Interview with Horror Historian Tom Weaver
Tom Weaver is one of the greatest assets horror fandom has. In the past twenty-one years, he's released nineteen books on fantastic and frightening films, many collections of interviews he's done with actors, directors, writers, producers, effects men, and composers who have contributed to our favorite genres. Weaver has also written or co-written the definitive guides on Universal and Poverty Row horrors. Now, coinciding with the release of his latest interview book, I Talked with a Zombie: Interviews with 23 Veterans of Horror and Sci-Fi Films and Television, Weaver has graciously allowed us to turn the tables on him and make the interviewer the interviewee!
Classic-Horror.com: What first made you a horror & sci-fi fan?
Tom Weaver: When I was a kid, unless you'd been inoculated against monster movies, you had to be a fan of that kind of stuff, because it was everywhere – in the theaters, on TV, the toy stores, everywhere you looked in the mid-1960s, it was monsters monsters monsters. I didn't stand a chance! In New York, there were Saturdays when you could start watching monster movies around ten in the morning on Channel 9 and just go from one to the next all day long and into the wee hours of the morning. The maddening part was when two great-sounding monster movies were on different channels at the same time. In those days, TV Guides had up in front a list of the movies that were playing that week, and Saturday-wise I'd sit like a war strategist marking up the TV Guide and drawing arrows and trying to figure out how I could see as many as I could each Saturday. Channel 2 was the only New York station that stayed on all night back then, and their last movie of the day was always a monster movie, Tarantula or one of the real good ones – and it would start at like 4:30 Sunday morning!
C-H: How did you transition from fan to genre writer?
Weaver: As a teenager and "young adult" I always got a kick out of reading interviews with monster movie old-timers in magazines like Castle of Frankenstein and Cinefantastique and Photon. They were never long enough, and they were almost always with the best-known people – the Roger Cormans and Ray Harryhausens and Christopher Lees and so on – but I still loved 'em. And around 1980 or '81, I thought it would be fun to do just one. A pal of mine, a Three Stooges fan, was in contact with Ed Bernds, who directed World Without End and Return of the Fly and a bunch of others, so I called him up and got his okay to do an interview. The only thing was, I was still just a 20-ish squirt making like 80 dollars a week take home, so I couldn't afford to do the interview by phone; a couple hours on the phone from New York to California in those days would have run me probably 50 bucks, several days pay! So I sent him audio cassettes and a list of questions, and he sent back the cassettes with "my interview" on 'em. Transcribing them and watching it come together made me think, "I was gonna do just one but ... why not two?" and so I contacted Richard E. Cunha of Frankenstein's Daughter fame and did the same thing. But he kept my audio cassettes and sent me back a videotape on which he sat on-camera and answered all my questions – and just for fun, he got the guy who produced some of his movies, Arthur Jacobs, to join him on camera and put in his two cents. And I thought, "Jeez, these old guys – Bernds and Cunha and Jacobs – are all so nice and this is so much fun. Maybe I'll do three..." And it just kept going and going and going. I've lost track but I've probably done 600 or more interviews by this time.
C-H: Who are some of your greatest inspirations as a writer? As an interviewer?
Weaver: The writers I got the most out of, in my beginning days, were William K. Everson and, in Photon, Ron Borst. Another Photon writer who was great was Scott MacQueen. As an interviewer, I gotta say, there didn't seem to BE anybody to emulate. It seemed like nobody was even trying to get these "small potatoes" guys to talk before I started pestering 'em. As I mentioned before, just about everybody else was fixated on interviews the same 20 sci-fi/horror veterans, [Ray] Harryhausen and [Roger] Corman and Robert Wise, etc., etc., over and over!
C-H: How do you go about setting up one of your interviews?
Weaver: I call or write the person – I prefer to call, it's harder for them to say no! And if I get the go-ahead, I'll usually hit the New York Public Library to try to find old press clippings about them and about their horror/sci-fi movies, and I'll re-watch the ones I don't know by heart, and make up my list of questions. If they don't own some of their movies on home video, I'll send them copies in advance of the interview, if they tell me they'll look at 'em to refresh their memories.
