Friday, October 30, 2009

The Story of Phreaky Philm Phridays

OK, everybody, please indulge me here...On this Halloween Eve Eve, I want to tell you the tale of one of the most enjoyable things I've ever done in my years upon this planet. Since it ended a little over a year ago, there's not a Friday night since that I don't, at least for a moment, think back and long for a weekly practice that took place in a church basement in River Forest, Illinois. It came to be known as Phreaky Philm Phridays, and this is its story...including an origin that I'm guessing not many people connected with PPP are aware of. Until now.

By way of introduction, I must tell you that I am, by profession, a musician with a profound love for theater. I've acted in, directed and music directed dozens of shows, both amateur and professional. Like many folks I know in similar positions, I have wound up putting food on the table as a church musician. Now, that having been said, I confess that my friends have found me to be a pretty irreverent person, and given the wide variety of my interests and enthusiasms, one of the last adjectives they might choose to describe me would be holy. Not evil, not depraved, just...Senski. In short, I keep religion a very private thing and get along swimmingly with atheists and agnostics. OK? We cool? Great. That's the last that I will ever bring it up on The Jar.

I take you back to New Year's Eve, 2005. The church where I worked had recently hired a youth minister, and during the waning hours of the old year, we decided, along with a friend of his, to go to a local cinema to catch Peter Jackson's version of King Kong. The Friend sprang for a convivial dinner, I paid for the movie tickets, and as our YM headed off to the concession stand to treat us to the prerequisite refreshments (three hour movie, dontcha know), I was left with The Friend.

We wandered around the lobby and came upon a standee for the soon-to-be-released Hostel. Now, I doubt I have to describe the content of Eli Roth's Hostel to anyone reading this, but I do want to make the point that, at this moment in its campaign, it was being sold with an image that, while rough-hewn and gritty, did not give much of a hint at the magnitude of the horrors and atrocities contained within the film. (By the time the sequel rolled around, there was no such sense of delicacy in selling that, lemme tell ya.) I don't want this post to become a review of Hostel - I happen to think quite highly of it - but suffice it to say that, for a moment, we both found ourselves standing in front of this standee, silently regarding it.

To break a silence that was becoming increasingly uncomfortable, I said, in the most innocuous tone of voice I could muster, "I'm really kind of interested in seeing that." (Notice, gentle reader, how I immediately followed the intensifier really with the neutralizing qualifier kind of. The effect I was going for: nonchalance.

Another uncomfortable silence. Then, from The Friend...

"I can't imagine what kind of person would want to see something like that. Or have those kind of images in their head."

Well.

Phriends, I am seldom at a loss for words, but at that moment, you could have completely colored me nonplussed. The YM returned with the snacks, we made our way to the auditorium...and The Friend never said another word to me for the rest of the evening.

Now, if you feel about Horror the way I do (and I'd like to think you do), I'm sure you can relate, and you probably have similar tales of your own to tell. After all, many people react to an admission of loving Horror and Dark Fantasy tantamount to skinning small animals alive or enjoying the lancing of boils. My friends have all come to know and, if not love me for it, at least tolerate it. Besides, anyone who knows me also knows of my passions for politics, Marvel Comics, alternative rock of the 80s, The Great American Songbook, literary fiction, game shows and Little Caesar's Pizza. I take pride in being one complex dude, as I believe most Horror fans are.

Now, here's the kicker...Following this night, the YM also soon began to treat me differently, distantly, often harshly. Someone who was once jovial and joshing had now become remote. I do not attribute the entirety of the change to that New Year's Eve conversation, but he suddenly began tossing lines into conversations like "We must always be on guard against Evil under the mask of Holiness." Drop that little bon mot at a party sometime and watch the reaction, ok? It was over a year later, but he finally admitted over dinner at an Irish pub that he had long viewed my predilection for Horror as indicative of a "moral failing" on my part, but he was making strides in coming to grips with those feelings.

How nice of him.

Now...let's leave that for a moment. The most active and involved individuals in the music program at the church where I worked at that time were its youth. There was a handful of incredibly smart and talented high school students who formed an ensemble with me and provided music for the liturgies, and, in 2006, worked very long hours to help pull off the Bataan Death March that is Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. (Ask any church musician why their yuletide spirit is usually in short supply, and they'll tell you there is often very little emotional reward in making everyone else's Christmas merry when you are too dead to enjoy any quality time afterwards with loved ones...which is another reason why I've grown to love Halloween.) As a way of thanking them, I thought it might be fun to get them together for a Bad Movie Night. They asked if it was alright to invite a few more friends, I said sure, and, almost one year to the date of the infamous King Kong / Hostel night, we gathered on a Friday night in the basement of the cold, cold church, various and sundry pizzas for our consumption, and projected upon the wall...Reptilicus!


Those of you who have yet to experience the awe and mystery of the splendor that is Reptilicus are lucky, for its first viewing still awaits you. It tells the tale of an oversized prehistoric creature that regenerates itself from a tail that is discovered underneath the frozen tundra. It grows and grows and grows...until it becomes a monstrous marionette that terrorizes a table-top model of Coopenhagen. It has visible strings. It has a permanent gobbet of drool hanging from one lip. It pukes up green bile that is "scratched" onto the print of the film. And in the Danish print of the film, the fershlugginer thing flew. And there was also - I swear - a musical number.



