One aspect of childhood that will fall by the wayside in this “everything on the internet” time is the concept of only having vague memories of some form of media from when you were younger.
There won’t be any more “there was this movie, and there was this guy in it and I think he had an eye patch or a hat or something. Anyway, it was weird.” Because now you can Google “movie weird eye patch” and bam, there it is.
Which isn’t to say this is a foolproof plan. I’ve long been trying to find the name of this series of books I had as a kid. The main character was a lion (or some other big cat) with a Cap’n Crunch-esque sailor hat, and he had a rodent friend who put ketchup on his ice cream. And yet, searching “children’s book lion sailor ketchup” has not helped me one bit. No Google, for the thousandth time I am not looking for “Ketchup On Your Cornflakes” – stop showing me this result!
So if you know what those books are, let me know.
Searching for stuff from your childhood can be a rewarding task, though normally it just sends you into some weird, vertigo-inducing spiral of deja vu which ultimately just ends up with an indiscernible feeling of sadness.
But pre-internet, talking about stuff from your childhood that no one else remembered just turned into some stoner-esque conversation, where the two sides of the conversation are talking to each other, but neither side knows what the other is talking about.
I had this phenomenon for two main movies from my childhood. One was less vague, because I knew the title – “The Peanut Butter Solution”. But I’d only seen it once or twice, so my pieced-together memories didn’t help explain the movie, and instead made it sound like a truly horrific thing to watch. Now, in the internet age, I can watch a VHS-rip of it, to realize that the movie actually kind of sucked. Oh well.
The second movie achieved a far more legendary status in my childhood. All I remembered about it was some teacher and her class getting kidnapped by some guys wearing creepy children’s masks. Then, at some point about ten years ago, I looked up “movie creepy masks teacher” and there it was – “Fortress”.
Fortress used to air on HBO a lot in the mid-80’s. And I’d watch it all the time. In retrospect, this was a really weird movie for a child to watch, which you’ll understand more when you see how the plot unfolds.
The creepy masks really were the movie’s selling point. They had a variety of movie posters, I guess for different video, TV, and movie theater releases. This is why I had to specify “1985 / 1986” as the release year(s) – 1985 was the TV movie release, 1986 was its theatrical release. But they knew what the public wanted on this box:
What’s odd is that my situation was not unique – every time I’ve mentioned this movie online, I get the same response from numerous people. “I used to watch this as a kid, and I can’t believe my parents let me.” This isn’t to say this is some depraved horror movie, or something truly terrifying – it’s just a weird movie for kids to watch, and a weird movie for so many kids to have watched.
And while it didn’t entirely hold up to this mythical movie my memories had turned it into (that was a lot of “m” sounds), it does hold up as a “Well, that certainly was… something” type of movie.
The movie starts off employing the concept of “scary music makes things scary”, as we pan across a farm while creepy music plays. This is, presumably, to lure you in, because the next five minutes or so just involve a rural Australian family eating breakfast. The school teacher also lives with them, for some reason.
We find out that the reason she lives with them might be because she isn’t getting paid much, because she is a terrible role model. She is walking two of her students to school, walking on train tracks, which are clearly in use. She finally steps off the tracks as the train passes her, literally less than two seconds behind her.
The movie keeps playing creepy music, as a hint to not turn the movie off, despite the fact that all we’re watching is Australian school children, of a variety of ages, playing in a school yard.
I’m not sure how the school actually works, since they are multiplying fractions, despite the fact that half the class appears to be made up of five year old children.
Fortress decides that ten minutes of watching rural children discussing killing foxes and classroom antics is enough, and gets things going with a cut to…
BAM! Creepy duck mask guy!
I’m sure there were a lot of things I was afraid of as a kid, but there are two things that vividly stick with me. That shot of the duck mask guy, and when Ronald Reagan’s head comes out of the water in the video for “Land of Confusion” by Genesis.
The creepiness can be found at 3:30 in. Well, the creepiness can be found in the entire video, but that part was traumatizing to me as a kid. I’d look away every time it was on. I’m much better now that I’ve grown up – now when I watch it, I’m only a little scared of that part.
Honestly, this movie doesn’t even need a plot.
Just give me ninety minutes of creepy-masked guys scaring children while that stressful 80’s synth music plays, and I’d be happy.
