What’s the first movie you actually remember watching? Your first tangible memories of a film that you can still replay in your head to this day? For me, it’s not one movie; it’s three movies that came out around the same time–forgotten Swedish cartoon Peter-No-Tail (1981), E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982) and The Electric Grandmother (1982). There we have it: apparently, I officially came online at around the age of three and a half.
I have disturbing memories of all these films. Peter-No-Tail, which my parents likely recorded with the Betamax from a cable channel that no longer exists, had a scene where orphan kitten Peter accidently burns down his adopted family’s house. For real. The damned kitty-cat burns a nice Swedish family’s house to the ground. E.T., of course, has the infamous scene where HOLY SHIT E.T. IS TOTALLY WHITE IN A RAVINE, MOMMY WHY IS HE WHITE WHAT IS DEATH AM I GOING TO DIE SOMEDAY? That was pretty bad. But these all pale in comparison with The Electric Grandmother, a sixty-minute installment of something called “NBC’s Project Peacock.” The objective of Project Peacock, apparently, was to fuck children up irrevocably.
This movie really, really upset me. It was my first experience with subtle, existential horror. I was aware of the SURPRISE kind of horror and the MONSTER kind of horror. Existential horror, on the other hand, creeps up on you like a jungle cat. There were no creatures or jolts; therefore I didn’t realize that I needed to look away. I remember being in a sort of daze after it was over, my mind incapable of processing the horrors it had beheld. I’ve thought about the movie a lot over the years. Was it really that bad? Or was I warping its impact through the haze of time? I watched it again (on VHS, natch) to find out for sure. Spoiler alert: four year-old me was 100% right about this movie. It is indeed a black pit of howling despair.
THE NIGHTMARE BEGINS
“Grandma!” an old man croaks. “Sometimes I hear you still. Clicking, humming near me in the dark. Grandma, our dear, wondrous electric dream!”
Boom. Welcome to The Electric Grandma. Give the movie this much: it lets you know right off the bat what kind of bad trip you have in store. If that wasn’t enough of a warning shot for you, the exact next line is “Grandma, I remember the hour and day of your birth,” a sentence that would make God throw up in his mouth. The entire movie is a muddy parade of cheerful, hopeful wrongness.
After we see the old man walking around in a darkened room as his baffling voiceover fills us with untraceable dread, things start to pick up speed, and fast. We flash back to when this old man, Tom, was a child. He has a younger sister, Agatha, and an older brother, Timmy. Timmy, just so you know, is played by Robert McNaughton, who also played the older brother in YOU GUESSED IT: E frickin’ T. Robert McNaughton: boy king of 1982 nightmare fuel.
The children are sad because their mother has recently died. Makes sense, that’s as bad as it gets. The father, played by the late, great Edward Hermann, looks over his children at the breakfast table and says, “Well, now, we can’t mope all the time.” I can’t say for sure but this is, I don’t know, the next morning? Let the kids mope a little, you monster! Mean old Aunt Clara soon shows up, also encouraging the kids to stop being such babies about the death of the woman who gave them life. “Let’s have a smile for your Auntie!” she cruelly demands. This is when things really start to spiral out of control.
At this point I’d like to offer a brief disclaimer. The things I’m about to tell you now are going to sound like they were made up while I was on PCP and hadn’t slept in nine days. But they are all things that truly, sincerely happen in this movie. Deep breaths. Okay, here we go.
