There are certain things specifically created to entertain children that I usually find horrifying – clowns, mascots, satanic Chipmunk versions of Adele songs, etc. But then I’ll see how happy kids get when they see a giant anthropomorphic dog hobbling towards them, how they squeal with glee and run to it, delivering rapid-fire high-fives into its bloated, outstretched paws, and I’ll realize how challenging it must be to create entertainment that children truly love. Sometimes, what seems borderline grotesque to a jaded adult can make a kid deliriously happy. How a creator of children’s entertainment can tell the difference between what’s kid-friendly/adult-creepy and what’s just plain creepy across the board, I have no idea.
And neither did the creators of Munchie, a 1992 direct-to-video story of a lonely kid whose life is turned upside down when he stumbles across a motormouthed bat-dog-thing in an abandoned mine. Crafted like a family movie/coming-of-age comedy, Munchie devotes its major plot lines to the relevant, real-life problems of tween protagonist Gage Dobson (Jamie McEnnan). But it’s also a movie destined to horrify viewers of all ages, thanks to the menacing design, bargain-basement special effects and bizarre voice casting of Munchie himself.
We meet Gage during a low point of his adolescence – he’s getting bullied at school, his mom (Loni Anderson) is dating a cartoonishly oily jerk (Andrew Stevens), and his only friend is a demented old scientist who lives across the street (Arte Johnson). Gage is presented to us as an overly imaginative kid, through some fairly un-imaginative fantasy sequences (e.g. he pictures his principal with devil’s horns). It’s a smart move in theory, setting us up to believe that this kid could be fanciful enough to believe that something like Munchie could exist, instead of just puking and shitting himself simultaneously when seeing him for the first time. But this proves to be problematic later, when the movie’s “be careful what you wish for” moral becomes painfully clear.
For now, though, Munchie’s moving along like any competent afterschool special (save the pre-credits sequence, in which we learn that Munchie drives human beings to the brink of insanity). But then Gage gets fed up with life and goes for a walk, finds the conveniently accessible mineshaft, and the nightmare begins – a voice that sounds a whole lot like Dom Deluise beckons to Gage from a box with runes all over it; Gage opens it, and this happens:
Count yourself lucky that a) I haven’t paid the fee to allow video on this site; and b) Munchie clips on YouTube are scarce. Because as disturbing as the puppet looks, watching it move is what really makes the skin crawl. Director Jim Wynorski didn’t place a priority on the realism of Munchie’s movements, neglecting to sync up his eyes, mouth and hands in a way that resembles a regular living thing. It’s like Gizmo survived a horrible fire and we have to watch as he struggles to regain basic motor skills. And it doesn’t help that he really is voiced by Dom Deluise, whose jovial energy goes over like a hot pitcher of milk when you have the flu.
The movie goes to great lengths to tell us that Munchie is funny – he pulls pranks with banana peels; sings “Hello! Ma Baby;” talks repeatedly about having to “update his act;” throws a Risky Business-style kegger – but every corny gag just adds to the character’s cavernous uncanny valley. Adding to this queasy mix of creature-feature horror and Borscht Belt comedy is a shoehorned “Monkey’s Paw” moral – Munchie has the ability to grant Gage’s every wish, but he causes unintended havoc in the process. For example, when Gage wishes for the bullying to stop, Munchie’s solution is appallingly hypocritical – beat up a kid until he’s bloody and unconscious. The scene gives you a hollow feeling that no pizza skateboard can fill.
As a result, we have a movie that encourages kids to use their imaginations, but also warns them to be careful what they wish for. It so badly wants us to love Munchie, but also not to trust him. As we’re forced to watch those directionless eyes lolling around on a face forever plastered in a frozen corpse-smile, at least it’s easy to do the latter.