BY: Chuck Augello
When they ask where she’s going, she doesn’t lie. “To the movies,” Melanie says, and that’s all they need to hear. The movies! Yes! The whole family is movie crazy. Her younger brother has seen Star Wars fourteen times, and while Melanie has little interest in such juvenile interests, she attends three films a week, often alone, a notebook at her side so she can capture her insights for the “Melanie at the Movies” column she writes for the school newspaper. Two more years and she can escape the suburbs for the Film Studies program at Columbia. Someday she’ll be the next Pauline Kael, she’s certain of it.
It’s the summer of 1977. The hell with Sean Cassidy; the posters on her bedroom wall are of Agnes Varda and Peter Bogdanovich. In middle school, she took French just so she could read Cahiers du Cinema without hunting for a translation. She’s been a subscriber since her fifteenth birthday.
The Hills Have Eyes, directed by Wes Craven. She’d discovered it in one of the film zines she reads religiously, deemed it a must-see. The mainstream critics call it nasty and deplorable, but the underground writers recognize its artfulness and subtle politics about family relations. It’s not playing on any of the neighborhood screens, so she hops the bus to Times Square, which has yet to be purged of its seedy surfaces and turned into a high-end playground. It’s not the first time she’s ventured to the city alone. She’s seen Breathless and Wild Strawberries at the Landmark; she’s been to the Odeon and the Palace on 12th; she knows the bus routes and can walk from Grand Central to any theater in Midtown, yet she’s never been to a movie house as sleazy as the Regal, the only place willing to screen low-budget horror about a family of cannibals.
She catches the 2 p.m. showing on a Wednesday, the theater half-empty, a homeless man snoring two aisles back, the seats reeking of marijuana and spilt beer. The sound system is terrible, but once the film starts, Melanie falls into its world. After the scene in which the father character is set on fire, she decides she’ll return to watch it again. Only in repeat viewings does a film reveal its secrets—the first rule of cinema her father taught her. In her notebook she’s filled thirteen pages with her thoughts and theories, all the different ways one could read Wes Craven’s work.
The first film she remembers: Bambi.
Melanie sat on her father’s lap in the darkened theater, wrapped in his arms, her lips sticky from buttered popcorn and licorice whips. After the hunter murdered Bambi’s mother, Melanie couldn’t stop crying. Her father stroked her hair with his heavy fingers, planted kisses on her neck, his steady, salty breath tickling her ears. On the drive home, he apologized for exposing a four-year old to such a brutal scene.
“Don’t tell your mother,” he said. And she didn’t.
The following week she’s back at the Regal, the Wednesday 2 p.m. showing. As the opening credits roll, he steps across the aisle and sits next to her—Mr. London Fog. At first she’s amused; it’s all part of the Times Square experience, some pathetic loser drenched in aftershave sidling up to a teenage girl in the dark. She imagines a young Susan Sontag in her 1950s mini-skirt rearranging her legs to elude the male gaze. She’s nervous, but maybe it’s okay. Mr. London Fog doesn’t say a word until on screen the family dog, Beauty, is slaughtered by one of the cannibals.
“I knew you’d come again,” he whispers, the man in the raincoat, Mr. London Fog. He lays his hand on her knee. “The plot is predictable, yet there’s satisfaction in watching its gears slowly turn.”
It’s a comment her father might make. “Leave me alone,” Melanie says, or perhaps only thinks it. The sweat on her back turns cold.
Three times she changes seats, and three times he follows. There’s an usher, but he looks strung out, counting the minutes until his next fix. During the rape scene, Melanie almost vomits, yet she holds it together—she’s no stranger to the staged sadism of exploitation flicks. For months now she’s been contemplating the horror movie trope of the helpless female victim. One day she’ll write about it, explore its echoes and ramifications.
“Touch it,” he says. In her peripheral vision she can tell that he’s unzipped. “You know you want to. Why else would you be watching such a sick little movie?”
When the film ends, Mr. London Fog smiles and says, “Same time next week.”
“No,” she says, the only word she speaks, but The Hills Have Eyes only plays on Wednesdays at the Regal, and if she wants to see it again—which she does—she’ll be there like he asks.
On the bus ride home, she fills eight pages in her notebook with her reflections on the film.
Cannibalism as a metaphor for the fractured family.
For her sixteenth birthday her father gave her an unwrapped copy of Pauline Kael’s first collection of essays, I Lost It at the Movies. He walked into her room, placed it on the bed, and walked out without a word. The birthday cake and candles came later.
Melanie finished the book in two days, in awe of Kael’s genius. Whatever “it” was, she wanted to lose it at the movies, too.
“What movie did you see?” her mother asks.
From the front door to her bedroom, it’s thirty-seven steps. Melanie has counted.
“Smokey and the Bandit.”
Her mother giggles. “That Burt Reynolds is such a hunk.”
Melanie closes her bedroom door and starts drafting her review.
He doesn’t arrive until the film has started. Mr. London Fog sits beside her in an otherwise empty row and unbuckles the raincoat. Melanie gazes at the screen, her pulse quickening. When Bobby, the son, discovers the body of his dead dog, Mr. London Fog rests his hand on the inside of her thigh.
