When I was a chubby six-year-old, I had a starring role in a little-known horror film called Blood and Guts. It was written, directed and filmed by a man whose friends and co-workers never suspected his Hitchcockian tendencies. He even had a walk-on role in the movie, á la Hitchcock, in which he played the part of a buxom nanny. This man was my father.
We lived in New York City at the time, but the filming took place at my grandmother’s house in New Jersey where we spent the summer. A great big chunk of New Jersey was its own horror film in the late 1950s, or so ran its reputation. Industry along the turnpike belched smelly black smoke that had us rolling up the car windows and crying out, “Pigs, you stink!” Pigs probably had little to do with it; in that part of the state there wasn’t a farm animal in sight. But farther out, towards Bernardsville, cows grazed and the land got lush. Here was the garden state of New Jersey’s license plate.
My grandmother’s garden was glorious: beets, carrots, string beans, tomatoes, and every kind of lettuce you could think of. We were city kids but we knew about walking barefoot between the rows to yank a beet from the ground. No matter how carefully we washed the dirt off them, they still had a strange, bitter aftertaste that clung to our tongues, and they stained our clothes magnificently. In summer the sky, when not host to thick thunderclouds, ran a pale, sickly blue, and the humidity forced us into my grandmother’s brilliant blue swimming pool. My mother lay in the sun and my father worked in the city, commuting every day by train. We kids did nothing but play and eat Dairy Queen sundaes and read books and talk back to our mother. Maybe it was our talking back and our unemployed state that inspired my father to make the movie. All I know is that in the hottest days of the hottest July on record in New Jersey, our director decided to start filming.
The movie’s plot line was simple but unsavory—so unsavory, in fact, I’d be wise not to reveal it here. The world has changed since 1959 when my father bought an 8 millimeter camera and decided to put his own twist on home movies. Back then, horror films were more dopey than horrifying, a kind of slapstick entertainment that might involve three naughty children tying their mother to the railroad tracks and jumping up and down as the train approached. Throw in a visiting devil, equipped with horns and a tail, and a black cat, and you have yourself a nightmare of Freudian proportions.
How could we have had so much fun creating something that sounds so disturbing? For one thing, it was a family project. Instead of going fishing together we stayed home and tied our mom to the railroad tracks while Dad kept the camera rolling. All week I looked forward to the weekend when I’d wake up and be in his movie. It started when we picked him up at the train on Friday evening. My mother drove us to the station in our pajamas. Dad would get in the Rambler on the passenger side and we’d go to the Dairy Queen. We’d drip ice cream all over the seats and bounce around on the way home, and if we were lucky we’d hit the tracks just as the crossing bells started up, and my mother would laugh and fly across and wait, looking back at the train. We were mesmerized by trains. Their pounding wheels gave me goosebumps; they still do. Some evenings we kids would put a penny on the track and if we were lucky we’d find a squashed piece of copper, too hot to hold, after the Erie Lackawanna went by. At home my dad would put us to bed, something he never did during the week. He smelled of newspapers and city things, and here it was summer and we were far from the city. It was comforting to know he was in the house, eating supper with my mother, and tomorrow we’d wake up and be in his movie.