I've been thinking hard about becoming one of those "cord-cutters" I've been hearing so much about, and finally dumping my cable television subscription. At this stage of my life, cable is a nearly useless frivolity nowhere near worth its monthly purchase price. Frankly, I simply just don't watch that much TV anymore - or at least the TV the cable companies want me to watch. I could care less about the endless variety of "reality" shows and singing/dancing contests that befoul the airwaves nowadays - I wouldn't watch Duck Dynasty, Naked & Afraid or Dancing With The Stars at gunpoint. And don't get me started regarding network television - it's all so samey; either bland sitcoms (I once tried to sit through episodes of The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men - I didn't make it to the first commercial break) or gussied-up whodunit dramas (seriously, how many versions of CSI/NCIS/WTF do they air each week?). If it weren't for The Daily Show, South Park, Downton Abbey and the occasional Ken Burns documentary on PBS, I'd rarely have the set on at all during the year.
In many ways, it feels odd now to feel so ambivalent about television; for folks my age, TV was an essential and formative experience in our lives from nearly the very start.
As I got older and was allowed to stay up later, my taste in TV shows continued to skew to programs made and marketed for adults, moving away from fluff like Family Affair, The Courtship of Eddie's Father and Nanny & The Professor and into things that were on past 8:30 pm, like Alias Smith and Jones (alas, Pete Duel . . . he could have
I can't really say that absorbing these 'grown-up' shows at a young age affected me all that much. I mean, watching the fistfights, car crashes and gunplay on Mannix didn't desensitize me to violence, or turn me into some kind of sociopath later in life. I'm sure that, like me, you've heard stories of kids during the 1950s who would watch George Reeves' Superman program, then go out and injure themselves by tying capes to their necks and jumping off the roof of their homes. I've always considered those tales to be mostly apocryphal - kids aren't really as stupid and impressionable as adults think they are, and learn at a very early age what is real and possible in real life and on TV, and what's not. Even back then, I knew that commercial spaceflights, blind detectives and pretty blonde witch-wives didn't really exist. I got it - I just enjoyed the programs.
But there was one aspect about watching those sort of shows relatively late into the evening that had a profound effect on my mind and soul - the Seventies were the Golden Age of classic horror movie trailers airing during breaks, commercials seemingly tailor-made to scare the absolute piss out of any little kids who might happen to be awake that time of night. I couldn't tell you how many times I would be watching TV by myself or with my siblings in a darkened den, when suddenly one of those goddamn things would fill the screen! None of us could get out of the room fast enough, screaming with fright and holding our hands to our ears to block out the sound! It got to the point where, for a couple of years, whenever a show faded to an ad break, I would get up and stand near the doorway to the room, so I could quickly make my escape should something scary pop up on screen.
Here's a prime example of the sort of stuff that would rear its head at any time during the night; this film trailer used to jolt the absolute bejesus out of me when I was seven:
At the time, there was something about seeing a frog with a human hand hanging out of its mouth that just scared the crap out of me . . . so much so, that my dad used to tease me back then by saying "Hey, son!", then putting his arm up to his mouth so that it looked like his hand was sticking out! It never failed to upset me back then, but looking back, it seems pretty funny now.
Here's another one from later in the 70s that was also a guaranteed late-night kiddie room-clearer in my house . . . this trailer is still unnervingly creepy today - just listen to that voice:
As frightening as the movie trailers were, in many ways they had nothing on what used to appear as regular fare on the networks back then. Probably a lot of you are too young to remember, but back in the Sixties and Seventies, the Big Three used to have weekly-scheduled movie series - shows like The CBS Friday Night Movies, NBC Tuesday Night at the Movies, The ABC Movie of the Week (I used to love the opening for the latter - great music, and from what I understand, one of the first examples of computer graphics on television):
These movie anthology shows started out in the 60s, showing old Hollywood B movies and the like, but by the end of that decade, the networks wised up and stopped paying the film studios for their hoary old castoffs and box-office flops, instead producing and airing their own "made for TV" movies. A lot of the home-grown stuff they showed on these programs was crap - tepid family fare, or pilots for possible future TV shows (long-running series like Kojak, Columbo and The Six Million Dollar Man started out as one-shot movie pilots on these programs).
But in some cases, the networks aired some pretty interesting, innovative stuff. For example, the car-truck cat-and-mouse thriller Duel, Stephen Spielberg's first big directorial effort, was a TV movie that was subsequently released to theaters. And the immortal sports classic Brian's Song, with Billy Dee Williams and James Caan as Chicago Bears running backs Gale Sayers and the doomed Brian Piccolo, also began as a Movie of the Week.
But where these made-for-TV movie programs really kicked out the jams was with the mysteries and horror movies they sometimes aired. I recall seeing The House On Greenapple Road (a superb early '70s detective classic that led to the show Dan August) and being jolted by its rather graphic depiction (for that period) of the aftermath of a grisly murder. I remember seeing another creepfest around that time, When Michael Calls, about a woman receiving phone calls from her presumably dead son. And of course there was the still-classic Trilogy of Terror in 1975 - anyone else remember that doll with the razor-sharp teeth attacking Karen Black in her apartment?