“Beauty’s dead!” Bobby sobs. (Terrible acting, Melanie thinks, but she won’t write it until later.) Poor Beauty, murdered by cannibals; the family’s other dog is Beast.
“Touch it,” he says.
“It’s a horror film. You’re supposed to scream.”
She was only eleven when her father brought her to see Deep Throat in Times Square. The cashier gave him a look—no kids allowed, buddy—but it was the kind of theater where a twenty-dollar bill opened any door. He’d brought along some comic books and a bag of M&Ms to keep her occupied. They sat in the far corner of the last aisle, and when the movie started, her father told her to take off her glasses so she wouldn’t see the screen.
“This movie isn’t for little girls,” he said. “Don’t tell Mom, okay?”
From the French New Wave critics, she learned about negative space, how sometimes the spaces around and between the central image can hold greater meaning than the image itself. She’s trained her eye to focus on the mise en scene.
“Slower. Go slower,” he says.
Melanie notices how neatly the dishes are stacked in the sink amidst the clutter and disorder of the trailer. Wes Craven is telling us something about the rigidity of the family structure. How it’s a bulwark against the feral chaos of the world.
She likes that phrase, feral chaos. She’ll write it in her notebook, once her hands are free.
“Slower. Go slower … good,” he says.
The usher walks down the aisle, sees what’s happening, sees what she’s doing, and keeps walking. On the screen, the mustached guy, Doug, runs screaming in the dark.
“Why are you doing this?” Doug shouts. “Damn you! Give me back my baby.”
Darkness overwhelms the screen as the image of Doug grows smaller, the light draining to a pinhole, leaving Doug suspended in nothingness, a black void. Negative space.
Her eyes never leave the screen. She thinks about the use of ambient sound to heighten suspense. Later she’ll write five pages about it, about other things, too, like the ambient sound of his breath when he comes.
She was thirteen the first time her father watched her take a shower. The bathroom lock was busted, of course, had been for years. Their clear plastic shower curtain transparent, he could see everything, but all he did was talk about movies—Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop on the Late Show the previous night. Mostly a road movie, but it had a lot to say about America, he said, staring at the fogged mirror, slapping his face with Aqua Velva.
“Mayday! Mayday! We are stranded and in need of help. Do you copy?” the eldest daughter says in a flat, almost bored tone. The CB crackles; they hear heavy breathing, one of the cannibals panting on the other end. Help isn’t coming.
“Don’t stop,” he says. Melanie recognizes the aftershave, cheap Aqua Velva, only a buck ninety-nine at the local pharmacy. She has yet to really see him, Mr. London Fog, her eyes on the screen, always the screen, the family packed tightly in the dingy wood-paneled trailer in the middle of nowhere, the slow, high-pitched music pushing dread.
When he comes, she feels the spasms through the tips of her fingers, his mess squirting onto the thigh of her back-to-school jeans. Thankfully her notebook is protected, tucked inside her purse. With slow, tender strokes, he uses the flap of his raincoat to wipe the cum from her jeans. Next time, she decides, she’ll bring along a knife.
He came into her room at night, too; she could hear him breathing in the dark, heard the jangle of the coins in his pocket and the careful descent of a zipper. She remained still as a corpse and focused on the ceiling, on the window shade, the posters of Bogdanovich and Varda. The negative spaces.
For Christmas he bought her a television, a 20-inch Magnavox with a rabbit-ears antenna. Some nights he climbed into her bed in just his boxers and watched whatever film played after Johnny Carson. Sometimes she feigned sleep, and sometimes she stopped pretending; she’d put on her glasses and watch the movie with him. It was part of her education, how she saw so many classics at such a young age. A Touch of Evil. The Third Man. Kiss Me Deadly.
He didn’t always touch himself. Sometimes he just watched the movie, offered comments about the acting, the set design, the cinematography. His knowledge always impressed her; she never tired of listening. When the Late Show ended, he kissed her forehead, tucked in the covers, and whispered “Goodnight.” In the morning, a five-dollar bill sat on her desk next to her bookbag. Movie money.
Toward the film’s climax, the baby’s father wrestles with one of the cannibals while the baby lies crying in the hills. The message is clear: to survive, the hero must surpass the villain’s brutality, a trope Melanie loathes. Maybe someday she’ll write about it for her dissertation. The Hills Have Eyes and the Reification of the Capitalist Ethos. She wonders if he even likes movies, the man in the raincoat. Does he notice how the jagged rock landscape reflects the fissures in the nuclear family? Can he appreciate what Craven has done, hiding an art film within the restrictive conventions of exploitation horror? She and her father can talk movies for hours on end, sharing insights on the editing, the sound design, and the mise en scene. Mr. London Fog only wants her to stroke it.
“Faster,” he says. By now it’s a ritual, Wednesdays at 2 p.m. at the Regal. She never looks at his face. For all she knows he could be her father. The knife never leaves her purse.
On the bus ride home, she takes out her notebook, tries to decode the cultural signifiers, decipher what it all really means.
