD poster.
RHS: Rewatching POLTERGEIST (1982) the other night, a movie I’ve always enjoyed but never particularly valued, I was surprised at how much more sensitive I am to certain aspects of the plot now that I’m a father. I guess there’s no shock there … the midsection leading to the big finish involves the disappearance of a child – who looks a lot like my own daughter) – and the anguish of her parents. I probably used to view the scenes of the Freelings tearing through their house looking for their missing daughter as energetic filler between big setpieces… but now I find those bits the most affecting and a bit difficult to watch.
DENNIS COZZALIO: From the very moment that I became a dad I felt more sensitive to the whole “children in peril” motif that seems most familiar today. I was a 22-year-old kid still 18 years removed from fatherhood when POLTERGEIST came out. I could not relate to the gut-wrenching agony that accompanies even contemplating what it must be like for a parent who is somehow, and for however long, separated from their child. In 1997, we lost our first child, a boy, for real– he was stillborn a week away from delivery. By the time we welcomed our first daughter home three years later, my sensibility had already been well and properly tenderized.
RHS: It’s much easier to harm children these days, in movies. I suppose it’s the last taboo. Or the new black.
JEFF ALLARD: Probably one of the great examples of it being done well is the death of Alex Kintner in JAWS (1975). Not just the death scene itself but even more so the aftermath, which always choked me up even back when I was a kid myself. First, there’s the heartbreaking reaction from the mother as she searches the crowd for her son and sees that he hasn’t come out of the water and won’t be coming out – just a painful scene to watch. Then there’s her confrontation with Brody on the docks where she calls him out for allowing the beaches to stay open when he knew a shark was out there. Alex Kitner’s death wasn’t just shrugged off in order to get on to the next laugh or scare and I think that’s the model of how material like this should be handled.
DENNIS COZZALIO: I am much more likely to at least question the necessity of portraying the endangerment of a child these days, with the caveat that many spectacularly effective movies, from M (1931) to LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945), THE OTHER (1972), THE MAGDALENE SISTERS (2002), GONE BABY GONE (2007), CHILD’S PLAY (1988) and one of my favorite movies of last year, ORPHAN (2009), are all about horrors perpetrated upon, and sometimes perpetrated by, children. It’s a fine line, but not so fine that it can’t be walked or at least straddled. Some think of the scene in JURASSIC PARK (1993) when the two kids are nearly crushed in the van by the T-Rex as a form of child abuse on Spielberg’s part. I’m more likely to think of something like what Dakota Fanning endures in HOUNDDOG (2007) or what Mariel Hemingway endured in LIPSTICK (1976), as child abuse not only for the actresses in their immediate experience but also because the level of exploitation involved in the scenes themselves. Those are the kinds of horrors I’m far less ready to subject myself to in movies right now– the ones that feel the need to smear the gruesome details in my face as a form of narrative integrity. To my mind, ORPHAN is a lot more honest and has a lot more integrity than some self-serious hand-wringing piece of crap like 21 GRAMS (2003), in which children are sacrificed and we’re teased with the horror of it by director (Alejandro González) Iñárritu’s time-shifting games. ORPHAN, on the other hand, takes seriously the parental nightmare of the loss of a child to set up the further exploration of the flipside of losing an angel– that is, welcoming home a devil. ORPHAN gets kids– even the potentially sacrificial lambs are imperfect and Esther, the orphan of the title, is a parent’s worst nightmare of a manipulating brat – and embraces the dirty thrills of the horror genre, whereas something like 21 GRAMS considers itself above them while indulging in them just the same.
