Saturday nights were for horror movies when I was a kid. I use the word horror loosely. What we actually watched were closer to B movies, low budget, unintentional comedies with dark cinematography and an abundance of shrieking. This weekend ritual was never my choice. Pop had a penchant for movies most thought ridiculous, and until my social life separated from his and Mom’s, I was sort of stuck with the likes of “The Blob,” “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” and “Piranha.”
When Morgus the Magnificent made his return to New Orleans late night Saturdays in 1987, movie nights went to a whole new level. With his membership to the “Higher Order” of intelligent earthlings as his supreme credential, Dr. Morgus and his bumbling sidekick, Chopsley, became as much a fixture on my Saturdays as the rogue octopuses in Pop’s movies. Each “Morgus Presents” included a science fiction or horror flick that Dr. Morgus would introduce and between commercials he and Chopsley would conduct experiments paralleling the movie. They had the best intentions each broadcast. Yet, things always went awry and by midnight Morgus would be leaning in close to the camera pleading with the audience to call for backup.
There was no way to take any of it seriously, but somehow Morgus and the B movies were serious business for Pop. He would be glued to the screen shushing us as radioactive clouds shrank a businessman to the size of a bug. And when Dr. Morgus would try to cover up the utter chaos going on his laboratory, Pop would double over in laughter. The low budget of it all was groundbreaking, but for Pop, it was so bad it was good.
Some of Pop’s favorite movies, “Them!,” “Jaws,” and “Jurassic Park,” were actually groundbreaking for their time. Others like “The Creature from the Black Lagoon,” “The Thing,” and “The Fly” were an acquired taste, but for which Pop always went back for more. They all had one thing in common, no matter how badly good: they all engendered some sense of fright, but never stepped beyond the boundary to realism. Once a horror film went too real on Pop, he shut it off.
“Garbage in. Garbage out,” he always said to us.
Slasher films and what Pop called “new age” suspense films exploited negativity that he felt the world could do without.
“If you let your brain run with it, it can become part of your reality,” was another Pop adage.
Being chased by pink goo or a Tyrannosaurus rex is highly unlikely to happen to us, but for Pop, it provides just enough suspense to engage without any long lingering side effects. Pulling that off was more artistic in his opinion than any of the “new age” stuff out there pushing the envelope. This was the justification given for my Saturday night sufferings.
Eventually my best friend and weekend sleepover constant, Joanna, became party to (or was it victim of) Pop’s cinematic choices. One night “Dracula” was the feature film on “Morgus.” I’m talking old school “Dracula” – black and white and barely an hour’s worth of plot. During one of the count’s particularly climactic monologues, bats flew outside the castle window in the background. We didn’t even have to look closely to see that the bats were dangling from strings, presumably by some grip on a ladder behind the set.
“Pop, we can see the strings!” I said. “They’re not even trying to cover it up.”
“That’s the point,” he answered. “If it was believable, I wouldn’t watch it.”
This, and all of Pop’s movie choices, befuddled me for years until I watched “The Changeling” and was scared out of my mind. That was the night that I swore off scary movies and admitted that maybe I was more like Pop after all.
We all have a need to escape logic in order to free ourselves of all that is far too logical in our world. Camp, satire, and the Morguses of the world, carry it off. And we get away, too, through a suspension of disbelief that pulls us from the stringent faculties of our minds just long enough to lose ourselves to tongue and cheek and absurd story lines. For Pop, escape was B movies. For Mom, it was soap operas. For me, it’s eighties sitcoms and all those Saturday Lifetime marathons. What’s your harmless escape?
I know enough to know that not all entertainment needs to imitate life with exactness. Some entertainment is best left to the same degree of realism as a B movie with zero funds left in the budget, because oftentimes, real life is real enough. Like Pop, we need to suspend ourselves from disbelieving every now and then in order to cope more peaceably with all that really surrounds us.
Pop’s movie choices are just as serious business today as they were on those Saturday nights when I was a reluctant audience member with only taco-flavored Doritos to numb the pain. Now his grandchildren are pulled into the cult classic madness. My boys love utter disaster movies, just like their Pop Pops. I guess I’ll never get away from human flies and man-eating river fish.
Or maybe my boys are a little more open-minded than I was. Maybe, like Pop, they’re actually an enlightened audience – a higher order of moviegoers perhaps – and the rest of us need to stop taking it all so seriously.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.