One of the big reasons I started this blog is that I’ve been watching old horror movies on the Svengoolie program on Me-TV. This was a revelation to me insofar as it’s the same Svengoolie (Rich Koz) who hosted Son of Svengoolie back in the 80s. Son of Svengoolie was, if I remember correctly, what took over Creature (Double) Feature on Channel 56 on Saturday afternoons. Creature Double Feature didn’t have a visible host, only the crazy title sequence and music from Emerson Lake and Palmer, which was spooky enough. But Son of Svengoolie was fun because his segments were topical. Whatever was hip back then, he would work it into a borscht belt style standup routine.
Anyway, I was shocked to know the guy was still alive today, let alone still actively doing his schtick. It turns out when he started he was really young, as he took over (hence the monicker son) from another guy. Here’s a retrospective from over 30 years ago, when he had already racked up 300 shows.
I don’t know too much about how the idea of horror hosts began, but they, of course, go way back before I was ever born, to the 1950s. There’s a decidedly old-world charm to them similar to having your own local Dumbo the clown.
At any rate, in the 80s there were two horror hosts vying for my loyalty, Svengoolie, who appealed more to the nerdy side, playing during the day, and Elvira, who was shown late at night on one of the lesser known UHF channels.
Now, it’s hard to imagine in this day and age, but the Elvira program felt very risque in the early to mid 80s. For one thing, she sported more exposed cleavage than you’d see just about anywhere on mainstream TV, made worse by constantly shuffled around in her chair in such a way that deliberately jiggled them. Even if Elvira never opened her mouth, the way she prsented herself was a college course in sexy body-language. What you got when she did open her mouth was Mae West sexual innuendo with an 80s valley girl twang.
Few people really thought of Elvira as anything other than the fictional character she was. That’s because the character herself was brought to life with such conviction, and Cassandra Peterson herself kept a pretty low profile, but even then there was a bit of behind the scenes footage. I never saw it, but thanks to Youtube, it’s now instantly accessible.
She also treated the character as if she were a virtual actress, having Elvira either show up as herself (ala Zsa Zsa gabor) or a similar trash-talking goth type, like this guest spot on Nash Bridges. (This example is kind of late in the game, but it’s the only one I could dig up on Youtube.)
Her TV show back in the 80s had a cult following, one that adolescent boys like me were happy enough to keep a quiet about (filed away in the same bucket as our obsessions with Mary Ann, Ginger, and Jeannie). But then, strangely enough, she made a feature film, something none of the horror hosts were capable of doing, and I thought it was actually pretty good, despite only having a 47% on Rotten Tomatoes.
It’s just one of my guilty pleasures.
I could write an entire blog post about this movie, but the most amazing thing about it is that it manages to take a worldly slutty stripper archetype and somehow make her feel family-friendly. The way Elvira did this was by never taking anything about her seriously, including her sexuality. Even when she was doing the equivalent of a striptease routine, she did it with such a sense of self-deprecating humor that it seems to be asking more for laughs than titillation, hence it earning a generous PG-13 rather than R rating.
The sad thing about Elvira is that she had more potential as a character but I guess it was difficult to base stories around her in a way that maintained her vaudevillian charm and spontaneity. Of course, Youtube archives everything, including her failed pilot. This (funny but predictable) punchline, probably not suitable for broadcast TV prior to 1993 when this was produced, is probably the only real laugh.
Her second film wasn’t nearly as good, but it was at least a testament to her longevity that she could still pull off the role, something she’s still managing to do today, even though she keeps saying she’ll quit. She just released a book last fall that seems interesting.
By the time we get into the 90s we’ve exited the childhood period for Generation-X, so by definition nothing more recent is going to resonate as much. I was aware of Mystery Science Theater 3000, but I wasn’t exposed to it very much. When I eventually did start to see some of it, I just could never get into it. I think the fundamental reason why I dislike it is the premise itself, which is to have the hosts actively “heckle” at the screen.
Here’s an example of their schtick.
If I were watching movies with friends, I just don’t like having them try to interject like this. Even with a crappy B-movie, I just want to watch it. What Elvira and Svengoolie do is pause and interrupt the picture. Interrupting is more acceptable because you still get to see the entire movie intact. But having the constant nattering and shouting at the screenlike some sort of drunken commentary track is just not my cup of tea. Also, the need to keep up this constant blabbering means most of the attempts at humor fall flat.
In comparison, Svengoolie is really more of a film historian than anything else, and while he sometimes takes the stuffing out of the films he shows, for the most part, he’s fair. Elvira’s show tended to feature the worst grade-Z schlock. She wasn’t likely to air classics like the original Universal monster movies. It would be stuff so obscure you never even knew it existed. So her interjections were really the only thing worth watching.
The thing you need to do with horror hosting is have wit. Wit is like the gift of gab. It’s what people do when they seize on a thread in a conversation and draw a connection to something else. It’s a real skill. You either have it or you don’t. Svengoolie doesn’t really have wit. I’d say 90% of his jokes fall flat, but he’s aware his jokes aren’t that good, hence the rubber chickens that get thrown at him. Svengoolie himself is therefore the real joke. Elvira’s interjections always seemed to have genuine wit. But the MST3K commentary just feels like random drunken gibberish. I know some people like that, but I don’t. The fact you’ve got a couple of puppets involved doesn’t save it for me.
At any rate, other than Svengoolie, I don’t know of any other horror hosts actively plying their trade in the classic sense of the world. When he’s done, their fire will go out in the galaxy, and with it, another part of my childhood. Enjoy it while it lasts.