Welcome back to Let’s Scare Bryan to Death! This month I’m chatting with Harmony Colangelo, a writer who specializes in transgender representation in media, including some great pieces on the recent vampire flick Bit and the cult classic Sleepaway Camp. She also just launched a brand new podcast with wife and (and previous LSBTD guest) BJ Colangelo called This Ends at Prom, which is a delightful look at “teen girl” movies “through the lens of cis and trans femme perspectives.” It’s a fun, nuanced show and I highly recommend checking it out if you haven’t yet had the chance.
Colangelo’s pick this month is an interesting one, as it finally gives me a chance to explore the wild world of Disney Channel Original Movies. Fans of the site of course know that Derek Anderson is our resident DCOM expert. Given the fact that the first DCOM hit the scene when I was thirteen and kind of an edgelord douchebag when it came to movies, I missed the boat. So when Colangelo recommended we take a look at 1999’s Don’t Look Under the Bed, a film known as perhaps the scariest of the DCOM films, I saw it as a perfect opportunity to take my first swim in the DCOM waters.
Directed by Kenneth Johnson, Don’t Look Under the Bed follows Franny (Erin Chambers), a smart young girl who is skipping her last year of middle school and starting high school early. Her first day coincides with a rash of unexplained events in her small town of Middleberg: cars are being egged, dogs are being put on roofs, everyone’s clocks are pushed three hours ahead. There doesn’t seem to be much to connect the incidents other than the perpetrator’s tagging their work with the letter “B.” When that same “B” is found inside Franny’s locker, she becomes the prime suspect, made worse by the fact that she’s also started seeing a boy around town named Larry Houdini (Eric "Ty" Hodges II), an imaginary friend that only she can see, who claims the person really behind all of the mayhem in town is the Boogeyman (Steve Valentine).
SPOILER ALERT: We will be discussing major plot points of the film in this discussion.
Don’t Look Under the Bed represents a crucial piece of gateway horror for Colangelo, along with the spooky programming aimed at kids in the ’90s on channels like Disney and Nickelodeon, and she recalls a lot of anticipation for the film when it was released.
I've had a lot of discussions with people where they get into horror films either because it was really taboo, so it made it exotic and interesting because it was the allure of something you weren't supposed to watch, or people who were exposed to something at probably too young of an age and then were terrified and had to grapple with it. I got into horror through television, primarily, so it's stuff like Scooby-Doo at a younger age and then a little bit older things like Are You Afraid of the Dark or this movie. And this really encapsulates everything that I'm sort of working with right now [on This Ends at Prom] in terms of a teen girl movie…It's revving up for a good Halloween season, and it's also severely overshadowed by Halloweentown, even though I think this is a much better movie, personally.
The interesting thing about this movie is that most of the Disney Channel Original Movies would re-run pretty regularly in the movie version of syndication for the Disney channel, and this one didn't because it was the second film to ever be rated PG for a DCOM because of scary themes and imagery. Because for one thing, the Boogeyman's character design is fantastic and legitimately still holds up as a scary kids’ villain. But I would assume that I probably saw this the day it came out, because Disney Channel Original Movies were like an event. They’d hype them up, they were super well marketed, and it was a big talk in school the next day. So I might have been like eight years old or something, and had not revisited this movie actually until I watched it for this.
After about 20 years, Colangelo admits there was a lot that she’d forgotten about the movie, but the climax brought the memories flooding back, and it holds up quite well for her. The Boogeyman design, in particular, is even scarier than she remembered.
I remember the Boogeyman kind of looking a little bit more like a spooky version of David Bowie in Labyrinth, like something in that vein, but a little bit more beat up and scary with sharp teeth. But it's like, “Oh no, he's just a full-blown vampiric, terrifying David Bowie where he's got spikes coming out of his face and giant claws and stuff. So, I wouldn't say I was scared, but I was a little more impressed than I remembered being by the Boogeyman in this movie, and I was really just impressed in general with the character design.
