Armagideon Time

The above excerpt from the August 19, 1957 issue of Billboard covers what was probably the single most important trigger for the “monstermania” of the late Fifties and early Sixties.

Running cinematic releases over the airwaves was a contentious subject during the early years of television. Movie studios, already feeling squeezed on multiple fronts, were reluctant to provide content for what was seen as an upstart rival medium. The movies that did manage to filter down to the small screen were forgettable drek, barely adequate to hold down the opening half of a third-run matinee.

This situation began its slow turnaround in the mid-Fifties when Screen Gems, Columbia Pictures TV production wing (with a name re-purposed from its old animation arm), started syndicating the studio’s film library — including Three Stooges shorts — to TV stations.

Shortly afterward, Columbia gained the rights to distribute Universal’s pre-1948 film library, including its deep bench of thrillers. Bundled under the “Shock Theater” header, it was farmed out to local markets and presented by a variety of home-grown hosts working their own variants of the spookshow angle.

All the iconic players of the Golden Age of cinematic monster were liberated from the revival theater circuit and beamed out to a new generation of impressionable minds. It’s no co-incidence that Famous Monsters of Filmland hit the newsstands the following year. And although Hammer’s Curse of Frankenstein dropped a few months before Shock Theater was launched, the studio’s stateside fortunes got a symbiotic updraft from the revived interest in the classic gallery of celluloid ghouls.

It’s a perfect example of pop culture as the confluence of art, commerce, and appetite. In other words, right up my alley (with the added bonus of source material I genuinely dig).

Recommended listening:

That’s right, kiddies. We used to get our monster movie fixes on magnetic tape spooled inside a hard plastic shell. And those suckers weren’t cheap, either. Even the discount bins at dead retail chains like the dreaded Suncoast Video or the terrible Tower Records ran as much if not more than the day-one DVD release of a current blockbuster does.

And even if you could work up the scratch and unholy will to buy one of these fragile beasts, you’d have to deal with >a cantankerous hunk of technology that was prone to eating your expensive prize alive — leaving only a messy spool of knotted tape and a whole lot of heartbreak behind.

Even if it avoided this ordeal, the purchase was ultimately fated to gather dust in the attic or be used as an impromptu building block by some toddler. The luckiest ones found a permanent home gathering dust in a Goodwill. Most simply rotted in damp basements or were hauled out by the boxload to the curb on trash day.

Recommended listening:

Spiderman, Spiderman.

Rents out rooms when he can.

Drains his tenants by surprise.

But an angry spouse makes sure he fries.

Too bad, it seemed like a solid plan.

(“Spiderman and His Web of Doom” from The Thing #7, March 1953; illustrated by Bob Forgione)

Recommended listening: One slice of low-budget sleaze deserves another.

My good pal, occasional collaborator, and Destiny brother Daniel Butler was doing quick sketch card commissions a while back, so I threw some cash his way for a quartet of favorite horror flick characters.

Mythic Helen (Virginia Madsen) from Candyman and Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) from Halloween were for Maura, and Verden Fell (Vincent Price) from The Tomb of Ligeia and Christiane Génessier (Edith Scob) from Les Yeux sans visage were for me.

(We wanted something that was more than just the usual spookshow suspects, but still visually distinctive.)

Daniel did a bang-up job on the set, and I plan on framing them when the opportunity permits.

Recommended listening:

…but their special relationship preceded their death and, quite frankly, is none of your business.

(The redundant captions which accompany the illustrations in the third edition D&D core rulebooks are strangely endearing, like a fantasy RPG homage to old comics where Batman would say “Here’s a punch!” while punching someone and the caption box would read “BATMAN PUNCHES THE ROBBER.”)

Recommended listening: If the coffin is rattling, don’t be tattling.

Casper: “I’m the spirit of a dead child, forced to walk this earth forever!”

Bozo: “I’m the grinning, grease-painted inspiration for countless childhood nightmares!”

Matty: “slip the flensing knife close to the bone and pull firmly but be sure to trap the juices in a pail for later don’t let the screams and moans bother you in time they will sound like the music of the spheres but always remember to save one portion in nine for the That Which Dwells Below lest you break the covenant that brings forth this rich red harvest its secrets have become ours and hesitation is a mark of weakness”

Recommended listening: From the locked cabinet of the music library.

The Seventies were a time of terror, and I’m not just talking about the fashion styles.

The upheavals of the late Sixties ushered in a Strange New Decade of heightened anxiety and an loosening of cultural mores. The face of the looming unknown took a multitude of shapes, with a significant number reflecting those subcurrents of panic.

It seemed like Satan was everywhere, expanding his media exposure on multiple fronts. Strange invaders from beyond lurked by every rural road and cattle farm, seeking to abduct or mutilate unwitting victims according to some esoteric agenda. All manner of vicious predators lurked beneath the surface — devouring hapless swimmers at the local beach or luring some ignorant tourists to their gory doom. Sci-fi plumbed the depths of dystopian outcomes.

