Today is Thursday, so it is time for another article in our weekly Breening Thursday series. When we first started this series, we exclusively wrote about classic movies made outside of the Breen Era, namely, Pre-Code and Shurlock Era films. However, since we restarted the series in November and made it weekly, we have begun frequently breening Rating System Era films. Four of the seven topics we have breened since November 1 have been Rating System Era. Let me explain our reasons for analyzing multiple post-Code films.
Not everyone knows about the Code, so the Pre-Code and Shurlock eras are as unfamiliar to some as the Breen Era is. To many people, all classic films are different and decent compared to modern films because they were made in a “better time.” However, everyone knows about the rating system because it is still in place in the United States. The letters given as film ratings are so well-known that they have become a common part of speech. In Facebook clubs, event descriptions, reviews, and just plain conversation, the terms G-rated, PG-rated, PG-13-rated, and R-Rated are used to identify the acceptability and appropriateness of content for users. This wide usage indicates that the Classification and Rating Administration’s ratings are not only understood but respected by most Americans, as well as by people in other countries, many of which have adopted similar systems. Since people understand the rating system, we think that breening Rating System Era films can help people to better understand the Breen Era and the process of breening. In addition, it is easier to relate to the self-regulation of modern films than old films for many people.
Only one of the Rating System Era films we have breened has had a harsher rating than G, Miracle on 34th Street from 1994, which is rated PG. We think that breening films with such mild ratings is very revealing, since it shows that films which the rating system thinks are perfectly acceptable are far from Code-compliant. However, a lot can be learned from delving into films with more excluding ratings.
On November 16, a reader named John left a comment on my breening article about Five Pennies from 1959. He wrote, “I was wondering if you would Breen any films beyond the 1960’s. There are some excellent films like Taxi Driver and Pulp Fiction that you could Breen.” I decided to take such clear interest in breening seriously, so I researched these two films. I found that they are both R-rated and of content that would keep me from ever seeing them. However, I began to think about the possibility of breening an R-rated film.
The first thing one must do when considering a film to breen is ask the question, “Is it breenable?” Unless a film could have been made into a Code film, it is useless to list its surface problems point by point. We don’t get pleasure out of scrutinizing movies minute by minute only to say that they are too corrupt at the core to ever have received Seals of Approval. Thus, we make sure that all the movies we breen could have been Code films. Since we personally enjoy clean entertainment, we often gravitate toward milder films which weren’t too far from being decent. However, we try to include a good amount of more severely unacceptable films to show how the Code could reform very problematic stories.
It is easy to automatically assume that very un-Codish films are unbreenable. However, a greater familiarity with the Code and self-regulation teaches one that many films require greater contemplation. As a matter of fact, if you are willing to make changes to the actual plot, almost any film can be breened. The most seemingly unbreenable film which I have breened is Rasputin and Empress from 1932. As my article about it for The Second Annual Great Breening Blogathon explains, even that movie could have been a Code film.
For today’s article, I decided to breen a British-Canadian picture which was released in the United Kingdom in 1987 and in the United States in 1988. This film was rated R in America as well as Canada. The film is American Gothic, named after Grant Wood’s famously and frequently-spoofed painting of the same name. This is a horror film, often called a “slasher.” The cover and tagline alone show that, in its present form, this film is far from being Code-compliant. However, after great consideration, Rebekah and I have worked out a way that this movie could have been a good Code film. As a matter of fact, I sincerely believe that this film, which has been greatly criticized for lack of plot depth, strange elements, and unexplained situations, would have been a lot better artistically if it were a Code film.
The most difficult thing about breening R-rated films is the actual step of watching them. I have never seen an R-rated film, nor do I ever intend to see one. I will candidly state now that I have not watched the entirety of American Gothic. However, I have read extensive synopses and reviews to gain a clear understanding of the plot. I also watched the trailer on YouTube here. I was personally curious about this film, so I initially did this research to find out about it for myself. The full film is provided on YouTube here, so, when I began to write this article, I watched the opening, which I knew did not contain the violence which earned the film its harsh rating. As a matter of fact, the first thirty minutes of this movie are very tame, being much milder than many Pre-Code and Shurlock Era films I have seen. To use Rating System language, the opening could not be classified as anything worse than PG for some objectionable language.
I heard about this film because I actually know one of the actors. The heroine’s husband, Jeff, who could be called the leading man, is played by Mark Erickson, incorrectly credited as Mark Ericksen. He is a Canadian who acted in films and on the stage in addition to his main career as a professional ballet dancer. After an illustrious ballet career with many of the finest companies and an eight year run in San Francisco and Los Angeles productions of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, he retired to Temecula, California, where he started a ballet school. My sister, Rebekah, has been studying at his school, The Ballet Studio, since April of 2018. While she has gained great dancing technique during this time from Mark Erickson and his wife, we have become good friends with the Ericksons, who are charming people and great supporters of our endeavors. As we learned about Mr. Erickson’s unique, exciting career, we became curious to find out more. He has an IMDb page, which includes two child credits and multiple producer credits which I am certain belong to someone else with the same name. However, his credits from the 1980s and 90s are legitimate, as are some from the first decade of the 21st century.
