The Dark Lady of Kung Fu (1983)

After watching Pearl Chang direct herself in two traditional, psychedelic wuxia revenge tales, it was nice to see her totally cut loose in her third feature. That’s not to say Wolf Devil Woman or Matching Escort are humorless slogs, but more that The Dark Lady of Kung Fu just out-goofs them both by a large margin. The Dark Lady of Kung Fu feels more like a condensed season of a children’s Saturday Morning TV comedy than it does a wuxia epic; it’s just one that happens to feature occasional outbursts of martial arts wirework, gore, and gender ambiguity. It’s decidedly inessential when compared to Chang’s previous accomplishments, but it’s wildly, endearingly playful in a way that rewards completionists.

Pearl Chang stars in dual roles as The Butterfly Bandit & The Monkey King, two separate heroes to local street orphans. The Monkey King provides a makeshift home for the orphans as their figurehead, teaching them how to survive as Dickensian pickpockets. The Butterfly Bandit is a Robin Hood type superhero who showers the orphans & other impoverished citizens with stolen gold, costumed in a winged Zorro costume with a purple Mardi Gras mask. Both characters are referred to by “he/him” pronouns despite identifying as women, and a third character in their orbit is eventually revealed to be intersex in a major, clumsy plot twist. Despite both being played by Chang, the movie never confirms that The Butterfly Bandit & The Monkey King are indeed the same person. The masked superhero’s true identity is instead allowed to remain an ambiguous secret, so they can continue to live on as a mysterious hero to poor children everywhere.

The Dark Lady of Kung Fu is missing some of the Peal Chang touchstones that made Wolf Devil Woman & Matching Escort so fun as low-budget wuxia novelties. Mainly, her rapidfire psychedelic editing style & lengthy martial arts battles are greatly minimized here, allowing more room for the day-to-day hijinks of the street orphans instead of the superheroics of their idols. Still, the film is incredibly playful in its intensely colorful imagery, including shots of Chang enjoying a bubble bath in a giant clamshell, performing as a human Whack-a-Mole for busking tips, and allowing her flock to play Hungry Hungry Hippos with her stolen loot. The usual ultraviolence is also present throughout, featuring chopped limbs, rivers of stage blood, and flashes of horrific self-surgery. Besides its laid-back pacing, the only thing that really holds The Dark Lady of Kung Fu back from greatness is the cloying Comedy Hijinks of its English language dub. It’s yet another argument for Pearl Chang’s work being rescued & properly restored for modern audiences; they’d all make excellent Midnight Movies with a proper clean-up, and this one is no exception.

-Brandon Ledet

The Adorably Morbid Children of the Classics

As many stuck-at-home audiences have been over the past year of pure, all-encompassing Hell, I’ve recently found myself seeking out cinematic comfort food in the form of Classic Movies, the kind of Old Hollywood fare best enjoyed under a blanket with a hot toddy & a bar of chocolate. That impulse overwhelmed my viewing habits around this past Christmas especially, when the annual stress of the holiday and the burnout from Best of 2020 catchups had me seeking shelter in the feel-good Movie Magic of the Studio Era. I wasn’t watching these films with any specific critical purpose in mind, but I did notice a glaring, unexpected common thread between them that delighted me, if not only because it was a subversive contrast to the warm-blanket nostalgia feeling I was looking for. I started to detect an archetype of 1930s & 40s media that I hadn’t really considered being a hallmark of the era before: the adorably morbid child. I’m not referencing the vicious little monsters of later cinema like the pint-sized villains of The Bad Seed, The Children’s Hour, or Village of the Damned. It’s an earlier, sweeter archetype of the cutie-pie tyke who happens to be obsessed with death, decay, and general amoral debauchery despite their cheery appearance. In an era where studio-sanctioned art was cranked out to seek wide commercial appeal, creators had thoughtfully included proto-goth youngsters in their casts of characters for the real Weirdos in the audience — something I still greatly appreciated from the warmth of my couch & blanket nearly a century later.

