A Tribute to the Golden Age of the Horror Hosts
February 3, 2009
by Mike Rogers
In television's infancy, when stations made it up as they went along, licensing deals for old Hollywood films gave birth to the "horror host," a guy/gal in a cheesy thrown-together costume who introduced the movies - usually B stinkers. Most early TV people started in radio and were accustomed to unseen audiences and ad libbing. Many were so entertaining that the movies became secondary, as viewers mostly tuned in for the host's antics. This thoroughly entertaining documentary is a loving paean to horror hosts from Syracuse to San Francisco, from A to Zacherley.
Director Hudgens presents literally dozens of interviews with hosts including Ghoulardi, Big Chuck Schodowski, Professor Anton Griffin, Sir Cecil Creepe, Count Gore De Vol, Chilly Billy Gardille, Svengoolie, Stella, Baron Daemon - everybody! Vampira (Maila Nurmi) and John Zacherle, that clan's Adam and Eve and as important to TV's development as Lucy and Uncle Miltie, get special attention. In addition, horror film historians Forrest J. Ackerman and Bob Burns, makeup artist Tom Savini, film critic Leonard Maltin, comic Tim Conway, writer Neil Gaiman, and others reminisce about their favs.
The late-night horror host, alas, has succumbed to a new era of reality shows and infomercials, but like the early comic book artists just now getting credit for their contribution to Americana, these innovators are finally being recognized as pop icons who brought joy to millions. If you ever had a favorite horror host, you'll love American Scary; it's 92 minutes of pure fun. Highly recommended.
Famous monsters of TV land
The Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ)
February 3, 2009
by Stephen Whitty
Welcome back, boys and ghouls. I didn't recognize you at first. You must have... gruesome.
A slightly whacked-out character addicted to bad puns and showing terrible movies to small fry - this was the local horror host in the early years of TV. And, according to the documentary American Scary (Cinema Libre, $19.95), those hosts were a fun - and formidable - part of many childhoods.
The origins of the role aren't clear. Most credit Vampira - former pinup and future Plan 9 From Outer Space star - with starting the trend in mid-`50s Los Angeles, as she sashayed around a cobwebbed TV set and made deadpan jokes about the wretched movies she was about to show. But once Universal started syndicating its old horror films to local stations in the late `50s, the craze spread nationally.
Yet - and this was its charm - it remained local, as each market created their own monster. In Philadelphia, it was Roland (later to move to New York, and change his name to Zacherley). In Cleveland, it was Ghoulardi. (Cleveland seemed particularly in love with the idea - at one point, it seemed as if there were a horror host for every citizen.)
Typically, the hosts made bad jokes, did slapstick skits and occasionally interrupted the movies. Considering their shows were aimed at small kids and partying college students - and the programming, having exhausted the Universal classics, had already moved on to wretched things like The Flying Serpent - no one seemed to mind when they broke in.
Each show developed its own style. Vampira was "the Glamour Ghoul," wasp-waisted and dripping with Morticia Addams sangfroid. Zacherle was an absentminded putterer, always experimenting with his pet amoeba (actually a large lump of Jell-O) and muttering to the unseen wife who lived in a laundry basket. Ghoulardi was a fright-wigged beatnik, full of insults and rallying cries ("Stay sick!"). The freewheeling approach was charming both in its amateurishness - the hosts were often former announcers, shoved in front of a camera - and hyperlocality. Local stations were precisely that back then, and their horror hosts mocked hometown celebrities, read readers' mail, appeared at supermarket openings and ran midnight-movie marathons. They were nutty neighbors, not "television personalities."
The fad began to fade somewhat as the `60s went on. The original Ghoulardi, Ernie Anderson, moved to LA, where he became the voice of ABC ("Next week on... `The Luuuuuuuuv Boat'") and the father of There Will Be Blood director Paul Thomas Anderson. Local NY stations switched to cheaper, no-host programming like Creature Features and Chiller Theatre. Everything grew more corporate and homogenized.
