My Life as a Horror Fan (Part 3): Kiddo’s first drive-in double feature

Maybe it was because my descent into near-panic a few months earlier watching Fantasia, or maybe they just wanted to introduce me to one of Americana’s finest institutions, but sometime during that same Summer of Cujo, 1982, when I was three years old, Mom and Dad decided to take me to a movie I could watch from the safety of our Skylark. It my was first visit to the drive-in movie theater.

Drive-ins were still plentiful around the Midwest in the early 1980s. One town away from where we lived, the Sky-View loomed over a back country crossroads. Not far off, the Colonial sat on a low strip of land between a two-lane state highway and the river. There were many others whose names I no longer recall. We went to the Holiday Auto Theatre, on a hilltop just west of town.

The screen at the Holiday Auto Theatre. outside my hometown.
The Holiday Auto Theatre, outside my hometown.

The first feature that night was The Secret of NIMH, a Don Bluth adaptation of a children’s book. Don Bluth was a name you knew if you were a child during the 1980s. It was repeated in the commercials for a string of successful animated features created by his eponymous studio, including NIMH, An American Tale, and The Land Before Time. Bluth and his crew were also behind the arcade game Dragon’s Lair, which spawned a Saturday morning cartoon from Ruby-Spears. Don Bluth Productions was sort of the DreamWorks Animation of its day, in that it produced quality animated features with big time distribution and competed toe-to-toe with Disney. Of course, Warner Bros. and Hanna-Barbera were still standing tall in the face of the Mouse and releasing animated features back then too, so it’s not a perfect analogy. But I digress.

The Secret of NIMH is about a family of field mice facing a disaster – the annual springtime tilling of the field where they live in a nest within a cinderblock. One of Mrs. Jonathan Brisby’s children, Timmy, is very ill and too sick for the move, sending her on a quest for help from her animal neighbors, who possess uncanny intellect and are swayed by the memory of her late husband and the unexplained debt they owe him. How did these mice and rats get so smart? What did Jonathan Brisby have to do with them? Can they delay the farmer until Mrs. Brisby can move her family? There’s a scientific (albeit implausable) cause behind the animals’ human-like intelligence, which you can probably guess if you’re old enough to know your government acronyms. It does not, however, explain the working of magic and magical artifacts in the movie.

I remember it being a little bit scary, so of course I sat down to watch it with my kids. Like their dad, they seemed to find it very mildly spooky. I can see why, but I think the swirling fogs and vivid colors were meant to lend mystery rather than chills to the film’s otherworldly, bearded and glow-eyed rat-sage, Nicodemus. The Great Owl, on the other hand, was definitely supposed to be scary. Which is great actually. What could be scarier to a mouse than an owl? A cat, at least, doesn’t fly.

Bluth was a believer in older techniques used during the Golden Age of Animation of the mid-20th century, and the animator’s care and regard for tradition is apparent in how The Secret of NIMH looks. Just as memorable as the animation, however, are the performances of the distinguished actors who lent their voices to the film. Elizabeth Hartman finds a balance between plaintive and persistent as Mrs. Brisby, a timid soul who dares greatly on behalf of her son. The Great Owl and Nicodemus are voiced, respectively, by Shakespeareans John Carradine and Derek Jacobi. Dom Deluise, whose name was synonymous with funny during the late 1970s and early 1980s, is Jeremy the Crow. Wil Weaton and Shannen Doherty have smaller roles as two of the Brisby children.

deluise
Dom Deluise, the funniest man in movies for much of the 1970s and 1980s.

