A Sampling of Sci-fi/Horror Movie Hosts

It's interesting to compare the approaches taken by horror movie hosts to their characters, the movies, and so on.  This is by no means a comprehensive list, just a study of several (nine, actually) horror hosts who I've looked into to varying extents.


Elvira

Probably the best-known horror host of them all, and with good reason.  She pretty much perfected the format based on personality alone, and the image of her is a Halloween staple.  She made several movies: her Mistress of the Dark (1988) and Elvira's Haunted Hills (2001), a tribute to the Hammer Horror films.  Additionally, she has released a number of compilation records of Halloween-related songs, including a few originals she recorded herself.  Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cassandra_Peterson


Show title:
Movie Macabre (1981-1984, 2010-???)


Movies (style and era):
All over the place, from the late '50s to early '80s.  See the episode
list.

Character/persona:
She's vaguely a vampire of some sort, only with a valley girl accent that is incongruent with the castle decor.


Set:
Gothic, dusty mansion with candelabras.  Centerpiece is her trademark red velvet couch.


Supporting characters:
None.  Granted, she was strong enough to carry the show on her own, but she only occasionally brought in anyone else to play against.


Intro:
From the new (2010) show: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GL9rk0zbh1I


Commentary:
Mostly bumper segments, although the new version of her show incorporates pop-ups as well.


Theme song:
Campy attempt at spooky music.  It's one of the best themes, however, because its sound and notes are immediately recognizable.


What she's best at:
Being sexy and one-liners.


What she's worst at:
Not much, honestly.  Although this isn't my favorite show, Cassandra Peterson is hands-down the most talented horror host to date.


My experience with her: I only caught a bit of Elivra during her original run in the '80s.  However, I have caught episodes of her latest series both on tv and dvd.  Also saw her movies.  I have a great memory of a showing of Rocky Horror that happened to have the trailer to Mistress of the Dark at the start of the reel.  The audience had seen it before and had participation lines composed for it as well.


Zacherley

Though he is best known as a horror film host (primarily during the '50s and '60s; starting out under the name Roland), John Zacherle (actual spelling of his last name) also recorded the hit song "Dinner with Drac" and released other albums of music and sound effects as well as occasional appearances in movies.  Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Zacherle


Show title:
Shock Theater (1957-58), Zacherley at Large (1959-60)


Movies (style and era):
Mainly the Universal monster movies from the Shock Theater days.
  Episode list is not available, but see the list of Shock Theater films as he hosted those.

Character/persona:
Sort of an undertaker character, although he did any number of sketches and even musical bits to keep things humming.


Set:
Castle laboratory.


Supporting characters:
Though never seen, there's occasional (albeit unintelligible) dialogs with his wife, always referred to as "My Dear."


Intro:
Not available.


Commentary:
None during the film, but one of their best tricks was to inset shots of Zacherley into the film at awkward moments.  Usually he's reacting to the action onscreen, which was hilarious and well ahead of its time in an era before media manipulation became ubiquitous.


Theme song:
Spooky organ/orchestra music.


What he's best at:
Improvising on a shoestring budget.  The "pet amoeba" bit is still famous today.  You probably know it if you have seen any of Zacherle's show at all, and it's nothing more than Jell-o and misc. things thrown in (e.g., cauliflower for a brain, spaghetti for a nervous system, etc.).  Additionally, I like that Zacherle extended himself into other media such as making records and kids books.  It wasn't just marketing; his involvement in so many aspects of his genre showed how much he loved what he did.


What he's worst at:
It doesn't bother me, but I can see how he over-used some of his trademark catch-phrases such as the "My dear" bit.  Some might find it annoying, but I think of these things as verbal hooks like the chorus is for a song.  His "Goodnight, whatever you are!" is the best line in the history of horror hosting!