By far the purest, most adorably vicious specimen of this archetype is Tootie from the 1944 movie musical Meet Me in St Louis. Based on its reputation as The One Where Judy Garland Sings “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”, I didn’t expect much in the way of subversion out of this Old Hollywood Movie Musical. Maybe that’s why I absolutely fell in love with Tootie The Pint-Sized Sociopath, whose interjections of feral bloodlust into this otherwise cheery Studio picture got huge, consistent laughs out of me. It’s like Louise Belcher was cast as one of the March sisters in a musical production of Little Women, a delightful element of pure, out-of-nowhere chaos. Child actor Margaret O’Brien even earned second-bill for the role beneath Garland on the posters, despite being more of an occasional source of comic relief than a main-cast participant. While her older sisters & parents navigate romances, courtships, and harsh financial decisions of the adult world, Tootie lives out a mostly carefree childhood in turn-of-the-century Missouri where she staves off boredom by focusing on the more ghoulish aspects of life. Tootie frequently interrupts the plot to interject about all her dolls she’s buried in the cemetery, the minor acts of domestic terrorism she’s committed against the city’s streetcar tracks, or how “The iceman saw a drunkard get shot yesterday; the blood squirted out three feet!” Each time she pipes up in sugary sweet squeaks you know you’re about to hear about the gnarliest shit that’s ever happened in St. Louis, which is a hilarious contrast to the warmer, more nostalgic comforts of Judy Garland singing Christmas carols.

I might’ve assumed Tootie was a total cinematic anomaly had I not also revisited one of my personal favorite Christmas classics this year, 1934’s Hays Code defiant comedy-noir The Thin Man. Usually when praising The Thin Man, it’s unavoidable to focus on the playful, often violent sexual innuendo shared between married, martini-swilling detectives Nick & Nora Charles. On this rewatch, though, I found myself drawn to the morbid fixations of the teenage side character Gilbert, the son of the murder victim Nick & Nora are hired to avenge. Gilbert is much older than Tootie, and so his adorable morbidity as a teenage boy is a lot less striking at first glance. What’s hilarious about its effect on the film, however, is how freaked out the other characters are by his obsession with death & sexual perversion. Police are squicked when he gleefully asks, of his own father’s corpse, “Could I come down and see the body? I’ve never seen a dead body.” It doesn’t help at all when he plainly explains, “Well, I’ve been studying psychopathic criminology and I have a theory. Perhaps this was the work of a sadist or a paranoiac. If I saw it I might be able to tell.” Unlike Tootie’s family in Meet Me in St. Louis, Gilbert’s mother & sister aren’t at all amused by his faux-Freudian obsession with sex & death, best typified by his sister’s repulsed reaction to his confession that, “Now, I know I have a mother fixation, but it’s slight. It hasn’t yet reached the point of where I …” The censorship of the era would not have allowed that train of thought to go much further, but it’s almost worse that the audience’s imagination is allowed to fill in the blank. Gilbert is not nearly as funny nor as alarming as Tootie, if not only because death & perverse sexual urges don’t seem as wildly out of place coming from a teenage boy in a drunken noir as they do coming from a 7-year-old girl in a cheery movie musical. Still, he’s a hilarious intrusion on the plot & tone of the work, especially since every other character is so thoroughly freaked out by his enthusiasm for ghoulish subjects.