The second feature during my first evening at the drive-in was Clash of the Titans, the original one with Harry Hamlin, Burgess Meredith, Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, and Ursula Andress, which had been released the previous year. I have not seen Clash of the Titans in its entirety since, but I remember being immediately freaked out by its early scenes, in which the infant Perseus and his mother, Danae, are imprisoned in what I thought was a coffin and then thrown into the sea. I remember being fascinated by the enchanted weapons and armor crafted for Perseus by the Olympian Gods. I don’t remember watching his combat with Medussa or the Kraken that night, but I definitely remember Calibos, the vainglorious young prince turned into a hideous satyr by Zeus. I thought Calibos was the Devil, and I was terrified. Looking back, I have to wonder why I had such a well-formed idea at age three of who and what the Devil is. We attended Mass, but I hadn’t yet started CCD. Anyway, maybe Clash of the Titans is a movie I should *not* share with my children anytime soon.

calibos
Calibos. I forgot to mention the body hair. It’s like James Caan had a kid with Rondo Hatton.

The Holiday at that time still had speakers you hung on your rolled-down car window. I remember drifting off to sleep under a blanket in the back of the Skylark late that night, looking out the window at the twinkling stars and staying watchful in case Calibos might appear there, trying to quietly open the door and sneak into the car.

The the late 1980s and the decades after were harsh for drive-ins. The Colonial and the Sky-View both closed. The former deteriorated for ages along the riverside, its sign losing letters and very gradually collapsing, until the concrete company that has taken over its grounds finally, only a few years ago, tore down the battered, tilting colossus that had been its screen, removing the last vestige of the theater. The screen at the Sky-View likewise towered over a lot overgrown with weeds for at least twenty years. The Oakley Drive-In, far to the south, operated until the summer of 2005 but did not linger long after; it was quickly demolished to make room for an animal hospital.

The Holiday Auto Theatre endures, however. Taking me to the drive-in that night was a great decision on my parents’ part, and not just because upon our return to indoor theaters that winter my seat folded up while I was fucking sitting in it during the Gary Coleman vehicle Jimmy the Kid, which led me to demand to park my bony ass on someone’s lap at the movies for a year afterward. No, apart from the convenience of being able to sit on a non-folding car seat, I came to love the Holiday for dozens of other reasons: The clear, stary skies overhead, the abundantly stocked concession stand, memories of watching movies with my parents and later my wife, vintage cartoons and intermission reels, and all the other awesome movies I’ve seen there over the years – Labyrinth, An American Tale, North by Northwest, Dial M for MurderGone with the Wind, The Dark Knight, The Exorcist, Halloween, the Shining… I still return at least once a year for Terror at the Drive-In, their annual Halloween quadruple feature.

My Life as a Horror Fan (Part 1): Fantasia

Disney didn’t bowdlerize this one.

The first movie that ever frightened me was a Disney movie. Weird right? Well, let me explain. Disney wasn’t always a kiddie culture brand-colossus that churned out toothless, G-rated snoozes that dumbed-down their source material and bolted it onto a formula that combined toy-transferable heroes with wisecracking animal sidekicks and insidious, merciless earworms, pausing occasionally to buy up fresher companies or demand tribute from the government in the form of trademarks to fairy tales that have existed for centuries.

No, Disney wasn’t always a behemoth. In fact, Disney used to be an actual person, a living, breathing artist who might have had some weird ideas about civil society, but was a bona fide creative genuis who on occasion elevated animation to high art. Fantasia is one of those Disney films. Although Walt Disney didn’t direct any of Fantasia‘s eight segments, it was his idea to create a feature-length anthology of non-comedic animated shorts that would depict fantasies inspired by and set to great works of classical music, with the animation accompanying the music – not the other way around. It was like the 1940 equivalent of Heavy Metal  or maybe Laser Floyd. My point is, for a variety of reasons, I think it’s safe to say this is a film that would not get made today. Disney used to push artistic and social boundaries.

From the 1943 short Education For Death
For instance “Education for Death,” a propaganda short about the indoctrination of a sweet-eyed German cherub into the Hitler’s army.

