Tag Archive | horror

Timorous heroes and erratic phantoms—more of why I love sf/f

Movie poster for The Ghost and Mr Chicken.

A hauntingly hilarious cinematic experience!

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love The Ghost and Mr Chicken. I know, based on when it was released in theatres and then when it came to television, that I was probably 8 years old when I first saw the film, but it was a staple of local TV afternoon movie fare for the next decade or thereabouts, so I saw it at least once a year from sometime in elementary school until well into high school. I acquired a VHS copy of the film for myself as an adult and watched it around Halloween for a number of years, and since then I’ve re-acquired it on disc and now I can stream it from our media server whenever I want. So I’m really familiar with the film, in all of it’s lovely, gooey, genre-goodness!

So, the story concerns Luther Heggs (played by Don Knotts), a middle-aged man who has always dreamed of being a Famous Journalist or other sort of hero, but has never been able to rise above his job as a typesetter working in the basement of the Courier-Express, the weekly newspaper of the town of Rachel, Kansas. The opening scenes of the movie establish Luther at the butt of just about everyone’s joke in the town, and given his tendency to jump to conclusions and become almost hysterical over the slightest odd occurence, the audience is not supposed to be surprised.

Then comes news that the Old Simmons Mansion, the site of a notorious murder-suicide decades ago which has been a decaying housed rumored to be haunted all of those years, is going to be bulldozed down soon, as the only heir to the Simmons’ is coming back to town around the time of the anniversary of the murder-suicide. Luther is dared/assigned to spend a night in the house on the anniversary of the horrid events and write an exclusive, the first time he has been offered a by-line at the paper in his whole life.

Luther also has had a lifelong crush on Alma Parker (played by Joan Staley), who is also being wooed by Luther’s most frequent bully, the only official reporter for the local newspaper. Being teased as a coward by said bully in front of Alma, Luther declares he will undertake the assignment.

Luther lives in a boarding house whose other tenants are all played by a gaggle of famous character actors of the period. And who amp up the fear by telling Luther the versions of the murder-suicide that each of them has heard.

Luther goes to the house, has a few very comedic misadventures that show how over-excited and fearful he is… and then the real spookiness happens. The painting of the last Mrs Simmons transforms during a flash of lightning from a regular painting to one with a pair of garden shears sticking out of it, with blood dripping down the canvas. The organ in the tower starts playing, but no one is at the keys. A bookcase swings open to reveal a secret stair way to the staircase. Other spookiness happens until Luther finally faints in terror.

The next day, Luther tries to tell his story to the editor and the only other reporter, and they translate his tale into a compelling story that runs on the front page of the next edition of the Courier-Express. This leads to a number of unexpected actions. Many people in the community think of Luther as a hero. The wife of the manager of the local bank happens to be the head of the local seance society and since she essentially owns the bank, suddenly the Simmons heir is prevented from getting his clear title to the house.

I should pause at this point and confess that despite being listed as an uproarious comedy, this movie did give me nightmares as a kid. However, the nightmares were because of the scene where Luther is forced to give a speech at the local community Fourth of July Celebration. It’s a scene that is extremely painful for anyone who suffers from excess empathy and can’t watch embarrassing scenes.

Anyway, the heir to the Simmons mansion sues Luther for libel, and uses the trial to trot out all of the most embarrassing stories of Luther trying to impress his classmates and neighbors throughout his life. Finally, the judge approves a jury request to go spend the night in the haunted house to see once and for all whether what Luther recounted in his story really happened.

Of course, under the observation of the jurors, judge, and neighbors, nothing untoward happens. The cringe ramps up as Luther tries to make things happen as they did on the night. It becomes clear that her lawsuit if going to go against Luther, and everyone who has supported him up to this point rejects him.

…except for Alma.

As the rest of the community leaves, with Luther standing in front of the house pleading for someone to believe him, she goes back inside, and finds the lever that opens the secret bookcase. Soon, the spooky organ is playing itself, and Luther goes back inside, finds himself confronting a fiend threatening Alma’s life. Eventually, Luther is vindicated before the whole community, and the truth about that murder-suicide decades ago is revealed.