While I couldn’t think of another movie character from the 30s & 40s that fit the mold of a Tootie or a Gilbert, I do believe they share a sensibility with a newspaper comics icon from that same era: Wednesday Addams. While The Addams Family wouldn’t be adapted to television & silver screen until decades later, the wholesomely morbid characters originated in a single-panel newspaper comic that was substantially popular in the 1930s. Wednesday Addams isn’t as bubbly nor as sugar-addled as Tootie, but she mostly fills the same role: a subversively morbid child who’s just as adorable as she is fixated on death & mayhem. It might just be because I’m a child of the 1990s, but Christina Ricci defines the character in my mind, thanks to her dual performances in Barry Sonnenfeld’s The Addams Family (1991) & Addams Family Values (1993). While her performance (along with a career-high turn from Joan Cusack) is more deliciously over-the-top in the sequel, the often-neglected original film of the duo showcases her as occasional, adorable interjections to the plot the same way Tootie & Gilbert function in their respective films. The ’91 Addams Family movie feels spiritually in-sync with the source material’s origins as a single-panel newspaper comic, mostly entertaining as a never-ending flood of individual sight gags; it’s essentially ZAZ for goths. Wednesday mostly operates outside the main plot (which largely concerns her parents’ relationship with her prodigal uncle), occasionally interjecting as a hyper-specific type of sight gag: a young, adorable little girl with a hyperactive sense of bloodlust. Wednesday is mostly silent in the ’91 film, but the way she repeatedly murders her brother, leads a spooky familial séance, and sprays her school play audience in gallons of stage blood leads to some of the film’s most outrageously funny moments; it’s no wonder Addams Family Values gave her more to do in the spotlight, straying further from both the comic panel source material & the usual role of the adorably morbid child side-character trope.

One thing that stuck out to me when revisiting the Addams Family movie so soon after falling in love with Tootie is that it starts with a Christmas carol, and ends at Halloween. Similarly, Meet Me in St. Louis is often cited as one of the greatest Christmas movies of all time, but one of its major set-pieces involves Tootie participating in an escalating series of Halloween pranks while dressed as the ghost of a town drunk. Meanwhile, Addams Family Values includes an iconic Thanksgiving-themed stage play (despite being set at a sleepaway summer camp), and The Thin Man is set between Christmas Eve & New Year’s. It makes sense that these comfort-watch classics would be likely to be set around The Holidays, since that time of year is so prone to warmly comforting (and easily marketable) nostalgia. The uniformity of these three characters—Tootie, Gilbert, and Wednesday—across those similar settings is amusing as a codified trio, though, and I can’t help but want to seek out more adorably morbid children in classic films just like them. Surely, there must be more violence-obsessed tykes running havoc around otherwise even-keel studio pictures of the Old Hollywood era. If nothing else, I suspect the continued popularity of Wednesday Addams over the decades must have been an influence over classic movie characters I just haven’t met yet. I doubt any will be as delightfully fucked up as our beloved little Tootie, but I’ll be seeking them out anyway.

-Brandon Ledet

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Quietly Magical 1990s Revival

It’s been over a hundred years since turn-of-the-century author Frances Hodgson Burnett was a hip, happening commodity on the children’s literature circuit, but her work’s been perpetually floating around the cultural zeitgeist ever since. That’s mostly due to the ongoing popularity of Burnett’s 1911 novel The Secret Garden, which is constantly being adapted for stage, television, and silver screen for each new generation of young audiences. Just last year, a big-budget reworking of The Secret Garden passed through theaters like a fart in the wind, unnoticed by most audiences despite the source material’s apparently evergreen popularity. I didn’t bother with the 2020 version of The Secret Garden, mostly because the gaudy CGI & overbearing orchestral swells of the trailers looked like they were adding way too many bells & whistles to a story mostly loved for its sweetness in simplicity. Had the movie been a proper hit (something it never had a chance to accomplish, if not only due to the COVID pandemic’s across-the-board-kneecapping of theatrical distribution), it would not have surprised me that its CG Magic additions to the story were welcoming to a younger generation of kids who are used to that digital patina. For me, the latest Secret Garden movie’s release mostly served as a reminder that Burnett’s novels had another, earlier Cultural Moment when I was a kid, something I can’t help but regard as their best era of adaptation to date.

