Saturday, October 30, 2010


"A nightmare of mystery takes place on an island of terror in the Shock feature film presentation THE CAT CREEPS. There's a thrill a minute, a shiver a second, in this story of murder on an island! Don't miss THE CAT CREEPS!"

Friday, October 29, 2010

DRACULA (1931)

In my October 16 post, I repeated the widely-held view that FRANKENSTEIN helped to launch the first "cycle" of horror movies in 1931; similarly, it helped to kick off the second cycle of the Golden Age in 1938 when it was officially re-released by Universal after the collapse of the so-called horror film ban. I added that --if the SHOCK! syndication series did indeed spawn the Monster Culture revolution--- then FRANKENSTEIN also midwifed a third horror cycle: seeing Golden Age horror movies on TV.

King Features syndicated television column,
Salina [KS] Journal, November 17, 1957

DRACULA was FRANKENSTEIN's co-conspirator in initiating these three cycles. In 1931, DRACULA was made and released first, and its success helped to breathe life into the FRANKENSTEIN project. Later, DRACULA was paired with FRANKENSTEIN in 1938 at some independent movie theaters as a "mammoth horror show" double bill that overcame the horror movie ban (I'll talk more about this when I get to SON OF FRANKENSTEIN); Universal saw the money that could be made with these chillers, so they struck new prints of the film and re-released them together. The two movies stayed in re-release circulation for years afterward, first as Universal movies and then as Realart Pictures after 1951. And finally, because of the films' notoriety and box office success, DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN were the two films that almost all stations with the SHOCK! package aired first on TV. In this sense, then, DRACULA, too, helped FRANKENSTEIN to pioneer the three major classic horror movie cycles which were so crucial in the development of mid-century Monster Culture.

Chicago Sun-Times, January 11, 1958

But many contemporary horror fans may find it hard to imagine DRACULA as a landmark film of any kind. After all, aside from the absolutely wonderful first half hour or so, the movie is rather stilted, stagey, and slow-moving. And for some of today's movie-watchers, the performances can be off-putting: Dwight Frye's fabulously over-the-top Renfield, Béla Lugosi's operatic (almost kabuki!) Dracula, and pretty-boy David Manners' mannered moping as John Harker have elicited snickers from a handful of audience-members every time that I've seen this movie within the last twenty years. Is there a way to get today's horror movie watchers to appreciate DRACULA?

DRACULA works for me because every time I watch it I try hard to trick myself into taking seriously the re-release tagline for this motion picture: "A NIGHTMARE OF HORROR!" I'm not saying that the story unfolds in a sort of sideways dream logic-- on the contrary, the narrative is conventionally linear-- but rather that some of the film's visual compositions and its camera movements have a sort of eerie, hypnotic feel to them. In other words, if you can convince yourself to shed your "reality television"-fed idea of what realism is supposed to be and see DRACULA as an attempt to cinematically craft a bad dream, then you may find an easy way into it.

I know that this sounds like I'm making excuses for Tod Browning's sometimes shoddy filmmaking (and I probably am), but look at it this way: previous to DRACULA, most of the spooky talkies made in the US were revealed in the end to be old-school "Scooby-Doo"-style hoaxes rather than supernatural events: there was a very human crook dressed up like a undead monster in order to frighten off interlopers, but then some meddling kids solved the mystery and unmasked the bad guy (or in the case of Browning's own film LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT [1927], it's the good guy who comes up with the scheme to use supernaturalism in order to break the case). This is what audience members were accustomed to, but DRACULA was different-- as George E. Turner says in an old American Cinematographer article, "a number of sound pictures of the spine-chilling variety had preceded DRACULA, including such popular numbers as THE TERROR, STARK MAD, THE CAT CREEPS, THE BAT WHISPERS, and THE GORILLA [...] The scary stuff was intermingled with comedy and anything that appeared paranormal was always revealed as the machinations of malevolent human beings. What made DRACULA different was that the audience was expected to accept the villain as a genuine vampire and not another crook in disguise. There was a strong feeling in the industry that the producers were insane to ask moviegoers [...] to suspend disbelief in a medieval superstition."

Maybe Browning (or Karl Freund, depending on which theory you subscribe to about the real director of this picture) recognized that the best way to get people to buy into the movie was to present it as a nightmare. And you have to admit that there are some arresting, unsettling scenes of Hollywood Gothic that seem thoroughly oneiric in DRACULA, even when the various characters aren't talking about their dreams and strange visions.

Take the much-mocked pair of armadillos in DRACULA: really, there's no way in the world that a couple nine-banded long-nosed armadillos that are native to the southern North America could have found their way alive across the Borgo Pass into Dracula's castle in Transylvania. But as freakish-looking nocturnal, bug-eating creatures that you'd hope to never find in a creepy ruined mountain fortress in the middle of the night, the armadillos are perfect... it's just the sort of uncanny thing that a slumbering unconscious mind would conjure up for a scare. And the same goes for the opossums: wouldn't your dreaming brain picture an oversized monster-rat as a possum?

