Writers on Writing #48: Simon Jacobs
The Movies Made in Our Basement
The Scary Old Lady from Across the Street saga began—as all of our movies began—in the basement of our house, when the oldest of us was in middle school, with my dad filming on our old VHS camcorder, previously used for such purposes as documenting our first steps or watching interactions between my brothers and I as toddlers.
“My brothers and I”—for formative stories, that’s my phrase. I have three brothers: Eli, Michael, and Jack, in descending age order. I’m below Eli; we’re all two years apart.
In the first iteration of our homemade-movie epic, the Scary Old Lady lived in a pillow-and-blanket fortress “across the street” (aka, the other side of the basement) and was portrayed by my best friend from elementary school, Wesley, whose transformation into old lady involved a pirate mask and a floral shawl. In the movie, a bunch of drunks (my brothers and I) rustled up her habitat, and she came out and killed us. After that there was a scene of a reporter (played, of course, by a brother, revivified) covering the scene of the murder, and the Scary Old Lady might have come out and killed him, too, but I don’t remember.
The originalcassette has long since been recorded over by one of our other projects, but we all still remember it. In some ways, because the first version is gone and because we’ve recreated it so many times, it feels like The Scary Old Lady from Across the Street has always existed.
There was a time—at least four years ago, the last time we were all under twenty—when some combination of my brothers and I would be sitting around watching TV in the living room on some random afternoon, and one of us would turn to the other and say, “Hey, wanna make a movie?”
And we would scramble out of those easy chairs and hustle down to the basement to start pretending to kill each other again. More often than not—if we were out of other ideas—it would be in some version of The Scary Old Lady.
Qu'est-ce Que C'est, Far Better The Scary Old Lady made her final filmed appearance in 2006, when my brothers and I set out to create the definitive origin story for the character that in our imaginations had become legendary. We’d just laid hands on a digital camera that came with some rudimentary video-editing software, and I was fifteen and had an epic vision. I imagined a violent ballet with a killer soundtrack and dialogue sharp as nails.
The skeletal, introductory plot went something like this: two kids accidentally kill an old woman—now played by my youngest brother Jack—in the park with a ball. Within seconds, she returns from the dead, armed with a scythe, kills her two young attackers, and thereafter embarks on a gratuitous murder spree, killing every person in every scene. In this iteration though, there was a detective on the case, Olmier—a bathrobe-clad character who listens to the orgy-chant from Eyes Wide Shut and “willingly puts himself in a vegetative state” in order to receive case-related revelations—who, if we’d ever completed the movie, might have survived until the end. (And who, if we’d struck it big, would be played by Samuel L. Jackson; in the meantime, he was played by me.) It was the closest thing to an actual narrative that we’d ever attempted.
But for whatever reason—probably a lack of commitment from any cast members besides myself—the project was quickly abandoned and scrapped. We made it only four scenes and five deaths in, around eight minutes of footage that cut out just before the backstory.
The Redux and the Killers Who Never Made It Despite its title, the Scary Old Lady saga has always been a testosterone-driven affair. After the tide of friendship carried Wesley away from our productions, for all of our movie-making days the cast remained exclusively my brothers and I. It was, with very few exceptions, a family affair, and an all-male one.
Usually, it was Michael, Jack, and I who comprised the cast (my older brother Eli appears in just one scene of the 2006 Scary Old Lady, and was the only brother not to receive opening-credit billing; he had better and more academic things to do). The three of us had to fill all the roles. You become someone else by putting on a different shirt; add a hat, and the possibilities expand. We put on masks. We all played so many different people, and, in our movies, died in just as many ways.
The movies we made in our basement hit every violent stop: a vampire epic (before vampires were popular, natch, my Dracula was Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula), the hunt for Bigfoot (we found, killed him with a paintball gun, conspiracies abounded), or the 007 parody we made without having ever seen a single James Bond movie. Our version of Lord of the Rings featured a Frodo with an idiotic Cossack-type hat who fate deemed to be killed in every scene, usually by Gandalf (me, in fake beard and witch hat). A hobbit was a brother standing on his knees. Gandalf’s horse-drawn wagon was a chair that I scooted forward across the rug. We sang the score while we filmed.
Our cinematic tastes were weird—we knew Cool Runnings and O Brother Where Art Thou? just as well as we knew Star Wars. We glommed onto anything with memorable accents that we could imitate. We straight-up stole dialogue.
We had no background in slasher horror, the genre from which The Scary Old Lady most gleefully borrowed. Our experience with scaring people came from a love for haunted hayrides and haunted houses, instilled early and often by my thrill-loving mother. This love manifested itself in our own annual haunted house, a grisly affair that my brothers and I created and operated out of our basement—that floor of utter creation—during the Halloween season. We made people cry; it was marvelous.
Our movies were without subtlety; we were far more adept at slashing than horror. We were teenagers, barely. We didn’t want to sit and talk about plot or try and build tension. We wanted to run around and act like we were killing each other and then fall over. For some reason, this was our filmic ideal. “It’s a boy thing,” my mom said of the wanton, bloodless violence that characterized our movies.
But on those hayrides, I always wanted to be a monster.
Lady Mercy Ain't Home Tonight If you watch it without any familiarity with the filmmakers or our house (as I imagine most of my readers would), I imagine The Scary Old Lady from Across the Street to be a somewhat nonsensical and mystifying experience.
