In a lifetime of watching and loving movies, there are many films that have moved me to the degree that they influenced how I view the world. The films that went so far as to change the direction of my life are far fewer in number. Among this select group I would include the films from my childhood and teen years that first sparked my interest in cinema. All movie fans have memories of special movie-watching experiences from their youth, episodes that transformed motion pictures from a casual diversion to a hobby—or even an obsession. In my case, three films in particular would resonate with me at different ages and help shape my future passion for and appreciation of film.
The earliest of these films I saw when I was about five. While watching some children’s programming on TV, an advertisement came on for a film to be shown late that night concerning, the announcer proclaimed, a prehistoric monster attacking Tokyo. I was already crazy about dinosaurs, but had never seen a dinosaur movie. Since dinosaurs were extinct, the notion that there might be a movie showing me a living, breathing dinosaur had never entered by mind, yet now an advertisement showed me glimpses of what was clearly a dinosaur’s foot and tail. Gobsmacked as I had never been before in my young life, I ran to my parents to beg them to let me stay up and let me see the dinosaur movie—the only way to see it in those pre-DVR, pre-videocassette days. They compromised: I would have to go to bed at my regular bedtime, but they would wake me up at 11:00 PM and let me watch the movie.
The film, of course, was Godzilla, King of the Monsters s impact stayed with me: I was hooked on monster and dinosaur movies. As soon as I was old enough to read I would scour the TV listings for anything with a dinosaur, giant lizard, giant bug or giant ape. At eight I discovered Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, which taught me that there was a vast and varied treasure trove of fantastic cinema out there just waiting for me to discover. It also showed me that I was not alone: there were other boys and girls out there with the same unconventional hobby. Well before internet chat boards allowed fans to share their enthusiasm online, Famous Monsters created a sense of a fan community. Looking back, I can only wonder if my parents still would have allowed me to stay up late that Saturday night if they had known that a black-and-white Japanese monster movie would ignite a lifelong passion for movies in general and fantastic cinema in particular.
I was 11 when the next film to have a major impact on me was released. In the early spring of 1977 a Scholastic magazine mentioned an upcoming science fiction movie starring no one I had heard of save Peter Cushing, who, thanks to Famous Monsters, I knew mostly appeared in inexpensive British horror films. The accompanying photo, showing two armored figures and what looked like some pink gas, did not impress. I decided this was probably some cheap kiddie matinee fare and promptly forgot about it. A couple of weeks later, my father brought home an issue of Time saw the film with her classmates and gushed with excitement about the wondrous sites to be seen. Ordinarily, she had no interest whatsoever in fantasy or science fiction, so this really had to be something special. That settled it: I had to see this Star Wars thing, whatever it was.
Like countless children of my generation, the film struck me like a bolt of lightning; to paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi, I felt as if I had “taken [my] first step into a larger world.” Its impact was multifold. First, it introduced me to the genre of the space opera and led me to explore science fiction beyond the narrow realm of the monster movie. This, in turn, led to me discovering science fiction literature. George Lucas’ frequent citing of Akira Kurosawa and specifically The Hidden Fortress (Kakushi toride no san akunin, 1958) as an influence helped spark a curiosity about foreign cinema. (An interest in Japanese cinema in particular was a natural outgrowth from my days watching Godzilla and his brethren.) The then-revolutionary special effects held a special fascination. Seeking information on how they were accomplished led me to Cinfantastique magazine and their special double issue on Star Wars. My technical understanding of film grew by leaps and bounds, and in Cinefantastique I was introduced to a far more mature level of film writing than was to be found in the pun-filled pages of Famous Monsters.
The next film experience to change my life came a couple of years later, when I was 13 or so. I found myself at home alone one Saturday night, so I decided to tune in to Canadian television to catch a classic I had never seen: Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. I was well aware of the its reputation as one of the most frightening films of all time; I knew of the famous shower scene; I even knew the twist ending, thanks to having seen it on, of all things, the short-lived movie-themed game show Don Adams’ Screen Test. None of that prepared me for the 109 minutes that followed. From the moment Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane made off with $40,000 in stolen money, I was on the edge of my seat. I kept expecting commercials to give me a break from the tension, but, to my considerable frustration, the CBC had decided to air the film uninterrupted. When Janet Leigh disrobed to get into the shower, I couldn’t stand the suspense and quickly turned the dial (yes, the TV still had a dial at the time) for a break of a second or two, then turned it back. This was repeated a few times until the scene was over. By the end of the film I was both exhausted and exhilarated. This had been unlike any film I had seen before.
Star Wars and the monster films of my youth had been exciting spectacles, but Psycho was more emotionally engaging. I knew that it was more than just the writing and acting; I knew that Hitchcock’s camerawork and editing had played a large role in provoking my reactions. But how had he done it? Why had I been caught up in this film so much more than others? I felt as if I had witnessed an elegantly executed magic trick, and I wanted to know the secret.
Shortly thereafter, I discovered Francois Truffaut’s famous Hitchcock interview book in a local bookstore. Pouring through it in the middle of the store, I finally began to grasp the artistry of filmmaking. This wasn’t photographing stories, as I had naively thought as a child; this was using the technology of film for creative expression and eliciting responses from the audience. My way of looking at film was changed forever that day. When I later got a copy of the book as a gift it became, in essence, my first film textbook, and I eagerly sought out Hitchcock’s films to further my studies. Monster films and Star Wars may have made me love movies, but it was Psycho and Alfred Hitchcock that made me appreciate them as art. The Master of Suspense’s theories of filmmaking revealed a wide world of exciting creative possibilities, and it wasn’t long before I began to long to somehow be a part of that world. It seemed unlikely; in suburban Michigan, where I grew up, the dream of working in the movies seemed as remote and exotic as becoming an astronaut. Still, when it came time to declare a major at the University of Michigan, I didn’t hesitate to opt for Film & Video Studies (admittedly I made it a duel major with English; the pragmatic Midwesterner in me wanted a backup plan). I never became the next Hitchcock, or even the next Ed Wood, but I did succeed in carving out a rewarding career in the motion picture industry. I’m privileged to be able to work in the field I love, and it would not have been possible without the passion ignited by the films of my youth and brought to maturity by Alfred Hitchcock and Psycho.
Gary Teetzel lives in Los Angeles, where he has worked in motion picture publicity, film & video servicing and film remastering/restoration. He has reviewed DVDs for the Turner Classic Movies website and been a guest writer at DVD Savant and Sci-Fi Japan.