Way back in the ancient days of the mid-1990s there were two wonderful, beloved adaptations of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s most popular novels, both shot by A-list cinematographers. Of course, the decade saw just as many forgotten, mediocre film & television versions of The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, and Little Lord Fauntleroy as any other era in popular media, but there were two exceptional films that stood out among the dreck. The first (and most substantial) of the pair is 1993’s adaptation of The Secret Garden, directed by Agnieszka Holland and shot by industry legend Roger Deakins. Half a G-rated Gothic horror about haunted, lonely children and half gorgeous Technicolor nature footage, the 1993 Secret Garden is a tender, incredibly patient children’s classic that I should have caught up with sooner. Where the treacly, desperately whimsical trailers for the 2020 Secret Garden push the delicate magic of the source material past its breaking point, Holland’s interpretation is interested in the more cinematic magic of Mood. The protagonist is a “queer, unresponsive little thing,” a prideful young orphan known to her lower-class bunkmates as “Mary Quite Contrary.” Displaced from a life with servants & extravagant parties to a spooky mansion haunted by her depressive, reclusive uncle who can’t stand the sight of her, she’s a child who’s proud of her prickly, don’t-even-fucking-look-at-me exterior. The magic of the film is subtle, represented mostly in her environment’s transformation from a dark, moody estate with possible ghosts lurking in the shadows to a sunshiny, springtime garden that she collaborates on restoring with the fellow lonely children she meets in & around the surrounding moors. Watching her guarded personality bloom into openness & empathy along with time-elapsed photography of the blooming, lush garden as she makes her first genuine friends is beautifully, genuinely magical, something the film is confident in highlighting without much in the way of special effects – computerized or otherwise.

The 1995 adaptation of A Little Princess—directed by Alfonso Cuarón and shot by Emmanuel Lubezki—admittedly does indulge in some shockingly cheap, overstepping CGI, but it at least sequesters those images within its story-time fantasy sequences. The set-up of the story is much the same as The Secret Garden, with a once-wealthy British child being knocked down the ladder of class once she is orphaned, now forced to work as a servant at her boarding school or face a destitute life of homelessness. This is a film I actually remember seeing as a kid; it was Baby’s First Cuarón in fact, something I did not at all connect to my high school-love of Y Tu Mamá También until decades later. It follows a much more traditional, familiar fairy tale premise for a kids’ movie than The Secret Garden, but it still squeezes in some gorgeously artificial illustrations of The Ramayana (told as bedtime stories at the boarding school), with Lubezki doing his best possible precursor to The Fall, give or take some ill-advised mid-90s CGI. Outside those bedtime story fantasies, the real magic of A Little Princess is still fairly subtle & unstrained. Its thesis is that “All girls are princesses”, whether they’re a spoiled boarding school brat or the orphaned peasant who mops the floors and serves them breakfast. I can’t claim that the movie matches or exceeds the heights of Cuarón’s later, more critically lauded works, but that “Everyone’s a princess” sentiment clashes against the horrors of labor exploitation the protagonist stuffers in a way that really left an impression on me as a kid; the Ramayana fantasy sequences only underline the magic of that much more grounded, “realistic” frame story. The only glaring faults of the film is that the Ramayana demons should have been rendered in traditional stop-motion animation and the unavoidable fact that 1993’s The Secret Garden is by far the better film.

Since I haven’t seen the 2020 The Secret Garden and I’m only contrasting these films against its trailers, I can’t make any objective claims about their superiority as works of art. The two major 1990s adaptations of Burnett’s novels did make a lasting impression on the generation who grew up with them, though, whereas the most recent film seems to have been an instantly forgotten blip. In fact, most adaptations of Burnett’s work appear to be routine, disposable, going-though-the-motions children’s media tedium, which makes those two 90s films stand out as an exception to the rule. At the very least, they’re both commendable for the subtle, controlled way they accentuate the magic & the beauty of Burnett’s novels, which is a funny thing to be able to say about two films where children live in fairy tale castles and communicate with animals. It’s apparently very easy to cheapen & deflate that magic if you desperately push it to the forefront instead allowing it to quietly bloom.

