Singularity | Commentary

Chani and Me. And You. by Howard Waldrop

People raised up after the video revolution have absolutely no idea what it used to be like.

I’m talking about the days when to see a movie you’d missed, or an old one you wanted to see, you had to wait for it to show up at a film series, or on broadcast TV, at the whim of some committee or programmer.

There was a fair chance of seeing classics at some college or other; with lower-end fare, it was mostly TV, usually at some godforsaken hour of the night when you should be asleep, or in the morning, when you had other things to do, like go to school or make a living.

The TV schedule owned you; timeshifting was not even a thought yet. You watched things in real-time, when they were shown. Nod or blink and you miss stuff: if you snooze, you lose. No rewind. No slo-mo to see the neat special effects, or Fay Wray’s left one in King Kong. You. A black-and-white TV. And a movie, filled with the jarring discontinuity of interspersed commercials.

Even repertory cinema theaters — the movie fan’s stopgap measure before the video revolution — was an idea so far-out only New York City had them. And the thought, the very thought, that you could personally, in your lifetime, own a copy of Citizen Kane, for ten bucks, would cause death-ecstasy by heart attack in every film school grad at UCLA.

I want to tell you about some movies in those days, what efforts people made to see them, how not only movies but the circumstances of seeing them were pivotal events in our lives, mine and other people’s, and about the power of film. . . .

With my friend Walton “Bud” Simons of Austin, the film was The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956), the Guy Madison-Nassour Bros.-produced, made-in-Mexico, Western dinosaur flick. A bunch of kids were going to the drive-in, driven by someone’s older brother and his girlfriend, to a Dusk-to-Dawn Monsterama. (This was a couple of years after the film was released, when it was relegated to kids’ matinees and third spots on a six-feature bill such as this one.) ’Long ’bout three PM, Bud’s hit with a virus and yarks his brains out for a couple of hours, running a 102° fever.

Is this going to stop Bud from seeing Beast of Hollow Mountain, and the marvels of replacement animation therein contained? Hell no. He’s young, he’s fanatic, he will grow up one day to meet Ray Harryhausen, he’s got clay models of dinosaurs he’s made all over his room: he’s going. His mom knows he’s sick and suggests he might miss the Big Bug and Lizard Flicks. “No, mom,” he says, “I’ve never seen it, I gotta go!” His temp’s up to 103°, he’s shaking like a leaf, and, as Jean Shepard said, the last thing he threw up was a corned-beef sandwich, and that was from last Thursday. . . . Along about sunset he’s limp as a Dali watch, he’s changed clothes three times from the sweating and shaking.

There’s noise in the driveway, yelling, horn-honking, the cream of American youth pulls up, out to have a great time at boogieman drive-in flicks.

Bud, holding onto the porch, walking slowly, pale as a grub-worm, waves and starts out to the car.

And takes another Technicolor Yawn into the petunias.

Hands steady him; his mom and dad to each side. They say, to the carful of kids, those words which will ring down through Bud’s personal biography to the end of time: “Bud can’t go. He’s sick.” And lead him back into the house, while the carful of kids roars off to, no doubt, make fun of Guy Madison’s haircut.

Twenty-three years later, the day it comes out, Bud gets the SuperDuper HiFi Limited Laserdisc version of Beast of Hollow Mountain, and also makes two backup video copies of it.

“Howard,” he says. “I can watch it anytime I want.”

(And if you ever run across a King Zor the Dinosaur battery-powered Marx toy, let me know, and I’ll try to relieve another of Bud’s traumas, too primal to go into here. . . .)

SEEING (sort of):
Take Ken Keller. He had, without knowing it, one of the earliest intellectual property infringement claims. . . .

Ken, who would later grow up to chair the 1976 Worldcon, was, one day (and, I realize suddenly, we’re skirting against the fine line between illness-as-metaphor and dream-as-yearning), like Bud Simons, sick as a dog, at about the same age.

He woke up projectile vomiting, and the day went downhill from there. It was the Hong Kong, or the Asian, or one of its precursors and avatars, flu, the ones that sprang out of the Orient annually, in those days just after we conquered polio. (It seems to me more people’s memories of the fifties should be poodle skirts, tail fins, d.a. haircuts and pools of barf.)

Anyway, Kenny has a raging fever, he can’t go near his Kansas City school without endangering every life there; he’s lying on the couch shaking, going in and out of hallucinations, hearing noises like someone raking their fingernails down a blackboard, run backwards. His mom’s put one of Mr. Creosote’s buckets on the floor in front of him so all he’s got to do is turn his head and let loose. The TV’s on, some game show. Ken goes way away from there, comes back in a second or two to hear his mom tell him she has to go to the drug and grocery store and will be right back, then he goes away from there again. . . .

He opens his eyes. His mom’s still gone.

On the TV a family is being chased by a gorilla in a space helmet.

