“What I do is I ad lib. Everything I say is ad libbed. I mean, you can’t write this dreck.”
Sitting Duck’s rating: I’m a Virginian, though I don’t play one on TV.
Sitting Duck’s review: In this age of online video streaming, indulging in cult movies is easier than ever. For a monthly subscription fee or suffering though a few ads, services like Amazon Prime and Tubi offer a veritable glut of cinematic shlock. But it wasn’t always so. Before the necessary bandwidth existed, you had to troll through sketchy video stores or attend grindhouse theaters.
If the fear of being spotted at such establishments by someone you know was too great, there was only one other viable option. That was hoping a local TV station would broadcast such a movie, usually at an ungawdly hour. And this is where horror hosts came in. They fall into two broad categories. The first type are often station flunkies who get press-ganged into performing such duties. Typically, they do little more than state, “We’ll be right back,” and “Welcome back,” in the commercial bumpers. This type is lame and boring, and winds up being mostly forgotten. Then there are the ones that follow the tradition of Vampira and inject some personality in the role, with the station’s art department cobbling together appropriate props and sets. This type performs as a sort of celluloid shaman, guiding viewers through the psychotronic madness.
There are a few horror hosts with a national presence, such as Elvira and Svengoolie. However, the vast majority are of regional acclaim, virtually unknown outside the transmitter range of their home stations. But within their territory, they were (and in many cases still are) beloved celebrities. And as the documentary Virginia Creepers shows, my own home state maintains a powerful horror host tradition.
And what an odd assemblage of characters we meet, consisting of vampires, witches, revenants, mad scientists, and other creepy creeps. They possess colorful sobriquets like Dr. Madblood, Ghoulda, The Bowman Body, Dr. Gruesome (and his lackey Skeeter), Count Gore de Vol, Mr. Slime, Dr. Sarcofiguy (the first black horror host), Karlos Borloff, and, um… Jonathan. Okay, that one might benefit from some additional workshopping.
Our journey begins in 1958, when Jonathan, Ghoulda, and Ronald the Ghoul are introduced in the Roanoke, Richmond, and Hampton Roads markets respectively. These earlier hosts are a bit lacking in usable material, which largely consists of still photographs and the occasional audio recording. It wasn’t just Doctor Who and Z-Cars that fell victim to the practice of erasing and reusing videotapes.
It’s not until the 1970s where we get some archival footage, allowing us to get a taste of the antics which occurred in these productions. The people in front of the camera can range from just the host to a considerable number of supporting players. The production values may be cheap looking, the jokes occasionally lame, and the acting can be a bit stilted, but there is a lot of heart in these efforts. My personal favorites are Dr. Gruesome and Skeeter, largely due to how their relationship bears a strong resemblance to that of Dr. Forrester and Frank of MST3K.
There’s also a plethora of interviews with the hosts and the personnel involved in the productions. In these, we get tales of the sort of hijinks that went on behind the scenes. Some of them may be apocryphal, the sort of thing old-timers might recount to newbies to test their gullibility. But I’m sure most of us would like to believe that the anecdotes of stolen props, misdirected funeral processions, and surprise visits by nude co-eds (presumably as part of a sorority hazing) really happened.
The fans also get to have their say. From them, we really get a sense of their devotion to these horror hosts. Dad would come home from work with take-out and Mom would make fudge, all as a lead-up to the televised festivities. For them, these shows were a high point of the week. Curiously enough, I recognized one of these fans, who hosts some amazing presentations on the shlockier cinematic offerings out there at MarsCon in Williamsburg.
However, the 1990s saw ascendency of cable which, combined with the greater revenue-generating potential of infomercials, resulted in local programming (and by extension horror hosts) falling to the wayside. These castoffs would eventually find a new home on the internet, though their options were limited during the dial-up era. But once streaming video became a thing, the more traditional horror host offerings were able to make a comeback. Odd as it may seem, these basement productions often look better than they did when shot in a studio. And so long as they continue to adapt as the need arises, the horror host shall always be with us.
- With a mirror and some water, you can produce some great low budget visual effects.
- He may have to undergo skin graft surgery, but the shot was beautiful.
- You’d think someone would have figured something was up when the procession got onto I-95 South.
- “Rainbow Clown Afro” would make for a great band name.
- The other galaxies should be renamed after candy.
- Dr. Sarcofiguy’s drawl can rupture a Yankee’s eardrums at twenty paces.
- Could the oeuvre of Maya Angelou be improved by adding vampires?
- Preschool teacher by day, possessed doll in a horror host cast by night.