Thursday, January 31, 2008

Tennessee Valley horror icon Dr. Shock dies at 75

Tom Reynolds as Dr. Shock, with
Two weeks ago, I noted the passing of horror hostess Maila Nurmi, better known as Vampira. Now I sadly must mark the passing of the Tennessee Valley’s own horror host.

Tom Reynolds died Jan. 20 in Huntsville at age 75. He had worked at WHNT Channel 19 as creative commercial director from the early 1980s until his retirement. But before coming to Huntsville, he became an icon in Chattanooga.

Reynolds’ day job in Chattanooga was working behind the scenes as program director for WTVC Channel 9. But on Saturday nights, his alter ego took over.

Donning a vampire cape and makeup, Reynolds became Dr. Shock, host of WTVC’s “Shock Theater.”

Throughout much of the 1970s, he and his sidekicks — a puppet named Dingbat and a nurse named Nurse Badbody — introduced B-grade horror movies, answered viewer mail and performed comedic skits. Dr. Shock gained a loyal following as much for satirizing local political figures as for sending up bad horror flicks.

Dr. Shock and Dingbat (performed by the late Dan East) “would often push the envelope, straying into controversial territory, offending the wealthy and powerful among us,” reported David Carroll of Chattanooga’s WRBC-TV upon Reynolds’ death. “... But the notoriety of their sometimes naughty behavior just seemed to boost ratings, and advertiser response.”

Dr. Shock made a brief stop at another Chattanooga TV station before Reynolds moved to Huntsville to work at Channel 19. And that’s where I entered the story.

In the early ’80s, Reynolds revived “Shock Theater” at WHNT. But viewers in the Huntsville area got only a glimpse at what had made Dr. Shock a legend in Chattanooga.

At Channel 19, Dr. Shock was a solo act. He made fun of the movies he aired and read viewer mail, but Dingbat and Nurse Badbody were gone, as was the original show’s political satire.

Still, the revived “Shock Theater” managed to make an impression on at least one viewer. As Eric Cartman might say, the show “warped my fragile little mind.”

“Shock Theater” was my first exposure to the Edgar Allan Poe movies that low-budget director/producer Roger Corman made in the 1960s. Just about all of them starred Vincent Price, and it was these colorful, drive-in shockers that cemented Price’s reputation as one of the masters of horror.

Poe, America’s poet laureate of the macabre, was the mainstay of Dr. Shock’s tenure in Huntsville. Apart from Corman/Price collaborations like “The Raven” (also starring Boris Karloff and a young Jack Nicholson) and “The Masque of the Red Death,” Dr. Shock featured oddities like “Spirits of the Dead,” a trilogy of Poe stories directed by Roger Vadim, Louis Malle and Federico Fellini.

These weren’t your typical schlocky horror flicks. These were good movies made by talented filmmakers. They ignited my lifelong obsession with horror movies. Because of them, I’ve scoured flea markets for used videotapes and sent e-mails to movie studios, practically begging them to release various obscure horror films on DVD.

For me, it all started with Dr. Shock. And when I interviewed Reynolds in October 1999, I was surprised when he told me that WHNT aired “Shock Theater” for only a few months.
“Shock Theater” didn’t take off in Huntsville as it had in Chattanooga, but for me, it was the best thing on television. Today, I probably own a copy of every movie Dr. Shock ever aired.

Ever since “Shock Theater” faded to black, there’s been a void. No one has stepped up to be the Tennessee Valley’s next Dr. Shock.

But as Dr. Shock’s many fans will tell you, no one can replace Reynolds. The best anyone can do is carry on the tradition.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Today’s blockbusters were yesterday’s trash

“Cloverfield,” the new film from “Alias” producer J.J. Abrams, had a monster opening weekend, setting a January record with its three-day take of $41 million.

Not bad for a film you can sum up as Godzilla meets “The Blair Witch Project.”

In the 1970s, a movie like “Cloverfield” wouldn’t have been a national hit. It would have been a B movie, seen mostly at rural drive-ins and urban grindhouses. But in the nearly 40 years since the heyday of monster movies and exploitation flicks, genre films have come to define mainstream, blockbuster entertainment.

Of course, today’s genre movies are a lot tamer than the ones that unspooled in the ’70s and early ’80s. For instance, compare “One Missed Call,” a PG-13 horror movie now flopping nationwide, to the movies of the ’70s. The contrast is stark.

