Michael Monahan Talks Horror Hosts and More
Horror fans today are spoiled. With the vast array of films available on DVD and Blu-ray via storefronts like Best Buy and FYE, online outlets like Amazon and Deep Discount, and rental/streaming services such as Netflix, there are few films that are unattainable. Virtually anything one might hear of is available some way, somewhere. But it wasn't always so...
Back at a time before disc (or VHS for that matter), the only way - and I mean the ONLY way - to see classic and not so classic genre pictures was on broadcast television. As a kid, I remember getting the local TV GUIDE and a yellow highlighter and systematically going through the listings, marking each and every show time of movies I'd heard about either from friends or ones that were obliquely mentioned in Forry Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland . I would meticulously go over each entry line by line and mark anything that looked even slightly interesting. Then, usually without my parent's knowledge, I'd create my own schedule so that I might wake myself up and sneak downstairs to watch what were at the time glorious pieces of cinema on Movies 'Till Dawn or similar red-eyed broadcasting.
It was the kind of thing that defined many fans as "horror geeks."
Then, local television stations got wise and they started programming genre pictures at specific times (usually late Friday and Saturday nights). Needing a framework for the film, hosts were cast to introduce the films and segue into and out of commercial breaks. For me, growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, my guy was a mild-mannered man wearing big, black-rimmed glasses named Bob Wilkins on KTVU Channel 2 ("There’s only one 2!"). Every Friday & Saturday night, Bob was there for me and it was he who showed me the wonders of Ray Harryhausen, the cheesiness of Horror At Party Beach , and the glory of what became known as The Universal Monsters.
See, Bob was a Horror Host, one in a long line of a special breed of people whose influence can still be felt to this day. There were many such hosts throughout the country and names such as Zacherley, The Ghoul, Vampira, Ghoulardi, Sir Graves Ghastly, Crematia Mortem, Count Gore de Vol, and Dr. Paul Bearer are legendary. Some were as "normal" looking as Wilkins, but most adopted zany costumes and makeup, playing up the "horror" aspect rather than the "host." And throughout the 1960s, 70s, and into the early 80s, these individuals reigned supreme on local television broadcasting. . In many ways, they defined who we were... and who we are to this day.
To most modern genre fans, this time period remains an era they know little about. But now, author Michael Monahan (producer of the excellent documentary on horror hosts, American Scary) has changed all of that with the release of his new book, UHF Nocturne Shock It To Me: Golden Ghouls of the Golden Gate. Monahan's excellent and informative book tracks the rise of the horror host using the landscape of the San Francisco Bay Area as a stage. This well research and comprehensive tome is essential reading not only for nostalgic fans of the Bay Area, but also for anyone who wants to know how things used to be back before cinematic availability was at a high point.
Dread Central sat down with Michael Monahan and found out more about the book, his influences, and got a glimpse of how things "used to be..."
The book centers on horror hosts from the San Francisco Bay Area. Did you grow up there?
Yep. I was born and raised in the area. I grew up in Burlingame, which is just south of San Francisco and moved to Berkeley in the early 80s. So I’ve been a life-long resident.
Was your interest in horror one that was spawn at an early age?
Some of my earliest and most vivid memories are of movies I watched on TV when I was around four years old. And, yes, I sort of naturally gravitated toward horror. The first movie to give me nightmares as a kid – followed by the traditional parental “That’s it! No more of that crap for you!” speech – was Ed Wood’s BRIDE OF THE MONSTER. Years later, I was able to pinpoint the moment that triggered the dream. It’s the scene where a guy is thrown to Bela Lugosi’s pet octopus. The shot is stark and weird. You’ve got a man screaming and a wet rubber octopus lit in the blackness by a single pin light. It may be crude, but it’s a perfect snapshot of post-infant terror. PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE also affected me. Even as a kid, I had seen enough movies to know there was something wrong about cutting from the inside of a space ship to a shot of a graveyard. The two images didn’t belong together. The strange electronic pulse playing over the shots of Vampira also struck me odd. I think it was my first experience with surrealism. I’m glad I got a chance to have a pure experience of these films as a child in the early 1960s, well before the whole smug-hipster Ed Wood revival. Sure, these are hugely imperfect films. But for a youngster, they’re monster movies. Good enough. That was actually one of the great things about growing up with TV in that period. It was the Monster Kid era and horror and science fiction were “in.” Pretty much the entire scope of fantastic film was part of regular programming, from classic to crap-tastic. And TV, particularly black and white TV, was a great equalizer. You could spend a day watching THE WOLF MAN, THE BLOB and THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS – and dig them all because they were all monster movies. You could approach them less critically if you were a kid who was just in it for the monsters. We had a great theater in Burlingame, The Fox, a grand old movie palace. They had a regular kiddie matinee during the summer, and I got to see everything from MIGHTY JOE YOUNG and JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS to THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN and HERCULES AGAINS THE MOON MEN on the big screen. These kiddie shows also introduced me to the great Republic serials. I remember cleaning out a big ice cream bucket so I could turn it into a helmet, just like Commando Cody’s. And they had Warner Brothers cartoons and Three Stooges besides. Like TV, they mixed and matched various decades of Hollywood history at these matinees. As a kid who was already interested in the idea of studying film, it was an amazing education.
You contributed to some of the James Bond sets as well as the Blu-ray edition of THE ULIMATE FLINT COLLECTION. Which begs the question ... in your opinion, who’s cooler - Bond or Flint?
It’s always going to be Bond. My mom took my brothers and me to see Thunderball in 1965. I was seven years old. The theater lobby was an Aladdin’s cave of movie promotion. There were banners, photos and gigantic posters all over the place. Mannequins in scuba suits hung from the ceiling in fishnets and guarded the auditorium doors. Before a single frame hit the screen, we knew this was the greatest movie ever made. And of course, the movie was spectacular. I’d never seen anything so colorful and epic. So it’s always going to be Bond – and it’s always going to be Connery. But I’m a fan of that whole secret agent genre. In the 60s, at least, the Bond films were adult entertainments – pop cultural reflections of recognizable geo-political concerns. As the global Bond-mania took hold with the release of GOLDFINGER the budgets for James Bond movies that followed became astronomical. There was no way the super spies who came in the wake of Bond could compete on that level. The copycats were more artificial and stylized. Because they were more studio bound, they had more of a pop art gloss to them, which was also distinctive and neat. They were cocktail lounge-flavored comic strips. When you look at the Matt Helms, the Flints – and even the minor league stuff like A MAN CALLED DAGGER, you’ll see they actually have more in common with each other than any of them have with Bond. They copped a few elements from the 007 formula, but they were forced to create a broader, yet more casual, style. The Flint films probably pulled it off the best. OUR MAN FLINT was popular enough to spawn its own parody, an Italian film called IL VOSTRO SUPER AGENTE, FLIT! There are a number of scene-for-scene spoofs throughout the film. But the star looks more like Alec Guinness than James Coburn. Interestingly, the script appeared to have lifted material from an early draft of the Flint screenplay, called CARTEL OF EVIL, which featured space aliens as the villains. And aliens are the bad guys in the Italian version.