Director: Riff Markowitz
Empire Pictures

After coming home from school during that incredible year of 1975, tykes like me were looking for any unusual afternoon boob tube diversions. With the fair share of reruns of “The Monkees,” “The Flintstones,” and “Woody Woodpecker” getting tired, that very year, New York’s Channel 5 started airing an outrageous shot-on-video monster-themed show entitled “The Hilarious House of Frightenstein,” and it became the subject of bus school banter for quite some time. Little did we know that the show was already a few years old and hailed from Canada: what we did know was that the familiar face and voice of Vincent Price was in it, and there was enough live action weirdness to hold our attention.

Originally produced in 1971, “The Hilarious House of Frightenstein” was first broadcast as a Canadian Saturday morning kid’s show, and years later it was syndicated throughout the U.S. It’s very hard to describe, but I guess you can compare it to something like “Laugh-In,” only aimed at children and having to do with monsters and anything unusual. There was no theme for the show, and it often employed an erratic style of editing, mixing friendly ghouls and array of eccentric sorts, running sight gags, some educational bits, and even spins of popular rock & roll records. The main cast member was the talented Billy Van, who played the lead character The Count, a very mod vampire who is apparently condemned to his castle until he can re-animate his monster, Brucie – a stuffed dummy lying on a slab, wearing a Don Post Karloff Frankenstein mask. Brucie never did get off that slab throughout the duration of the show, but I recall a kid on the school bus, fabricating to me that he did, all those years ago.

Other actors in the show included Fishka Rais (CANNIBAL GIRLS) as the Tor Johnson-sized Igor, and like The Count, wore heavy green skin make-up. Vincent Price introduces it (with his head superimposed over a smoky castle), does the send-off, and in between, spurts some amusing little passages with a light macabre tinge to them. Price only worked on the show for a few days, and his segments were spread throughout what is said to be 126 original episodes. Other cast members included “little person” Guy Big (Midget Count), Mitch Markowitz (Mosquito, Super Hippy), Julius Sumner Miller (The Professor), and puppeteer Joe Torbay, but they are hardly witnessed on the four episodes here; some of them don't appear at all.

Aside from The Count, Billy Van displayed his true talents by playing a number of varied characters in different voices and make-up, including Grizelda The Gourmet, Bwana Clyde Batty, Dr. Pet Vet, The Maharishi, The Librarian and The Wolfman. The Wolfman is a favorite of followers of the show, with Van doing a dead-on impersonation of famed radio personality Wolfman Jack. The Wolfman was a dungeon disc jockey who would spin records and then danced (often with Igor) as his silhouette appeared on a kaleidoscope screen of psychedelic colors. The Wolfman was always introduced with the familiar opening riff of Sly and the Family Stone’s "I Want To Take You Higher” and he took a fake request over the phone, usually playing a hit song from the 60s or early 70s. On this DVD set, The Wolfman plays such hits as “In the Summertime” by Mungo Jerry, “Jimmy Mack” by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Diana Ross. It’s amazing that the music rights were cleared on these for the home video release!

It’s hard to properly analyze “The Hilarious House of Frightenstein,” especially since the original hour-long running time was chopped in half for American syndication, as it’s presented here (each episode runs about 22 minutes without commercials). A laugh track filled with giggling children has also been affixed to the U.S. version of the show. On the plus side, you have the talented Van in some pretty good make-ups and a heap of different personalities, some pretty impressive soundstage sets for such a moderate show, and there’s the presence of the legendary Vincent Price alone. Although many Canadians and some U.S. residents hold the series as an innovative classic, it’s certainly not for everyone, so even 22 minutes of it might be heard to stomach. TV buffs who grew up in the 70s with horror hosts and monster mags will most likely find this stuff nostalgic, others will find the juvenile and sometimes tedious humor nauseating. It would be interesting to know what a six or seven year old of today thinks of it!

The quality on Empire Pictures’ first volume (with more to come) of "The Hilarious House of Frightenstein" looks as good as a low budget show shot on video up North could look. There'a a few minor glitches on the video source and some picture softness; otherwise the image and sound are pretty clean. The four episodes here are titled “Glory Glory Transylvania,” “Look Grandpa, a Player Organ,” “Clyde’s Zany Zanky Zoo” and “Dr. Pet Vet Vets His Pet.” It’s too bad some interviews weren’t included, but most of the main cast have passed away (including Van, Rais and Price), so the only extras are bios on Van and Price, some notes about the show’s history, and a still gallery made up of video grab. For more information on this classic TV series, vistit this very cool site: (George R. Reis)