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Is Your Child Too Young to Watch that Horror Film?

A parent's guide to scaring your kid.

By Dorothy Woodend 23 Jan 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend writes about film for The Tyee every other Friday.

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Baby steps: '7th Voyage of Sinbad.'

I don't remember the first horror film I ever saw. It might have been The Wizard of Oz. What can I say? I was, and am, a rank coward. The experience of watching that film was a distinctly razor-edged pleasure, akin to sticking your hand into a flying monkey's rabid jaws to get the brightly coloured candy inside. Other children are less easily scared.

The father of one of my son's seven-year-old friends recently asked me to suggest a good horror film, and I advised him to rent The Orphanage. The next time I saw him, he was full of praise for the film, and went on to tell me that not only had he enjoyed it very much, but that he and his wife had watched it as a family, with their seven-year-old son. My chin fell onto my chest, since this was not a film I would have suggested that a small child see. Oddly enough, though, the movie had been a uniting experience for them all, ending in tears and familial closeness.

The point of this story is that you can never be certain how anyone, much less a young and newly forged mind, will react to a film. Kids have a natural curiosity for more outré stuff. If you're the parent of a would-be horror, science fiction, or fantasy film buff, you've already probably been plied with entreaties for darkness, monsters and mayhem.

Of course, only you know your child best. Humbly offered here are some suggestions to help you choose films with a goosebump rating to match your kid's readiness.

Camp is your friend

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and Forbidden Planet are far enough removed from my generation to seem goofy and quaint, but to kids who came of age in the '50s and '60s, they probably represent good old drive-in days gone by. Camp has already doubled back on itself more than a few times, but these films are the original source materials, which influenced filmmakers like Spielberg and Lucas, who in turn, doomed hundreds more would-be-filmmakers to the genre ghetto. George Lucas even included a quote from Forbidden Planet in the first installment of his Star Wars series. (If you see both films, keep your ears open and see if you don't catch it.)

Forbidden Planet is also familiar from the opening serenade of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which involved an ode to junk cinema gone-by as warbled by an enormous pair of red lips.

However far-reaching its influences, it's still something of a curious experience to watch the genuine article. Forbidden Planet is about as camp as one can possibly go without imploding. From Leslie Nielsen's jaunty future sailor outfit to Robbie the Robot staggering about like a drunken garbage can, it's difficult to imagine that anyone, audiences or actors, took it very seriously.

The film is currently slated for a remake, but even the most drastic re-imaginings of science fiction classics can rarely shake their goofy origins. Look to Keanu Reeves struggling to keep a straight face in The Day the Earth Stood Still for proof of this. Still, it's worth seeing purely for pure silly pleasure, a quality that shouldn't be underestimated these days.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is also chock-a-block with stop-motion cyclops, animated skeletons, and sword and sandals juicy fun. Sample a bit of the sweet action!

Look Mom, an alien!

If you're going to go bad, go good bad. Ridley Scott's science fiction classic Alien has lost little of its power in the intervening 30 years since it was released. Yes, the titular alien is a guy in a suit, but this film deserves every ounce of its reputation. It is as good now as I remember it, down to the last telling little detail.

The film's writer Dan O'Bannon famously said, "I didn't steal Alien from anybody. I stole it from everybody!" The film borrowed from a variety of different sources, most notably Forbidden Planet. But it succeeds purely on its verisimilitude, and truly excellent cast. Ian Holm, Sigourney Weaver, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto and Tom Skerritt, variously made Kane, Parker, Dallas and Ripley intensely real and believable -- frightened, sweating, desperate people, simply trying to survive.

Towers of terror

We live with the Lord of the Rings on a regular basis, meaning that the film has become more than simply a movie, it's woven into the fabric of everyday conversation. Aragorn, Legolas and, especially, the Eye of Sauron, pop up on a regular basis. My son Louis's impression of the Mouth of Sauron has taken on near legendary status. He already has several remixed versions of this episode in his repertoire, including one where the word penis in interjected in front of every third word. But I digress. Suffice to say, some films become part of an individual family culture, and in mine that is most certainly the case with the Two Towers. I plan on attending the screening of the film at SPARK F/X Fest (see sidebar) Jan. 26th with Louis in tow, since he's seen it in every incarnation, except on the big screen.


This is perhaps a bit late for small fry, but at least it's not a school night. There's nothing really to be said about this film that hasn't been said a thousand times over, but maybe that's the point. For good or for bad, the Star Wars legacy will endure longer than nuclear fallout, or cockroaches. Yes, it's ubiquitous, unassailable, so submit already, let it roll over you, and take you back to 1977, when the phenomena literally exploded into the mass unconsciousness. It seized every kid in my Grade 3 class with near rabid intensity. To relive even a touch of that initial frenzy is enough.

For a massive download, the SPARK F/X fest in Vancouver (see sidebar) offers a long night's worth of three Star Wars classics back to back.

First impressions can be terribly powerful things, and before you trot off with children in hand, keep in mind that the big screen can have a particularly long-lasting effect. This is especially true when the content is a bit harsh. I wish I hadn't seen Isadora as a young child. The scene where the famous dancer was strangled to death after her flowing scarf got caught in the wheel of a sports car was rivaled in horror only by that of the sequence where her two young children drowned when their car rolled off a bridge into a river. The fact that such images endure, like granite crags embedded in the soft tissue of my brain, 30 years later is an indication of their power.

The lesson there? Children watching films with adults can happen upon horror where least expected. And as parents, even our best efforts can't shield them 100 per cent from lasting jolts of terror. The best we can do is understand children crave the rush of fear that film can deliver. It's our job to manage the setting of dial as best we can.

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