“Dad, what’s the scariest movie you’ve ever seen?” Danny asked.
I replied reflexively. “ALIEN.”
“What’s it about?”
“Um, well... it’s about this group of... well, sailors really. On a spaceship, sometime in the future. They’re on like a high-tech space tugboat, towing a gigantic space barge of minerals or something. The ship’s computer picks up some kind of alien signal they think is a distress call, and the company orders them to go check it out...”
We were on our tandem bike, hauling down to his choir rehearsal. Twice a week we have this invaluable father-son bonding time for half an hour. I pick him up from school and we bike together, me the captain and Dan the stoker, that five or six miles. It’s our only chance to have manly talks, and this particular week Danny had decided he wanted to know about scary movies. He was in fifth grade, and if memory serves, this is exactly when scary movies became an obsession for me and my buddies, too.
I spent the next several minutes reciting, over my shoulder, my recollection of ALIEN’s plot to my son. ALIEN without an S, mind you: the Ridley Scott one. Turns out when you try to summarize ALIEN without the thrum of the engines, the spooky music, the perfectly calibrated lighting, the underplayed and overplayed acting, and the hissing cat, it’s not frightening in the least.
“That sounds great! I want to watch it.”
“No!” I barked, again reflexively. “Your mother will kill me!” And then another thought came to me. “Besides, ALIEN may not really be the scariest movie I’ve ever seen. It depends on how you ask the question. It’s subjective, right? Opinion, not fact.” He’d been learning a lot about fact vs. opinion in class. “The movie that probably scared me most in my life was WAR OF THE WORLDS, because I saw it when I was a little kid.”
“What’s that about?”
“Well, there’s this mysterious meteor lands in a field...”
So after I told him the plot of WAR OF THE WORLDS we came to an arrangement. He would work his way up to ALIEN. We would have our very own home science fiction film festival. We proceeded to do exactly that, with his sisters joining us for some of the tamer offerings. E.T., CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, MEN IN BLACK, PLANET OF THE APES, and a favorite of both me and my wife’s, GALAXY QUEST. We two adults kept laughing at all kinds of things in that last one that the kids didn’t get at all. “What’s so funny?” Leah asked.
“It’s a Star Trek joke.”
“What’s a Star Trek?”
So that, of course, took us down a whole new path, one that led to Danny’s instant conversion to Trekkie, Trekker, whatever. His sisters can take or leave Kirk, but have turned into huge fans of Mr. Spock.
Eventually, after about a year of these occasional viewings, we worked our way up to ALIEN. I gave Danny and his buddy Niko stern warnings about how scary the movie would be, how I would not be held responsible for the nightmares that were sure to plague them for months, nor for the imagined stomach aches they might suffer. Then we watched. Big screen. Subwoofer on. Curtains drawn. Sisters absent. And...
“Yeah, that was good, but it wasn’t scary.”
When the baby alien came bursting out of John Hurt’s chest, they had laughed uproariously, and made me repeat the scene a couple more times. “That’s the stupidest looking thing I’ve ever seen,” was Niko’s verdict. “It looks like a bloody sock puppet!”
I decided to up the ante. The next week we watched JAWS. Again, they liked it. Again, no nightmares.
My inability to make a scary movie impression on two people who should be at their most impressionable led me to search my cinematic soul. I also learned that Niko’s dad is a big fan of zombie movies. That, finally, jogged my memory:
TWENTY-EIGHT DAYS LATER just arrived from Netflix. Let’s see if those smug little twirps can sit thorough this one without tears!
I will keep you updated of the result. In the meantime, send suggestions. Keep in mind that these are twelve year-old boys of the current generation. They’re hard to scare, but they’re still pre-pubescent. SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is out of the running, for instance. So is the movie that is really, truly, the scariest one I’ve ever seen, that I dared not even try to describe to my son, or any child. It is the Dutch film SPOORLOOS. Trust me.