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Late Night Horror Shows: Memoirs of a Misspent Youth
Late night TV, we all watch it, some of us on a regular basis and some only when sleep is fleeting. The thing is, none of us really look forward to watching it. Who really waits with bated breath to see Leno tell more Clinton jokes or Letterman pull more "wacky" stunts that try desperately to recapture the hipness he once enjoyed. Although some of us used to look forward to SNL years ago, nobody is really anxious to see it limp through another season.
This wasn’t always the case. Those of you who are around my age (late 20s) or older can remember a time when late night TV, especially the weekends, were a treasure trove of horror and memorable characters. Long before the yahoos on Jerry Springer were chewing up the scenery, folks like Fritz the Nite Owl, Ghoulardi, The Fear Monger, Ned the Dead, Sir Graves Ghastly, Zacherley, Elvira and literally dozens and dozens of other local and national horror hosts were scaring the daylights out of kids and entertaining horror fans all over the country.
It is around 11:30 PM, everyone else in the house is already in bed and you are alone in the darkness of the living room. It isn’t uncomfortably cold, but their is enough of a chill in the air to warrant the blanket you are wrapped in as you huddle on one corner of the couch. The curtains are drawn and the flickering light of the TV plays across the walls and ceiling. The house creaks as it often does and you know it is nothing, just as you know that it is only the shifting colors of the TV that make the think you just saw something moving out of the corner of your eye. Still, despite this rationalization, you take a quick look around the room just in case. If there’s one thing that you’ve learned in your 10 years in the world, it is that you can’t be too careful.
Having assured yourself, at least for the moment, that you are indeed alone, you turn back to the TV. The local news is about to end and the balding weather guy is recapping the forecast. You would normally have to be be in bed by this time, but this is Friday, your homework is done and school is a blissful 2 days away. The weather guy finishes talking about an early frost and then he and the pretty anchorwoman talk back and forth for a few seconds. You guess it is supposed to be funny, because they are smiling, but they are always smiling so you can’t really tell. To be honest, you don’t care and you aren’t really listening to them anyway. Then you hear the magic words. The lady turns to the camera and says "Thanks for watching Action 13 news, now stay tuned for Double Chiller Theatre". The credits for the news start to roll and as the catchy Action News theme songs starts to play, you slip your hand into a bag of chips and settle deeper into the warm cocoon of your blanket. This is what you have been waiting for. You are excited and a little scared. You’ve waited all day to see what movies are going to be on tonight and now the show is about to start.
The screen goes dark and spooky music fades in. Now the picture is filled with a swirling mist that eventually parts to reveal a eerie old castle under a large yellow moon. If there are such things as haunted houses, that castle is surely one of them. As the chiller logo emerges from the fog, the announcer bids you welcome in an odd echoing voice that makes you shudder a little, in spite of your attempts to remain unfazed by such things. Besides, it more fun to let yourself be scared anyway.
"Welcome to Chiller Theatre. Tonight we bring you Christopher Lee in the Hammer fright classic Dracula: Prince of Darkness followed by Steve McQueen battling an unstoppable and indescribable alien menace in The Blob. The Chiller intro is replaced by the opening of the movie and you settle in for a night of fun and fright. For the next three of four hours, interrupted only by ads for used car dealers and your hurried trips to the fridge or to answer nature’s call, you will be mesmerized by all that you see and hear. Then, after the movies are over and the station has signed off for the night, you will creep uneasily to bed and think of the pale count looming large in his flowing black cape and of the shapeless thing that consumes all it touches and grows ever larger with each meal.
Now, alas, these things are all but gone from our lives. Your late-night horror show experience may vary a little from the one described above, but I’ll bet most of you can relate to it in some fashion. I sure can. I used to live for Nite Owl Theatre when I was a kid and I just couldn’t wait to see what was going to be on each week. Most of us owe are love of horror to shows like these. It was here that we saw everything from Universal’s mummy to Tabanga the walking killer tree stump in From Hell it Came. We may not have known the name Ray Harryhausen, but we sure knew the tentacled beast he created in It Came from Beneath the Sea. You never knew what would come on. I saw Mario Bava’s Hatchet for the Honeymoon on Nite Owl Theatre in the late 70s. I was about 8 or 9 and it scared the hell out of me. I never forgot it and I probably never will. That was the magic of these shows.
Aside from the movies, another great thing programs like this had going for them was their wonderful hosts. These men and women did more than just introduce and comment on the films. They became friends to us fans and they are a big part of why we hold these shows so dear. Even if the movie wasn’t all that scary, which often happened as we grew up and our tastes matures, the host was their with witty banter and interesting behind the scenes info. Also, if the show was local, there was always the chance that the host would read one of your letters on the air or show a requested movie. This will sound a bit melodramatic, but I think that if you grew up without at least one horror host in your life, you really missed out on something.
If you didn’t see these shows, I guess this whole thing sounds like a lot of sentimental rambling, which it is, but if you did see them and enjoy them as much as I, you know how heard it is to describe the joy we derived from these excursions into fear during the wee hours of the morning. Perhaps it is because they are so entertained with our childhoods and because of the human tendency to see everything from that time in our lives in a more flattering light or maybe is our tendency underappreciate things until they are gone, but these programs are a sorely missed part of the horror experience. Sure, there is now premium cable channels like HBO and Cinemax and you can always watch videos or DVDs, but these will never replace the fun of Double Chiller Theatre.
So, what happened to these shows? Well, I think it is a combination of things. For one, the cost of the broadcast rights for a lot of these movies have skyrocketed along with their resurgence in popularity. It is simply cheaper for local stations to run a syndicated talk show or an infomercial than to carry a large stable of movies. It is for this reason that most "late show" type programming has disappeared from modern TV. Horror or otherwise, it is almost impossible for a local station to meet the expense of a large movie library.
The local stations can’t afford classic movies and cable channels like TNT and USA choose to spend their money on more modern flicks that have to be edited so heavily that they are no longer any fun. Let's face it, if a movie depends on sex and gore for its appeal and you have to take all of that out, you are left with very little to watch. This, I think, is why TNT's Monstervision, a marginally decent attempt at a horror host show, failed to garner enough ratings to stay on the air.
There is still, at least, one bastion of regular horror film programming on TV. THE AMC EFX series on American Movie Classics, which airs at 10:30 EST, on Friday nights is a great source for classic horror/SF movies. They are lacking some of the camp and fun of the classic shows, but you take what you can get and I think that they are the closest thing we have on TV today. We should appreciate the channel for showing these movies uncut and on a regular basis. I have emailed them to express my enjoyment of the EFX programing and I hope others do as well, so that we don’t lose this show as well. I can’t, for the life of me, see why The Sci-Fi Channel hasn’t thought of a hosted horror films show, but that whole channel has been a bit shaky lately, at least in my opinion.
Still, we have our memories and there are great sites like E-Gor’s Chamber of Horror Hosts (http://www.wvnet.edu/~u0e53/horhosts.html) to remind us of what we once had... I hope you have enjoyed this little trip down memory lane.