In conclusion, I found out about American Gothic, and I watched the trailer. Rebekah and I hypothetically pondered the problems with the film’s story. Although we initially thought that it was unbreenable, we soon realized that it could have been a very satisfactory Code film if it had received some core changes. I am going to go through the story and highlight the problems, and then I will describe how the film could have been changed into a good Code film. With no further ado, let the breening begin!
The films begins with the release of Cynthia from a mental hospital. She has recovered from an emotional breakdown which was caused by a traumatic accident; we later learn that this accident was her baby’s drowning in the bathtub. Her husband, Jeff, is very supportive; he just wants her to be happy and well again. However, the psychiatrist makes it clear that they don’t use the word “cured” like they used to. She still needs time to cope. To aid with her recovery, Jeff takes her and four friends on a trip in an airplane back to the islands where they spent their honeymoon. Everything is fine until the plane breaks down, forcing them to land on a seemingly-deserted island. When Jeff realizes he can’t fix the plane, the group sets off to explore the island for signs of life, leaving one person, Paul, to guard the plane. They find a farmhouse filled with artifacts from the 1920s. The arrival of Ma and Pa soon alerts them to the fact that both house and island are occupied. The house has no modern conveniences, but Pa tells the journeyers that a friend who can help them will be arriving by boat the next day. The young people soon learn that their hosts are devout Christians who pray, who don’t believe in smoking or cursing, and who insist that the men and women sleep in separate rooms, since Jeff and Cynthia are the only married couple. Things go from strange to downright bizarre when they meet the couple’s three children, Fanny, Woody, and Teddy, who are overweight forty-year-olds dressed and acting like children. Fanny is about to celebrate her twelfth birthday, Woody and Teddy play cowboys and Indians, and all three play with childish toys. It wouldn’t take a master detective to realize that this is a very strange family. However, the young people are essentially trapped. Soon, one man is killed when the children cut the rope on the swing upon which he is sitting. A woman is killed when she mocks the children as “weirdos.” After discovering the death of their first friend, they decide to head back to their plane, not completely aware that their hosts killed him. However, before they leave, Fanny sees Jeff kissing and consoling Cynthia. Filled with jealousy, she stabs him. It soon becomes apparent that these people are cult fanatics who kill all outsiders who land on their island “in the name of God,” since they consider all besides themselves to be grievous sinners. After Jeff’s death, the two remaining women flee to the airplane, which they find missing. The remaining man in their party has been killed, as well. The helpless women are chased around the island by the bloodthirsty lunatics. Eventually, Cynthia’s last companion is killed. In desperation and driven out of her mind by the horrors on this island, Cynthia joins the insane family by donning a pink girl’s dress which matches Fanny’s and participating in the family’s bizarre customs. The family attempts no further harm toward her, so it seems that all they really wanted was to “convert” their guests. However, the stress ultimately causes Cynthia to snap completely and kill all the fanatics except Pa, whom she finally shoots. The film ends with an entirely insane Cynthia singing a lullaby while rocking a cradle which holds a baby’s corpse.
If you watched the opening thirty minutes of American Gothic but hadn’t watched the trailer or heard anything about the film’s synopsis, you would never suspect that this movie would take such a bizarre, violent turn. Up until the arrival of the five young people at the old house, the film is more of a psychological picture. The primary focus is on Cynthia’s mental and emotional state. She has flashbacks to her baby’s death, and incidents which occur during the trip bring the guilt back to her. Once they arrive at the house, things begin to change. Suddenly, the focus is more on the strange family than on Cynthia’s problems. However, I never would imagine from what I have seen of this film that it would become a gory slasher film in which ten out of the eleven people on the island die! The change is very bizarre. Perhaps it was meant to be a switch. It seems more like a change of plans or a discrepancy amongst the filmmakers. It’s really a shame that this movie is the way it is, since it started quite well. However, this detached opening is the key to reforming the film. First, let’s consider the problems in the existing film in chronological order.
The only major problem when the trip begins is an issue which bothers Pa, namely, the fact that the two other couples are not married. Since it is implied that they are seriously involved, they should be married. It might be interesting to make them relatives of the central couple, with Paul being Jeff’s brother and Lynn being Cynthia’s sister. Although that idea is optional and not necessary for self-regulation, I think it makes the situation more logical. The two couples are Paul and Lynn and Rob and Terri. I am going to suggest that, instead, Paul and Terri and Rob and Lynn should be married couples. It will make the breening later smoother. Also, in the early scenes of the film, Rob noticeably flirts with Lynn. There seems to be more of an attraction between those two characters than between Rob and Terri. The couples will be more natural if the women are switched. Also, Lynn looks more like Cynthia’s sister than Terri.