My experience with him: I only heard of him in the last year, and since then I've become a huge fan.  He's the closest to my ideal of a horror host.  I've been tracking down all the footage of him I can find on YouTube: archived bits from his original show, appearances on talk shows, etc. as well as the albums.


Vampira

The original horror host, she was the one who set the standard most others have since followed, particularly Elvira, who took her idea and arguably made it her own (The courts will never decide; Elvira was sued but the case never made it before a judge).  She's probably best remembered for her role in Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).  Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maila_Nurmi and about her show: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Vampira_Show


Show title:
The Vampira Show (1954-55)


Movies (style and era):
I have never been able to get a complete list of the films aired, but she show started in 1954, so all pre-date that, obviously.


Character/persona:
A genuine vampire or at least someone who believes herself to be (which is how Nurmi played her).


Set:
Gothic castle with all the trappings that go along with that.


Supporting characters:
Unknown.  I am not aware of any, but I could be wrong. 


Intro:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gs0ehPgyD3U


Theme song:
Creepy orchestral music.


What she's best at:
Being scary.


What she's worst at:
Getting syndicated.  The show ended when Nurmi refused to sell her rights and thus reach a larger audience.  The original shows have not been seen in their entirety since they first aired.  As a result, everyone's heard her, but almost no one has seen any of the show that made her famous.


My experience with her: Very little.  I knew she was in Plan 9, which I saw before I had ever heard of her (back when Ed Wood premiered; it was a double-feature on campus when I was in college).  I would love to track down more footage of her, but there just isn't that much in circulation.


Morgus the Magnificent

Most people outside of the New Orleans area (and possibly Detroit since he played there too) have probably never heard of Morgus, but his show was a blend of mad scientist sketch comedy with local humor and really, really bad sci-fi/horror movies (for the most part).  I grew up watching the revived series in the late '80s and still remember a lot of the films they showed.  Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morgus_the_Magnificent


Title:
Morgus Presents (1986-88) (I don't have titles for the other series)


Movies (style and era):
When I watched the show in the late '80s, most of the films were from the '70s.  The re-revived version seemed to focus more on "Shock Theater"-era movies (i.e., '30s through the '50s).
  Here's a partial episode list.

Character/persona:
Mad scientist, complete with dark circles under his eyes, unkempt hair, and a filthy lab coat.  Every week he is on the verge of a major discovery that will conquer mankind's ills and change the world as we know it, only something goes terribly, terribly wrong.


Set:
A laboratory set up in the upstairs space of an old ice house.  Set includes dusty bookshelves, scientific equipment, chalkboards, etc., and even a payphone on the wall.


Supporting characters:
Choplsey, his mute, bungling lab assistant in executioner's garb, and E.R.I.C., a computer with a talking skull on top.


Intro:
Short "Good evening" by E.R.I.C. and spooky theremin music.


Commentary:
None.  At all.  This is my biggest criticism of the show.  You literally could show absolutely any movie between the bumpers, and it wouldn't make any difference.  In fact, they did this very thing years later when they re-edited the late '80s series in the '00s to replace the original movies with a completely new set.


Theme song:
None, really.  There's some theremin-like effects with random computer during the show's opening and close, but it is atemporal, so there's no other instruments like drums.  It's more a sound effect than music, per se.


What he's best at:
A thorough backstory and consistent sketches that run the duration of the show.


What he's worst at:
Acknowledging the film he's hosting.  That's completely incidental to the show.


My experience with him: He was the host I grew up watching.  His show was revived in the late '80s when I was in my teens, and I used to stay up late watching the '70s B-movies he hosted.  Along with Zacherley, my idea of a horror host falls into this archetype of a bungling experimenter, albeit with more interaction with the film of the week than Morgus ever engaged in.


MST3K

This show successfully brought viewers around to watching a lot of forgotten almost-classics and should-be-forgotten trash by bringing the viewing experience into the post-modern era.  Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MST3K


Show title:
Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988-99)


Movies (style and era):
Everything from the earliest horror and sci-fi films all the way to low-budget independent (or small-studio) films that were nearly contemporary with the episode in which they were featured (read: skewered!).
  See the complete episode list.

