More on the subject of early 60s MONSTER MANIA for those who are interested...
While we often spent an afternoon in the balcony of our local grindhouse ogling the latest Hammer horror in glorious, oversaturated color, watching an old monster movie on black and white TV was equally enjoyable. I'd have put my arm in fire rather than miss the Saturday night double features that were our regular weekend fare. At first I mostly watched solo as we had no set of our own. Sometimes I could cadge an invite to a friend's or failing that, brave my trepidation and view my movies at the house of the thee beautiful sisters who lived next door - which was tough, but for such a prize I was willing to go far. I guess my folks finally took pity, because after a month or two of that I returned from school to find a brand spankin' new (though of course previously owned) television set waiting in our living room. From there it was all downhill - I'd watch by my lonesome if necessary, though usually with a live phone hookup for shared commentary, but the ideal viewing experience was when fellow devotees could stay over and everybody piled in to watch together. Two local Dallas shows featured the type of movies we preferred. First, on then-independent KTVT Channel 11, came "Nightmare", hosted by Gorgon - a pickle faced crypt-keeper who, unlike most monster jocks of that era, played it straight as opposed to tongue-in-cheek. This was fitting as far as we were concerned because "Nightmare" showed hallowed old Universal staples like Frankenstein, Dracula and The Wolf Man, and being in the presence of such holy relics gave us a feeling somewhat akin to being in church. The classics were not be taken lightly, and watching "Nightmare" had a certain gravitas to it. (See below for a note on Horror Host Gorgon)
When "Nightmare" was over - at the inconceivably late hour of 10:30 PM - came "Sci-Fi Theater" (not to be confused with the 50s TV series "Science Fiction Theater" which was a totally different and lesser animal). If "Nightmare" was the meat and potatoes of our soul - with a serving of wholesome vegetables - "Sci-Fi Theater" was our cheeseburger, chili-cheese-fries and double-choc malt. It cut to the chase with no hosts or interruptions (except ads of course) and it only showed movies from the 50s and 60s... our milieu! In quality these flicks ran the gamut from dance-on-the-sofa delicious to hide-yer-face hilarious: from Forbidden Planet to Werewolf in a Girl's Dormitory. The vast majority were palpably cheesy but that was part of their charm - we could release our werewolf delight and relish them not simply with respectful attention but any reaction that moved us... including howls of derisive laughter.
Italian vampires were the best!
"Sci-Fi Theater" contained other attractions, too. The old Universal classics were great, but they were obviously shot on a back lot in Hollywood somewhere; safe, familiar territory as it were. The movies on "Sci-Fi Theater" were often filmed 'on location' in places that were just as obviously not our home country or anywhere like it, which gave them an air of... well, International Mystery. These low budget Bs poured in from all over the globe: Hercules and Machiste flicks from the arid deserts of Spain and rocky shores of Italy, dubbed-in ghost tales from Scandinavia, sword and dragon epics from Hungary and other satellite countries, even haunting space operas from Soviet Russia her ownself. You could feel it in your very bones... these places were strange, weird, different and totally cool!
Part of the kick was figuring out where in the world a movie came from. Even on a fuzzy black and white screen you could almost make out the candy pastel colors shining through a Japanese productions and there always seemed to be one big ol' hulking American sticking out like a sore thumb from the compact, vigorously emoting Asian cast around him. Plot-wise, dialog-wise, acting-wise, these movies often sucked - but they redeemed themselves when it came to special effects. It wasn't that the rubber-suit monsters and glittering spaceships were so great, just that there were so darn many of 'em. In that respect the madmen at Toho Productions were astonishingly generous, pouring it on with a never-ending parade of earth-sundering creatures - three, four, five, six, ten at a time! Bashing each other with mountains, flaming one another with atomic bomb-breath and even taking a cue from our second favorite form of televised entertainment - wrestling - and whirling their opponents around in circles before tossing them straight into outer space, destroying Tokyo a hundred times over in the process. So films like The Mysterians or King Kong Versus Godzilla garnered our respect, despite the fact that even the monsters hammed it up pretty dreadfully.