-Brandon Ledet

Bloody Birthday (1981)

The lineage of films borrowing from the killer-children British chiller Village of the Damned has echoed thunderously over the last half-century – from the Euro-grindhouse provocation of Who Can Kill a Child? to the corny folk tale of Children of the Corn to the cosmic Christmas horror subversion of The Children and beyond. If 1986’s Bloody Birthday does anything especially novel with this Evil Children subgenre it’s in the way it retrofits Village of the Damned into the post-Halloween slasher format. If you cut the killer children angle out of the film entirely, this picture would be unmistakable as a cheap-o Halloween knockoff. Its designated bookworm Final Girl archetype walks down suburban streets fending off invitations to party & sin with her promiscuous friends, scenes that look like half-remembered recreations of specific Halloween moments. Her doomed-to-die neighbor friend’s dad is even town sheriff, like in the John Carpenter classic, and the final showdown with the film’s pint-sized killers is a harrowing night of babysitting gone awry. Swapping out the looming presence of Michael Myers with a small cult of toe-headed rascals is a pretty substantial deviation from the Halloween slasher template, however, offering the Village of the Damned formula an interesting new subgenre avenue to explore. It’s an unholy marriage of two horror sensibilities that likely shouldn’t mix, and that explosive combination makes for a wickedly fun time.

Unlike in Village of the Damned, there isn’t much explanation provided as to why the murderous tykes of Bloody Birthday are evil. The three unrelated miscreants are born simultaneously in a small town during an absurdly windy solar eclipse, and their wickedness is waved off with Astrological babblings about cosmic alignments. What’s more important than their origin is the Lawful Evil characterization in their costuming & murder tactics. They dress like shrunken-down Reaganite adults and sidestep the traditional slasher weapon of a glistening kitchen knife for more pedestrian tools of chaos: skateboards, baseball bats, shovels, cars, etc. One of the little tykes even hunts down his elders with a stolen handgun – which would be a disappointing weapon in the hands of a Michael Myers but is genuinely horrifying when operated by a child. It’s unexpected details like that gun that keeps Bloody Birthday exciting even if you’re already over-familiar with the slasher genre at large. It’s not interesting enough for teens to make out in a graveyard in this film; they have to make out in a grave. Not only do the children have an unsettling prurient interest in adult sexuality, peering in on sex & private stripteases; they also fire a bow & arrow through their peephole. After two 2019 releases (Ma & Psycho Granny), this is the third film I’ve seen this year where a killer maniacally scrapbooks about their crimes – a very unsettling hobby for a child. This is a deeply ugly, unwholesome glimpse at Reagan Era suburbia, and the kids are not alright, not at all.

That spiritual ugliness also extends to the film’s look & sound. This is a repugnantly colorless affair, dealing almost exclusively in muddied browns & greys. The sound quality of my blind-buy DVD copy left the dialogue outright indecipherable, prompting us to switch to Severin’s digital restoration currently streaming on Shudder (which was only slightly better, but at least audible). Unlike in most first-wave slashers of its era, the murders in the film actually weigh on the community they terrorize, which mostly manifests in teary-eyed funerals, public meltdowns at kids’ birthday parties, and hospitalized psychiatric retreats to aid recovery. It’s a sense of grief & despair that keeps the mood harshly grotesque & rotten, even when the Evil Children’s wicked deeds stray into over-the-top camp. I personally never tire of the killer-children horror genre and had a lot of fun with this film’s peculiar melding of Village of the Damned tradition with Halloween modernism. It’s an ugly watch in both texture & sentiment, though, one that’s bested as a bygone nasty in its genre only by Who Can Kill a Child?. It works wonderfully well as a genre deviation for both the killer-children thriller and the traditional first-wave slasher, and there are plenty of cartoonishly excessive joys to be found in its intergenerational kills. It’s just also a nasty slice of schlock in its own right, though, so be prepared to squirm between your guffaws.

