Canadian Judge Paul Corupe won't let you forget that this show was Canadian, eh.
"Another lovely day begins,
Saturday morning TV was always special to me as a kid, especially if I could get myself up by six a.m. to catch reruns of the incredibly outlandish Canadian kid's show The Hilarious House of Frightenstein. A locally-produced series from the early 1970s starring homegrown comedian Billy Van as a variety of monsters, eccentrics and craggily-faced weirdoes, it was, even to my young eyes, one of the most bizarre things I'd ever seen; an hour-long Laugh-In-styled horror host series with distinctly unfulfilled pretenses towards educational programming. Like all good things, it soon disappeared—or perhaps I just couldn't get up early enough anymore—becoming strictly a hazy memory and a favorite, "hey, do you remember that show" topic around the water cooler for a generation of Canadians. A brief stint on cable TV a few years back and a few bootleg DVDs have since appeared to fuel fan recollections, but Empire Pictures has done the once unthinkable—collected several episodes of The Hilarious House of Frightenstein on legitimate DVD for the first time ever.
Facts of the Case
From the dank depths of his gothic castle, Count Frightenstein (Billy Van, The Sonny and Cher Show) and his assistant Igor (Fishka Rais, Cannibal Girls) attempt to breathe life to their corpse-composed monster Brucie. While they attempt to raise their creation once more, we're visited by the castle's denizens, The Professor (Julius Sumner Miller, The Mickey Mouse Club), The Oracle (Van), The Librarian (Van), Grizelda The Ghastly Gourmet (Van again), The Wolfman (still Van), Bwanna Clyde Batty (Van once more), and Dr. Pet Vet (yep, Van), all introduced by narrator Vincent Price (The Tingler).
Let's get this out of the way first: The Hilarious House of Frightenstein is not a particularly "good" show. Don't get me wrong, I've watched this series almost my whole life and I love it dearly, but not even I will tell you that it's well made, enlightening, or even particularly funny. Those who grew up with it are bound to be disappointed with modern viewings, and those who have never seen it before will regard it as a trashy waste of time. Regardless (or perhaps because of) its obvious shortcomings, however, The Hilarious House of Frightenstein continues to garner an impressive fan base as the most compelling example of Canadian cult TV ever unleashed on the unsuspecting world.
What was so strange about the show was its aging hippie-meets-Famous Monster of Filmland comedy vibe. As the green-faced vampire Count Frightenstein, Van was never actually scary like many horror hosts of the 1970s, but focused more on corny gags and slapstick jokes more common to adult variety shows of the time like Hee Haw and the aforementioned Laugh-In. Each show invariably kicked off its descent into madcap monster fun with a recitation of "Gory, Gory, Transylvania," the Count's national anthem, and proceeded into some silly shtick with Igor before veering off into a variety of segments starring each of Van's many character creations, each introduced by guest star Vincent Price through a humorous limerick or poem.
There were many odd, incongruous aspects of the mostly impromptu program, but perhaps the oddest were the ones that actually attempted to teach the juvenile audience something. As Dr. Pet Vet, a heavily made-up Van would bring out a dog, bird, or turtle for Igor to coo over, obviously reading some basic facts about diet and habits from a cue card behind the camera. Likewise, Bwanna Clyde Batty was a pith-helmeted explorer with a British accent fond of saying "Ooga Booga" as he narrated dated jungle stock footage with more encyclopedia gleanings. Speaking from experience, kids would usually mentally tune this barely academic stuff out and wait for another segment of Grizelda The Ghastly Gourmet, a cooking show parody that starred a wart-covered witch throwing all kinds of bizarre ingredients into her cauldron and madly cackling—one of Van's best performances that made for always entertaining viewing.
Still, there's no escaping Van's hippie leanings, with peculiar Castle Frightenstein additions like The Oracle, who would "educate" kids about astrology as he accidentally smashed his crystal ball, and The Maharishi, a Ravi Shankar-styled sitar player who would make jokingly profound comments before having a truckload of flowers dumped on his head. For many (although not me), the best segment of the show was the hirsute ECCH Radio DJ The Wolfman, a spot-on take off on Wolfman Jack, who would spin classic 45s and dance with a giant bat-shaped guitar against a psychedelic chroma key screen. These segments are kept in tact on this release—I'd assumed that rights trouble would have seen the music replaced with generic acid rock, but we have the actual tracks here by Mungo Jerry, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, and Diana Ross.
Billy Van, who was making a name for himself with simultaneous gigs south of the border on The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, The Ray Stevens Show, and The Bobby Vinton Show is simply incredible, performing more than half a dozen quirky and uniquely horrific characters in his charmingly frenzied style. When making the show, Van would record a day's worth of completely improvised segments for a character, which would then be edited along with the others into a show. He's always amusing (if not actually laugh-out-loud funny), even when performing lesser characters like The Librarian, who would simply read "scary" stories that turned out to be not scary at all, often playing more to the crew than the intended viewers and making clever asides that children wouldn't always pick up on. Even though these segments always feel padded, you can't help but admire Van's energy and work ethic. The addition of Vincent Price, who arrived for two days shooting and agreed to work for scale, definitely gives the show some class, but Van simply was The Hilarious House of Frightenstein, and without him, the show would not have had half of its appeal.
The biggest concern with this DVD release is that these episodes presented by Empire Pictures are not the original Canadian one-hour presentations—instead, we get four truncated 30 minute American syndicated versions, with an added children's laugh track. I'm kind of torn over this decision, because on one hand, I'd like to have the shows presented as I remember watching them as a tyke, but there's simply no denying that the one hour versions really drag with far too much filler, and these shortened episodes are much easier to digest. The canned laugh track isn't as offensive as I first assumed, mostly kept low in the sound mix.
Unfortunately, the quality on this release is a little bit disappointing. The show has never looked particularly good, and it's no different here—colors are slightly washed out, the image is a little soft and there's even some pixelation happening in dark areas of the screen. The mono sound is OK, but you'll have to turn up your volume a bit to catch everything. These episodes really could have benefited from a little spit 'n' polish, but they're tolerable. The only extras are some text biographies.
Since Billy Van's death in 2003, The Hilarious House of Frightenstein has gained even more popularity, sparking a fan convention and public screenings this past summer in Toronto, with devoted aficionados more than willing to turn a blind eye to the show's faults. It's simply undeniable that the show rarely achieves its potential, but that's certainly not through lack of trying—it's more a prisoner of a demanding and barely practical production schedule and format that any shortcoming of the people or talent involved. This DVD is hard to recommend to anyone who is unfamiliar with Van's bizarrely brilliant show, but I heartily enjoyed this release, and really hope that Empire Pictures continues to release more volumes in the future.
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