From the beginning of the trip through the duration of the film, the friends wear casual, outdoorsy clothes. On both the ladies and the gentlemen, the pants are a little too tight to be decent. I know that was the style, but some styles are unacceptable. In addition, it might be added that the women could be wearing slightly more feminine pant outfits. Also, Terri briefly wears a scuba diving outfit which is a little too form-fitting.
This is a very minor point, but even small things are important in Code-enforcement. When Cynthia has a flashback to the day her baby drowned in the bathtub, the bathroom is shown. A toilet is visible in the background. It is against the Code to show toilets on film.
When I breened Rasputin and the Empress, I stated that almost all the problems in the film revolved around Rasputin. The same is true in this film regarding the insane family on the island. However, like Rasputin in the other film, this family is the basis of this film’s plot. Without them, you have no story. That does not mean that they can’t be improved, though. When facing this sort of a problem, the self-regulator must determine what elements of the character or situation are essential to the plot. In this case, it is essential to have a family of hermits living on an island. That’s fine. It is essential to have them hate all outsiders. That too is acceptable. It is essential for the three children to still act like juveniles. That could be alright if handled properly. It is essential for them to want to kill the six visitors on the island, as well as all other trespassers. That is a more difficult point, but it would be alright if handled properly. However, their current motives for killing outsiders are unacceptable.
The five people who live on the island are characterized as religious fanatics. However, their religion is not some fabricated lunatic fringe cult. They are obviously devout Protestant Christians who believe in ridding the world of sin by using drastic measures. They don’t believe in smoking. They forbid blaspheming. They believe in chastity and the sacred institution of marriage. These are firm beliefs which were held by most Christians in America during the Code years. As a matter of fact, these were beliefs which were part of the Code itself. Obviously, these people are characterized as strong Christians from the 1920s. However, they are murderers. They cold-bloodedly and brutally pick off their guests one by one, proving themselves to be nefarious, heartless villains. The fact that they appear to be insane is no excuse. The children seem more crazy than their parents. Ma and Pa, who do most of the plotting and preaching, seem to have enough wits about them to be cunning. To characterize your primary villains as seriously practicing Christians is a very bold thing to do, since it can be quite offensive to Christian audience members. Pa prays, talks about God, quotes and misquotes the Bible, and preaches Christian principles between murders, which he and his family commit “in the name of God.” The filmmakers are practically implying that all Bible-reading, God-fearing Christians who uphold old-fashioned morals and principles are religious fanatics who will stop at nothing to convert everyone else to their beliefs. This is offensive and must be removed. Although Christian characters can be villains, these characters seem to base their evil deeds on their religion. This would be unacceptable no matter what their religion is. Religion and morals should be entirely left out of the story.
Another odd and largely unexplained element of the story is Fanny’s “doll.” Although she refers to it as her baby, Cynthia and the audience initially assume that it is just a toy. However, it turns out to be the dead body of a real infant. The origins and untimely demise of this child are never explained as far as I know, but I understand that there is an implication of incest in the dialogue. I have heard that the poor baby’s corpse is unacceptably grotesque, and the very idea of the baby is both repulsive and nonsensical. Fanny is supposed to be mentally a child, yet she has apparently been a mother. Also, she is attracted to and jealous over Jeff, a grown man. In addition, Teddy displays some very mature amorous tendencies. This creates a discrepancy in the story. Are these three people mentally children, or aren’t they? The removal of these elements would clarify matters.
A surface problem which must be taken into consideration is profanity and blasphemy. IMDb lists several profane expressions under its Parental Guide section. All profane, blasphemous, vulgar, and suggestive lines and dialogue would have to be removed. There are seven instances of profanity and blasphemy in the part of the film which I have seen. Not having seen the entire film, I can’t list the problems one by one. However, it must be understood that all dialogue must comply with Code standards.
The final core problem of this story is the number of murders. Out of eleven people on the island, one survives, the others having been brutally murdered in various grotesque ways. A simple gun, knife, or sword murder was too ordinary in the case of all but Pa, who gets shot. However, no matter how simply or discreetly the victims are killed, the high number of deaths is unacceptable. When a film has that much violence and that many killings, the audience becomes accustomed to the fact of violence, and human life becomes cheap. Thus, the very idea of a “slasher” film is essentially in violation of the Code. The Code was very specific upon the point that life must not be cheapened by excessive death, which makes the audience numb to the idea of violence and killing. The truth of this belief is revealed by many reviews of this film. So many horror film fans complain that the numerous murders in this film are unoriginal and boring, since much of the actual gore and violence is off-screen. Just the description of these deaths should fill any person of normal sensitivity with disgust. What do these people want, to see the actors actually brutally murder each other in front of the camera? Viewers’ bloodthirsty attitude toward this film proves how necessary the Code’s restraints of violence are.