Yet the spectral stars held on for years in some markets (with Washington D.C. boasting Count Gore De Vol) or went national (as with the syndicated Elvira). And they continue to occasionally pop up today, on cable-access shows. (In other forms, too - with its mix of sarcasm, sci-fi, puppets and hometown humor, Mystery Science Theater 3000 could have been Ghoulardi's grandchild.)<
And they show up here, for one more monster rally - their plastic fangs in place, their top hats carefully askew, and their routines as old and moldy as the crypts they've just crawled out of.
Halloween horror hosts rise again on radio, TV, film
October 30, 2007
by David Colton
A ghost of Halloween past will be back on the airwaves Wednesday night, ready to add his vulture stew to the season of the witch.
John Zacherle, who as Zacherley the Cool Ghoul helped kick off the monster-movie craze on late-night television 50 years ago, will host two hours of nostalgia on New York City's oldies station, WCBS-FM. "I'll be playing some old Boris Karloff quotations and crazy old songs — The Monster Mash, Dinner With Drac," Zacherle, still active at 89, says before letting out his deep, signature laugh and adding, "If they let me get away with it!"
The American horror host, a city-by-city phenomenon that encouraged local TV personalities to introduce B-movies with winks and laughter, appears to be ready for its sequel - Cassandra Peterson, better known as the curvaceous and bloodlusty Elvira, crowns a new scream queen Halloween night on the climax of The Search for the Next Elvira, a Fox Reality Channel miniseries (8 p.m. ET/5 PT).
With the advent of cable access and YouTube, a new generation of horror hosts is emerging from the genre's freshly dug graves. Dr. Gangrene in Nashville appears on local TV in a retro horror show that also features his red-haired assistant, Nurse Moan-Eek. In Massachusetts, Penny Dreadful hosts movies ranging from The Brain That Wouldn't Die to The Seventh Seal on public access stations. She says her character "is definitely in the tradition of the dark mysterious lady you don't want to mess with — Vampira."
The documentary American Scary, now making the film festival rounds, takes a look at almost 60 horror hosts past and present, such as Ghoulardi in Cleveland; Chilly Billy in Pittsburgh; Count Gore De Vol in Washington, D.C.; Bob Wilkins and John Stanley in San Francisco; Sammy Terry in Indiana; and Svengoolie and Son of Svengoolie in Chicago.
"They set the tone for how we view horror movies as camp," says co-director Sandy Clark. "I couldn't believe no one had told this story before."
In this era of torture films and explicit video games, a horror host seems almost quaint. But they served a necessary function when Hollywood sold a package of Frankenstein, Dracula and Wolf Man films, dubbed Shock Theater!, to local TV stations in 1957.
"When these Shock movies were released to television for the first time, no one knew exactly what to make of them," says Joseph Fotinos, also known as horror host Professor Anton Griffin in the Austin TV market. "So a host was necessary to help alleviate the fears of the sponsors."
Adds Zacherle: "I don't know of any host that was trying to be scary. We were just making fun of the movies, and it struck kids just right."
Clark says American Scary tracked down almost 300 hosts but couldn't include them all. "One of the recurring comments we get on our film," he says, "is 'Hey, you left out my horror host!'"
September 27, 2007
by Michael Fox
SF DocFest 2007 - Festival Report
Classic Camp: American Scary
John Hudgens has diligently compiled a loving tribute to the gloriously undignified fraternity (including a handful of women) of TV horror hosts. This is mostly a talking heads doc, augmented with just enough clips of the no-budget, anything goes improvisation that's the hallmark of the "profession." For all its campy fun, American Scary is a kind of eulogy for a vanishing age of local color and homegrown talent. One comes to realize that a key component of the malling of America is cable television's saturation.
Just Out (Portland, OR)
July 06, 2007
by Tony LeTigre
"Our show was so cheap that I would buy inflatable dolls at the porno shop, and it was like an extra actor," says Karen "Stella" Scioli in this unexpectedly touching homage to the bygone era of the late-night horror movie host.