I’ve nothing against PG-13 horror movies in theory. An atmospheric ghost story like 2002’s “The Ring” doesn’t need sex and gore to work. But a movie like “One Missed Call,” with its disposable cast of pretty teenagers, is begging for gratuitous violence and even-more-gratuitous nudity.

Otherwise, what’s the point?

“One Missed Call” is an exploitation movie that’s woefully short on exploitation. That’s the pitfall of turning exploitation movies into mainstream fare. It’s a rare film today, like “Hostel” or “Saw,” that pushes the boundaries regularly broken during the grindhouse and drive-in era.

So, while moviegoers were flocking to “Cloverfield” last weekend, I stayed warm at home, hunkered down with some ’70s trash cinema.

BCI Entertainment has released 10 double-feature DVDs under its “Welcome to the Grindhouse” banner. Each features a “grindhouse experience” option that plays a couple of movie trailers, then the first feature, then more trailers and, finally, the second feature. In other words, it’s just like watching a double bill in a rundown theater, except your feet don’t stick to the floor and you’re not in danger of getting mugged. Unless your house is in a bad neighborhood.

My weekend viewing consisted of three double features: “Pick-up” and “The Teacher,” “Malibu High” and “Trip with the Teacher,” and “Black Candles” and “Evil Eye.” The first four are American-made teenagers-in-trouble movies, while the last two are European horror flicks. None is a great work of art, but all except two are entertaining examples of drive-in sleaze.

The bad apples are “Evil Eye,” a plodding story about a man possessed by evil spirits bent on revenge against their killers, and “The Teacher.”

“The Teacher” has its moments, but they’re way too few for a movie that runs 98 minutes, should have run 80 minutes and feels like 120 minutes. This story of an ill-advised relationship between a teacher and her former student (played by Jay “Dennis the Menace” North) often plays like an “ABC Afterschool Special” gone bad. Only with breasts.

Back in the drive-in days, truth in advertising was more of a guideline than a rule. When you see the poster for “Malibu High,” you think “teen sex comedy.” But what you get is a story about a girl who blackmails her teachers, becomes a hooker, gets involved with the mob and ends up a hit woman. And the trailer for “Pick-up” in no way prepares you for watching three hippies experience increasingly bizarre flashbacks and hallucinations while stuck in the Florida Everglades.

Lastly, a few words of warning. “Trip with the Teacher” is a nasty piece of work that desperately wants to be “The Last House on the Left,” complete with a similarly psychotic heavy, played here by future “Red Shoe Diaries” producer Zalman King.

“Black Candles,” meanwhile, reinforces a theory of mine that all ’70s Spanish occult films are thinly veiled excuses for Satanic orgy scenes, often involving people you don’t want to see naked. For that and other reasons, it’s not for the easily offended.

Of course, that’s why they don’t make ’em like they used to.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Vampira, the first horror hostess, dies at 86

Maila Nurmi as Vampira.
Last week saw the passing of a television pioneer.

Actress and pin-up model Maila Nurmi was born Maila Elizabeth Syrjäniemi in 1921 in Finland. She moved with her family to the United States when she was 2. But fans of low-budget and no-budget horror movies will always remember her as Vampira, the first horror movie hostess.

Nurmi died in her sleep Jan. 10 at age 86.

Nurmi made TV history in 1954, when she debuted on Los Angeles’ KABC-TV as the star of “The Vampira Show.” As Vampira, Nurmi became the model horror hostess, mixing horror movies, humor and a plunging neckline, all to the delight of her fans.

She introduced old horror films like the Bela Lugosi feature “White Zombie,” acted out comedy bits with her pet spider Rollo, and invited her viewers to write in for epitaphs instead of autographs.

Nurmi based her look on Morticia Addams, a character in Charles Addams’ “Addams Family” cartoons. She had worn the costume at a ball and attracted the attention of a KABC producer who later hired her to host the channel’s late-night horror movies.

Unfortunately, “The Vampira Show” aired live, and no known footage of Vampira’s host segments exists. Also, the show lasted barely a year. After a contract dispute with ABC, Nurmi took her character to rival station KHJ-TV. The new show, however, was also short-lived. Still, Vampira’s influence extended far beyond her stint on Los Angeles television. She appeared in Life magazine and inspired fan clubs worldwide.