PAUL GAITA: My sensibilities definitely changed after the birth of my daughter, though I think it was the tail end of some distance I was already putting between myself and graphic/extreme horror. After seeing more than my share of over-the-top, ultra-violent material for the past two decades, my tolerance reached a breaking point, like a thermometer in a cartoon, in late 2008, which also happened to be when my wife and I found out that we were pregnant. I remember seeing the French horror film INSIDE (2007) at the end of a particularly grim spate of rentals in late 2008. What disturbed me the most wasn’t the wall-to-wall gore but the threat posted by Beatrice Dalle’s killer to the unborn child of the main character, combined with the fact that Dalle’s character was seemingly indestructible (despite having no particular abilities beyond total insanity), that made me say out loud “Okay, I’m done.” I wasn’t enjoying that sort of movie anymore and I still don’t. Was I more sensitive because I’d just found out that I was a father? Probably. Now, having a child, I really don’t want to see that nihilist, everything-turns-out-badly brand of horror anymore. That’s not to say that I’ve thrown away all my genre titles and replaced them with the complete run of FULL HOUSE (ABC, 1987-1995)- it’s just that the world can be a bad and frightening enough place without having to see it in something that’s supposed to be entertaining. THE FLESH EATERS (1964), I don’t mind. Even something like the Wes Craven THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977). But movies about pain for pain’s sake – FRONTIER(S) (2007), MARTYRS (2008), CALVAIRE (2004), ICE FROM THE SUN (1999) – no, thanks. And in regard to scenes with children being threatened – absolutely no. I almost couldn’t make it through FLY AWAY HOME (1996) because I thought Anna Paquin might get hurt in that stupid glider.
Having a child – and in particular, a girl – has also made me sensitive to the sleazier elements of horror, or anything that might be construed as exploitative. Again, I saw more than my share over the years, but living in a house dominated by women (even the dog is a girl) has made me realize that horror is a tricky enough field for female characters, who are frequently on the receiving end of the fear, but when you add a sexual component to that terror you start to wander into very murky waters that I’d rather my daughter not have to see. It’s tough enough for women in regard to body image and the like without wondering why men enjoy images of them being ogled or fondled (or worse) by lunatics in horror and sexploitation, so I’ve distanced myself from anything that smacks of such material. It’s a lot easier than having to explain to my daughter why I own a copy of PAPAYA, LOVE GODDESS OF THE CANNIBALS (1978) or why Cameron Mitchell is doing those awful things to those ladies in THE TOOLBOX MURDERS (1977).
RHS: This brings to mind a particularly edgy moment in my household recently. My kids are avid readers of Video Watchdog – they’ll sit with a pile of back issues and look at the pictures for hours. And the magazine is pretty safe but every now and then there’s a photo or even a cover that shows you the money shot from a particularly nasty movie – case in point, the brains in the sand moment from BLOOD FEAST (1963), which graced the cover of issue #60. My girl was looking over the recent issue devoted to LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, the 1972 original and the recent remake, and there was an accompanying frame grab from the first version of the villain carving his name in the sternum of one of the victims – not the most graphic shot, we’ve all seen worse, but disturbing enough. My daughter brought the magazine over to me and said, in pitch perfect four year-old innocence, “Daddy, why are they breaking her?” And in that moment I turned into Ralph Kramden – humminahumminahummina – trying to cook up an explanation that would let me and the magazine off the hook. That didn’t go too well.
GREG FERRARA: My wife, Laura, and I watched POLTERGEIST on TCM a couple of years ago and had the exact reaction both Richard and Dennis had. When they get Carol Anne back as Diane and Carol Anne emerge from the porthole and Steve brings Diane back to life I was as choked up as you can get, and so was Laura. After that, what had worked for me years before, the big finale, felt unnecessary. It went for pyrotechnics when it should have just been about the missing daughter, and when she came back they should have ended it. Our daughter, Elle (pronounced “Ellie”) watched it with us and has watched just about everything with us since childhood. I came into the marriage with Laura already a parent and have learned from her more about raising kids than I ever could have on my own. Still, I make misjudgments from time to time stemming from Elle’s love of horror. It goes back to THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974), two movies she absolutely adores. We managed to watch most of Universal’s horror collection with her and most of the early Hammer.
By this point I was getting confident that our little girl (around seven at the time, nine now) could handle just about anything and chose THEATRE OF BLOOD (1973) for our Friday Night movie. I mean, hey, she’d watched Hammer’s Frankenstein movies and those things are pretty brutal so I figured, what the hell, Vincent Price is so over the top in this, she’ll love the clever death scenes. Wow, I couldn’t have been a bigger idiot! Laura warned me that she didn’t think it would work and I said that Elle could cover her eyes when I told her too and Laura just rolled her eyes, secretly relishing how utterly wrong she knew I was. Five minutes in, with the homeless people crowding in on the first victim, Elle was already FREAKED OUT! And…… movie off. I figure by next year we’re going to give THEATRE OF BLOOD another try. Maybe two more years.
