'American Scary' DVD honors TV's hosts of horror films

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Los Angeles had Vampira, New York had Zacherley, Chicago had Svengoolie, Cleveland had Ghoulardi and New Orleans had Morgus. Pittsburgh, of course, had Chilly Billy Cardille.

Those aren't the names of gang leaders (although they commanded thousands of devoted followers), foreign cuisines (although they were weird and irresistible) or infectious diseases (although many of us have yet to recover from longtime exposure to their influence).

Those are "horror hosts," the spooky but beloved local TV personalities who introduced typically late-night packages of monster and suspense movies on affiliate and independent television stations from 1954 (when "The Vampira Show" debuted on KABC-TV, Los Angeles) to the 1970s and, in a few markets, beyond.

The heyday of the horror host is celebrated in a new documentary, "American Scary," recently released on DVD on the Cinema Libre Studio label.

One participant in the film describes the typical horror host as "Ed Sullivan with a cape." Cult author Neil Gaiman ("Coraline") summarizes the appeal of horror-hosting this way: "How often does a grown man get to pretend to be Bela Lugosi? Not often enough."

Directed by John E. Hudgens and written by Sandy Clark, the movie focuses on several of the more notable hosts, including Vampira and Philadelphia's Roland (who morphed into New York's Zacherley, "The Cool Ghoul"), while also providing a breezy history of the phenomenon, linking the "Creature Features" horror-movie-series format to such antecedents as scary radio programs and EC horror comics, which had wisecracking hosts of their own.

To tell its story, the film combines archival clips with new interviews. Actress Maila Nurmi, better known as the sexy, wasp-waisted Vampira (the inspiration for the even more famous Elvira, one of the last successful horror hosts), is interviewed not long before her 2008 death at the age of 86. Inspired by the drawings of Charles Addams, the artsy Nurmi says she mixed "cheesecake" with "phallic symbols, like a long cigarette-holder" and "a bit of Greta Garbo ... and something a little Dostoevskian, something a wee bit spooky -- like Norma Desmond."

Non-horror-host celebrities who appear onscreen to discuss the craze include (to name only a few) "Dawn of the Dead" makeup artist Tom Savini, a Pittsburgher who worked with George Romero and runs a special effects makeup school in Monessen; film historian Leonard Maltin; Joel Hodgson, whose "Mystery Science Theater 3000" was an ingenious update of the "Creature Features" format; and comic Tim Conway, who got his start on local TV in Cleveland, working with Ernie Anderson, who became Ghoulardi. (Anderson is the father of Paul Thomas Anderson, director of "There Will Be Blood," who produces movies for his own Ghoulardi Film Co.)

Also showing up frequently are members of the new generation of horror hosts, who keep the tradition alive on the Internet and public-access cable television. Their dedication is admirable, but -- like rockabilly revivalists and hipster burlesque performers -- they can't revive the cultural context that made the original horror hosts relevant.

The documentary could have benefited from more historical context, more vintage clips and fewer interviews with the horror-host revivalists. Even so, the film is a welcome reminder of the grand old days of local television programming, when horror hosts mingled with kiddie-show clowns, dance-party disc jockeys, wrestling announcers and other on-air personalities who were huge celebrities in their markets.

For more information or to buy the DVD ($19.95), visit www.americanscary.com.


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