The other important aspect in the relationship between the murderers and the victims is the characterization of the six friends. Naturally, you would consider them to be sympathetic characters, since they are brutally murdered for no good reason. However, reviews show that many people dislike these characters. Firstly, they are often called kids and teenagers, despite the fact that the actors were in their 20s and 30s. Secondly, they are often called idiots. I have read reviews in which people said that they were glad that the young people died because they were so irritating! One person on YouTube said that they deserved to die because they were messing around with strangers’ belongings. I was very surprised by this hostile attitude toward the victims. However, having seen the film’s opening, I now have a better understanding of this sentiment.
Jeff and Cynthia are a very sincere, mature couple. Cynthia is still troubled because of her baby’s death, but she is essentially a respectful and stable young woman. What baffles me most about this trip is why respectable, serious people like Jeff and Cynthia would want to spend time with the four delinquents who accompany them. From the moment they land on the island, the two other couples have annoying attitudes. Lynn is bored and grumpy from the moment the trip begins. Terri is fun-loving and silly. Rob and Paul are a couple of goofy hoodlums. They first night on the island, Jeff realizes that he can’t fix the plane right away, so they make camp. The young people are eager to make the best of the situation, so Terri turns on her radio, filling the peaceful woods with heavy rock and roll. Paul pulls out a flask. Adopting the motto, “Woods are woods,” Paul and Rob begin dancing around like drunken demons. Cynthia seems amused by their foolishness, but Jeff is too serious and mature for their skulduggery. I get the feeling that Cynthia likes the troublemakers more than he does. Paul doesn’t have much time to be irritating, since he is left with the plane. When they arrive at the house, Rob, Lynn, and Terri see it as a good opportunity for more tomfoolery. They have not been in the house two minutes before they are playing records on the phonograph, wearing 1920s scarves, hats, and clothes, and dancing around the living room. It is understandable that they have been called teenagers; they are certainly acting adolescent! As usual, Jeff and Cynthia do not participate in this disrespectful behavior. I wonder if the filmmakers were trying to throw the audience’s sympathy away from the youths and onto the side of the insane family. However, as the film is being breened, the behavior of the two additional couples must be reformed. Making them be married is a good first step. After that, there should be no rock and roll, no flask, and no goofy dancing. When they first arrive in the deserted house, they can look at their things, but they shouldn’t start rummaging through the belongings so casually and so quickly.
All these problems aren’t easily removed. Many of them are too deeply ingrained in the plot. To make the film entirely Code-compliant, parts of the story need to be rewritten. Rebekah and I worked out an interesting way the story could have been taken. In addition to avoiding the problems in the current film and cutting down on the general violence, we tried to think of a story which would make more sense than the existing one. After all, there are some glaring odd elements which are completely unexplained. Why is this family on this island? Why do the middle-aged offspring still think that they are children? Fanny celebrates her twelfth birthday during the course of the film, so why hasn’t she aged if she acknowledges the fact that she is getting older? Finally, why are these lunatics living in the 1920s? The actors playing the parents were both born in the 1920s, so they would remember only a very few years of early childhood from that decade. Their children would have been born in the late 1940s, so they should still be living in the 1950s or 60s. What drove these devout Christians to put their religious beliefs into such drastic action? With no further ado, I will detail the revised synopsis.
The six friends land on the deserted island, as before. The story proceeds the same way through the arrival of Jeff, Cynthia, Rob, Lynn, and Terri at the deserted house. The group goes inside, where they find rustic décor which speaks of the 1950s. The young people meet Ma and Pa, who invite them to stay and wait for their friend to arrive the next day and rescue them. They immediately show a special notice of Jeff, whom they almost seem to recognize. The situation seems somehow strange, but the friends don’t realize the extent of their hosts’ bizarreness until they meet their children, three middle-aged people who believe that they are ten, eleven, and eleven approaching twelve. Fanny, the only daughter, proudly informs the guests that she is going to have her twelfth birthday the next day. The night passes uneventfully, but the fivesome is eager to receive aid which will remove them from the sinister island.
Early the next day, Rob walks around outside, where he comes across the two “boys,” Teddy and Woody, who are actually much older than he but are happily playing cowboys and Indians. The brothers invite Rob to ride on a rope swing near the edge of a cliff. He is somewhat reluctant, but he agrees when the infantile men dare him and mock him as a “scaredy-cat.” The scene would progress as before, with Rob being strapped into the swing and pushed much too high for his liking. He yells for Teddy and Woody to let him down; instead, one of them climbs up and cuts the rope, sending Rob plunging to his death. Nothing more should be shown than the rope being cut. Neither Rob’s horrified realization of his doom, his fall, nor his body should be shown.
