Bad Movies and the End of ‘Shock Theater’ When I was kid, a million years ago or so, we had a TV show that aired at 11:00 PM every Friday night called Shock Theater. Shock Theater had a live host (whose name, sad to say, I can no longer remember) and featured a weekly ‘B’ movie of the horror genre that had exhausted the drive-in circuit.
My brother and I were not allowed to watch Shock Theater. So of course, much of my young life was devoted to finding ways to engineer opportunities to watch Shock Theater on the sly, scare myself to death, and then stay up until 5:00 AM listening things go bump in the night.
Later, when I hit adolescence much of the shock had worn off of Shock Theater and it was demoted instead to a 3:00 PM afternoon television slot hosted by a campy, short, balding local ex-newscaster named Frina . My best girlfriend and We never missed a single show.
‘B’ movies, that onetime staple of drive-in theaters and afternoon movie house matinees, have sadly gone the way of the silent film–but thankfully, bad movies have not. And few genres are as amenable to bad movies as the horror flick.
In fact, it’s almost wrong to make a good horror flick–the trick is to make a bad one that is 1) scary, and 2) has sense of humor about itself without being insider-smarmy. The rules for making a good bad horror flick are not that complex but few directors have truly mastered them. While there are lots of subgenres within the classic horror movie, I’m going to confine myself here to monster movies (including vampire movies) and leave the slashes stuff for another day.
Here are the rules for making a good bad monster movie:
1) The monster has to be really good/scary. A guy in a gorilla/reptile suit is not a good monster. [See photo, right. Good bathing suit, bad monster.] CGI monsters are rapidly replacing gorilla/reptile suits, and most of them aren’t good either.
2) The monster must be shown early in the film but only for a terrifying ‘gotcha’ moment. No long pans on the monster tromping through the underbrush. No endless teasers in which we never see any part of the actual monster, but only hear chewing and chomping and so forth. And please–No 45-minute wasteland early on during which the director wallows in fruitless ‘character development’! It’s the monster who matters here. Screw the characters. Technically speaking, there are no true characters in monsters movies anyway: There’s the monster, and then there’s food for the monster. What you’re making here is food, not ‘characters.’ Remember that and we’ll all be happy.
3) When in doubt, or if things bog down at any time for any reason, throw in lots of breasts and ripped clothing. This will cover over a multitude of errors in a most excellent fashion. In fact, throw these in before anything goes wrong.
4) Everybody must die by the end. Everybody. If a ‘character’ survives, that character must turn into the monster.
This formula sounds easy so far but the truth is that it is like the formula for all beautiful, aesthetic endeavors–easy to say, hard to do. That’s why most horror movies are either 1) really spectacularly bad, 2) bad but not bad enough to be worth watching, or 3) so good they get co-opted by artistic types and are no longer considered true horror flicks.
Once stolen, good horror flicks they become “cult” movies or indie insider art that make a provocative statement about, well, whatever. It doesn’t matter what they are making a supposed statement about at that point, because it seems the minute horror gets elevated to “art” in this way it stops being horror and starts being something else.
Something that would never cut it on Shock Theater.
So I guess, really, the fifth and final rule in the horror formula is:
5) The film must be disreputable. The more disreputable the better. If the film is being celebrated in Hollywood circles and champagne and designer clothing is involved, it’s not horror, it’s garbage.
In fact, there are no horror films. Horror flicks, yes. Movies, definitely.
Listen, if you want to see a film, you might want to just leave now–and take your soy latte and roasted vegetable chips with you.
If you choose to continue, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
A Very Personal List of 10 Favorite Truly Horrible Horror Flicks The list that follows is not meant to be definitive or even particularly complete, so all of you readers who are even needier than I am, don’t be offended–just add to or amend the list in your comments. Did I leave out one of your favorites? By all means, don’t fret and fume! Share!
Here without delay are ten of my personal favorite seamiest, most depraved and succulent ‘B’ nastier:
#10 The Dunwich Horror (Roger Corman, 1970) This one stars a maniacal Dean Stockwell as the surviving half-twin of an unholy union between a human woman and one of H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘Old Ones’: those ancient alien monsters that Lovecraft believed were hanging about in deep time, just waiting for the right half breed to come along and drape a scantily-clad Sandra Dee over a big rock and bring them back by reading out of an ancient book–borrowed from the public library of course. What I love about this movie is the multi-layered cheesiness of it: It’s a cheesy movie based on cheesy short fiction with cheesy actors reading bad dialogue in scanty clothing. It just doesn’t get any better than that. Yak Savak!
