Chief Justice Michael Stailey is not from Berwyn.
A tribute to the Golden Age of the horror hosts.
In the early 1950s, long before cable television and VHS, local VHF stations were given access to the studio's pre-packaged horror libraries (labeled Shock Theater) and got creative on how and when to present them. Thus was the dawn of the "Horror Host." These guys were nothing more than newsmen and radio jocks who performed more than one function for the station; many of them did kiddie shows, game shows, and sports broadcasts, both to fill the air time and make a few extra bucks. Remember, we were a simpler people back then, so movies like these had the potential to truly unnerve an audience. The host—personified by bad makeup, cheesy costumes, and shooting on cheap sets—was used to take the edge off the scare factor, and lighten the mood.
When a station like KBC TV in LA wanted to run a classic Universal monster movie like Dracula, they hired someone like pinup girl Maila Nurmi to intro the film, provide brief banter during the commercial breaks, sell a few products, tease some other station programming, and wrap things up when the movie was over. Nurmi parlayed this opportunity into a huge career, becoming the iconic TV hostess known as Vampira. Part Norma Desmond, part Greta Garbo, and all dangerous sex appeal, she played it straight with the intent of presenting a believable character. Forget the movies, Vampira was so successful, she became the show. Three months after her debut, Nurmi was featured in Life Magazine. The following year, Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia listed her as the most "outstanding female entertainer in America," opposite Danny Kaye. And in 1959, Vampira was immortalized on film by director Ed Wood in his schlock magnus opus Plan 9 from Outer Space.
If Vampira was the First Lady of Fright, the Lord of the Manor had to be John Zacherle. His character Roland (later renamed Zacherley the Cool Ghoul), looking like a cross between Lon Chaney in Phantom of the Opera and London After Midnight, mesmerized audiences in Philadelphia and later New York. Hired because of his role as the Undertaker in an episode of WCAU's western series Action in the Afternoon, John had never seen any of the films he was hired to introduce. Throughout the broadcast, he would converse with both his pet amoeba, and his departed wife ("My Dear") locked in her crypt. Unlike Vampira, Roland had a flair for musical comedy and unscripted quick wit, never taking anything too seriously. They would also cut him into the movie at certain points, which was revolutionary for that day and age.
Chilly Billy (Bill Cardille) took a much different approach to his show that originated out of Pittsburgh in the mid '60s. There wasn't anything spooky about the show, but it was more classic comedy sketches in the vein of Milton Berle.
Bob Wilkins had his Creature Features show in San Francisco, which was deadpan, informative, and entertaining. He was the Mister Rogers of horror hosts. John Stanley succeeded Bob and kept with the spirit of the show, bringing an even greater depth of film history.
Chuck Schodowski (Big Chuck & Houlihan) started working television in 1960 at KYW-TV Cleveland as summer intern befriending another new talent named Tim Conway. Tim and station host Ernie Anderson swindled management into doing a morning show that bookended a movie with sketches and guests. Apparently, the show was so bad, they could never get guests, so Tim cut his comedy chops playing all these weird characters, while directing the show. When Tim left in 1963, the station wanted a horror host so Ernie was transformed into Ghoulardi and the show became a phenomenon. His blunt honesty and wicked edge was the first of its kind. When Ernie left to become the voice of ABC in Hollywood, young Ron Sweed brought the character back to life as The Ghoul.
In 1970s Chicago, we had Creature Features (no host) on WGN, and Svengoolie (Jerry G. Bishop) on WFLD. My brother and I were too young to stay up that late, but I can remember one particular occasion having woken up in the middle of the night and going out into the family room to sit with my dad while he was watching Sven. The character started out as a disembodied announcer voice until fans demanded more, so the station brought him on as a live host and man was he nuts! Chicago is the city of improv and Jerry had it in spades; from his delivery to the most bizarre sketches and parodies, this was late night Friday entertainment at its finest. A decade later Rich Koz, who would write jokes for Jerry, assumed the mantle on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons as "Son of Svengoolie" and a whole new generation of fans were born. Sven is still on the air today for WCIU.
When these stations became national network affiliates, UHF stations sprung up to fill the local market void, giving horror hosts a new home. And when conglomerates bought the UHF stations, late night became home to profitable informercials leaving no room left for these beloved shows. Mystery Science Theater 3000 was the last bastian of the genre, starting out the same way at KTMA Minneapolis/St. Paul, but took it to an entirely new level before it too faded to black.
The death of home grown television is a tremendous loss for all of America. A new generation has leveraged the internet, in an attempt to rebirth the genre. Led by Count Gor De Vol (Richard Dyszel) a former TV host from Washington DC, his "Horror Host Underground" (http://horrorhosts.com) is the staging ground for 21st Century campy horror commentary. We still have outlets like RiffTrax and Cinematic Titanic to fill the void, but there was something magic in the dark of your family room, when time stopped and you were fully immersed in that world.
Filmmakers John Hudgens and Sandy Clark have undertaken a monumental task of trying to wrap their arms and our brains around the large number of horror hosts who populated the television landscape over the past 60 years. American Scary serves as a cattle prod to our collective cerebral cortex, jogging memories you may have long since forgotten, and enlightening us on shows and characters we never even knew existed. In fact, one of the most compelling aspects of the documentary is that back in the days of regional isolationism, few of these presenters knew of the existence and stylings of other hosts around the country, but many wound up bearing a striking resemblance to one another.
Presented in 1.78:1 standard def anamorphic widescreen, the visual fidelity varies greatly from its wealth of source material, but this is one presentation where you just don't care. We're just happy to experience these moments in whatever form they arrive. The same goes for the Dolby 2.0 audio, a mix of mono and stereo that suffers its share of source degradation.
The bonus features are an extension of the film itself. An audio commentary expounds upon Hudgens and Clark's memories of these shows and the challenges of making the film (from what to include and what to cut, to traveling cross-country to record their interviews), but you may find it difficult to digest as their discussion often gets lost in the audio of the film. You'll likely get more out of the extended and deleted interviews with a litany of genre favorites; Forrie Ackerman, Curtis Armstrong, Leonard Maltin, Maila Nurmi (Vampira), Neil Gaiman, James Morrow, Len Wein, John Zacherle (Roland/Zacherley), Joel Hodgson (MST3K), Don Glut, Jerry G. Bishop (Svengoolie), Patricia Tallman, John Bloom (Joe Bob Briggs), Tom Savini, Phil Tippet, Ernie Anderson (Ghoulardi), Ron Sweed (The Ghoul), John Dimes (Dr. Sarcofiguy), Chris Gore (Film Threat), Mike Price (Baron Daemon), Eric Lobo (Mr. Lobo), Larry Underwood (Dr. Gangrene), Tim Conway. We also get a handful of featurettes like "Horror Host Wedding," a piece on Nashville horror hosts which didn't make the final cut, the original concept pitch for the documentary, and a couple of trailers.
Credit Hudgens and Clark for doing their best to touch on as many hosts as they could. There's a lot of great material and history here, but American Scary stumbles over its inability to tell a compelling story. It doesn't ruin the experience, but some deft editing and narrative restructuring would make the film an even more emotionally satisfying ride.
A must-see for anyone who grew up with their own local TV horror host.
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