Horror’s Summer of ‘79; “Swimming Upstream: A Personal Horror Journey” (PART 3)
*Editor’s Note: B Harrison Smith is well known to horror fans as the writer/director of The Fields, Death House, and Camp Dread. He also directed The Special, released in 2020.
What was your first “R” movie in a theater? Home video (in any of its forms) doesn’t count. Getting into your first “R-Rated” film in a movie theater is a coming of age experience.
It’s a small moment.
My previous piece detailed the kiddie, “Horror-Lite” love of Abbott and Costello and Mad Monster Party, but any horror-lover knows, you gotta make your bones with the genre and the theatrical venue is the best way of doing it.
The Summer of 1979 had a number of films on my “Must Watch” list: Prophecy, The Amityville Horror, Alien and Dawn of the Dead. The only thing standing in my way was being 12 and that damned letter “R” on the movie posters for all of them save Prophecy.
I devoured Fangoria magazine and to a lesser extent its sister publication, Starlog. Fangoria had the horror content and Starlog focused more toward the sci-fi side but often they would overlap.
I ran into our local mall’s Waldenbooks to grab the new issue of Fangoria sporting a cover and center story to Prophecy, the environmental monster movie (NOT the series of warlock movies with Christopher Walken that would come years later).
Monster movie. That’s all I needed to hear. Its poster glared back at me in glorious double-paged insert color spread from my parents’ Rolling Stone magazine.
Some kind of mutated animal. It was female and she was pissed. Man defiled her world and it was payback time, bitches. I knew I had to see it and I got my friends in the neighborhood all worked up with hype. Back then there was no Internet and DVD extras to bring you every spoiling piece of minutia as well as “trailer reviews” to analyze with their picking fly shit out of pepper “analyses.” No advanced “spoilers.” No under-sexed dorks hating on something in advance with snarky commentary or embarrassing “fan reaction” videos.
You had a poster and a TV commercial trailer. If you went to the movies, you got a trailer there, too and that was about it. Hard to believe a world like this existed.
Often “coming soon” trailers were terrible. I have stated my opinion on “trailer reviews” in interviews. They are the equivalent of standing in the doorway of a restaurant, taking three sniffs and proclaiming “This place sucks!”
If film performance was based on the quality of trailers, Star Wars and Jaws should’ve bombed and Weekend At Bernie’s would have eclipsed Ghostbusters at the box office.
The movie opened at our mall and that alone was a bitch to get to. We lived five miles from uptown, out in the woods, not the ‘burbs. Our small, 20-something home development was surrounded by hills, woods, creeks and ponds.
If we weren’t biking into town (we are on the eve of the arcade video game explosion) we were tubing down “Cow Creek,”,fishing, sitting on my friend’s back porch listening to Cheap Trick, hiking, biking and getting lost in the woods or building this awesome giant square box that became our club house.
This was one year before The Reagan 80s. My parents grew a dozen pot plants in the back yard garden. I had no idea what they were until seventh grade health class filled me in by showing us pictures, worksheets and filmstrips on the Devil’s Weed (something a friend years later would call it).
Stick with me here, because you’re gonna think I veered off the horror track, but I didn’t. You’ll see. I’ll be quick.
One of our middle school gym teachers, saddled with teaching “health,” once held up a Doobie Brothers album which had a lit joint in its center when you opened it. He made it clear this kind of stuff–this kind of music was one of the many chariots that would take our middle school asses straight to hell.
You can imagine my reaction one morning when I found twelve little plants that sported leaves that looked a hell of a lot like the pictures we saw in health class. I confronted my mom and dad at the dinner table that night and asked right out if what was out in that garden was indeed pot.
Without hesitation, my mom replied, “Yes.” She always had a cigarette in hand, and waited for my next question. Instead I burst into tears and like roiling maggots erupting from the sliced belly of some demon. Everything we learned in health class pushed out in one long verbal vomit. “Oh my God, you’re drug addicts! You’re gonna do heroin! Do you do cocaine? We can go to jail!”
If I could, I would go back in time and kick my own ass.
She sat there the whole time with a “are you done?” look. When I was reduced to whimpers she spoke. Did I ever go hungry? Have I ever seen either of them drunk during the school week? Were they good parents, involved in my life, help with homework, provide good food, a clean home, the list went on. I didn’t disagree with a single thing. “We don’t sell it. Every once in awhile we like to have joint to relax after working hard. No different than some of your friends’ parents who have a few drinks after work.”