Now, while I enjoyed the movie, there were some elements that initially didn’t work for me, particularly Larry’s over-the-top antics. But Colangelo puts that in an interesting perspective, reminding me that since we find out he’s the imaginary friend for Franny’s younger brother, Darwin (Jake Sakson), Franny (and by extension us) isn’t his intended audience.
The whole first half of the movie, Larry is doing a bit of schtick. He's doing a bunch of goofy things, he's got costume changes, he's got props, he's telling really corny jokes. And yeah, for a kid who's a freshman in high school it's going to be annoying, and it's going to be frustrating, and all Larry's trying to do is essentially just make her laugh. That's what he wants to do, and she's not the right age for that. And it makes a lot more sense why Darwin would like him, or these kids that are at the library really like him. They think he's the coolest because he's really silly and fun. He's basically a cartoon.
The friction between Larry’s silliness and Franny’s logical demeanor really gets to the core of the movie, which is about how trauma forces children to grow up faster than they should. Colangelo points out that this depiction reminds her of another well-known piece of children’s entertainment.
I really love the theme of this movie as dealing with childhood trauma, and it forcing you to grow up and now having to grapple with growing up too soon versus trying to maintain the kind of whimsy of childhood that kids should have. And another thing that is kind of entangled in this whole thing is that there's a lot of similarities and references to Peter Pan. And I have always kind of hated Peter Pan as a character. I've heard people talk about, “Oh, Peter Pan's the Angel of Death, and they go to usher kids off to Neverland. That's why they never grow up!” I don't know if that's true or not, it's an urban legend I've heard for years. But the idea of Peter Pan being like, “I don't grow up, I'm going to be an annoying little shit with my other annoying young boys forever because who needs to grow up?” And then with Hook, it's like the pendulum swings too far in the opposite direction, where you grow up and you completely forget what being a kid is like. And I think [Don’t Look Under the Bed] really handles those themes and walks the line so well between those two concepts.
In fact, it’s Franny’s forgotten childhood that makes her interactions with Larry all the more difficult, as she consistently tries to make rational sense out of the experience, which, as Colangelo explains, is pretty typical of women (especially teens) in media.
A lot of teen girls are played as very dramatic or very emotion-driven. Because she had to grow up sooner than she was ready for, and probably because her parents are very academic, she has this very logical way of approaching everything, and so it makes total sense that she would just... why wouldn't other people be able to see this? He's there, it makes perfect sense even when he keeps repeating, “I'm an imaginary friend. No one can see me.” She starts coming up with excuses of like, “Well, maybe you're an alien and you put sound waves to convince everyone that you're not actually here and they can't see you. Because she's just trying to come up with any more reasonable explanation for why he's there and why no one else can see him other than “he's just imaginary.”
Eventually, we find out that both Franny and Darwin were pushed too quickly into maturity by Darwin’s battle with leukemia a few years earlier. This experience, combined with Franny’s guilt over being relieved to learn she wasn’t a match to be a bone marrow donor for her little brother, caused her to push Darwin away from “childish” things like imaginary friends.
And this is one thing I really enjoy about young adult and children's media, and that there's so much that can be said about a childhood experience, how it translates, and how adults digest it… When Darwin had leukemia, when he was struggling with that, the last thing he needs to hear is his sister saying, “Imaginary friends are stupid. Look at the horrors of the world and the situation because that's what you need to do to survive.” And that's not what he needed. He needed his imaginary friend. He needed the person who knew exactly what to do to make him feel better.
It's this thing where I think, because at least in my experience where when you're maybe 12, 13, or 14... certainly when you transition from eighth to ninth grade and you're surrounded by older kids, there's an expectation to be grown up. And you have to assert yourself more and carry yourself differently. And I think that's a very real character motivation for her to do this. Obviously, there's fear, because one of the best lines in this movie is Larry turning to Frances, and saying it snarkily, but it still holds water, is that “fear is logical.” People say that there are illogical fears: “I'm afraid of heights, but I'm never going to [climb a] mountain, so it doesn't matter.” No, you're afraid of dying and the way to get to that in your brain, that you're most scared of, is heights. So being scared makes sense, and whether you're six or 60, everyone has fears and you can't just pretend they don't exist.