But for me, the hands-down gold standard for made-for-TV horror when I was a kid was a movie shown on ABC in the fall of 1973, Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark:
In this film, a house full of particularly disturbing-looking goblins (that only come out at night, of course) set out to capture or kill the new tenants occupying their home. I sat and watched this one with my brother in our basement family room in Wisconsin, and for MONTHS afterwards, we couldn't enter a room at night without reaching around from the outside and switching the lights on first . . . and for a long time after that, I looked at wall heating grates with fear and apprehension. The ending of this movie (and no, I won't give it away here) is one of the all-time great downbeat horror endings. All in all, the tone and atmosphere of this film lived long in my memory, up until the present day (apparently, I wasn't the only one - director Guillermo Del Toro has been quoted as saying this movie scared the hell out of him as well when he was a kid).
As scary as these television movies were, I think that in some small way, I benefited from experiencing them, in that as I got older, there were fewer and fewer things that could really put the fear of God in me. Before I reached double-digits, I was a thrill ride aficionado, and couldn't wait to ride the roller coasters and other exciting rides at Busch Gardens and Kings Dominion every summer. My friends and I used to play in the woods near our homes well into the night, running through the trees in pitch blackness without trepidation. And I routinely walked home from a buddy's house on gloomy evenings through a long, dark and narrow path through a forest - I never gave it much of a thought at the time.
I look at my kids today - who refuse to ride coasters with me at amusement parks, who rarely if so much as walk across the street at dusk to see their friends, and who recoil with fear and revulsion whenever I suggest we settle in for the night with a classic scary movie like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Shining - and just shake my head sometimes. I think that kids today are scared of a lot more things for a lot longer, because so many of them have been protected for so long from experiencing frightening or disturbing things. And that's a shame. Oh well . . .
I'm a grown man now, jaded and cynical after all of these years . . . and yet there are still a couple of things that just freak me right the hell out. For example:
I bought Death Proof on DVD a couple of years later, to complete my Tarantino collection. For the most part, it's a pretty decent, entertaining film . . . but to this day I avoid watching that particular crash scene. I can't describe how or why it gets to me - I'm not squeamish, and I don't think I'm particularly sensitive. It's just a scene and an experience I have no interest in knowing all that much detail about.
Other than Death Proof, there's probably only one other film that still fills me with the same sort of shock, horror and dread - the original Night Of The Living Dead.
"Night Of The Living Dead?", you may be asking yourself - "That cheap-ass black-and-white zombie-attack throwback from the Sixties - are you kidding? Hell, there aren't even any decent special effects in that movie!" Yes, all of that is pretty much true. But it's that lack of production values - the grainy footage, natural lighting and settings, and odd camera angles - that makes NOTLD what it is. It comes off as less a film and more of almost a documentary, a chronicle of actual events that occurred that night. There's an undercurrent of realism that runs through the movie - in the movements, mindsets and actions of the various victims in relation to their plight - that makes you feel not only like "this really happened", but also "this CAN really happen".
And despite its lack of color, the film contains some of the most shocking scenes in horror film history. It goes without saying that zombie movies as we know them today basically didn't exist before 1968. With Night Of The Living Dead, director George Romero not only invented the genre, he also introduced an unprecedented depiction of gore rarely seen before that time. Animated dead bodies feeding visibly on human flesh and entrails was jolting back then, to audiences more used to the restrained 'shock' of a Christopher Lee Hammer Horror film or a Hitchcock flick. It remains jolting today.
The scene in NOTLD that always gets me is near the end, when the zombiefied little girl eats her father, then hacks her mother to death with a paving trowel in the basement . . . To me, that's a profoundly messed-up segment, with the girl's arm rising and falling again and again, and the sound of the trowel entering her mother's chest, over and over - brrrr! For me, unwatchable.
Not much thought was given to compiling a Night Of The Living Dead soundtrack when the movie was completed in the late '60s. In fact, it wasn't until more than a decade later that anyone got around to doing so. The album is full of good ol' '60s-style incidental suspense/horror film music, along with a fair amount of dialogue from the film. Apparently, it didn't sell very well - to the best of my knowledge, this disc has never been released on CD.
So here for your listening pleasure is Night Of The Living Dead (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack), released on vinyl by the label Varese Sarabande in 1982. I hope that this soundtrack helps set the tone for your scary and spooky Halloween night. So have fun, and enjoy! And as always, let me know what you think.
(As for myself, I have no particular plans this evening, after the final trick-or-treater departs. I don't know . . . I guess I'll just stay in and watch some TV . . .)
Please use the email link below to contact me, and I will reply with the download link(s) ASAP:
Here's a fun fact: a small snippet from the final selection on this soundtrack album, "Funeral Pyre (End Title)", was used in one of the most disturbing (and yet hilarious) cartoon scenes of all time, the 'Call The Police' segment of Ren & Stimpy's "Rubber Nipple Salesmen" episode on Nickelodeon. If you've never had the chance to experience it . . . bon appetit (and keep in mind that this was a show for children):