My hysteria subsided and before I could let it go, I had to do this. A local cop lived across the street. What would stop me from walking over and telling him what was growing in our back yard.
My mother accepted the question. She looked at my dad, then got up, walked across the kitchen to a cupboard. She opened it, pulled a little bag of weed from a Russell Stover tin and brought it back, tossing it to me on the table. “When you go over, be sure to give that to him.”
I wanted to scream, “Noooooo!” THEY got my parents AND the cop next door. It was Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Invaders From Mars mashed together at the dinner table. If Veronica Cartwright is reading this, I got you more than you know at the end of Body Snatchers.
Told you I would bring it back around.
My mom worked and was not a kid Uber service. Asking her for a ride to the mall could be walking dangerous ground. Sometimes a friend’s mom did it or we just grabbed the bikes and went on our own or walked. Five miles one way, no snow. We had to bike along a busy stretch of highway and it was amazing none of us ever got clipped by the tractor trailers flying down it.
Music Makers Theaters was in the mall, decorated in this garish red, white and blue. We got our summer matinee ticket for a whopping $2.50 and hit the candy stand. Popcorn, candy and these quart-sized soda containers that folded like milk cartons at the top and sealed with a plastic clip.
I told my friends how Prophecy was going to kick ass. It was a mutant bear. Talia Shire, Adrienne from Rocky was in it. It was gonna be bloody and disgusting. I had everyone pumped.
The black box theater was cold, so that soda was gonna go right through you; so either drink it slow or pass it around, but you always had to piss right at the good part and I didn’t want to miss a moment of this movie.
Five kids in the dark matinee theater waiting to be scared. The film opened strong—rescue workers following their search dogs over a cliff into the claws of the mutant monster bear. Then we got our bathroom moment—Talia Shire and Robert Foxworth heading to the Maine woods to look into some Native American local war with a lumber company.
We got a lot of environmental preaching and in hindsight it seems like Shire cried through the whole movie. It was also a lesson on how Manifest Destiny really meant “stick it to the natives.” We were almost 30 minutes in and still didn’t see the monster.
We got a chainsaw fight, rabid raccoon, a giant salmon and tadpole and a family of campers hearing heavy breathing in the woods but it was starting to look like I overhyped this movie to my friends. I got those stares in the movie light. Those “Dude, this movie blows,” looks. Then the sleeping bag scene arrived and all was forgiven. From there on the movie became a fun, cheesy monster movie ride and never let up. We laughed out loud and hard with that sleeping bag scene. The still I provide below can’t convey the unintentional hilarity of the scene.
This pair of mutant baby bear cubs appear and the whole ending was on a soundstage, and it shows and I loved it–so much, I knew I would be back to see it again. My friends, not so much, but they laughed like hell when the helicopter pilot got his head crunched off like that owl finished that Tootsie Pop in those commercials. “Ah one! Ah two! A three!” CRUNCH!
That monster was the best. The movie was meant to be a serious discourse on environmental abuse and Mother Nature striking back. Instead, the story goes legendary director John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate) was half in the bag onset and David (The Omen) Seltzer’s script was mangled as a result. Whatever the case, we got one enjoyable monster movie. I have also read the rating was to be “R” and a sizeable amount of gore and violence was cut from the final film in the fear of losing the “kids off of school” audience.
When this came to HBO about a year later I watched almost every showing and enjoyed each time as much as my two theatrical screenings. Prophecy was summer monster movie fun at its best and capped off the adventure getting to the mall to see it.
Cheese was always a great horror snack and this leads me to my first “R” theatrical movie, The Amityville Horror. It played at our downtown double screen old movie house, The Sherman and my mom drove us to this one because we weren’t sure we could get in. She parked across Main Street and waited, smoking in the car to see if the kids would get in. She refused to be complicit in our lies.
I admit it, as a kid, when I read the best-selling “true story” in fifth grade; I was convinced it was all real. The summer of the film’s release the real George and Kathy Lutz went on the talk show circuit with a Merv Griffin appearance standing out to me. The nation bought into the bullshit and naturally Hollywood moved to turn it into its own bullshit story. The Amityville Horror is the Mt. Everest of haunted house bullshit stories.
When I saw the film I still bought into it—enough to make the entire haunting my eighth grade research project where I lobbied our middle school to allow a field trip to Long Island to see the actual house. Much like the events of the book and movie, it didn’t happen.
