The Electric Grandmother (Revisited) – *Article & Video

By Eric P. Gulliver

Plot: A trio of children, traumatized by the death of their mother, and their father get a very special robot grandmother to assist them.

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It’s a joke in my family that I have no memories before my teenage years. “Don’t ask Eric, he won’t remember,” my sister often quips. To justify this, I tell myself that new learning has had to shove old memories further down the memory-hole. But why do some memories stick and others don’t? This question has become somewhat of a preoccupation of mine as I approach my third decade. Trauma can’t explain all the memories I do recall, because some are pleasant: there is the giant water fight on Bayberry Lane where we all got soaked, even mom. Then further along when us Tucker Street boys lit an enormous dead pine tree on fire in the town forest. Like that pine tree, these moments, though few and far between, illuminate small pockets of space through my formative years.

It was during this same time that movies began to mean something to me. I didn’t just let them fade, I would watch and rewatch them. I wanted to know how they were made. “How can they do that?” I apparently asked upon seeing the chimney sweep scene in Mary Poppins. I use the word ‘apparently’ because this is a memory passed along by my family.

One film firmly planted in my mind was the 1982 television movie The Electric Grandmother, which for some reason, my parents let me watch. This film stayed with me. And create memories it did. Although scene details were hazy, I could remember the unsettling feeling it gave me and the questions it posed. Does Grandma have to plug herself in in the basement too? Did she come from a factory?

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Maureen Stapleton as The Electric Grandmother

And everyone’s personal favorite: My wanting clarification that my grandma couldn’t actually shoot orange juice out of her fingertips for breakfast. Something about the subject matter affected my small mind. I would reference the film as I grew up, and now, strangely enough, I have to remind my parents what the film was even about.

The difference in these memories was not in images but rather in mood. In terms of TEG, I remember being unsettled by the grandma being delivered by helicopter (it was later I would learn she was delivered in a sarcophagus, an object I didn’t know yet). I remember Maureen Stapleton’s calm, almost robotic tone throughout the film. And being stupefied when she descended to the basement and performed her before-bed (or shutdown?) mechanical exercise, before plugging herself into the wall and rocking alarmingly in her rocking chair. Something about this image scared me good; I was never totally comfortable in my grandmother’s basement ever again.

It was later that I learned that this film was based on a Ray Bradbury story, in a discussion with John Campopiano, who had tracked the film down after I referenced it in a discussion about obscure movies from our past. In a stroke of chance, another of John’s friends, Adam, also referenced TEG stating that he had an extended version on 16mm. This serendipitous reference spawned a night of revisiting The Electric Grandmother projected on 16mm film.

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The Electric Grandmother re-fills Agatha’s milk glass

For Adam and I, the film is still unsettling even upon second viewing as adults. The collective cringing of our fellow audience members validated our unease from scene to scene. This time it was the sound effects that proved most peculiar for me; the positively frightening opening noises of the sarcophagus and awakening/activating of the grandmother, and the sound of liquid coming out of her fingers. When I think more about it, even the word choices one uses in regards to describing TEG are significant, too. Was she awakened or activated? Was she turned off or did she go to sleep? Did she actually love the children or was she merely programmed? Such questions may form the ethical subtext of the Bradbury story. Perhaps my small mind wasn’t ready to ponder these questions yet, and why it has held onto them so many years later.

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