As the temperatures here in Dallas rise to anger-inducing levels, I’m reminded of my summers spent avoiding the sun at my grandmother’s house in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. My parents would ship me off to visit our “Amish” relatives, experience a simpler country life, and even spend a week at Jesus camp, which happened to be my concentrated dose of religion for the year. While I would come home after the month-long excursion thankful to be around luxuries like air conditioning and cable, I secretly loved visiting Grandma because I had the chance to work as child-labor at my aunt’s video store where she paid me in free movies. Unlike my cautious mother, my Aunt Katie never censored the videos I picked to take home each night. However she did require I watch the original of any remake or sequel of a classic. I guess that explains why one summer I spent almost every night watching Hitchcock films in preparation to see the remake of Psycho.
When most people think of summer films, images of explosions, beaches, sweating, and (most importantly) sex fill the brain. Yet not all the films I watched those formative summers were, in fact, happy summer fare. The films that remind me the most of summer are ones involving a heavy amount of smut and questionable characters making despicable decisions.
Let’s start with 1960’s sexually charged Where the Boys Are, one of the first studio films to directly deal with young adult sex. Although the film occurs during spring break rather than the summer, the film seems more summery than not. Four college-aged ladies drive down to Fort Lauderdale, talking beach flings and lost virginity. Merrit Andrews (Dolores Hart) is the brash, assertive ring-leader, whose laisez faire attitude toward sex inspires good-girl Melanie (Yvette Mimiuex) to bed the first boy she meets. Merrit and Melanie could not be more different, however when both are faced with the opportunity to have casual, carefree sex, Merrit develops feelings and realizes she isn’t emotionally ready for sex with her new beau Ryder (George Hamilton). Her intuition was right, as he dumps her on the spot and takes up with another girl who has no problems giving herself to him. Merrit is crushed, but she is one of those rare pre-ratings system heroines who recognizes power lies in being true to herself. Even though Merrit eventually takes Ryder back, she still questions if he’s the right one for her.
Unfortunately poor Melanie learns acting like someone she’s not has worse penalties than accepting who she really is. While Merrit struggles with her feelings towards a shitty boyfriend, Melanie takes up with the love of her life from Yale and is consequentially raped and thrown out of his dirty motel room. She ends up in the hospital with a disheartened Merrit watching over her. Merrit sees what could have happened to her if she hadn’t pulled back, and Melanie mournfully wishes she could go back to her previous self. Neither girl can change the outcome of their beach trip, but they can change their future.
While I normally do not agree with such victim-blaming, this moment perfectly fractured the fun-going tone of the film and turned it into a social commentary. We can look back on it through feminist eyes and protest the wrongness of painting Melanie as someone who “asked” for it, or we can recognize what the director was trying to say—that this happens to anyone, not just “sluts” and “those girls.”
During the same summer I watched Where the Boys Are, I also found a copy of Welcome to the Dollhouse, another troubling coming-of-age film involving the consequences of emotionally empty sex. The aptly named, indie goddess Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo) is an unattractive and timid middle schooler who is ruthlessly teased by her classmates, getting called everything from a slut to a lesbian. Determined to prove them wrong, she agrees to be “raped” by bully Brandon (Brendon Sexton), which leads to only a kiss rather than the forced penetration he promised. Brandon has just as much trouble relating to kids at school as Dawn, and in any other film the couple would find themselves with each other by the end. But Todd Solondz does not believe in fairy tale endings for his characters.
Dawn is constantly rejected by not only her family, but also by Steve (Eric Mabius), the sexy and much older lead singer of her brother’s band. At first Steve leads her on, thinking maybe he could work up the stomach to have sex with her, but eventually realizes he is neither attracted nor depraved enough to fuck a 13 year old. This causes Dawn to invite the scorned Brandon to canoodle away from any watching eyes in Dawn’s backyard club house. The young teens never fuck, but there is something sweet about their sad connection. It isn’t until Brandon runs away from home and Dawn is left with no one who cares for her that we realize Dawn and Brandon almost complete each other. Had he stayed, maybe they would have finally gotten around to that rape fantasy—but that’s for high schoolers.
Speaking of terrible families, in 1987 Jeffrey Bloom introduced the non-book-reading world to one of the most troubling families in modern literature. The Crawfords and Peyton Place’s the MacKenzies are positively tame compared to the incestuous Dollanganger’s from the adaptation of V.C. Andrews’s Flowers in the Attic. While the novel delves deeper into the questionable relationship between oldest daughter Cathy (Kristy Swanson) and her recently deceased father (Marshal Colt), the horror film plays with the audience’s discomfort with the incest taboo. The four surviving children are locked, Anne Frank-style, in their demented grandmother Olivia’s (Louise Fletcher) attic so their dying grandfather knows nothing of their existence. The truth is Olivia hates her grandchildren, as they are the products of incest (Corrine was first cousins with her deceased husband), and sets out to kill the children through poisoned cookies.
She is convinced Cathy and her brother Chris (Jeb Stuart Adams) are sleeping together, and while in the book they were, in the film their relationship is completely innocent. The two siblings find solace in each other’s arms, however they refuse to cross any sexual line, as they have more power against their grandmother and mother if they refrain from giving into their (un)natural urges. Although Flowers in the Attic is laden with sexual undertones, the film is positively chaste compared to the novel. But when it comes to incest, is anything ever chaste?