Monday, September 11, 2017

Guest post: Who Made Who? - by Author Todd Keisling

Who Made Who?

I was a weird kid.

While most five-year-olds in the late 80s probably spent their free time watching He-Man and G.I. Joe, I had a different obsession: Horror films. You can blame my mother for that. After my parents divorced, Mom and I lived with my great-grandmother for a few years, and during that time, Mom worked days and went to school at night. My granny could only keep me occupied for so many hours before winding down herself, and since we couldn’t afford daycare, Mom turned to the next best thing: a VCR.

My grandmother worked part-time at our small town’s only video rental place—Showtime Video, it was called—so we had access to hundreds of rentals at a discount. Every week, Mom would rent a batch of films. Some for herself and some for me. Some of my earliest memories are from that time, sitting in front of Granny’s old console television, watching Labyrinth, Return to Oz, and Maximum Overdrive.

I know. One of those things is not like the others. Let me explain.

In her defense, I’m not sure Mom really expected me to watch all of the movies she rented for me. She probably figured I’d get bored with them or fall asleep before I could finish them. As you might imagine, the exact opposite happened. When I finished my movies, I started watching hers. Films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Friday the 13th were part of my VHS diet. Out of all of them, though, two favorites emerged: Maximum Overdrive and Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn.

Looking back, I’m not sure what it was about them that captured my imagination so much. Maximum Overdrive is a terrible film (what I’d call a good “Bad” movie), but it has that Green Goblin truck, and it has some hilarious moments (the Ice Cream truck, the lawnmower, the vending machine at the baseball park). I say hilarious because, to a five-year-old, those scenes aren’t particularly scary. They’re inanimate objects coming to life—just like in the cartoons I also watched—but with a lot more bad language and AC/DC providing the soundtrack.

Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn is a far better film—one of my all-time favorites, in fact—driven by bizarre effects, over-the-top acting by the amazing Bruce Campbell, and a batshit-crazy storyline about the Necronomicon, demon resurrection, MacGyver-like resourcefulness, and time travel. The film also has its own share of (intentional) hilarity and slapstick, from Bruce Campbell getting blasted in the face by a geyser of blood to fighting off his possessed hand. While most kids in elementary school had their heroes like Batman and Superman, I admired the guy who was willing to cut off his own hand and replace it with a chainsaw in order to fight evil. I wanted to be Ash Williams for Halloween; instead, I was a vampire.

When I say these films were my favorites, I mean I was obsessed with them. I watched them every day. Every time Mom went back to Showtime Video, I asked her to rent them again. And again. And again. There was a point where Mom had rented them so many times that it would’ve been cheaper for her to just buy the movies—which weren’t cheap back then. So, she had a friend copy both films onto a blank VHS cassette—along with a film of her choosing, which happened to be Dirty Dancing.

That personalized VHS cassette was one of my most prized possessions. I carried it with me everywhere. Whenever I went to my dad’s place for the weekend, I brought that cassette with me and subjected him to its insanity. Needless to say, Mom didn’t get to watch Dirty Dancing very much. In fact, that whole section of the cassette was nearly ruined from my constant fast-forwarding from Maximum Overdrive to Evil Dead 2.

As you might imagine, there were effects to this constant exposure to horror from an early age. My childhood drawings involved monsters and heroes. I made up stories about fighting evil. I tucked my hand into my sleeve and replaced it with a toy weapon which I used to fight off twisted creatures from the abyss. Sometimes I donned an old cape I’d worn at Halloween and hunted these monsters in Granny’s backyard. I was cautious of semi-trucks, ice cream trucks, lawnmowers, and chainsaws. And somehow, I had memorized the lyrics to “Hells Bells” before completing elementary school. I knew the word “fuck” was a powerful one, having blurted out “fuck face” in front of Granny one afternoon that earned me both a sore behind and an awkward conversation with my mother later that day.

I’m sure all the parents out there are probably cringing and wagging their fingers, but don’t misunderstand my point. I’m not writing this to throw my mom under the bus (or a semi-truck, for that matter). Quite the contrary, in fact. Mom recognized my affinity for these gruesome subjects very early on, and she saw what they did for my creativity. Most parents these days would probably try to curb such influences, but I’m grateful that my mother didn’t. My obsession with horror defined me in a lot of ways, and I have her to thank for that.

Life is kind of funny in the way it sets up so many parallels and intersections. Things you didn’t know were related later reveal themselves to be intricately entwined. Maximum Overdrive and Evil Dead 2 are perfect examples. Most of the horror aficionados probably know what I’m referring to, and I ask for their patience while I explain for the uninitiated.

Several years ago, I learned that Maximum Overdrive was Stephen King’s directorial debut, based on his short story, “Trucks.” Although Mr. King needs no introduction, it’s worth mentioning that several years prior to its release, he provided a quote for an upcoming horror film by a bunch of no-name filmmakers from Michigan. That film was the first Evil Dead, and the filmmakers were Sam, Ted, and Ivan Raimi. Years later, while directing Maximum Overdrive, King would lend some of his crew to those same filmmakers to help out with the filming of Evil Dead 2.

Of course, Mom was also an avid reader. She always had novels by King and Koontz on her nightstand.

If we’re keeping score, that’s a lot of Stephen King in my young life. Some might call that kismet. King fans might also call it ka.

My point is, when I look back on my early years and try to examine what put me on this path to being a horror writer, I always go back to those days at Granny’s house. Those days when I camped out in front of her old console television, watching Emilio Estevez fire a rocket into an oncoming truck while shouting, “Adios, motherfucker!” Those lazy afternoons when I recited the demon resurrection passages along with Professor Raymond Knowby, “Nos-feratos, amantos, Kanda.”

These days, whenever I hear Brian Johnson sing “Who Made Who?”, I have to smile because I know
the answer to that question. I mean, isn’t it obvious?
TODD KEISLING is the author of A Life Transparent, The Liminal Man (a 2013 Indie Book Award Finalist), and the critically-acclaimed novella, The Final Reconciliation. He lives somewhere in the wilds of Pennsylvania with his wife, son, and a trio of unruly cats.

Twitter: @todd_keisling

1 comment:

  1. I remember my brother renting all those movies. While I was the Gi Joe/He-Man/Thundercats/Voltron kid, his movies gave me nightmares. I used to take the couch cushions and make a bed next to my mom. I slept at her side (with Johnny Carson as my nightlight) for weeks from about the age of 5 to the age of I'd say 8 or so. It wasn't until my friends started renting those creepy horror movies that I had to suck it up and go with the flow. They still scared (and scarred) me, but I began to look forward to that feeling. I was still a baby on my walks home in the dark after Texas Chainsaw Massacre or ...Elm Street, almost painfully so, but I believe those fearful nights delivered me to the horror community. I'm happy to be here. And I'm glad we have you too, TK.