Reptilicus is gloriously terrible. And terribly glorious.

And we all had a ball. When I suggested that we do this again in a month, the reaction was immediate and enthusiastic. Four weeks later, an even bigger group assembled to watch that 1975 classic filmed just a few miles from my hometown...The Giant Spider Invasion!


So...now they were threatening to bring an even larger group the next time, and Yours Truly got to thinking; did I only want to expose this gang to films that were bad? Campy and riotously fun, yes...but always bad? That's when I decided to switch things up a bit, and share with them a film from my childhood that is near and dear to my heart; The Abominable Dr. Phibes.


That was it. Vincent Price clinched it. We had a ritual going, and monthly Fridays soon became bi-weekly and, with a celebration of Price's birthday in May - and with Phibes-ian spelling - there was born a weekly Phreaky Philm Phriday! The average number of teens crammed into that room was 15-20, but there were weeks that pulled easily 30 or more. The evenings began the same way: we'd start off with some bizarre little educational short from the 50s through the 70s...


...then we'd take in an episode of Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits or Night Gallery...


And then the Main Feature. Before we fired up the DVD, I shared background and trivia about the movie to come, movies I pulled from my voluminous library of classic horror and science fiction - making sure that we kept things PG rated, of course. Soon I equipped the room with full surround sound and a huge projection screen. I even bought a changeable marquee to hang above the door. After each movie was over, we'd play Charades or Win, Lose or Draw until Phriday turned into Saturday. In short, here were some of the best and brightest young people it was ever my privilege to know, giving up their Phriday nights to come and watch old movies in the basement of a church. The soda flowed freely, there were cookies and chips in abundance...and if I haven't made this sound like the deliriously good time that it was, well...I apologize.

Now here's what amazed me....by and large, the movies still worked. It was so gratifying to see them respond to The Tingler in ways that must have made William Castle smile in the afterlife, or to watch the entire room hit the ceiling during that moment in Wait Until Dark. And even though these teens had been weaned on a diet of much harder, more graphically horrific stuff, they were developing an appreciation for Horror and Science Fiction's past. We even did theme nights where they had to answer super-tough trivia after seeing a movie, or, in the case of I Bury the Living, I stopped the film and had them write down their own creative endings (the winner - nice going, Sara! - received a copy of Roger Ebert's Your Movie Sucks). Phreaky Philm Phridays were anything but a passive experience.

Eventually we went to double features, and even added a Monday Movie Madness edition that was just as popular. When PPP came to a conclusion in September of 2008, we had seen a total of 113 movies....and here's the list (all shown under their US release titles) -

REPTILICUS
THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION

THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES
FIEND WITHOUT A FACE
THE GREEN SLIME

WILD WOMEN OF WONGO

NIGHT OF THE LEPUS

THE BLOB (1958)

THE TINGLER

DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN

THE GIANT CLAW

THE APPLE
DUEL

I BURY THE LIVING

BEGINNING OF THE END
I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF

I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN

ONE MILLION YEARS BC

MATINEE

HORROR OF DRACULA

ATTACK OF THE 50 FT. WOMAN

THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES WHO STOPPED LIVING AND BECAME MIXED-UP ZOMBIES

BUG (1975)

XANADU
(?!?)
GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER

THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM

THE RAVEN

THE THING WITH TWO HEADS

EQUINOX

THEATER OF BLOOD

THE BLACK CAT (1934)

CAT PEOPLE (1942)

VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED

CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED

WAIT UNTIL DARK

THE OMEGA MAN

SOYLENT GREEN

DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS

EEGAH

THE GIANT GILA MONSTER

DAY OF THE ANIMALS

PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE

PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE

WHO SLEW AUNTIE ROO?

TALES FROM THE CRYPT

SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS
THE HUDSUCKER PROXY

THE NIGHT STALKER

I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE

THE SWARM

THE SEVEN FACES OF DR. LAO

MADHOUSE (1974)

YOG - MONSTER FROM SPACE

KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS

MR. SARDONICUS

WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE

BLACK SUNDAY (1960)

THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN

WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST

BLOOD OF DRACULA

THE PREMATURE BURIAL

WILLARD (1971)

GORGO

CAT-WOMEN OF THE MOON

QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1960)

DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS

I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE

PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES

THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD

X - THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES

THE HOUSE OF USHER

THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH

GODZILLA - KING OF THE MONSTERS

DESTROY ALL MONSTERS

DIE, MONSTER, DIE!

THE HAUNTED PALACE

THE BRAINIAC

BLACK PIT OF DR. M

CARNIVAL OF SOULS

FREAKS

LASERBLAST

STARCRASH

BEN

BEWARE! THE BLOB
ROBOT MONSTER

THE CREEPING TERROR

FROM HELL IT CAME

TERROR IN THE HAUNTED HOUSE

THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE
TEENAGE CAVEMAN

TROG

TARANTULA

THE FLY (1958)

SSSSSSS

SQUIRM

LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH

WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH HELEN?

