Saturday, March 23, 2013
MOVIES MADE ME #56: The Disney Sunday Movie (1986-1988)
I'm a big fan of a website called Kindertrauma, which is entirely devoted to anecdotal explorations of childhood fears. Every so often, readers write in and offer their "traumafessions" -- confessions about books, movies, TV shows, commerials, etc. that disturbed them during their most impressionable years. I'm going to offer my own traumafession here: When I was about five years old, I was very unsettled by the 1959 version of Disney's THE SHAGGY DOG when it aired on The Disney Sunday Movie. This was my first exposure to the werewolf myth and, even though it's a lighthearted version featuring a fluffy sheepdog instead of a bloodthirsty monster, it got under my skin.
I'm reminded of Joe Dante's confession that as a child he was traumatized by the sequence in PINOCCHIO where a laughing boy turns into a braying donkey. The folks at Disney must not have realized that what is so terrifying about the werewolf myth isn't actually the werewolf, but the idea of helpless transformation. There's a similar sequence in THE SHAGGY DOG, where the main character suddenly sprouts a ridiculous mop of dog hair on his head. The transformation couldn't be sillier... but, for a five year old kid, this was one seriously effed up turn of events.
In the movie, the character is mostly embarrassed by his fluffy alter ego... but my emotional reaction was completely different. To me, there was something profoundly uncanny -- and unfair -- about what was happening to him. I suppose the movie might have also been my introduction to the concept of Cruel Fate. I don't know if I necessarily believed (even as a five-year-old) that a person could turn into a mangy sheepdog... but on some level I already believed in the possibility Cruel Fate. I knew a little girl in my kindergarten class who was born with half a heart, so I didn't have to suspend my disbelief in that. I just had to figure out how to react.
As Dante says: Some kids are repelled by the transformation scene in PINOCCHIO and they try to avoid things like that in the future. Others are weirdly attracted to it, and they eventually gravitate toward horror movies... Obviously I chose option B. For the time being, however, I'll confine my discussion to Disney-level horror...
Soon after THE SHAGGY DOG came MR. BOOGEDY, a 1-hour special produced specifically for The Disney Sunday Movie. If you grew up in the 1980s, you probably remember this one. If not, you probably don't need to track it down. In a nutshell, Mr. Boogedy was Disney's answer to Freddy Krueger -- a pizza-faced male witch in a haunted house. You might think this comparison is forced, but let me point out that Disney was the first studio to express an interest in Wes Craven's spec script for the original A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. According to Craven, the execs offered to buy it outright if he toned down the violence. Craven refused, but later ended up working for The Mouse anyway -- he directed a Disney Sunday Movie called CASEBUSTERS around the same time that MR. BOOGEDY aired. I digress.
I didn't think MR. BOOGEDY was particularly scary, but it was fun. The story followed a wholesome middle-class family into a creepy old Gothic house in a New England town called -- get ready -- Lucifer Falls. John Astin (Gomez from THE ADDAMS FAMILY) is their realtor, natch. Comedian Richard Masur plays the family patriarch, a gag shop proprietor. He and his two mischievous sons love the idea that their new home is haunted. Wife Mimi Rogers and daughter Kristy Swanson (who went on to star in DEADLY BLESSING... directed by Wes Craven) aren't so enthusiastic. One night, a strange noise awakens Kristy and lures her into a long dark hallway. She follows the sound toward a closed door with bright green light emanating from all four sides. When she opens the door, a spectral green light all but consumes her. Her eyes go wide and... Cut to a commercial break.
I don't think MR. BOOGEDY ever got that good again. As George Romero says: Often the most effective moments in horror movie are the ones that tease us about "what's behind the door." Nothing the filmmakers show us can possibly live up to horrors we can create in our imagination. That said, MR. BOOGEDY had a few other creepy sequences and a memorably wacky finale, in which the family is saved from the carbuncular demon by a vacuum cleaner(!). In the final analysis, Mr. Boogedy may not have been as charismatic as Freddy Krueger, but he captured at least one kid's imagination with his maniacal laugh and gnarly makeup job. (I hadn't yet developed fears of acne, but if I had...) I'm left to wonder what ever happened to the actor who played the role. IMDB says his name is Howard Witt. I think he should be doing convention appearances today as "Disney's Freddy Krueger."
MR. BOOGEDY was popular enough that The Disney Sunday Movie concluded its 1986-1987 season with an encore presentation. The following season, the haunted family (minus Swanson, who had graduated to bigger-budget horror) returned in BRIDE OF BOOGEDY. Vincent Schiavelli joined the cast as a dopey gravedigger who presented the Boogedy backstory. According to local legend, he isn't a monster at all -- just a lonely and misunderstood dead Pilgrim. All he needs is love, which is why he spends most of the moving trying to transform Mimi Kennedy into his own Elsa Lanchester.
My favorite scene is one where Boogedy possesses Richard Masur in order to get the pesky husband out of the way. The kids find their old man floating in the dining room, chanting, "Boogedy boo... Just kidding!" Over and over and over. It's silly stuff, but (for a 6-year-old kid) there was something haunting about the fact that Dad could be completely powerless to protect his family. On the whole, however, this one feels pretty light -- like most horror sequels that deconstruct the monster's backstory. That's probably why there wasn't a SON OF BOOGEDY.
I don't think The Disney Sunday Movie ever got that good for me again, although there were a few other original productions that made a lasting impression. One was called HERO IN THE FAMILY, and it was about a boy whose father went into outer space and came back as a monkey. That's not exactly right... His father was an astronaut, and somehow (through the miracle of science) his brain got switched with a lab monkey's. NASA didn't want the truth about this crazy experiment to get out, so they made plans to kill the monkey. The main character, realizing that they would really be killing his father, kidnapped the monkey and ran. The rest of the movie is a very unusual road trip.
I also appreciated ASK MAX, which was about a boy who invented a bike that could fly. Max is a socially-awkward kid (played by the same kid who was Chunk in THE GOONIES), but his invention makes him a millionaire overnight. Suddenly he's throwing parties for all the kids at school and living the life of a pre-pubescent Hugh Hefner. It's a pretty good deal, until he has to fight off a bunch of greedy businessmen who want to get rich on his invention.
Another memorable one was NOT QUITE HUMAN, about a good-hearted scientist who creates a human-looking robot and then tries to pass it off as a normal teenager. From one perspective, the movie is an apt metaphor for being a geek in high school. Chip (get it?) can't fit in, because he responds to everything in terms of cold logic -- sort of like Spock in STAR TREK. On the other hand, he doesn't have to worry about getting bullied, because he can run faster, jump higher and punch harder than anyone in school. The jokes were obvious, but the concept was fun.
Perhaps best of all was FLIGHT OF THE NAVIGATOR, about a kid who gets kidnapped by an alien and returned to his family several years later. This one was particularly poignant -- because everyone in the kid's life changes while he's lost in space. By the time the alien (voiced by none other than Pee Wee Herman) brings him home, his parents have gray hair, his younger brother is now his older brother, and Sarah Jessica Parker has to explain punk rock to him. Worse still, a bunch of cold-blooded scientists want to turn him into a human guinea pig. (Cold-blooded scientists were a popular narrative crutch in the 80s.) Confronted with that unpleasant reality, he decides to go on the run in a really badass spaceship, accompanied by a pretty decent (for 1986) synth rock score. The mid-80s weren't such a bad time to be a kid...