Think, too, about Dracula's and Renfield's multiple appearances at Seward's home. The two of them come and go seemingly at will-- they pop up on terraces and in sitting rooms and hover over the beds of sleeping women, strolling around unannounced as if they've just dematerialized through the walls, like those phantasms of people who wander around in your dreams. And there's really nothing that anyone can do to stop them: Renfield is not at all concerned when an exasperated Seward says that he's going to use a straitjacket to keep him from always slipping away from his cell and turning up in the doctor's house; Van Helsing's expert use of garlands of wolfbane around windows, doors, and Mina's throat are little more than small speed-bumps for Dracula. Renfield and Dracula keep coming at them all with the stubborn persistence of a nightmare.

I'm sure that I'm making too much of this, but I find that watching DRACULA from this "nightmare" viewing position helps me to enjoy it more. Maybe this approach will help new viewers of the film to accept it. As I looked at it again last night, I kept thinking to myself that watching DRACULA for the first time on one of those early postwar American TVs on some late-night SHOCK! showcase in 1957 probably would have added a lot to the dreamlike nature of the whole thing. Forget for a minute your 55" LCD HDTV and Blu-ray player and try to imagine seeing Lugosi's vampire as a fuzzy antenna-reception ghost drifting around in that weird, glowing, blue-gray cathode ray tube flicker... you witness his visitation as you sit alone on a couch, in a living room lit only by a low-wattage TV lamp, listening to the wind outside quietly rustle the fallen leaves on a dark, chilly October night... It must have been a satisfying horror movie experience for many.

NEXT: "A nightmare of mystery takes place on an island of terror in the Shock feature film presentation THE CAT CREEPS. There's a thrill a minute, a shiver a second, in this story of murder on an island! Don't miss THE CAT CREEPS!"

Monday, October 25, 2010


"Thrills galore are coming your way with DRACULA, the full-length feature presentation on Shock. Bela Lugosi stars in one of his eeriest roles as the human vampire who could live only when his victims died. For chilling, thrilling entertainment, don't miss DRACULA."

Sunday, October 24, 2010

SHOCK! Ballyhoo (#1): A Fistful of Tranquilizers

In the booklet that Screen Gems sent out to television stations in 1957 in order to drum up interest in the SHOCK! syndication package, there were a number of suggestions for publicity stunts. Some of these promotions were intended to be sensationalistic and attention-grabbing, whereas others just seemed bizarre. As part of my viewing project in the months to come, I will occasionally post about some of the schemes that had been developed by Screen Gems and by local television stations in order to whip up (viewer and sponsor) interest in these films.

Today's ballyhoo entry comes from the folks at Screen Gems and was included in a list of suggestions on a page titled "Shock Showmanship: Sales Promotion to Enthuse Your Sponsors." The article recommends throwing a party in a studio at the station "for the night of your premiere telecast" of the SHOCK! series. Among the ideas that the booklet offers for decoration and for guest refreshment is the following:

"Bottles labeled 'POISON,' bowls of aspirin and milltown [sic], and a bucket of ketchup labeled 'BLOOD' should be placed a convenient spots for the use of your guests."

The casual mention of "milltown" in this piece caught my eye. I remembered that Miltown (capital "M" and one "L"-- it is misspelled in the SHOCK! booklet) is the brand-name for a tranquilizer pill; I assumed that the tranq was a prescription medication, so I was a little amazed by the publicity guys' suggestion that your station should put out bowls of them for your party guests as if they were M&Ms-- notice that the promo copy doesn't say "label a bowl of aspirin as 'Miltown' " the same way that they recommended labeling bottles as "poison" or buckets of ketchup as "blood." Can you imagine a publicity campaign today that suggested that a TV station set out candy dishes of Rohypnol and Xanax for party-goers?

This suggested to me that you could obtain a bowl's-worth of Miltown in 1957 with the same non-prescription ease as which you could aspirin. Curious about this, I did a little bit of research. What I found surprised me; most of what I discuss below I found in the pages of Professor Andrea Tone's quite engaging 2009 study, The Age of Anxiety: A History of America's Turbulent Affair with Tranquilizers.

Miltown (the name under which the psychotropic compound meprobamate was marketed by Wallace Laboratories) was first concocted in 1950, tested on psychiatric patients for a few years, and then released to the public by the FDA in 1955 for use in treating stress, anxiety, insomnia, tension, stage-fright, and even shyness. It surprised everyone by becoming a wildly popular drug and, as such, a trailblazer in the bestselling "life-style" drugs that today permeate the landscape in the US (i.e., Prozac; Viagra; Ambien).