Nurmi crossed paths with Hollywood royalty, including James Dean. But, as she recalled in a 1994 People magazine interview, after her TV show’s demise, she was “scraping by on $13 a week.”
It was then that she agreed to the career move for which she is best known today.

In 1958, Edward D. Wood Jr., who had already made such schlocky drive-in movies as “Bride of the Monster” and “Glen or Glenda,” cast Nurmi in his most infamous film: “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” often cited as the worst movie ever made.

Billed as Vampira and wearing her TV-show costume, Nurmi shared the screen with Wood’s bizarre acting troupe, which by then included The Amazing Criswell, professional wrestler Tor Johnson and stock film footage of Bela Lugosi, who died in 1956.

Nurmi didn’t have any lines, but the image of Vampira haunting the movie’s wobbly graveyard set as a reanimated corpse became iconic. Actress/model Lisa Marie would replicate it decades later, portraying Vampira in Tim Burton’s 1994 film “Ed Wood.”

By the early 1980s, Nurmi was in negotiations to bring “The Vampira Show” back to television. But when the deal fell through, the show’s producers turned to a new actress, Cassandra Peterson, and a new character: Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

The Vampira character clearly influenced Elvira, but Peterson’s performance was remarkably different — part punk, part goth and part Valley Girl. Nurmi sued Peterson, but the court dismissed the case, ruling that the similarities were not sufficient grounds for legal action. Elvira would go on to heights of fame and fortune Vampira would never see.

For her part, Nurmi didn’t fully exploit Vampira’s merchandising potential until late in life. But she nevertheless continued to cultivate a loyal cult following, and “Vampira: The Movie,” a documentary about Nurmi’s enduring character, was released in 2006.

Meanwhile, others continue the Vampira legacy. The latest is Ivonna Cadaver (Natalie Popovich), host of “Macabre Theater,” seen on small TV stations nationwide via the America One network. Locally, “Macabre Theater” airs on Athens-based ZTV at either midnight Saturday or 1 a.m. Sunday, depending on America One’s other programming.

Like many pioneers, Nurmi didn’t get the credit she deserved during her lifetime. But she will be remembered fondly for years to come.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Blu-ray wins the 21st century’s first format war

The latest great format war is over, and the winner is Blu-ray.

For the past 18 months, Sony-backed Blu-ray and Toshiba-backed HD DVD have battled it out to be the high-definition successor to DVD. During that time, Blu-ray seemed to have the upper hand, but the final blow came late last week.

Warner Bros., which had been releasing its movies in both formats, announced it will go exclusively with Blu-ray, joining other entertainment-industry heavy hitters Disney, Sony Pictures and Fox.

Warner currently sells more DVDs than any other Hollywood studio. But with DVD sales leveling off, it wanted to eliminate consumer and retailer confusion regarding Blu-ray and HD DVD, a company executive said at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. That obviously meant using Warner’s huge film and TV library to tip the balance in Blu-ray’s favor.

Warner’s decision leaves only Paramount, Universal and mini-major studio DreamWorks in the HD DVD camp. Industry observers expect all three to make the leap to Blu-ray by the middle of the year. Blu-ray sales and rentals were outpacing HD DVD’s even before Warner’s decision to go exclusively Blu-ray. The remaining HD DVD-aligned studios simply can’t afford to stay on a sinking ship.

Toshiba executives say the fight isn’t over yet, but it is. They just haven’t admitted it. Toshiba’s position is either spin or a river in Egypt.

So, if you purchased the first season of Universal’s “Heroes” on HD DVD, you probably shouldn’t count on seeing subsequent seasons released on that format.

While this is bad news for HD DVD’s early adopters, at least we shouldn’t hear a lot of complaints this time around about how the “better” format didn’t win. Most videophiles either rate Blu-ray and HD DVD as about equal or give Blu-ray the edge. That wasn’t the case with the last big home video format war — the war between VHS and Betamax.

Sony’s Betamax videotape format died an ignominious death in the early 1980s, and Beta’s partisans cried foul. They said Beta’s audio and video quality were superior to VHS’s, which they were. Thus, Beta’s failure was proof that the “better” format doesn’t always win.