CURSE OF THE DEMON

THE DEVIL RIDES OUT

THE CAR

TENTACLES

THE INCEDIBLE SHRINKING MAN

ASYLUM (1972)
THE KILLER SHREWS
BLACULA

IT'S ALIVE (1974)

KONGA

TOURIST TRAP
TARGETS

THE CONQUEROR
WORM

I confess I look at this list and rue all the wonderful movies I never got to show. The teens often asked me how long I could have kept it going, and, at the time, I caculated I owned at least six years worth of movies before I would have had to repeat - that is, not counting the new DVDs that I was buying all the time.

I had to move on when I relocated to a new job outside of Milwaukee, and the Phreakers have mostly graduated and gone on to incredible things in colleges and universities across the nation, with many of them pursuing the arts for a vocation. I find out about them through Facebook updates and phone calls, and I'm damn proud. A number of them even took our shared experience and used it as a springboard to perform a production of Rod Serling's Requiem for a Heavyweight, which I was honored to direct.

So....Austin, Jack, Armaan, Joe, James, Marp, Mikey, Luis, Louis, Pat, Marco, Dan, Sara, Alicia, Patty, Sreeja, Ally, Chloe, Brittany, Jen, Margaret, Elis, Veronica and all the rest...I miss you guys. You gave me two of the best birthdays I ever enjoyed - and a Vincent Price cake that eclipsed all others! My best wishes to you all, wherever life may take you.

And I'm glad you all got to put my moral failing to good use.

Happy Halloween from The Jar, phriends.

8 comments:

Jeff Allard said...

Sounds like some great times, Senski! Personally I'm always leery about sharing my favorite films with anyone for fear that if they don't respond to them in the same way, that it'll inevitably feel like some kind of unintented personal rejection. But obviously sometimes it's worth taking that chance! Have a Happy Halloween!

Posmotri said...

=)

So I'm stuck in Paris for Halloween with only a few friends, none who love the holiday. Meanwhile, here I am, lover of all that's Halloween (well, there's a few excepts), stuck in a city lacking in spooky spirit celebration.

So how do I plan to celebrate it? I plan to watch a few movies, including some good ol' Vincent Price, my favorite (perhaps) Phreaky Phridays movie Fiend without a Face, and then maybe a more newer movie!

Well, plus I also visited the Pantheon crypts and Pere Lachaise cemetery to keep the vibe up.

Ever since those PP days I've had an ever growing fondness for horror and science fiction movies, and I must admit on average I watch at least one or two of them a week.

I want to thank you Senski for those amazing times, and also for this amazing post that brings good times and scary thoughts to me on this Halloween day!

=)

Musicalowl said...

Mr. Senski thank you so much for posting this. I have been following your blog and it always reminds me of those Fridays. Those Fridays were the highlights of my week and what I looked forward to all of the time.

Those Fridays opened up a whole new appreciation for older, and often horrible, scary movies. But that was never the only reason why I went. Those weekly movie night introduced me to amazing people, including yourself, that I will never forget and I want to thank you.

I miss you, but I love hearing about how you are and what movie you are reviewing. There have been many things that have shaped the way I am and Phreaky Philm Phridays is a big one that I will also remember and cherish.

Happy Halloween, Mr. Senski and Thank You for everything you have done and continue to do.

~Patty Graf

Anonymous said...

This is amazing. I remember you telling me that story about the YM (I won't name names). That was well... interesting. I'm soooo glad we decided to watch Reptilicus that night. PPP has changed my life forever. I now watch and read horror and thriller like an addiction to crack. It's probably the greatest memory of high school that I will ever have. Actually... probably one of the greatest memories I have ever had. Thank you for all of those great Phridays.

- Austin

P.S. Long live "A Very Sweeney Christmas!!!"

Carl (ILHM) said...

Ohhhhh I have had all to many similar experiences my friend, coming from a strict right wing conservative Christian household, my faithlessness and interests in the macabre have distanced me from my family for.. well, ever. My mom still scoffs when she she's I havent "outgrown" Horror. "Outgrown?" Try being condescending, it might suit you mom.

I only wish you could slip HOSTEL in to the weekly viewing and see what they make of it. Where is the evil in HOSTEL? Satan is absent, and it only serves as an example of the evil in mankind that religion aims to destroy.

KrAzYsReEjA said...

Wow this just made my day! Talk about nostalgia! Phreaky Philm Phriday will always be one of my fondest high school memories and it introduced me to a genre of film I never would have been familiar with. Plus, you are one charismatic and talented musical director!

Although I'm one of the few that chose medicine as my vocation, I plan to return to the stage! I met a woman who was literally a pharmacist by day and an actress by night, in 'murder mystery' theatre - that's livin the dream.

Thank you for this wonderful post Mr. Senski. I wish you the best and hope you're doing well :)

p.s. that was a phenomenal cake ;)

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