In her book, Andrea Tone explains the wide-spread consumption of Miltown by triangulating it between (1) the move of family physicians into the field of treating mental health issues (formerly the purview of expensive psychiatrists and Freudian psychoanalysts), (2) the efforts by pharmaceutical manufacturers and drugstore owners to find a hot-ticket item in the consumer marketplace, and (3) the thick atmosphere of worry and fear felt by the general public in the mid-1950s because of the anxieties over H-Bombs, the existential emptiness of the gray-flannel-suited rat race (Miltown was nicknamed "Executive Excedrin"), and the frantic pressures of consumer culture suburbia. Before it was eclipsed by Librium and Valium in the early 1960s, Miltown was "Mother's little helper" and the drug of choice of "overworked businessmen harried by office deadlines, virgin brides nervous about their honeymoons, petulant toddlers and teenagers, and Americans fearful of nuclear annihilation" (Tone cites a number of articles that arrive at the same conclusion as this 1958 article in the New Yorker magazine: "An age in which nations threaten each other with guided missiles and hydrogen bombs is one that can use any calm it can get, and calm is what the American pharmaceutical industry now abundantly offers.") A 1957 Gallup Poll found 7 million Americans admitting to having used the drug.

A 1956 Charles Addams cartoon for New Yorker from Tone's book. The commuting businessman in the subway station encounters a vending machine of refreshments for either going to work or for going back home at night: phenobarbital (a barbiturate), Miltown, Doriden (a sleeping pill), and benzedrine (speed). A 1957 survey of American businessmen found that 72% of respondents felt that tranqs improved performance at work.

As I suspected, Miltown was only available by doctor's prescription, but as Tone illustrates in her book, "tranquilizers were easy to get because doctors prescribed them liberally and pharmacists often refilled prescriptions without authorization [...] One Hollywood reporter identified only one prescription out of the fifty tranquilizer users he interviewed in 1956."

Tone devotes a chapter on how Hollywood's torrid love affair with this "relaxed energy" tranquilizer pill was such that it had normalized it in a way that made it seem like it was an over-the-counter remedy. Miltown was cheap (nine cents, "about the same price as a can of tomatoes or a roll of toilet paper at the neighborhood Safeway") and easily obtained with or without prescription-- Tone says that Schwab Drugstore sold more than 250,000 tablets in four months during the winter of 1955-56. Lucille Ball, Lauren Bacall, Tennessee Williams, Tallulah Bankhead, Red Skelton, and Bob Hope talked about it. Milton Berle frequently joked about changing his name because of the amount he needed to ingest in order to do his TV show on the air; Jerry Lewis, Jimmy Durante, and Robert Cummings had made so many jokes about Miltown during the Oscar and Emmy Award ceremonies in 1955 that the FDA launched an investigation into the possibility of there being a massive celebrity endorsement scheme. The jewelers Cartier and Tiffany marketed pill boxes and charm bracelets for one's Miltown stash; 1956-57 advertisements for Baskin-Robbins ice cream recommended that a gallon of Hazelnut Toffee Ice Cream was as relaxing as a dose of Miltown.

from Tone's book: photo of Uncle Miltown as it appeared in Time magazine,
27 February 1956

You get the picture... Miltown, though largely forgotten today, was huge in the mid- to late-1950s. The publicity people at Screen Gems tapped into the trend; they encouraged stations to hype the horrors of SHOCK! to advertisers by creating a "haunted house" atmosphere and jokingly offering Miltown at launch parties in order to calm themselves after being subjected to the terror of these movies. Here, then, is a case of US pop culture collision, where the Monster Revolution of the mid-'50s intersected with what one psychiatrist quoted by Tone called the Tranquilizer Revolution.

(And given some of the low-grade B pictures in the SHOCK! package, I can't resist this February 1957 quote that Tone found by Aldous Huxley. Huxley, encouraged by the fact that "more than a thousand million doses of meprobomate were swallowed last year by the American public," said he looked forward to the day when a new class of drugs would emerge that would be a "transfigurer of perceived reality," capable of "imparting to the most dismal or commonplace scene unsuspected and unimaginable qualities of beauty-- even of making the average TV program seem absolutely wonderful.")

detail from an advertisement for a Payless Drug Store in Oakland, CA, 1956

Saturday, October 23, 2010


El Paso Herald-Post, 29 March 1958

"A crazed monster stalks El Paso"? It's as good a way as any to promote a SHOCK!! (note the extra exclamation point) screening of THE SHE-WOLF OF LONDON on Channel 13, I suppose... but it is a cheat. There's no monster--she-wolf or otherwise, either in London or El Paso--and I think that there were a lot of viewers who were disappointed when they stayed up late through the musical stylings of "The Lawrence Welk Show" to find this out the hard way.

It's too bad, because there are some good pieces which are put into place during the course of this movie that the seasoned horror experts at Universal could have easily used to pull off a decent monster movie-- for instance, right after the movie starts, we hear a very scary bloodcurdling scream that we later learn was the sound of a ten year-old boy being "horribly mangled" in a night- and fog-shrouded park. How much more do you need to launch a monster movie? But, in the end, the filmmakers pull their punches, unfortunately.

People who dislike this movie will completely disagree with me, but I think that SHE-WOLF OF LONDON would have been a little bit better if it had been about 20 minutes longer. I read in Weaver, Brunas, & Brunas's Universal Horrors that the script originally called for some scenes relating to the legend of the Allenby Curse and Phyllis (June Lockhart) as a little girl first learning about it. Some of the scenes may have been shot, Universal Horrors says, but they ended up being cut out prior to the movie's theatrical release. Even if the filmmakers had still balked at monsterizing this movie, I still think that the inclusion of these scenes would have considerably improved the tone and tension in the picture.