Character/persona:
In a word: Snarky.


Set:
Aboard a spaceship.


Supporting characters:
Quite a few.  Too much to go into here.

Intro: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hdAIy2Wd9Fg (from Season 10; others differ)

Commentary:
Extremely thorough.  The "hosts" are literally right there for the whole film and so could comment on anything that attracted their attention.  They did everything from substitute dialog to dissect the filmmaking.


Theme song:
Cute and quirky and upbeat.  It set the tone for the show that followed.


What they're best at:
Snarky comments.  They comment nearly everything on the screen.  Everything from the plot to all the little details in the backgrounds.  They also successfully melded a premise to the movies.  No other show managed to incorporate the act of watching movies into the backstory as well as this.


What they're worst at:
Sketch comedy.  I realize there are fans of this, but I always FFwded through these bits.  They distracted from the movie and I felt like it contradicted the premise if the characters could walk away from the movie any time they chose.


My experience with them: I caught the last few seasons of the series as it aired on the Sci-Fi (now SyFy) channel.  I always use this show as an example of the basics of post-modern media.  If I had my own horror/sci-fi hosting gig, it would borrow heavily from their commentary approach and style.


Svengoolie

He's been around (off and on) since the '70s, and the show has evolved over time to something of the TCM of horror and sci-fi films.  His commentary and reverence for film history is unique among horror hosts.


Show title:
Svengoolie (1979-present, minus hiatus)


Movies (style and era):
Primarily focused on the Universal monster movies, but also shows bad films from the '50s through the '70s.  An episode list for his earlier show can be found here.


Catch phrases:
Berwyn.  (Note: Ghoulardi did similar with Parma during his run.)


Character/persona:
It really isn't clear just what this incarnation of Svengoolie is supposed to be.  (The original version was a hippy zombie or a zombie hippy... from Transylvania.)  Mostly he looks like a goth version of Groucho Marx who lovingly talks about the backstory of the movie of the week.


Set:
Cheap painted-cardboard castle backdrop with a coffin Sven climbs out of and into at the beginning and end of the show, respectively.  Some faux scientific equipment as well, usually decorated with fan art and action figures and other movie monster merchandising.


Supporting characters:
Kerwyn, a chicken puppet.  Other unnamed extras feature occasionally (such as unseen characters telling the "joke of the week)."


Intro:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aLrJrx3wZ-8 The modern version since I started watching it (and at least for the past six years) has been a CGI animation of flying through a castle dungeon filled with skeletons fiddling with Frankensteinian scientific equipment.


Commentary:
It's usually all done as bumpers, but he will occasionally drop in sound effects or re-dub segments (which he calls Sven-Surround).


Theme song:
It has changed over the years, but the current version with the bouncy organ works really well.


What he's best at:
Reverence for film history.  There is a load of trivia included in each episode giving the background of the movie.  Everything from annotating the resume of the starts and director to why the film was edited as it was.  Additionally, he's really good at song parodies and phony commercials, both of which tie into the film and re-use footage from it for laughs.


What he's worst at:
Having a backstory.  There's simply nothing character-oriented about the show anymore.  We all know it's Rich Koz dressed up, but he never gets into character.  Over the years, he's lost the faux-Transylvanian accent he put on like his predecessor Jerry G. Bishop did in the original role, and there's absolutely no explanation why he's climbing in and out of the coffin, why he lives in a castle, what's up with the chicken puppet that looks like a dinosaur (i.e., chickens don't have teeth!), who's throwing the rubber chickens, etc.  My biggest criticism is that needs to be more of a character and less of a guy dressing up and saying, "I'm a horror host."