But, for some reason, they felt a plot was needed on top of the awesomeness that is little kids being terrorized.
The children (and the credits) name the masks as Dabby Duck, Mac the Mouse, Pussy Cat, and Father Christmas. Looking more into the movie, I wondered if these were Australian cartoon characters, or just ripoffs of the name Daffy Duck and Mickey Mouse. I didn’t find anything regarding the characters, so I assume they’re just for the movie.
What kind of insane grammar school is this?
Given how many people apparently saw this when they were little, I don’t understand how we didn’t all grow up absolutely terrified of Santa Claus. All of the masked men in this are creepy, but Santa is far and away the worst. Especially since he’s the one tasked with riding in the back of the creepy kidnapper van with the teacher and the kids.
When the teacher suggests the kids all sing, Santa threatens them with a gun, screaming “SHUT UP!” to them. Which, really, is fair. Who wants to be stuck in a van with nine singing kids? The mask will only muffle your ears so much.
When they stop the van to go to the bathroom, the teacher suggests one of the kids, named Tommy, hide in the bushes then run for help.
Kids being kids, they blow the plan within two minutes.
On the bright side, the news gets better when the kidnappers reveal where the kids are off to next:
Despite the imposing entrance, the cave they are shuttled into isn’t so bad. So now, they’re in a cave. Which is still better than stuck in the back of that creepy van with evil Santa. And you could even make an argument that it’s better than their classroom. Actually, forget it – no argument needed. That cave is awesome.
I must admit, the cave is decidedly less awesome now.
After eating lunch and starting a fire from paper and books they had, which will surely last at least four minutes, the teacher tells the kids to gather around so they can have a “council of war”. None of the kids asks what that means, which implies that they’ve already had a council of war before, which is… odd.
Their plan of action is to move the boulder blocking them in. The two older boys start making boasts about moving the boulder, and that they’re not just a bunch of kids.
So after not being able to move the boulder, they make a new plan.
After realizing one of the kids has a bottle of oily salad dressing, the teacher puts a shoelace into a can filled with the oil. I thought, “oh cool, they’re going to make a Molotov Cocktail to throw at the kidnappers.” Instead, it turns out they’re making a lamp. That works too, I guess.
They go off to explore the cave, and come upon a pool of water. Since they see daylight on the far end, the teacher decides to swim over to see if it leads out. But not before stripping to just her underwear in front of a little kid.
The whole group heads to the water to swim out. Now we’ve got a bunch of almost naked little kids, which is rather off-putting.
After a bunch of slow motion footage of the kids swimming underwater (in their underwear, which is now wet, which is now much worse), they all escape the cave.
Now, the most logical course of action would be sneak towards society and find a phone, right? Well first, they decide to have a picnic to eat more lunch. After they eat, the teacher encourages the kids to take a nap. Huh? They couldn’t have been swimming underwater for that far. You know, because of the possibility of drowning, and all. So they have no idea when the kidnappers will return, they couldn’t have gotten that far from the cave’s entrance, but sure – time for a nap!
My plan of going to the first house they can find turns out to not be as solid as I thought…
… since the first house they come upon results in this.
Ho! Ho! Ho!
So, they’re kidnapped again.
Besides the inherent creepiness of the Santa kidnapper, one other wild thing about him is – just how big are his eyes? They fit the mask perfectly, he just looks like a scary Santa cartoon character. Like, he’s got his eyes pressed right up against the mask – that can’t be comfortable. Kudos to you, Santa, for going the extra mile. You’re a good guy.
The teacher asks for something to eat, and Santa tells her that their food is back at the cave, where they were bringing it to them. So he tells them that they can go without food. He then tells the lady of the house to serve up four plates. Four – you know, like the number of kidnappers. Faced with these facts, one of the kids declares, “I hope she gives us lots of spuds!” I know they’ve been through a lot today but jeez – these kids are stupid.
In case you’re wondering which kid uttered the line about spuds, it’s the one at the bottom right. You know, the only one smiling.
The man of the house gets mad because Santa hit his wife, so he attacks Santa and Santa gives him a shotgun blast in the chest. As Santa is wont to do.
The shot breaks the fish tank, spilling fish everywhere. So the oldest girl starts picking up the fish. Really, that’s your go-to first priority? Although I guess they are hungry.
