Continuing our countdown of child-ruining moments from last week…
Number 5 – Cats Are the Most Terrifying Thing On Earth (An American Tale)
‘An American Tale’, probably better known as ‘Fievel’ after its main character is essentially a story about the experience of Russian (I think) Jews following the Bolshevik revolution and their subsequent immigration to America. Only they’re mice. Which isn’t the only time that allegory was explored.
Following the cartoon animal chart, if you’re going to have Jewish people and their persecution being played out with mice, the persecutors would naturally be portrayed as cats. Demonic nightmare cats with utterly amazing mustaches and epic hats.
There are two scenes where this really comes into play, but the character designs are the typical Don Bluth ‘weirdly deformed while looking kind of weird’ thing throughout, even when we meet the good-aligned cat, Tiger, and the mice and other animals are also weird.
However, the scenes in question reeeeally turn up the terror in the models… and from the perspective of a grown-up, I can see why. As a child, I could only see the darkening of my pants from terror-pee, however.
The first scene is a dramatization of the Bolshevik revolution wherein rampaging cats storm through a mouse neighborhood, killing, devouring and burning everything. The cats are drawn extra-demonic and lit by flames and the fact that they’re wearing Bolshevik hats puts them just that much further into the Uncanny Valley. That they’re big enough to literally smash open homes and we’re treated to POV shots from the mouse perspective makes them all the more horrifying.
And now, as an adult, I get it. This is how the actual events in history looks and felt and how truly horrifying they were.
However, I was like seven at the time and only vaguely aware there were other races than ‘black’ and ‘white’ or other religions beyond ‘church’ and ‘those guys with the fancy churches’. I had no idea what this history was or what the allegory was about and it was just ball-to-the-wall horror in a movie advertised as a movie about a loving mouse family in New York in the late 19th century.
This is one of those movies where I wonder if the first draft wasn’t actually fully for adults and the lost child angle only evolved as a way to make it for kids. It’s a film that can really be appreciated far, far more once you know the history.
Then there’s the Giant Mouse of Minsk, essentially a rotoscoped giant robot formed in the shape of a mouse the mice construct to scare the cats away. It looks… well like a dragon and a demon mated with a seven foot tall mouse made out of a scrapyard. It does indeed scare the cats…. and everyone else.
Edit: They were Cossack cats, not Bolsheviks.
Number 4 – Clayface’s Origins (Batman: The Animated Series)
Much like Gargyoles, Batman: TAS had an undercurrent of gothic sensibility and a frightening hero. I could have filled up half the list with things from that show: the time robots took everyone over and did their best The Thing impression, Poison Ivy turning people into trees, Poison Ivy trying to make a family out of human-form plant monsters, the Joker stalking a guy for years for cutting him off in traffic, the original Man-Bat, Kurt Langstrom accidentally turning his wife into the second, the many, many Scarecrow gas hallucinations… the list goes on.
But I pared it down to two in the interest of variety: one that creeped me out so bad that I did not watch that episode again for ten years, and another that stunned me so much as a kid I remember the moment vividly to this day even though I can’t fully recall the set-up.
Let’s talk about the former: an episode called Feet of Clay.
In it, we meet Matt Hagan, an actor who was deformed in an accident (and his character model is suitably unsettling) who gets in with general corporate scum bag, Roland Dagget, who provides him a cosmetic goo that makes his face plastic enough to reshape it—provided Hagan also uses it to further Dagget’s plans.
As is to be expected, Hagan isn’t a fan of this and eventually decides to just go and steal enough of that suff so he can run off and be free. It doesn’t turn out well, as Dagget’s goons catch him… and poor the crap down his throat as he struggles and pleads that it isn’t meant to be taken internally.
They leave him in his car was we, the audience, get to watch his hand melt. Cut to later when hagan wakes up, looks in the side mirror and discovers that he has become a hideous ooze. He roars in shock, parts of his mouth sticking together in fleshy, horrible strands.
This was, for me, the crowning moment of body horror and something I was so not okay with it’s not funny. The next time this aired, I learned the title card and then avoided it from that moment forward. I would switch over and watch the news or Oprah to avoid this episode. From its original airing around 1994 to when I purchased the complete first volume of Batman: TAS, I did not watch this thing and even then, at 23 years old, I considered skipping it the thing left such an impression on me.