I did an entire Cynema podcast on the Amityville films you can access here and the cynicism behind them for exploiting the only real horror out of the entire story: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/ep-37-amityville-horrible/id1472545207
I am not writing a review, so if you care as to what I really think, have a listen. Otherwise, read on…
We approached the box office and I was the leader who was going to ask for the tickets. The lady inside was smoking and chewing gum. She smiled, asked how many. I told her four. She nodded, told us the price and slid the tickets under the glass. That was it. Sonofabitch.
No alarms went off. No cops came. She took our money and gave us the tickets as if we were going to see some Disney movie. There had to be a catch. We’d walk in and some manager would come chasing yelling “Excuse me! You kids! Hey!”
We sat down in a packed house. Somehow we managed to gets seats together and aside from Lalo Schiffrin’s creepy theme (I keep seeing the unconfirmed rumor Schiffrin’s Amityville theme was the rejected score of The Exorcist)we got a few jump scares, a terribly bad opening showing the murders of the unfortunate DeFeo family who have to endure so much shit every time one of these lousy movies is released.
We did get really shitty special effects and…a puking nun! That’s right. That nun pulled her car over and Ralphed into the street and we laughed like hell. I am sure a few people around us thought we were punk kids and how did we get in, but we weren’t the only ones laughing.
I remember getting home that night to find Jeffrey Lyons on WPIX 11 ripping the movie apart on the late night New York City news. Listening to Lyons mock the film’s terrible effects, over-the-top cheesy acting, especially from Rod Steiger, I felt like I wasted my “R” rated virginity on a really bad choice.
I promised The Amityville Horror I would call, but I never did.
Alien was THE horror movie of that summer. My aunt and uncle saw it, and they told my mother with dire faces, “Oh no way should the kids see it!” They went on to describe scenes of how the thing changes shape and none of it made much sense to me. What did come across is that they were disturbed by the film.
The TV ads were haunting. What we now know was the warning beacon played over quick cuts of scenes from the film. You saw a black alien hand with gnarly fingers, strobe lights and all of that, but they never showed the alien itself.
The poster was odd…all green with this egg and some kind of nastiness coming out of it. The previews were scary but the word of mouth on the film was what hooked me. The way I heard people describe the alien almost always ended with, “Well you can’t really describe it –you just gotta SEE it!”
Fuck yeah…I went to my mom. I begged. I pleaded. I made house chores deals. There would be no way we would get into this film without her. They would never let us in. She admitted she was curious to see it and relented. Me, my younger brother and few other friends in the development packed up into our 1968 Cadillac and drove to a small single screen theater in Mt. Pocono.
The lady at this box office actually gave some shit. She looked at us kids, then my mom and said something like, “You know this is a horror movie, right? It’s not Star Wars.” My mom said she knew, paid for the tickets and we got inside to another packed house. We sat maybe five rows back from the screen, so it was going to be all up in our business.
You knew you were watching something cool just in the quiet opening of the film. It starts in silence and the sets, the lighting—it changed cinema forever. Alien allowed theatrical audiences to watch the mold broken right before them as the film played out.
I was scared enough when Kane got the face hugger leaping from the egg in the derelict ship. However, when he gave birth…I was scared shitless. No CGI, no computers—just practical effects and puppetry magic. I was repulsed and yet wanting more at the same time.
My mom bit off more than she could chew. The film was scaring her, and she didn’t like being scared. This was zero fun for her and she let these asshole kids sitting next her, munching on popcorn, talk her into it.
We were all so scared there was no time to wonder, “How did they do that?” You just strapped in and went with it. The breaking point for me was Tom Skerrit’s Captain Dallas going into the air shafts to drive the alien into an air lock and blow it out into space. The moments leading up to the reveal were nail biting. I didn’t eat, I remember that. I knew something was coming and I didn’t want to choke on my popcorn.
Veronica Cartwright (the last I saw her was screaming at Donald Sutherland in San Francisco) watches the alien heading for Dallas on a scanner, urges him to run. He does, drops down a ladder, turns and we got this—
That fucking thing lunged into the camera and I gave in to fight or flight response. My body leapt up from the chair and ran past my mom for the aisle. Not so fast, though. My mom grabbed the back of my shirt and dragged me back to her and into our row. It must’ve made a great silhouette for everyone behind us.
“Oh no!” she growled. “Sit down! You made me come to this, you’re gonna sit through it!” I plopped back down in my seat, embarrassed as reality hit that I just ran like a sissy in front of my friends. My mom gave me the slap down in front of all of them.
Look, you know you’re scared when you’re a horny 12-year-old boy and Sigourney Weaver strips down to almost nothing at the end of the film and the only thing that concerns you is “where’s the fucking alien? It’s gotta be there!”
