The Halloween sprit has inspired me to think about the scary movies we used to watch when I was a kid. TV back then was split into two bands. The three major networks (CBS, NBC, ABC) and the larger local independent stations were channels on the VHF band. This was the Main Street of TV. But the real action for scary movies was on the UHF band, which was sort of a back alley of offerings from smaller stations.
The Sunday newspaper had a thin magazine that listed the upcoming week’s TV shows. Each movie listing had a rating that ran from one star to five stars. This is how we mined cinematic gold, having ascertained that the one-star movies were the best.
I don’t know how many of these movies I digested. I’m figuring one a week, on average, during the cold months. Over the course of five years that would be about 60 movies. I don’t recall any of the advertisements that we saw during these scary movies. Maybe we weren’t in the target market. Or maybe the ads were memorable for their un-memorableness, or would have been if I could only remember them.
Anyway, what I do remember is a random mosaic of pieces of the movies. I decided to try categorizing them, as fuzzy and faded as those recollections might be.
Going in no particular order here, I’ll start with Frankenstein movies. These seemed to culminate with angry, torch-wielding locals showing up at a mad scientist’s laboratory to put an end to his experimental escapades.
And then there were mummy movies. These were centered on an ancient curse and somebody messing with old tombs in Egypt. They could be pretty creepy. They had more intrigue and nuance than the Frankenstein flicks.
But even creepier were some of the vampire movies. Sometimes the vampire could turn into a bat, fly into someone’s open window, and then put the bite on them. I don’t remember if the biting was done by the vampire in bat form or in human form, but the flying-bat scenes were scary. Well, at least you won’t find me raiding the scarce supply of fruit bats in the Mariana Islands; thanks to my early education from one-star movies, I know the real risks.
Speaking of creatures that bite, another scary movie theme was the werewolf, a creature that could take the guise of man or wolf. There must be some old legends behind this idea. In a movie, though, it seemed too implausible to be very spooky. The vampire concept, by contrast, has some plausibility at the metaphorical level; even if they’re not sucking your literal blood, many people are driven by the compulsion to suck the joy out of everyone else’s life.
Scary creatures aren’t solely of the earthly origins, at least if you subscribe to the biological outlook of one-star movies. Space monsters were a common theme. In some cases the monsters were invading Earth. In other cases space-traveling earthlings encountered the monsters in their native habitats. These movies were often very creative and delightfully kitschy. One movie featured an alien space-ship commander that was just a big eyeball. I wish I remembered that flick more clearly. A plot with that element simply can’t lose.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, there were still many threats left to consider. Godzilla movies, and other Japanese monster themes, were prolific indeed. They were entertaining, but the ones I remember seeing didn’t seem intent on being scary. As for the really scary movies, the scariest were the ghost movies, which often involved haunted houses and things that went “bump” in the night.
That’s pretty much what I remember of those old movies. My TV window was a brief span of years because as soon as I was old enough to earn pocket money I was buying books and radios and other stuff that kept me occupied on cold evenings. Not that I had to abandon scary entertainment. Radio shows such as the CBS Radio Mystery Theater were, for me, more compelling than TV fare.
By the time I was in high school the popular genres seemed to be slasher movies and zombie movies. Slasher movies featured homicidal maniacs, some more outlandish than others. Zombie movies featured, of course, zombies, an old theme that seems to fade away only to re-vivify itself with zombie-like tenacity.
Now that’s I’ve blown the cobwebs off those dusty memories, I’ve also put some store-bought webs on my Halloween decorations. Yes, indeed, life is one big circle. For that matter, life is probably a low-budget movie as well, but hopefully one with a happy ending.