On the Terrorwaves: Creature Features and the Hosts of Horror!


Good evening… Given that it is the spookiest time of the
year, I thought we’d dive into the rich tradition of the creature feature, specifically
the impact they had on television. To clarify, creature feature was the generic
name for a horror movie, especially one featuring a monster and a certain level of campiness,
whether intentional or not. Many films produced in the 1930s and 40s found
a second life in TV syndication, presented by hosts, usually assuming some sort of ghoulish
character. In this video, we will be looking at some
of these films and personalities, their history, as well as the lasting legacy of the midnight
movie. From the very beginning television has relied
on certain programming anchors, be it situational comedies, police dramas, sports, most of which
had already established themselves as radio staples. Horror was no exception. The genre of horror lends itself perfectly
to radio because, imagination; everything is scarier through the lens of our own experience
and audio entertainment, like literature, exploits this by giving just enough details,
letting us fill in the rest. A great example of this was Orson Welles’
reading of The War of Worlds. Welles created and hosted the Mercury Theater on the Air,
a weekly drama series that frequently adapted classic literature into radio plays. For Halloween
1938, they chose to adapt H.G. Wells’ The War of Worlds. Rather than simply perform
the story, Welles framed it as if a broadcast had been interrupted by reports on an alien
invasion. Radio listeners were not ready to have the fourth wall broken on them like that,
and the broadcast caused widespread panic. One of the most popular horror programs of
the radio era was CBS’s Suspense. Running from 1940 to 1962, Suspense presented
thrilling stories, often concerning people’s relationship with then modern technologies,
like the automobile or the telephone. These were plays, conveyed by actors, but a host
plugged the sponsor and set up the program, introducing listeners to the cast and setting. In 1949, Suspense made the leap to television,
along with much of the public’s interest. Before we jump into TV I want to take a quick
detour into the pages of EC Comics. EC was known for their horror comics and every issue
featured several, suspenseful stories tied together by a host. Now the Crypt-Keeper is
probably the most famous of these, he narrated Tales from the Crypt, but EC actually had
two other hosts depending on the series, with The Vault-Keeper, holding down The Vault of
Horror and The Witch hosting the less popular The Haunt of Fear. In terms of television though, everything
starts with Vampira. Actress Maila Nurmi won a Hollywood costume
contest with a look inspired by Morticia from Charles Addams’ comics, published in the
New Yorker, and later adapted into the Addams Family. Shortly after, she was approached
by produced Hunt Stromberg, Jr. to host horror movies on LA’s local ABC station. The result was The Vampira Show. Initially
airing at midnight, the time when most TV channels signed off for the night, the show
and Vampira became extremely popular. Unfortunately, in that time television was broadcast live and not many kinescopes were made of Vampira’s show. The show would also only last a year, as Nurmi
refused to sell the station the rights to the character. However despite this and only airing in Los
Angeles, media coverage allowed Vampira to grow into a pop culture icon, a position she
leveraged, appearing on talk shows and making cameos in sitcoms and films, most notably
as in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space. In 1957, Screen Gems licensed the syndication
rights to the horror films produced by Universal Studios in the 1930s and 40s. For more on them, you can check out our recent Monsters of Propaganda video, but to summarize, these were adaptations of horror icons from
literature and folklore. For many, these are the definitive film versions of characters
such as Dracula or Frankenstein’s Monster. Packaged and released as Shock Theater, these
aired mostly on weekends, either in the afternoon or late at night, and were geared towards
a younger audience. Given their relatively short runtimes, anywhere between 58 and 99
minutes, networks needed padding to fill a two-hour block. Enter a host. Shock Theater would air all over America,
either under that name or Creature Features or other generic names, with a different host
depending on the region. These hosts were sometimes plucked from the
staff already working at the stations and would fill the needed airtime with monologues
and trivia about the film, as well as skits. Now I’m not going to break down every host
but there are a few I want to give some time to, starting with Zacherley. John Zacherle began his career as WCAU in
Philadelphia, where he worked as a supporting actor in a local western. In 1957, he became
Philly’s host of Shock Theatre, with the common gimmick of ghoul. His bits included
talking to his coffin-bound wife as well as his assistant who was strung up in a sack.
