Episode 2: RECALLING THE EARLY SINS
Written by: Tim Ritter
When did you become a HORROR FAN? At what point growing up did you know…wow, this is what it’s all about?!?! And moreso…WHY? And why is it still with us as adults? These are questions I sometimes ponder. Before I even started school, my parents would listen to this radio show called THE SHADOW or THE SHADOW KNOWS and I will never forget the narrator always saying…”Who knows? Why, THE SHADOW KNOWS, of course!” in the creepiest, scary way. I think these were rebroadcasts of an old pulp radio show that was introduced for entertainment in the 1930’s and 40’s, which was still running in the late 1960’s. Of course, I had no clue what was going on in these radio show episodes, but they were spooky and conjured up imagery in my mind of evil shadows coming out of the darkness of my room to get me! So I believe I’m part of the last of the last generation that was exposed to radio show entertainment, at least very briefly. For me, my earliest true horror memories have to be when I was in Kindergarten and First Grade! So we’re talking…I was like 4-5 years old and already getting obsessed with horror. I often wonder if it was like this for everyone. Are we predestined in some way to be attracted to it? How young are you when you know…just know…that you’re so connected to this kind of dark material and there’s just no way out? How come pulp mysteries and science fiction are kind of GATEWAYS into the world of horror? They all intersect. Please allow me to elaborate, speculate, and conjure. It make take some time. I hope you have it for this trip down memory lane!
It started for me with a crazed obsession with dinosaurs, which I still have, by the way. And of course, this has led to a deep enjoyment of the JURASSIC PARK franchise and all the spinoffs and copycats, but…that’s getting way ahead of things. I collected plastic dinosaur model kits and built them with my parents regularly. Planes and battleships weren’t for me, I needed monstersaurs! The Allosaurus, the Saber Toothed Tiger, the T-Rex, and the Woolly Mammoth were among my favorites! I was deathly ill in First Grade with a terrible kidney infection. Missed a whole year of school but my mom was a teacher and was able to home school me while I was sick and bedridden. It was during this time that I discovered the Universal Monsters like Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolf Man! Seeing them on the back of cereal boxes, of all places, intrigued me and once again, model kits came into play. Those classic, glow-in-the dark Aurora model kits were so special to me, especially when I was so sick. My mom also loved the television show DARK SHADOWS and watched it every day. Of course, I watched it with her and became obsessed with Barnabas Collins and vampires in general. There was also nothing like seeing Bela Lugosi’s Dracula and the Frankenstein monster lighting up my room in the wee hours of the morning when I was in such pain and misery. Those model kits kept a watchful eye over me at all times, especially when I was near death a few times. Eventually, I recovered and had monster mania fully running in my blood!
The obsession with monsters just continued to grow, and of course…I discovered 1933’s KING KONG and all the GODZILLA movies. I was obsessed with creature features, and I guess all young boys [and some girls!] go through this phase at one point or the other, but for some of us…it stays, doesn’t it? My first Godzilla movie was GODZILLA VS. MEGALON, and I remember being allowed to stay up way late on a school night to view it on television. There’s nothing like watching Godzilla stomp down cities and take on weird monster enemies, destroying everything in their paths! It’s hard to believe, but in 1974, most Americans only had THREE or FOUR television channels to choose from, and we were forced to watch what they ran! So my life was arranged around what THEY ran on television, really…I’d read TV GUIDE religiously and write down the showings of any science fiction, horror, and monster movies and shows I wanted to see and do my best to view them- providing we got those channels. Saturday and Sunday afternoons were pure joy, of course. Getting to stay up late, like…beyond 10PM…and watching GODZILLA VS. MEGALON…was frankly exhilarating! I mean, yes, I was EXHAUSTED trying to get up the next morning for school, but the memories and sense of accomplishment I had after viewing a good monster movie…were incomparable, even to sleep! [These days, my body might argue with me on this!]
