Welcome to the Crypt!

Welcome to the Crypt!

Enter the Crypt as John "The Unimonster" Stevenson and his merry band of ghouls rants and raves about the current state of Horror, as well as reviews Movies, Books, DVD's and more, both old and new.

From the Desk of the Unimonster...

From the Desk of the Unimonster...

What's this? TWO updates to the Crypt in one month? That's right, fright-fans, the Unimonster is sending even more Halloween goodness your way! If only someone would perfect downloadable candy.....

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13 June, 2009

The Show Goes On: The New Wave of Horror-Hosts

Some of the typical MonsterKid’s earliest memories involve watching movies like HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN or THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD via a black-and-white television, on a program hosted by a pudgy adult wearing monster make-up and a cheesy costume. With weird, outlandish names such as Bestoink Dooley, Ghoulardi, and Sammy Terry, they introduced generations of youngsters to Dracula and the Mummy, Godzilla and Gorgo, Karloff and Lugosi.
The era of the Horror-Host began at KABC, when they hired a young woman to host a series of cheap, poverty-row thrillers and Horror films. Her name was Malia Nurmi, but she became forever known as Vampira. Three weeks after she debuted in April 1955, she was featured in TV Guide, and three weeks after that, she had a photo-spread in Life magazine. With her exotic beauty, tightly cinched 19” waist, and sultry, throaty voice, she instantly captivated audiences who tuned in to see her, if not the less-than-stellar movies she hosted.

Though the Vampira show lasted only a year, the concept was here to stay. Soon, a Philadelphia DJ named John Zacherle began hosting his own program, as Roland. Funny, irreverent, and able to connect with teen-agers on their own level, he soon migrated to New York City, where he became Zacherley the Cool Ghoul, the most popular of the early hosts.

Prior to 1957 though, such programs were hampered by a dearth of quality Horror Films to screen. Limited to such low-budget, public-domain programmers as THE CORPSE VANISHES and REVOLT OF THE ZOMBIES, stations found it difficult to accept that there was a demand for old Horror Films on Television, or that it was worth allocating valuable airtime to them. In that year, however, Universal, through Screen-Gems distributors, released their Shock Theatre package of films nationwide. Now, stations everywhere could, for a reasonable cost, acquire the greatest Horror Films ever made for broadcast. Hundreds of stations leapt on the opportunity, and beginning in the fall of 1957 Hosted Horror shows started springing up everywhere. Larger cities, most notably Chicago, could boast three or four such hosts; most towns large enough to have a TV station could claim one of their own.

The hosted Horror shows were staples of local broadcasting well into the ‘70’s, but eventually changing viewing habits, and increased pressure to generate greater profits from each hour of airtime, doomed the horror-hosts to a forgotten obscurity. Only a few survived to carry the tradition forward, most notably Rich Koz. Taking over for the great Jerry G. Bishop, Chicago’s beloved Svengoolie, Koz began as the Son of Svengoolie thirty years ago this week, on June 16th, 1979, with the broadcast of IN THE YEAR 2889 on WFLD-32’s Creature Feature. Son of Svengoolie remained on-air until 1986, though Koz’s character remained popular among the Chicago-area Monster faithful. In 1995, it was resurrected by WCIU-26, as The Svengoolie Show. While Koz kept many of the program’s hallmarks from the WFLD days, he also placed his personal stamp on it, growing it into what is widely regarded as the premier Hosted Horror show on the air today.

The 2007 season’s coup, the acquisition of the Universal Horror classics for broadcast locally, established Koz as the dean of modern Horror-Hosts, and WCIU as a major player in the field. The station, in the person of General Manager Neal Sabin, has demonstrated a commitment to Chicagoland Genre fans, many who’ve never previously been exposed to the Universal classics, and it would not be an exaggeration to proclaim The Svengoolie Show the best such program on the air today. This year Rich was recognized for that, when he won the 2008 Rondo for Favorite Horror-Host.

