The Little Ark (1972)
"Somebody better get stabbed with a pitchfork!" isn't the sort of the thing one thinks every day. But nor is it every day that one gets to relive a favorite childhood trauma. I have spent literally years (off and on, of course) trying to identify a movie I saw at a free matinee when I was in elementary school, and was fairly sure I'd finally cracked it with this Dutch production. I could only hope that the creepy dead body and the pitchfork stabbing were in the same movie, the way I remembered them, because otherwise, it would continue to drive me crazy. Besides, how many ultra-violent kiddie matinees could I have seen?
The video box has a photo on the front of a smiling child with a yellow rain slicker and a red umbrella, and on the back, two boys in overalls on a country lane, carrying what look like lunch pails. None of these children or images appear in the movie, but that's nowhere near as misleading as the blurb describing this G-rated film as "great entertainment for the whole family."
A pair of war orphans (Dutch Jan and Javanese Adinda) are being raised by a stern but kindly Dutch couple when a terrible storm hits their village. They wait it out in the church steeple where they've hidden a pet dog, a cat, and a rabbit (no word on the litter box situation), and awake to find a post-apocalyptic world. The whole village has been flooded, swallowed by the sea: just a few roofs and treetops are visible above water that stretches to the far horizon. (The film is, I believe, supposed to be set during the North Sea Flood of 1953).
When his sister worries that the villagers are all "deaded," little Jan taunts her to look out the window and see if anyone is floating belly-up. When she does, there's their adopted mother, floating dead in the water -- the first of the moments in the film that filled the theater with whatever the equivalent of "Holy (Bleep!)" would have been for eight-year-olds.
Rescued by a curmudgeonly fishing captain, whose heart inevitably warms to them, they have various adventures while continuing to look for their missing father.
When I noticed that the film was nearing its conclusion, I started to worry. I'd had my floating dead body, plus another random body washed ashore. But no sign of any pitchfork. Then, suddenly, someone mentions fairly casually: "There's a crazy farmer out in a barn loft."
The former curmudgeon rows out to the loft, with the two children along to assist in hostage negotiations. They convince the traumatized man to hand over his son, and then tow the farmer, still catatonic, in a rowboat, watched by the ship's kindly old cook. I thought to myself, I've seen a lot of Friday the 13th movies since I saw this the first time -- someone really needs to take away that pitchfork!
I'd always thought the farmer actually stabbed someone in the hayloft, but instead, like King Kong, he freaks out at a barrage of flash photography from reporters waiting on the dock.
Odd factoid: the theme song "Come Follow, Follow Me" was actually nominated for an Academy Award; must have been a slow year. "The world is full of things to know," a chorus of children cheerfully sings. Yeah, things to know about tragedy and loss! This tune (thankfully minus the cherubic voices) plays whimsically, and sometimes inappropriately, in the background for much of the film.
Thank goodness I can sleep nights again, having solved The Mystery of the Little Ark. Whether the movie contributed to warping my brain, or at least my taste, is a question that will require much more thought.
As an addendum, here's my 2006 post on the same subject. As you can see, my memory was murky, but pretty good, considering.
"Orphans Flood Pitchfork"
..are the keywords that have entirely failed to identify one of the most morbid films I ever saw, at a free matinee in elementary school. This subject came up when I noticed that Ring of Bright Water is on DVD, a movie I remember mainly for its inevitable ending of animal tragedy. If you go onto Amazon, you'll find lots of reviews featuring phrases like "sobbed for days" and "childhood trauma." But this one wasn't nearly as bizarrely morbid and unpleasant as some of the so-called children's movies I saw when I was little.
The worst I remember was one in which your standard movie orphans were trying to find a home for themselves. They lived for awhile with some people I'll assume were an aunt and uncle, and all went well until there was a terrible flood. We got the scenes of people clinging to rooftops, and then bodies galore, and then they saw someone floating face up, drowned, and it was their aunt. Whoa! Then there was another kindly farmer who took them in, but some other character became unhinged. While the farmer was trying to help the guy, up in the hayloft of a barn, he got stabbed in the stomach with a pitchfork and killed. Again: whoa!
Now, it's quite possible that, as has happened in the past, I am conflating different movies in my memory, so perhaps the graphic drowning and the pitchfork murder didn't take place in the same film the way I think they did. But that would be even worse!
There was also a western that I saw as a kids' matinee. The early part of the movie was all about this wholesome family on a ranch and had lots of repartee: teasing, pranks, romances the characters were involved in. And then suddenly, the whole family was slaughtered! Leaving someone, I seem to recall, alone to wreak vengeance. But all I remember is how shocking and out-of-the-blue the carnage was.
It's funny in retrospect how there was no emotional coddling back in the seventies. Those cute cuddly animals? DEAD! Those kindly authority figures? DEAD! It didn't occur to anybody this could possibly be traumatic. Even my all-time favorite children's book, Zilpha Keatley Snyder's The Egypt Game, all about childhood imagination and creativity, happens to contain a subplot about a serial child killer. (It contains one of the all-time great lines from children's literature: "Nobody plays games in the backyard of a murderer.")
And the name of the theater where I saw all these grisly marvels? What else? The "Cozy."