Introduced to reading and writing at a young age [again, both my parents were teachers], when I got my first library card, well…where did I gravitate to? First of all, to the Mystery section for good Hardy Boys tales and then to the super hero comic section where I’d read books like THE GREAT COMIC BOOK HEROES by Jules Feiffer. Yes, in addition to horror, I loved Superman, Batman, and Spiderman the most and collected comic books all throughout my teens. [At the time, there was this older kid who lived across the street from me who actually DREW comic books and babysat me here and there—this was, of course…Joel D. Wynkoop, who would later introduce me to making movies with super-8 cameras!] Then I found the SUPERNATURAL section, of course- reading books on Ghosts, Witches, and all sorts of unsavory things. Much to my delight, I discovered books about movies and checked those out like nobody’s business! With great relish, I recall reading stuff like FROM THE LAND BEYOND BEYOND, THE KING KONG STORY, A PICTORIAL HISTORY OF HORROR MOVIES, CLASSICS OF THE HORROR CINEMA, and many, many more. I would obsess over the movies in these books, reading about them endlessly and studying the grainy, black and white photographs religiously! Memorizing everything I could about movies and largely ignoring my school work- which I had no interest in. Of course, later in life, it became my mission to find these books again, just so I have them with me, and I have found MOST of them- old library copies on Ebay and Amazon private seller lists- so I never have to part with them again! There’s one that eludes me, though, one on HAMMER FILMS that I can’t recall the title of, but wow, the pictures in those, of Christopher Lee as Dracula and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing…well, these two ARE those characters. For me, when I finally saw THE HORROR OF DRACULA one afternoon at my grandparent’s house in Sarasota, Christopher Lee was MESMERIZING as Dracula and always will be. He cannot be replaced and I love that movie so much! Of course, this spawned an obsession with Hammer and I have to admit, wow, the eye candy of the scantily-clad damsels in distress in those photos and movies always intrigued me…like a moth to a flame, of course! No one did female costumes like Hammer Films and Dracula’s female victims were always so beautiful and elegant! [It’s interesting to note that as I got older, I did start to collect books with all these provocative photos, and even though my parents were fairly supportive of what I was reading, my mom would sometimes go through my books—even my CONAN THE BARBARIAN ones with lurid covers- and give her black Sharpie a nice workout, covering up all the exposed “naughty bits” of female parts! Of course, this would annoy me to no end and entice me to seek more “uncensored” material out over and over! But she would always sneak in and give all the women Sharpie bikinis!]
One thing I’ve noticed is that because so much of the material I was consumed with was honestly UNAVAILABLE to view easily in the 1970’s…I’d read about it more than WATCH any of it. Reading about the movies, who starred in them, how they were made, what they used for blood, what special effects I could expect and all that kind of stuff…kind of prepared me for when I later saw the material, but in many ways, my imagination was so strong that anything I eventually did see kind of let me down in many ways because…the movies I was seeing in my mind were quite different than what I actually viewed. Of course, many DID deliver the goods and so much more, but the early Universal movies, classics that they were…were always much bigger in my mind’s movie screen than what the actual television screens revealed. I recall finally catching up with Universal’s original INVISIBLE MAN movie at my uncle’s house in Ohio—even a visit with a relative had a movie mapped into the proceedings, especially if he got one of the channels running said movie! For some reason, he set me up outside on a picnic table with a little black and white television, but man, that was an experience finally seeing that one! To this day, I still would LOVE to make an INVISIBLE MAN movie- first of all, because it was so fun, and second of all, with an INVISIBLE lead actor, I wouldn’t have to worry much about my leading man showing up so much because…well, he’s either NOT THERE or WRAPPED UP IN GAUZE, right? So anyone could play the part! No “unreliable actor” issues there! I think Kevin Bacon did a variation on the concept with HOLLOW MAN, but it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been, even with Paul Verhoeven directing, because, you know, as a Jess Franco fan, I can think of SO MANY cool and voyeuristic things an “Invisible Man” could be doing with his time…and how that could boomerang back on him so badly!
My dad was an avid television fan, pretty obsessed with it as most people were in the 1970’s, even with only three or four channels to choose from. Watching what he did most of the time, I was introduced to TV shows that would entrance me and pretty much stick with me my entire life! Titles include THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, COLUMBO, THE ROCKFORD FILES, KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER, FANTASY ISLAND, and so many more…It was here that I was also introduced to the diamond TELEVISION MOVIES OF THE WEEK, or THE MILLION DOLLAR MOVIES, or the ABC MOVIE OF THE WEEK, taking in stuff like TRILOGY OF TERROR, DUEL, and THE LAST DINOSAUR…Anyone remember that one? I think it was a 1977 TV movie and all I recall of it was this awesome shot looking up at a T-Rex as it steps down and squashes someone from their point-of-view, and it was just mind-boggling to see for…a nine year old, by then? And DUEL was just a masterpiece of terror directed by young up and comer Steven Spielberg…Even as a young kid, I knew there was something special about that movie, something amazing in the intensity of the action and acting. The simple story of a businessman [Dennis Weaver] driving on the highway and being relentlessly attacked by an unseen maniac 18-wheeler truck driver was just AMAZING and one I still watch to this day. It probably just had to be experienced in that moment in time when it was originally released to fully understand its impact…and to be there when the origins of Steven Spielberg happened…wow, what a splendid time! But honestly, DUEL has held up nicely decades later [and has many younger fans as well, I might add!] and of course has been riffed on quite successfully by many movies, including the excellent JOY RIDE franchise…Another Spielberg epic I’d recommend is one of the first COLUMBO episodes called MURDER BY THE BOOK. It’s so well acted, shot, and structured that it still blows me away as an adult. Those early Columbo episodes really are so Giallo- yes, maybe watered down a bit compared to the bloodlust of Dario Argento, but let me tell you…the first twenty minutes of each episode are pretty much the bad guy setting up elaborate, extreme murders and executing them with great relish—so again, on impressionable young minds, this kind of sticks with you! There’s several episodes that are so incredibly stylistic in terms of lighting, split screens, sound effects, ALL that stuff, that as a film connoisseur, I can’t help but be blown away! Try 1971’s Columbo movie DEATH LENDS A HAND to see more of what I’m talking about.