She was fourteen, standing in the rain with her father on the corner of 12th Street waiting for a cab after a screening of a restored print of Casablanca. The wind rendered their umbrellas useless, and all Melanie had on was a light cotton sweater, already soaked. The rush-hour cabs streamed by without a glance, the rain pinging the sidewalk in sheets. Her father unbuckled his raincoat and pulled Melanie against his frame. The coat was a size too big, and she fit inside perfectly, father and daughter wrapped in the warm folds of a London Fog. “Here’s looking at you, kid,” her father said, and she never adored him more. The rain, relentless, drove them back into the theater for a second showing of Casablanca, Bogey in a raincoat in the final scene, sacrificing his love for the greater good.
Some teenage boys in the front row cheer when Beast chases one of the cannibals off a hilltop. The dog stands at cliff’s edge, glaring down at the broken body of the killer, Beauty’s death finally avenged.
“This time I want you to suck it,” says Mr. London Fog.
Her hands are one thing, but her mouth is off limits. He’s gone extra heavy on the Aqua Velva.
“I’m not doing this anymore.”
“Why else do you keep coming back? You’re a fat, ugly Jersey girl pretending to be a cinephile. Now suck it.”
“I’ll touch it again. Okay?”
On screen, the bald cannibal erupts in a psychotic rage, trashing the kitchen of the family’s trailer. Everything is unraveling, and teenage Bobby picks up the gun and walks into the negative space.
“I’m gonna get those bastards,” Bobby says.
He never touched her, never asked to be touched. They talked about movies, how excited they were about the foreign film fest playing at the local college in three weeks. She overheard her mother on the phone with her aunt, bragging about what a great relationship Melanie had with her father. It was true. There was no one she would rather discuss movies with than her dad.
The Late Show was Mickey One, directed by Arthur Penn before the breakout success of Bonnie and Clyde. “Wouldn’t you be more comfortable if you took off your pajamas?” her father asked.
Maybe I should do what he wants, she thinks, get it over with and never come back. The school year is on the horizon—only two more showings, and then no more Wednesday afternoons at the Regal, no more The Hills Have Eyes. On screen, Doug embraces his dead wife, gently kissing her cheek.
“Only twenty minutes left in the goddamn film,” says Mr. London Fog. “Time’s running out.”
When no one is home, she searches the house for her father’s raincoat. The hall closet, the master bedroom, she even looks through the plastic bins in the basement where they store their winter clothes—no raincoats, but she does find her Herbie the Love Bug T-shirt, long outgrown, a gift from her father during her Herbie craze. She checks everywhere, but never finds the coat.
In her room that night, she waits for her father, the Late Show about to begin, an old Robert Mitchum film neither of them has seen. Earlier that night, over dinner, her father read her quotes from an essay by the great Manny Farber. Since age ten, her father had kept a scrapbook of classic movie reviews; Melanie loved flipping through the pages, feeling the texture of the faded newsprint.
There is a knock, and her bedroom door opens slowly. Her mother in tears.
“There’s been an accident. Your father ….”
Her mother asks how in the world she can go to the movies so soon after what’s happened, but Melanie knows her mom never gets it. How could she miss the final screening?
“I told you to suck it,” says the main in the raincoat. His head turns, his breath sour, his voice a low growl.
The Hills Have Eyes is almost at its end; on screen the sister huddles against her brother.
“Nobody’s going to help us,” she says, the cannibals still at large. “We have to help ourselves.”
“Suck it now.”
For the first time Melanie looks at his face. He’s so old, she thinks, his sunken cheeks covered in white stubble. His cologne is overbearing, nothing like the Aqua Velva her father wore. Even the raincoat is a cheap knock-off. She reaches for her purse and grabs the Swiss Army knife.
He sees the open blade and covers his fly, a gob of spit sliding down his chin. Ominous piano plays over the soundtrack as the cannibal brothers race through the hills, the dog, Beast, heavy on their trail. Maybe Melanie’s too slow or maybe she doesn’t really want to hurt him. Her hand shaking, she drops the knife as he buckles his raincoat and runs from the aisle, some guy three rows back shouting, “Hey, sit down, asshole!” as the final sequence begins, the crazy outlaw sister grabbing a rattlesnake while Doug and the final cannibal fight to the death.
Melanie thinks about chasing him, confronting him in the lobby over what he’s done to her, even calling the police, but she, like her father, considers it blasphemous to leave the theater before the final credits roll. She misses him. After the accident, they donated all of his clothes to Goodwill, even his London Fog. Will she ever watch a film again without thinking of her father?
When the lights come on and the theater clears, she picks up her notebook and pen. Only then does she notice the blood on the edge of the knife and on her thumb, too. Clumsy, she thinks, but ignores the blood and uncaps the pen. The Hills Have Eyes is finally over, and there’s so much to write in her review.
Chuck Augello lives in New Jersey. His fiction has appeared in One Story,
The Vestal Review, Juked, Smokelong Quarterly, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and
other fine journals. He’s been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of
the Net. He is a contributor to Cease, Cows, and The Review Review and
publishes The Daily Vonnegut, a website exploring the life and art of Kurt