It was probably the success of RKO's psychological horror movie CAT PEOPLE in 1942 that is responsible for this misfire, which tries hard to get the ambiance right but ends up just being a tired rehash of the GASLIGHT/MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS "nervous breakdown" melodrama. The story makes a lot of how the Allenby household is female-only-- a couple characters comment on it in a way that's supposed to remind the viewers of that fact-- so I suspect that the idea was to use this plot point to add an unstable element of hysteria into the whole thing; hysteria in the Victoria era was a medical diagnosis that was all the rage and it was an affliction that affected primarily women and un-masculine males. As Phyllis starts freaking out about her suspected werewolfism, she exhibits all the classic symptoms of the neurasthenic woman made famous in that fascinating Freudian mumbo-jumbo from the turn of the nineteenth century. But this is all implied vaguely and never really exploited for maximum narrative efffect in the course of the movie.

In the mid-1950s-- those days before movie-guide books and the IMDb --most people only had the movie synopsis printed in the television viewers' guide to gauge what a film was about; as we see in the El Paso Herald-Post listing above, the description was the same one provided in the SHOCK! catalog that Screen Gems had put together which naturally played up the supernatural terror. Imagine how let down you would have been if you saw that listing a week in advance and tossed it around in your mind for six days as you anxiously waited until Saturday night to see it. I'm guessing that the disappointment would've been as sharp as if you had seen it at the theater as part of Halloween "Double Horror Show" in 1946 (see below), but it may have been worse on television because of the movie's plodding plotting... trying to string your attention along through a commercial block every 25 minutes (from an appliance store, in the example of the El Paso ad reproduced above) probably made for a long, dreary viewing experience.

Denton [TX] Record-Chronicle, October 1946

Next: "Thrills galore are coming your way with DRACULA, the full-length feature presentation on Shock. Bela Lugosi stars in one of his eeriest roles as the human vampire who could live only when his victims died. For chilling, thrilling entertainment, don't miss DRACULA."

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


"Soft hands become ripping claws when a fabulous beauty turns into a crazed thing of evil. See the Shock feature film presentation THE SHE-WOLF OF LONDON. June Lockhart and Don Porter co-star."

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


From his observatory-laboratory high in the Carpathian Mountains, eccentric astrophysicist Dr. Janos Rukh (Boris Karloff with curly hair) demonstrates to his colleagues (including chemist Felix Benet [Bela Lugosi]) his latest invention: a sort of time-traveling telescope/VCR/movie projector that he used to record a light beam from a nebula in the Andromeda galaxy. The images that he extracts from this ray of light show a meteor strike in southwest-central Africa "a few thousand million years ago." The meteorite was made up of an unknown element far more powerful than radium; his colleagues ask Rukh to accompany them on a scientific expedition to Africa and to search for the crater. Rukh finds the crater and radioactive debris from the meteorite, but in the process he's been dosed by "radium X": now poisoned and insane, he glows in the dark and his mere touch can destroy living beings. Later in France, he vengefully stalks the members of the expedition and kills them off one by one with his radioactive grasp and the stone-melting death-ray that he fashions for use with the radium x material...

This one plays more like a sci-fi adventure serial than horror: meteorites with mysterious powers, ray guns (that even use an old FLASH GORDON sound effect), jungle expeditions, and references to the curse of King Tutankhamun's tomb all make it all feel like a matinee chapter play. Perhaps that's why THE INVISIBLE RAY is not a well-regarded Universal horror movie-- I don't know anyone who has ever mentioned it as favorite, though I must confess my own fondness for it for nostalgic reasons: as a kid in the early 1970s, I was visiting relatives in Florida and sneaked out of bed one night to watch THE INVISIBLE RAY on television while everyone else in the house was asleep. It scared me then, but I was reassured deep into the night by the horror host, the great Dr. Paul Bearer of Channel 44 St. Petersburg- Tampa.

In the film, Violet Kemble Cooper plays Mother Rukh, a woman who was blinded while working in the observatory with her son. She is given to intoning theatrically about how her son is tampering with things in nature best left alone and predicts the coming disaster; in fact, she manages to halt Rukh's quest for revenge at the end of the movie. In his book Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture, David J. Skal argues that the figure of Mother Rukh invokes the figure of Marie Skłodowska Curie (the inventor of the word "radioactivity") who died of radium poisoning in July 1934. (Skal also mentions the notoriety given to quack radium health-tonic drinks like "Radithor" that killed Pittsburgh industrialist and playboy Eben McBurney Byers in 1932.) "THE INVISIBLE RAY was the first film to exploit public interest and anxiety in the alchemical, Faustian aspects of radioactivity," Skal writes. "Cooper [as Mother Rukh] is the avenging image of Marie Curie herself, returned from the grave to judge the actor most associated in the public mind with the Frankenstein story [Karloff] and its theme of scientific presumption." Christopher Frayling follows Skal's lead in Mad, Bad, and Dangerous? The Scientist and the Cinema when he mentions Skal's suggestion in a discussion of the 1943 MGM biopic Madame Curie (which had been a Universal property, incidentally, until April 1938). Frayling asks rhetorically: "In THE INVISIBLE RAY, is Madame Curie in the film making a judgment about mad scientist movies?"