I don’t want to forget the original STAR TREK series either- this was a huge influence on me in reruns and I still watch the original show quite often. The stories with monsters, green women, time travel, and wild aliens always intrigued me. My favorite episode is ARENA, where Captain Kirk fights the lizard-like GORN creature, for me—it’s television GOLD, Jerry, GOLD! There’s seriously a lot of horror elements in STAR TREK, I’m amazed people don’t see that. I’m still obsessed with STAR TREK and I’m always reading the new books that come out on the making of the classic series. Incredible stuff, along with TWILIGHT ZONE, THE OUTER LIMITS, ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS and NIGHT GALLERY– shows that kind of formulated stories that ended up with “Oh Henry” twists! Slowly, as I understood more and more about storytelling, I would look forward to “twist endings” with great relish! Speaking of twists, there were the PLANET OF THE APES books, films, and television series that I indulged in, and let’s be honest—the ending of the original film with Charlton Heston is still one of the most shocking images in film history, when he finds the ravaged Statue Of Liberty on the island and realizes that he is not on an unknown planet after all but on earth in the future…I’d say ARMY OF DARKNESS fans know that Sam Raimi was probably highly influenced by this a bit on at least ONE of those cuts of EVIL DEAD III, correct? And thinking about Hitchcock, of course I encountered his movies on television back in the day, and my favorites were THE BIRDS and PSYCHO, even though I couldn’t grasp a lot of the concepts in that film being so young. Later, though…I would, starting with the Robert Bloch novel…
THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, now here was a show I was TOTALLY entranced with as a kid, definitely for the first 3-4 seasons! Again, it kind of introduced me to SASQUATCH [along with the creepy Leonard Nimoy show IN SEARCH OF…which to me, is an incredible precursor to THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT concept in many ways!], robots, action, and love. Yes, love- I think most kids my age got more out of the Steve Austin/Jamie Sommers romance story than any adults understood at the time- it taught us about school sweethearts, heartache, how people come together, and then dealt with incredible loss with those characters, especially the first two parter. Seeing your hero lose the love of his life made me shed so many tears and I was depressed for weeks afterward! Somehow, in some way…this kind of shows you in a surreal way through fiction…that REAL life…is also going to be like this and you will have to DEAL with with tragic loss. So in a way, fantasy and horror lets you experience emotions in a safe, fictional environment that someday you will REALLY have to deal with. Probably my favorite SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN episodes dealt with robots and Fembots, and of course, you know, who can forget the early episodes where OSCAR GOLDMAN was a robot? An absolute crowd pleaser is DAY OF THE ROBOT, where Steve Austin must fight the invincible JOHN SAXON as a robot, and if you’ve seen this episode, you know what I’m talking about! What an incredible fight at the end and what great sound effects and music! This was the kind of stuff I would emulate with friends on the playground at school, if you can imagine that—and no one got hurt because we were all moving in SLOW MOTION [for those not in the know, the show employed SLOW MOTION to show speed—sounds like it wouldn’t work at all, but…it did!]. And of course, later in life…John Saxon became such an icon to me, he’d show up everywhere in stuff like TENEBRE, BLACK CHRISTMAS, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, and even as a bad guy in the Quentin Tarantino directed CSI Episode GRAVE DANGER…It’s amazing what an incredible career Saxon had playing the ‘Everyman’ in such classic material, making it his “own.” He’s a true legend for sure.
