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Summer of ‘87: Harry and the Hendersons: Messin’ With Sasquatch

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Summer of ‘87: <em>Harry and the Hendersons</em>: Messin’ With Sasquatch

Odie Henderson: Summertime, and the gimmickry’s easy. Who better to discuss the 1987 summer hit, Harry and the Hendersons than two of the eponymous creatures themselves? Our surname’s versatility is evident simply by looking at Eric and me, though you’ll have a hard time figuring out which of us is more Scottish. We Hendersons are a crafty lot, inventive, ingenious and destined for stardom. For a time, fame seemed imminent: Immortalized by the Beatles on the Sgt. Pepper album, we were poised to take over the showbiz world. And then…nothing! Not one mention in popular culture for decades. Our show with Sgt. Pepper’s Mr. Kite must have really sucked.

Exactly 20 years and four days after our last big shout-out, Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment rebooted our fair surname. Suddenly, it was hip to be a Henderson, even if you were being represented by a rather loony right-wing family led by John Lithgow. Harry and the Hendersons opened June 5th, 1987, and the questions didn’t stop for years. Did I have any Harrys in my family? How did it feel to be the subject of a Spielberg movie? And most importantly, when did I meet Bigfoot? This is a question worth exploring.

As Eric has already written a review of Harry, let’s widen the net and focus on the legend of Bigfoot himself. Every culture has its mysterious monsters, but I’ve always found Bigfoot to be an extremely stupid concept. Roaming the Pacific Northwest, the Sasquatch makes his presence known by leaving big-assed footprints in dirt. Unless one is a foot fetishist, this creature serves no useful purpose. What does he do besides scare campers and RV denizens with curlers in their hair? He doesn’t speak. He’s as elusive as a straight answer from a politician. He also has a way of making himself blurry in photographs. Lest we forget, nobody has caught a Bigfoot despite the odds eventually being in favor of capture. Sounds like bullshit to me.

When I was around 6 or 7, the Bigfoot craze was at a near media saturation point. There were first person accounts on TV shows, and Sunn Classics Studios had at least two or three “documentaries” on the subject in theaters. I remember seeing ads for Mysterious Monsters, narrated by Peter Graves in his most serious tone of voice. There was also In Search of Bigfoot, part of the In Search Of… series that included In Search of Historic Jesus. (As if regular Jesus weren’t enough to cause a search.) I didn’t have to search very far to find Bigfoot, though: He was on ABC kicking Steve Austin’s ass. My first encounter with Harry’s predecessor was watching him treat The Six Million Dollar Man like seventy-five cents worth of liverwurst.

Shock and awe seem to be the Sasquatch’s weapons of choice, making him the ideal choice for William Dear to fashion into a kiddie movie. If the conservatives want to talk about a movie brainwashing little kids, they’ll find a lot to bitch about in Harry and the Hendersons. After all, he’s turned a conservative hunter’s icon into a big ol’ Lefty vegetarian. No wonder villains David Suchet and Don Ameche want him shot.

When did my fellow Henderson meet Bigfoot?

Eric Henderson: Across a dark room, on an enchanted August evening, with a big band laying into “Misty” and wrestling it to the ground. Lit only by the glinting shards of refracted light bouncing off a giant mirror ball, I at first mistook him for Bill Fagerbakke. When he knocked over the DJ booth the moment he saw a plate of chicken satay skewers coming out of the kitchen, I knew I was wrong. I also knew it was love at first sight. As I’ve always tried to live my life according to the example of Melanie Wilkes, it mattered not to me that he was technically my second cousin, once removed.

OK, not really. I wasn’t even halfway to ex-jailbait status when the movie came out, and though I mentioned in my earlier review of it that the gigantic hairy beast’s power hug with Lithgow has retroactively served as a formative movie moment in my own history, in reality, in 1987 I was about as puny and breakable as the four-eyed twerp playing Lithgow’s Junior NRA enthusiast son. Even still, I’m at best an otter and wouldn’t last a hot minute in the bear caves Harry is still known to frequent. Did you know he finally developed a taste for meat? Don’t act so surprised. The original one-sheet practically spells it out with those dewey eyes, rose petals and pride flag-hued font on the headliner’s name.

I may be overstating the movie’s queering of the Bigfoot mythos (which, I agree, is pretty piss-poor as America’s foremost supernatural mystery—where’s our Chupacabra?), but it’s not like the sentiment is in any sort of conflict with the movie’s overall agenda. The oh-so-aptly named William Dear clearly has it in for the endless, ongoing Reagan era. Not just the politics, but the tone of popular movies in general. By this point, the Spielberg template (which was probably unavoidable, as Señor Spielbergo himself was serving as executive producer on Harry) may have seemed downright reactionary against most of the top-grossing movies of its vintage. Stallone and Schwarzenegger were both dominating, and I couldn’t help but notice that the Siskel & Ebert episode wherein the two reviewed the movie (two thumbs down) spent more time talking about the rapidly growing “video nasties” cult than any of that week’s new releases. Movies were deep inside Thunderdome. So here comes Dear with his deer-mourning, corsage-presenting, eye-watering, salad-ordering mountain of natural hippie, a hulk with a heart of oatmeal who is strapping with muscles but generally avoids flexing them. Masculinity takes a beating. Well, more accurately, masculinity recognizes its fragility in the face of brotherhood and reacts with violence. In this context, Harry comes on a little like Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s Charles Atlas-approved creation. He’s the bulky idiot savant who teaches humanity a little bit about themselves by stubbornly (or just stupidly) not being them.