Later that morning, Teddy and Woody return to the house, where they inform their newly-risen guests that there has been an accident; Rob fell off a cliff to his death. The companions are shocked and devastated by this news. It is especially troubling to Cynthia, who is in a highly sensitive state of mind, and Lynn, who was Rob’s wife. The group mourns their friend’s death.
That afternoon, Lynn walks through the woods, in a state of shock and despair because of her husband’s untimely and unexplained death. She is searching for answers but finds none. She comes upon the sons, who are playing jumprope. Beside herself with grief, she bursts out that they are weirdos and lunatics. This enrages the boys, who begin to tie her up with the rope before the camera cuts away.
Meanwhile, Fanny finds Cynthia and brings her to her room. Acting like a little girl playing with her friend, she asks Cynthia if she wants to see her baby. She shows her a very realistic porcelain doll, which she gives Cynthia to hold. Cynthia is reluctant to play with the doll, which reminds her of her own deceased child. When Fanny asks her to give her baby a bath, Cynthia flees the room in horror. She runs to Jeff, who comforts her. (There is a scene similar to this in the existing film, which Fanny secretly observes, ultimately leading to Jeff’s death. The dialogue could be the same. However, the kissing in the existing scene is unacceptable. To follow Code standards, the kissing must not be prolonged, lustful, excessive, or open-mouthed. Fanny should not be observing the exchange.) The fond scene is interrupted when Terri runs in, crying as she states that Lynn is dead. She found her outside, strangled to death. Jeff declares that they are going back to their plane. If he can’t make it work, they’ll swim if they must to escape the island and its deadly inhabitants. They exit the house without being seen by the family.
When they arrive at the spot where they left the plane, they find only some burnt wreckage in its place. A few feet away from the plane is Paul’s unconscious body. He has a bad shoulder wound from a gunshot, but he is still alive. Realizing that their campsite was discovered and sabotaged by their wicked hosts, Jeff brings Paul and the two women to a different clearing on the shore. They tend to Paul’s wounds, and they gather some water and food from the surrounding area. However, they have neither more clothing, blankets, provisions, nor medical supplies. In addition, they have no way of getting off the island, and it won’t be long until the family discovers their new location. Paul eventually comes to himself, and he explains that two grown men acting like children sneaked up on him late the night before and approached the plane with kerosene cans and torches. When he tried to stop them, an old man with a shotgun came out of the woods and shot him, knocking the wind out of him. Apparently, his assailants thought he was dead. Fortunately, the bullet didn’t injure his organs. However, he has a bad infection, and he is very weak from loss of blood. (His wound should not be grotesquely bloody.) Jeff knows there is only one thing to do. He must leave Cynthia and Terri here with Paul as he goes back to the house in search of provisions and a way to leave this island. He is reluctant to leave his badly-injured brother and his traumatized wife alone with only his poor sister-in-law, but he has no choice. He promises to return as soon as possible, warning them not to leave their spot.
Jeff manages to sneak into the house without being seen, since no one appears to be inside. He fills a bag with clothes, food, a water jug, blankets, a first aid kit, and a knife. As he is leaving the house, a voice behind him says, “Goin’ somewhere, son?” He turns around to see Ma, who is threateningly brandishing knitting needles. He soon finds himself surrounded by the five lunatics, all of whom except Fanny are bearing weapons. The silly daughter is just carrying her doll, and she seems more interested in playing than threatening him. Before he can defend himself, Jeff has been tied up and brought to the barn. Once there, he asks what he and his friends did to enrage them, hoping to reason with the lunatics. Pa says, “You know what you did, Ralph Nielssen.” Jeff is shocked to be called by this name and insists that his name is Jeff Anderson. (As far as I know, this character has no surname, so we call him Anderson.) Pa tells him to stop lying, saying he knows who he is. When Jeff continues to protest, Pa “reminds” him of what he did.
