I knew it was his heart. I could hear it beating.
It’s dark. Like at night. No, worse. We’re inside, so no stars, no moon. It’s the true dark of a confined space. To the sides, there’s a faint green glow. Behind, if I were to look, the flickering red pinpoints, burning to yellow with the inhalation. But I probably don’t look. Why would I, when what fills my field of vision is so bright?
The screen is enormous. It redefines ‘big’ for me in a way that life probably never tops. I mean, you spend your life looking at square CRT TV screens, and then… then, there’s this! Gigantic, blazing bright, casting everything else into its shadow. And the sound! Rumbling, roaring. You can literally, if it’s the desired effect, hear a pin drop, with crystal clarity.
The inside of my mouth is a war zone - the salt of butter popcorn crashing against the sticky sweetness of the 7-up - but my mind is in perfect harmony, every sense bent to the task of absorbing the story playing out in front of me.
And it’s not my first rodeo. Jedi was my first. Of that, I remember little that I can place with clarity from that viewing (as opposed to the many tens of times I have seen the film since). Vader’s mask appearing to glower from the screen, dwarfing the whole room with its malevolent presence. Luke’s green lightsaber. The crackle of lightning and fizz of sabers clashing. Little more.
But it’s enough for me to understand the setting, the rules. No talking. No getting up for a wee - you’ll miss something. Enough too for me to have acclimatised a bit. The scale of the screen remains breathtaking, even awe inspiring, but it no longer causes such a severe short circuit that the scale is all I can actually absorb. No, I’m ready for this one. Unlike with Jedi, this time, I’m ready.
Oh, to be six again.
Things are weird from the getgo. Why is the woman singing in a foreign language? What’s with the dragon? In fact, what’s with the extravagant dance routine? You can't even read the name of the movie propery, she’s dancing in front of it. It’s disconcerting, almost alienating. And unlike with the first movie, it does not open with our hero. Worse, when he does show, he's’... well, clean. Suited and booted.
He starts talking, to a clearly bad man and his bad friends. Things deteriorate rapidly, and suddenly our hero is threatening to stab the girl in the red dress with a meat fork while the villain laughs, and then our heroes friend is shot and he’s sweating and the sound goes washy and the camera goes woozy and our hero is poisoned…
And then, less than five minutes from the conclusion of the opening credits, our hero has murdered one of the henchmen by skewering him in the chest with a spit of flame-roasted meat. That is still on fire. the man screams in agony, bleeding from the chest wound, and fires a gun into the air, at which point all hell breaks loose.
I am six years old, and I am five minutes into my first horror movie.
The terror basically doesn’t stop. The following action sequence is a blur of too-loud gunfire and chaotic kinetic action. I mean, the first moment I remember breathing again was the car chase, which is not the part of any movie you’d normally associate with chilling out.
But this is not like other movies.
I can still remember how much of a relief that chase was - a reassertion of what I understood an Indy movie to me, an action staple of this and Bond. Similarly, the liferaft sequence, as they leap from the plane - it helps that Indy is back in costume, of course, but mainly it just helps because it’s known, familiar. Indy isn’t threatening to kill a woman, no-one is getting skewered or set fire too, it’s just good old fashioned life-in-peril.
With the exception of the mine cart sequence, and the spike trap, it’s also the last time I’ll feel that way for the entire running time.
From here, it’s an express elevator straight down, plunging into the dark unknown with no points of reference and no handholds. This begins as soon as the life raft hits calmer waters, and Willie asks Indy how he knows they’re in India.
And, okay, sidebar time: I really want to capture six year old me as authentically as I can, and that’s going to push us into some problematic places, in no small measure because this is a problematic movie, and I was a very white kid raised in a very, very white world. My parents are both good people and very much not racists, so I’m fortunate not to have any of the hatred baggage to deal with, but at the same time, a total absence of any lived experience of people of colour whatsoever as a child meant that basically all I had was TV and movies, and at six, not a huge amount of either. I hope that my willingness to be honest and the shame I now feel at some of my reactions of the time will mitigate these reactions for you, but ultimately, that’s your call to make, not mine.
Because that aged indian man scared the crap out of me.
He was so thin. So… I’m desperately trying to avoid the word alien, because genuinely it’s not quite right. I knew he was a person, I didn’t think of him as ‘other’ in that sense, it was more… well, not to rehash my Feed The World article, but basically, I had some kind of understanding of what brown skinned and thin meant, and broadly it meant Nothing Good. And I think - or maybe I just hope - that my fear came not from repulsion at The Other but more out of… a kind of empathic overload, maybe? I mean, I vividly remember how that Ethiopian famine and the news coverage of it fucked me up, really still to this day. I can think of few things more horrifyingly bleak and hopeless than the notion of starvation, and that’s inextricably linked to an early understanding that I was (and am) a child of mind boggling plenty. I mean, the guilt is functionally useless - I don’t use it to make the world a better place, it just sits in a box down in the well of my mind, mostly forgotten, its influence felt only in occasional spasms of willfully petty self sabotaging behaviour, because I know, deep down, that I deserve none of the things that make me happy - that it’s all there purely because of the luck of the genetic dice roll that I was born to white parents in England and not black starving ones in Africa. And I can’t remember a time I haven’t known that. So, thanks again, Geldof, I guess, but also, I genuinely think that’s what was going on when this skeletal brown figure with piercing eyes stared down the camera and into my soul.
Except… well, all that’s true, but there is also just I didn’t know anyone that looked anything like this, and that was at best disconcerting and at worst threatening. I guess I just need to fucking own that.