RHS: Yeah, I made a similar mistake recently. My kids both sat down to watch the Irwin Allen version of THE LOST WORLD (1960) with me and enjoyed the dinosaurs (such as they are). I thought they’d really get a kick out of some of the Ray Harryhausen movies of the 60s and let them watch a bit of JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963) and Vayda was really scared by the harpies, to the point of tears.
GREG FERRARA: You monster. I hope you enjoyed terrifying your daughter, sicko!
JEFF ALLARD: My sensibilities as a horror fan have definitely changed since becoming a father. Anything to do with harm coming to children is a hard sell with me now. I just don’t want to see it. Even movies with harm coming to adult children are hard for me to watch. But with young kids, forget it. I won’t be watching PET SEMATARY (1989) again any time soon, or PUMPKINHEAD (1988) or DON’T LOOK NOW (1973). Those are all movies that affected me when I originally saw them years ago but the idea of watching them now just doesn’t appeal to me. I just have a visceral reaction to the death of children that I didn’t have before – my threshold for this kind of stuff is down to nothing. I saw SHUTTER ISLAND (2010) in the theaters, without having read the novel, so I had no idea that there’d be a scene involving children in peril but there it was and as much as I’d like to rewatch the movie, knowing I’d have to watch that scene again has kept me away from it. I know that before becoming a dad, I would’ve had a much different reaction to that film. I believe that I probably would’ve liked it but it just wouldn’t have felt as gut-wrenching. The only thing that would’ve kept me from rewatching it pre-Owen would be the length, not the content. I’m not completely adverse to seeing kids in danger. ORPHAN was a recent movie that I enjoyed but mostly because it was too lurid and silly to make me uncomfortable. I had the feeling going into that movie that the kids would be okay in the end. They’d be terrorized but that’s all. And that’s pretty much how it went. It’s a cheap device to put kids at risk for the sake of suspense but I can go along with it in “fun” horror movies, like ORPHAN or another Dark Castle movie, THIRTEEN GHOSTS, or JURASSIC PARK or POLTERGEIST. But if a film is going to actually seriously harm or even kill a child character, I’m put off if it isn’t done with sensitivity.
NICHOLAS MCCARTHY: I’ve had a standing movie night with a friend of mine for years and much of the material we screen is oddball exploitation and horror. A few weeks before my daughter was born, we watched THE OMEN (1976) and IT’S ALIVE (1974), and on another night, WHO CAN KILL A CHILD (1976)! It sounds eccentric (it purposefully was) but the point of watching those films again was to process this fear I had that somehow having a kid would make me “soft,” that I would not be able to watch films (horror or otherwise) with content relating to kids in the same way again. Of course, it turned out to be true, since having a child changes so much in your life. What I have discovered so far is that, like Dennis, having a kid has made me sensitive to films that have children in peril but not as a blanket bias against films with such material. I’ve simply become more sensitive because I can draw a direct emotional line, and it means that I’ll have a greater negative reaction when the films feel exploitive. Dennis mentioned LIPSTICK, a movie that coincidentally I recently watched, and I too found I had a stronger negative reaction than I might’ve previously because of the material relating to little Mariel Hemingway’s character in that film. What’s important here for me is that I didn’t feel like I was being ambushed by my own personal feelings — it’s more that my bullshit detector had gotten higher about this stuff because I have an emotional stake in it. In a way, finding this was a relief to me that I hadn’t turned into some mindless parent-drone — I was still “me.” I finished an Elmore Leonard novel this week called Killshot. In the climax a woman is being held at gunpoint. There’s a line in there about how she forces herself to not think about her son because it’s so painful. That sentence spoke to me in a way that it never would’ve previously. Reflecting on this now, I see it’s not just an empathy for children I have been feeling, but an empathy for parents.
DENNIS COZZALIO: Emma, my eldest, has seen more movies in general than her sister Nonie but the seven-year-old is far hardier when it comes to horror and science fiction stuff than her older sister. I took Nonie to the theater to see HELLBOY II (2008) and feared I might live to regret it… but she loved it. On the other hand, Emma has a real sweet tooth, like Greg’s daughter, for Universal classics, and she LOOOOVES the combination of horror and comedy. ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948) is a huge favorite, and she recently discovered both THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS (1967), which she goes around quoting ceaselessly. Inspired by my friend Matt Zoller Seitz, whose daughter is about a year older than my oldest and is a veteran of several viewings of JAWS, I tried showing Spielberg’s thriller to her one night, and we made it through the opening sequence before Emma shrieked it quits. She can’t even hear the John Williams music from the movie now without getting for-real-type shivers. Of course, being me, I always hum it quite loudly in her presence when she starts getting ready for swimming lessons!