The Nielssens and the Hendricks (Pa’s family) were feuding neighbors in Mississippi for generations. Their feud stemmed from the fact that each family claimed rights to the other’s farmland. However, the two families did nothing more than ignore and hate each other for years. Then, last year, Pa says, Old Man Nielssen died, and his son, Ralph, took over the farm. Determined to get their land once and for all, Ralph set fire to the Hendricks’ barn. The fire spread furiously, taking the sleeping family by surprise. A burning beam fell in one of the bedrooms and trapped their youngest child, Suzy. The parents and their other children struggled frantically to rescue Suzy from the flames, but they were helpless to do anything to save her from a terrible death. They barely escaped from the burning house themselves. With their property destroyed and their youngest child dead, they fled to this island, filled with hatred toward outsiders. For that reason, Pa, Ma, Woody, and Teddy have killed all outsiders who have landed on the island, believing that each is a trespasser who will rob and murder them. Now, they believe that Ralph has found their hiding place and is visiting them in disguise with a gang of cutthroats who plan to destroy what little they have left. This story fills Jeff with pity and horror, since he realizes that these disturbed neurotics think he is their daughter’s murderer. He unsuccessfully tries to convince them that he is a stranger. Hoping to make sense of the situation, Jeff asks when the tragedy occurred. “Sunday, June 16,” Pa answers. Baffled, Jeff says, “This June? I remember that June 16 was Wednesday. Do you mean 1987 or 1986?” The family members look at each other in surprise. “Eighty-seven?” they say. “Why, this is 1957.” In horror, Jeff realizes that his demented captors are trapped thirty years in the past. None of them has acknowledged the passing of any time since the trauma of Suzy’s death and the destruction of their property. Like his wife after their baby’s death, they have been unable to cope. However, their grief has had very violent ramifications. Nothing he can say can convince them that they are trapped in the past. Although they have clearly been on this island for thirty years, they think it has just been a few months. That is why Teddy, Woody, and Fanny still think they are children. While they admit that Jeff (or Ralph) and his friends have odd hairstyles, clothing, and speech, they can’t break out of their delusion.
Since they now believe that they have their nemesis in their power, they plan to do more than humanely kill him. They want to torture him first. They plan to keep him in this drafty barn indefinitely, where they will psychologically torment him while starving him to death. When he has died, they will find the two remaining members of his group and kill them, too. Jeff’s only relief is the knowledge that they don’t plan to kill him immediately. However, he knows that, unless he can break them out of their insane delusions, he and his companions are doomed to die horribly at the hands of the insane Hendricks.
That evening, the family watches while Teddy and Woody torment Jeff with toy bows and suction-cup arrows and a long coil of burning rope. Although they put out the fire before it burns him, they splash a bucket of cold water on him, leaving him miserably wet. Then, the family eats a hearty meal in front of him while he remains tied up and starving. Only Fanny offers him a friendly smile. Jeff realizes that his rescue may come from the insane middle-aged child, who seems to have a girlish infatuation for him. He spends a cold, miserable night hoping that Fanny will rescue him.
Meanwhile, Terri and Cynthia are growing worried at the dark campsite. Paul is delirious with fever, and Terri must keep the fire going, since Cynthia is beside herself. Her sister and brother-in-law are dead, her other brother-in-law is raving from an infection, and her husband has returned to a house full of murderous lunatics. She is beginning to go into a trance. She is very restless because Jeff hasn’t returned. She wants to look for him, but Terri convinces her that it would be very dangerous at night. In addition, someone must stay with Paul. She tells her that they will try to find the house if he hasn’t returned by morning. However, they’ll have to leave a trail of pebbles so that they can return to the campsite. Cynthia seems to be temporarily placated by this. However, she doesn’t sleep a wink that night. Just before dawn, when Terri and Paul are still asleep, Cynthia is awake but in a trance. Not fully aware of what she is doing, she gets up and starts walking in the direction in which Jeff went, muttering his name.
About the same time, Jeff is miserably awake, freezing, and catching cold from being wet in the drafty barn all night. Suddenly, the barn door opens, and Fanny creeps in. She has come to play with him. She unties him, and they have a picnic in the barn. The starving prisoner is glad for the food, so he eagerly plays along with Fanny’s delusion. Fanny likes him, and she doesn’t believe that he is Ralph Nielssen. She always noticed that Ralph had a menacing gold tooth, which Jeff doesn’t have, so he couldn’t be Nielssen. Encouraged by this logic, Jeff is determined to break Fanny out of her bizarre delusion.
While they are playing with some toys she brought, Fanny mentions her twelfth birthday, which will be the next day. Jeff tries to tell her that she said the same thing yesterday and the day before. She is hopelessly trapped in the day before her twelfth birthday, so she has been unable to mentally age in the past thirty years. However, she won’t listen to that, calling him silly and confused. Then, she says that she wants to play house with her doll. She’ll be the mommy, and Jeff will play the daddy. Jeff agrees, getting an idea. He offers to give his “wife” a goodbye kiss before pretending to go to work. She shyly agrees, and he lightly kisses her. (This should be shot from behind his head so that you can’t actually see them kiss.) Suddenly, Fanny becomes very confused. She is instantly struck full on by the realization that she is not a little girl. Jeff’s kiss brought her to her full age, and thirty years of maturity flood her mind. Jeff is thrilled to see that reality is hitting her. She goes over to a water barrel to look at herself. At first, she sees an image of her eleven-year-old self. Suddenly, it turns into her real reflection. She is shocked, but she finally realizes the truth about the deluded life she and her family have been living all these years.