By contrast, there’s another moment that seems to have freaked me out so hard I lost my memory of everything surrounding it:
Number 3 – The Censors Made Batgirl’s ‘Death’ Worse (Batman: The Animated Series)
Like a traumatized witness giving testimony, allow me to first tell you what I remember without going back and researching:
Batgirl (the Barbara Gordon version) is scaling a building using her grappling hook. The line breaks and she starts falling. At the same time, we know that anyone who could reasonably be expected to swoop in and catch her is busy with other parts of the plot, so if she’s going to survive, it’s on here.
Meanwhile, Comissioner Gordon (her father) is in his police car waiting to hear from the Bat-family about the case in point. He takes a drink of coffee and…
With an ungodly crash, a huge dent is punched into the roof of his car.
Yes, it’s Batgirl. And no, she didn’t survive.
One of the things about Batman: TAS is that it was one of the few shows of the era to fully develop the relationships among the supporting cast: from Harvey Bullock to Renee Montoya, to yes, Jim Gordon and his daughter. We had seen the bond they shared and a number of wonderful home life moments between them.
And now, Jim Gordon was going to get out of his car and find his daughter’s corpse punched into it.
As a kid who grew up watching Charlie the dog drowning alive twice in one movie, I had none of the assurances that ‘there’s no way this is real’ that children who weren’t subject to a constant battery of trauma in their entertainment might. On top of that, this was the first real brush I had in television with not just the cheap pathos of character death, but emotional and empathetic torque because I was also acutely aware even at 11 or 12, how this was going to utterly destroy Jim.
In ‘reality’, this was all a scarecrow hallucination (remarkably the ONLY scarecrow episode that ever bothered me—and fear is his shtick!) and Barb is fine, but holy shit, the audience didn’t know it at the time. That’s a soul shredder right there. Especially for kids who ended up being too upset to watch the rest of the episode (not me, but I know people who didn’t).
Looking back, I have to say it was an effective bit of drama, but I couldn’t appreciate that as a child.
The real shocker here is that originally, the audience was going to see the impact from the outside, Batgirl’s death concealed by the denting of the car roof. The censors rejected that, but approved the far more intimate moment where Jim Gordon is face-to-face with his daughter’s impact crater.
Thanks for protecting me, guys.
At least that was played for drama as opposed to…
Number 2 – Suicide: the Crowd Pleaser (Show Biz Bugs)
Unlike the other works on this list, I actively hate this one. I viscerally hate this one. I get angry whenever I think about it and that’s exactly how I felt about it when I first saw it as a kid. That feeling hasn’t dissipated with time. It is my single most hated animated work—and that includes all the racist ones, all the war propaganda and all the time Chip and Dale or Jerry the Mouse escaped Justice.
Okay, so there is a running joke in the Loony Tunes cartoons that Daffy Duck is jealous of Bugs and therefore always forced to play second banana. Already, I’m not a fan of the idea because I really like Daffy. But whatever. Whenever the two meet, Bugs wins; no questions asked, no hope of a twist.
Nowhere is this treated more strongly or more horrifyingly than the short Show Biz Bugs.
The story here is about a show the pair are putting on. Despite apparently paying to have Daffy there, the theater bills Daffy in microscopic letters, gives him a toilet for a dressing room and generally disrespects him in favor of Bugs. When the show starts, the audience loves whatever Bugs does while meeting Daffy’s acts with stony silence until Daffy snaps an tries to kill Bugs.
Of course he fails and then he goes one step further. Going before the audience one more time, Daffy swallows a mixture of volatile chemicals before swallowing a match and blowing himself up. This isn’t just a ‘blackened by gunpowder’ explosion either. He dies, and as he ascends to heaven, he admits that he can only do the trick once…
And the damn audience gives this a standing ovation.
A performer killed himself on stage and these people find it hilarious and worthy of kudos. They are applauding because someone died because they were assholes.
Now, as a kid, I wasn’t even partially aware of the seriousness and horrors of suicide. I was, however, terrified by the audience. See, I like Daffy. Always have. So I spent the whole episode sympathizing with him no matter how much of an asshole he acted because, damn it, he actually was being treated unfairly this time. The audience, to me, wasn’t so much not seeing Daffy as funny as they were intentionally holding back their laughter because ‘screw you, duck’.