The documentary, composed entirely of interviews with former and current horror hosts interlaced with vintage clips, traces the phenomenon from its inception in the '50s with Zacherley and Vampira, through the '80s heyday of Stella, Joe Bob Briggs and Elvira, to its scrappy resurgence and survival in the age of cable access and the Internet.
"Nobody stopped us, so we were the kids in the candy store," says Bob Billbrough, aka Hives the Butler. "We got away with murder." Opens July 7 at Hollywood Theatre. A-
The Oregonian (Portland, OR)
July 06, 2007
by Mike Russell
The documentary American Scary is basically an epic fanboy geek-out on the subject of "horror hosting" -- that uniquely American phenomenon where full-grown adults dress as ghouls and vamps and make horrible jokes amid even more horrible movies on late-night TV.
Writer-directors John E. Hudgens and Sandy Clark have exhaustively lined up dozens of interviewees, famous and non-, to survey the history of horror hosting -- from its early-TV roots to such spiritual descendants as Elvira and Mystery Science Theater 3000 to the Internet (where hosts are fleeing as regional television goes the way of the dodo).
Initiate viewers will learn a lot about the various subspecies of horror hosts -- there have been countercultural, educational and even beatnik variations, ranging from silly to scholarly, since the 1950s. And it's wonderful to see too-brief interviews with legends like "Vampira" (of Plan Nine From Outer Space fame) and Ernie Anderson, who went from playing "Ghoulardi" in Cleveland to doing voiceovers for ABC and siring director Paul Thomas Anderson. (It's also fantastic to learn that Ohio is basically horror-host Camelot, with multiple spook-tastic emcees enduring for generations on Cleveland TV.)
Frankly, I could have done with a lot more archival footage and a lot fewer sound bites of modern-day horror hosts in costume waxing self-consciously rhapsodic. But as an ADD overview of a deliriously trashy TV subgenre, this is a great start.
(92 minutes; unrated; Hollywood Theatre, Saturday and Sunday only) Grade: B-
Film on TV horror hosts revisits genre's heyday
Flint, Michigan Journal
May 15, 2007
by Ed Bradley
Long ago, horror-hungry fans in New York turned their television dials to the singularly named Zacherley for screenings of fright films. In Los Angeles, slinky hostess Vampira combined monster-movie thrills with sex appeal. In Detroit, the horror hosts with the most were Sir Graves Ghastly and that smart-aleck import from Cleveland, the Ghoul.
Sandy Clark knows 'em all; just pick a city. The writer-producer of American Scary, a new documentary about the heyday of TV horror hosts, even knows Flint's favorite purveyor of 1960s late-night melodramas. "His name was Christopher Coffin, and he was the one person I most wanted to see in the movie who didn't get in it," Clark said upon learning that a recent phone caller was a reporter from Flint.
But Clark and his filmmaking cohort, director-editor John E. Hudgens, figure they've hit the high spots in their nostalgic account -- to be shown this week at the Flint Film Festival -- of the days before VCRs and cookie-cutter TV. It was an era -- the mid-1950s into the '80s, but especially the '60s -- when "TV was still the Wild West," Clark said from his home in Springfield, Mo. "TV used to be local, and you could run off the set from doing the weather and put on a costume to host horror movies and be as big as Elvis in your hometown."
Horror movies were big on TV because children loved them -- the whole family could watch. Stations needed old movies to fill air time, and when the great Universal horror films -- Dracula, Frankenstein and the like -- were released to TV in 1957, homemade shows began to pop up all over the country. Vampira was the first horror host, circa 1954, but the most iconic figure among the classic hosts remains John "Zacherley" Zacherle. "He was the guy I would watch that you probably weren't supposed to be watching ... the guy we would go into school the next day and talk about," a fellow host says in the film.
American Scary includes classic film clips and interviews with Zacherle, Vampira and many other hosts, plus fans like director Tom Savini, actors Curtis Armstrong (Risky Business) and Patricia Tallman (Babylon 5), and Mystery Science Theatre 3000 creator-host Joel Hodgson. Detroit's Sir Graves Ghastly -- aka Lawson Deming, who died last month -- wasn't interviewed but is referenced in the film.
