Tra-la-logs vs. Hoonies: Finding Gooby in The Pit

When initially discussing our current Movie of the Month, the 1981 Canuxploitation curio The Pit, Boomer lamented the loss of its screenplay’s original subtext about childhood struggles with Autism. In its conceptual phases, The Pit was intended to be a thoughtful insight into the mind of a child on the spectrum. Jamie’s misunderstanding of personal boundaries and fantastic obsessions with his “talking” teddy bear and the Tra-la-logs (troglodytes) that live in a pit in the nearby woods were originally intended to be empathetic teaching points about the internal processes of a child on the spectrum struggling with the emotional & sexual discomforts of early puberty. Realizing that kind of subtle, thoughtful child psychology drama wouldn’t make nearly as much money as a bonkers horror film with the same basic premise, producers pushed for a different story altogether. In The Pit as a final product, the woods-dwelling troglodytes & telepathic teddy bear are demonstrated to be real, and really dangerous. Jamie himself makes a leap from a misunderstood, bullied child with boundary issues to a full-on perverted menace who even out-creeps the flesh-eating Tra-la-logs as the film’s most hideous monster. I understand some of Boomer’s mixed feelings on this shift from empathetic child psychology drama to exploitative horror cheapie, but ultimately, I gotta say the producers made the right call (at least in terms of The Pit’s entertainment value). I’ve already seen a movie with The Pit’s budgetary & creative means attempt to recapture the imaginations & frustrations of a child on the spectrum through their relationship with a talking teddy bear. It was 2009’s Gooby, a film that’s only notable for its unintended terror & laughable absurdity (thanks largely to being covered on the “bad movie” podcast How Did This Get Made?); It’s the same fate I believe The Pit would have suffered if it had attempted sincere melodrama about Jamie’s troubled psyche.

Once you consider them as a pair, the parallels between Gooby & The Pit are unmistakable. A G-rated (presumably Christian-targeted) children’s film, Gooby follows a small child struggling to adjust to his family’s move into a new home, not his burgeoning sexuality, but the ways his anxieties manifest are very similar to Jamie’s. Instead of fearing Tra-la-logs, the pint-sized protagonist of Gooby fears “Hoonies”: two-headed CGI bird-beasts that only he can see. He also processes the emotional stress of his changing life and the threat of the Hoonies through his relationship with an anthropomorphic teddy bear. In The Pit, the teddy bear is a telepathic communicator who encourages Jamie to explore his sexuality and enact his revenge on perceived enemies in increasingly unsavory ways. In Gooby, the titular teddy bear transforms into a six-foot tall imaginary friend (voiced by Robbie Coltrane, of Hagrid fame) who provides his corresponding troubled child with emotional support in a time when he’s isolated from the humans in his life. Gooby is, in theory, the wholesome version of The Pit, with all the icky sex & violence replaced with tender, empathetic insight into the mental processes of an outsider child on the spectrum struggling to adapt to a new reality and to relate to the other humans in his social circle. Yet, Gooby is deeply disturbing in its own, unintended way both because of its lighthearted, sanitized exploration of deeply troubling emotional issues and because Gooby himself is a goddamn nightmare to look at. By leaning into its genre film potential and making its monstrous threats “real,” The Pit transcends so-bad-it’s good mockery to become something undeniably captivating & unnerving. Gooby, by contrast, risks the child psychology sincerity of The Pit’s original form and falls flat on its face because of its shortcomings in budget, dialogue, and character design. By trying to make the imaginary teddy bear friend of The Pit’s basic dynamic a lovable goofball, Gooby only succeeded in creating a new kind of horror, one that plays as an embarrassing mistake instead of a successful attempt at small-budget genre filmmaking. Both films are equally fascinating & unnerving, but only one’s effect feels successful in its intent – the one that asks to be treated as a horror film to begin with.

