Sunday, February 23, 2014

Monster Movie Matinee & Memories

   I absolutely love monster movies, second only to cartoons. Laughing is probably as primal and cathartic as having the shit scared out of you, and much of my jaded and cynical adult life seems to have been spent trying to recycle that initial pure delight. That or at least attempt to recapture either of those experiences, shrieking from joy or fear, from the comparative innocence of childhood.
(More below)

   My parents had strict control over my media habits while growing up: I read everything under the sun, but TV was limited to PBS shows like Nova, Wild Kingdom, The Electric Company, Sesame Street etc. However, my own personal choice of programming when I was finally allowed my own time - two precious hours a week - was 1) The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Hour and, and 2) Monster Movie Matinee, both on Saturdays. Which explains a lot when it comes to the concept of "programming."
   I'm often envious of folks who kept themselves unsullied and retained their delicate sensibilities by scrupulously maintaining the garbage in/garbage out filter, as I've known many who refuse to trash their souls with the crap we are continually exposed to through contemporary media. There's even something to be said for an inexorable buildup of a sort of cultural callousness that has in no small part contributed to the evolution decline in quality of scary movies. Whereas they used to feature big monsters (Godzilla, Them, The Blob et al) and/or be about archetypal humanoids (such as the unholy triumvirate of the Dracula/Werewolf/Mummy characters), now we are sadly saturated with sadistic and exploitative crap like torture-porn.

   As it happened, during my weekly trolling through the internet, I just-so-happened to stumble across this opening montage used for the "Monster Movie Matinee," and wow did it ever crack open an inner crypt of nostalgic memories. Many an afternoon in Syracuse, NY was spent glued to the tiny little Zenith black & white screen - perhaps evoking such residual impressions is behind my dissatisfaction with all the sound & fury of contemporary cinema. Notwithstanding 3d technology, digital effects and IMAX all the modern-day wizardry still, for the most part, fails to recreate even a shadow of the old-time awe and wonder.

   From the opening notes of the clip we follow an an eerie wind, and there is a slow pan through the homemade scale-model of a macabre scenario, accompanied by a shrill, mad piping (think Lovecraftian "thin, monotonous piping of an unseen flute") complete with the drifting fog of dry ice as it laps a cemetery at the base of a hill upon which sits... the mansion...
   Then the iconic organ cues ghastly strings as we move into a spooky set-room filled with Gothic props such as ... the coffin, and then ... the hand first makes its appearance.

Images from Monster Movie Memories

Just as importantly there was this cryptic little blurb in the comments thread on the clip's YouTube page:
"This is the open to the show Monster Movie Matinee that aired in Syracuse NY between 1964 to 1980. The show was hosted by Dr. E. Nick Witty and Epal. Wind Up Films Productions is currently producing a documentary on the show and hopes to have it available at the end of this year. Check out our facebook page Monster Mansion Memories for pictures and more information on the progress.
After following the trail of bloody virtual footprints left in the snow, it turned out in fact that there was a finished DVD already available to order:
"Monster Mansion Memories is a documentary in production now by Wind Up Films. It tells the history of the local show that aired on WSYR Tv in Syracuse New York. The show ran for 15 years from 1964 until 1980 and was loved by many throughout central New York."
Here's a link to their Facebook page with ordering information and more ephemera.

Image via Syracuse New Times

   The show rebroadcasted scary movies & "creature features" like Attack of the Giant Leeches, to name one in particular that horrified me, and no doubt scarred me for life from ever wading again in marshes or swimming in my grandparent's farm-ponds. The host was Dr. Edward Nicholas Witty (Alan Milair), and co-hosted by his sidekick - and subject for many a ghoulish experiment - Epal (Bill Everett). Dr. Witty ranked alongside Elvira and Vampira as far as seminal figureheads in the genre. Surely a lesson in the ultimate "less is more" approach, especially since all we ever really saw of him was his gesturing hand, accompanied of course by the all-time greatest cadaverous voice to ever greet a viewer.

Here's a link to a fantastic article by the Syracuse New Times with an overview of both the program and the DVD:
“Monster Mansion Memories director Andy Wolf and his cohorts spent two years to make this labor of love, and they have unearthed plenty of material regarding Monster Movie Matinee, much of it augmented by an intriguing cast of supporting players [….] What really seals the DVD deal, however, is nearly an hour of actual footage from the series, including introductions and exits, some in black and white as well as color. Not seen since their first airings nearly 50 years ago, the clips give newbies as well as veteran video watchers a flavor for the show’s macabre yet tongue-in-cheek appeal.” - Bill DeLapp, Syracuse New Times
   A special thanks to director Andy Wolf, editor Cody Wolf and producer Alex Dunbar for putting this labor of love out to all us far-flung aficionados: it made my whole day week month to find my copy at the post-office, and I've thoroughly enjoyed both watching it and listening to the commentaries while working away in the studio. It also served as an inspirational insight about the accomplishments that can be had on a shoestring budget: a lesson on how all the special effects in the world can't compensate for a lack of creativity, and how personal passion will attract and reward true fans of any endeavor.
   Sooner than later I'll have a follow-up post with a little bit more details and some personal favorites (and some guilty pleasures) on the topic of monster movies.
   In the meantime... sleep tight... bwa-ha-ha haaaaaa...

Image via Syracuse New Times

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