Shortly after Auntie shows up, a helicopter flies over the house and drops three rainbow-colored parachutes onto the snowy lawn. Each parachute is attached to a piece of gold that has one of the children’s names on it. The kids put them together and they form a glowing heart, which speaks to them in a grating robot voice. “HELLO! We are the machines that remember! We are the Electric Grandmothers! We are waiting for you at Fantoccini!” The glowing, talking gold heart tells them to give it a try and rattles off an address. Young Tom is immediately convinced: “Let’s get one!” he says, like he’s talking about an Atari 2600.Agatha is not convinced. “Nothing is ever gonna be like having mom back.” And you know what? You’d think she would be right. You would hope she would be right. But amazingly enough, the movie soon sets about trying to debunk her crazy theory. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
They go to the address, which turns out to be a decrepit tenement building in a nameless city. They soon find a door that says “FANTOCCINI LIMITED: Robots, all sizes, colors and shapes. But especially GRANDMOTHERS.” Just so we’re clear, the door actually SAYS this. Aloud. It screams the last word in a rather bloodcurdling fashion, but that somehow doesn’t stop the family from stepping inside. Fantoccini Limited is a factory filled with brown, ugly whimsy. Grim circus mirrors, hideous clown dolls. These, of course, delight the children. They soon meet the sole proprietor of this fear factory, the inelegantly mustachioed Guido Fantoccini, who is presented as a kind of Willy Wonka-ish eccentric entrepreneur who’s only in it for the whimsy. “I believe you are looking for something in a grandmother?” he cheerfully exclaims, and God throws up in his mouth again.
They then enter the grandma…machine—or whatever it is–to pick out the perfect robot grandmother. “Time to choose and build!” Guido says, “Thin grandmothers, plump grandmothers…”
“She should be kinda squishy!” Timmy helpfully suggests.
The father suddenly stirs from his whisky haze and blurts, “Hey, what kind of business are you running here?” Oh, it is way too late for reason, old man. That ship has sailed. They pick out eyes. They shout their names into a brass horn. Eventually, the disembodied voice of their soon-to-be manufactured new grandmother pipes in from above. “Ask me no questions, tell me no lies,” she sings, “ but one of these days, you’ll get a surprise!” As we’ll come to find out, many of the things EG says come across as vaguely threatening.The next day, another helicopter shows up dangling a large sarcophagus containing the family’s new goddamn robot granny. They turn her on with a heart-shaped key, and she immediately begins with the subtle threats. “Timothy! You’re in your pajamas and it’s 32 degrees out! YOU’LL CATCH YOUR DEATH.” The two boys are immediately cool with this thing being their new grandmother. Agatha, for some inexplicable reason, is not convinced.Auntie Clara is also distressed by this new development. One sight of the elderly automaton and she’s driving away from the house in a huff. “See ya!” shouts one of the children, forgetting to add, “Not sure why you were in this movie to begin with and we will never speak of you again!”
The kill-bot immediately gets down to grandmothering. And boy, she is really good at it, if you’re comfortable with a routine of constant horror. At the breakfast table, we see the first use of what appears to be the only special effect this movie was budgeted for: stuff coming out of the mechanical old lady’s fingers. We first witness this when she squirts hot coco out of her index finger into Tom’s mug. Turns out, she’s also got milk and orange juice in there. Somewhere. It’s best not to think about it too much.From what I can gather, the finger squirting is the really lasting image from this film. “I have been trying to remember the name of this movie for so many years,” writes YouTube commenter Maranda. “I had only seen it once when I was so very young. I was 4 years old and I only remembered the drinks coming out of Grandma’s fingers.” At no point does she say “Oh, and this movie ruined my life.” She must have been a brave little girl.I was really surprised how much I retained from a movie that I watched only once 32 years ago. A lot of the images were familiar from my night terrors. But yes, the finger drinks were always the most vivid of them all. What I had forgotten was the delightfully icky other ways she uses her fingers.
At one point, she shoots string out of them to help the boys fly a kite.She also sings to a young lad while using her hand, coiled into a menacing claw, as a blaring music box.Nothing horrifying about that, Grandma!
I realize that much of this is only vaguely, subjectively disturbing. Obviously this is a work of whimsy and imagination—perhaps I’m laying the horror aspect on a bit thick. Surely this movie means well, right? Well…
Agatha’s distrust of the entirely fake new family member is chalked up to her trauma over her mother’s death. There are plenty of reasons for her to be reticent to accept a robot grandmother, and this is as good as any, I suppose. At one point the father discusses his daughter’s unease with the new living arrangement. “She’s only angry because she’s afraid,” EG soothingly assures him, “and it’s my job to DISCOVER THE SOURCE OF HER FEAR.” To which Dad replies, I shit you not: “Hm. Sounds reasonable.”
