Sunday, September 13, 2009
More frightening moment: Redrum, redrum or floating child?
One of the more anticipated new TV series this fall is ABC's "V," a remake of the series that tormented children in the 1980s with its story of aliens taking over Earth while using humans for food and sucking the planet's water out for their own use. The original remains one of the best miniseries ever. There's likely no way the new series will match the popularity of the original, nor will it duplicate the surprises.
The most iconic moment in the original V was when Diana, the evil yet charismatic - and fetching - leader of the V, stunned America by devouring a guinea pig whole. Take our water? Ok. Store our bodies in human Tupperware containers so you can feed us to your starving people later? Ok.
Eat our guinea pigs? Now, we KNOW they're evil. Watching the above clip again, it's hard not to be struck by how low-tech the special effects were. It is, in fact, almost laughable the way her head expands as the little piggy plummets downward. No matter. For a generation of kids who watched her eat the poor creature - and enjoy it - Diana's meal was one of the more memorable moments of their TV childhood. But even aside from that scene, the entire series oozed creepiness, with the aliens methodically taking over after saying they came in peace. Eventually the humans fight back, Earth is saved and the compelling miniseries spawned a so-so regular series, which didn't last long.
But the original series remains one of the more frightening television moments of my childhood. The other most haunting programs and movies?
1. Salem's Lot. The miniseries starred Hutch, also known as a brooding David Soul. It's based on Stephen King's classic book, one of the first of his career. The miniseries was nominated for Emmys and received rave reviews. But as a kid, one scene remained with me for years and made me leery whenever I'd go near a window at night.
Unfortunate vampire child Ralphie Glick floats outside his brother Danny's window, commanding him to let him in, all the while scratching the glass while grinning like he possesses a really amusing secret. Watching Diana eat a guinea pig today is more amusing than frightening. Watching this kid hover outside his older sibling's window? I have to pause it several times. And tonight, if I hear scratching outside, I'm turning on the lights and going under the covers. This scene was followed by other ones that remain seared into my mind, among them the gravedigger sitting in his rocking chair, having already been vampireized, and Danny Glick - the boy in the bed in the clip - sitting up in his coffin, just as part 1 of the miniseries ended. Years later I read the book, which was nearly as frightening as the original series. In 2004 TNT remade the series with Rob Lowe. Not haunting.
2. Redrum, Redrum, Redrum, Redrum, Redrum. The Shining. Another Stephen King book turned into a movie, probably best known for Jack Nicholson's over-the-top descent into madness. But as a kid, listening to the little boy chant Redrum, Redrum, in a low, eerie voice, was the most memorable scene, particularly when it's revealed for the spelling challenged that redrum is murder spelled backward. If this kid had chanted this while also floating outside a window, I'd have never turned on the TV again.
3. The Day After. Designed to warn America about the dangers of nuclear war. I guess it worked. Although I'm assuming the people it was meant to stir - adults - held the same opinions after it that they had before, depending on their political affiliation. The people the TV movie really damaged: children. What was our response supposed to be? A Million Kid March on Washington, demanding an end to nuclear testing? A generation earlier, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the threat of nuclear destruction home to millions of kids. They also learned to dive under their desks in the event of a nuclear attack (you're supposed to flee trailers during a tornado, but during a nuclear war, dive under a tiny school desk. Sure).
I can still picture the mushroom cloud rising over Kansas, whose landscape was too much like southern Minnesota's. For the next several weeks I couldn't help but picture a big ol' nuke landing near Janesville. If the Soviets felt they needed to take out the nation's farmland, why wouldn't Minnesota be next? Jason Robards portrays one of the main characters, who spends the day after wandering around, dying horribly of radiation poisoning.
The show affected millions. TV stations opened hotlines to counsel the frightened.
"It's okay, that was fiction. Nothing like this will happen, unless the Russians accidentally bomb a Korean jetliner and we have to nuke them to send a message and they retaliate. Then, yes, The Day After could be accurate. In which case, hide under a desk."
Nightline hosted a debate between William Buckley and Carl Sagan. All of those things were good for teens and adults. Meanwhile, 8-year-olds across the country went to bed just waiting for the nukes to fly. Thanks, ABC.
Are there equivalents to these shows today? Are children today haunted by Lost? Or by Survivor's Tribal Council? Was it just a simpler time when poor special effects - a fog machine appears to have gone haywire behind floating vampire boy - and creepy children were all it took to frighten millions? Today's kids do have plenty to worry about, from terrorism to cyber bullying. But at least they don't have to deal with the memory of Ralphie Glick. Little Ralphie, forever floating, forever scratching, forever terrorizing.