Vintage educational movies scarcely need much help to seem creepy, dated, foolish, and ill-conceived. They do just fine all on their own. What adults understand or think they understand about children evolves so rapidly, with one set of findings nullifying the previous one, that today’s breakthrough can’t help becoming tomorrow’s folly and/or atrocity.
Educational movies of the mid-20th century, for instance, stressed “fitting in” (a pleasant euphemism for conforming) as a cure-all for all sorts of childhood problems. Students were told to observe and imitate their classmates so as to better integrate into society. Then, educators apparently realized that such conforming could lead to juvenile delinquency and drug abuse. Whoops. That’s when “peer pressure” became the bogeyman and kids were told to “just say no.” Released by Portafilms in 1956, Helping Johnny Remember is a definite remnant of the “fitting in” era of classroom films. The ill-mannered title character, a young boy with an Eisenhower-era buzz cut, won’t play nice with the other children with whom he occupies a shapeless, formless black void. So the omniscient, disembodied narrator, a veritable stand-in for God, has to set him straight.
Web designer and filmmaker Ashleigh Nankivell has given Helping Johnny Remember a postmodern remix, adding an unearthly new score by Good Old Neon as well as a host of ghoulish visual effects. The children’s eyes, eyebrows, noses, mouths, and ears are all twisted and distorted, rendering them as monsters. And what of Johnny? As in the original 1956 film, he does heed the narrator’s advice and show some “consideration” to his peers. Or, at least, he makes a brief show of doing so. But Nankivell has something else in mind for the conclusion of her version of the film, something more along the lines of Stephen King’s Carrie.