Many years ago I mentioned that this movie was one of my favorite fantasy/horror films, and a friend got really upset at me for that claim. The ghost within the story is explained away in the final act, the person pointed out. Also, the entire movie is framed as a comedy about how easily Knotts’ character is sent into flights of fancy. “It’s a comedy with a fake ghost, not a fantasy or horror story,” my friend insisted.

I have a number of quibbles with that. First, there are a lot of very spooky moments in the middle of the film that definitely qualify as horror. Second, if you can’t accept tales about people investigating claims of the paranormal as part of the genre of sf/f then I don’t want to know you. And third, in the final scene of the movie, after Luther and Alma exchange their wedding vows, we see the chapel’s Wurlizter organ playing itself! So, sorry, just because most of the happenings (but certainly not all—in most cuts of the movie the bleeding portrait is never explained!) have a mundane explanation, that doesn’t mean that one of the murdered people didn’t hang around as a ghost.

I know what I loved about the film is that Luther—the guy no one in town takes seriously and who is bullied for not being sufficiently manly—is the hero who gets the happy ending. And I like to think that he had a long career afterward solving haunted house mysteries with the help of Alma and their ghostly sidekick.


Part of the reason I decided it was time to write about this movie was this story (which was included in last week’s Friday Five): Joan Staley, Actress in ‘The Ghost and Mr. Chicken,’ Dies at 79 – She also slapped Elvis Presley in ‘Roustabout,’ sang to Audie Murphy in ‘Gunpoint’ and played Shame sidekick Okie Annie on ‘Batman’.

Undying fiancées, melodramatic lab assistants, and monsters in the closet—more of why I love sf/f


I don’t know exactly how old I was the first time I watched The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, but since I’m pretty sure that it was on the Saturday afternoon Science Fiction Theatre on Channel 2 out of Denver (long the home of “Blinky the Clown”). Which means that I couldn’t have been more the 10 years old. I know the second time I saw it was a late Friday night Nightmare Theatre offering during a time I was allowed to stay up after midnight on Fridays, so that means I was between 12 and 14 years old. The third time was many, many years later as an Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episode… and it was one of the times I really wanted a means to mute the commenters. Because as campy and awful as The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is, I’m actually very fond of it.

And it really is a poorly made film on so many levels. It was released with the title The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, but yet when you get to the end of the film the credits appear under a title card reading The Head That Wouldn’t Die. The direction is clunky. A lot of the dialog is more than just clunky, it’s actually a wonder some of the actors could get the lines out! The car accident scene is so badly edited, it makes Plan 9 from Outer Space seem like a masterpiece.

And then there is the plot: Dr. Bill Cortner is a brilliant surgeon who has some unorthodox ideas—so unorthodox that his father (a more famous surgeon) urges him to take up a new profession. Dr. Cortner is taking his new fiancée, Jan Compton, to the family’s country home (I think to meet his mother), when they have a car accident. Cortner gets out with barely a scratch, but Jan is neatly decapitated. Somehow Cortner has the presence of mind to carry her head to his locked lab in the basement of the family country house, where Cortner’s creepy lab assistant, Kurt, helps him set Jan’s head into a pan of blood and attach various life sustaining equipment to the head.

There’s a monstrous Thing in the Closet of the lab that occasionally growls incoherently and bangs on the heavily locked door. We are told the Thing is the result of a previous failed experiment, but given no other details. Jan can mysteriously talk despite not having lungs nor any sort of breathing apparatus. And Kurt the assistant has a serious deformity on one arm.

Jan pleads with them to let her die, but Dr. Cortner has plan! He will find a body to transplant Jan’s head onto and they will be able to live happily ever after. He then drives into the city to search strip clubs, night clubs, and even a beauty contest to find a suitable body.

While Cotrner’s off doing that Jan and Kurt the Assistant have existential debates about the meaning of life and horror. It is also during the middle that we learn of Kurt’s sadistic streak, as he takes delight in teasing the Thing in the closet. Jan, meanwhile, realizes that somehow she had developed psychic powers, and she starts communicating with the Thing in the closet.