Neither Clark, 37, nor Hudgens, 40, grew up without horror hosts, but when they noticed how well hosts were drawing at science-fiction conventions, they decided to make American Scary. "We were surprised at how many hosts there were," said Hudgens, a producer for a Knoxville, Tenn., TV station. "The problem was trying to narrow it down (for the film). We'd get people annoyed at us -- 'How dare you not mention my guy?'"
Hosts were counted on to fill airtime and either take the edge off scary movies or enliven screenings of grade-Z flops. Some -- like Cleveland's Ernie "Ghoulardi" Anderson -- openly were contemptuous of their movies. (Anderson moved on to Los Angeles to become one of TV's top voice announcers; his smooth intro of ABC's "The Lo-o-v-v-v-e Boat" is fondly recalled.)
As for Christopher Coffin, Clark and Hudgens wanted to interview the former WJRT (Channel 12) personality -- whose real name is Reed Farrell -- but they couldn't iron out the details. "From what I saw, he was one of the best hosts," Clark said. "He had the acerbic charm of Ghoulardi and special effects way beyond what most hosts had."
As tighter budgets and other corporate concerns made TV more homogenized, and home video became the prime source for scary movies, horror hosts began to fade away. Some have found homes on the Internet; others exist only as fond memories for baby boomers. "These movies were being shown at a time when they couldn't be seen any other way," Clark said. "It's a passing age that can't be recaptured. What's been lost is a sense of community, of camaraderie. Watching horror movies was a coming-of-age rite."
Vampires and Goblin and Ghouls, Oh My!
American Scary is a look at horror hosts.
April 26, 2007
by G. Murray
When I was a kid, the local Houston UHF channel would broadcast horror movies on Monday nights. In a two-hour block they would show one full film and half of another. So one week the audience would get all of Dracula and half of Frankenstein. The next week would be the last half of Frankenstein and the entire Creature from the Black Lagoon. Since the films have such a short running time, it was the only way to fill the entire block without padding in too many commercials or cutting the movies down. At the same time, another UHF station would have a Saturday night showcase of old movies and action serials. It was called Captain Harolds Theater of the Sky. The host and his compatriots would do skits between the movies as bumpers to the flicks.
But in other parts of America, the local programmers combined the two ideas. Showing horror films but having a group of people bumping the film, usually doing parodies of the films or crazed bits. Many of these featured a host dressed in macabre garb, being a ghoul or a vampire. Areas around the country had these horror hosts and American Scary is a loving tribute to bad cinema and horror hosts.
The local affiliates needed to fill blocks of programming--this in a time before cable, info-mercials. So they would buy blocks of old films from distribution companies. But, to give that extra hook, the horror host was born. In the fifties, arguably the most popular was Maila Nurmi who played Vampira. With her dead pan delivery and pious attitude she set the stage for playing straight for being funny. In another part of the country Ghouldari was doing his bits, but with a more obvious camp-like flair. It seems that every area had some sort of a horror host.
But the movie also shows how it evolved. Through people who know cinema history like Leonard Maltin and Joe Bob Briggs, they put the horror hosts in the context of the era. Both share fond memories of these performers and the simple joy of watching those shows.
One of the greatest parts of the entire movie is hearing Forrest J. Ackerman speak about these people. Mr. Ackerman was the publisher of Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine as well as the writer of the shortest science fiction story of all time. His little black and white publication reveled in both the classic movie monsters and the schlock modern films. It was a professional fan magazine that is treasured by film geeks and horror fans alike.
The legendary Tim Conway is interviewed for American Scary. His first big break was working at a local affiliate and producing shows like the horror host movie blocks. He tells a few great tales of working on such low budget programming.