Dunkirk [NY] Evening Observer
Thursday, February 20, 1958

It is possible, I suppose, that Madame Curie's death by radium poisoning in 1934 may have been a context for THE INVISIBLE RAY for movie-goers in 1936-- Violet Kemble Cooper's Mother Rukh does bear a passing resemblance to the photographs of Marie Curie that appeared in the press at the time of her death. But was there a context for SHOCK! television viewers in 1957 who saw THE INVISIBLE RAY?

Paul Boyer argues in the epilogue to By the Bomb's Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age that people living in the US felt a resurgence of fear about fallout in the mid-1950s following a series of atmospheric tests of multimegaton thermonuclear weapons that began in 1952. The most alarming of these was a test of a fifteen megaton device in March 1954 at the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands code-named "Castle Bravo" that poisoned thousands of Pacific Islanders and the crew of the Japanese fishing vessel Lucky Dragon Number 5 (an important inspiration for the first Godzilla film). Radioactive rain fell on Troy, NY in 1953 and on Chicago in 1955; also in 1955, nuclear disarmament activists brought a group of twenty-five Japanese women nicknamed the "Hiroshima Maidens" to the US in a well-publicized tour (including a painfully awkward appearance on the "This Is Your Life" TV program) for reconstructive plastic surgery of the severe keloid burns that they had received. Worries about fallout from atmospheric testing even became an issue in the Presidential campaign of 1956.

Anxieties over radioactivity, then, were probably more profound for some of those who saw THE INVISIBLE RAY on television in 1957 than it had been for those who had seen it in the movie theaters in 1936. The same terrors over fallout that gave us movies like THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953), THEM! (1954), GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS! (1956), and ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS (1957) may have also given THE INVISIBLE RAY an extra dimension of horror for SHOCK! viewers that it hadn't had before.

NEXT: Soft hands become ripping claws when a fabulous beauty turns into a crazed thing of evil. See the Shock feature film presentation THE SHE-WOLF OF LONDON. June Lockhart and Don Porter co-star.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


"Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff star in Shock's full-length feature film THE INVISIBLE RAY. Tune in and see the man who had death in his finger tips. It's a shocker!"

Saturday, October 16, 2010


What amazes me about FRANKENSTEIN is how-- despite the unbelievably high level of over-exposure that the figure of the titular mad scientist and his ghastly creation have gotten over the last eighty years-- the original movie still retains its power to chill. I mean, just walk into any department store this week and count all the Halloween decorations, tchotchkes, and geegaws that you can buy with jokey post-Herman Munster renditions of the Monster: flat head, green skin, clunky boots and neck bolts. Looking at the cheap plastic salt and pepper shakers and pumpkin-scented candles, you’d think that the Monster would be a completely exhausted and clichéd idiom by now. But it’s not.

There's something almost mythological about FRANKENSTEIN; I watched it last night in quiet wonder and was raptly caught up in the performances and the sets and James Whale's marvelous direction and Arthur Edelson's riveting camerawork. As near as I can recollect, I probably saw FRANKENSTEIN for the first time on a winter afternoon in February 1971 ; since then, I've seen it innumerable times on television and home video. But I was not distracted by over-familiarity even once last night. Seeing this on television in October 1957 must have been thrilling, even with commercial interruption.

In fact, here's the thing about watching this movie on TV with commercials: there are a few scenes in FRANKENSTEIN that end with black0uts that seem custom-made for ad breaks-- many scenes are self-contained intensities of horror that snap together nicely and build on top of each other, so I can imagine that commercials would be only a minor annoyance: you could ease back in your seat and catch your breath during the ads for some local pharmacy or automotive dealership, grab a snack, and settle in for the next segments of the movie. The pacing of the movie, in other words, could survive intact and still impress the viewer.

Of the assembled parts that make up FRANKENSTEIN, it is the creation scene in the expressionist medieval (some sources say "ancient Roman") watchtower that I find most arresting: the delirious excitement of Frankenstein, the perversely eager puppy-dog complicity of Fritz, the three aghast on-lookers in the "audience," and all of it going down amid Ken Strickfaden's sparkpunk arrays of "electrical illusionations, electresence and auratronics" -- it's really a sharp piece of filmmaking. What I find most well-done is that point when the operating table is hoisted up during the climax of the thunderstorm and we never get to see what exactly happens up there: we viewers all stare expectantly at the ceiling along with the five characters, but all we are shown is the result when the Monster is cranked back down into the lab. The mystery of creation stays a mystery.