My memory was of a series of old men like the one by the river, each pointing to the next on the horizon, until our heroes make it to the village. I vividly remember the moment when Indy tells Willie that this is more food than these people eat in a week. THAT got me, you can bet. And the way the villagers flocked around Shortround was terrifying, and sure, by the end of the sequence we know why, but the explanation happens later, and the image of all those arms, frantically reaching out for the child, seeking desperately to touch, to caress…
Oh, right, Shortround. I loved him. Aw, why kid? I love him still. But back then, I really did want to be him. My childhood obsession with baseball caps ran from this movie until I turned 13, and Shortround is 100% of why. He’s Indy’s friend, that’s the thing. An actual kid, an actual friend, not a hired hand or nephew or whatever. Is there a sweeter gig for a child adventurer in all of cinema history? My heart denies it. Shortround is the best.
So I remember Shortie on an elephant, and Willie flinging a snake away thinking it was the elephant, but that’s kind of it for that sequence, for the simple reason that what followed immediately afterwards is seared onto my memory.
Because fucking HELL, that banquet.
I wasn’t exactly a picky eater as a kid, but I was slightly more prone than your average kid to throwing up if something disagreed with me or if I overate. Consequently, I had what I suppose I’d describe as some very mild anxieties about eating in any kind of formal restaurant setting - an issue that to this day will occasionally rear its head without warning, though rarely with as dire consequences as back then.
To say this movie did me no favours would be something of an understatement.
Snake surprise - you cut open the snake and live eels wriggle out. Which people then eat. Also scarab beetles, they eat them too, and then belch. Chilled monkey brains. Served in the skull, with a silver spoon. I mean, are you fucking kidding me? The slurping noise they make when the trepanned skull cap is removed... Yup, I just made myself shudder with the memory. In this context, the eyeball soup gag is as sadistic as it is superfluous. I do not faint, but nor do I want any more popcorn or 7-up - ideally, I’d like less.
And again, I have no point of reference for any of this. As an adult, I can see the humor, but as a kid? Just terrifying, on so many levels.
And this is the fucking ‘comedy’ sequence.
The ‘hilarious’ tension reliever before the real shit hits the fan.
My memory is that the spike trap didn’t mess me up too badly. It was exciting, even scary, but also very Indy, somehow. We’ve seen deathtraps before, and we know how Indy rolls. Be scared, but don’t be worried, I guess is what I’m saying. Same with the bugs, I suppose - we’ve had spiders, then snakes, so bug menagerie, okay. To be honest, with all the surrounding freakery, this thrill ride was really a comfort, even as it raised the heart rate and dried the mouth. And, you know, the stab of joy in my heart as he reaches back for the hat just in time… I can not only remember it, I experience it every re-watch. It’s a perfect moment of cinema.
From there, of course, things go straight to hell.
I really cannot do what followed justice. The impact was utterly visceral. I remember vividly the noise - the clanking of chains, the drums, the chanting. And the fire, of course - the pit of lava. The sheep skull helmet. The utter terror on the face of the man strapped into the iron cage.The villain's hand becoming a claw as he reached for the heart of the victim. I knew it was his heart. I could hear it beating.
Too much. Way, way too much. I closed my eyes. My memory of the last few seconds of the sequence are the clanking and rattling of chains, the noise of the drums and the chanting, and the sound of the audience reaction to what I later learn is the victim's beating heart bursting into flames.
Family entertainment, circa 1984.
I really cannot overstate the degree to which this messed with my tiny mind. The nightmares of course, but so much more. To this day, I have a visceral reaction to the clanking of chains, an involuntary physical reaction that traces right back to this moment, eyes squeezed shut in the dark of a London cinema. For all that I can wax intellectual about why Hellraiser is a great horror movie, I really can't deny that one of the reasons the film petrifies me is because it contains that same clanking chain motif - a sound that, for me, will always be linked to this moment of existential terror.
In some ways, of course, there’s worse to come. Child slaves, voodoo, another seemingly indestructible guard in hand to hand combat with our hero… oh, and then there’s the small matter of Indy turning evil.
I swear, this fucking movie.
I remember Indy being tied up, interrogated, beaten, then comes the cup made from… fuck, it’s not even a skull, it’s a mummified head, with the open mouth forming a spout. And of course Indy is going to get out of it somehow, of course he’s going to fight off the baddies and escape… and then he doesn’t. He drinks the blood, and after a nightmare sequence in a coffin shaped room full of candles, Indy turns bad and straps Willie into the fucking cage to be burned.
I realize I’m running the danger of repeating myself here, but what the actual fuck?!?
In dramatic narrative terms, this has to be the nadir - and of course, in terms of the movie narrative, it is. This is the pivot moment of the entire film, the rock bottom depth - it is, literally and metaphorically all uphill from here.
But I’m six. I don’t know any of that. All I know is that the hero, my hero, has turned bad somehow, is about to kill the girl. Shortround runs to him, yelling, pleading, crying, and Shortround has my entire proxy here, he speaks for me, all my sense of outrage and fear and… not even betrayal, it’s too big for that, just fucking stupification at this entire turn of events.
And Indy strikes him.
We fall to the floor. The pain in our face is bad. Indy is a strong man, and while it was a slap rather than a punch, it was a powerful slap.
But that’s not what hurts the most. Not even close.
What hurts, what burns, is the betrayal of trust. It’s there, blazing in our eyes, refracted but not diminished by our tears. He was our hero. he was our friend. This is not him.
This can't be him.
But it was.