Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, December 25, 2015

MEMORIES: Christmas

No holiday is more nostalgic than Christmas. It’s that way for most people, I imagine. Halloween has always been my favorite but there’s no doubt that the 25th of December loomed large in my mind as a child. As a kid, you look forward to it all year, writing your Christmas wish-list up months in advance. This doesn’t make me unusual. American culture has done a good job of elevating Christmas above all other holidays in the national consciousness. Like everyone else, I have many memories associated with Christmas. Considering that’s what this essay series is all about, I figured I’d share some Christmas memories. Since this blog is Film Thoughts and not Holiday Thoughts, all of these memories are focused around movies.

As I’ve been a film fan my entire life, I’ve frequently received movies as gifts. The first time I ever got VHS tapes as a present was so long ago that I can’t even remember unwrapping them. I must have been two or three years old. For Christmas that year, my Aunt got me all the Don Bluth movies out at the time on VHS. I have the vaguest memory of seeing those tapes under the Christmas tree. I heard about the gift so much that this might not even be a real memory. I watched those tapes of “Secret of NIHM,” “An American Tail,” and “The Land Before Time” so many times that the boxes became frayed and tattered. I’m fairly certain this is my earliest Christmas memory.

My next memory is from December of 1996. My parents’ marriage was over. My dad was already living in our basement at the time. He would stay there for about a year before moving out. Because of this, we held Christmas in the basement rec-room that year. One of my dad’s favorite movies is “Highlander.” At the time, we were even members of the Official Highlander Fan Club. They would send us a catalog every few months, full of cheesy merchandise. My dad’s gifts would frequently come from that magazine. A bathrobe, a baseball cap, letter openers, and replica swords were some of the things we ordered. Anyway, I know this was 1996 because one of his gifts that year was the 10th anniversary VHS release of “Highlander.” I remember this because I accidentally opened it. My mom has always reused gift bags, so names and tags would frequently get mixed around. I suppose this is what happened because I remember opening a bag and seeing the tape inside. I sheepishly handed the gift bag to my dad afterwards. No, I don’t know why this memory has lingered in my brain for so many years.

By next December, my dad had moved out. Despite being separated, my parents have always tried to maintain a good relationship. For a few years, we had Christmas over at his place. Another one of my dad’s favorite movies is “Billy Jack.” My dad even loves the totally bonkers sequels. He has weird taste. Around that time, the entire “Billy Jack” series had been released in a VHS box set. I distinctly remember this set because the box had a faux-denim pattern to it. The back of the box happily declared that this was the first time “Billy Jack Goes to Washington” had been released on home video. When my father unwrapped the box, he was nearly moved to tears and told us “it was the best gift we ever got him.” That was a sweet gesture but, that it was directed at such odd films… Well, that’s just my dad.

Kids have notoriously bad taste. In 1998, I would’ve been ten years old. So I was still in the age range where my taste was questionable. Two would-be blockbusters that came out the previous summer was “Lost in Space” and “Godzilla.” I saw both in the theater. I liked the former but didn’t enjoy the latter that much. Both were out by Christmas and, for whatever reason, I asked for both. My cousin, who is about fifteen years older than me, ended up gifting both to me that year. This memory sticks out to me two reasons. We opened gifts at my grandparents’ house that year. It was an unusually December that year. I remember the sun light shining through the picture window, onto the big couch where we all sat. My grandfather would pass away the next year which is why, I suppose, this memory sticks out to me. I watched both tapes a lot, even though both movies are fairly lousy.

That same cousin was also a frequent shopper at our local Suncoast, the topic of the previous Memories column. As I got older, my taste in cinema became far more discerning. As a teenager, extended family members would ask me what I wanted for Christmas. I got into the habit of writing up very long lists of DVDs I wanted, saying anything from the list would be fine. When we visited with my cousin’s family for Christmas, I unwrapped a box with three films inside. I don’t recall what the third one was but I definitely remember receiving a budget version of “The Shining” and “Superman II.” I didn’t own the first “Superman.” On one hand, you have to put on a polite face for family members. That disappointment can be hard to mask though. I’m pretty sure my cousin didn’t notice. I discreetly returned both disc and purchased superior versions. It happens.

Sometimes, I received unexpected gifts from that side of my family. One year, I can recall unwrapping the “Dr. Phibes” films, the Midnite Movies release from MGM. The gift was from my grandmother, who was hardly the person to buy me horror movies for Christmas. She’s a devout Baptist, just to give you an idea. I later learned that my mom bought the movies and gifted them under my grandmother’s name. Still, the pleasant surprise I felt when opening that present has stuck with me. Despite better editions of those films being released, I’ve hold onto those discs for sentimental reasons.