Though Svengoolie may rule the roost, his is far from a lonely perch. Just in Northeastern Illinois and Southeastern Wisconsin, several other hosts ply their trade on Public Access Cable or Broadcast TV, most notably Undead Johnny and his World of the Weird Monster Show. Though it never deviates much from the tried-and-true standard for such programs, it’s well done and entertaining. Whether it’s the cold weather, the Lake Michigan water, or the rich history and tradition of Chicago Horror shows, the Windy City and environs is definitely the hot spot for Hosted-Horror shows.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the rest of the country is neglected. Tennessee has Dr. Gangrene, Ohio has The Mortician, Las Vegas has the Sinister Minister, and a score more are scattered around the U. S. Perhaps the best of this ‘second tier’ of hosts is New Bedford, Massachusetts’ Penny Dreadful. Portrayed by Danielle Gelehrter, Penny is accompanied on her adventures by her werewolf husband Garou, and less-than-successful monster-hunter Manfred von Bulow. Though the episodes are uneven in quality, overall they are well-done and entertaining; enough so that Penny won the inaugural Rondo award for Best Horror-Host in 2007.

But even those unlucky enough not to have a Hosted show in their area need not miss out on the quintessential MonsterKid experience. This is, after all, the age of the internet, and many hosts have on-line webcasts of their programs; many are exclusively internet-based. One of the first, and in my admittedly biased opinion one of the best, of these is Count Gore De Vol. The long-time alter-ego of Dick Dyszel, Count Gore is one of the few Old-School hosts who’ve made the transition from Television to Internet, and done so very successfully. Broadcasting for many years out of Washington, D.C., Count Gore successfully transitioned to a web-based program when his TV run ended. His web-site continues to be one of the most up-to-date and comprehensive of any Horror host’s, with original articles and columns on virtually every aspect of the genre. As a frequent contributor to Count Gore’s site, I have the pleasure of regularly appearing with some of the most knowledgeable, involved people in the genre; the likes of Prof. Anton Griffin and Halloween Jack.

While the heyday of the Horror-Host may be past, that doesn’t mean that the breed is extinct. The popularity of hosted shows is rising, as an aging populace grows nostalgic for the comfortable and familiar trappings of youth. Recently, the Documentary AMERICAN SCARY [see review below] premiered to rave reviews, as the fans whose first introduction to the monsters came in the form of a hosted show rediscovered those roots, and their love of Horror-Hosts. Though the era where locally produced programming is, if not dead, then in a coma, there still exists a desire among viewers for a storyteller, as writer John Morrow puts it in AMERICAN SCARY, a “…guide” to the underworld. Even if that guide is wearing make-up and dodging rubber chickens.

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DVD Review: AMERICAN SCARY: A Tribute to the Golden Age of Horror-Hosts

Title: AMERICAN SCARY: A Tribute to the Golden Age of Horror-Hosts

Year of Release—Film: 2008

Year of Release—DVD: 2009

DVD Label: Cinema Libre Studios

It may be hard for today’s television viewers to imagine, accustomed as we are to hundreds of digital channels delivered via satellite to our homes every second of the day, but there was a time when it wasn’t quite so easy to take TV for granted. A time before round-the-clock network feeds, nationally syndicated broadcast packages, and hour-long commercials. A time when TV was live, local, and groundbreaking.

A staple of television in those early days were movies. Movies in the morning were often presented with a viewer call-in contest, and soon became known as the “Dialing-for-Dollars” format. Matinees were in the afternoons, and of course, the “Late Shows” which came after the 10 or 11pm newscasts. Among the more popular formats was the Horror Film, usually with a costumed Master of Ceremonies playing host.