Now aware of her real age, she tells Jeff that she has never murdered trespassers on the island as the others have. She never wanted to hurt anyone. She has just been a silly little girl all these years. She thanks Jeff deeply for freeing her from the trap in her mind, but she is confused about what to do with her life now. Jeff tells her that she needs to get away from that island and start a real existence for herself. If she helps him and his friends escape, they will help her begin a new life in civilization. She agrees and tells him that they have a boat at a little dock on the other side of the island. They sneak into the house, where the family is still sleeping. Jeff gets the bag of provisions he packed, and Fanny packs a bag of her belongings. They creep out of the house with their two bags and head to the spot where Jeff left Cynthia, Terri, and Paul.
The duo arrives at the campsite. There they find Terri, nearly beside herself with worry because Cynthia was gone when she woke up. Also, Paul is raving and delirious because of his wound. Terri is startled to see Fanny with Jeff, but she is placated when she realizes that she is now sane and harmless. They would now be ready to get the boat and leave the horrible island, but Cynthia is nowhere to be found. Jeff knows that he has to look for her. First, he must help Fanny loose the boat. While she brings it around to the campsite, he will look for his wife.
Fanny and Jeff go to the boat dock. They find the family’s boat, a 1950s rowboat which can accommodate six people. They untie it. Just as Fanny is about to climb into the boat and push it away from the dock, they hear a voice behind them say, “Where do you think you’re goin’?” They turn around in surprise to see Pa, Woody, and Teddy standing behind them. Pa is armed threateningly with a pitchfork, and the boys now have a real bow and arrow and a pistol. Fanny tries to reason with her relatives and explain that they have lost thirty years, but they won’t listen. They insist upon bringing the traitorous daughter and the escaped prisoner back to the barn. Before they can seize them, however, Fanny climbs into the boat and quickly pushes it away from the dock. When the three lunatics rush toward her, yelling for her to come back, Jeff escapes. As he runs into the forest, Teddy and Woody whiz arrows and bullets past him. Thankfully, they are poor shots, and he is able to safely disappear into the forest.
As Jeff runs toward the house, calling Cynthia’s name, he realizes that this part of the forest is filled with vicious booby traps. He dodges falling spears, flying daggers, pits, nets, and broken branches which crash down in his path. Luckily, none of the hazards injures him. Finally, he arrives at the clearing where the house is located. He sees Cynthia walking dazedly toward the menacing structure. He rushes over to her, and she returns to her senses when she sees that he is safe. He tells her that they have to leave the island immediately. As he starts to lead her back toward the woods, he hears a nasty female voice say, “Are you children leavin’ so soon?” The pair turns around to see Ma standing in the door frame, holding a shotgun. As they run into the forests, she begins firing at them. They save themselves by hiding behind trees and dodging the bullets. They run through the forest as fast as they can, evading booby traps at every turn.
Finally, they round a cluster of trees and run straight into Pa, who is brandishing a blazing torch. They try to run the other direction but find that Ma, Woody, and Teddy block the other three sides, completely surrounding them. Pa says that they are going back to the house to face their punishment once and for all. Cynthia is desolate, seeing no hope of escape, but Jeff keeps his wits. Seeing Pa as the least formidable foe because of his age and less imposing weapon, Jeff rushes at him and pushes him aside, pulling Cynthia behind him and knocking the torch out of Pa’s hand. The torch lands in dry brush, which immediately ignites. The exchange happens before the others have time to react. By the time Ma begins to shoot at them, Jeff and Cynthia are rushing through the forest. The pursuers are more interested in preventing the escape of their victims than saving their home from the flames, so they ignore the spreading fire and hurry after the young people.
After dodging more booby traps and outrunning the fire, which is being pushed toward the shore by wind, Jeff and Cynthia reach their campsite. Fanny and Terri have loaded their gear into the rowboat. However, they have been unable to get the unconscious Paul into the boat. Jeff tells Cynthia to get into the boat as he lifts his brother and carries him to the vessel. He moves his deadweight as quickly as he can, knowing that the fire and the lunatics are getting closer to the beach every second. Just as he is about to wade into the water toward the rowboat, Pa’s menacing voice yells, “Not so fast!” The assailants have reached the beach with murder in their hearts. They order Fanny to return to the beach, since they are going to kill the four intruders right now. Pa pulls a gun out of his pocket. “Your time has come, intruders. Never mind the torture. Ralph Nielssen, you and your wicked company are going to die right here and now, on the count of ten.” Pa begins counting to ten in a slow, menacing tone. Jeff knows that he and Paul can never get into the boat in that time; even if they could, the boat would still be within firing distance of the island. He looks around desperately for an escape route. Fanny is yelling at her family to stop this as she scrambles out of the boat and back to the shore. However, on the count of five, a horrible sound comes from the forest behind them. The roaring fire has reached that part of the woods, and the massive trees are creaking and crackling as they burn. The family turns to see a huge, burning pine tree falling toward them. We see the friends’ faces as they watch the blazing tree’s fall, accompanied by a huge crash. They are momentarily stunned by the chance fiery accident which miraculously saved them by killing their murderous foes. Eager to get away from the deadly island, Jeff carries Paul to the boat and puts him in it. Then, he wades back to the shore, where Fanny is standing motionless, staring at the burning tree which killed her family. Jeff leads her to the boat, and they shove off.
