2007-10-25 / Sam Bari

Frightenstein and Count Laughula

You can't beat a system you can't understand
By Sam Bari

The warm-up to Halloween in today's world is often a week's worth of really scary horror movies pre-empted by dad wanting to watch something dumb, like the World Series. When I stop and think about it, when I was a kid, life wasn't that much different. The big difference was that the movies weren't on TV; we had to actually walk to a theater to see them.

The Janet Theater was about four blocks from my house. The ancient building was a little hole in the wall that smelled like a candy factory with buttered popcorn and fountain sodas thrown into the mix. The owner ran the projector that chewed up film and broke down at least once during every movie.

As unsavory as the place may have been, it was the town baby sitter every Saturday afternoon, and parents were glad it was open. It gave mothers an opportunity to do the weekly shopping without kids in tow. It was also the major source of entertainment for teenagers who were not quite old enough to drive on Saturday night. Those privileged few who could drive and had access to a car went to the drive-in to do everything but watch movies.

Anyway, Halloween week was special at the Janet, and we looked forward to that memorable time every year. On Saturday and Sunday afternoon, the marquee read, "Eight Hours of Horror - 25 cents." For another quarter, we could get a fountain Coke in a paper cup, a bag of popcorn and a hot dog. For fifty cents, we were set for the day. If we had a dollar, we could eat enough candy to make us sick. We used to save our allowances for weeks before attending this major event. Kids under t12 owned the Janet on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

We lined up an hour early to get a good seat. The bigger kids sat in the balcony and threw water balloons and popcorn at the kids down below. The owner hired high school football players to act as ushers and keep the peace. They occasionally caught a 12-year-old boy throwing a water balloon. They would sneak up behind him, pull him out of his seat by the scruff of the neck and throw him out to much applause and fanfare from the kids on the main floor. The kid would never tell his parents because he didn't want to get paddled for throwing water balloons.

The doors opened about 20 minutes or so before the show started. Anyone younger than 10 years old knows that 20 minutes is an interminably long time. Then we'd have to sit through a 15-minute news and sports reel followed by a half-hour of cartoons, which wasn't bad. Finally, they got to the real stuff.

The owner would bring the house lights up, then slowly dim them until they went out. After about 30seconds of sitting in total darkness, the movie would begin. The sound system crackled, and the film was sometimes shaky as it made its way through the aging projector. Nonetheless, a real horror movie was starting and we were just on the edge of wetting our pants because we were so scared. Of what, I have no idea. Nothing had happened yet.

For the next hour and a half, not a piece of candy, kernel of popcorn, or sip of soda would pass our lips as we sat, stiff with fright, watching Boris Karloff play Frankenstein. We would suck in our breath, scream, and cover our eyes in all the appropriate places as Hollywood scared us to the point of sleepless nights, bad dreams, and a lifelong fear of the dark.

Lon Chaney, playing the dreaded Count Dracula, followed Frankenstein, and "The Thing" then filled the screen. We watched the destruction of the world in "The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes," followed by "The Human Hamburger Devours Chicago," (I made that up.) Anyway, we watched, mesmerized by cheap Hollywood effects, until eight hours of horror that kept our hearts beating like trip hammers finally ended.

Kids today would laugh at those movies. If the truth be known, by today's standards, they weren't scary at all. This was long before Linda Blair twisted her head around 360 degrees and spewed pea soup in "The Exorcist." It was before Freddy Krueger was old enough to grow nails. No - these movies would be comedic in today's world of unspeakable horror. Nonetheless, we didn't know the difference, and we were scared out of our wits.

Now remember, we entered the theater before noon. We were there until eight o'clock at night - 'night' being the operative word. After watching eight hours of horror, we had to walk home in the dark. About a dozen of us walked in a pack. We were convinced that Count Dracula lurked behind every tree. The shadow people owned the night. They were gonna suck us into the dark, never to return. We were sure of it.

We walked together to everyone's house down to the last kid. He had to walk a full block by himself. He ran so fast, he could have done the hundred in ten seconds flat. In those days, horror movies were a big part of that system we can't understand.

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