After a bit of practice you could recognize Mexican productions too, primarily because of the shabby makeup and the fact that even back then the ultra-cheezy monsters generated lots of laughs, which made hilarious hooey like The Brainiac or the draggy Revenge of the Aztec Mummy palatable. England, however, was the just the opposite - their highbrow accents and droll though somewhat lethargic acting style convinced every Monster Kid in our club that the British Empire must simply reek of class. Hammer studios was producing what we considered to be the ultimate in fat budgeted color masterpieces of the day, but we discovered that even ancient B&W Brit flicks such as Curse of the Demon, X the Unknown and the Quatermass trilogy weren't afraid to sock you in the brainpan with odd, complex, interesting plots and supercool monsters. The English seemed to have a kind of serious – even intellectual - approach to monster movies, in effect treating the then-scorned horror genre like full-blown, legitimate cinema, which made us feel that we were being taken seriously, too.
And once in a while, far too rarely for us, the opening credits of a film might express gratitude to, say, the people of Positano, Italy for their cooperation. This made our hearts beat up, because it meant we were in for a delicious and possibly shocking treat... heaving cleavage under a thoroughly torn bodice, for example.
The mysterious foreign nature of these pictures also had something to do with how shivery-scary they could be; they often made your neck hairs tingle in ways no American horror movie ever seemed to. The revolutionary combination of sweat-misted female flesh coupled with assiduous attention to the moldy details of gothic rot gave the afore-mentioned Italian vampire movies an especially skin-crawling ambience. Gorgeous though they were, populated with reams of voluptuous undead love goddesses in tattered yet form-fitting dresses, they're the only movies I can remember that actually gave me nightmares.
England... man whatta classy empire!
The makers of "Sci-Fi Theater" always seemed to give us precisely what we craved and then some. I have no idea whether that was an accident or the result of careful planning - probably the former, as they were just as likely to play Ingmar Bergman's classic The Magician as some reak Swedish B movie like Mill of the Stone Women. They once showed Godard's Alphaville... something no kid should ever have to sit through.
On second thought, who knows? Maybe I'm putting grownup thoughts in a kid's head... I once saw Alphaville at the Alphaville theater in Paris (4 screening rooms, one showing only Alphaville, over and over, day in and day out) and when I woke up in the middle of the movie, everyone else in the theater was sound asleep also... a dozen people, snoring away like babies! But I remember we did think it was kind of cool that somebody would use an old electric fan like our fifth-grade teacher had on her desk to stand in for a device that could control the world - like when you pretended an old refrigerator box was a rocket ship. Anyway, one thing was sure, we knew Alphaville wasn't like any movie we'd ever seen before. And come to think of it, parts of The Magician are pretty darn scary... so maybe Sci-Fi Theater wasn't so careless after all.
Of course we also may have also been pretty easy to please. Half the movies weren't science fiction at all, but we hardly noticed that. Our joy and devotion increased with every new motion picture experience, the weirder the better, although many nights I never lived to see the end but woke up next morning, curled before a blank screen with visions from midnight dancing on my brain.
I now realize it wasn't only the movie-watching or even being with my pals that made those times so fun, exciting and great. We were using movies the way probably every kid uses them, as a way of exploring the world. And were learning about a lot more than monsters. from sex to survival to how not to take yourself too seriously in life. Lest anyone say such trivial pursuits were a waste of time, let me state that the fascination with "foreign-ness" fostered by those flicks was quite real and started me off in the direction I'm still hopefully headed today, toward an open and curious mind. Ever since that long-ago time, I've never been able to understand our American tendency to be suspicious and/or distrustful of people who aren't exactly the same as we are. Those old movies may not be the only reason, but I insist that they are part of it. It's hard to honestly scorn the French if you spent an entire week of your childhood haunted by Franju's ghostly Eyes Without a Face.
Bill Camfield, alias "Icky Twerp", "Gorgon", et al... Man, I loved this guy!