Friday, January 30, 2009

Terrifying Family Films. Part 2.

Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam

When I was a kid, I used to love Ernest Goes to Camp. I rented it all the time. Most agree that it’s a real classic. I liked his other movies too – Ernest Scared Stupid, Ernest Saves Christmas, and the list goes on. For my 10th birthday party, my friends and I saw Ernest Goes to Jail at the theater. And then, when no one showed up to my 11th birthday party, I rented Sixteen Candles and ate a carton of Chunky Monkey. But before all those classics, Jim Varney (Ernest) starred in... something else.

In the early 80’s Jim Varney used the Ernest character in commercials for things like natural gas and the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. He also made regular appearances on Fernwood Tonight and Pink Lady and Jeff. He was steadily becoming an A-List celebrity. Then, in 1985, Varney made his first movie: Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam. The Ernest character appeared for only two minutes, but he’s all over the VHS box. You can imagine my excitement years after it's release, when I found this rare tape at our local video store. An Ernest movie I hadn’t seen! Was it new? How delightful! You can imagine my terror when I discovered that this movie wasn’t about Ernest at all. This was all about Dr. Otto, a demented freak bent on destroying the world's economy - with one disturbing birth defect. Dr. Otto, for some reason, has a hand growing out of his head.

KnowhutImean, Vern? Vern? Is that a tazer Vern?

I’m not even going to attempt to rehash the plot here. I haven’t seen Dr. Otto in 20 years, and all I remember are the torture scenes. That’s right. Apparently torture is a family value! Dr. Otto has a friend robot. The robot has a yellow smiley face painted on his metal head. And when Dr. Otto tortures him, the smiley face changes to a frowning face. That wasn’t funny to me - I remember feeling really sad for him.

Dr. Otto is cruel to everyone, including his friends. As a kid, I never understood why a supervillain would punish his minions. Wouldn't that just make them join the good guys? I don't remember Skeletor ever being mean to Beastman. And Shredder was certainly never mean to Bebop or Rocksteady. I guess Dr. Otto is just one bad mother.

Googling for pictures and clips, I'm seeing some pretty weird stuff. Scenes are littered with random bones, blood and snakes. It's as if someone told the prop guy to bring anything remotely scary from his garage and throw it around the set. The picture quality looks to be that of a snuff film. Dr. Otto even dresses like a pirate in one scene and acts inappropriately with a damsel in distress. All of this is just a bit too adult for a PG family movie. Seriously, where was the MPAA during the 80's?

And not that this adds to the frightening factor - but even the jokes were too adult for me to understand. Here's a gem: Dr. Otto is dressed as Auntie Nelda. This is another classic Jim Varney character - you know, the old lady that wears a neck brace. I always thought she was supposed to be Vern. She's not. The Vern factor still confuses me. The heroes of the story - middle aged Sesame Street rejects - stop by Nelda's house. Nelda gives them poisoned wine. The ditsy middle aged Sesame Street reject says, "I hope it's cold duck." Nelda, under her breathe, quips, "You would!" Hilarious. Especially for a kid. I drank a lot of wine as a child and to serve anything other than cold duck to your guests would be quiet an embarrassing faux pas.

If you'd like to watch this classic piece of cinema - you can have it when you purchase The Klutz starring Claude something. Bonus!

Your grandmother is buying you this for Christmas.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Terrifying Family Films. Part 1.

The Peanut Butter Solution
I'm no psychologist, but I've read a few things about children and how they overcome fear subconsciously. When it comes to film, children will actually watch a movie over and over again if it scares them. Like I said, I'm not a child psychologist. I have no idea why kids do this. It's pretty weird. I do know that I watched movies constantly as a kid, and if it scared me, I watched it repeatedly. Maybe I was trying to understand the parts that scared me, or maybe I was trying to overcome them. In any case, I was obsessed with certain movies and a lot of them were absolutely terrifying. The funny thing is, these movies weren't meant to be scary. Take my first example... for example.

The Peanut Butter Solution. 1985.

The Peanut Butter Solution first aired in the United States on Nickelodeon - the familiest channel of all family channels. (Note: This was the 80's. The Family Channel did not exist.) The movie claims to be a comedy. It's nightmare-inducing. And from Canada.
This "kid's" comedy is about Michael; a young boy who misses his mum. Michael goes into an abandoned house for some reason. This house is known to shelter many many drunk homeless people. This is a family adventure after all. He gets scared by something - we're not told right away, but obviously dead homeless people are to blame - and his hair falls out completely. The boy cries for a very long time, bald and alone. Honestly he shouldn't be that sad - he'd been wearing a wig the whole time.

Bitch burnt my toast!

The homeless ghosts show up later and because they feel bad, give him a secret hair-growth solution. The magic ingredient? You guessed it. Peanut butter. It works so well that even his friend puts some on his crotch. Really Nickelodeon? His crotch?
Michael can't stop his hair from growing. It grows so long that wind knocks him down a lot and he has to tie it to the ceiling at night. He even gets suspended from school for having long hair. That is comedy. And not that I really need to mention it - the friend's hair grows too. And the viewers are treated to the image.
Michael's French art teacher decides that he can make money off Michael's hair. Somehow he makes magic paintbrushes that paint whatever he imagines. The art teacher kidnaps Michael, along with dozens of other children, and starts a kid-friendly sweatshop. That's not disturbing at all!
As this is a children's film, Michael defeats the art teacher, by making him see a dead homeless person as well. The art teacher loses his hair as well and the circle of life continues. Sorry for the spoiler, but good luck finding a copy of this movie.
There are several things that scared me about this movie, aside from the terrible film quality and acting. Overall it's just a weird weird movie. The story is weird, the actors are weird, and the music is weird. The abandonded house is dark and looming, but the way Michael enters it, is even scarier. He climbs a garbage chute up to a second story window and disappears inside. For some reason, I've always had this image in my head. My sister bought this movie for me recently and though I hadn't seen the movie in years, I knew the scene was coming. I don't even know why it scared me that much. I guess the act of climbing over garbage and up a splintery slide is pretty dangerous and when you're already afraid of heights and falling down things like I was (am), a garbage chute is pretty scary. Remember the trash compactor scene in Star Wars? Me too! I once had a dream George Wendt pushed me down an elevator shaft. This may or may not be related.

I want an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action
Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle!

This movie is so full of frightening images, that while they probably aren't scary to us as adults, a kid sees them differently. Ghosts, scary houses, homeless people, trippy paintings drawn with human hair... it's all a bit much for a kid.

Click here to watch the video for Celine Dion's first English single, Listen to the Magic Man, unbelievably the theme of this movie. Chances are you've never even heard of the Peanut Butter Solution. But imagine if you'd seen this video first. You'd probably be a little confused.


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