Eventually, Dr. Cortner settles on a suitably sexy body to steal of Jan: a model whose body is perfect, but she has a scar on her face which she is ashamed of. Lying that he can remove the scar, Cortner lures the model up to the family’s home where his lab is. Once there, he drugs her, and begins to prepare for the surgery.

Jan begs him not to do it, but Cortner is determined.

Jan eggs the Thing in the closet on, and in an extremely bloody finale it escapes and kills both Kurt and Corter. It’s egregiously gorey, and I remain a bit surprised that this movie was shown during the afternoon on a local TV station.

The Thing in the Closet, by the way, is played by Eddie Carmel, also known as “The Jewish Giant.” Eddie suffered from a form of gigantism and acromegaly because of an incurable tumor on his pituitary gland.

The fight has also started a fire, so the lab is burning down. Jan instructs the Thing from the closet to carry the unconscious woman to safety, but to leave Jan there to burn with the rest of the house.

Depending on which edit you see, the movie’s sleaze in the middle outweighs the extreme gore of the ending. The scenes of Cortner looking for a body include a lot of footage of the strippers stripping, at least one instance of models wrestling, and the women opening talking about how no one is interested in them other than for their bodies. Apparently full frontally nude scenes were filmed and intended for the international release of the film.

Despite everything wrong with it, the film still works. And mostly because of Virginia Leith’s performance as Jan. I mean, the film begins with a chillingly delivered line (over a totally black screen), “Please let me die.” The opening of the film is essentially a flashback from the moment that Jan realizes how her fiancé has revived her. Despite spending most the film sitting under the table with her head sticking out the pan, Leith makes you believe. Even the overwrought philosophizing during the debate with Kurt is loaded with pathos. She also gets some commentary in there about Cortner’s obsession with finding the perfect sex doll body for her, completely disregarding her wishes and opinions.

I don’t remember ever having nightmares because of this film. I’m not sure why that is. I certainly didn’t pick up on the gay subtext a lot of people seem to see in the film. The Thing in the Closet seems to be the component that everyone who claims there is gay subtext focuses on—but Cortner is so obviously the sort of narcissistic heterosexual man who only values women for the sex he can get from them, that I just don’t see it.

I do know that when I first saw the film I identified very strongly with both Jan and the Thing in the Closet. Jan refers to herself as the ultimate horror, but I think it would be more apt to describe her as the ultimate Person Without Agency. Which is why I really empathized with her. As a queer kid (technically closeted the first time I saw it, but I didn’t actually know yet that I was gay, so closeted isn’t quite accurate) with an abusive parent, I had almost as little control over my life as Jan. And of course, the way that Kurt bullied the Thing was also very familiar to me.

The ending of the story isn’t exactly a surprise: the mad scientist destroyed by his own creation is a very popular trope, after all. Though the level of gore in the ending was hardly normal when the movie was made. But again, Jan’s final comments, like the chilling opening line and her description of why death would be a kinder fate than what Cortner planned for her, elevates the film above the schlock.

And, honestly, schlock often makes for a great popcorn movie.


I linked to Virginia Leith’s obituary a couple of weeks ago, and it kicked off a trip down memory lane. One of the things I turned up was this fascinating story about the young man who played the monster in the closet: Eddie Carmel, The Jewish Giant.

Good, bad; I’m the guy with the gun — more of why I love sf/f

Ash Williams (as portrayed by Bruce Campbell), unlikely savior of the world.

Ash Williams (as portrayed by Bruce Campbell), unlikely savior of the world.

Scary movies give me nightmares. And I have been known not just to talk in my sleep when having a dream, but I’ve been known get up, find other people in the house, shake them awake and urgently tell them about the thing that is in the house trying to kill us. This is why I almost never watch scary movies. Fortunately, sleepwalking in general happens less often the older we get, so it’s slightly less of a problem than it used to be.

So frequently friends will tell me about how awesome a particular horror film is, and I’ll just smile and nod.