The same night the girls discovered the Polanski movie, they also saw what I thought was their first Hammer horror film, DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968). They really liked it! But then I remembered they woke up early last Halloween morning and watched Peter Cushing in TWINS OF EVIL (1971) with me on one of our HD channels. (That one had a smidgen of nudity too- Whoops! Don’t tell my wife!) It was a gore-fest, relatively speaking, but they were engrossed and I thought it won’t be much longer that Hammer horror is going to be the main course around here. Well, I think we’re finally there. The first two Hammer Frankensteins, CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) and THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1959) are next. Can JAWS be far behind? From a dad’s perspective, I’m having a hell of a lot of fun watching them draw their own boundaries and discover, as I did when I was their age, and on some of these very same movies the fun and excitement that can be had from honestly-earned gooseflesh and tingled spines.
PAUL GAITA: I’m looking forward to the possibility of watching horror with Tess, if she’s interested. Watching Saturday afternoon stuff with my father like THE GIANT LEECHES (1959) and early Hammer and Universal, as well as one-off oddities like MAN-EATER OF HYDRA (1967), remains some of my favorite kidhood memories. And if she’s game, I’d love to watch more “grown-up” stuff in later years. If she’s not, that’s okay. Horror movies have always been a solitary pastime for me.
GREG FERRARA: Kids are who they are and if four children has taught me nothing else it’s that you can’t shape their personalities anymore than you can alter gravity. On the other hand, they certainly pick up little things here and there. The sixteen year old from my wife’s first marriage, whom I have helped raise since he was eight, has definitely developed an elite taste for culture and I find him asking me about what’s good and what’s bad more and more, as a kind of road map to the great movies out there, without him really being a cinephile. Elle, being much younger than her siblings, latched onto what her mother liked early on. Laura enjoys horror of the Hammer/Universal variety as well as old New England ghost stories, black cats (we have one) and old fashioned witches. Laura was a witch every time for Halloween as a kid and Elle has followed suit, always choosing to be the classic black-clad witch. From this has come a love of witches on Elle’s part but there aren’t as many movies in the horror canon that specifically deal with witches so when I bought CITY OF THE DEAD (aka HORROR HOTEL, 1960) a couple of years ago we were all excited, and we all loved it.
Another thing has happened, and it’s a bone of contention between Laura and I, if a minor one. When Elle gets a scare from a movie, Laura will start laughing at the movie and making jokes to give Elle the impression that it’s all just silly nonsense. Then I’ll say, “No, it’s not. Wasn’t that scary?” Now, we’re not talking the nanny hanging herself in THE OMEN, we’re talking about Elle getting a shock from a ghoul in a William Castle movie. My point is that it’s good to be a little scared sometimes, at the mild stuff like that, before getting all MST3K on everything. If it wasn’t a little fun for Elle to be scared she wouldn’t keep requesting these types of movies to watch. It’s a fine line, but I don’t want Elle to start running down the genre because of some defense mechanism that got built in by Laura trying stop the scares from coming. Of course, I’m totally with Laura on the heavier stuff, but William Castle? Come on, if you can get a good jumpscare out of it, why not?
RHS: You never can tell with kids. Mine love being fun-scared by the zombies in SCOOBY-DOO ON ZOMBIE ISLAND (1998) but other things still rip right through them. When you can share with your little ones a spooky old movie and have it go over well you feel great; when your kid is reduced to tears by something you’ve shown her, you feel like a jerk.
PAUL GAITA: This sort of brings me full circle in regard to POLTERGEIST, a movie I went to see with my dad when I was 12, and which scared me witless. I imagine he must’ve been equally bewildered, having sat through hundreds of horror movies with me. I’d shown no reaction to the weekly two-fer of horror on Creature Double Feature – even fairly questionable stuff like THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE (1962) – so he clearly figured that I’d do just fine with this movie. I imagine he must’ve felt pretty lousy afterwards.
Part 2 of this roundtable discussion will appear at The Movie Morlocks next week!
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