So of course, the movie failed, at least by Spielberg standards of box-office success. And yet, for a movie that apparently not very many people saw, for at least a few years you and I and no doubt everyone named Henderson had to answer repeated questions on the whereabouts of Harry. Luckily I had a dog.

Odie Henderson: The Harry and the Hendersons Siskel & Ebert episode was interesting for a variety of reasons. For starters, Gene’s take on The Untouchables was how I felt the first time I saw it; Roger’s take is how i feel now. The Video Nasties section reminded me of my video store gig circa 1987. I was always slapping the “bad” VHS tapes out of the hands of eager young gorehounds. ’Twas a hypocritical act on my part—by 1987 I’d seen much of what we had on our horror shelves in theaters. As phony as Faces of Death is, it was one of our best rentals, just charting behind The Gay Team, a gay porn take on The A-Team. This strange dichotomy leads me to the most interesting aspect of the S&E video: Siskel announces a review of Predator for next week’s show. Both Harry Henderson, the hairy, bearish, queer hippie “brute” who befriended macho conservatives, and Predator Jenkins, the dreadlocked brute who tore them apart, were played by the late actor Kevin Peter Hall.

The 7’2” Hall’s career serves as a microcosm of the ’80s Thunderdome of Cinema you cited. Hall’s height led him to be cast as all manner of malevolent creatures, with Harry serving as some form of aberration. Predator’s release on the heels of Harry almost feels like the TV announcer saying “and now back to our regularly scheduled programming.” Harry seems like a companion piece to Hall’s first role, that of the mutant bear (which I always thought was a raccoon) in John Frankenheimer’s frankly awful Prophecy. Both deal with man’s interaction with the forest and a creature who points out an “injustice against nature.” Of course, Harry is a lot less forceful in his anti-hunting message. The mutant raccoon thingy in Prophecy is seriously pissed off about pollution. It is also no vegetarian, taking that slogan “the other White meat” literally by devouring most of the cast to make its environmental point. Harry would have lots of graves to dig to mourn Prophecy’s hunting victims, save for that little kid who spontaneously combusts when the monster hits his sleeping bag. I admit that scene terrified me as a kid, but as an adult it tickles me to the point of near-urination. Like ’80s movies, I guess I got more sadistic as the years passed. I’ll bet George Henderson’s bloodthirsty son did too, despite Harry’s best intentions to push him toward the left.

Dear’s idea of a kinder, gentler Sasquatch at a time where violence ruled the box office seems almost quaint. Hollywood would rarely take an audience expectation-altering chance like this nowadays. It would also not do what I find most endearing about Harry and the Hendersons: the tactile quality of its creature. Today, Harry would be a CGI-effect, barely tethered to the physical space on the screen. In 1987, he is the creation of Rick Baker, the genius makeup artist who is no stranger to being under a bunch of hairy prosthetics himself. Re-watching Harry in Poland for this piece, I wanted to reach out and touch the character. Hall’s eyes convey a lot, rendering Harry more credibly than 95% of CGI effects. There’s an actor in there, present at all times. And it’s effective, so much so that Baker won an Oscar for this movie. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I’ve always liked the gloppy latex gore of a video nasty than the CGI bloodspray of something like Kitano’s Zatoichi. I feel the same way about my cinematic creatures.

As you pointed out, Harry and the Hendersons wasn’t a hit by Spielberg standards. But it did inspire a TV show and didn’t stop Spielberg from producing slapsticky kiddie fare (COUGH!! *batteries not included COUGH!). Harry also holds a place in my heart for inspiring one of my favorite teenage memories. My parents went to see Harry and the Hendersons the night it opened, an act that is memorable simply because my folks were too broke to go out much. With five kids, they could barely afford to rent them there video nasties that caused S&E’s titty attack. The last time my folks went to dinner and a movie was a decade earlier, Saturday Night Fever. My cousin babysat me and my then only other sibling, and we passed the time watching The Way We Were. My cousin bitched about how Babs’ haircut made her look “like shit.” I haven’t seen The Way We Were since, but I recall Babs’ hair was far shittier in A Star is Born.

For Harry’s movie date, I babysat my 4 siblings, whom I kept busy with Nintendo. When my parents came home, I asked my mother how the movie was. She said she laughed so hard she almost busted out of her dress. While I don’t think Harry is that funny, it’s a sweet little diversion that allowed me, however indirectly, to imagine my worry-prone mother surrendering to the giggles and forgetting all the trouble her Hendersons put her through.