ABC seemed to have the best shows, and of course, KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER was another one that dealt with about every horror situation you could think of- vampires, werewolves, monsters, demons, space aliens- it’s all there! My favorite episode has to be the one with the Reptilian creature living in the subways that Kolchak has to hunt down, that one scared me to death as a youngster! It’s called THE SENTRY, and I believe it was the last episode ever aired in that era. Of course, I do believe there was a remake of this show at some point, but…didn’t catch that one…
Another movie that dazzled me as a kid was EMPIRE OF THE ANTS. Always have loved that one, and I remember seeing it at a friend’s house on HBO, being ALLOWED to eat dinner and watch television at the same time, which was a forbidden treat for me, as…well, it took years before my mom would allow everyone to be glued to the tube at dinner, even though it eventually DID happen! But watching EMPIRE on the couch with a TV tray in front of me was so super cool, eating pizza, and I clearly remember my friend’s mom suddenly screaming at him…”Mark, look away and turn your head!” at a scene where a lady’s blouse got ripped off and her top was revealed! But mom-in-charge didn’t direct those commands at me and I had no idea this was coming- so I SAW the forbidden fruit and felt like such an adult! A red-faced, embarrassed adult, sure… That was a surreal, oddball situation for sure, but…a memory rattling around in my pea brain. I want to say it was Joan Collins but I’m thinking it was probably Pamela Susan Shoop, who did more of the same in the classic HALLOWEEN II hot tub scene, but I haven’t viewed EMPIRE in many decades, so I’m not sure. Anyway, why a PG rated movie had a scene like that is beyond me and how I suddenly became much more adult than my friend Mark in his house has always baffled me! I might add that these days, I only eat dinner with a TV tray in front of me with the television on as opposed to sitting at a dining room table… that’s HOW MUCH this brief situation affected me!
So growing up in the 1970’s, these are some of my earliest memories and loves. As I got older, I would deliver newspapers to houses in the South Florida heat [hanging them in their clear bags on door handles, pulling around a little red wagon full of papers and thirst-quenching green Gatorade!] and mow lawns for extra money in order to buy comics, models, and books on horror movies. Stop motion stuff really intrigued me, especially Ray Harryhausen’s work in SINBAD movies like SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER and a bit later, something like CLASH OF THE TITANS from the early 1980’s. There was also this other movie quietly making the rounds in theaters that I didn’t know much about but I got obsessed over it nonetheless…it was something called DAWN OF THE DEAD, and it had ZOMBIE creatures in it. I remember seeing small ads for it in the movie section of our local newspaper, and cutting those ads out and putting them in my “movie scrapbook” as I always dead. Yes, back then…creating movie memorabilia from the family newspaper was a cheap way to keep these things alive in your mind! By then, I had several photo albums full of newspaper movie ads, reviews, and publicity. I pretended to run my own movie theater and DAWN was one that kind of perplexed me. In the press, they touted it as an “X” rated movie for GORE and I couldn’t quite comprehend what that meant, so I wrote about it in my own little books, trying to make sense of the WARNING that was always present in the ads: “THERE IS NO EXPLICIT SEX IN THIS FILM. HOWEVER, THERE ARE SCENES OF VIOLENCE THAT MAY BE CONSIDERED SHOCKING. ABSOLUTELY NO ONE UNDER 17 WILL BE ADMITTED.” That little box on the poster really intrigued me and sparked my imagination, and I obsessed over that endlessly! DAWN was a movie that eluded me due to its lack of a rating and the stigma of being an “X-rated” movie, but let me tell you, I never forgot about it! It became the white whale in my young life, and my pursuit to find everything I could about DAWN OF THE DEAD would be a LONG ONE, because it didn’t see a VHS video release until…late 1983! It’s hard to explain that to people today, who can instantly find virtually ANY movie posted on a Streaming website…or on Amazon…or at the very least, on one of the bootleg sites that sell unreleased and out-of-print DVD-R’s and BD-R’s…that not long ago, it really was nearly IMPOSSIBLE for kids…even PERSISTENT kids… to find movies they found themselves entranced with, and sometimes…you had to wait over FOUR YEARS before seeing something. I mean, can you imagine ANYONE today, obsessing over, and thinking about, and reading about a movie FOUR OR FIVE YEARS before they actually see it? Well, this was one of those times for me, in the late 1970’s, and believe you me, what this movie was, or SHOULD BE, magnified in my mind over those years of obsession and pondering and wanting to see it so badly…whew, it was an incredibly frustrating yet exhilarating wait! This was a movie I coveted, man…I’ve talked to people over the years who were in similar circumstances growing up, and of course- some of them got a lucky. A parent got them in to see the movie somehow, or they sneaked into an auditorium or drive-in theater and actually got to see DAWN OF THE DEAD when they were ten years old or younger, and those are some great tales! But, I wasn’t one of those kids, I was forced to wait and wait and wait…
And my reaction when I finally got to see DAWN OF THE DEAD?
Well, we’ll get to that, but since I’m kind of going chronologically here, I don’t want to miss a few films that pretty much changed my life as a kid. So let’s discuss those next…I’m definitely not through with the late 1970’s yet!