-Brandon Ledet

Island of the Damned

One of the most underappreciated cul-de-sacs in horror cinema is the 1950s & 60s British thriller that turned expansive premises with global implications into bottled-up, dialogue-heavy teleplays. Sci-fi horror classics like Devil Girl from Mars, The Day of the Triffids, and The Earth Dies Screaming executed big ideas on constricted budgets in excitingly ambitious ways, even if they often amounted to back-and-forth philosophical conversations in parlors & pubs. It’s difficult to imagine so, but our current Movie of the Month, the 1976 Euro-grindhouse provocation Who Can Kill a Child? has strong roots in one of the most iconic examples of this buttoned-up British tradition – the 1964 chiller Village of the Damned. What’s most amazing about that influence is that the calmer, more dialogue-heavy example of the pair is somehow just as disturbing as its ultraviolent descendent. Even working under harsh financial restraints & systemic moral censorship in a more conservative time for horror cinema, Village of the Damned holds its own against the free-to-shock grindhouse nasties that followed in its wake.

It’s not that Village of the Damned was the only killer-children horror film that could or would have influenced Who Can Kill a Child?. From the classier Evil Children artifacts like Rosemary’s Baby & The Bad Seed to schlockier contemporaries like It’s Alive! & Kill Baby Kill, it’s remarkably rich thematic territory that’s been mined countless times before & since. Still, there’s something about the way the concept is handled in Village of the Damned that directly correlates to Who Can Kill a Child?, particularly in the two films’ opening acts. They both begin with the eerie quiet of a vacated city where the adults have been neutralized (in Who Can Kill a Child? because they were massacred, in Village of the Damned because they were gassed by alien invaders). Both films dwell on the mystery of those vacant rural-village settings for as long as possible before revealing that their central antagonists will be murderous children. Those children may have different respective supernatural abilities (the ones of Who Can Kill a Child? are unusually athletic & muscular while the toe-headed cherubs of Village of the Damned are hyper-inteligent), but they share a common penchant for telepathic communication that leaves their adult victims out of the loop. Most importantly, Village of the Damned concludes with its main protagonist (veteran stage actor George Sanders) making the “heroic” decision to kill a classroom full of children to save the planet, which touches on the exact thematic conflict referenced in its unlikely decedent’s title.

There are, of course, plenty of ways that Who Can Kill a Child? mutates & reconfigures the Village of the Damned template instead of merely copying it (lest it suffer the same fate as John Carpenter’s tepid 90s remake). Instead of the killer children being a set number of alien invaders in a small village, they’re instead a growing number of infectious revolutionaries who can recruit more tykes into their adult-massacring cause – making their eventual escape from their island home a global threat. Since the sensibilities of the horror genre in general has changed drastically between the two films – from teleplays to gore fests – Who Can Kill a Child? also translates the earlier film’s “The Birds except with Children” gimmick to more of a hyperviolent George Romero scenario. Surprisingly, though, the most pronounced difference between the two works is their respective relationships with the military. In Village of the Damned, the British military is a force for patriotic good against an invading space alien Other – who trigger post-War trauma over entire communities being gassed & destroyed. Who Can Kill a Child? is much, much tougher on military activity, framing its entire children’s-revenge-on-adults scenario as retribution for the way it’s always children who suffer most for adults’ war crimes. That makes this gory Spanish mutation of the buttoned-up British original the exact right kind of cinematic descendent – the kind that’s in active conversation with its predecessors instead of merely copying them.

Who Can Kill a Child? is less restrained than Village of the Damned in terms of its politics & its violence, but both films are on equal footing in terms of bone-deep chills—which speaks to the power of the teleplay-style writing & acting of 1960s British horror. Village of the Damned is nowhere near the flashiest nor the most audacious entry in the Evil Children subgenre, but it is an incredibly effective one that plays just as hauntingly today as it did a half century ago. It’s like being locked in a deep freezer for 77minutes of pure panic, so it makes sense that it’d have a wide-reaching influence on films that don’t either share its sense of restraint nor its politics.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, the 1976 Euro-grindhouse provocation Who Can Kill a Child? , check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

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