These fictional nightmares existed in symbiosis with the litany of horrors on the nightly news — the energy crisis, killer bees, serial killers, nuclear “mishaps,” toxic waste dumps, and countless others offered up as a daily dose of apocalypticism.

This is the world I spent the first eight years of my life in, my initial and enduring impression of How Things Are. I’m still trying to understand (if not extricate myself from) its long term effects. I’ve had some success in that ongoing process, but I don’t think I’ll every fully comprehend the nightmare of the cast of a cancelled sitcom acting in character while they host a variety show whose signature spectacle was synchronized swimming.

Recommended listening: More evergreen than Evergreen.

A twitter pal recently reminded me of The Devil Bat, a 1940 PRC thriller in which a vengeful scientist (played by Bela Lugosi) uses radioactive aftershave and trained giant bats (played by comically unconvincing puppets) to dispatch folks he believes wronged him.

The film is standard “poverty row” fare, a mediocre murder mystery given a spookshow veneer and cranked out to fill back forty of a third-run fleapit’s double feature. I’ve watched and forgotten scores of similar flicks over the years, but what makes The Devil Bat stand out is how I first stumbled across it.

During my primary school days, when both of my parents held full-time jobs, staying home sick meant being left to my own devices. Going outside was verboten, as was playing videogames on my Atari 2600, because doing so might give the game away in the case I was faking an ailment (which, more often than not, I was). So I’d gather a thick stack of comics from my collection and crawl into my parents’ room to watch TV from nine AM to five PM.

For some reason, I gravitated towards the seven-hour block of edu-programming broadcast on the local PBS affiliate during the school day. The programs were fascinatingly weird, produced during the last decade and a half, and running a gamut of topics from moral instruction to long division. The cheap sets and dated fashions gave the shows a surreal vibe, like watching a transmission from some unfinished pocket dimension.

On one of these stay-home days, the folks who programmed these blocks dropped in something outside the norm. It wasn’t the usual trippy edu-fare, but a longer program which bundled a creaky old B&W film with period appropriate cartoons, shorts, newsreels, and public service announcements. The idea was to holistically replicate the original theatrical experience, and it was unlike anything I’d ever seen before.

The episode I caught featured The Devil Bat, and it left me hungry for more. Unfortunately, it was the only episode I ever caught, despite strategically faking additional illnesses in hopes of coming across it again. I mentioned the program to my 1930s obsessed mom, but she had no idea what I was talking about, nor did the various other folks I’ve asked over the decades.

It has lingered in my thoughts as a stray yet vivid memory, one of my earliest experiences with the notion of contexual importance in cultural history, that “lost” ephemera is just as important as the familiar material which managed to filter down through time.

UPDATE: As I was writing this, I suspected that either Ken Reid or Jack Feerick would solve the mystery within an hour of posting. Sure enough, Jack ID’ed the program as Matinee at the Bijou, which apparently ran for five seasons.

Recommended listening:

As far as teleporter accidents went, it could’ve been worse.

That didn’t stop Bigelow from cursing his carelessness. Why did he accept the crate of vegetables from his co-worker’s garden? Why didn’t put them on a table instead of place where he could accidentally bump the box with his foot and send a stray onion rolling across the tiles? Why, God, why did skip that last check of the transmission pad?

Hindsight was useless. This is who he was now. While he would’ve preferred a hardy winter squash for his unplanned molecular hybridization, at least his genetic structure hadn’t been mixed with a beefsteak tomato. His bulbous shivered at the idea of his head turning gray and rancid after a few days.

An onion, at least, would keep — as long as he confined himself to cool, dry places.

Gloria did not handle the news well. There were tears in her eyes when first beheld his new form. Bigelow wanted to believe it was because he accidentally peeled himself shaving, but he knew the truth. He grabbed a few things from the house and took up residence in a rented root cellar by the warehouse district.

It had only been a few days, but he had already given up on finding a cure for his condition. The frantic calculations and single-minded hope had given way to apathy, which in turn gave way to placid acceptance.

And then there were the dreams. Unearthly visions of strange blossoms floating on the surface of a white viscous sea. Of being separated by gleaming silver planes and joining a greater whole. Of swimming in a pool of hot grease in preparation for communion with some red-dripping slice of dead flesh.

Each night the dreams grew more vivid, as if Bigelow was slowly but surely reaching some form of apotheosis. The idea terrified him, and yet he trembled in anticipation at its arrival.

Recommended listening:

Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscrib’d
In one self place; but where we are is hell,
And where hell is, there must we ever be.

- The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

Recommended listening: More “Down South” diabolism.

(panels from “What’s So Hot About a Ghost?” from Hot Stuff The Little Devil #123, July 1974)

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