You get the last word, my fellow Henderson. And for the record, I too had a dog. His name was Toby, though it probably was Kunta Kinte before we got him.

Eric Henderson: When Harry came out, I had two little dogs. Their names were Nick and Trygg, which sounds closer to the cast of The Gay Team, in my opinion, than any one of Spielberg’s executive producer jobs. Today, my parents have a giant schnauzer to fill the void that’s apparently been in their lives ever since Harry disappeared into the woods at the end of the movie. He doesn’t exactly splinter load-bearing struts or Hulk-smash suburban living room furniture with his heft, but he has been known to stink up a room or two.

As far as Harry’s comedic value goes, well, that’s still a mixed bag. I never thought the movie was a laugh riot, then or now. It tranquilized me to the point where I couldn’t really respond to its punchlines. About 65 percent of the jokes consist of young Ernie saying something crude, violent, boogery or borderline sweary and Melinda Dillon (by now officially American cinema’s go-to for non-Oedipal mom fantasizing) getting exasperated and tutting, “Hush.” Another 10 percent of the intended laughs go to Lithgow turning Dillon’s superego philosophizing around on her before drooping his head mea culpa style like a puppy that just piddled in the corner. A few times the Hendersons’ teenage daughter unleashes her nuclear PMS on everyone in sight and doesn’t say she’s sorry, but I’m not positive whether that’s supposed to be funny or just another example of the sub-Spielbergs not particularly getting teenage girls.

And then, of course, there are all those scenes where Lainie Kazan’s nosy neighbor Irene pushes her crunchy-haired head through doors, windows and cracks in the plaster in an attempt to impose her opinions on gardening, dieting, and the Henderson’s mail. Despite the family next door’s obvious antipathy toward her (revenge of the WASPs against any other ethnicity?) and their thinly conceived efforts to push her out the door before she can catch a glimpse of the Bigfoot in their basement, she comes on like a Jewish Jackée in 227. She does provide what I’ve always considered one of the movie’s biggest accidental laughs when she’s got the macho French bounty hunter Jacques (David Suchet) cornered outside the Hendersons’ house, thinking he was the one responsible for the disappearance of her prize roses. Harry’s face pops up in the window behind Jacques’ head, but in full view of Irene. In a classic example of audio-visual mismatching, Harry opens his mouth in a roar, but all you hear on the soundtrack is Kazan’s terrified scream. It’s only funny if you’re the sort of film geek that gets off on bizarre breakdowns in diegetic sound representation, and the fact that I found it funny at 8 probably means I was always destined to be one of those geeks.

If that’s the movie’s comedic win, then place and show are probably Harry’s mistaken belief that a fat old couple are cooking themselves in their backyard hot tub (as he simultaneously spies on a woman preparing boiled chicken in her kitchen), and Lithgow’s PG-rated revision of the old “buying condoms/porn/etc.” joke vis-a-vis a whispery encounter with a bull dyke librarian. We’re not exactly talking Airplane laughs here. We might not even be talking 1941 laughs. (Though checking out clips of the TV show made me retroactively upgrade my opinion of the movie. Poor Bruce Davison! One year an Oscar nominee for piloting one of the all-time great deathbed scenes in movie history, the next year dodging a laugh track on a short-lived crap sitcom.)

Anyway, I know I gave Harry only two stars in my review from a few years back, but rewatching it recently was a basically comforting experience, the precise opposite of the emotional effect watching old home movies from those years has on me—a queasy mix of nostalgia, stress and embarrassment. Just like its main protagonist, Harry seems mostly a big-hearted pleasure provider, one of those Spielberg movies that paradoxically streamlines and normalizes suburban existence through the mitigating presence of a fantastic “other.” The obvious sociopolitical implications behind this moviemaking strategy have been endlessly dissected by loony Marxist vegan essayists, of course, but I think it’s worth embracing some aspects of this template. Namely the ones that suggest the rules of normalcy are, in fact, mutable, even if the cinematic outcome usually co-opts society’s “exceptions.”

But as nostalgic as my fresh viewing was, sometimes relatives drift apart, and perhaps that’s to account for your move toward increased sadism that you were talking about above. I’m in the same boat. The older I get, the less often I find myself returning to Harry, and the less I feel as though I’ve learned from his example. Despite his advocacy for free flowing, freaky locks, my motto as of late is, “Hey, if you’re already going to be on the toilet for awhile, why not shave something?”

Odie Henderson, aka the Odienator, shares Harry’s liberal politics and his big feet, but his three strands of chest hair would disappoint any bears, queer or otherwise. He can be found at Roger Ebert’s Demanders Blog, Tales of Odienary Madness and Big Media Vandalism.

Eric Henderson is in the Witness Protection Program, and can only be reached via cocktail napkin.