The Horror Review: EST: 1999

 American Scary (2009)

 Film Title: American Scary Year Released:  2009
Reviewed By:
Movie Website: Click Here
Overall Stars: ***1/2 Scare Factor: N/A

 

   I grew up in Bakersfield, California, not exactly the forefront of the entertainment industry—but just around the corner (well, if the corner took two hours to get around) was Los Angeles, and from Los Angeles was KTLA Channel 5. That’s where I first encountered Elvira, who prior to making movies and getting lots of commercial gigs, was a horror movie hostess in the grand tradition of local programming. She was what I wanted to be when I grew … up. Which is, apparently, how little horror freaks around the country from the 1950s on felt about whoever happened to get the scary b-movie hosting job. Campy, low budget, full of scare and shtick, local personalities were big time stuff in their respective cities—and AMERICAN SCARY celebrates them with obvious affection.

   Back in the 50s, horror films were all the rage. You know the ones—ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES, THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE, TARANTULA, all exquisitely goofy by today’s standards but terrifying to the kids watching them for the first time in a theater. Then, with the advent of television, horror movies began to be sold to local channels in gaggles called “horror packages”—what were programmers to do with a glut of scary films that probably needed to be shown after hours? Thus began the rise of the late night horror host. Sometimes scary, sometimes funny—often both—every big city had at least one monstrous personality to be your movie-watching companion through the darkest hours of the night.

   For every gleefully terrified eight-year-old who ever watched THEM! at one o’clock in the morning while his parents slept, relishing not just the impossible creatures but also the fantastically flamboyant host there to keep it interesting, this DVD is a gift. It’s got interviews with everyone from Maila Nurmi, THE female horror icon, “Vampira” (her sexy, scary siren was actually more subconsciously Norma Desmond than Morticia Addams) to quintessential New York host John “Zacherley” Zacherle (his show boasted a pet amoeba, and a passing joke request for hair donations for his never-seen wife’s pillow led to the studio’s subsequent inundation with hair mailings). Horror hosts have ranged from the macabre (“Vampira,” “Zacherley”) to the slightly more humor-based (“Svengoolie,” “Ghoulardi”) to the informative, accessible guy (Bob Wilkins, John Stanley), but all have inspired loyal followings and created legacies that have carried on for over five decades.

   What this documentary does best is sticks to its “plot”—filmmakers John E. Hudgens and Sandy Clark so obviously revere their subjects that they stay out of their way, choosing to interview hosts and fans instead of narrating or overly contextualizing. We don’t need a voice-over telling us about the 99-cent store quality sets or how big networks have all but shoved local programming to the backburner occupied by news and infomercials—we don’t need it because we get to hear the actual people involved telling their stories. This works to the film’s advantage, and we get both a healthy dose of nostalgia and a glimpse into the why of why we love our horror hosts, no matter how cheesy—in the dark, there’s nothing as good as a friend to watch with, and these were our friends. There is also an abundance of Bonus Features—longer interviews with hosts like Ernie Anderson (“Ghoulardi” waxing philosophical), Zacherle (telling stories about fans), and Nurmi (discussing the origins of “Vampira”), audio commentary, and even footage from the real-life wedding of two modern-day hosts in 2003.

   Author Neil Gaiman (who also tried his hand at horror hosting for 2004’s “13 Nights of Fright” on the Fox Movie Channel) sums up the grand, crazy legacy of “Count Gore DeVol,” “Crematia,” and their ilk by comparing the horror host to “paperclips … and sharks”—they have a great design, there’s no need for improvement, and they’re never going away. For a girl who grew up dreaming of lounging a red couch and talking about movies, this is fascinating stuff.

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