Mark Harris on his 10 formative summer movie experiences
Welcome to the beginning of summer movie season, also known as the last second we can still cling to the hope that this will be the greatest summer for movies ever. Our expectations will fall to Earth soon enough: Mine will begin their long plunge around the time of Fantastic Four 2: Still Not Fantastic and crater shortly before Rush Hour 3: Why, God, Why? But there’ll be time to complain later. Meanwhile, in tribute to the season: My 10 Formative Summer Movie Experiences.
1973 Months after playing everywhere else, The Poseidon Adventure finally checks into the roach motel that is our neighborhood movie house. Thanks to my strict parents, I am the last kid in fourth grade to see this, my first adult movie. While some plot elements sail over my 9-year-old head (What is a prostitute? Why didn’t Shelley Winters just swim faster? Why is a priest on a cruise?), I leave convinced that it’s the greatest movie ever made. Ten percent of me will never stop believing this.
1975 Jaws opens. I have wanted to see it ever since I saw the picture of the jumbo-jet-size shark closing in on the little tiny swimmer on the book jacket. Key bonding moment with my dad when he jumps and spills popcorn just after the divers find the severed head in the boat. Nice to know there’s stuff that scares him.
1976 I finally see my first out-and-out horror movie, The Omen, since three years earlier my parents vetoed The Exorcist in terms that left no room for negotiation. It’s pretty scary, especially the creepy nanny and the scene with the sheet of plate glass. I tell my older cousins that I saw it; they tell me that The Exorcist was a million times scarier and that Congress has passed a law that it can never be shown on television so I will never see it and will just have to take their word for it. In the pre-Google universe, I believe this for some time.
1977 (Yeah, I’m skipping Star Wars. Didn’t care then, don’t care now. Sue me.) Brian De Palma’s Carrie, at the bedraggled, scratched-up end of its run, reaches the local one-plex. Inexplicably, my mom takes me and my brother. Scene 1: high school locker room, menstruation in the shower, Carrie pelted with maxi pads, nudity, blood, more nudity. ”I think we’re leaving,” says my mother, alarmed that this has turned out not to be, in any form, an adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. The shower scene ends just in time. We get to stay. By the time the really bad stuff starts, even my mom is hooked.
1978 Jaws 2, on a sticky night at a Long Island drive-in. Sound quality: mediocre. Print quality: poor. Necessity of making the sequel at all: questionable. Glimpses of the couple in the next car having sex: priceless.
1978 National Lampoon’s Animal House introduces me to the snobs-versus-slobs comedy. Somewhere between the smashed guitar and the moment the horse has a heart attack, I realize that when the film is over I will need to see it again. Immediately. All in all, a great four hours.
1979 The night Alien opens, my best friend and I run afoul of a surprisingly stern and dogmatic ticket seller who apparently takes the R rating seriously. My friend and I take our wadded-up fistful of $1 bills down the block in search of a ”parent or adult guardian” until a very creepy middle-aged couple agree to buy the tickets if they can ”hang out” with us. We give them our money, they give us our tickets, we run into the theater, they sit in our row. We’re scared even before the movie starts. When the alien pops out of John Hurt’s chest, the couple freaks out and bolts. Thank you, Ridley Scott.
1980 First night of The Shining. In the era before advance ticket sales, my friends and I travel the length of Manhattan looking for a show that isn’t sold out. We finally find one. The wait is three and a half hours. The angry, life-hating theater manager puts everyone in an unventilated cattle pen he calls a ”waiting lounge.” Did I mention it’s summer in New York City? Fighting, fainting, vomiting ensue. At 10:30 p.m., the survivors file in. The tidal wave of air conditioning that hits us is such sweet relief that for a while nobody even has the stamina to get spooked. Around the time of the blood-filled elevator, we start paying attention.
1985 I ditch my first job in midafternoon to see Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. The theater is filled with smoke, because (remember, this is 1985) the theater is filled with smokers, all of whom are smoking everything it is possible to smoke. For the first and only time, I laugh so hard I fall out of my chair. Repeatedly.
2007 I’ll leave this one blank, since it’s never too late to have a formative summer movie experience. If it happens, I’ll get back to you. Until then, feel free to share yours on the message board below.