In my recent review of “Jingle All the Way,” I mentioned a holiday tradition I had many years with my cousin David. (This is on my father’s side, so a different cousin.) We bonded over our mutual appreciation of quote-unquote bad movies. At some point, we got into the habit of buying each other “bad” films. I can remember the unwrapping genuinely wretched movies like “Zombie 4: After Death.” More often though, he’d gift me with odd-ball classics like “Killer Klowns from Outer Space” or “Slugs: The Movie.” I didn’t get as many opportunities to return the gestures as I would have liked. I do know that I, one year, gave him such classics as “Breakin’” and “American Ninja 4.” After David got married, his wife, not entirely grasping the tradition, bought “Epic Movie,” a different breed of stinker. David has his own life now, including kids and a hectic job, and we don’t see each other very often. Hopefully some day, we can resume this tradition.

As you get older, you tend to receive fewer gifts on Christmas. That’s normal. It’s more fun to watch a little kid open a gift then a twenty-something. But my mom has always been very generous around Christmas. She’s very generous period but especially during the holidays. For a while, used to have fabulous summer sales. The website is still around but it isn’t as popular. Like Amazon or other retail sites, you could make wish lists. At least two years in a row, during the summer sales, my mom would order a bunch of titles from my list. At Christmas, I’d open them up, not knowing what I got but knowing it was stuff I approved of. That was always fantastic fun. Many of the great, weird titles in my collection I owe to this. I can remember getting both volumes of the Mario Bava Collection, for example, or “The Forest.” It’s not often that an adult child can be surprised by a parent at Christmas. This was a good way to maintain some of that childhood excitement, of not knowing what was under the tree.

Not every film-related Christmas memory I have involves gift-giving. A few weeks before December of 2009, I met a girl. It wouldn’t take very long for me to fall head-over-heels in love with her. You could argue I was on the rebound, as I had my heart broken not long before this. In about the space of six months, I’d have my heart broken again. Anyway, Christmas was nearly there. We had dinner at a fantastic Mexican restaurant, where I’ll always remember she said the mushroom were “scrumptious.” A local park, every year, does a night time light show. I’d understand if someone would consider that tacky. Lighting the entire park up with fifty light displays and a million bulbs probably is tacky. However, I’ve always liked visiting. I remember her remarking how much her little sister would enjoy the show. Or the two of us stopping and watching the dancing lights on the trees at the center of the park. Or how her breath plumed out in the December cold, her shoulders shaking under her silver jacket. How does this relate to film? The two of us bonded over our shared love of weird-o cinema. “Rocktober Blood” was one of the first things we ever talked about. After the Christmas light show, we returned to her apartment for a movie night. She had never seen “May” or “Hot Fuzz,” which I was quick to correct. She really liked both. I also brought along Argento’s “Deep Red” but we didn’t make it to that one. By the time the relationship ended, she still hadn’t seen it.

Two or so years later, I was dating a girl I’ll call Elyse. We both had family plans on Christmas Eve and the 25th, so we endeavor to spend the 23rd together. A moment I’ll never forget is waking up the next morning, the light streaming through the windows, casting an early morning glow over her basement apartment. She had forgotten to unplug the tiny fiber-optic Christmas tree the night before. It made an odd creaking noise as it rotated, the lights changing from pink to blue to red. After we both got up, we opened our gifts. Elyse had gotten me a VHS copy of “The Prey,” my favorite piece of bizarre eighties horror trash. Unlike some other people I mentioned, Elyse wasn’t very invested in obscure movies. That she knew how much that film meant to me, and put the effort in to track it down on tape, really meant a lot to me. It was the only Christmas we had together. The relationship didn’t make it to next December. Yet I still have that tape. I can’t bring myself to get rid of it. Life is like that.

That’s the thing with Christmas. It’s such a specific day, a mixture of family get-togethers and yearly traditions. You can track the years by looking at the tree and considering each of the ornaments, each one representing a different era of your life. The gifts you receive connect you to the times, good and bad, you’ve had in the past. When Christmas rolls around, it brings along a fountain of memories. Perhaps this was an inappropriate, too personal topic to share on the blog. Maybe. Then again, if there’s any time of year to reveal a little about yourself, it’s December. Consider that my gift to you.

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