There was one movie, however, that people kept bringing up again and again. Not just people I knew. Army of Darkness, I had been assured be even a few critics, was a masterpiece of cinema–hilarous and scary all at once. And the star is Bruce Campbell, whose work I had loved in The Adventures of Brisco County Jr, for instance.

I should mention that for the most part, horror and related stories almost never cause me to have bad dreams. And I have written stories and designed gaming scenarios that has caused more than one friend to scoff mightily at the idea that I can’t watch scary movies without nightmares. What can I say? I don’t think it should be that surprising that things I see only in my own imagination will have a different effect on me than things I actually see with my eyes.

Eventually, my friend Sky and my husband Michael convinced me to watch Army of Darkness. I sat on a couch between them, and I am not ashamed to say that at times I was clutching both their hands, and I hid my face in a shoulder during some of the bloodier scenes.1

But I also laughed my ass off. It was wonderful! The film is a great and irreverent take on the notions of chosen ones, reluctant heroes, and merciless evil. It finds so many ways to put humor into situations no person would be expected to survive.

And, yeah, I had a few nightmares that week, but fortunately not the kind where I was screaming in my sleep or shaking my husband awake.2

In case you aren’t familiar, Army of Darkness is a sequel. In 1981 Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, and a bunch of friends (include Sam’s brother, Ted) made a lowish budget film The Evil Dead, in which Campbell first played Ash Williams. The plot is that a group of five college students go to spend a weekend at a cabin, find an old tape recorder, play the tape which proves to be a voice reciting from the cursed Book of the Dead. The spell unleashes a bunch of demons that possess members of the cast, mayhem ensues. The mayhem got gorier and gorier as things when along. As the possessed cast kills each other off, their bodies (and sometimes only parts of their bodies), are reanimated and continue to cause ever more grisly, brutal deaths.

A few years later, with a bigger budget, they made Evil Dead II which begins with a reshot and re-edited summary of the first film then picks up where the first left off, with Ash battling both the demonic books (now renamed Necronomicon Ex-Mortis) as well as the demons it summons.

And then Army of Darkness follows Ash’s adventures when he was magically transported by the 1300 where he has to fight an entire army of the evil undead, now given the name Deadites. The third film amped up the humor significantly, with a lot of the horror elements used more for comedic effect. It was still scary, though. This film was by far the most successful in the series.

A fourth film, titled simply Evil Dead is kind of a remake and kind of not. Bruce only appears as Ash in an after credits scene.

As time went on, I became a bigger and bigger Bruce Campbell fan. Not such a big fan that I went back and re-watched the earlier movies, nor the recent remake. But when a couple years ago it was announced that Starz would be showing a horror comedy series based on the series, I was quite excited. Because of the licensing and distribution deals that the Raimi brothers and Campbell had made to get the later films produced, they couldn’t make direct references to the most successful of the movies. They could reference the plot and characters of the original film, and use some elements (the name Deadites and Necronomicon Ex-Mortis), but that left them plenty of room.

Ash vs Evil Dead picks up the story of Ash as he’s well into middle age, using cheesy stories of how he lost his hand (in the first movie he had to cut it off because it was been possessed by a demon, while somehow he remained in control of the rest of his body) to seduce random women in bars. In an alcohol- and pot-fueled haze, he allows one of these women that he persuaded to come back to his small trailer, to read “poetry” from his old book, and evil is back.

What I love about the character of Ash Williams is just how much of a hero he isn’t. He’s a pathological liar (who is usually bad at it), he hits on women constantly, he says lots of casually racist and sexist things, he boozes too much, he drives while drunk and stoned, and so forth. He occasionally tries to run from the danger, but somehow he always manages to pull himself together and try to kick evil’s ass.

It’s a style of anti-hero with a long career in storytelling. I find it fascinating how closely Ash fits the mold of Samson (yes, the Old Testament Biblical character). The Biblical Samson is not, by any means, a holy guy. In the original Hebrew scripture, the word for “to have sex” appears a few dozen times in total–nearly two-thirds of the use of the word occur within the portion of the book of Judges sometimes referred to as the Samson saga.

