A long forgotten art form that I miss is the Horror Host. The Elviras, the Bob Wilkins, and the Joe Bob Briggs of the world. Sure, there are still a few out thre plying their trade, Svengoolie is still going strong, we have on called Zomboo in my neck of the woods and some localities still have a few.
But for the most part, it's not really a thing anymore. And that's too bad because sometimes, they are as entertaining as the movies themselves. Perhaps even moreso.
For example, growing up, I used to watch a lot of Creature Feature with Bob Wilkins. Bob was a little different than a lot of horror hosts. Sure, he had all the tradtional props around him. A set full of skulls and cobwebs. He even had a skull candle with which to light his cigar. But his own persona wasn't that of some ghoul or vampire. It was just some mildy bemused guy, sitting in big old chair, surrounded all of this schlocky horror stuff and acting like it was the most normal thing in the world. In a way, that made him a bit creepier than if he put on a cape and some pancake makeup and pretended to be a vampire. More like a serial killer who finds a room full of skulls to be no weirder than a room full of Special Moments figurines.
Bob didn't take his job too seriously. I appreciate that even more now than then. He would often comment on just how bad the movie he was about to present was, sometimes making recommendations as to what was on other channels. Of course, for me, that only made me want to watch the movie even more. But there was a love for his job too, and that really shone through in a way that I can't really elucidate.
Creature Feature was also really my first exposure to "geek culture" too. It was on a channel out of Oakland, KTVU, which was an independant station in those days (It's Fox now, I believe) and I was in Yerington, Nevada, Several hundred miles away. So I couldn't go to any of the conventions or meet and greets he talked about, but he would always be talking about such things going on in The Bay Area. And he would have guests on his show to talk about things that now would be considered nerdy; horror movies, Star Trek, Star Wars, Sci-fi in general, to my 9 year old self, it was an amazing and wonderful world he opened up that I wanted to be a part of someday.
For a short time, he did a second show called "Captain Cosmic" during the day. He put on this fake superhero costume on a set meant to look like the bridge of a space ship, and presented things like UltraMan. I never really got into that, but I still watched the show religiously after school.
I found out in recent years that he moved to Reno in his retirement, prior to his death. I regret that I never bumped into him on the street to tell him how much I loved his show and how much of an influence he was on me. But he was as much an influence as my parents in many ways. And I hope to continue living his mantra "Watch Horror Films, Keep America Strong" for many years to come.
I have always been a horror fan. From my first exposure to the genre, when was a kid watching Bob Wilkins present b grade (at best) horror movies on Creature Feature in the 70s, I was hooked. And now that I am a (mumble mumble) years old man, I still love horror. Which is why it baffles me that so little of it interests me these days.
I don’t know if its old age creeping up on me or if the genre isn’t doing so hot right now, but increasingly when I sit in my seat at my local movie theater, watching the trailers for coming attractions, when a horror trailer comes on, I find myself rolling my eyes and saying “nope. Looks stupid” more often than excitedly turning to my wife and saying, “We are definitely going to see that one!”
It’s sad. It’s like watching an old friend die drink themselves to death.
I think a lot of it is that horror is a REALLY easy genre to get wrong. There is a very fine line between taut psychological thriller and boring snoozefest or between gore filled action and mindless torture porn. And it isn’t always clear where those lines are. So, it makes sense that many, even most, attempts at it are going to misfire.
If I really sit and think about it, I think that it isn’t so much that horror is going downhill so much as it is a genre that just isn’t amenable to the way big studios make movies these days. I think its probably the niche-iest of niche genres and it just can’t be all things to all people. But studio films HAVE to be exactly that if they want to make back their enormous budgets. And while I can’t say that you can NEVER have a horror film with wide enough appeal to justify the kind of money a major studio release entails (The Conjuring series seems to be doing quite well, for instance, even if I personally don’t really enjoy it) but it seems a very easy thing to screw up. And it is screwed up, far too often.
So for me, it seems that the best horror I am finding these days is lower budget independent fare. Some weird little movie I notice while flipping through the horror selections on Netflix or whatever. It seems that a lower budget (provided it isn’t so low that it could be doubled by the director chipping in all the change in his car’s ash tray) is kind of liberating somehow. It allows the film makers to let the movie be what it is and not to even try to appeal to everyone. Is a lot of it crap nonetheless? Yeah, but in the immortal words of Theodore Sturgeon “90% of everything is crap” but I find a lot more to like in the lower budget fare than in the big studio films.
And maybe it has always been that way. Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s when local video stores were still a thing, and those damned kids weren’t on my lawn, I always had a lot more fun finding some stupid little scary movie that I had never heard of than I did watching the big names of the day like Jason or Freddy. So in the end, maybe it isn’t that horror has changed just that I have gotten more honest with myself.
