Directors/Producers – Sean Kotz & Chris Valluzzo, Screenplay – Sean Kotz. Production Company – Horse Archer Productions.
Growing up in New Zealand, the concept of the horror host has been an alien one to my childhood. The horror host – usually a ghoulish figure with a tongue-in-cheek name who came dressed in a Halloween costume and cracking atrocious puns – became a feature of various local US tv stations and would introduce the late night horror films they aired. NZ seemed to miss out on the vast cultural backdrop of re-runs of old horror and science-fiction films throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s due to the fact that up until the late 1980s the entire country was only served by two tv channels.
It was always intensely fascinating as one grew up reading articles about various horror hosts in the pages of imports like Famous Monsters of Filmland or Fangoria magazine. One marvelled from a distance at names like Zacherley, Seymour, Dr Paul Bearer and, of course, Vampira who started the horror host phenomenon off in 1954. By the 1980s, names like Elvira and Joe Bob Briggs, as well as the Mystery Science Theater cult, took the horror host phenomenon global, even to countries (like NZ) that had never heard of horror hosts. Mindedly, NZ did briefly jump aboard the phenomenon in the early 1990s and boasted something that US horror host never managed – former Prime Minister Robert Muldoon as a host named Count Robula.
Virginia Creepers is a documentary that charts the rise and popularity of various horror hosts in the Virginia area. I greeted the documentary with variable enthusiasm. I will review all things horror related but Virginia Creepers seems to sit on the periphery of genre material. More to the point, the regional focus is unlikely to have the legs to carry interest in the documentary to people beyond the airing regions of the original programs in question. The filmmakers have devoted a two-hour running time to their topic, leaving one wondering if such niche material would have enough interest to sustain such an investment of time. For all that, I can say the documentary did a fine job of keeping me consistently engrossed throughout.
You cannot deny that Virginia Creepers does a sterling job in exhaustively researching its subject material and producing potted accounts of each of the shows, its host(s) and the behind-the-scenes story. It covers such characters as Jonathan, Ghoualda, Ronald the Ghoul and Hazel Witch from the 1950s, The Great Zucchini, Sir Graves Ghastly, The Bowman Body, Count Gore DeVol and Dr Madblood from the 1970s (with the latter two extending their mutual careers well beyond that) and into the 1980s, The Keeper and Dr Gruesome, as well as latter day arrivals such as Dr Sarcofiguy and Karlos Borloff.
Virginia Creepers is never assembled with the intent of doing anything more than paying tribute to these figures and telling some of the anecdotes from behind the scenes. Filmmakers Sean Kotz and Chris Valluzzo manage to interview an amazing number of the hosts and/or people associated with the shows. We see much archival material of the shows in question, although there is disappointingly no footage from any of the shows that aired before the 1970s. Sometimes the material is covered with an over-exhaustiveness – for example, they include a clip of Sir Graves Ghastly dancing to a promo jingle but in not knowing whether there is a copyright on the song, they choose to re-dub another song over when the logical choice would simply be to condense or cut the sequence altogether. Similarly, the film shows Bill Bowman aka The Bowman Body playing his banjo for us and even interviews a musician on the making of the single released from the show, which any less fannish a documentary would have regarded as irrelevant to the main story.
The upshot of Virginia Creepers is the story of a piece of obscure history – of a group of individualistic men and occasionally women who found their calling putting on fake costumes, fake wigs and even faker East European accents amid raggedy production values where they would ham for the camera and make atrocious puns. The surprise about all of this seems to be just how much these characters developed a fan following and of how their audiences responded to what they did. Mark Bartholomew and Matt Pak, the hosts of Dr Gruesome’s Movie Morgue, tell the story of how they were about to be cancelled by the new station owners and made an on-air appeal, only to be able to go in and up-tip a bag of a thousand letters on the boss’s desk after the weekend.
The horror host is a unique phenomenon. To me, it bridges the period between when most of the movies were made seriously (1930s-50s) and the period when people started to love them as a genre unto itself and mock their technical shortcomings and a period (the 1980s onwards) when we saw a host of deliberately bad movies being made that included numerous homages and in-jokes, something that was no doubt fuelled by filmmakers who grew up as fans of these very shows. The horror host was the first to take watching horror movies out of seeing them in terms of literal interpretation and frame them in terms of making fun of their shortcomings that became an essence of shows like Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988-99, 2017-8).
I was somewhat disappointed in that Virginia Creepers makes little effort to frame the horror hosts in their historic and cultural context or analyse the reasons for the horror host phenomenon – why, for instance, are horror hosts so popular in the US but appear not to have spread to many other countries? The most interesting viewpoint comes from Karlos Borloff who offers a critique of modern slasher films and Saw sequels, calling them too grim and realistic and saying he prefers instead the innocence found in older films for all their shortcomings. I am not sure if I agree – certainly, modern slasher films and Saw sequels are no different from the envelopes that many of the older films pushed in their time – the Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein (1931) was regarded as shocking in its day and in all likelihood 2-3 decades from now, the Saw sequels will be being revived by horror hosts and made fun of for their less primitive look compared to the latest technological fashions.
It is only contemporary horror host/narrator Mr Lobo who puts things in perspective at the end and talks about the uniqueness of Virginia’s legacy in having a stretch of horror hosts that run continuously from the 1950s to the present-day as opposed to other areas where there have been gaps and the phenomenon had to be rediscovered by each new generation after going out of fashion for several years.
Towards the end, all present lament the decline of the horror host, which was largely a phenomenon that grew up out of local tv stations. Nowadays, US television has become homogenised into something that is centrally mass-produced for all regions with little concern for local identity. Furthermore, the buying up of old product amid the massive growth of cable channels during the 1990s, not to mention the arrival of streaming outlets, have made horror hosts and their live-to-air shows outmoded. (That said, Count Gore DeVol tells how he has managed to successfully revive his career as an internet host). As such, Virginia Creepers becomes largely the document of and a loving tribute to a passing era of pop culture history.