American Scary (2006)
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No matter. Director John E. Hudgens and writer Sandy Clark, "Star Wars" geeks both, have apparently moved on to other pursuits, but can be justly proud of the loving homage they put together back in the mid-Oughts, some half a century after the cultural meme they've examined first saw the moonlight of deepest night. Highly recommended to anyone who stayed up past their bedtime to join one of these beloved entertainers.
*** (out of 4)
Good documentary covering the history of horror hosts in America. Through interviews and clips, we see how this phenomenon started off in just one city and before long they were popping up all over the country. Among the people interviewed are Mike Price (Baron Daemen), Joseph Fotinos (Professor Anton Griffin), Leonard Maltin, Joe Bob Briggs, Jeff Thompson, Donald F. Glut, Maila Nurmi (Vampira), Bob Burns, Forrest J. Ackerman, Tom Savini and John Zacherle. Dozens of other hosts from various cities are also interviewed so more than likely you're going to see your favorite if you grew up with these sort of hosts. I grew up with a couple horror hosts in the late 80s but I think most people my age were just familiar with Joe Bob Briggs and his days on TNT. Those older are the ones that this documentary is really going to hit a core with because they discuss how studios were just starting to open their vaults to TV so these hosts had a whole slew of horror movies to show people. The hosts each talk about what they wanted to do with their cheap sets and what they did or didn't want to do with the movies. A lot of people look at these hosts (and stuff like Mystery Science Theater) as insults to the movies because they cut the films up and sometimes super-imposed themselves into the film. Maltin talks about being a film buff and looking back at some of this stuff and being horrified at what they were doing but he admits that as a kid he loved it. Fans of these hosts are going to love hearing from them after all of these years and if you never got a chance to see them then you're in luck because the documentary is full of clips showing some of their highlights.
The filmmakers had their hearts in the right place when they ventured on this endeavor, but it falls short in so many places. First and foremost is the almost machine-gun style they employ with their interview snippets. Each snippet is about 5 seconds long or so on average and seem to be thrown into the documentary at random places, without any real structure to it at all. Second is the length of the interview snippets. I would have loved to have heard more from people like Chuck Schowdowski, Jim Hendricks, and Joe Bob Briggs. The filmmakers chose to focus so much attention on trailblazers like Zacherley, Vampira, and Baron Daemon- which was fine, but they jipped the fans of latter day horror hosts like Commander USA, Sammy Terry, Joe Bob Briggs, Big Chuck & Lil' John, Son of Svengoolie, Son of Ghoul, Elvira, etc. I think the filmmakers got caught in the unfortunate web of making a documentary for themselves rather than for the fans of horror hosting in general which limits the scope of what this documentary could be.
Not to mention that they basically failed to show anything remotely resembling a horror con which are so important in keeping the memories of these old horror hosts (as well as movies and actors/actresses) alive and help fans get closer to the people they watched every week and idolized.
In the end it was a solid effort, but a more in depth documentary focusing less on the origins of horror hosting and focusing more on the impact over the broad history of horror hosting and why it's memory still burns so brightly now is a necessary follow-up. I would like to see something that caters to the fan side of the screen. Something that delves into the cultural impact that these horror-hosts made and does not neglect the horror hosts of the late 1970's throughout the 1980's and 1990's (which is the era that most of the DVD buyers likely remember the most).
Here's a suggestion - why not use a portion of the documentary following someone like Kevin "Son of Ghoul" Scarpino or Joe Bob Briggs around as they attend the horror conventions to get a up close and personal look at how these hosts have impacted the culture and help get more of a casual fans perspective. I would have been far more interested in watching the interaction between these hosts and the fans for an hour and a half than almost anything.
Again, a solid effort that has it's heart in the right place but suffers from being a salute to the filmmakers favorite hosts rather than to the industry as a whole.
*Special stars- John Hudgens is the film's director (yawn).
*Theme- Horror host can bring back B-movies.
*Based on- low cost documentary schlock
*Trivia/location/goofs- The director of this documentary is a Star Wars fan video maker for many years. It shows here. Hollywood's Vampira was highlighted.