My parents took me to see Fantasia during its 1982 theatrical run. I was three years old. I don’t remember where we saw it and neither does my Dad, though he suspects it was the then-giant seven-screen cineplex by the freeway. I have a fragmentary memory of passing a building with big, cuckoo-clock style figures over the door, which would indicate a downtown theater somewhere, but I might be conflating my memory of Fantasia with the Festhaus at Kings Island. I do remember the red curtain around the stage and the pink light cast on the screen as we waited and waited and waited for the movie to start. Dad hated to go to anything with a scheduled start time without arriving at least an hour early.

The only segment I remember watching that day was the last one, “Night on Bald Mountain.” There was a mountain, and the mountain had wings. It was a bat. No, it was the Devil! Bats and skeletons wheeled in a macabre riot as the Devil, bulging with muscles, smiled with delight, his horrible yellow eyes glowing. My heart raced as I gripped both armrests. I was frozen with terror.

Chernabog from Disney's Fantasia
It was looking at me.

This seems like the appropriate moment to begin the story of my lifetime of horror fandom. So I did what any intelligent and caring parent would do: I decided to show Fantasia to my three children and see if “Night on Bald Mountain” would scare the shit out of them too.

The film was a tough sell for the oldest, six-year-old Boo Boo Bear, from the very beginning. Her three-year-old sister, Caterpillar, was antsy. The movies and cartoons they watch don’t begin with a spoken introduction by a bookish emcee, nor silhouettes of a conductor and his orchestra in pink, orange, red, and blue.

“Dad, is this going to be music the whole time?” Boo Boo complained. I didn’t think we were going to get through “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.”

Deems Taylor, emcee of Disney's Fantasia
Compare this scene from Fantasia
Sonic Boom
… with their baseline for cartoons.

Caterpillar burst with excitement at the sight of the first fairy in “The Nutcracker Suite.” This segment, with its dancing flowers, fish, and mushrooms, hooked them both. Their brother, Superman, age one, was also sucked in.

The kids were somewhat concerned about the wizard in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” They asked if he was a bad guy. I was explaining that he was just stern when the girls exploded with a shout of “MICKEY!” when the titular budding mage appeared. There were other dark moments throughout the film, for instance the dying dinosaurs in “The Rite of Spring” or Zeus hurling lightning during “The Pastoral Symphony.”

Arlo and Spot from The Good Dinosaur
Another comparison: Here’s a tender moment between Arlo and Spot in The Good Dinosaur

 

Fantasia Dinosaurs
… And here is the death agony of several Stegosauruses in Fantasia.

The penultimate segment is “Dance of the Hours,” with its manic ostriches, hippos, elephants, and alligators. It’s wild fun, the aligators chasing after the other animals in a crazed dance that brings the house down. “Dance of the Hours” also sets viewers up for the gut punch, the segment that flies in the face of Disney’s more recent image as a squeaky clean company that makes dull, moralizing cartoons peppered with pop culture references to make sitting through them bearable for parents.

“Night on Bald Mountain” begins with night falling over a mountainside village. One crag towers over the others like the spire of some dark, blasphemous church. One leather wing darts out, then a second. Thus the horned demon Chrenabog reveals himself, perched atop the mountain.

He casts his hands down, and where his shadow falls bats and phantoms rise from town, graveyard, and murky lake. Wraiths astride skeleton horses gallop upward through the night. Flames erupt from a mountain cauldron beneath Chernobog’s infernal throne. Lesser devils emerge from the fire. Chernobog picks them up adoringly, as skeletons caper, before casting them back into the conflagration.

Skeletons and demons caper about the fire
Blazin’.

Three burning vixens appear then melt and twist into a wolf, a pig, and a goat. The echoes of ancient paganism are unmistakable. Flame and smoke fill the screen. Ghastly faces, skulls, and harpies with erect hot pink nipples fly directly at the viewer. Paganism and erect nipples. Erect, blazing pink nipples. In a Disney film.