Nearly every town large enough to have a TV station had such a program. Cleveland had Ghoulardi, Atlanta had Bestoink Dooley, Pittsburgh had Chilly Billy Cardille—these and many others served as our late-night escorts into a world of Horror and Sci-Fi Films. All were broadly similar yet uniquely local. All were underpaid, overworked, and quite often far more entertaining than the movies they aired. And all are owed a debt of gratitude from those whose love of classic Horror Films was born in front of a massive console TV with a 19” screen, watching their local Horror-Host introduce DRACULA or THE WOLF-MAN.

At last, these men and women are receiving their due recognition in the form of AMERICAN SCARY, a new documentary out from Cinema Libre Studios. Written and directed by John E. Hudgens and Sandy Clark, this film is a loving tribute to the people who brought these shows to life each week, as well as a salute to the days of live TV in which they thrived.

AMERICAN SCARY is a true documentary, composed primarily of interviews with those who were Horror-Hosts, those who were their fans, and those who carry on their legacy. Interspersed with the interviews are clips from the shows themselves; not as many as this reviewer would prefer, but still a very pleasing assortment. Especially so are several minutes devoted to the women who have been hosts, most notably Vampira and Elvira. Often forgotten in the company of such great hosts as Zacherley, Ghoulardi, and Svengoolie, women have made tremendous contributions to the history of Horror-Hosts… including being the first such character.

The movie conveys a wealth of information about the history of the craft of hosting Horror Films, but it does so unevenly, with a huge block of time devoted to hosts in the Cleveland, Ohio area, but little mention of hosts in the Southern or Western parts of the country. And very little attention is paid to those hosts working today. While Jerry G. Bishop receives much well-deserved praise as Chicago’s original Svengoolie, scant mention is made of Rich Koz, who this week is celebrating his thirtieth anniversary since assuming Bishop’s mantle.

But those are minor quibbles, ones that in no way detract from the quality and value of this DVD. This is without question a must-buy for those who consider themselves fans of Horror-Hosts or of Horror Films in general. These men and women exposed generations of children to the joys of the Monsters, and to the thrill of being scared… if only a little bit. What’s more, they inspired thousands of us to keep those joys and thrills alive long past our childhoods.

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06 June, 2009

Aurora’s Monster Models

As many devoted Horror fans also enjoy building model kits of their favorite monsters, most are well aware that Modeling is not an inexpensive hobby. At a bare minimum, a decent resin kit from a reputable company will run 50-60 dollars, and the average would be well over $100. Add in tools, paints, and time, and we could easily spend thousands on this hobby we love.

But that wasn’t always the case. When I started building models, resin and vinyl kits were virtually non-existent. Airbrushes and moto-tools were unimagined luxuries, glue came in red and white tubes and paints came in little square bottles with “Testor’s” on the cap. My first kit was ancient even in 1972… Monogram’s 1/72 scale Curtiss P-36 Hawk. I doubt that I paid more than 75¢ for it, and the finished product was hardly worth bragging about. But I was instantly hooked on a hobby that I still enjoy 37 years later.

In those days I built everything and anything… from the crappy Hawk box-scale airplanes, to Monogram TBF Avengers with a torpedo that actually dropped from the bomb bay, to Aurora’s Russian Golf-class Missile Submarine. I even tried my hand at the Visible Eye… and wound up with something not even Lasik could save. But given my natural affinity for the monsters, it was only a matter of time before I found the fantastic Monster kits from Aurora.

Anyone who was a regular reader of Famous Monsters in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s will remember the ads for these kits… Dracula and Frankenstein, the Wolf-Man and the Mummy, the skeletal Prisoner chained to the section of dungeon wall, even a scraggly-toothed, wart-nosed witch, hard at work stirring a bubbling cauldron. Famous Monsters #59, November 1969, lists several of the monster kits in the Glow-in-the-Dark style for the princely sum of $1.49… quite a bit of money when you consider that you could get a perfectly good airplane or car kit for half that.

