Sunday, October 24, 2004

TV: Creature Features

Halloween is coming up fast, so I’ve had horror movies on the brain. Specifically the way I saw all too many of those movies – the Creature Feature. It’s a unique pleasure that’s been denied to an entire generation of film fans.

Growing up in New York, I’d spend every Saturday night watching “Chiller Theater” on WPIX. I’d run home in the dark from seven o’clock mass to catch the opening, because that was the best part of the show. It haunts my dreams to this day: a six-fingered hand rising out of the muck next to a lone dead tree, accompanied by bone-chilling music. You can watch the intro at this website devoted to the show.

And get a load of that line-up of titles, many of which I vividly remember. STANLEY terrified me even though, as Leonard Maltin points out, it’s “WILLARD with snakes.” (Although Michael Weldon, in his PSYCHOTRONIC ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FILM, calls it “BEN with snakes.” Hmm.) I got in trouble with Sister Maureen for doing my imitation of the killer from THE TWISTED BRAIN in the schoolyard.

Moving to Florida was traumatic for a number of reasons, but I got over the loss of “Chiller Theater” when I discovered “Creature Features” on Tampa’s Channel 44. The show’s “massacre of scareimonies” was Dr. Paul Bearer, who’d introduce the movie and do silly comedy bits before and after the commercials. The show aired Saturday afternoons, when my friends would be lying on the beach. I’d be at home, watching Dr. Paul’s “horrible old movie.” I don’t regret my decision. Too much sun is bad for you. The results can be scarier than anything on Dr. Paul’s show.

Most of the films I watched back then are available on video now. You can see them any time you like, without commercials. But watching them in that format added to the experience, made me feel more connected to them. Those local shows are gone now, and I think the world is a little poorer for it.

Cable Catch-up: Deep in My Heart (1954)

Jose Ferrer always struck me as an odd talent. He was theatrical in the mode of actors like John Barrymore, but in a way that suggested a self-mocking awareness of the camera. It’s a style that seems ahead of its time.

In this early Stanley Donen film, unearthed as part of TCM’s month-long tribute to musicals, Ferrer plays Sigmund Romberg. He’s the famous composer of THE STUDENT PRINCE and MAYTIME, not that I knew that before I saw the movie. The great-man-of-music genre may not produce classics, but the films prove surprisingly easy to watch. (Witness my reaction to this year’s DE-LOVELY.) Cyd Charisse has a spellbinding and sexy dance number, and Ann Miller gets to bring down the house. (I missed Gene and Fred Kelly’s only joint film appearance.) But the high point is Ferrer, who pitches his latest show by performing every single role himself. The fact that at this stage of his life, Jose looked exactly like his son Miguel (now on CROSSING JORDAN) only adds to the fun.