Ken’s fever rages. Somewhere out in the yard, an elephant trumpets. There’s a shoebill stork looking in the kitchen window. Small things are watching Ken from a closet. Munchkins are singing up on the stairwell.

Ken focuses on the TV.

Now there are dinosaurs, and a spaceship, and now there’s two gorillas in diving helmets talking to each other. There are a zillion bubbles, like on the Lawrence Welk Show, everywhere behind them.

Footsteps come up the walk and into the house and stop in front of Ken. Nobody’s there.

Ken yarks some more. His head clears a little.

On TV, the film goes into negative, there’s Jacob’s Ladders, the gorilla’s playing with a flourescent tube. . . .

Kenny finally goes away from there and sleeps twenty straight hours on the couch. When he wakes the next day, he’s better, but weak, and confused.

When he goes back to school on the third day, he tells all his friends about this sci-fi movie with the gorillas and lightning and bubbles. He wants to know what it is. Nobody’s seen it. He asks kids who were sick the same days he was, whose experiences — minus the movie on TV — were much like his. None of them saw it (although they did hear the elephants, or something just like them). He goes to the other SF nut in school, an aloof sixth grader, and he’s never heard of it, and looks at Ken askance, as he’s 12 and knows everything.

Well, Ken begins to think maybe the movie on TV came from the same place as the Munchkin songs and the footsteps, e.g., his brain on a flu-and-fever diet. Gradually he puts it behind him, and gets on with his kid-business life.

Which, every month, includes Kenny running down to the drugstore and getting his 35¢ fix, i.e., Famous Monsters of Filmland, edited by 4SJ, Dr. Acula, in other words, Forrest J. Ackerman, who Ken knows is a grown-up person who is a science fiction fan and movie-crazy, and who uses puns, and tells what neat stuff is coming soon to a theater near you in the future, and is full of pictures of Lon Chaney’s makeup kit, and King Kong, and ads for old Air Force T-1 pressure suits and Venus Flytraps, and is the greatest magazine on the face of the Earth, ever.

He opens that month’s issue and there, on one of the pages, is:

A gorilla in a diving helmet playing with a flourescent tube, surrounded by bubbles.

Ken can’t believe it. He reels. He collides with everything as he runs home.

“Mom! Mom!” he yells, running into the house. “Mom! Forrest J. Ackerman has stolen my dream!!!”

It took several months, after a flurry of correspondence, to convince Ken Keller that yes, indeed, there was such a movie; yes, it was on your local station that day; no kid, he didn’t steal your nightmares: you saw Robot Monster (1953).

[section break]

Now let’s get personal.

You can never tell what scares some kids, but you can sure as hell tell what scares them all.

You’re at a friend’s house in the late fifties, and Invaders from Mars (also 1953) comes on. Kid wakes up. Saucer lands in his backyard near a sand pit. There’s a noise, weird music with voices of some kind. The ground itself opens up. Aiiee! Kid’s dad, mom, cops swallowed up by a hole in the sand, like a giant doodlebug’s down there. Aiiee! Army guy’s caught, he shoots down there with an M-1 and he’s still pulled down. Bullets don’t stop ’em. Aiiee! More ground opens up, Army guys, guys in fuzzy green suits. A head in a goldfish bowl, with tentacles. Aiiee! There’s an explosion and a recursive dream ending. Aiiee!

There is only one question in the mind of every kid in America after seeing that movie a few blocks from where they live: How do I get home without touching the fucking ground?

[section break]

From Hell It Came (1957).

The Tabanga:

A walking tree stump with a willow-stem flattop; a combination of voodoo and atomic radiation; a native guy brought back after being framed by his wife and the witch-doctor, out for vegetal revenge and for carrying good-looking scientist-babes through swamps.

(The suit, a Paul Blaisdell creation, is also a prop in a movie called The Arsonist [1958] set on a movie lot.)

As Charles Beaumont said, reviewing From Hell It Came: to hell with it.

That’s not the important thing. The important thing is: Trees come alive and grab you. Aiiee! (Reinforced by the trees in the reissued-at-the-same-time Wizard of Oz, who act like dim Ents, and give new meaning to the phrase “if you don’t want my apples, don’t shake my tree.”)

Sometimes moviemakers don’t know what they’re doing when they make a movie.

Sometimes they do.

In 1955, we lived in a trailer park (Yes, yes, say it! I’m trailer-trash!) across the street from a drive-in theater. Me and my sister were bundled up in our pajamas, with pillows and blankets, about twice a week, and blasted across busy Hwy 80 in Arlington, TX to the Arlington Drive-In, usually on Carload Nights (all the people you can fit in a car for 50¢).

My favorite place to watch was from up on the ledge behind the backseat of the ’48 Plymouth Sedan, squeezed up against the rear window glass. If the usual Jeff Chandler movie got too boring (not enough shooting), I could look up at the stars. (I once saw the Lubbock Lights — supposedly UFOs, really migrating plover, but that’s another story.)

