Being the youngest child means a number of things: You can take a joke pretty well, most of your clothes growing up were hand-me-downs and you had to sit in the middle seat during long car rides. But what I identify most with as a youngest child is watching TV shows and movies that I should not have watched at such an impressionable age. I pretended I wasn’t in absolute horror watching “Courage the Cowardly Dog” and “Mr. Meaty” at age five. I giggled along and then involuntarily rewatched the episodes as they played in my nightmares.
I would remind myself that the TV shows and movies that scared me were just made up stories, and I still do that when a really good thriller keeps me up at night. I’ve learned how to embrace the acute insomnia; for me, it’s a telltale sign of a well-done thriller or horror movie, and part of what I signed up for when choosing to watch it in the first place. But when a certain scene lingers in my mind for weeks, months or even years, the film gets a don’t-watch-again mark in my mind and is stored in the don’t-even-think-about-it section of my brain.
Maybe it’s because of how young I was at the time, or maybe it’s because the whole premise is just plain scary, but a few scenes from “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” have earned the film a spot in those untouchable parts of my mind. Not Freddy Kreuger. Not Michael Myers. Pee-Wee Herman. It’s embarrassing.
The film follows man-child Pee-Wee Herman (Paul Reubens, “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse”) as he sets off in search of his stolen red bicycle. The premise could not be simpler, but the nightmare-like quality of certain scenes has stuck with me since I first watched the film over a decade ago. When Pee-Wee’s familiar face appeared on my screen as I scrolled through movies, I couldn’t resist. I decided to break my own rules and give “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” another go.
Was I still scared? Yes. Seeing Large Marge (Alice Nunn, “Delusion”) — a dead woman Pee-Wee is hitchhiking with — pop her eyes out and tell the famous tale of how she died is still, in fact, just as frightening as it sounds. Pee-Wee also accidentally helps an escaped convict flee from police, something I didn’t quite catch onto as a kid. Pee-Wee’s nightmare in which creepy clowns perform torturous surgery on his red bicycle is still the worst scene of all. A giant claw machine quite literally drags his red bicycle to hell. But don’t worry: It’s just a kid’s movie.
Clearly “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” is a recipe for nightmares. However, there’s a ton of metafictional value that I certainly did not pick up on as a kid. After encountering Large Marge, helping an escaped convict and facing a biker gang, Pee-Wee ends up chasing after his stolen bicycle in the Warner Bros. Studio. He runs through different movie sets and props until he finds his bike. Security catches him, yet all ends well when the president of Warner Bros. wants to turn Pee-Wee’s adventure into a movie.
“Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” ends with Pee-Wee viewing his own journey presented as a film at a drive-in theater. Pee-Wee’s character is no longer a man-child. In fact, his character is portrayed by a seductive male actor who speaks in a permanently hushed tone: quite the opposite of Pee-Wee Herman.
The Hollywood version of Pee-Wee’s journey is exaggerated, much like many films that portray true events, adding a level of satire that makes “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” a lot of fun to watch. While Pee-Wee’s quest to find his bicycle is already absurd, the version shown at the end of the film is somehow even more insane. The fact that the movie within the movie somehow makes Pee-Wee’s actual adventure seem more believable than the Hollywood version is mind-blowing, and it ties all of the film’s madness together perfectly.
It’s somewhat of a relief to have conquered “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” even if it took half my life. Coming back to old movies can be nostalgic, fun, creepy or all of the above, and I think that’s what makes it so much fun. You never know how a movie will make you feel years after your first encounter with it; I certainly didn’t know how I was going to react to my first Pee-Wee Herman sighting since blocking him out of my memory at age five. It was frightening, yet liberating.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I forgive “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” for the emotional scarring, but I will never forget it (not that I have a choice). However, I stand by my opinion: It is not a kid’s movie. Sure, it plays on children’s biggest fears by throwing them into scenes with nightmare-like filters and loud noises. It also follows a man who most certainly acts like a child.
But there’s something cynical about Pee-Wee Herman. He’s innocent, curious and definitely has a childlike obsession with his bicycle. But he can never be the same as other characters idolized by children because, to put it plainly, he’s just not a kid. Pee-Wee lacks the genuine youthfulness that characters like SpongeBob SquarePants and Olaf embody. Combine this missing link with the disturbing nature of certain scenes and there you have it: a terrifying play on the classic kid’s movie. I guarantee you’ll never forget it.
Daily Arts Writer Laura Millar can be reached at email@example.com.