As with RKO’s KING KONG, FRANKENSTEIN is one of those motion pictures that I wish I could travel back in time to see for the first-time with a cinema audience during its opening week. What would it have been like? Reviews from 1931 help to capture the mood a little (I like the one from Bioscope quoted by Bryan Senn in Golden Horrors: "As a crudely constructed blood-curdler, it will certainly thrill those who find their pleasures in things morbid and horrible"). I assumed that the next best thing to being there then would be to watch it now with someone who had never seen FRANKENSTEIN before. But I could not find anyone in my extended social circle to watch it with me last night, not even those few self-described horror movie aficionados. These people were especially disappointing for they, despite having never seen the movie, said that they weren't interested because FRANKENSTEIN was "too old," "too slow," "boring," and "black and white" (presumably this means "not worthy of any consideration").

Charleston, WV, 1956
Hamilton, OH, 1957

But television viewers fifty-three years ago were interested in FRANKENSTEIN. Right up to the premiere of SHOCK! in 1957, you could still find FRANKENSTEIN playing in movie theaters and still making money in the box office. So it makes sense, then, if you were programming the SHOCK! package on your station as part of an existing late-movie showcase or inaugurating a new "shock theater" show, FRANKENSTEIN would be the first movie of the bunch that you'd select to be shown because of the popularity of its theatrical re-release afterlife. As far as I have been able to tell, FRANKENSTEIN was almost unanimously the first of the SHOCK! films broadcast on television by the stations who had purchased the package (DRACULA appears to have been the only other choice). FRANKENSTEIN, in short, was the pick of the litter.

Dunkirk [NY] Evening Observer
Thursday, October 17, 1957

Most terror film scholars would agree that FRANKENSTEIN helped to launch the first "cycle" of horror movies in 1931 (Senn, for instance, calls it "the primary progenitor [if not by right of nascence, then by weight of influence] of the sound horror genre"). And, as I'll discuss in more detail in a few weeks when we get to DRACULA and SON OF FRANKENSTEIN in my viewing project, FRANKENSTEIN also helped to kick off the second cycle of Golden Age in 1938 when it was officially re-released by Universal after the collapse of the so-called horror film ban. But if the SHOCK! syndication series did indeed spawn the Monster Culture revolution as I have been hoping to explore for myself with this blog, than FRANKENSTEIN was also the midwife of a third horror cycle (classic horror movies shown on TV in the Silver Age). The power of this movie is remarkable and undeniable.

NEXT: "Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff star in Shock's full-length feature film THE INVISIBLE RAY. Tune in and see the man who had death in his finger tips. It's a shocker!"

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


"The daddy of all full-length features is here to scare you! That's FRANKENSTEIN on Shock on this channel! Here is raw horror-- a story that has shocked generations! Don't miss Boris Karloff in this spine-chiller!"

Friday night's viewing for all SHOCK! fans will be FRANKENSTEIN, the landmark 1931 James Whale film starring Boris Karloff and Colin Clive, with assistance from Dwight Frye. You can watch the film whenever you want, of course, or just revive your memory (proving that it's alive!) for the Saturday posting by Creeping Bride. Commentary afterward encouraged.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The SHOCK! Doctrine

"'Shock Theater' was the inaugural event of Monster Culture, a phenomenon of horror-movie hoopla that began in the late Fifties and continued into the mid-Sixties," David J. Skal writes in The Monster Show. ("Shock Theater" was the stock name that many stations used for their showcases that ran the SHOCK! titles, frequently with a horror host.) Skal is right , but I want to take the genealogy back a little further to look at what went into the decision-making process that SHOCK!'ed some of Universal's pre-1948 movies but didn't SHOCK! others.

We may never know the names of the Screen Gems programmers who fashioned the SHOCK! package...maybe some resourceful corporate historian can crack those archives one day and identify those responsible for launching what would become the mid-twentieth century horror revolution in US popular culture. If we could find a paper trail for these people, then perhaps we could figure out the rationale behind the process used to select these particular 52 Universal movies out of of the 600 that had been acquired. For now, I can only speculate on the thinking that went into choosing those motion pictures.

From the perspective of fans of classic horror films, there are some glaring omissions in this collection of movies made available to TV in October 1957-- where is JUNGLE WOMAN, BLACK FRIDAY, THE OLD DARK HOUSE, or THE INVISIBLE MAN'S REVENGE? With such obvious absences, we have to guess that the programming philosophy behind SHOCK! was to intentionally provide an eclectic mix of monster, mystery, and spy thrillers (1958's Son of SHOCK!, by comparison, was far more horror-centric). My first instinct , then, was to surmise that, when the SHOCK! package was first assembled at Screen Gems in the summer of 1957, the syndicators did not anticipate the appetite that the TV audience had for horror movies (despite the crazy ratings success of RKO's KING KONG on television in March 1956). Horror films were, after all, disparaged and despised by critics and studios; perhaps there was a belief at Screen Gems that a horror-movie-only package would not sell to TV stations, so a range of films was welded together for this particular cluster.