So when he finally resorts to that last trick, I felt like they purposefully drove him to it, then wallowed in their crime. If you look at it from that perspective, it’s a pretty damn chilling short and while it doesn’t scare me anymore, it still makes me angry in the same way Game of Thrones’ treatment of characters as vessels for destruction and corruption makes me angry… they don’t deserve that and I don’t like whne people get pain and suffering they don’t deserve.
Number 1 – That Poor Shoe (Who Framed Roger Rabbit)
Who Framed Roger Rabbit is an excellent movie. I can say this now without equivocation. In a time where comedy is often cheap and tawdry, this movie was smart, nostalgic and managed to hang a good plot off itself too.
For some god-forsaken reason, they marketed this thing as a family film. Remember last week when I talked about cartoon just sort of becoming ‘for kids’ in the 80’s and the creators not really getting the memo? In this case, it seems that the marketing department just didn’t give a shit that this movie was for adults and teenagers and just said ‘screw it, there’s cartoons, that means it’s good for kids’.
I don’t know anyone who didn’t grow up terrified of the Judge in all his high-pitched screaming, crazy seizure-eyed glory or his brutal demise.
As for me, I didn’t get to that part on my first viewing. Why?
Well, it was one of my very first trips to the movies, I was entranced with the toons and normal people sharing the same world, confused by the plot which is, again, not a plot you normally get in family fare, and then…
If you can’t watch or just didn’t want to, the scene had the Judge order a lackey to dunk a toon shoe, which is whimpering like a puppy into his evil Dip concoction. Whereupon the shoe melts and steams until it is multi-colored gunk dissolving in the Dip.
For some reason, I remember this as the shoe getting turned into a normal, non-toon shoe, but regardless, this is where very-young me began crying inconsolably and I had to be taken out of the theater and placated with Godfather’s pizza.
And why the hell not? Keep in mind that a kid doesn’t see a whole hell of a lot of difference between a character composed of ink and paint and one composed of flesh and blood, so from that viewpoint, there is little to no meaningful difference between that scene and one where a real puppy is dissolved in real acid. The Dip is the stuff of nightmares.
A few years later, we got out first VCR and, possibly having not learned their lesson, my parents rented Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. I hit in the closet during the shoe scene… only to discover toons are threatened with Dip every ten goddamn minutes from that point on.
What diseased freaking mind comes up with this and then tries to sell it to kids!?
Oh, and by the way, speaking of hilariously inappropriate, I got a WFRR? toy in my Happy Meal at some point. You know what character it was? Jessica Rabbit. You know, the busty, leggy lounge singer character who is designed purely for sex appeal? It’s a miracle I didn’t hit puberty at age eight.
Much like Feet of Clay, I didn’t rewatch WFRR? For a long-ass time. In fact, it was college before I did and only then because it was on cable. The show scene still kind of pisses me off, both from the ‘they didn’t deserve that’ angle, and because someone decided to show that to me as a child. Someone decided to show a LOT of kids that. And I’m pretty sure we have them to blame for, 30 years later, Saw being a franchise instead of a notation on its creators’ psyche evaluations.
And that’s it for the Top Ten Scarred Forever moments I recall from my childhood. Feel free to share your own in the comments. I’m really interested in this because a lot of you come from different cultures than me and I want to see just how your childhood scarring differs from mine.
I’d also like to take time out to give a few shout-outs. Last week, I was part of the Local Author Extravaganza here in Culpeper, courtesy of the local library. While there, I met and heard from a number of really awesome authors and I just want to take a moment to just point you guys in the direction of these great folks I ended up hanging out with.
I shared a table with a distinguished gentleman by the name of Chuck Hillig, who writes books on Eastern Philosophy. I learned a lot from him, which is especially helpful considering the set-up I do with the astral plane in The Descendants.
Also, I made fast friends with the Fantasy/Romantic Fantasy writers there (I’ve been referring to us as Nerd Clique); Melissa Lummis, C.G. Powell, and Caryn Moya Block. I also traded books but didn’t get to talk much with Bryen O’Riley and my mother actually spent some time hanging out talking with K.L. Hall.
It was a great event and if your local library has something like this, I highly recommend checking it out because there is some great stuff going on there.