Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Boy Who Liked Deer (1975)

Some classroom social-guidance films rightfully qualify as their own category of horror film. Whether it's repulsive close-ups of throat cancer deformities caused by smoking, bloodied corpses of teenagers that decided to drink and drive on prom night, or the horrific hallucinations conjured by a dose of LSD... these films use a scary story of sorts, underpinned by a strict moral lesson, to frighten children into making the right choices.

One of these is The Boy Who Liked Deer (1975). This short film, directed by Barbara Loden for the Learning Corp. of America, deals with the destructive impulses that many children have, and the horrific unintended consequences that can result. I saw this film only once, when it was broadcast on PBS sometime in the late 70s, and never forgot it.

We first meet Jason, a middle-school boy, helping a ranger feed deer at a wooded park. He seems like a nice boy, and he certainly enjoys the company of the deer. The ranger is impressed and offers to recommend him for a summer youth program, which would grant him access to the deer park all summer.

But Jason has a very different personality when he's around his friends, Marc and Greg: spray-painting walls, starting fires in garbage cans, breaking windows, and letting the air out of tires.

His attitude doesn't improve any in the classroom.

When Mr. Mason lectures the class about recent acts of vandalism, including the theft of the school's film projector (I guess they won't be watching The Haunted Mouth anytime soon), Jason and his friends couldn't care less.

Mr. Mason reads to the class a poem by his favorite author, E.E. Cummings. In fact, this book is a first-edition from his own collection, which was personally autographed for him by the author.

But Jason and his troublesome friends are more interested in taping a sign to Mr. Mason's back than appreciating poetry.

This is the last straw. Mr. Mason sends the trio to the dean's office, and notifies them that they are all getting Fs, which means summer school.

Perhaps hoping to forget his troubles, Jason returns to the deer park, only to find that his friends are already there. The park is closed, but that doesn't stop Marc and Greg from hopping the fence. Jason goes along.

They break into a shed and Jason demonstrates his anger at Mason by violently stabbing at bags of feed with a pitchfork.

They flee the park at the sound of someone approaching. But their vandalism spree isn't over. They break into the school and proceed to tear up Mason's classroom.

Jason ferrets out Mason's prized book, and after imitating his teacher for his friends' amusement, tears the book apart page by page.

They hear someone coming and flee the scene. It's Mr. Mason. Taking in the damage to his classroom, he finds his ruined book lying amid the debris.

The conclusion is as ironic and unforgiving as that in any E.C. comics horror yarn.

Jason again returns to the deer park, but comes upon a horrific scene.

The deer are lying on the ground, grunting in agony. The ranger is dragging them by their legs, one by one, into a pick-up truck.

"Some damn kids broke into the shed and spilled rat poison in the feed." he explains.

Jason, realizing that he inadvertently poisoned the deer in his vandalism rampage, runs from the scene in tears.

The ranger practically rubs the crime in Jason's face as he calls out "Hey kid, come help me. Don't take it so hard. I know you liked the deer!"

You almost expect the Crypt Keeper to pop up and taunt Jason in a similar fashion. "What's the matter, deer? Won't you come back and help a deer friend? Ha ha ha ha!"

Run, Jason. Run away! But you can't run away from yourself!

It's tempting to laugh at films of this kind; they are so earnest and well-meaning. But as a child I took it absolutely seriously. And what effected me the most was not the death of the deer, but that dangerous allure of the destructive urge. Who hasn't imagined tearing apart their school at one time or another? But then there is the fear, not merely of discovery and punishment, but also that, once unleashed, those violent impulses might be turned back on you.

The Boy Who Liked Deer has found its way to You Tube. You can also buy it on a DVD-R along with similarly themed classroom films here, at the great AV Geeks website.

8 comments:

micha mae said...

much to my delight, i stumbled onto your blog a couple weeks back. this is quite the collection you have. i look forward to the things to come. unfortunately, i never saw this film first had as a kid... but i fondly remember in-class film projections.

there's nothing like that unmistakable frame change chime. makes me sad to think kids now a days will never experience that. oh, and to be one of the chosen few to actually turn the film frame by frame for the class... it almost made school worth it all, that + the smell of freshly printed dittos.

m.

Brother Bill said...

"FOCUS.....START....."

Yes, filmstrips--the lost medium. Seems like half the time you would end up a few frames before or behind where you were supposed to be because the person manning the frame-advance missed some BEEPS...

Thanks for the kind words!

kindertrauma said...

Dear Brother Bill:

Thank you so much for finally giving us closure on one of our unsolved NAME THAT TRAUMAS!

xoxo,

aunt john

Brother Bill said...

Aunt John: Wow! That is a coincidence... after years of trying to identify that film myself, I finally found it right around the time your "Name That Trauma" request was posted (Feb '09). I had no memory of the deer aspect of the story...just the classroom vandalism...which made the search that much more difficult.

FilmFather said...

Brother Bill,

I was the author of the Name That Trauma that Aunt John mentioned. Thanks a ton for this post. For nearly 30 years, I've been trying to identify (and locate) this film. I watched it on YouTube this morning. Yeah, the acting's a bit hokey, but the message still packs a punch.

Thx again,
Eric
aka FilmFather

Brother Bill said...

FilmFather,

Glad I could help! The identity of this film had been nagging at me for many years. I feel like a heavy deer has been lifted from my shoulders.

jon dickinson said...

We watched this film in Social Studies during Freshman year in 1986 and after 26 years the scene of Mr Mason breaking down at the discovery of his destroyed book is still stuck in my mind, as is Jason's fast acquired conscience and how he ran away sobbing in the final scene, Payback's a B@!(# Jason

Dustin Petersen said...

I was both fascinated and horrified by this short as a youngster. I caught it on USA Network's "Calliope" in the early 1980s, back before it was retooled for the preschool set.

That said, this reminds me of a similar film I saw ONCE around the same era, which involved some boys who had their own club. They went to their school after hours and started breaking windows until the police arrived. The cop caught one of the boys and stuffed him into the cruiser, but the other two or three escaped. They made it back to their clubhouse, which since they had left it earlier had been vandalized and thoroughly trashed by "the other club".

Does anyone remember the title of that particular short? Seems they loved feeding us irony and karma in those '70s educational films.