The Zombie Pumpkin

That may or may not be the ill-fated gourd.
Some time around my 10th year of life my local Cub Scouts den was holding its annual pumpkin carving contest at its Halloween shindig. Yes, costumes were involved and I think I went dressed as "some guy in a cape" because I liked capes and that was that. Capes and top hats, for some reason.

Anyways, we had been tasked with carving the scariest pumpkin face for a chance to win some stupid prize, and I was all over this. We got our pumpkin carving kits, the little saws and knives, and the book of scary faces to trace, and I took home my pumpkin intent on owning that competition. I hacked my way through this thing, gutting it and scooping up all that orange puke and seeds and went to town with the tracing paper and whatnot. Then I just let the thing sit out for two weeks.

After the first week, I began to notice how the cover didn't fit as well as it did the first night, and then how the eyes were getting all soft and soggy, and then how oblong the thing got, like it had been sitting under something. A few days later, there were dark spots on the inside, and gray spots on the outside, and I just figured "Well, maybe nobody will notice." By the time I was set to bring this Jack-O-Lantern to the contest, it was barely holding itself together. One wrong move, and it was just going to smoosh down into moldy, green and orange smelly mush... green of course, being the mold. Apparently I was supposed to refrigerate it or something.

So like a dork I brought it in anyway and sat it down next to all the other entries looking store-bought fresh by comparison, thinking "oh well, there's no way I'm winning this one." If anyone asked me which one was mine I'd just point the one next to it. So I went about the Halloween party jumping on the stacks of folding tables, getting yelled at for jumping on the stacks of folding tables, and doing whatever else so that I could ignore the putrid oozy mush ball at the front of the room. When it finally came time to reveal who had won the pumpkin carving contest, I may have taken a short retreat to the bathroom just so I wouldn't have to be seen lugging my smelly, moldy, wilted, zombie of a pumpkin off the stage like a double loser.

They awarded 3rd place, 2nd place, and lo and behold, tagged that last big blue ribbon on the side of none other than my smelly decrepit mush of a hollowed-out gourd. Now I swear to you, the whole place just nodded their heads in agreement, for surely, that thing was the scariest one indeed. And when I went up to accept my stupid prize, I learned a valuable lesson about what being a Boy Scout is all about: being prepared. I may have told one or two people that I did it on purpose, and that it was supposed to be a "zombie pumpkin," as in, "from beyond the pumpkin grave," but I only wished I came up with something that ingenious on purpose. Either way, I went home that night with a swell of pride. The pumpkin went in the trash on the way out the door.

P.S. - For disaster relief in the wake of "Frankenstorm," this former Boy Scout asks you to consider a donation to the American Red Cross to assist people struggling in New York, New Jersey, and affected areas. Thank you.

Goonies Never Say Die

There's a reason I left The Goonies off my lists of "great forgotten" kids films of the 80s and 90s, and that's because it's more than just a film, and is far from being overlooked. It's more than some old popcorn family flick about a bunch of sugar-high screaming kids shoving their way through a Young Indiana Jones-inspired Spielbergian pirate treasure adventure. It's a generation-defining statement. It came out a year before I was born and still loomed large over the whole scene back then in a more or less constant repetition that has continued right up to the present day. And to show its lasting legacy, I think I only just got the "one-eyed willy" joke yesterday. That's a good one... hehe.

For those who don't know what I'm talking about, The Goonies was a 1985 film about a bunch of kids who go on a treasure quest through a trap-filled pirate's cove, all to have one more "fling" together before they have to part ways for good or find enough money to save their neighborhood from being turned into a golf course--the "goonies" being the residents of this alcove derisively labeled "the goondocks." And since it would take "about 400 paychecks" to save it, they decide they better set off for the treasure.

The main quartet had Mikey, the shy-type leader and main inspiration figure living on an inhaler and the promise of One-Eyed Willy's fortune; Data, the gadgets guru and arsenal expert who could never pronounce "booby traps;" Mouth, the fearless and fluent Spanish speaker who got them all into and out of so many a near-death predicament with his big mouth; and Chunk, the chubby "Truffle Shuffle" one they all made fun of and who always had an excuse or a tall tale to ramble about. Joined by Mikey's jock older brother Brand, his brother's less-than-virtuoso piano-playing girlfriend Andy, and her smart-alec friend Stef, the "Goonies" were a complete troupe. They also later designated Sloth, the deformed Fratelli brother, an honorary member for joining them in defense of their cause of trespassing in the name of "this is OUR time... down HERE."

