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.

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