YOU KNOW, FOR KIDS!
Nordling here, with another installment of YOU KNOW, FOR KIDS! For those unclear what this column’s about, basically, it’s about growing up geek, and being a geek parent. So much nowadays is advertisement, and I want to write about those films that got you excited when you were a child and how you can share that excitement with your children. I’ll also review modern family films, helping you determine the quality stuff that the entire family can love and enjoy, as opposed to the treacle that seems to pop up every few weeks. I’ll take those hits so that you might not have to.
Now, it might not be clear to many of you, but I won’t be strictly writing about just animated features or what the studios might call family films in the commercials. I will be reviewing those, for sure, but my main goal in this column is to get parents and kids together to enjoy and discuss those movies that may be outside that definition. I don’t think families should feel like they are limited to just the latest cartoon or children’s fare. When I reviewed TRUE GRIT, I wanted to go outside the box on what most people consider to be a family film. If parents think their kids can handle the subject matter, then I feel there’s no limit in choices for film entertainment out there and it’s possible that these films can stimulate learning and debate. Movies aren’t babysitters, in my opinion. They’re opportunities for discussion and education.
I’m going to say this up front – I may not have a frame of reference as a parent to the movies I’m going to discuss here. For starters, my daughter won’t watch scary movies. Won’t have anything to do with them. She’s terrified of nightmares. I’ve tried several angles in how to approach these films with her. I’ve told her what’s on screen isn’t real, I’ve told her how movie magic can make the impossible possible, but she has a real sense of empathy to what she sees onscreen and high violence and scary situations make her tune right out. She’s seen films that have scary elements in them. She’s seen all the HARRY POTTER films, and THE LORD OF THE RINGS as well. But she’s very squeamish about blood. She even has to leave the room when Elliott cuts his finger on the table saw in E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL.
That’s okay. I’m not going to push it. I don’t think it’s a good idea for parents to do that. Kids know what they can handle. And it’s very possible she just doesn’t have a taste for those kinds of films. But I do think that introducing your kids to horror films, in a gentle way, helps them understand their fears and it helps them process them in a safe, even fun manner. Now, I’m not saying to go out and rent THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE for Family Movie Night. But here are some suggestions for parents out there who want to show their kids scary movies that are fun, thrilling, and open up discussion.
We’ve all seen this one, so I don’t have to go over too much of the film’s details when it comes to the gore and the nudity. Short of a few key shots, JAWS isn’t as graphic as you might think. Much of it is in the mind. But when I first saw JAWS in 1975, the film obsessed me in a way that I can’t remember any film doing before then. I was 5 years old, which seems rather young for a film like this. You have to remember though, that being 5 in the 1970s isn’t the same as being 5 today. Not to sound all “get off my lawn!” but childhood was just different then. Kids could stay outside all day and never set foot in the house until well after sundown. Our fears as parents now are much more defined, and it’s changed our perceptions of childhood, for the worse, if I may say so myself. I don’t know how it got that way. Maybe we’re so inundated with fear – fear of the other, the dangers of the world – that it cripples us as parents. I hate that it’s that way, and at the same time I feel helpless to change it.
When I was 5 my parents took me to see JAWS. Now, my family loved to fish. They purchased boats, went deep-sea fishing, and bought expensive rods and reels, the whole smash. So when JAWS opened, my entire family went to see it. Not just my mom and dad, but my grandparents, my cousins, uncles, aunts – we must have had 20 people in the theater that day. I may be remembering it wrong, but as seeing JAWS may be the earliest, most vivid memory of that time, I don’t think I am. I distinctly remember telling my dad to tell me when he thought a scary part was coming. He never did. When Ben Gardner’s head came out from the hole in the boat I screamed so loudly, but I was drowned out by my other cousins. And JAWS suddenly became the center of my universe, at least until 1977. I became terrified that JAWS was going to come through the drain and get me, even though my mom insisted otherwise. But I saw the movie; I knew she was wrong. Jaws could get anywhere he wanted.
I read everything I could about sharks. Everything. I checked out so many books at the library I remember that other kids were complaining that they couldn’t get any of the shark books because I had them out for so long. I wrote a short story called SHARK! where police chief Bill Graham had to stop a monster shark from terrorizing a town – not very original, I know. It ended when he dumped a bunch of poisons and chemicals in the water to kill the shark, and my young mind probably didn’t grasp the idea that he probably killed all the other fish in the area too.
Here’s the thing about movies like JAWS – they inspired me to educate myself. I not only learned about sharks, but other animals of the sea as well. I learned about oceanography, and abyssal trenches, and the tides… I won’t say I’m Jacques Cousteau or anything, but through JAWS I discovered many things about our undersea world. JAWS got me interested in science. And it got me fascinated in filmmaking, a bug that I’ve never lost in the years since. And I’m certain I’m not alone.
Kids tend to obsess about things that make them afraid, and then they turn it over in their head so much that they get over their fears and turn it into a learning experience. At least that was true for me. I imagine after JURASSIC PARK came out there was an influx of kids getting their hands on any dinosaur book they could find. JAWS was an incredible gateway for me into a better understanding of our world. Now, you know JAWS. There are harsh moments in it. The death of the Kintner boy is probably a traumatic moment for any child to watch, and that’s probably one of the scenes that terrified me the most because kids were supposed to be safe in movies like this. So my self-education about sharks wasn’t just to sate my knowledge, it was a form of protection. If something ate me in the water, I’d know what did it, at the very least. As for parents out there cautious about sharing a movie like JAWS with their younger kids, you know as well as I do that it’s a fairly intense movie, and what your kids can handle. But if you’re available to them and for any questions they might have, I think JAWS would be a rewarding film experience for you and your kids. Just don’t expect them to jump in the bathtub straight away. Just kidding.
SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES
I just watched this recently and I was surprised by how well this held up. Based on Ray Bradbury’s classic (and he wrote the screenplay as well), this story of a small town visited by the darker elements of human nature and the two boys who fall into its clutches was a different kind of film for the Disney Studios at the time. I know at the time of its release that Disney was trying to move to more mature films, probably due to the success of films like JAWS and STAR WARS. Of course, everyone knows the juggernaut that is Ray Bradbury, one of our greatest American writers. This film went a long way to introducing me to his work when it was released.
Jonathan Pryce plays Mr. Dark, the head of the carnival that sweeps through Green Town, with gleeful malevolence. He promises every wish, and turns those wishes on their ear, transforming the baser natures of humanity into their eternal nightmares. Jason Robards plays the father to Jim, and as he’s more advanced in age, he feels that he’s missing his son’s childhood because he’s unable to participate in activities that other fathers routinely do with their kids. Robards is a terrific actor as we know, and I think this is my favorite role of his, as he goes up against force of evil beyond his imagination with simple good will.
This is another gateway movie; at least it was for me. Because of SOMETHING WICKED, I dove into Bradbury’s books with abandon. I especially enjoyed his short story compilation THE OCTOBER COUNTRY (which was actually a reprinting of most of the stories in his classic Arkham House compilation DARK CARNIVAL) and “The Veldt” is another personal favorite. It opened me up to not only Bradbury, but other writers of fantasy and horror, like H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Howard. But more importantly, Bradbury’s stories are fun and thrilling, and I think most kids could dive into his books with little difficulty.
As for the film, I think kids would enjoy it. It’s scary but not overly bloody or violent and kids would relate to the adventures of Will Holloway and Jim Nightshade. Parents could also relate to the struggles of Charles Holloway, who is trying to do right by his son but feels he’s not adequate for the job. And Mr. Dark is all darkness and sin, temptation and evil. My favorite scene in the film is when Dark tempts Mr. Holloway with youth, and as Dark rips the pages of each passing year offered to Mr. Holloway if he would give up the kids, Jason Robards’ face is a mask of regret and sadness. It’s a wonderful performance by both Robards and Pryce.
LADY IN WHITE
In 1962, young Frankie Scarlotti (Lukas Haas) gets locked in the cloak room of his school on Halloween night. What happens next puts Frankie on a journey of mystery and discovery as he tries to discover the mysterious identity of the ghostly Lady in White who roams the cliffs outside of town, and works to unravel the mystery of a murder of a little girl over ten years before. This film was released in 1988, but did little business. It became something of a cult favorite once it was released to VHS and cable.
This is a very effective horror film, at times quite scary, although there’s very little gore in it. It’s a great introduction for kids into the ghost story genre. Lukas Haas is very engaging as the little boy who unravels a deep mystery about the town he lives in, and although the film deals with child predators it does so in a way that’s not too terribly threatening (but be ready to explain some things to your children after seeing it). It’s very slice-of-life in its depiction of 1962 New York state, and the murder mystery that surrounds the central plot of the film is thrilling. For parents who haven’t seen it, I don’t feel comfortable spoiling the intricacies of the story, so I’ll just say that you’ll likely be able to figure out who did what pretty early on, but how the mystery unravels itself is what makes it worth watching. It’s quite well done, and I’m curious how Frank LaLoggia didn’t have a larger career in filmmaking after this. It never condescends to kids as the story plays out – both Frankie and his brother Geno are portrayed very realistically as just everyday kids caught up in something much larger and more mysterious than themselves.
The film’s tone and style are more reflective, more thoughtful than you might expect of a film like this. It is an honest portrayal of small town life in the early 1960s, and though kids may find the setting different than what they’re used to, I think the story’s compelling enough, and the thrills of the mystery surrounding the story intriguing enough, that kids will fall into the story with little difficulty. It’s got a terrific ending, too – I’ve seen it a few times now and it never fails to keep me riveted and moved. It’s one of those 1980s movies that seems to have fallen between the cracks, and that’s a shame. I think it’s very effective and a terrific film in which to introduce kids to the horror genre.
I think kids are resilient when it comes to scary films. I tend to think that as parents we play it a bit too safe. That’s not to say you shouldn’t have any discretion when it comes to showing your children films that you think might be too much for them. As always, it’s your call. But people seem to forget that in the right place and at the right time, being frightened is fun. It’s a test of your own personal will in a way to see just what you can handle. In the safety of a movie, you can indulge these darker aspects of yourself. In the light of day, and with the parents there to guide them, being afraid can reveal things to your child about themselves that they may not have been aware before. And kids are at once excited and intrigued about the things that frighten them. Speaking from personal experience, when a movie scared me I dove right into the library to learn more about what frightened me, and in a way I built up a shield of knowledge around myself. It made those things that scared me much less scary. And somewhere in that time, I learned a thing or two. Let’s hope it’s the same for your kids. Horror films, if presented to them in the right way, can open up their minds in ways they didn’t believe possible. Bravery can come in many ways, and one of the things that horror films can teach kids is just how to be brave in the face of the unknown, even if it’s just in the confines of the living room.
That’s it for this installment. This was actually going to be centered around another property, but I’m still trying to crack that article so that will be the next installment. Here’s a hint… “YES?! MAY I HELP YOU?!” Can’t wait to share it with you. See you next time.