*Emotion- American Scary is so extremely limited or myopic in covering the vast, interesting subject of horror TV hosts. After viewing this documentary, I was left unsatisfied and frustrated. Mr. Hudgen's job of director, editor, and camera person is responsible for this film's terribly slow pacing as to be boring and sleep inducing. Also, there are many more unexplored influential Californian horror hosts of the same time period like: JEEPERS KEEPER- Fred Stuthman, OTTOLA NESMITH, SEYMOUR, aka SINISTER SEYMOUR- Larry Vincent,ELVIRA, MISTRESS OF THE DARK-Cassandra Peterson, ASMODEUS- Frank Sheridan, GHOULITA- Lietta Harvey,BUTCH PATRICK and IVONNA CADAVER-Butch Patrick and Natalie Popovich, SHRIMPENSTEIN and DR. VON SHTICK- Puppet character worked by Gene Moss as "Dr. Von Shtick". The coverage of this subject matter was shallow and very pedestrian. A much better & more complete documentary is about the horror hosts in Virgina called, "Virgina Creepers: The Horror Host Tradition of the Old Dominon", 2009.
IMDb LINK: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1524050/combined
Some background is needed for you young whippersnappers. Once or twice a week, in most of the major cities had a local horror movie evening (usually starting around 11pm or later). This film is about these local hosts--local celebrities who were hardly recognized outside their local markets (with only a few exceptions, such as Vampira). In most cases, the films they showed weren't all that great and sometimes watching the host's antics during commercial breaks made these sub-par films worth watching. And in every case in every market, the sets and acting were all pure cheese--enjoyable, fun but certainly cheese!
Now as far as the documentary goes, it was quite enjoyable but suffered from a few problems. First, the musical track was really too invasive and too omni-present. Less would have worked better. Second, while I adored seeing all these local hosts after all these years, I don't know why they had other celebrities there as well (other than, I assume, they'd appear for free). The telepathic lady from "Babylon 5" and Booger from "Revenge of the Nerds", for examples, were shown quite a few times but I would MUCH rather have seen more of the hosts or old clips or more about the history of these shows. Third, and I can't at all blame the film makers, but seeing this stretched out--with more time for specific hosts would have been nice. I wanted more on The Cool Ghoul and Count Gore De Vol and also more on hosts I wasn't familiar with before the film. As they say, though, in entertainment it's important to keep them wanting more, so in this sense the film was a real success--and walk down memory lane.
The documentary is a great treat for horror fans who may have been born in the wrong time or the wrong city to have seen classic hosts like Zacherley, Vampira, Ghoulardi of the 1950s and 60s to more contemporary hosts like Elvira, Son of Ghoul and Count Gore De Vol. Unless you're an avid bootleg collector, the video clips and old kinescope transfers may be the first footage you'll see of these monster mavens in action. Even based so much on archival material, the production quality remains excellent throughout.
Horror host interviews are well balanced with comments and recollections from many prominent filmmakers, critics and fans including genre historians Forrest J. Ackerman and Bob Burns, makeup artist Tom Savini (the Romero DEAD films), TV host Joel Hodgson (MST3K), Leonard Maltin and many more.
With the recent passing of Maila Nurmi (Vampira), this fondly crafted tribute to television horror hosts deserves to be seen and enjoyed by fans everywhere. I hope the filmmakers will release it on DVD soon so its value and quality can be appreciated by all.
Though none of my childhood horror hosts were included in John Hudgens shockumentary (no surprise considering the hundreds of hours of footage squeezed into this precious 90-minute film), American Scary still brought back a cavalcade of warm memories from my childhood in Milwaukee to watching Son of Svengoolie with my wife and my own children in Chicago.
All-in-all, American Scary is a very entertaining and inspiring look at a uniquely American phenomenon: the late-night horror movie hosted by the big kid who never grew up and seems to have forgotten that Halloween only comes but once a year. The inspiration of my local horror hosts has never left me and apparently neither has it left all the others who, inspired by their own local childhood horror hosts, continue to host those same low-budget, z-grade sci-fi and horror movies on cable access TV and on the web; carrying the torch to a new generation.