The real magic of it all was just how much ground they covered. What starts out as a totally normal suburban setting gets more and more fantastical as they plunge the depths of this cave until they finally come upon the fabled pirate ship itself in all its glory, full-masted, intact, and packed with priceless riches entombed forever in this very well lit cavern. It almost seems like a place you've been yourself many times in your imagination or even in your dreams. It's that familiar. Along the way we're treated with an odd assortment of one-liners, shouting matches, Data's bizarre inventions like his "slick shoes" and "pinchers of peril," booby traps like the skeleton piano floor cave-ins and the waterfall, and all those preteen hijinks run amok:

"B-Flat? Heh, if you hit the wrong note, we'll all "B flat!" "Come on, Brand! Slip her the tongue!" "Hope it's not a deposit bottle!" "Always separate the drugs." "No, I want the veal scalopini!" "Follow them size five's!" "I'm gonna hit you so hard that when you wake up your clothes will be out of style!" "Chunk, I'm pretty much ODing on all your bullshit stories!" "I love the dark, but I HATE NATURE!" "Your looks are kind of pretty when your face isn't screwing it up." "You're in the clouds and we're in a basement!" "Man! You smell like Phys Ed!" "I've been saved by my Pinchers of Peril!" "Long enough, Mikey. Long enough." ...etc. We all know at least one.

Take one look at this film and you'll start feeling those goosebumps crawl your arms, because for some reason, more than nearly anything else, it seems to tap into something unique to "us," those of us on the upper end of generation X and the cusp of Y. Maybe it's that honest depiction of the profanity and innuendo we all got into as a kids. Maybe it's that Cyndi Lauper-colored quirkiness in the soundtrack. Maybe it's that thin glimmer of haze, the thick glasses, headbands, square headlights, and other bits of nostalgia. Maybe it's because we all knew someone like one or more of the characters from the movie, even the more cartoony ones. Maybe it's really just about that bygone era before the internet when we used to go on our own little naive adventures in a time when, yeah, we were subversive with the swearing and sex jokes, but we were still "kids." Kids who actually went on "adventures." Modern childhood is nothing like this. And yeah, we may be set in our late 20th century ways now, but it's films like The Goonies that documented it and in so doing made that time period timeless.

Credit belongs entirely to Steven Spielberg, Chris Columbus, and Richard Donner not just for making this treat of a movie, but for contributing to our collective life enjoyment for the last 27 years because of it. The fun of it was that any suburban kid who ever went on an adventure could be a "Goonie" too, and "Goonies never say die" indeed.

"Goonies never say die!"

My new favorite website:

More Great Forgotten Kids Films

Last year I made out a list of "five great forgotten kids films of the 80s and 90s," promising to do more eventually. Well, I finally got inspired to do another five. It's all very subjective, of course. We see so many films as kids; some we  are embarrassed to admit liking once (Casper!), some we are proud to love even now (Goonies!), some we didn't even like as kids (Richie Rich!), some we only saw parts of (My Girl!), some we saw too many times to like (Beethoven!), and some we may have seen once but the memory is too foggy (The Brave Little Toaster?). Then there's all the ones I haven't seen (Goofy Movie, for instance), which don't end up on my lists.

Most of the films we see as kids end up getting buried whether they were good or should remain buried, but because I like to focus on the positive, here's five more hidden gem kids films from the 80s and 90s that every kid should see. We remember them of course, so it's our duty to keep them alive.

Free Willy - Deride if you must (obvious jokes aside!), but you know you get goosebumps whenever MJ's "Will You Be There" comes on the radio and you start picturing slowmo scenes of whales splashing around at Seaworld. And admit it, the movie made you care about the friendship between a boy and his killer whale. How tricky is that to pull off? All the other characters are "feh," and exactly what this young, cake-stealing, delinquent had in common with a show-orca is a bit of a stretch. And yeah, we all knew what would've really happened when the whale jumped the pile of rocks with that kid underneath! "Chomp!" But every girl wanted to be a marine biologist after this movie, and this is where we got the idea that all killer whales are as friendly and cuddly as this Shamu relative was. Word to the wise though: don't bang on the glass!