But “better” is a relative term. Dinosaurs ruled the Earth for millions of years until an asteroid wiped them out, paving the way for mammals that had barely eked out an existence during the dinosaurs’ reign. Which was better adapted to survive? That depended entirely on the environment at the time.
During the Betamax/VHS war, the environment favored VHS. Consumers were willing to sacrifice Beta’s superior audio-video quality to get what VHS offered: double the recording time. That was a decided advantage when most consumers just wanted to tape TV shows for later viewing.

Besides, true videophiles didn’t need Beta. They clung to their laserdiscs, which served the niche home-theater market until smaller, more convenient and technologically superior DVDs came along.

So, Blu-ray has vanquished HD DVD and will, in time, replace standard DVDs just as DVDs replaced VHS. Then what? Will we be embroiled in yet another format war in 10 or 15 years?

I suspect not. What is probably next is digital downloading. You won’t have to buy a physical product at all. Instead, you’ll download movies and TV shows directly into some kind of storage/playback device.

That means there won’t be much incentive to replace Blu-ray as the format of choice for consumers who prefer a physical object to bits in a box. Blu-ray may reign for a while, only to become the video equivalent of an audio CD in an MP3 world.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The fault lies not in the stars but in ourselves

If you think your answers lie in the stars, there is something you probably should know: Stars lie.

Or, to be exact, astrological signs lie.

For years, I assumed I was a Scorpio because my birthday falls in early November, a period that astrologers link to the zodiac sign also known as the constellation Scorpius. Astrologers determine the periods for the 12 astrological signs based on which one the sun “passes through” — as seen from Earth — on a given day. From Oct. 24 through Nov. 22, the rising sun passes through Scorpio.

According to just about every astrology reference I’ve ever seen, Scorpios are passionate, powerful, profound, complex, keenly perceptive and analytical. They also have large sex drives and possess a powerful, magnetic eroticism.

Yep. That sounds like me.

It seems simple enough, but there is just one problem with it: It’s wrong. Not the description of me, of course. That’s obviously correct. I mean the dates are wrong.

As you may recall from elementary school science class, the Earth is tilted on an axis. That tilt, relative to its orbit around the sun, gives us the four seasons. But as you may not recall, the Earth’s axis wobbles. And because of that wobble — called the procession of the axis — the sun is no longer in the same astrological signs that it was during the dates set down by early astrologers more than 2,000 years go.

Writing for, Pedro Braganca helpfully clears things up. For example, the sun now appears in Scorpio from Nov. 23 until Nov. 29 — a mere seven days, which don’t include my birthday.

On my birthday, the sun is now in Libra.

Unlike astronomers, who as scientists constantly update their theories in light of new data, astrologers seem to have a hard time keeping up with new findings.

It gets worse for us poor Scorpios or, I guess, former Scorpios, or whatever we are now. Many astrologers say Scorpio’s ruling planet — whatever that means, but I’m sure it’s important — is Pluto. But astronomers no longer classify Pluto as a planet. Now what?

At least Scorpios don’t have it as bad as Cancers and Leos do. The moon and sun, respectively, rule those signs, and it has been centuries since anyone (besides astrologers) has categorized those two heavenly bodies as planets.

Astrology hasn’t changed much since the days of classical Greece, when the rule of the day, as set down by the philosopher Aristotle, was that the celestial realm was eternal and unchanging.

Since Aristotle, however, we’ve learned that space is far from unchanging. Stars form, burn for billions of years and die. Black holes crunch the fabric of space and time. And some celestial objects, like ex-planet Pluto, have wildly elliptical orbits that take them in and out of the orbits of other objects.

Nobody knew any of that when astrology began, and astrology today doesn’t take any of it into account. Instead of focusing on the real forces at work in the universe, astrology is all about some mystical force that has to do with where the stars were when you were born.

Of course, some celestial bodies do influence life on Earth. Energy from the sun makes life here possible. The moon’s gravitational interaction with the Earth causes the tides and creates the pesky wobble that has thrown off the dates for astrological signs.

But on a personal level, even gravity isn’t a big deal. There was more gravitational attraction between you and the doctor who delivered you when you were born than between you and the moon.

So, if you’re looking to get good advice from your daily horoscope, you’re looking in the wrong place.

As for my Scorpio dilemma, as a “keenly perceptive and analytical” ex-Scorpio, I’ve never believed any of that astrology stuff, anyway.