I’ll try to power through this last part as quickly as I can. Here’s the deal with Electric Grandmothers: if they haven’t earned the love of every family member after 30 days, they are sent back to the factory. As Agatha remains unconvinced, one day the helicopters come for Grandma. Naturally, this upsets the boys, who have come to love her like she was actually made of skin. “Send her back,” Timothy cries, “Send Agatha to the scrap heap!” Then: “I mean it, dad.”
Agatha takes this brotherly death threat poorly and takes off running through the woods. Bionic granny hobbles after her, and eventually stands in the way of a moving car to protect her. Down goes RoboGrams. “Not like Mommy!” Agatha sobs, finally calling the robot “Grandma,” as in “GRANDMA, NOOOO!”At this point, Iron Nana twinkles back to life. Then we get this exchange:
“No, dear. Not like mommy! I can’t die, you see?”
“You’re not like her! Not like mom!”
“You’ll always be here!”
“I can’t be killed. I’ll always be here with you.”
Meanwhile, the actual mother is looking down from Heaven, saying “Well, excuse me for fucking dying.” What is the point of all this? What would a child gain from watching this? Well, kids, the thing is, your loved ones are going to die because they’re not as good as robots. Shouldn’t kids movies be teaching children about the beauty, necessity and inevitability of death, rather than saying dying is a BULLSHIT thing to do and we have to do BETTER?It gets weirder, even though there’s only like three minutes left. All of the kids age and go off to college or wherever. The dad then happily says it’s back to the factory for EG. Cut back to the beginning, with weird old man Tom going on about Grandma. He’s at the RoboGranny factory, where he interrupts a group of robot grandmothers knitting and using their hand speakers to replay the times their “grandchildren” told them they loved them. “Tom!” cries the Electric Grandmother. “How young you look,” he replies. He’s really, really old now, you see.
She asks him how the other kids are doing. “Agatha became a doctor. A good one! And Timothy? Timothy helped build a permanent base on the moon. And as for me—“
At this point, you half expect Grandma to cut him off. “Wait, did you just casually mention that Timothy build a goddamn moon base? Can you tell me more about that before your bore me with whatever non-moon-base-related malarkey you’ve been up to?” Anyways, Granny quickly figures out why he has come to see her. “I’m needed again?”
Tom smiles. “Husbands, wives, families. We’ve outlived them all! You’ll come then?”
“Of course!” she replies, without pressing him for details about all of those many, many dead family members. The Electric Grandmother then comes back to the house and hangs wet clothes on a kite string, while the extremely old former children smile with glee from the window.The end. That’s it. This whole movie is like a horror movie where they forgot to tack on the horrifying twist. That’s what makes it so disturbing to me: the relentless cheerfulness of all of this compounded death and blasphemy. The movie itself really seems to think that what the world needs is undying robot grandmothers who are programmed to love us no matter what and can squirt nearly any fluid into our glasses, directly from their fingers. If there is some kind of symbolism going on here, it’s clearly beyond me. This is not a parable about death or family; it’s more like a propaganda film made by malevolent robot overlords to convince us that all would be better if we’d just spurn our mortality and let the machines lovingly take control.
This was the kind of movie I was watching as I developed into a sentient being. It’s no wonder I had such horrible nightmares as a child, to the point where the only thing my parents would let me watch on TV was Mr. Wizard. Fortunately it wasn’t long until I saw Ghostbusters—which, granted, also scared the bejesus out of me, but in the correct way. With monsters and jolts. That kind of horror, a kid can handle.
Travis Vogt writes for City Arts and Encore Online. He is the editor of the Scarecrow Wire. Follow him @travisvogt.