Jumanji - I read the book before the movie came out, so I know there's no point in comparing them. Despite the horror and bad rhymes the thing put out, it looked like a pretty cool game, and chances are, you wanted to play it too. I know I did. The movie succeeds on its own terms, offering plenty of death-defying jungle stampedes through the town, giant spiders, rogue marksmen, flash floods, and even a few jokes with, and without, Robin Williams, but it also takes liberties and adds stuff like "plot" and "character" that were missing from the mostly-visuals book (still good). Some of the effects are "creature-shop" by today's standards, but they were state of the art at the time. And you can stop wondering why they don't all just rapidly roll the dice to get the game over with or just burn the board before it starts any more shit, because, word to the wise: don't try to cheat! 

Babe - This film is the damn masterpiece of pig movies (screw you, Gordy), and you'd never think so until you actually see it. A New Zealand piglet narrowly escapes being turned into bacon ("pig paradise") and miraculously ends up with an eccentric farmer who allows him to pursue his dream of being a sheep-herding dog. I tell no lies. There are also hilarious singing mice that come out of nowhere. Yet somehow not only does this movie make you want to go join PETA (without even trying), it actually makes you "feel" things like "emotions." Sure the "plot" of the movie can be confined to the last half hour, but all the other vignettes leading up to it have a real magic about them as this very odd friendship between this pig and farmer (who obviously can't communicate) culminates in that final tear-jerking scene where they lock eyes and James Cromwell utters "That'll do pig... that'll do..." and we all weep. Word to the wise: don't eat Babe for breakfast! 

Homeward Bound - Granted, it's been about fifteen years since I saw this, but I saw it enough times over the years to remember it. It involved three (telepathic?) house pets, two dogs and a cat, who get lost in the wilderness and have to make their way back to their owners, braving the wilds and each other. There was the wise old Golden Retriever "Shadow," the lovable dimwit bulldog "Chance," and the snarky, spoiled cat "Sassy," each belonging to one of the kids in the family. Shadow was always getting them out of a jam, Chance was always talking about eating underwear, and Sassy spent the whole movie bitching about everything, but in the end, they all made it home, even Shadow. I never had a pet growing up, but if I did and they ever got lost, this is exactly what I'd want them doing to get home, rather than just latching onto whoever gives them food. Word to wise: don't go sniffing around a porcupine. "It bit me with its butt!" 

All Dogs Go to Heaven - The last of Bluth's great masterpieces, All Dogs is one of his darkest and funniest at the same time. It starts off with the drowning and murder of our main character, a gambling hustler street dog named Charlie, by his cigar-chewing bulldog mafioso boss, and then gets darker from there (go figure!). He goes to heaven (not a spoiler) and manages to escape back to earth with the chilling "you can never come back..." ringing in his ears. Him and his buddy befriend a human orphan girl that his boss "Carface" is holding hostage, and a series of escapades ensue that end up putting Charlie first in line to hell, full of winged demons riding skeleton boats around a wirlpool of fire as little imps chew his face apart (not exaggerating!). And then to top it all off, a "big-lipped" alligator Elton John/Liberace comes right out of nowhere! Kids need to see this stuff, because in the end, Charlie's kindness in protecting this girl and finding her a loving home is just enough to rescue him from Satan's clutches, waiting for him on the horizon (yes, the real Satan!). Word to the wise: "You Can't Keep a Good Dog Down." Indeed! 

So there you are, another installment of great kids films from the 80s and 90s. Look forward to more of these in the future, whenever I'm inspired.

Chromosaurus Rex!

Back in the day, and particularly in the 80's, computer animation was actually awesome, because you didn't see it every day. It was a totally new style. And until Toy Story came out in the mid 90s, a lot of that wonderment still captured us whenever we got even momentary glimpses of the wonders these new-fangled computer programs could do.

They used to play computer animation demo shorts in repeat on the big screen televisions at Sears to show off the specs of the TV, and if there were living room setups available, my brother and I would plunk down on the couches and watch this stuff in amazement as our parents did boring adult things like "buy a new washer." The best computer animated short of the whole bunch could only be this one called "Chromosaurus" though. Seriously badass. They had T-Rexes running around, and they were ROBOTS. It couldn't be any more perfect.

Chromosaurus! Listen to that rockin' soundtrack! 

Along with this one there were a plethora of other computer animated shorts they'd show on those big screen TVs of yore. Two I definitely remember were "Locomotive" and "Stella and Stanley: Breaking the Ice." This was like Pixar before there was a Pixar as we know it. The humor and eye-popping realism of  "Locomotive" had us smiling, and the strange fantasy environment of the love story in "Stanley and Stella" was just totally mystifying, and still is. Watch it.