My experience with him: I lucked out one night flipping through the channels (something I almost never do, believe it or not; I usually just click straight to favorite channels), and Svengoolie was airing "The Ghost of Frankenstein."  My then two year-old Stan was fixated.  A tradition was born, and we started watching it regularly very nearly every Saturday night since then.


Stella

Although the producers' idea was to capitalize on the success of Elvira's series, Karen Scioli invented a character that was completely original.  She also eschewed a lot of the clichés up to that point such as the supernatural elements in her character, set, or backstory. 


Show title:
Saturday Night Dead (1984 to 1990)


Movies (style and era):
I have yet to find a list of episodes, but most of what I've seen appears to have been from the '50s through the '70s.


Character/persona:
She is often mistakenly referred to as a vampire or some such, but she maintains that the character was simply an over-sexed human woman, although there were occasional supernatural elements in the sketches.


Set:
Her apartment/bedroom, completely with an overly ornate bed to go with everything else that was gaudy and ostentatious about her (including her libido).


Supporting characters:
Her butler, a talking bed, and plenty other guests.


Intro:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xcg9PSLr9vs


Commentary:
Bumper segments that have little to do with the movie except to occasionally play joke off the film's content.


Theme song:
Burlesque number.


What she's best at:
Sketch comedy.  Always professionally composed and delivered expertly, even with amateur actors, usually rich in one-liners and puns.


What she's worst at:
Connecting things to the movie.  The show was independent of the films shown and frankly could have been re-edited with a completely different film, and no one would have been able to tell.


My experience with her: I have only been able to find snippets of her show on YouTube.  Unfortunately, there hasn't been a lot released other than what a few fans have digitized.


Mr. Lobo

He's been around for a while, but his show has never been picked up broadly around the country.  I've only seen it through online releases on his YouTube channel.


Show title:
Cinema Insomnia (2001-2011?)


Movies (style and era):
From the '50s through the '90s.
  Here's a list of episodes.

Character/persona:
He describes his show persona as something of a retarded Rod Serling


Set:
None.  Just a bunch of blackness with a chair.  That creates sort of a tabula rasa into which he can make the show into anything he likes, but it also gives him less to play off of other than his own personality.


Supporting characters:
None, usually.  I saw him talk to a robot made out of a trash can and dryer ducts once.


Intro:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQKf96NZdzg


Commentary:
Only bumper segments; nothing during the film.


Theme song:
Campy jazz guitar.


What he's best at:
Bringing in a variety of retro elements.  One of my favorite features is the collection of old toy commercials and other kitsch.  There's a reverence for the past that is evident in almost every aspect of the show even though it's ostensibly ripping on that stuff.  He has featured a number of directors and other horror hosts from the past as well, something that should happen so much more often.


What he's worst at:
Sketch comedy.  Not that there's very much of it since it's usually just Mr. Lobo and only occasionally anyone else.


My experience with him: He has a few full episodes on his YouTube channel, else I might not have ever caught much of him at all.  He isn't as widely known as most of the other hosts on this page.


Joe Bob Briggs

More so than anyone else on here, Joe was himself rather than a character.  He liked watching trashy movies and he loved talking about them to anyone who tuned in.


Show title:
Joe Bob Briggs' Drive-In Theater (???; dates reported online are not consistent) (and later: Monstervision, 1993-2000)


Movies (style and era):
Mostly recent (for the time) B-movies.
  Here's a partial episode list.

Character/persona:
He was basically a regular Texas guy who sat around watching movies.  He just happened to be very knowledgeable about them.


Set:
Lawn chairs in a trailer park.


Supporting characters:
None.


Intro:
Science equipment.


Commentary:
Lengthy intros and bumpers.


Theme song:
Nothing memorable.


What he's best at:
Delivering pure content.  He knows his movie connections and trivia, and only Svengoolie exceeds him in terms of being the Robert Osborne of trash cinema.  However, Joe Bob often brought in people from the movie business for interviews.