The next thing we see is the little rowboat in open water. Jeff has been rowing for three days, with occasional help from Terri and Fanny, but they haven’t reached civilization yet. Cynthia is quite traumatized because of the terrible experiences and is grief-stricken because of her sister’s death. Paul is still unconscious and feverish, despite the medical attention that they have tried to give him with the first aid kit. Fanny is eager to land on another island so that she can start her new life. Meanwhile, Jeff is growing concerned that they may not reach land before their supplies run out. However, when the fog lifts on the afternoon of the third day, Jeff spots an island. As they get closer, he is thrilled to see that it is has a harbor and a little town.
When the bedraggled group lands on the little island, the friendly locals welcome them. A middle-aged fisherman pays kind attention to Fanny, who is pleased to receive a man’s attention for the first time in her life. The weary but relieved friends are shown to three local cottages which visitors can rent, and the doctor is summoned to treat Paul.
Three months later, the friends are packing to go home. A local charter airplane is going to fly them to the nearest major airport, from where they can fly home. The two couples are happily leaving their new friend Fanny on the island, since she is engaged to the local fisherman who first welcomed them. Paul has recovered from his bullet wound. Having finished packing, the four friends gather in Jeff and Cynthia’s cabin. Jeff apologizes to the others for the danger and the death which befell the trip he planned. Although they are all grateful to be alive, he feels guilty for putting them in peril by flying a private plane. “No,” Cynthia says. “It had to happen that way. I had to see those people on that island, living thirty years in the past, three decades of their life lost. They didn’t move past a tragedy. They just kept living it every day, so they let it ruin their lives. They blamed the whole world, but they just were hurting themselves. That’s where I was heading. I was starting to end up like Ma, hurting everyone else she loved because her child died. Those poor people showed me how wrong that was. I need to live for the present and our future together, Jeff.” Jeff and their friends are overjoyed to hear that. They are all so happy that Cynthia is now a stable, contented woman. Then, Jeff and Cynthia announce that they are expecting another baby! Everyone rejoices as they prepare to board the plane.
The final shot shows the small plane which is bringing them to the larger airport. Jeff and Cynthia are sitting next to each other and smiling. Cynthia is by the window. She looks out at the scenery below. The camera goes through the window and focuses on a small, burnt island. Among the charred woods, the camera focuses on the decrepit remains of a barn’s frame. It obviously is the remains of the Hendricks’ barn. The camera zooms in to focus on Fanny’s ashy porcelain baby doll. The End.
This is just our idea of how the movie could have progressed. It wouldn’t have to be this way. We hope that this will just give you an idea of how this movie and so many other films could have had deeper stories and more developed characters instead of blood and violence if they had been breened. I encourage you to watch the first thirty minutes of this film and judge for yourself. Do you want the next two thirds of the film to focus on the horrific deaths of innocent youths? Wouldn’t it be pleasanter to have good triumph over evil? Why shouldn’t Cynthia and Jeff have another chance to make a good life for themselves? The Code would have given them that chance.
As a closing note, I would like to mention an endeavor which Mark Erickson, unlike his un-breened character, Jeff, lived to start. He and his wife, Tiffany Erickson, invented a line of fully-poseable dolls, Ballerina Dollz. These are beautiful toys as well as collector’s items. With their lovely hair, exquisite costumes, interesting ballet stories, and full poseability, they are a great value and a wonderful product! If you are in the market for a unique, cultured doll, you might want to visit their website through the highlighted link.
Thank you for reading! Come back next Thursday for another breening article!
Click the above image to buy this movie on DVD at Amazon and support PEPS through the Amazon Affiliate program! However, I strongly advise you to watch only the first 30 minutes unless you like brutal violence.
Follow us to bring back the Code and save the arts in America!
We are lifting our voices in classical song to help the sun rise on a new day of pure entertainment!
One thought on “Breening Thursday: 13. “American Gothic” from 1987”
Dearest Tiffany, You are showing an impressive flair for script writing! There are likely hundreds of pathetic “Slashers” you could resurrect and turn into decent films using the code administration guidelines, and I might add, writing skills, of which Mr. Breen himself would be proud! Lovingly, Your Father, James Brannan