Back in the fifties and sixties it wasn’t uncommon for neighborhood theatres – at least in the South – to run a series of kiddie matinees on Saturday mornings, usually during the early part of summer when school ended. The neighborhood kids would pile into a car and some parent would drop them off at the theatre and come pick them up two hours later, after which you’d go to the pool or play softball or hang out at a friend’s house. Some of my earliest movie memories are from this time. Of course, the ones that really stand out are the ones that weren’t actually for kiddies.
Usually the kiddie show was a Walt Disney feature (The Littlest Outlaw) or a comparable children’s film involving animals (Snowfire) or fairy tale/fantasy films (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) or family-friendly adventures (Tarzan and the Lost Safari) or juvenile comedies (anything starring The Three Stooges or Jerry Lewis). But for some reason in the summer of 1957, we ended up being dropped off for a 10 am screening of Something of Value starring Rock Hudson and Sidney Poitier. Maybe it wasn’t really a kiddie matinee and some parent screwed up and dumped us off anyway. Maybe the theatre manager hadn’t seen it and thought it was a jungle adventure. At any rate, a bunch of kids under the age of eight – I was six at the time – thought they were going to see an African safari film as in – you know – Tarzan. Wrong! Instead, we got a movie based on Robert Ruark’s bestseller about the Mau Mau uprisings in Kenya that began in 1952 (and didn’t end until 1960).
What I remember about the movie are two scenes which must have shocked me to my core because they’ve stayed with me for years. I’m not even sure we stayed to see the whole movie since I do recall one of the neighborhood kids fleeing to the lobby and refusing to return after the first horrific scene. This occurred when the Mau Mau warriors, armed with machetes, descend on the home of an unsuspecting English family in the dark of night. It produced a feeling in the pit of my stomach I hadn’t experienced before at the movies – a mixture of extreme dread and genuine fear. Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolf Man all rolled into one were nothing compared to this!
The other scene I recall was equally upsetting but more ambiguous in its meaning. Mau Mau members and sympathizers were crowded into a makeshift prison camp by the British colonialists and, at one point, one of the prisoners was attacked and seemingly crushed against the wire fence by his own people. Our tiny minds couldn’t process most of this but what we were witnessing was a turncoat prisoner being punished for his betrayal. Living in pre-Civil Rights Memphis in 1957, my white middle-class awareness of African-Americans was extremely limited; one of my few connections was a shy but formidable cleaning woman who would come in once a week to help my mother. After the Something of Value experience, I couldn’t help wondering what was really going on behind that sweet, smiling face. I also began to realize without being able to articulate it at the time the importance of skin color and how it could determine one’s path in life.
After the traumatic experience of seeing Something of Value at a Saturday matinee, the next most memorable experience at a kiddie show was a Western that started with a rape-murder. It was the summer of 1959 and I was visiting my relatives in Dalton, Georgia. While there I saw a Saturday matinee of Last Train From Gun Hill at the Wink Theatre without my parents. It started out innocently enough, a woman and a boy riding in a buggy through the woods. They soon pass some cowpokes getting drunk who greet them but are quickly rebuffed by the woman. Then the two men get on their horses and follow the buggy, catching up to it. They become more insistent in their flirtations with the woman who finally lashes out at one of the men with a riding crop. Then she and the boy take off in the buggy at full speed with the two horsemen in hot pursuit. The buggy turns over, the woman is slightly injured, and the two cowpokes slowly descend on her despite the small boy’s futile attempts to deter them. The woman retreats behind a fallen tree and one of the men follow, tearing her clothes, leaving her bare above the waist (though she covers her breasts). Then the music becomes menacing and the cowboy who was hit with the riding crop closes in on the woman as we hear her horrified screams.
We don’t see what he is doing to her but it must be pretty terrible if they can’t show us. Even when the boy escapes and returns with his father (Kirk Douglas) to the scene of the crime, we don’t ever see the woman in closeup again. But we can tell by the look of shocked disbelief on the face of her husband upon discovering her body, that something horrible beyond belief was done to her. All we see is Douglas lifting up her undressed, lifeless form from the ground and it colored the rest of the movie for me. All I could think about was “What did those men do to her?” This morbid fascination tainted the film which wasn’t a standard shoot-em-up by any stretch of the imagination. It was a revenge drama and definitely not for children but they didn’t have a rating system then and I suppose most theatre exhibitors assumed any Western was fine for children to attend.
I already knew better than to ask my parents about what I’d seen. It would raise all sorts of concerns about my future movie-going. Like most everyone else at the time my parents rarely read film reviews and assumed that a Western entitled Last Train from Gun Hill was harmless enough. So I kept the disturbing scene in my head trying to sort it out on my own. I certainly didn’t want my filmgoing to be monitored, regardless of how inappropriate the movie might be to an eight-year-old.
While both Something of Value and Last Train From Gun Hill were upsetting to me, they paled in comparison to the film I saw the next summer at the Wink Theatre again in Dalton, this time accompanied by my older brother. It was Circus of Horrors (1960) and the sleazy, sordid atmosphere of the film seemed to permeate everything in the theatre. The story of a plastic surgeon (Anton Diffring) on the run after a botched operation, the movie follows the doctor to a traveling circus which he eventually inherits turning a previously disfigured girl into one of its stars. In fact, female disfigurement is one of the movie’s recurring motifs with numerous closeups of hideously distorted faces (the opening sequence for one is truly nightmarish) and occasionally risque shots of the disfigured women in various states of undress. Then there are the murders.
Female circus stars who get too uppity or make demands on the good doctor are dispatched in various grisly ways in the middle of their act. One gets a knife in the neck, one is mauled by a tiger, one falls from the trapeze and their bloodied bodies, served up in garish Specta-color, are always arranged to look like some grisly still-life tableau as in a chamber of horrors wax museum display. Whenever I would try to avoid the most horrific moments by looking away my timing was always lousy and I looked back just in time to see a new atrocity. The whole experience made me queasy and the haunting theme song, “Look for a Star,” performed by Gary Mills, brought the nightmarish images back each time I heard it (the song became a brief top 40 hit here and in England).
Circus of Horrors also disturbed my brother too but he was old enough to laugh it off as junk and would occasionally tease me by creeping up behind and humming “Look for a Star” with this spooky look on his face. This film left its mark on me but of course I had to see more: Horrors of the Black Museum (1959) was another of the early “British nasties” which were condemned by British censors along with Peeping Tom and Circus of Horrors. The movie, directed by Arthur Crabtree (Fiend Without a Face) and starring Michael Gough as a homicidal crime writer, opens with a woman receiving a gift of binoculars from a secret admirer. When she looks through them while adjusting the focus, two sharp spikes are triggered and piece her eyes as she collapses in bloody agony. It is a truly shocking sequence but more gruesome deaths would follow. The fact that it was paired on a double bill with The Headless Ghost (1959), an innocuous horror comedy about teenagers in a haunted house, seemed like a sick joke on the audience by the distributor.
It’s amazing to me now that these films were shown without restriction to children in the U.S. where you could easily see them at a Saturday matinee. Yet I don’t think the films did any damage to my psyche other than make me want to see films for adults instead of children, especially horror films. Sometimes an obsession begins by accident at an early age.
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