But the monsters of Aurora were hard to ignore, and, as soon as I saw one for sale at my neighborhood Pic-n-Save, I had to have it. It was, luckily, my favorite monster, the Mummy. But I wouldn’t have cared which monster I wound up with… I just wanted one of them. Somehow, I came up with enough money to buy it. How, I’m not sure; I am sure that it was no mean feat on a dollar a week allowance. How much I paid for the kit is a mystery; I doubt I could have told you the next morning the price of the model. I had one, and that was all I cared about.

When I got home with my prize, I rushed to my room and opened the box. The figure seemed huge compared to the kits I was used to building, though simple to assemble… a definite plus at that stage in my modeling experience. I can’t recall much detail about the kit, other than the Mummy was undeniably Kharis. I don’t remember what color plastic it was molded in, or how good the quality was. I just remember the joy of building it.

I later added other monsters to the collection, as well as some of the MPC Pirates of the Caribbean and AMT/Ertl Star Trek kits. There was a Tarzan along the way, as well as a Spock, a Batman, and others. Eventually, Aurora folded, the monster kits went away, and I returned to the B-17G’s, M60A1’s, and Federation Starships that I loved.

Now, some thirty-seven years later, those Aurora monsters are hot collector’s items, going for thirty to fifty dollars, unbuilt. Companies such as Polar Lights have issued their own versions of those kits, and high-quality resin and vinyl monster kits abound. These kits, especially the latter, are so far above the old Auroras in terms of quality and accuracy that comparing the two is akin to comparing a ’78 Ford Pinto to a brand-new Mercedes S-class. I just wish I could afford them.

Yes, the new kits are better in terms of quality, better in terms of accuracy, better in terms of choice of subject matter. The only thing they don’t do better is inspire joy and wonder in the mind of an eight-year-old boy.

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DVD Review: JU-ON ~aka~ THE GRUDGE

Title: JU-ON ~aka~ THE GRUDGE

Year of Release—Film: 2002

Year of Release—DVD: 2002

DVD Label: Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment

One of the few sources for original horror for the past several years has been Asia, and the prolific studios of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and most notably, Japan. Fans whose first thought upon hearing the word “Japan” in relation to a genre film is men in foam-rubber dinosaur suits stomping on scale models of Tokyo need to rethink those impressions. Films like RINGU, KAÏRO, TOMIE, ÔDISHON, and others have caught on with American audiences, inspiring in a few cases an on-going string of (what else) American-made remakes. One of these remakes is based on Takashi Shimizu’s excellent series of films entitled JU-ON (THE GRUDGE). I’ll be reviewing THE GRUDGE, the American-made remake produced by Sam Raimi, separately; here, I’ll limit the discussion (except for the purpose of drawing comparisons) to Shimizu’s original version.

As both films were directed by Shimizu, they are unavoidably similar in both style and substance, though there are a few significant differences. While both films are suitably dark, in keeping with their subject matter, the original film has a much more effective use of atmosphere and style than the remake. Shimizu’s direction is subtle and meandering; he doesn’t hit you over the head with the plot, but lets it develop slowly over the course of the film. Don’t expect to have things laid out in stair-step fashion, though. In keeping with the style of most Japanese Horror films, explanations are kept to a bare minimum, leaving the viewer to draw their own conclusions.

The cast is, for the most part, young and attractive, though due to my inability to speak Japanese it’s hard for me to pass judgment on their acting ability. Visually, they are able to convey adequately the emotional impact of the various situations revolving around the hostile spirits, which suffices for my enjoyment. Several of the actors, especially Misa Uehara as Izumi Toyama, are particularly good at conveying a sense of terror as events unfold around them.
The photography, by Tokusho Kikumura, is stunning in its realism and simplicity. Rather than being dependent on a host of Special Effects to create the mood and atmosphere, Kikumura uses a skillfully understated approach to portray visually the ghosts, as well as using slight visual cues to indicate their presence, a’la THE SIXTH SENSE. The Special Effects in the film are used sparingly, and to great effect; not to advance the story, but to enhance it.