Seriously, one of those Biblical stories involves Samson partying at a brothel for hours. The Holy Scripture literally says that he screwed every single woman in the brothel so many times that they were sore and some could barely walk and they pleaded with him to go home. Drunk, Samson staggers through the city. But the gates of the city have been locked, and the Philistines have set an ambush, intending to jump him while he is drunk and worn out from all the sex. But before they can, Samson simply tears the gates down and stumbles home.

And this is my favorite part: the scripture says he dragged the gate behind him for miles without remembering that he still had hold of it, and only midway home noticed, and he tossed it into the middle of the field before sneaking into his mother’s house and crawling into bed.

Ash Williams of the Evil Dead series doesn’t possess Samson’s legendary strength, but he manages to survive being beaten, battered, flung great distances, burned, stabbed, run over by demon possesed vehicles, et cetera, et cetera.

Yes, the series was crazy and gory, with literal buckets of blood being spewed all over the actors and sets. But it was also hilarious. Although the Deadites are undead, the show isn’t a zombie story. For one thing, the Deadites are fast. They aren’t mindless. The demons that inhabit the corpses are able to access the memories of the deceased, so they taunt the heroes along the way. They make plans and concoct schemes.

In other words, they aren’t a mindless threat, they’re actually bad guys.

I’ve had a lot of fun watching Ash’s adventures on the small screen the last three years. I was sad to learn that it wasn’t being renewed, but also happy for all the laughs we’d gotten along the way. Bruce has announced that he is retiring this character—if there are any more Evil Dead stories to tell, Ash Williams (or at least not this Ash) won’t be a part of them.

That’s okay. Ash showed us that you don’t have to be perfect to be the hero. He’s earned some rest.


Footnotes:

1. I’ve learned there are things I can do to reduce the severity of nightmares I’ll have after watching a scary movie. Watching on a small screen helps. Being able to pause or walk away when things get too tense is extremely helpful.

2. I’m more likely to wake him up by saying something angry than to scream, truth be told.3

3. I also have gotten better and making myself wake up. Seriously, just a few weeks ago a dream started to have some elements from one of the gorier scenes in a recent episode of the series, and me in the dream said, “No, I don’t not want to have this nightmare! No!” And I woke.4

4. I didn’t wake my husband up in the process, so I don’t know if this was one of the times when I said outloud the thing I was saying inside the dream, but there have been occasions in the past where I did exactly that.

There wolf! There castle! why sf/f doesn’t have to be serious

Peter Boyle as the monster, choking Gene Wilder while Marty Feldman and Teri Garr partake in an impromptu game of Charades. (© 20th Century Fox)

Peter Boyle as the monster, choking Gene Wilder while Marty Feldman and Teri Garr partake in an impromptu game of Charades. (© 20th Century Fox)

I was fourteen years old when the movie Young Frankenstein was released. The small town where I lived had only one theatre, and it showed two movies each week. One played Monday through Thursday, I believe, and the other would play Friday through Sunday, sometimes with a matinee Saturday afternoon (but not always). No matter how sold out any show was, it didn’t stay past its scheduled three or four day run.

And I was, as far as I could tell, one of the few kids in my class on the Monday morning after the movie had shown, who hadn’t seen it. If the film was shown on network television in the next couple of years, I didn’t manage to see it. After my folks divorced and my mom, one sister, and I moved 1200 miles away, one of my new friends mentioned that Young Frankenstein had been re-released to theaters and was playing downtown. Back in the days before ubiquitous cable, movies on tape or disc, or the internet, movies were often re-released into theaters.

When I mentioned that I’d never seen it, my friends were aghast. The next thing I knew, we were piling into someone’s car and driving to the theatre. I loved the movie. I loved it so much, that I couldn’t stop talking about it. I kept telling anyone who would listen to me about the grandson of Victor Frankenstein, Frederick, who insists that his last name is pronounced Frohnkensteen, and is ashamed of his crazy grandfather’s work; but upon finding said grandfather’s journal becomes obsessed with bringing a dead man back to life, and the zany misadventures that follow.

