Monday, October 28, 2013

Cinéma Inhabituel: Horror Hosts

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

As Halloween is just around the corner, I thought I’d dedicate this column to its inspiration.

For the film fan, Halloween means horror movies. And when it came to showing horror movies on television, a new character was created: The Horror Host. He or she was given the unenviable job of taking such cinematic gems as Return of the Ape Man or Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla and making them somehow palatable to a television audience. Many times they did this so well that they gained a substantial following on whatever local station ran their show.

However, once their show ran its inevitable course, they oft times disappeared from the limelight, remembered only when their obituaries ran in the papers of the communities the once served. But we always remembered them fondly, describing our favorite skit or bit of their to others who also spent many a Saturday night glued to the tube entranced by the show.

One such star in this firmament passed from us on September 15. His name was Jerry G. Bishop, but to those who followed his weekly antics, he was simply “Svengoolie.”

Svengoolie, Jerry Bishop, was born Jerry Ghan in Chicago on Aug. 3, 1936. A graduate of Wright City College, the University of Illinois and Columbia College, he began in radio at the former WNMP in Evanston in 1962. Within a few years, he was a popular nighttime DJ at Cleveland's KYW, and was picked as one of the reporters covering the Beatles during their 1965 and 1966 U.S. tours for NBC Radio and Group W radio stations.

He returned to Chicago in 1967 to lead WCFL's morning radio show and moved to WFLD-TV in 1969. A year later, the show that introduced Svengoolie was born: “Screaming Yellow Theater.” Svengoolie, the show’s host, was a pale-faced undead hippie. He had long green hair, spoke with a Western European accent, and played the guitar. He wasn’t an instant hit, but word-of-mouth soon spread about the show and its witty, offbeat host, and it began to build a following. 

His audience grew to the point where celebrities, both local and national, began requesting to appear on the show. Some were “mystery guests,” stopping by to open Sven’s loudly-painted coffin; other stayed around to participate in the sketches that took place during breaks in the films. Bishop did the writing for the show himself in the early going, but soon he hired a young Northwestern student who kept sending in material for the show. That fan was Rich Koz. Koz began as a writer, but soon became a performer on the show as well. Koz noted that while Bishop wasn’t a fan of horror films as such, he nonetheless saw the show as a great vehicle for comedy.

When WFLD-TV was sold to Kaiser Broadcasting in 1973, the new owners decided to cancel “Screamimg Yellow Theater,” despite its growing ratings, and replace it with a syndicated show from Cleveland featuring “The Ghoul.” This decision came back to bite Kaiser in the butt, as The Ghoul flopped. By the time Kaiser realized its mistake, it was too late: Bishop had moved on.

While Bishop may have moved on, there was still life in the ol’ Svengoolie. In 1979, Koz went on to take over the Svengoolie role, launching a new horror film hosted show in called “Son of Svengoolie.” Eventually, with Bishop’s blessing, Koz became simply “Svengoolie.” And today, Koz is still at it as Svengoolie. His show can be caught on stations carrying ME-TV, and Koz continues to entertain fans while still using some of the original jokes, which include frequent references to Berwyn, Illinois, as well as flocks of rubber chickens.

As for Jerry Bishop, he was not forgotten, either. In 2011, Bishop (as Svengoolie) was inducted into the Horror Host Hall of Fame.

So how about movies this Halloween? Well, Halloween coincides with TCM’s broadcasting of Star of the month Vincent Price’s films, and being as it is Halloween, the station is showing his later horror films made for Roger Corman in the ’60s. Other critics have already lionized these films, so I decided to spotlight two films showing the day before, October 30.

7:00 am – Shadow of Doubt (1935): This is a nice little B programmer from MGM about a heinous showbiz producer named Len Haworth (Bradley Page) – a womanizer who is managing to make an enemy out of anyone who comes across his path. His latest protégé is Trenna Plaice (Virginia Bruce) a film actress whose career in on the wane. Even so, New York ad man Sim Sturdevant (Ricardo Cortez) is in love with her and wants to marry her, despite objections from his wealthy Aunt Melissa (Constance Collier). Trenna, however, wants to accept Haworth’s proposal instead. Sim, who knows Haworth’s reputation, points out that the producer is already engaged to debutante Lisa Bellwood (Betty Furness), but Trenna doesn’t believe him. Things quickly become entangled, and when Haworth is shot to death, Sim, Trenna and Lisa are the prime suspects. It’s up to Aunt Melissa, herself an amateur detective, to sort things out and find the truth. It’s a nifty whodunit, running about 74 minutes, that will please the mystery fan in all of us.

4:45 pm – Bluebeard (1944): Aside from Joseph H. Lewis, no other director got more out of less than Edgar G. Ulmer. Ulmer learned his craft in Germany, first as a set designer (Metropolis among them), then as an assistant to famed director F.W. Murnau. His fame there peaked as one of the directors of the 1930 semi-documentary Menschen am Sonntag (along with Curt and Robert Siodmak, Fred Zinnemann, and Billy Wilder). Coming to America in the exodus of 1933, Ulmer was hired by Universal, for whom he directed the classic horror The Black Cat in 1934 with Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. But a personal scandal where he seduced the wife of a producer who was the nephew of Universal’s chief, Carl Laemmle, led to his being exiled from the major studios and relegated to Poverty Row.

Where others might have lamented the working conditions: no budgets, little time for development, and often starting with only a title, Ulmer found the freedom given to develop the films enhancing, and managed to stamp his own personal signature on much of his work. Again, as was the case with Joseph H. Lewis, he was unknown in this country until his work was “discovered” by the Cahiers crowd in the ‘50s. Since then he has come to be regarded as an eccentric, unique filmmaker with several influential films to his credit.

Bluebeard is one such film. Made for Poverty Row studio PRC in 1944, it stars the highly underrated and versatile John Carradine as a murderous painter and puppeteer in Paris whose hobby is killing his beautiful models. Though shot in five-and-a-half days, the film is notable for its high level of acting, camera work, and literate script (which was overseen by Ulmer’s wife, Shirley). PRC was reportedly unhappy with the finished product, but released it anyway. While it flopped here, though, it was quite successful in France. I’m not going to go out on a limb and say this is in the class of Lewis’ My Name is Julia Ross, but at any rate, those that have not yet seen this little gem should tune in, if only to see how much can be done with so little.

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