Sunday, October 29, 2017

shake that rat

I used to fixate on — actually, I still do — the uncomfortable fact that my parents took me to see The Godfather when I was eleven. This bothered me a lot. What were they thinking? What kind of parent subjects an impressionable child to that kind of gritty violence? Were there no babysitters available? Did they discuss this and conclude that, as responsible parents, this was an admirable thing to do? I even wrote a lengthy blog post about this a few years ago, so the people that I couldn't tell in person wouldn't miss out on some serious parent shaming.

A few nights ago, I was scanning the multitude of entertainment options available through my cable television provider. I stopped at Turner Classic Movies — one of my favorites — to see what they were offering. I scrolled through to the schedule and soon found myself viewing the movies that TCM reserves for the wee hours of weekend nights — a period they refer to as "The Underground." While most folks are fast asleep, Turner Classic presents films that fall into the category of "cult." Just after midnight on Saturday, such forgotten gems as Coffy starring ass-kick Pam Grier and Hillbillys in a Haunted House, a painfully campy romp that Jayne Mansfield turned down. 

At 3:45 a.m., Turner Classic presented the 1971 thriller Willard, a heartwarming tale of an awkward young man who befriends a bunch of rats. This was followed by its 1972 sequel, the equally preposterous Ben, featuring a cast of every character actor the 1970s had to offer. An explainable wave of excitement shot through me and I instinctively set the DVR to record both movies. 

I hadn't seen either one of these movies in years! Decades! On Sunday morning, I set myself up with a bowl of cereal and a cup of coffee and settled into the den sofa for a "blast-from-the-past" double feature. I remember loving these movies when I was a kid. Hey, what's not to love? It had Ernest Borgnine, excitable "Commander McHale" playing against his TV type (but not movie type, as he portrayed numerous assholes on the silver screen) as Willard's asshole boss. It had the eccentrically other-worldly Elsa Lanchester at the end of her illustrious career as Willard's mother, acting as though she didn't get the same script as the rest of the cast. There was lovely waif Sondra Locke as Willard's pseudo love interest and a supporting assortment of characters from TV including J. Pat O'Malley (Google him, you'll know him) and the delightfully daffy Jody Gilbert, who made a career of playing "Woman" or "Fat Woman" in 115 screen credits. With newcomer Bruce Davison (who has gone on to a five-decade career that included an Oscar nomination) in the title role, Willard was a typical 70s schlock horror film. It was a low-budget, zero production value, poorly-acted 95 minutes of dreck... and I loved it! Movies in the 70s were churned out with assembly-line regard. They followed trends and genres and there was very little originality. Actors wore, what seemed like, their own street clothes — or maybe costumes just mimicked the brightly-colored polyester fashions of the day. It certainly did not try to top Citizen Kane and that certainly was not its goal. It was just crappy entertainment and it delivered. 

Mom and Dad's guide
to parenting
While I watched and chuckled at the over-dramatic antics flashing across my television, remembering my first view of this film, something dawned on me. I saw Willard at a Saturday afternoon matinee at the Parkwood Theater in 1971. I was ten. Ten years old! I went with friends. My mom most likely drove us there in her lime green Rambler, dropping us off and providing me with a few dollars for popcorn and candy. She was well aware of what sort of movie Willard was, as our television was bombarded with ads for the movie. They must have caught Ernest Borgnine shilling on Johnny Carson's show, explaining how the stunts and effects were accomplished after running a promo clip for the audience. So, what was she thinking? Why would she allow a ten-year old to see this? This was not a film for a ten-year old! I should have been seeing Bedknobs and Broomsticks or Million Dollar Duck or The Barefoot Executive or any number of movies more suitable for a ten-year old. Not a movie where a pack of hungry rats rip "Commander McHale" apart right before your eyes. So, I shouldn't be surprised that, a year later, my parents thought it was a fine idea to take me to see The Godfather. After all, once I saw thousands of rats gnaw through a wooden door and attack the once-sympathetic Willard, watching a helpless James Caan get riddled with thousands of rounds of machine gun fire was nothing.... I guess. And that severed horse's head? Piece of cake.

Perhaps my Mom and Dad should have read a good book on parenting skills after they finished Mario Puzo's tale of "family."

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