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20 October, 2007

Childhood Terrors, Recaptured

We all have them, one or two movies buried deep in our subconscious that truly affected us when we were young. For those of us who were children of the B-Monsters and Hammer Horrors of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, with Castle and Corman as our God-parents, and raised by Forry Ackerman and William C. Gaines, those subconscious memories are most likely to take the form of nightmare, as the movies we found so effective, and affecting, were undoubtedly Horror Films.

There was no shortage of such films in my life. From the first Horror Film I can remember watching, William Castle’s 13 GHOSTS, to the most frighteningly effective Horror Film ever, Spielberg’s JAWS, my memories of childhood are colored by the movies that were such an important part of that childhood. Several years ago, when I seriously began collecting Horror Films, I began a quest to recapture some of those memories, by tracking down the movies that had so great an effect on my youthful subconscious so many years ago.

Most, like JAWS or 13 GHOSTS, were easy acquisitions, no more difficult than a trip to the local Wal-Mart or BestBuy. Others, such as CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, or THE DEADLY MANTIS, had to be collected from late-night showings on Turner Classic Movies or AMC, or tracked down in the stacks of old VHS tapes hiding in the rear of mom-&-pop video stores.

But there were some, long out-of-print, never that popular to begin with, that resisted every endeavor to track down. Movies that, for all my efforts to locate, were as lost to me as LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT. Two movies in particular were my Holy Grail and my White Whale: THE MONOLITH MONSTERS (1957), and THE NAVY vs. THE NIGHT MONSTERS (1966).

Granted, there was nothing special about either film. Both were decent B-pictures, though THE MONOLITH MONSTERS was especially well done. Both had casts composed of B- and C-listers; people that, today, would be on the reality show circuit, the equivalent of Paris Hilton or Kevin Federline. And both were seared deeply into my brain so long ago that I wasn’t even certain of the title of one when I began searching for them.

THE MONOLITH MONSTERS was a typical, late-‘50’s Sci-Fi/Horror from Universal-International, with a standard it-came-from-outer-space type plot, average cast, and corny, formulaic dialogue. What redeems it, and made it so memorable to me as a child, was the Monolith Monsters themselves.

Looking like chunks of black obsidian, they were the remains of a meteor that had fallen in the California desert. When exposed to fresh water they grew and multiplied, drawing the moisture from anything they came in contact with… soil, wood, even people. Following a sudden downpour, they grew to such size, in such large numbers, that they threatened to destroy a small town in their path.

While the premise was admittedly weak, the effects were very well done, and the photography was beautifully sharp and clear. Though the acting could’ve been better, it was good enough, and it all combined to produce a terrific movie… at least, in the eyes of a juvenile Unimonster. So much so that I was never able to get the movie out of my head.

THE NAVY vs. THE NIGHT MONSTERS, on the other hand, was anything but well done. The story is simple: A scientific expedition to Antarctica finds an area heated by geothermal activity, an area with strange vegetation growing. They take samples of it, load them onto a plane, and head back to the States. As they near a small island outpost of the U.S. Navy that serves as a refueling station, the vegetation comes to life, attacking and killing everyone aboard save the pilot. The plane crash-lands, the specimens are recovered, and a scientist on the base decides to plant the trees to keep them healthy until they can be shipped on. Needless to say, BIG mistake.

While it’s primarily remembered today (when it is remembered…) as a vehicle for Howard Hughes’ former playmate Mamie Van Doren, (who boasted some mighty impressive “monsters” of her own…) the true stars of the film are the seven foot tall, omnivorous walking trees that quickly lay siege to the outpost.

Though the “Night Monsters” are some of the hokiest looking creatures this side of an Ed Wood double-feature, when I saw this at the Drive-In (Thanks Sis!) at a very tender age, it stuck fast in my mind, one image in particular: A sailor stumbling from the jungle after one of the creatures had just torn his arm off. While I have no idea how old I was when I saw that, I can say I was probably younger than I should’ve been. That was almost certainly the first time a movie gave me nightmares.

Both of these films stayed buried in my subconscious for years, and while I would occasionally catch THE MONOLITH MONSTERS on television when I was growing up, the other was remembered only as bits and pieces of a movie, without even a title to attach to it.

Following my divorce in 1999, I needed something to occupy my mind, some kind of hobby to keep me busy. As I had always loved Horror Films, it seemed very natural to start collecting them. As it turned out, it became much more than that, even giving me an outlet for my writing, first at Horror-Web.com, and Creaturescape.com, and now at www.countgore.com and this blog.

But now that I was seriously collecting, the movies that I wanted the most were the ones that affected me the most. The movies that I grew up with, that helped form my love of the genre. As I’ve already mentioned, most were easy additions… the Universal Horrors, Romero’s Zombie films, the Hammer films—all were quickly added to my collection. But those memories buried deep still nagged at me, reminding me that there were yet movies to be found.

The growth in popularity of the DVD helped immeasurably in my quest to collect. With the low-cost of manufacture compared to Videotapes, it opened up the world of Public Domain films to the monster-loving fans, and movies that had been virtually unseen for decades began to show up in every local Drug store and Supermarket. Still, though I found many great movies, my search for the two elusive prizes of my childhood memories came up empty. At least now, thanks to friends in the various Yahoo groups devoted to Horror movies, I had a title for which to hunt.

Finally, last year I found someone who was selling a copy of THE MONOLITH MONSTERS on Ebay. It was a DVD-R, but by this point I was past caring about trivial things like 50-year old copyrights. I gladly ponied up the meager sum he was asking for this gem, and within a few weeks, I had the first part of my quest completed. Though I expected to be disappointed when I watched it, I was quite pleasantly shocked… it more than lived up to my memories, and quickly became one of my favorite movies.

And just a few days ago, a package arrived from a friend of mine. Inside were many goodies, including a box of King Kong valentines that I can’t decide whether to keep sealed for what value they may have in the future, or rip into to get the collector poster. It’s currently sitting on my shelf awaiting a decision.

But inside this box was, not one, but two copies of my Holy Grail, my El Dorado. THE NAVY vs. THE NIGHT MONSTERS.

One was a tape of the Chicago Horror-host Svengoolie that featured the film, complete with sound effects and commentary. The other was, once again, a DVD-R, and, once again, I felt not the least concern as I popped it into my player.

While I would be lying if I said that it was as effective as I recall, the memories that came flooding back more than made up for any deficiencies in the movie. For a brief time, I was that young boy again, just learning that the movies could scare the hell out of you, and quite frankly, getting hooked on the feeling. It’s an addiction I still suffer from, gladly. I hope I always do.

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