C-H: Was it harder at the beginning of your career?
Weaver: Oh, it was much harder, because home video was a newish thing. In order to re-watch some of my interviewees' movies and formulate questions, I often had to search far and wide for people with tapes or 16mm prints of the movies. Or I'd have to rent the movies on 16mm, or buy them on 16mm. And there was also no IMDb, no nuthin' Internet-wise, not even an Internet [laughs], so for each interviewee I'd have to go to the library and search through umpty-ump books and try to put together lists of their movie and TV credits, especially making sure that I was touching on all these horror/sci-fi credits. Today you can look up most of this stuff on-line without lifting your fat ass out of your desk chair but back then you had to run all over Creation and put partial lists together in bits and pieces.
C-H: What was your greatest missed opportunity during an interview?
Weaver: Well, I've been a lazy ass a bunch of times and called somebody and gotten the go-ahead for an interview – and then I'll just put in the back of my mind that that person has given me the green light and I'll take my sweet time putting the list of questions together and getting back to them. Of course, when you're dealing with 75-, 85-, 90-year-old people, the risk I run every time is that they'll die in the meantime – and a bunch of them did. My biggest regret might be Ben Johnson of Mighty Joe Young. I called him and he was very friendly-sounding and said, sure, he'd tell me allll about Mighty Joe Young, and that I should call him in a week or two. I diddled and I piddled for probably two months, and then opened the paper one day to find out he'd died. That's happened a number of times, I hate to say.
C-H: Which interview subject really kept you on your toes?
Weaver: There's a wonderful, irascible actor named Bill Phipps who was in Five and Cat-Women of the Moon and a whole bunch of others, and part of his "cantankerous" schtick is, if I misstated a fact while interviewing him, or asked a dumb question, he was "on" me instantly, berating me. I realized after a while that it was schtick but at the same time, I found myself being a lot more careful forming my sentences, and looking ahead on my list of questions for others that he would call dumb (because they probably were dumb!). He's a great guy and we've talked on the phone regularly for 20 years now. And still I get hell when I misspeak!
C-H: What interview are you proudest of?
Weaver: Well, the ones I'm happiest about are the ones I've done with people that all of fandom seemed to have given up on ever finding and meeting and interviewing ... William Alland the producer, Donnie Dunagan from Son of Frankenstein, Arch Hall Jr., Ann Carter from Curse of the Cat People, people like that. And they all were really interesting, which made things doubly fun. The only one who was ultra-elusive, and then turned out to be sort of a bore, was Anne Gwynne.
C-H: Any interview that you wish you could redo?
Weaver: Yeah, my first 30 or 40, when I didn't know what the hell I was doing. You'd get the impression, reading my first interviews, that these people weren’t born 'til they stepped onto the set of their first horror/sci-fi movie, and then ceased to exist when their last horror/sci-fi movie wrapped. I seldom got around to asking them general questions about other aspects of their careers, their personal lives, etc. Hey, I was in my early 20s!
C-H: As time marches on and many of the people involved with older genre film and television become unavailable, do you think you'll interview more modern horror/sci-fi personalities?
Weaver: I have crept up into the 1970s – in fact, I'm now in the process of interviewing the writer-producer of Arnold and Terror in the Wax Museum. But I'm only doing it because those pictures were stocked with actors I AM interested in – Ray Milland and Patric Knowles and Carradine and people like that. I don't think I'll be interviewing a lot of '70s moviemakers, and I'm sure I'll never move up into the '80s. I just have no interest in sci-fi/horror movies made after a certain point.
C-H: You live in Sleepy Hollow, NY. As towns with fannish connotations go, that's pretty far up there. How did you come to be a resident?
Weaver: By being born in Sleepy Hollow Hospital and never moving out of this town!
C-H: Does it have more of a Burton vibe or a Disney vibe?