(Somewhere in their promotional materials, Screen Gems mentions that SHOCK! would be an "irresistible attraction for the mood programming of feature films." What in the world was "mood programming" on TV in the mid-1950s? Was it a common practice? This odd idea makes me think of the comment that Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas, and John Brunas make in the second edition of Universal Horrors about how the SHOCK! package seemed to want to re-define that specific sensation to include "such allied emotions as fear, mystery, dread, tension, and intrigue" by including non-horror titles.)

But you can see how wrong my theory is when you look at the SHOCK! publicity sent out by Screen Gems-- all the big splashy pages emphasize only the horror movies: FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA, THE MUMMY, THE MAD GHOUL, THE WOLF MAN and THE INVISIBLE MAN are given pride of place over the mysteries and espionage thrillers; the front cover of the booklet (the image that Mirek made into the title banner for this blog) clearly features a bevy of monsters, rather than spies or private eyes, and the back-cover illustration (reproduced at the top of this post) is monstrous as well. "For years, tales of terror, macabre stories of ghouls and ghosts have fascinated millions in every form of entertainment," one page in the promo booklet reads. "Now, for the first time, the eerie world of the weird and the supernatural comes to television with stunning impact [...] SHOCK! captures audiences! holds audiences! builds audiences!"

It's clear, then, that Screen Gems understood that here was a thirst for horror movies and it was attempting to slake that thirst with SHOCK! And it didn't take long for them to be proven right: thirty markets aired SHOCK! in October and the ensuing ratings bonanza meant that many more stations would purchase the package and begin airing it in late December or early January 1958.

In our efforts to uncover the principle ideas behind the SHOCK! doctrine, it is worth noting that the stations that purchased the package were not under any contractual obligation to show all 52 films as part of the same showcase. When their stations finally did get their hands on SHOCK!, some local TV station program directors cherry-picked the offerings to front-load the monster movies and shuffled off the other titles to other time-slots-- something like THE MUMMY'S HAND would be broadcast as part of "Shock Theater," but SEALED LIPS turned up on Channel 21 (Fort Wayne, IN) in a decidedly non-SHOCK! context at 10am on "Mom's Morning Movie"; REPORTED MISSING was shown on a station in Camden, NJ on the "Million Dollar Matinee" at 5:30; A DANGEROUS GAME appeared as an offering on "The 4 O'Clock Movie" in San Antonio, TX in 1958; and ENEMY AGENT turned up on the 2pm "Early Show" on KOB-TV Channel 4 (Albuquerque, NM).

So although we may never find out exactly what the Screen Gems strategy was for SHOCK!ing some films and not others, we can also credit the autonomy of local stations in programming their own particular version of "Shock Theater" in this cultural shift-- in effect, the choices made by local TV station programmers in selecting which SHOCK! titles to show did as much to launch the Monster Revolution in their cities as did the Screen Gems syndicators who had done the SHOCK! bundling in the first place. But ultimately, it was neither Screen Gems syndicators nor local TV station programmers that were responsible for SHOCK!'s success: it was the viewers themselves who responded so enthusiastically to what they were seeing on late-night TV.

NEXT: The first film of my viewing project, FRANKENSTEIN, "airs" this Friday night, followed a few days later by THE INVISIBLE RAY. I hope that others will watch these movies and comment on them here.

Here is the suggested (slightly abridged) twenty-second promotion provided by Screen Gems for the movie:

"The daddy of all full-length features is here to scare you! That's FRANKENSTEIN on Shock on this channel! Here is raw horror-- a story that has shocked generations! Don't miss Boris Karloff in this spine-chiller!"

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Swami Drana Badour -- Is He TV's First Horror Film Host?

It appears that Vampira was NOT the first horror film host on television. Swami Drana Badour was the host of MURDER BEFORE MIDNIGHT, a show that debuted on Chicago's WBKB on January 23, 1950, ending its run in 1952. The following information about Swami Drana Badour is chiefly taken from a discussion on the Classic Horror Film Board and the posts of Don Glut.

TV announcer Allen Harvey played the Swami, and the show ran from Monday to Saturday, showing films in serial-like form, as the program was only half an hour. Art Hern later replaced Harvey as the Swami.

Glut: "Accompanied by spooky music, the camera would slowly push in towards the Swami and his crystal ball, which is where the movie would begin. Then the shot would dissolve to the movie itself. The movies were not run in their entirety, but 'serialized' over three days. After the movie segment was over, the Swami would do an over-the-air quiz, phoning people at home and asking questions relating to the movie. Winners got a jackpot prize offered by sponsor Allied Motors."

Glut lists some of the films shown on MURDER BEFORE MIDNIGHT:

DARK ALIBI (Charlie Chan)
RED DRAGON (Charlie Chan)

It's an eclectic brew, but certainly such a mixture of horror and mystery films was part of the Vampira show and, later, the SHOCK! and SON OF SHOCK! programming.

My suspicions are that a rigorous search through newspaper TV programing guides in other cities will uncover other horror hosts that predated Vampira and possibly the Swami himself. Our work has just begun!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The First Horror Film Host?