#9 Little Shop of Horrors (Roger Corman, 1960) In this original film version of what eventually went on to become a smash hit Broadway musical, Jack Nicholson plays masochist Wilbur Force–the guy who lives for painful trips to the dentist. This movie is worth seeing just for that cameo alone, but actually the rest of the movie is pretty great too, and the fact that it was filmed in black and white makes the blood look bloodier, the dirt dirtier, and the trash trashier. The stylish technicolor camp of the Broadway version is much lighter in tone. No music in this one either. That came later too.
#8 Village of the Damned (Wolf Rilla, 1960) A strange cloud passes through the village of Midwich one afternoon, causing the entire population to briefly black out. When they come to, all of the women of childbearing age are pregnant, and nine months later they all give birth to strange blonde-haired, blue-eyed children with mysterious powers. Based on John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos, the movie was shot in black and white on a budget of only $200,000 and accurately foreshadows an ordinary day in 21st century suburban America.
#7 Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, 1968) You could make the argument that this movie is really the American version of Village of the Damned but if you did, you’d be treating this movie like a ‘film’ and thereby totally violating the spirit of this article. In recent years Romero’s classic has come perilously close to being treated like ‘art’, but the fact is, it follows all the rules of good horror while at the same time playing with that art/horror boundary, so I’m including it here. Within ten minutes of the start of the movie, I guarantee you’ll want to kill and eat the female protagonist yourself–she’s that annoying.
#6 The Mole People (Virgil Vogel, 1956) A party of archaeologists, led by sci-fi total tool John Agar, finds a 5000-year-old Sumerian civilization living beneath a glacier atop a mountain in Mesopotamia or, as the original tagline promises, “…a savage civilization a million years old, raging with blood-lusting fury!” If you are bothered by ridiculous questions like, “Are there really glaciers in Mesopotamia?” then you clearly still aren’t getting the whole point here and there’s only one cure for that: Watch this movie and all the others on this list until some of those excess brain cells shut down. Come on, it’s almost Halloween! Lighten up!
#5 King Kong Versus Godzilla (Ishiro Honda, 1962) Who doesn’t love Japanese monster movies? When I was a kid, the mothers on our block would occasionally round up all the kids and dump us off at a matinee for the afternoon. The theater owner at that time was a old guy who would stop the movie and come out and yell at us if too much food was being thrown or too much noise was being made. I was privileged to see the American premiere of this movie at that very theater, and the guy had to stop the movie at least six times that afternoon. The best scene in the whole flick takes place in front of a cardboard computer console when the bad dubbing actually has a Japanese guy shout out, “Raunch Rockets!”
#4 Invaders From Mars (Tobe Hooper, 1986) This is one of the few 50’s sci-fi flicks that was actually made better by the 1986 remake starring Karen Black and Timothy Bottoms. Almost surreal in many segments, it’s actually pretty scary. The original, made in 1956 and directed by Cameron Menzies, is superior to lots of alien fare of that era, but the Hooper flick from 1986 has uncomfortable scenes that could have been directly lifted from a Dali painting. It’s not art though: Plenty of cheese here for everyone. A scene that takes place in a glowing, pulsating church will stick with you and give you nightmares for weeks, even if you manage to laugh at it.
#3 The Thing (Christian Nyby, 1951) The John Carpenter remake from 1982 is good, but it doesn’t really improve on the original, which will put you off being an arctic scientist forever, assuming that was a primary goal of yours, and I know it was, don’t lie to me. These guys take ‘cabin fever’ to new levels while at the same time getting picked off one by one by a bloodthirsty thing from another world.
#2 Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931) How to choose a Dracula movie? Seriously, that demands a article of its own, and maybe, eventually, I’ll get around to writing one. For now though I’ll stick with this version, which is the first one starring Bela Lugosi. I chose it not because it is the best Dracula movie, or even the earliest Dracula movie, but because it is the earliest cheesiest Dracula movie, the one which bred countless other classic vampire, werewolf, and mummy movies from the same era. Bela Lugosi could not speak English when this movie was made and had to read his lines phonetically.
#1 The Mummy (Terrence Fisher, 1959) Hammer Film Productions was one of the first film studios to focus exclusively and profitably on horror, all of it in lurid Technicolor. This version is cheesier than the black and white 1932 original, and features British horror stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. When Hammer Films were first released in the U.S. they used to be promoted with theater disclaimers like, “Absolutely NO ONE ADMITTED during the terrifying final fifteen minutes of this film!” and “Live nurses on duty at every matinee!” and “Management will not be held responsible for heart attacks occurring on the premises in the spine-tingling final five minutes!”
So What’s Your Favorite? You know, that was tons of fun. I remembered so many other terrible movies while writing this, that I might just take the day off and watch all of them whilst mainlining junk food. How about you? What are your favorite scary movies?
Oh yes, and Happy Halloween!