My mom thought it sounded fun. And so a night or two later, I found myself standing in line at the theatre once more, this time with my mom and little sister.

The movie has more than a few jokes based on sexual innuendoes, which it didn’t even occur to me might not be appropriate for my eleven-year-old sister, let alone what Mom might think of it. And both of them were laughing at all the same places I was, so everything was going fine. Until we reached the point where the Creature kidnaps Frederick’s fiancé, Elizabeth.

And then, panic started to set in. Because what happens next is that the Creature and Elizabeth have sex (in a scene that is a casebook example of pop culture’s long entanglement with rape culture). During which Elizabeth falls in love with the Creature because he has an enormous “schwanzstucker.”

Mom was a Bible-thumping Southern Baptist. Yes, she was also a science fiction fan, but her open-mindedness only went so far. And I had brought her and my little sister to a movie where a central turning point of one of the subplots is a woman falling in love with a stranger because of the size of his penis.

I was quite certain that I was going to wind up being grounded for life. Obviously Mom was going to be very upset. And I should have realized that she would be and mentioned the scene as soon as she suggested we go see the movie! I sunk down in my seat, bracing for an angry outburst.

The scene with the Creature began, and I just sank down lower in my seat. Then when the sex happens (the movie was rated PG, so you don’t even see either character get undressed, it’s only implied that the Creature unzipped his pants), and Madeline Kahn, who played Elizabeth starts singing in an exaggerated operatic style, “Oh! Sweet mystery of life at last I’ve found you!”

Mom started laughing. I looked over, and she wasn’t merely chuckling. She was guffawing loudly, covering her mouth to try not to disturb the rest of the audience (many of whom were laughing, but not that hard) and doubling over like she was going to fall out of her seat. A minute or two later her laughter subsided and she was wiping her eyes. She leaned over and whispered, “We probably shouldn’t have brought your little sister to see this!”

My sister asked mom what was so funny, and mom started laughing again.

A day or so later Mom had a slightly more serious talk with me about the importance of evaluating shows and books and such I might let my sister see as to whether they were appropriate, but she wasn’t angry. She said the only other thing she was disappointed in about the show was that we couldn’t immediately re-watch the original Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein right afterward.

Some time later a pair of the friends who took me to the film the first time re-enacted the “Need a hand?” “No, thanks! Have one,” scene when Mom was around, and she asked them to do it again. And they started to, but it morphed into a re-enactment of the scene in the blind man’s cottage instead. For the rest of the evening we were quoting funny lines from the film at each other. I think it was that evening that Mom explained her view of all the ways that the original Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein had alluded to love, romance, and even sex. Though we stayed away from any mention of the Creature’s schwanzstucker.

It should come as no surprise that two of the friends who were so aghast that I had never seen Young Frankenstein were the same pair who, a couple years later, dragged me to my first performance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. All the sexual situations in Young Frankenstein are hetero and heteronormative, but there was still a strain of the transgressive running throughout. Young Frankenstein didn’t have the same effect on my own self awareness as Rocky Horror, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t an important landmark in my understanding of the possibilities of science fiction and fantasy.

And I wasn’t the only nerd to think so. The year after it was released, Young Frankenstein won the Hugo Award for Dramatic Presentation. And the Science Fiction Writers of America awarded Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder a Nebula Award for the screenplay. The film also won four Saturn Awards. The film displays a great deal of fondness for the Universal Frankenstein films (there’s even a line of dialog about how the village elders have endured all of this five times before, though that’s a miscount since the Universal series actually has six movies: Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, Ghost of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman and House of Frankenstein). Young Frankenstein was a humorous parody, yes, but it also served as both a deconstruction and homage at the same time.

And it’s a funny film! And that’s nothing to sneeze at.

Nightmare Theatre!

When I was a kid, just about every metropolitan area in the U.S. had at least one local TV station showing some sort of monster/mystery/sci-fi/horror movie program every week. Many of them ran on Friday nights, after the local evening news ended. A few ran on Saturday evenings, and fewer still on Saturday afternoons. And something that a lot of those shows had in common is that there was a host: a person who usually was dressed up as some sort of monster or other stock character, who would introduce the show, possibly banter with a sidekick, or otherwise provide a bit of color commentary to the proceedings.