It would be a mistake to think that SHOCK! programming introduced the horror film host to television. Maila Nurmi, as Vampira, set the template with THE VAMPIRA SHOW that premiered in Los Angeles on May 1, 1954 on KABC. Films like REVENGE OF THE ZOMBIES and FOG ISLAND were exhibited, with Vampira talking to the TV audience and doing commentary on the films. The show began at the midnight slot (another influence for many SHOCK! programs), with adjustments to 11pm then 10:30pm. The character of Vampira became a celebrity in the LA area, and even beyond, with a LIFE magazine spread and an appearance on a THE RED SKELTON SHOW that also hosted Bela Lugosi, Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney, Jr.

One can only speculate that Screen Gems, in creating the SHOCK! catalog and offering up the suggestion of a horror host for the films therein, had been aware of Vampira, and planned accordingly.

Horror hosting on television arrived even before THE VAMPIRA SHOW. For instance, LIGHTS OUT, based on the famous radio show, had a host--of original television programing. But Vampira may have been the first horror film host.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Setting up SHOCK!: A TV Archaeology

Satellite television, commercial-free cable TV subscription movie channels, DVRs, Netflix... it's hard to imagine (or depending on how old you are, "hard to remember") what it was like to watch a movie on television forty-five or fifty years ago. To get a sense of this, we need to look at what television was like. First of all, choices were fewer and the competition between stations was more fierce; with only a handful of channels from which the viewer could choose, stations struggled to find a programming formula that would deliver the demographic lion's share of an audience to advertisers. Network offerings with big-name stars were meant to pull in viewers, but that was only for a few hours a day. The rest of the time was filled with local programs made in a station's own studios, syndicated TV shows (cartoons for kids, for instance), or old movies that were licensed to the stations and shown in the afternoon and late at night.

[Here are the TV listings for Sandusky, OH on Saturday night 20 October 1956, a year before SHOCK! Note that choice is limited to four stations: three from Cleveland and one from Toledo and with a lot of overlap. This illustration is typical of what I found in my sampling of television listings from across the US for October 1956 where the number of options varied between two and eight channels available--- San Antonio, TX and Newport, RI listed four channels, for example, where Oakland, CA boasted five.]

In the days before DVDs, motion picture studios didn't know what to do with the older movies that were mothballed in their storage vaults. Occasionally, a known money-maker would be re-released theatrically in hopes for a second milking, but the percentage of those proven winners was small compared to years-and-years-worth of a studio's massive weekly output that sat in storage. Dumping these "relics" (that was the general opinion of the time) on to TV stations for broadcast became a way for studios to make money off of these products again; for their part, TV stations found that it was cheaper and easier to show twenty year-old movies from 3:30-5:00 PM Monday-Friday than to produce seven and a half hours of original studio-produced programming every week.

In 1957, syndicator Screen Gems (a subsidiary of Columbia Pictures) paid Universal-International $20 million for a ten-year contract that covered 550 (some sources say 600) films made before 1948. Screen Gems gambled that they could re-sell these titles to network-affiliated and independent TV stations that were hungry for programming; they began to package movies together for TV sale, making sure that were enough recognizable titles in each to make up for the unheard-of and forgotten low-budget programmers that were also in the bundle.

One of the packages of Universal movies that Screen Gems crafted for syndication was called SHOCK! This consisted of 52 thrillers (one for every week of the year) that included horror movies, murder mysteries, crime melodramas, and wartime spy suspense flicks. Although SHOCK! did contain a few proven box-office hits (FRANKENSTEIN [1931] and THE MUMMY [1932]), most of the other bundled titles were regarded as disposable lowbrow distractions with little or no aesthetic or critical value. It was thought that these movies would be fine for killing time for viewers and filling airtime for stations late at night. But the "disposable" entertainments of SHOCK! became wildly popular, and as we shall explore, sparked a craze for monsters and horror that would transform US popular culture for decades.

Next: The SHOCK! Doctrine

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The SHOCK! / Son of SHOCK! Viewing Project

[newspaper clipping from the Hutchinson (KS) News, 27 October 1957]

In the months that follow, I will be blogging about all 72 of the Universal and Columbia films sold to television in the "SHOCK!" and "Son of SHOCK!" syndication packages in 1957-58. In addition to information and reflection on the films themselves, I'll also be commenting on some of the contexts for these movies, including those surrounding the experience of seeing them on television from the late 1950s and on through the 1960s and 1970s.

SHOCK! and Son of SHOCK! launched a cultural revolution for horror movies and all things monster in the US. I hope that this viewing project can provide some bit of understanding for how that radical change happened, starting as it did in the midst of a politically and socially reactionary historical era.

I encourage horror movie fans both young and old to view along and to add their own ideas and observations on this remarkable phenomenon, whether you are seeing some of these films for the first time or for the five hundredth.

Following the order listed in the SHOCK! promotional brochure sent to TV stations in 1957, our first viewing in two weeks will be Universal's FRANKENSTEIN (1931); between now and October 16th, I will put up a few short posts on the creation of the SHOCK! and Son of SHOCK! series in the interests of background.