Fright Night on Channel 9: Saturday Night Horror Films on New York’s WOR-TV, 1973-1987 (By James Arena)
Book Review by George R. Reis
If you're anything like me, you’re a life-long monster movie fan over the age of 40. As an adolescent, you were weaned on local TV and had a deep appreciation for the wide variety of programming at your disposable, even if much of it was in the wee hours of the morning. If you were unique and dug horror and sci-fi flicks, local New York TV in the 1970s and most of the 1980s was a goldmine, and you probably couldn’t wait to get a hold of your Sunday newspaper's television section to map out your viewing choices for the next seven days. There were always high hopes for the upcoming weekend to pull through with at least five or six genre pictures, with WOR-TV Channel 9 being a definite champ of the several stations known for serving up what some might consider unsophisticated, low-end pictures. But we knew better than them, didn’t we?
During this era, most of us middle class kids didn’t have VCRs until they became widely popular in the early 1980s, and this is of course was long before you could get almost any movie imaginable on DVD or download. You had to watch movies when they were on (and remember, sometimes a film as reputable as PSYCHO aired at 3 AM) or you didn’t know when you would ever get that golden opportunity to see it again. That was part of the magic of catching pot-luck monster movies on our old tube sets, yet on reflection, we’re now even more appreciative of those memorable yet technologically-challenged times. Perhaps it’s because those memories are over a quarter of a century old, or maybe we just want to relive a better time in our lives when we didn’t have to deal with the pressure of working more than one job to make ends meet or the modern reality of hundreds of cable channels with virtually nothing to chose from except for a rash of trashy reality shows where the unenlightened and untalented become undeservedly famous and ridiculously wealthy.
Alright let me get back to the point here. Being pretty busy and always working to get a couple of nickels to rub together, I don’t have much time to read too many books cover to cover, nor can I afford to purchase the onslaught of genre-related publications (though there sure seem to be a hell of a lot of good ones out there). But here’s something totally dear to my heart. One of my fondest memories of growing up in the New York area was the meaningful education I got (by meaningful education I mean the boob tube), and at the forefront of my studies was WOR Channel 9; especially their Saturday night monster movie showcase, Fright Night. With its opening montage of headshots of various movie monsters (set to some thunderously spooky music), concluding with Glenn Strange’s Frankenstein monster dissolving into a ceramic smoke-filled skull, the experience known as Fright Night is sketched in my cranium for as long as I live.
From 1973 until 1987 (the year that a takeover of the station transformed Channel 9 into an infomerical-infested train wreck), Fright Night aired on late Saturday nights (and additionally, albeit briefly, in 1979, on Sundays), and now James Arena has graced us with his softcover book Fright Night on Channel 9. In his friendly and warm (and sometimes delightfully humorous) writing style, Arena tells the inside story of one of New York TV’s most fondly recalled one-stop for a wide variety of genre flicks. Through its duration, Fright Night aired everything from the Universal classics and creaky creepies from PRC and Monogram, to more modern film packages from the likes of Avco Embassy (giving many their first glimpses of Paul Naschy), Independent International, AIP, Hemisphere Pictures and Film Ventures. Sometimes (at least in the early days of the program) the films were so fresh from drive-in theater playdates or still enjoying extended runs, that they were shown on TV under different titles (HOUSE OF PSYCHOTIC WOMEN became HOUSE OF DOOM for example) to avoid confusion. Poverty row horror, golden age monster movies, Euro gothic, south-of-the-border creatures, grindhouse sleaze and even the occasional Hammer or Toho flick: Fright Night had it all!
Fright Night on Channel 9 is a must for anyone who experienced it with likewise affection, or is just fascinated by the bygone era when local K-Tel record commercial-airing stations were stocked with vast film libraries and actually broadcast them through 16mm projection. There is a story to be told here, and Arena was born to write it. As a youngster, James was probably Fright Night’s most loyal fan, often writing Channel 9 to thank them for continuing to delight him with a consistent weekly time-slot devoted to movie monsters, or express his disappointment when Fright Night was taken off or put on hiatus (which happened several times during its history), to be replaced by far less desirable programming. Arena occasionally got a response from the station, and one of these letters (dated from 1975) is replicated within the book’s pages.
A lot is learned within Fright Night on Channel 9’s pages. The main players behind Fright Night were the late Chris Steinbrunner and Lawrence P. Casey, who is interviewed extensively here and proves to be a fascinating subject. Casey (like Steinbrunner, who co-penned the classic hardcover Cinema of the Fantastic) is a movie fan and horror film enthusiast, and it’s nice to know that some thought and care went into our beloved Fright Night showings, even if some employees at the station referred to it as “Crap Playhouse” and all in all, it was simply a vehicle to get their money’s worth out of the film packages they purchased. Casey remembers Steinbrunner as a “stickler for details and a film purist” and his own well-detailed recollections are the stuff of great behind-the-scenes non-fiction. These guys are alright!
Legendary producer and exploitation film distributor Sam Sherman, is too, as always, a fascinating interview subject. Sherman played a major role in Fright Night’s history, supplying films from his company Independent International (including a few directed by his late partner, Al Adamson) as well his involvement with Hemisphere Pictures, who created a package of some of their drive-in efforts and pick-ups (most of them retitled for television) as “Block of Shock”. To this day, I can’t watch Hemisphere’s Philippines-made “Blood Island” trilogy (BRIDES OF BLOOD, THE MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND and BEAST OF BLOOD retitled on Channel 9 as ISLAND OF LIVING HORROR, TOMB OF THE LIVING DEAD and BEAST OF THE DEAD, respectively) without conjuring up memories of gawking at them on Fright Night. Sherman was instrumental in bringing newer and much desired color movies to the program, and tells a great story about the extreme efforts he had to undertake when two prints being readied for Channel 9 were held hostage at ransom in a bankrupt lab!
Among other subjects surrounding Fright Night, Arena also addresses Channel 9’s prior genre-themed film programs, as well as the channel’s unforgettable announcers (most of them have sadly passed on, but female voice talent Jesse Elin Brown is interviewed and provides some worthwhile insight into this area). The book’s “Part Two” section is a guide to all the films aired on Fright Night in chronological order, with exact dates. This portion of the book could have been a pedestrian rundown permeated by customary capsule reviews, but Arena thankfully doesn’t just do that. He adds his own (and sometimes quite amusing) comments along with quotes from some of the original (and often unflattering) newspaper evaluations (it was obvious that most of the writers of these didn’t even view the films in question). Back in the day, James actually kept a Fright Night journal, so you’ll get specific tidbits about a film print being particularly ratty-looking, an announced movie being suddenly yanked and replaced by another or when the station failed to show the familiar Fright Night bumper or just pre-empted the program altogether.
Even though there are a few errors (years of films conflicting or listed wrongly more than anything too factual) and illustrations are sparse, Fright Night on Channel 9 is highly recommended, as it positively sets out what it means to do: tell the inside story of one New York’s most beloved, long-time showcases for horror films and in doing so, makes for a keepsake reference guide. Fright Night hasn’t been on in decades, and they say you can’t go home again, but reading this book has left me with lingering flashbacks of gazing at such gems as SCREAM OF THE DEMON LOVER, CORRUPTION and LADY FRANKENSTEIN in a dark living room, lighted only by the flickering television which should have been shut off hours ago. I can still attempt my recreations of the Fright Night experience (via my vast DVD collection of most of the films they aired) and now I have the “bible” to guide me through, as well as an indispensable document to refer to, and I will refer to it often!
Fright Night on Channel 9 is now available as a Paperback from McFarland. For more information, visit www.mcfarlandpub.com or call their order line at 800-253-2187.
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