What he's worst at:
Being a character.  I don't see him as a traditional horror host in the sense of playing someone who might turn up onscreen.  Admittedly, he's from a different generation than most other hosts, so you could make the case that he's something of a B-movie character out of a '70s or '80s roadhouse flick.  I just seem him playing an exaggerated version of himself.  I though the jokes were usually a bit weak as well.  I know that's part of the "character," but too much time was devoted to bad one-liners, and it didn't work the way it does for Svengoolie.

My experience with him: I never had cable during the run of his tv series (either of them), so I only occasionally caught any of him at friends' houses at the time.  Thankfully his army of fans have digitized a lot of his commentary (even entire films in some cases) to YouTube, so you can sample large portions of this body of work, which is what I have been doing lately.


My favorite?

I have been asked who my favorite horror host is, but I honestly don't have an answer.  There are traits I would take from each of them if I could find the formula to develop a series out of their best bits.  For example, I always enjoyed the bumbling "mad scientist" character like Morgus or Zacherley.  But Elvira and the other female hosts cornered the market on sexy, so there would have to be a dose of that.  I like a rich set full of eye candy and the potential for surprises.  Sketch comedy is nice, but it feels to me like filler if there's no connection to the film being shown that week.  Serious film trivia and snarky commentary feel at odds with one another, but what if the latter were delivered by pop-ups while the former was handled by the hosts?  It's fun to tinker with the best of what has worked within this genre.


Summary of Traits

This is admittedly a bit of pre-writing that resulted in the survey of the hosts above.  Some of this repeats from this text, but it's more of an overview than the series of case studies dealing with each host individually.

Character - This is a blend of having a recognizable look, mannerisms, and a whole lot of other intangibles.

Backstory - Elvira is full of character, and yet her background is completely ellusive.  I have no idea if she's supposed to be a vampire or just what?  By contrast, there's a whole history to MST3K and how/why Joel is on that ship watching movies.

Set - Some guys can get by with no set at all.  When Jerry G. Bishop played the original Svengoolie, he got by with little more than a cheap coffin and occasionally a guitar.  Elvira rarely leaves her couch.  Poor Stella had little more to work with than painted backdrops that were one step above a high school production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town.  On the other hand, there's a lot that can be done within an interesting space.  Zacherley and Morgus had their laboratories and props to interact with, people coming through the door, etc.

Sketches and other comedy bits - You could divide show format into two camps: The Performers and the Commenters.  Performers perform sketch comedy as bumper segments.  They do very little with the movie.  Often ending the sketch with, "Cut back to the movie!"  By contrast, Commenters are there to tell you about the movie.  Even if they're performing "bits," those bits are about the movie.  For example, Joe Bob Briggs often did stand-up comedy (albeit seated in lawn furniture), but it was related to the film of the week.  Zacherley, Morgus the Magnificent, Stella, and the MST3K guys often went off on their own and performed scripted (or improvised) sub-segments, whereas other hosts like the modern Svengoolie (Rich Koz) tended to keep the show rooted in the film being hosted.  Svengoolie does a "joke of the week," but generally his sketches tend to be things like song parodies about the movie.  Elvira always joked about the content of the movie.  Because of the unique format of inserting themselves into the film, MST3K manage to straddle the line and perform both functions.

Connection to film - The sketch-oriented hosts like Morgus the Magnificent and Stella did little to connect their segments to the film being shown.  In fact, the Morgus episodes taped in the late '80s have been re-edited in recent years to accommodate new films.  He never says anything more specific than, "Okay, you watch this film while I tinker with my experiment."  Any film will do.

Movie commentary - Traditionally hosts have simply filmed bumpers in which they comment on the films, but Elvira's re-launched show uses pop-ups to deliver one-liners.  The MST3K guys sat at the bottom of the screen and commented throughout.


Further reading

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horror_host
If I was a Horror Host...


   

Copyright 2012 the Ale[x]orcist.
Home