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DVD Review: American Scary

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Once upon a time, there was a magical kingdom called television. This legendary, mythical creature enabled the denizens of remote and metropolitan areas alike the chance to see the rest of the world — without leaving their homes. It took onlookers into the heart of various war zones; helped them lay their fallen comrades to rest; and it even took them to the moon — all at no cost to its viewers. It broadcast vintage motion pictures and shorts, as well as nationally produced programming.

It also provided people (young and old) with some independently manufactured entertainment of its own. Each week, when the good people of the world had finished with their five days of hard labor, a glorious celebration came to pass: Saturday Night. It was a time to rejoice. A time for renewal. A time for the late show.

Long before such tyrannical monsters as Corporations and Infomercials invaded and conquered television for good, TV stations (big and small) were given the option to lease packs of old movies to televise. Some of these sets included what were called shock packs, which consisted of the groundbreaking Universal classic monster movies that entire generations grew up on, as well as a collection of terrible turkeys that no one would dare stay up late to watch.

Whether these were true horror classics or bottom-of-the-barrel duds, television execs had to figure out a way to draw viewers (especially the younger viewers) in. That’s when the Horror Hosts would come out to play.

As a lad who grew up in the boonies of Northern California, I never had the option to see any actual horror hosts “live” on television (one eventually did surfaced in Reno, Nevada by the name of Zomboo — who, oddly, isn’t interviewed in this flick), and so I only had to read and imagine the hijinks that went on during the various “creature features” nationwide or wait until some sort of tape appeared containing some footage of the same (my friends and I absolutely loved the old Horrible Horror VHS release and also made our own horror host shows out of frustration and desperation, but that’s another story entirely).

Fortunately for the poor deprived souls such as I, there’s American Scary.

American Scary is a wonderful and fascinating look at the all-but-lost tradition of late night horror hosts from a time when we didn’t have to pay to see spray-on hair and listen to Billy Mays scream about his latest paycheck, er… endorsement during late night time slots. The entire documentary consists of recent and archival interviews (with a few retro clips of these icons thrown in for good measure) of some of TV’s most lovably bizarre personalities such as Zacherley (one of my favorites), Vampira, Svengoolie, Bob Wilkins, Mr. Lobo, Count Gore De Vol, Joe Bob Briggs (my idol), Stella, Son of Ghoul, Elvira, Joel Hodgson (from Mystery Science Theater 3000), and more.

Through the words of the hosts themselves as well as their longtime devoted fans (including Neil Gaiman, Tim Conway, Leonard Maltin, Curtis Armstrong, and the late Forrest J Ackerman), American Scary discusses the roots of horror hosts, their rise to popularity, and the tragic decline of what is most definitely an American treasure (when those Commie corporate bigwig bastards took over the boob tube).

American Scary is presented in an anamorphic widescreen 1.78:1 transfer. The various clips and interviews used to make this feature vary in quality, so the whole of the film is a bit of a mixed bag. That said, it’s a pretty good mixed bag, especially when you consider some of the archival television footage is over 50 years old!

On the sound front, American Scary is presented with a nice two-channel stereo that (due to the variance in footage once again) can be a bit over-modulated at times, but it’s no biggie (not for me, at least).

A second audio track opens the door for a collection of special features: an audio commentary with writers/directors John E. Hudgens and Sandy Clark gives the two men behind this much-needed look at horror hosts a chance to discuss their work on this project. Following the commentary are a good twenty minutes of additional interviews with Bob Burns, Ernie Anderson (Ghoulardi), John Zacherle (Roland/Zacherley), Maila Nurmi (Vampira), and Tim Conway; featurettes "Nashville Horror Hosting" (4:13) and "Horror Host Wedding" (6:11); the original five-minute pitch reel; and two trailers that really don’t do the film itself very much justice. The final extras consist of two additional trailers for other Cinema Libre releases: American Zombie and American Shopper.

American Scary is definitely required viewing. To do otherwise would be un-American.

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.