In 1979, a little film called J-Men Forever came out and the world was…completely the same. Because the movie wasn’t really all that big of a hit and is little remembered today. Too bad, because it was a hilarious movie. The film is a mash-up of several old serials (Captain America, Captain Marvel, Flash Gordon, Spy Smasher and a few others) redubbed into the story of a villain called The Lightning Bug and his plan to conquer the Earth via sex, drugs and Rock & Roll. All the while the villain, rather than talking like a typical movie villain, patter like a mid-20th century radio DJ (which only makes sense as he was voiced by M.G. “Machine Gun” Kelly, a noted DJ of his time).
From the first scene in which record producer and purveyor of “Schmaltzy Waltzes” Lawrence Milk gets his car taken over by Lightning bug and run over a cliff (“I got the sound that’s gonna make you tap your feet. But don’t tap the brakes, baby, ‘CAUSE THEY DON’T WORK. AHAHAHAHAHAH!”) to the ending in which both the Moon (where the Lightning Bug is based out of) and New York City are destroyed, an event heralded as a double victory, it’s good for a lot of laughs.
It’s also fun on another level, seeing how many similarities there were in a lot of these old serials. The film makers were able to splice together a big fight in the Lightning Bug’s “Secret Broadcast Cave” with footage from several serials. But they all looked so similar that it really does give a convincing illusion of one big fight in one location. And a couple of times people in the film fell victims to booby traps at the mouth of the ‘Secret broadcast cave’, and of course these were from separate movies, but they looked like the same cave, so it was believable. And cars going off the sides of cliffs. SOOOOO many cars going off the sides of cliffs.
Some parts of the movie don’t hold up so well today. A lot of the humor derives from “hee hee, we’re smoking pot and sticking it to The Man” sort of jokes. Which might have been hilarious in 1979 but seems kind of quaint in an age where pot is increasingly legalized and The Man is getting a 15% cut on it in the form of taxes. ‘70s pothead humor just doesn’t hold up so much in 2018. And there is a scene set in Tokyo that is kind of cringe inducing, though probably no more than the original WW2-era footage they dubbed over. But if one takes it for what it is, it’s still a funny movie that I really recommend everyone check out.
Of course, there IS a problem with that recommendation, in that the movie is not only a bit on the obscure side, but also very hard to find these days. I have al old DVD of it, but I can’t find it on any streaming service at all. I found a badly chopped up copy that was recorded when the movie was a popular choice to show on USA’s Night Flight back in the 80s, complete with commercials which has a nostalgia appeal of its own. But if you can find it, well worth the search.
My first story will be up tomorrow but for now, let’s talk about a very grave topic, The Blind Dead.
Grave, geddit? Because they are dead you see and…. Aww never mind.
Anyway, if you have never seen it, The Blind Dead, is a series of horror films made in Spain in the 1970s. The first film (Tomb of the Blind Dead) has a group of people disturbing an old castle that used to house an order of Templars who were executed for various foul crimes and is supposed to be cursed. Of course it is, in fact, cursed and the undead templars kill everyone, no saving throw. The following three films are very much in the same vein, though there is no real continuity between them except for the presence of the aforementioned Blind Dead.
The films look every bit like the low budget they were and the acting? Well, let’s just say that apparently if you were shooting a film on the cheap in Spain in 1972, you took what you could get in the way of actors. The Blind dead themselves often looked like someone took the fake skeleton from a science classroom, tacked on some fake cobwebs and ratyy clothing and moved the thing around on a string. Not the most impressive special effects by any means.
Still, it is one of my favorite horror series. It still manages to get a spooky atmosphere despite its shortcomings. Not sure how, either. I can’t explain it. But it does. And besides, it gets zombies right.
You see one problem I have so many modern zombie movies is that they try so hard to make such an implausible thing plausible. Usually it’s a virus. Viruses don’t work particularly fast (That flu you are coming down with…you probably contracted that a week ago and are only feeling it now) and they aren’t magic. They can’t make a body that has suffered damage or organ failure suddenly start walking around again. And why don’t zombies eat other zombies? And so on. I can suspend disbelief as much as the next guy, but an explanation is an attempt at making the idea plausible, so it should be…well…plausible. And it usually is not. Not by a long shot.
Night of the Living Dead got around the problem by just not explaining a goddam thing. The dead are just getting up, walking around and eating people. Ok? Now shut up and watch the movie. And that’s fine but is a bit of a cop out. In The Blind Dead it’s magic. It’s the result of a curse. And as far as I am concerned, magic is really the only thing that can explain a zombie. No other explanation really works. Yet so many zombie movies shy away from that explanation. The Blind Dead did not and that fact alone puts it miles ahead of Zombie Terrror Nightmare City VI: The Zombinating or whatever random zombie movie one finds on Netflix these days.
So in the end, what I am trying to say is this. Go find one of the Blind Dead films (doesn’t matter which, you can watch them in any order). If you like schlocky horror movies, you will be glad you did