The Lion’s Gate DVD release of the film is very nicely done, with more extras than expected. There’s a rather interesting behind-the-scenes segment, deleted scenes, and various trailers, as well as the usual Director Commentary. One bonus that I really like is that it includes both dubbed and subtitled versions. Many people dislike subtitles, but I actually prefer them. I like hearing a film in it’s original language, and subtitles don’t pose any particular challenge to my enjoyment of the movie.

To sum it up, this is an all-around excellent film, and a great introduction to Japanese Horror, if that bug hasn’t already bitten you. It, like most examples of the recent J-Horror invasion, is visually different and appealing; dark and atmospheric; and tremendously innovative. I call it a Must-Have.

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The Unimonster’s Crypt presents Junkyardfilms.com’s Moldy Oldie Movie of the Month!: REVENGE OF DR. X

[Ed. Note: This marks the second installment of a new monthly series here at the Crypt, as we welcome mstjunkie, of www.junkyardfilms.com to The Unimonster’s Crypt. Mstjunkie will deliver, on behalf of her Junkyardfilms website, a regular look at the low-budget underbelly of genre film; the movies that were never a success, but still have much to offer to the curious viewer. Enjoy her review, and click on the Junkyardfilms.com logo above to go to junkyardfilms.com and order the movie being discussed!]

Plant-asaurus! Plant-enstein!

In the opening credits of The Revenge of Dr. X the audience is promised John Ashley and Angelique Pettyjohn but as this incredible mess unfolds there's no sight of them. [Ed. Note: According to IMDb.com, the titles for this film were inadvertently replaced with those of THE MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND, and are completely incorrect for this movie.]

Dr. X (James Craig) works for NASA (this is verified by a matte painting outside his office window and some stock footage of a space craft lifting off) who has a nervous break-down (and with his constant over-acting, it seems as if he has one every five minutes) and is ordered to take a vacation. He decides to go to Japan to study botany. With him, he takes a Venus flytrap he finds on the road to the airport. (Ed Wood listed this under the title of The Venus Flytrap on his resume but it is also known as Double Garden; it is widely assumed that it was supposed to be Devil's Garden but something went awry in the translation of the title card. Feel free to file that info under "who cares".)

In Japan, he meets his assistant, a female who isn't even listed in the credits. So, I'll call her Mary for the sake of clarity. Telling Dr. X that her father owns a mountain retreat that is closed due to an active volcano near-by, they take off...Dr. X oozing creepy charm. At the mountain retreat, they are met by a hunchback caretaker, who I'll call Egor. Other than Dr. X's constant hysterics and his secretiveness about the Venus flytrap, nothing much happens for the next 45 minutes.

Mary takes Dr. X to the sea shore so they can find some elusive aquatic plant that he wants to graft to his Venus flytrap to make a plant-human. There, they ask a group of bare-breasted female pearl-divers to help them and they find the elusive plant. Taking the plant back to their laboratory, he works himself up to a Dr. Frankenstein fever pitch, screaming "The Earth is your mother! The lightning is your father! Rain is your blood!" as he raises the new creation on a platform up through an opening in the greenhouse. The creature lives! And, with it's rubber suit, flytraps on hands and knees and some strange sea-weed growing out the top of his head, it looks sillier than The Giant Claw! Huzzah! (For some reason, this pleased me immensely!)
But, like most Frankenstein rip-off movies, this ends badly for the Dr. as the plant kills him by toppling them both in to the active volcano. The end.

Could this be worse than Plan 9 from Outer Space? YES! With its terrible acting, silly plot, bad photography, clumsy stock footage and the most nonsensical musical score I've ever heard, I guarantee it is! Penned By Ed Wood and directed by Kenneth G. Crane (who also directed Monster from Green Hell and The Manster) it plays out like a Larry Buchanan fever-dream! A must-see for all fans of truly painful cinema!


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