Then came the intermission. (The 10-Minutes-Til-Showtime countdown reels were actually eighteen minutes long. You could look it up.) Then the Previews of Coming Attractions, my favorites, because they were flicks I’d usually never get to see. . . .

(I can remember the argument my mom and I had a few years before: I’d been scared by the witch in Snow White and wouldn’t watch; next day I went out and bought the comic book The Monster of Frankenstein #23. My mom just did not understand how I couldn’t watch one, and buy the other. Being a kid, I didn’t have time to explain to her the difference between high and low mimetic modes of narrative. . . .)

Anyway, on came the previews (or prevues):

I was so fascinated I couldn’t turn my head away. I lost all volition; I watched, half in fear and half in heaven, like all semioticians say we do.

There was a flying saucer. There was a woman in a leather mini-skirt and tights and a cape, and a leather skull-cap.

There was a robot. Called Chani. It looked like an old Amana refrigerator with a bubblegum-machine head and eggbeater claws on the ends of its arms.

It looked at an outbuilding or something, and a thing like a roman-candle ball shot out of its head, and the shed blew up real good.

Then it looked at a bespectacled old man with a cane . . . and blooie!

There was nothing left but the cracked glasses and a smoking walking-stick on a burnt patch of ground.


The movie was called Devil Girl from Mars.

It had to be the greatest movie ever made. I had to see it. Woweee . . .

[section break]

Cut to 33 years later.

As Bill Warren says in his two-volume work Keep Watching the Skies!, he’d realized somewhere in researching the SF films of the fifties that if he hadn’t seen a movie in the three decades between the time they were made and when he wrote the books, they probably weren’t worth seeing.

In 1988, I got my very own copy of Devil Girl from Mars. It’s an English 1950s SF movie, for godssake, so you can imagine. The previews I remember are a hell of a lot better than the film (the power of selective editing).

Chani does zap a building (also a tree and a truck) but they go into negative, there’s a lap dissolve to the smoking ground.

The robot doesn’t zap the bespectacled, cane-carrying old man; Nyah (the D.G.F. Mars) does. He’s not old. He doesn’t have a cane. He’s a gimpy handyman at the Scottish inn where the movie takes place (it’s from a play!!!). He does, however, wear glasses, and they are left on the smoking ground.

She’s come to Earth for guys. (Mars Needs Men!)

Her saucer looks like a cross between a Navy F7U Cutlass, the wheel hub assembly from a ’52 DeSoto, and a barbershop sign.

There’s an escaped convict (like in The Hound of the Baskervilles or Great Expectations), a hard-drinking journalist, a bemused scientist, a kid, the Scots innkeeper couple, an embittered actress, a barmaid . . .

I’m not going to keep on about it. The film itself isn’t important. What is, is this:

Kids, no matter what it is, go with the thing that lights a fire in your brain. The thing itself may not amount to a hill of beans in a crazy world like this, but because it’s managed, somehow, to throw a spark across whatever medium it is, from one mind to another, it is important.

You have a feeling the people (William Cameron Menzies) who made Invaders from Mars knew exactly what they were doing: I will now scare the pee out of every kid in America. Hey presto!

Did the people who made From Hell It Came actually think they were making a film people would watch? Did they know they were making at least one kid spooky when he walked through the woods, and looked at those giant tree roots, waiting for them to lift up and start walking — wooga wooga wooga?

Did the people who made Robot Monster (Wyott Ordung, Phil Tucker) know that by substituting a space helmet for the head of George Barrow’s gorilla suit they would contribute to utter confusion in one kid’s life, and make him grow up to run science fiction conventions?

Did the Nassour Bros. know that they’d cause trauma in a guy and make him evolve into a guy who writes about someone named Mr Nobody?

What were they thinking when they made Devil Girl from Mars? That some kid at a drive-in 6000 miles away would be writing about them forty-three years later, in something published 8000 miles away, after most of them were dead and gone?

Where’s Chani now? Did someone turn it back into the refrigerator from whence it sprang, Athena-like, from a prop-designer’s brow? Who owns Patricia Laffan’s Devil-Girl suit, and why did she sound just like a British Agnes Moorehead? Where’s the saucer?

Kids: go with the fire in your brain.

Also, kids: you never know what you’re doing when you write a book or make a movie or a piece of art that wasn’t already here when you arrived on this planet.

And kids: Be careful what you wish into being.

You could be putting a helmeted gorilla, a malignant tree, holes in the ground or a walking refigerator into the future of someone yet unborn.

About the Author

“Chani and Me. And You.” first appeared in the Orycon 20 program book, November 1998.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

Copyright © 1998, 1999 by Howard Waldrop and Event Horizon Web Productions, Inc.