Happy 80th, Mom! Love you lots.
Now, it’s time for another of my nostalgic data-crunching posts, this time on my favorite subject, namely horror and science fiction films, of which I’ve been a fan for literally as long as I can remember. While I am hardly the first to have made this observation, it’s worth noting that today’s younger viewers have no idea what it was like growing up in the pre-home-video era, when you were at the mercy of whatever was on, in whatever form—and at whatever hour—they chose to show it. Getting the TV Guide in the mail (before it became so awful that I had to let my subscription lapse a few years ago) was like receiving the Holy Bible each week, and if you wanted to see certain genre films, you had to stay up until all hours to do it.
At one point in the New York metropolitan area, we had no fewer than six commercial networks in addition to public broadcasting: ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, UPN, and the WB. But when I was becoming a compulsive genre-film junkie back in the ’70s, we had only the “Big Three” network affiliates (CBS on channel 2, NBC on 4, and ABC on 7, with PBS on 13) and three independent stations (WNEW, later Fox, on 5; WOR, later UPN, on 9; and WPIX, later WB, on 11). Outside of high-profile prime-time premieres, the affiliates had their own cinematic offerings, especially ABC with its late-night fare—heavy on AIP films and TV-movies, many of which the network had produced—but for the most part, those independents were the place to be.
I’ve always said that your feelings about a film have a lot to do with the circumstances under which you saw it (again, hardly an original observation, but there it is); a related phenomenon is that if you grew up watching them under those conditions, you automatically associate certain films with the stations that regularly showed them. Luckily, my decidedly porous memory has been aided by the index cards I created until the mid-’90s for each genre film I saw, many of them including the original TV Guide clipping that shows which station they were on. Quite a few of these films have since dropped largely out of sight, and whether they were good or not (often not), it seems a shame to have a whole category of movies simply vanish.
No, I’m not going to enumerate every genre film I saw in my youth, or this post would be a book in itself, and for the sake of brevity, I will refer to those I have selected—all of them released before 1980—by the titles under which they were shown at the time. For now, I will also restrict myself to the three aforementioned independents, leaving it to others to tackle such rich subjects as ABC’s immortal 4:30 Movie, to which at least one enthusiastic and impressively researched website has already been devoted. The intention here is to conjure up, mostly for the benefit of those who lived through this period, the unique milieu that each of these now-unrecognizable stations provided for genre fans (and perhaps a few insomniacs) back in the day.
Naturally, we must set the scene properly in the large, log-built house [Lincoln joke optional] in Easton, Connecticut where my mother still lives after almost fifty years. My parents and I had our bedrooms upstairs with the kitchen, living, and dining rooms while my three older brothers—who successively went off to college and then moved out—slept in the finished basement, where the biggest TV was conveniently located at the exact opposite end of the house from my parents’ room. That made it ideal for late-night viewing, which I facilitated by taking a one-gallon glass jar Dad used to mix his frozen orange juice, filling it up with instant coffee, milk, and sugar, and pouring it into pint-sized Coke bottles, which I kept lined up in the fridge for fuel.
Now that we’re all settled in, I’ll dispense with a few ground rules, generalities, and disclaimers, e.g., the fact that broadcast rights do expire, so some of these films admittedly changed hands over the years. Regardless of when I first saw a particular movie, the TV Guide clipping on my card may date from my married life, after I got cable TV and caught many of them again on, say, TNT, so although I may know in my heart that a specific film used to air on a specific station, I’m keeping it honest by relying on the documentation rather than my memory. Finally, at the risk of stating the obvious, this may be the silliest idea for a post I’ve had yet, but after all the hours I have spent assembling the information, I’ll be damned if I’m going to waste it!
With that out of the way, let’s kick off with WNEW, which was of course the home (at least in the New York area) of Creature Features, then running on Saturday nights from 8:30 to 10:00, and since my bedtime was 9:00 when I was a youngster, seeing it in its entirety was usually beyond my reach. If I was lucky, I was able to con Mom into giving me special permission to stay up for an extra half hour, and I might reasonably have been expected to become either an actor or a lawyer for all of the passion with which I argued in favor of that week’s giant monster, walking corpse, ghostly apparition, or whatever. I can’t tell you how many genre films I saw the first third or two-thirds of, some of which I probably never did see all the way through.
I can’t swear to it, but I believe sometime WNEW offerings The Atomic Submarine, Curse of the Faceless Man, Death Curse of Tartu, House on Haunted Hill, Kronos, The Maze, and Them! were all shown on Creature Features, and since the show took its theme music from It Came from Outer Space, it seems safe to assume Jack Arnold’s classic was represented as well. Although generally light on genre films from outside the English-speaking world (e.g., Count Dracula’s Great Love, Godzilla on Monster Island, Terror Beneath the Sea), WNEW seemed to lean toward those from Italy. These included The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, Horror Castle, Nightmare Castle, Planet on the Prowl, Planets Against Us, The Psychic (which I don’t even remember seeing, but there’s my card to prove it), and Slaughter of the Vampires.
This is naturally unquantifiable, but WNEW somehow seemed the most benign of the three, and also was willing to reach across the Pond more often than most. They showed many efforts from England’s Hammer Films (The Devil’s Own, Kiss of Evil, The Lost Continent, The Mummy, To Love a Vampire, X the Unknown, and various Dracula and Frankenstein films) and Amicus Productions (The Deadly Bees plus several of their trademark anthology films). Producer Richard Gordon was especially well represented with Corridors of Blood, Curse of the Voodoo, Devil Doll, Fiend Without a Face, First Man into Space, The Haunted Strangler, Horror Hospital, The Projected Man, and the German import Cave of the Living Dead, which he “presented” in the U.S.