...And because the Boogeyman is established on fear, this movie has the rare opportunity where it gets to be a character study in fear. It gets to analyze the concept itself, rather than try to make you scared. It can [make you scared], but it's like understanding fear and digesting the root of fear, why we have it, and kind of how to process it.
The horror in the film stems not only from the existence of Boogeymen, but also the revelation that they are created when imaginary friends become forgotten before their time. In Larry’s case, we see this transformation in full display, which must have been terrifying for children watching at the time as this silly, comforting figure becomes distorted and monstrous.
It's such a stark contrast from his very goofy personality that he normally has, and it's a great metaphor for adults digesting this. I would want to recommend this movie, not necessarily for adult fans to enjoy, but as a good tool for younger kids. This is a marvelous film for understanding things like this, particularly because there's not a lot of transitional horror for younger kids these days. But Larry essentially metamorphosing into the Boogeyman, and the logic behind this world and why that happens, is a really good metaphor for not properly addressing your traumas.
As you can imagine, these are some pretty heady and dark discussions to be having as part of a Disney Channel Original Movie. In a lot of ways they do pull it off, but, according to Entertainment Weekly, behind-the-scenes meddling from Disney threatened to interfere with Johnson’s final product (including discomfort with the idea of an interracial kiss between actors Hodges and Chambers, which... wow). In imagining a possible updated take on the material, I can’t help but think of Guillermo del Toro as a great option to helm a remake. Colangelo agrees.
Oh, it would be so good in his hands because he does dark fantasy so well. And I think he would really show off more of Boogeyland, which I love as a setting visually because it just reminds me of those really well-photographed I Spy books that were popular in the ’90s. I just love the mess of everything that got lost under the bed, something where you lose a sock in the dryer and it just ends up in Boogeyland. It's got this kind of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids vibe where you're in over your head. It's dark, and everything is familiar, but it's strange because it's giant and sort of dilapidated and dirty, like a moldy peanut butter sandwich. I would love to see his take on that setting because it would be so interesting.
But ultimately, for whatever flaws the movie has, Colangelo thinks that by and large it really does get it right, which she credits to the cast and crew earnestly working with what was likely a limited budget to make something that people could really enjoy.
When you first asked me to do this, it was immediately like, “Cool, I’ll sit down and watch this. I'm excited!” That was a couple weeks ago, and I actually rewatched it today. I might be a little biased, but it is really good on a second rewatch because I'm a sucker for very deliberate films. And there's so much foreshadowing that happens in the early part of this movie that I wasn’t paying as much attention to [the first time] because I’m just sitting there going, “What is happening? Now this is ringing a bell.” [In the rewatch] I picked up on so many more small things that happened in the early stages of this movie that affect the later part. That's really satisfying filmmaking for me and it shows a lot of effort being put in this film.
I am a complete sucker for films that live or die based on how much the cast cares. Like [in Hocus Pocus], if your three main witches, the Sanderson sisters, were not putting in such amazing performances, Hocus Pocus wouldn't hold up as a film. I feel similarly about the two Addams Family movies, particularly the first one because it's a weaker plot. But the cast is having so much fun, that shows through and that's sort of how I feel about spooky children stories from this era... whether it be Eerie, Indiana, Goosebumps, Tales from the Crypt. Anything of this brand feels very similar and it's got this sort of Halloween-store vibe, because it's on a lower budget and it's kind of cheap. But that makes it seem nostalgic yet timeless in the way that Halloween is for me. But I realize it's totally just me having grown up at the perfect time for all of these experiences, so it's just my brand.