Alien changed everything for me. The following spring I got two books: The Illustrated Alien by Heavy Metal and Avon Books Alien Movie Novel. The “Photo or Movie Novel” was a thing for a hot second in the early 80s. It was just a series of stills from the film in chronological order with some of the script dialogue thrown in. You got them for the pictures.
I enthralled my classmates with the gratuitous stills of the “chest burster” and the various alien attacks in gory, bloody color. Once I had a chance to breathe and recover from the theatrical experience, I wanted to know, from a filmmaking point of view: “Just how did they do that?” It went beyond the special effects, it was the LOOK of the film and books were starting to catch on to readers wanting this kind of stuff thanks to Star Wars and the marketing power it tapped into. I grabbed a copy of The Book of Alien which showed story boards, concept art and at the time I didn’t know, but elements not used in the first film that would make their way into the subsequent ones. Who knew Alien would spawn a franchise?
I still have all three books. They allowed me to enter the gateway into the world of set and art design, storyboarding and the importance of vision to a film. From there it introduced me to Carlo Rombaldi and his work in mechanical effects, HR Giger, and more. I researched and learned and studied their long creative histories. Suddenly their names meant more in reading Fangoria and filmmaking books…the dots were connecting.
We got Dawn of the Dead later than most places. It played at The Sherman and I was terrified to see it. The story was it was so gross and disgusting it got an original “X” rating and George Romero made cuts to bring it down to an “R” to ensure the film got decent distribution and no doubt fiduciary responsibility to his investors.
Aside from the original Night of the Living Dead that I watched late night with Nanny years before, it was 1977’s Shockwaves that scared the shit out of me with its Nazi zombies and Peter Cushing. The CBS Late Night Movie would run it frequently and I watched it every time I could catch it. The bizarre synth music, the unique look of the Aryan zombies…almost no blood…all suspense, it was more unsettling than Night of the Living Dead in some ways.
Romero’s Dawn played more to the fears that terrified me in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Due to a virus, whatever, people were being changed. In this film, like its predecessor, into flesh-eating zombies.
Once again, we walked right into the theater, unstopped by the “R” rating. We were no longer “R” virgins for sure. In fact, I was never carded again after The Amityville Horror. The following year I would get into The Shining and Caddyshack and I never looked back.
Romero scared me and it was after seeing this film that I coupled him with John Carpenter—these independent filmmaking “guerillas” that were making the studios take notice much like Spielberg in his post-Jaws work.
While I was only twelve, I got what Romero was going for with his societal comments. I found the zombies trying to walk up the down escalator very funny as they stumbled and fell to the terrible mall music echoing about them. I put hands over my eyes as they ripped Tom Savini’s biker apart and jolted when the elevator scene allowed zombies to come rushing at us.
I now had the power of subscription magazine and Fangoria was connecting more and more dots. Carpenter, Hill, Romero, Hennenlotter, Cohen, Ormsby…this was a whole underworld. These were people that knew each other and were working against the system. The best horror seemed to be coming from people like this; using the same crews, a lot of the same cast…I was intrigued and wanted to know more and more.
I read how Romero got his start in Pittsburgh, the cameras and film he used, how he got actors to work for free or fried chicken. He was out there doing it and he was making great stuff…stuff that was far better than the studios in many ways. In fact, it looked like the studios were caught off guard and trying to keep up with these filmmakers.
The summer of 1979 turned to fall and I returned to school and felt the summer had enlightened me. I read an end of the summer edition of Rolling Stone where this relatively new best-selling horror author, Stephen King, wrote a piece on the horror offerings for the summer and what he felt were the best.
Aside from Dawn of the Dead and Alien taking his top honors, I was delighted to find that King awarded Prophecy an official “booby prize.” It was a bad movie, he conceded, but damn if he didn’t love that hokey monster and movie. I felt good I was on the same wavelength with that guy.
I was picking up more of King’s books, having devoured Carrie¸ I wore out his short story collection, Night Shift, and was readying to read Salem’s Lot as my mother recommended it. The word was it was coming to TV in an unprecedented horror mini-series.
I started school in the fall of 1979 loaded up with new horror reading, exposed to a world of independent horror filmmaking, and was heading toward the teen years with Salem’s Lot as a network series and the word that The Shining was soon to be a major motion picture.
Horror was growing with me and it was no longer a security blanket…it was becoming a powerful tool. Late-night HBO was going to add to my arsenal.