But the biggest flaw of American Scary is the missing 300-lb. gorilla interview, or rather 300-lb. vampire/ghoul interview. There is no interview with Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Arguably she is the biggest star of horror hosts and she is not featured except for a few clips. It would be like doing a movie about baseball pitching and leaving out Nolan Ryan. It is that big of an omission. But they almost cover their bases by using some old footage of the Mistress of the Dark.
The film is more of a loving tribute than an investigative story. There is no examination of the subject, just reminiscing.
Today these kinds of people would never be allowed on big city stations. With all the cable movie stations, most local broadcast affiliates dont even show movies anymore. There is more profit doing late night blocks of commercials disguised as television programs.
Surprisingly there are some modern horror hosts, but they are on cable channels or on the Internet. This next generation is trying to break out of the pack. The most successful of the modern hosts would have been the gang at Mystery Science Theater 3000 on Comedy Central then Sci-Fi Network. Though not technically horror hosts, the gang behind that former community cable TV show is lovingly placed in the column with the horror hosts.
Director John E. Hudgens does have a fondness for his subject. His film feels like the ultimate fan tribute, going around an interviewing those who may be forgotten now, but who touched the lives of so many a few years ago.
American Scary is a look back in honor and a nice nostalgic documentary.
Knox filmmaker's next take: horror-show hosts
The Knoxville News-Sentinel
November 17, 2006
by Betsy Pickle
Vampira. Zacherley. Sir Cecil Creape. Those are some of the names that inspired Knoxville filmmaker John Hudgens to make American Scary, a documentary about TV horror-show hosts.
The film had its world premiere October 21 at the Hollywood Film Festival. It played at the Austin Film Festival in Texas in October and at the Ohio Independent Film Festival in Cleveland last weekend. No Tennessee dates have been set yet, but the film will have a screening at 9:15 p.m. Tuesday, November 28, at the Parkway Speakeasy Theater in Oakland, Calif. Ex-Knoxvillian Sandy Clark, the film's writer-producer, who lives in Alameda, Calif., set up that screening and will attend.
Hudgens and Clark started working on the film more than three years ago. The idea hit during the final Valleyfest Independent Film Festival in Knoxville in April 2003. Hudgens' parody The Jedi Hunter played at the fest, as did a documentary about a Chattanooga band narrated by Dr. Gangrene, a horror host from Nashville. Lowell Cunningham, the creator of the Men in Black comics and Clark and Hudgens' friend and frequent collaborator, showed them that horror hosts strike a chord.
Cunningham "never geeks out about anything," says Hudgens, but after seeing Dr. Gangrene "he started geeking out about Sir Cecil Creape, who is the host that he grew up with in Nashville."
Shortly afterward, Clark was at a comics convention in California and noticed fans lined up out the door to get autographs from Bob Wilkins and John Stanley, who hosted Creature Features in San Francisco for many years. Clark and Hudgens got serious about the idea of making a documentary about hosts. "Three weeks later, we were up in Pittsburgh filming at the Monster Bash convention, and we were off and running," says Hudgens. "That first weekend, we knew we were really onto something just from the interviews we got."
Hudgens, who works for the local CW affiliate, was able to film dozens of horror hosts, including the original. "The main one that everybody considers to be the first is Vampira (Maila Nurmi), and she went on the air in 1954," he says.
Vampira was a pop-culture icon by the time film studios opened their horror vaults to television stations a couple of years later. "Vampira is the most well known," says Hudgens. "She was profiled in Life magazine."
Of more recent hosts, the biggest name is Elvira (Cassandra Peterson), but Hudgens' attempts to interview her fell through. There were a few others he was unable to get, but he landed a broad lineup. "The one thing a lot of the hosts were worried about was that we would burn them, that we would do this in a tongue-in-cheek manner," says Hudgens. "We never did that. We've tried to focus on the nostalgia of all this.
"This was something that was a lot of fun for a lot of people, and nobody really does it anymore, at least not on a corporate television level. If anything, we're trying to do more of a visual history of this kind of stuff, recording it for posterity, because a lot of these older hosts are starting to die off now."