There are plenty of successful, well-considered children’s films about processing mental & emotional anxiety through imaginary devices – Paperhouse, MirriorMask, The Lady in White, A Monster Calls, I Kill Giants, to name a few we’ve covered here. Gooby & The Pit attempt a very specific, shared angle on that formula in their teddy bear vs. imaginary monsters (whether they be Hoonies or Tra-la-logs) interpretation of childhood Autism conflicts. The difference is that Gooby fully commits to the “It was all in their head” metaphor originally intended but abandoned by The Pit, to disastrous results. Whether a limitation in talent or budget, Gooby never had a chance to be anything but an absurd, unnerving embarrassment headlined by a nightmarish teddy bear goon. The producers of The Pit likely saw their own project heading in that direction when they decided to bail from the original child psychology melodrama script to pursue a more marketable cheapo horror genre payoff. The results are largely the same. The Pit & Gooby are both deeply uncomfortable curios that reach a very peculiar level of terror you might not expect given how goofy they appear from the outside. The difference is that The Pit comes out looking ingenious for framing that effect as its intent, whereas Gooby persists only as a how-did-this-get-made mockery, an abomination & an embarrassment. They’re basically the same movie, but only The Pit was self-aware enough to realize its own horrific effect.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, the horned-up Canuxploitation horror curio The Pit, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its big-budget equivalent, The Gate (1987).

-Brandon Ledet

The Darkness (2016)

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three star

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Early summer’s kind of a weird time of the year to release a goofy, low-rent horror. The Darkness might’ve been more at home among the year’s earlier horror cheapies like The Boy or The Forest or maybe held off until  whatever lackluster PG-13 terrors await us this Halloween season. Instead, it arrived now, begging to be drowned among blockbuster releases like Captain America: Civil War & X-Men: Apocalypse. Even I, connoisseur of bland horror cheapness, almost passed over the film based on its not so memorable ad campaign. It was the IMDb plot synopsis that drew me back in: “A family returns from a Grand Canyon vacation, haunted by an ancient supernatural entity they unknowingly awakened and engages them in a fight for their survival.” Now that sounds silly enough to work. Obviously, I would rather would rather see a Mt. Rushmore ghost story, but a Grand Canyon one is enough to raise my eyebrow & get my ass to a theater.

Kevin Baton is the paterfamilias of a dysfunctional family vacationing at The Grand Canyon. His autistic son angers ancient spirits by stealing mystic pebbles from a forbidden cave. Some dumb teen we thankfully never see helpfully explains, “There’s all kinds of creepy old shit in this place.” He’s not wrong. The caves & curves of The Grand Canyon have an ancient, old world magnetism to them that can really chill you in their enormity. That’s why, I’m assuming, The Darkness spends as little time there as possible & scuttles the family back to their standard issue suburban home as soon as it gets the chance. You wouldn’t want the majestic beauty & ancient spookiness of a natural phenomenon getting in the way of a familial melodrama after all, especially not in a cheap horror flick. No way. The Darkness is mostly of a portrait of a family unraveling where each member is dutifully assigned a personal struggle to overcome (adultery, alcoholism, autism, an eating disorder) and evil pebbles that open dimensional gateways to the Native American version of the Apocalypse are reduced to manifestations of bad karma due to a business dad’s selfishness in choosing work over family. Oh yeah, and Paul Reiser stops by, which I guess is scary in its own way too.

The Darkness is never truly scary, but it can occasionally be amusing in its ineptitude. I especially found it humorous when the film claims that autism puts children in a more spiritually receptive state, which is why its spooky-autistic tyke who steals the Apocalypse stones befriends a ghost he names Jenny & opens a portal to a ghost dimension on his bedroom wall (a plot detail that’s very reminiscent of last year’s Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension). If turning a mental disorder into a source of cheap horror isn’t goofily offensive/insensitive enough for you, the film is just as willing as any 80s misfire you can think of to other Native American societies as some kind of spooky mystics and only portray them performing spooky-mystic rituals involving chants & feathers. There’s also more standard-issue cliches the film tosses out (I assume) for a laugh: crows as foreshadowing, husbands ignoring their wives’ claims of hauntings, spooky Google (em, “E-web”) search results, etc.

Had The Darkness stayed in the desert it might’ve borrowed some of the same location-specific horror that colored properties like Pitch Black, The Descent, and 127 Hours in a memorable way. Had it portrayed evil spirits a little more menacing than a dude wearing fake wolf hide to Burning Man it might’ve convincingly threatened an imminent Apocalypse. Had it not reduced autism or Native American rituals into cheap gimmicks & novelties I might not have laughed in its face. As is, it’s a fairly run-of-the-mill PG-13 horror with just enough goofy misfires to make the experience enjoyably corny & mildly offensive, as if the Lifetime Channel had started producing late night creature features (which is a racket Lifetime totally should break into).

-Brandon Ledet