While stuck in a barn, the group hatches a plan to get free. This plan seemingly relies on one of the kidnappers being dumb as rocks. They invite the cat to sit next to them by the fire, offer him cookies, while the older girl (who has apparently gotten over the fish trauma) flirts with him. And the cat kidnapper thinks this is all status quo.
One of the older boys hits the cat, knocking him out, shooting Tommy in the process. Tommy isn’t dead, but he did take a shotgun to the shoulder, so he’s probably not that good, either.
While escaping (again), the teacher comes across the duck kidnapper, whose head is tied to a fence. Very soon after, his head is not attached to his body, which is even less good than getting shot in the shoulder. It’s also worse than being tied to a fence while your head is still attached to your body.
Presumably, the other kidnappers killed him, because one of them was heard earlier yelling that he wanted out. I’m going to rule out suicide, since decapitating yourself whilst attached to a fence is tough to pull off.
Keep in mind – this movie aired on TV. I know it was HBO, so maybe I should add some extra details – this movie aired on TV in the daytime. When kids get home from school and watch TV.
Fun Fact: the guy who plays the duck also played Bennett in “Commando”. He would also go on to star in another movie in 1992 named… “Fortress”.
After escaping the barn, they hide out in another cave. I guess the director really wanted to get his money’s worth from the cave set they already paid for.
The next morning, the teacher finds Santa wandering the woods, so she shoots him in the head. That would be too easy, so it turns out she just shot the mask. The remaining two kidnappers are elsewhere in the woods, shouting taunts to the kids.
The teacher decides that they need to fight back, pointing out that they outnumber the kidnappers four to one. She’s forgetting the fact that most of their numbers involve little kids, but okay.
We are then treated to a montage of the kids making lots of spears, setting deadly traps, and doing all sorts of other fun activities.
Oh, and putting on war paint. The “Lord of the Flies” ending this movie is about to reveal just wouldn’t be complete without it. That little kid is a total Jack in the making.
I’m assuming the final battle takes place two weeks after they started, since that would be the minimum amount of time needed to make the hundreds of spears and traps they created.
The oldest girl, Narelle, tells the teacher that she got her period, then proceeds to disappear in the woods, as teenaged girls often do. While wandering in the woods, she is chased by the mouse kidnapper.
After dropping boulders on a fighting teacher and mouse, the kids watch them as they fall on the spears, where the mouse dies. The kids have also taken to calling the teacher “Sally”, as a very (cough) subtle way of showing that this experience has forced them to grow up.
We get our first glimpse of an unmasked Santa, with his mask-eye-hole-filling eyes. You can tell he’s a villain because he’s got an earring.
And Santa gets his first glimpse of the dead mouse.
Everything I know about shooting guns, I learned from video games, so I’m certainly no expert. But this isn’t a normal way to fire a shotgun, right?
Santa finds his way into the cave, where he trips and falls into a campfire, and somehow it gets worse from there.
Sally and the kids proceed to stab Santa with spears, hit him with axes and rocks, and just generally make Santa’s life not great for about five minutes, while they repeatedly beat and stab him to death.
Also they hit him with rocks. Don’t forget the rocks. Come to think of it, this might be overkill.
Back at the school, it appears they finally decided to go dig Narelle out of the woods. Nice of them.
Some policemen show up, following up about why their kidnappers wound up stabbed seven hundred times and mutilated. The kids encircle the policemen, in a vaguely threatening manner, and the policemen decide that they’d rather not piss off the group of killer Australian outback kids that stabbed a man seven hundred times and mutilated him.
Tommy, a boy who has no idea what the term “too soon” means, decides it’d be hilarious to stand in the window with a Santa mask on. Good job, Tommy. Spook a teacher who is now a hardened killer, and is very likely armed in the classroom at this point.
You might think, “Oh, they killed the kidnappers because they had to. It was a one time thing and they took no joy in it – they’re not hardened killers.” I could buy that, if it weren’t for the fact that the last shot of the movie is Sally smiling at a glass jar, which contains the Santa kidnapper’s heart.
I mean, yeah, that’s an awesome classroom decoration, but that’s still some macabre stuff.
And there you have it – Fortress. A movie that countless children watched countless times. It sure beats most daytime entertainment for kids being aired these days.