Finally, a church bell peels as dawn begins to break. The ghosts and imps fall silent and Chernabog is dazed. Eventually he falls into slumber, as a procession of monks, singing “Ave Maria,” make a lantern-lit passage through the forest. This is how the segment ends, but for a little over 10 minutes, Diseny was metal as fuck.

Tenacious D
Even more metal than the motherfucking D.

So how did my kiddos do? Superman lost interest. He only pays half attention to anything they watch on TV, and this was the end of a feature film. He was smiling and playing with his toys. Boo Boo Bear made it through the segment, albeit with her arms crossed tight over her chest and her nervous eyes locked on the screen. Three-year-old Caterpillar, however, did what I could not do in that long ago darkened movie theater at the same age: She got up and noped the fuck out. As for me, I was left with a hankering to listen to Ghost.

Watching Fantasia again led me to reappraise my opinion of Disney movies. I really liked them when I was a little kid. I can remember going to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Pinocchio, Bambi, Cinderella, Lady and the Tramp, The Jungle Book, and The Fox and the Hound, and I remember renting and repeatedly watching The Sword in the Stone and Robin Hood on VHS. And now that I have kids of my own, I’ve seen some I either missed as a kid or forgot about as I got older, like The Aristocats, Dumbo, and Alice in Wonderland. Maybe not every one of those is what you’d call a classic, but it’s a damn fine list. Many of them are also evidence of a willingness to take creative risks. I don’t think anything like Dumbo‘s pink elephants scene would get into a Disney film today, and Bambi‘s revelation that the enemy is man would probably get squashed for being too dark.

And yet the same studio produced shit like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion KingHercules, and Tarzan. And then they followed a string of total crap with Lilo & Stitch, which was fucking awesome. What the hell happened during the 1980s and 1990s? Well, those years do mostly coincide with Michael Eisner’s tenure as Disney’s CEO. My opinion of Disney during those years was probably also darkened by my emergence into adolescence, and particularly my transition from “sweet little kid who tries to please everyone”to “future pissy, horror-obsessed, outcast teenage boy.” In school I was surrounded by a group of goody-goodies who continued to gush about Disney kiddie movies long after you might reasonably expect a person to outgrow them. They were the primary antagonists of my grade school years for a number of reasons. In the case of one girl, her mother was the leader of the local Upright God-Fearing Family Values Morality Police, and tended to clash with my Mom over things like trying to censor the Scholastic Book Fair, or proposals to have parent volunteers stand outside the school in the morning to catch kids swearing and report them.

But even realizing my own adolescent bias … I fucking hate Disney animated films from the mid-1980s and 1990s. They all seemed to combine a family friendly, no sharp edges story with an underdog who can succeed if he or she just looks inside and finds the something-or-other to try, one or two goofy but unfunny sidekicks, a memorable song, a product line, and a Happy Meal Toy. Aladdin was the worst, because in addition to all that horseshit, it had Robin Fucking Williams at the height of his “kid-safe but still outsized, manic and hammy as shit but not really funny oh God please don’t make me watch Hook again” phase.

But they’ve been good lately. Frozen kind of followed the 80s-90s template, but my daughters love it, so I have a soft spot. Wreck It Ralph was beautiful, hilarious, and novel. And maybe Disney’s purchases of other companies aren’t so horrible after all. Pixar movies are still good, and The Force Awakens was every bit the Star Wars movie I had waited 32 years to see, and it was amazing. You could say that was J.J. Abrams’ doing, but I’d counter that Disney let him have creative control. I still hate that Warner Bros. lost their battle for cartoon culture dominance to Disney, because Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck beat the living hell out of Mickey any day of the week, and they deserved better than to be second banana to the fucking Mouse.

Anyway. Fantasia was visionary and unflinching, and “Night on Bald Mountain” scared the living hell out of three-year-old me. It was my first encounter with the horror genre, and as I left the theater with Mom and Dad I wanted no more of Bald Mountain. The next encounter though was one I’d keep going back to.