A year later, he moved this act to New York, retitling the show Zacherley at Large. Zacherley embraced the emerging genre of rock
music and would occasionally feature popular musical acts and dance parties, similar to
American Bandstand. In Cleveland, Shock Theater was hosted by
the hip Ghoulardi. Ghoulardi, portrayed by Ernie Anderson, was modelled after the beatniks,
and like Zacherley, he incorporated music into his routine, leaning more towards experimental
rock and jazz. Like Vampira, and a lot of other early horror hosts, not that much footage
exists of Ghoulardi. I’ve read, he frequently disparaged local celebrities or politicians.
Doing so, he attracted his fair share controversy and frequently clashed with his producers.
Anderson would retire the character in 1966 and returned to it only once, appearing on
Joe Bob’s Drive in Theater in 1991. The character Svengoolie first appeared on
Chicago television in Screaming Yellow Theater and was played by Jerry G. Bishop. This ran
from 1970 to 1973. In 1979, the character would be resurrected by Rich Koz with Son
of Svengoolie. Under Koz, Svengoolie would become one of the longest running horror hosts
in history. His gimmick involved signing song parodies of the films he was showcasing and
conducting a running commentary, poking fun of them, which inspired something coming up. With the emergence of cable television, broadcast
rights for these classic horror films became increasingly expensive. Still, the horror
hosts marched on, airing cheaper, low-budget films, like those produced by Roger Corman,
as well as localized kaiju. Now we’ve seen the relationship between
horror and music, specifically rock music, and by the 1980s, with nostalgia for these
films and even the hosts, bands were formed under their influence; The Misfits, The Cramps,
kids who grew up on horror and television, who worked the aesthetics into their own
brand. The 1980s would also give us perhaps the most
famous horror host in Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. After Sinister Seymour, host of LA’s Fright
Night, passed away, he was briefly replaced by Moona Lisa and Grimesly before the show
went on hiatus. In 1980, producers attempted to bring the show back with input from Vampira
herself, Maila Nurmi, but Nurmi quit the project when they refused to hire her choice of actors,
Lola Falana. Putting out a casting call, they found Cassandra Peterson, who was allowed
to develop a character herself. Thus, Elvira was born. Donning a revealng black dress and wig, she
would host Elvira’s Movie Macabre. The films were a cut below even those shown by other
hosts, intentionally, as the much of the show’s humour revolved around her ridiculing the
movie with ample jokes about her sex appeal thrown in for good measure. However, she bore a striking resemblance to
Vampira, who delivered a cease and desist, claiming copyright infringement. While admitting
their were similarities in the characters appearances and even catchphrases, the court
ruled in favour of Peterson, as Elvira’s personality differed from Vampira. Similarly though, she became a pop culture
icon, making many appearances on the Tonight Show and was embraced by MTV at the peak of
their popularity. She even got her own movie, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, in 1988. The last host, or hosts, we are going to be
looking at are the cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000. The show has undergone many
changes throughout the years but the basic premise remains the same: a human is forced
into space and sentenced to watch B-movies. He is joined by 3 robots, Crow, Tom Servo
and Gypsy (oof) who help the human in providing a running commentary. Unique to MST3K, is
the fact that the hosts appear in silhouette and, while some of the films they watch can
be classified as horror, they also critique educational and industrial films. It began in 1988 on local television in Minneapolis
before being picked up by Comedy Central where it aired until 1996. It then ran on The Sci-Fi
Channel for three seasons and was revived on Netflix in 2017. This shows that while the idea of a horror
host is rooted in regional television, their legacy lives on. Today, there are entire cable
channels and even a streaming service dedicated to horror and critics, commenters and enthusiasts,
like myself, are plentiful here on YouTube, for better or worse. With the nature of airing regionally during
the television era, it’s no wonder that these hosts became local institutions, becoming
part of the shared consciousness of the communities they catered to. Many had extensive careers,
some, like Svengoolie, continue to air to this day. Now before anyone says, well, what about Rod
Serling or Alfred Hitchcock, I wanted to focus on the format of hosts presenting classic
horror films. And, if you want to see more I will post links to relevant material in
the description below. If you have a favourite or local horror host, let me know in the comments
and if you enjoyed this video please give us a thumbs up, subscribe if you haven’t
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