Weaver: To be honest, in recent years it has more of a "La Bamba" vibe.
C-H: You have a notoriously low opinion of Hammer horror – you call Curse of Frankenstein a “snoozer” in your interview with Val Guest.
Weaver: Their "Gothic" horrors are some of the driest, dullest horror flicks I've ever seen. Yeah, most of 'em have a couple of stand-out moments – the werewolf transformation and chase at the end of The Curse of the Werewolf, for instance. But you gotta deal with the other 90 minutes to get to 'em! I do, however, like a lot of Hammer's sci-fi stuff – in fact, The Creeping Unknown, X the Unknown and The Abominable Snowman are big favorites of mine.
C-H: You're not big on the “collector” mentality either.
Weaver: Show me a guy who'll pay $100 for Bela Lugosi's left sock and an old razor that probably still has some of Boris Karloff's stubble in it, and I'll show you a guy who oughta be spending that money on psychiatric visits!
C-H: Do you think there is something about B-movies that makes them more prone to capturing the essence of the horror and sci-fi genres than their A-list relatives?
Weaver: I think the As and Bs can both be great in their own ways. I do have a lot of extra respect for Bs that are as good as As, even though made in a fraction of the time and for a fraction of the money. Those are the guys I really want to take my hat off to, if I owned a hat.
C-H: What horror films of recent years have captured the same magic as the horrors of the 30s, 40s, and 50s?
Weaver: You're asking the wrong guy. You'd have to search far and wide, and then search some more, to find anybody who knows less about the current horror/sci-fi scene than I do. In fact, I won't even pay to go to new movies any more; I've seen maybe three new movies in theaters in the last five, six years. I got burned soooo many times that I finally said to myself, "Idiot! Why are you doing this to yourself?" and I just made up my mind, "That's it. From now on, if a movie comes along that I think might have some small chance of being 'my kind of movie,' I'll try and remember the title and borrow somebody's video a year or two down the line.'" Except for DVDs of oldies, Hollywood ain't getting another thin dime out of me!
C-H: Bringing things back to your current projects, have you recorded any new DVD commentary tracks recently?
Weaver: I recently did a commentary for Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, alongside my pal Rich Scrivani, and that just came out from Universal in a set with every other Universal Abbott & Costello movie. I also recently did Frankenstein 1970 for Warners, joined by Charlotte Austin who's in the movie, and by Bob Burns, but all of a sudden it's not on the release schedule any more, so God knows when that's coming out. Tomorrow, November 5, I'm doing a commentary for Horror Hospital. Richard Gordon, who produced it, will be doing 90 percent of the talking, though – he had a ball making that movie and remembers a lot, so I might be lucky to get a word in edge-wise here and there!
C-H: Could you tell us who we can look forward to reading about in I Talked with a Zombie?
Weaver: There are a bunch of TV people in this one – Robert Conrad on The Wild Wild West, Ron Harper on Planet of the Apes, James Darren and Robert Colbert on The Time Tunnel, Jimmy Lydon on Rocky Jones, Space Ranger and – this one I like – Frankie Thomas, Jan Merlin and Al Markim, the three stars of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, in what I think is their first-ever three-way interview. Then there are interviews with "movie people," too: Tandra Quinn from Mesa of Lost Women, Eric Braeden on Colossus—The Forbin Project, Ann Carter on Curse of the Cat People, Laurie Mitchell on Queen of Outer Space and a whole bunch of others.
C-H: Anything you want to say to the readers at Classic-Horror.com?
Weaver: Try to "keep the torch lit" for this old stuff, and think of ways to introduce younger people to this old stuff. Otherwise, in a few years, we can just simply fuhgeddabout. In a few years, there won't be enough of us around any more to make DVDs, TV screenings of these movies, books, mags, etc., worth any company's while!
Classic-Horror.com wants to thank Tom Weaver for taking the time from his writing and research to chat with us. Those who haven't invested in his extensive bibliography have a lot of catching up to do, so get crackin'.