Pretty much everyone – at least I hope so – is familiar with Cassandra Peterson’s character “Elvira”. The self-styled “Mistress of the Dark” gained fame for her obvious sex appeal while hosting cheap horror movies on syndicated television in the 1980s. The popularity of her shows made her a national icon for Halloween.
The tradition of “horror hosting” that she epitomized goes back much further; at least to the 1950s. American Scary is a documentary that looks at this American tradition as a form of entertainment worthy of our appreciation.
The producers collected clips from a huge number of horror hosts from across the country. They tracked down hundreds of current and former hosts for interviews and comments. Obviously, they couldn’t fit in everyone. But they do a great job of chronicling the history of the genre from its precursor in the “spook shows” up through cable television.
If there’s one significant omission, it’s that they don’t have much on Elvira. At a screening I attended, one of the producers said that they really wanted to interview her, but they couldn’t work out the arrangements with her manager. In a way, that’s probably for the better. Had they devoted any real amount of time to her, she would have utterly dominated the movie. As it is, you get to meet many, many other hosts like Dr. Gangrene, Crematia Mortem, Professor Anton Griffin, and A. Ghastlee Ghoul – every one of whom has their own tale to tell and wisdom to impart. In a way, this makes it just as much a celebration of the possibilites of local television than a tribute to horror hosts.
The movie opens with a clip of Mike Price, a TV personality in Syracuse, NY telling how a chance conversation in a hallway made him “Baron Daemon”, a local legend. The final segment is a lengthy interview with author Neil Gaiman, who had been approached by FOX Television to host “13 Nights of Fright” on one of their cable channels in 2004. Gaiman understands the attraction of horror, and why people continue to be horror hosts:
The main thing that they probably don’t tell you…is the immense amount of fun that horror hosts are having. ‘Cause it’s the coolest thing in the world…. It’s like being Halloween, you know, for great horror hosts, for them it would have been Halloween every Saturday night. You do it ’cause you love it. And the sense that these people are having much too much fun…. They’re not doing it to get rich; you don’t do it to get rich. You just do it because it’s a really, really, cool, goofy, wonderful thing to do. And because your enthusiasm will be contagious. ‘Cause it’s dressing up; ’cause it’s “Let’s Pretend”….’cause it’s really cool.
And how often does a grown man get to pretend to be Bela Lugosi?
Not often enough.
It’s a pretty decent documentary, especially when you consider all the material and themes they had to cover. It holds together nicely as a general overview for the genre rather than concentrating on any individual host. They probably couldn’t have foreseen the changes that the Internet and streaming media have brought to the genre (there’s a good deal of webcasting going on); they figured that the future of horror hosting would be more like Mystery Science Theater 3000.
As of right now, the movie is available on Netflix; I have seen it listed on Hulu in the past.
The genre seems to be in a little bit of a down period. These days, virtually all horror hosting seems to be online or through some form of streaming media. Mr. Lobo’s “Cinema Insomnia” is one of the most active. Fortunately, it doesn’t take much to start. There are about 50 movies in the public domain that can be classified as “horror”, some of which are actually pretty good. So all you’ll really need is a gimmick, video equipment, a cheap set (it’s hard to get much cheaper than that of “Midnite Mausoleum”), a bit of acting talent, and a knowledge of and love for low-budget horror movies.
Personally, I did not grow up in a location where there was an active horror host. The best I could do was this: