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AMERICAN SCARY (2006)
Director: John E. Hudgens
Cinema Libre Studio

There have been many documentaries produced on horror films concerning both the talents behind and in front of the cameras in recent years, but here’s one that tackles a popular commodity not tackled as a whole until now: Horror Hosts. Though various horror hosts have been celebrated in various video dedications, AMERICAN SCARY exclusively examines the spectrum of this phenomenon spawned from the budget-limited local U.S. television stations being as creative as they could to garner ratings, thus giving birth to a number of homegrown iconic cult figures, some more recognizable than others.

During the 1950s, before syndicated TV was introduced, individual local stations across the USA began to inventively spice up their horror film programming (namely, the “Shock Theatre” package of Universal horror films), so a macabre, droll or eccentric character (often played by someone who had already worked for a specific station in some capacity) was created to play host, often performing self-written humorous skits acted out on a small soundstage. Soon, hosts such as Vampira (played by Maila Nurmi) and Zacherley (played by John Zacherle), who began his horror hosting career Philadelphia as "Roland" before moving to New York, became household names (but that pretty much depended on what part of the country you lived in). As more genre films became available for television in the 1960s and 1970s, other nationwide horror hosts followed, including Ghoulardi (Ernie Anderson), Bill 'Chilly Billy' Cardille, Bob Wilkins, Svengoolie (Jerry G. Bishop) and tons of others. Horror hosts seemed to thrive on the boob tube well up until the early 1990s, but when local late-night TV became inundated with infomercials and other perfunctory paid programming, they pretty much died out. Today, a new generation of horror hosts keeps the tradition alive on public access TV and on the internet.

Without the use of narration, AMERICAN SCARY lets the onscreen talent (of which there are many participants) tell their stories and various experiences and shed light on their love of horror hosts. Though not really being chronological, the documentary pretty much commences with the significance of the legendary Vampira (the late Nurmi) and Zacherly, both who are interviewed. What follows is further delightful tributes to other horror hosts from many of the hosts themselves (though Cassandra “Elvira” Peterson is absent) as well as fans and historians (including the late Forry Ackerman, critic Leonard Maltin, actor Curtis Armstrong, historians Don Glut and Bob Burns, make-up great Tom Savini, actress Patricia Tallman and many others). Some of the other hosts present for interviews include Big Chuck & Li'l John (Chuck Schodowski and John Rinaldi), Count Gore De Vol (Dick Dyzel), The Ghoul (Ron Sweed), Son of Ghoul (Keven Scarpino), Svengoolie (Jerry Bishop), Stella (Karen Scioli), the late Bob Wilkins and his “Creature Features” successor John Stanley, Crematia Mortem (Roberta Solomon), Chilly Billy (Bill Cardille), Joe Bob Briggs (John Bloom) and Commander USA (James Hendricks). Numerous modern-day horror hosts, who currently grace public access TV and the Web, are also present, as well as Mystery Science Theater 3000’s Joel Hodgson. You’ll also witness numerous (and some very rare) horror host program clips, including some vintage material with Vampira.

Never pretentious, controversial or dull, AMERICAN SCARY ultimately succeeds in what it sets out to do. That is to convince those unfamiliar and unenlightened about this unique art form that it’s something as akin to Americana as baseball and apple pie. It’s a very fun and entertaining 92 minutes, and in many ways is fresher than other recent horror-themed documentaries as its clear-cut subject is not something overexposed, nor are the majority of interviewees. Due to time restraints and the impossibility of covering every single horror host (more on this is touched upon in the commentary), AMERICAN SCARY does overlook some renowned individuals (including Larry "Seymour” Vincent, Sammy Terry and Sid “Morgus the Magnificent” Noel for example), but the filmmakers should be given accolades for accomplishing the most extensive documentary on the subject to date, and a very entertaining one at that.

With interviews professionally shot on videotape, AMERICAN SCARY is presented 1.78:1 anamorphic and looks quite good, with the various black and white and color archive footage naturally varying in quality but never looking unacceptable, especially when put into context. The mono audio is clean and well-mixed, completing a very solid direct-to-DVD effort.

A running audio commentary with director John E. Hudgens and writer Sandy Clark is energetic and clearly displays how their hearts were into the project (which was shot over period of a few years) from the start. They discuss how the documentary came to be, some of the difficulties during the making, behind-the-scenes stories about their interview subjects, and they also address some of the things that were removed from the film in order to make its running time manageable. At times, the background audio of the film is played too loud during the commentary, and sometimes tends to drown out the conversation, but this is a minor complaint. Other extras include additional interview footage with Bob Burns, Ernie Anderson (archival footage from the 1980s), Maila Nurmi, John Zacherle and comic legend Tim Conway (a longtime friend and associate of Ernie Anderson). There’s also extra interview footage centering on Texas horror hosts (including Nashville’s Sir Cecil Creape), footage of a wedding between two young horror hosts at a Cinema Wasteland convention, a 2004 promo reel and two different promotional trailers. Trailers for AMERICAN ZOMBIE and AMERICAN SHOPPER (also available from Cinema Libre Studio) round out the supplements. Highly recommended.

For more information on AMERICAN SCARY, check out the official Website HERE. (George R. Reis)

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