Some people operate under the impression that the first horror host was Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (no, she didn’t begin hosting until 1981). Slightly more informed people point to Bob Wilkins, who hosted Creature Features on a couple of different Bay Area channels from 1971 to 1984.

Well-informed people aware that all of them were preceded by some years by Vampira (1954-56), who later tried to sue Elvira for stealing her schtick. [Given that the actress who played Vampira had been working with the station in ’81 and was to be an executive producer of the show that became Elvira’s show, and she left in a dispute over the casting of the host, you can understand.]

A few years after Vampira’s show went off the air (it was aired live, and virtually no footage remains), Screen Gems put together a package of 52 horror films and made them available for syndication. Stations all over the country began showing their own weekly horror shows under titles such as Shock Theatre, Nightmare Theatre, Sinister Cinema, Saturday Chiller, and so on. The shows were usually broadcast on either Friday or Saturday night, after the evening news.

One reason that every station that carried the show had its own host was simply technological. In the late 50s (and for some time after), the way non-network syndication worked involved physically shipping cannisters of film (and later videotape) back and forth. It worked a lot like the non-streaming version of Netflix. A station would subscribe to the show, the syndicator would ship movies out to the subscribing stations. After the station showed the film(s), they would ship them back to the syndicator, who would ship them to another station.

My understanding is that they shipped out four or five movies at a time, and that as long as the station paid their subscription fees, they didn’t wait until the last set had been shipped back before sending the next.

In this case, Screen Gems just provided the movies themselves. Some location stations just ran them with, at most, a voice-over announcer. Other stations came up with their own shows, inspired originally by Vampira.

During the years I was old enough to be allowed to stay up and watch such things, we were living in various small towns in Utah and northwestern Colorado, and one of the stations we got was KCPX channel 4 out of Salt Lake City, where each Friday night brought us Nightmare Theatre.

For a few years it went by the name of The 10:20 Double Nightmare, because it was a double feature and it started at 10:20pm as soon as the evening news ended. I remember that phase only because sometimes my parents would let me stay up late enough to watch the first movie, but I wasn’t supposed to watch the second. By the time I was allowed to stay up as late as I wanted on Fridays, the local evening news went all the way until 10:30, and the show had reverted by to a single movie.

Nightmare Theatre was hosted, during that period, by Dr. Volapuk. Which is to say that a man wearing a vaguely Dracula-like suit and cape, and a really awful rubber ghoul mask, would come out of the shadows, introduce the movie, and make a lot of bad jokes. He would make more bad jokes at the commercial breaks. Occasionally he would impart a bit of trivia related to the movies. At the end of the show, he would give a preview of the next week’s movie, and then end with his traditional sign-off, “I, Dr. Volapuk, have been happy to be your host tonight. Remember, Volapuk spelled backwards is cup-of-love. So in your nightmares tonight, dream of me…” and then he would laugh maniacally.

No, I have no idea what all that cup-of-love business was supposed to mean.

I didn’t know, at the time, that the actor in the mask was also the guy who dressed up as Fireman Frank every morning to host the cartoon show on the same station.

Nightmare Theatre showed a lot of the old Universal Monster movies (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Son of Dracula, Werewolf of London, The Mummy’s Hand, and so on), but also a lot of the Japanese kaiju genre of moves (Mothra, Godzilla Raids Again, War of the Gargantuas).

A lot of the nerdy interest in such shows got re-focused on newer things when Star Wars came out and kicked off a bunch of higher quality films of the fantastic. Relatively cheap high quality satellite feeds and other cable television technologies replaced the old model of shipping film around, so shows such as Elvira’s Movie Macabre, Mystery Science Theater 3000, or Cinema Insomnia could be produced in one place and seen in the niche of each market. Which has put stake through the heart of most of the local horror hosts.

All those Friday nights that I stayed up to watch those movies is probably why I often still get a hankering on Fridays for some cheesy sci fi or similar films.

Wanna join me?

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