Three out of four scenes of the 2006 Scary Old Lady take place in the same room; the lighting changes only once. The furniture shoved to the perimeter in one scene probably makes a functional appearance later on. There’s a green boxing dummy that Michael pretends is a bar; a giant painting of dragons on the wall (mine); Lego creations on the mounted shelves in the background; a stuffed giraffe in the corner. There is no context to any of the scenes. We don’t even have a proper table. Our makeshift is two footrests stacked on top of each other with a big floppy piece of cardboard on top.
All of our fake guns were neon-colored. There are scenes in which I read brazenly from the script. Occasionally, one of us will adopt a ridiculous British accent. Sometimes we can’t contain our laughter, or we stare directly at the camera. It’s glorious.
I gave the best line in the whole damn thing to my older brother Eli, who showed up to play the Scary Old Lady’s son: “My mother has become a nuisance,” he said. “She’s taken to slaying people in the streets.”
The soundtrack was ridiculous: Queen’s “Hammer to Fall” played over the opening credits/first murder sequence, “Strawberry Letter 23” and “Natural High” in the bar scene/second murder sequence (both stolen from Jackie Brown), and a climactic portion of the Fountain score over a showdown between Detective Olmier and the Scary Old Lady’s son.
Also, how none of us ever wore shoes. Just white socks, all the way through. We were in our house, making movies. There was no need for shoes. We must have known, subconsciously, beyond my dreams of a smash hit on the festival circuit and a shot at Hollywood fame: no one would ever see this. Really, it was just for us.
It was the spirit of creation more than anything. The fact that we could film ourselves throwing each other across the room repeatedly and turn it into a fight scene, and then, if we got bored watching what Hollywood fed us, we could watch our own. We loved nothing better than sitting in the living room and watching our own movies, to examine our craftsmanship, maybe to appreciate the way the cap gun went off exactly in time with Mick Jagger’s yelp in “Dancing in the Streets,” or the crunchy sound when Jack was thrown into a bin of Legos. We made such pathos.
My voice hasn’t changed at all since we made the 2006 version, though I’m about thirty pounds less heavy. Michael’s voice dropped, his hair grew to his waist and then he chopped it off. Jack is close-cropped now. I took my hair away completely.
A few months ago, I rediscovered the footage from the 2006 version. I immediately took it upon myself to create some technically inept DVD art apropos to the caliber of this kind of pulpy horror movie. Red text, bad font over a picture of Jack draped in his shawl, holding a pistol, barely-visible Lego cigar dangling out of his mouth. In the scene it’s taken from, he’s about to shoot the bartender, who called him an “ugly old woman.”
I enlisted David James Keaton, whose writing has served to reawaken these particular homemade-horror instincts of mine, to provide a suitably energetic caption for the film, sight unseen, to use on the back of the box: “You’ve heard about the old lady who swallowed the fly? Perhaps she died. Or perhaps…she lied! The movie of the year!!!”
I slid the artwork into an empty case and burned the movie to DVD. I took it to the nearest video rental place, a Family Video, and planted it on the shelf in the “Favorites” section, right at the head of a row, next to Scent of A Woman. This was guerilla product placement. I imagined someone finding it, taken in by the blazing red print and the mythic description of its production on the back of the box, promising a film both “completely uncensored and fully unremastered.” I imagined them taking it home and watching it.
The Perfect Theatrical Punch I took an acting class exactly once. We watched a video of a performance in which our instructor played a corpse. He showed us how to fall when prop-stabbed, how to act while playing dead: to relax your muscles, but also stay tense so you weren’t complete dead weight for your co-stars to lug around.
The most valuable skill I learned that day was the stage punch, in which you swing at someone with your fist, turning your body towards them, while simultaneously hitting your chest with your opposite hand. If the other person reacts right, it looks and sounds convincingly like a real punch. I came home that afternoon, and within minutes my brothers and I were faux-beating the shit out of each other.
Meanwhile, I practiced acting like a dead body.
There are no fake-punches in The Scary Old Lady from Across the Street. That was before I learned the technique. Before I’d learned much of anything, really, back in the pit of my high school loneliness, when I spoke to no one at school, and decompressed in my bedroom watching DVD after DVD all night long, trying to put off going back each morning. My freshman year, I kept a list of the movies I watched on the wall. It reached 455 before I stopped writing them down. Movies were all I had. To make them, however flimsy and inept, seemed to be the only way out. I worked with the cast at hand. I’ve never been an actor outside of our basement.
Lately, I’ve been trying to get it back. My great, ambitious balloon was punctured the moment I entered college, but over the last several years there have been occasional resurgences of this enthusiasm, in various forms: after our movie-making days were over, I started writing. None of it is the same, though. None of it is brothers.
A week later, I went back to the Family Video to check on my plant. The Scary Old Lady DVD was gone. Either a customer had shoplifted it or some enterprising employee had taken it from the shelf. However it turned out, I hope someone saw it. I hope someone took it home and watched all eight minutes and eighteen seconds of it and wondered what the fuck just happened. I hope they liked it. I’ll have to go and plant another copy.
Part of me is selfish for writing all of this. Part of me believes that my brothers and I will all be in the same place at the same time and of the same mindset to want to make a movie in the basement again.
Part of me believes that this essay might push them into that mindset once again, like pretending to be shot and jumping off a couch (a couch that represents a cliff) is still a reasonable prospect for someone who’s now twenty-two, for brothers who have jobs and go to college in four different states and have responsibilities. But I want it back. I want to choreograph that cap-gun fight. I want to find Bigfoot again. I want to pull the blankets off the Scary Old Lady’s hovel and see what comes out. That’s what I’m writing for.
Somebody make that goddamn movie with me.