(Above is my attempt via Photoshop to recreate one of the TV  Guide ads that ran for WGN-TV's "Creature Features" movie program back in the 1970s.)


It was the Autumn of 1970. There is no earthly reason why I should remember it so clearly today, seeing as how I was all of 8 years old at the time and I sometimes seem to have trouble these days recalling things that happened just a few minutes ago. But for me that era burns bright in my memory like some eternal sunny summer day, a warm shelter of nostalgia I can turn to when the Here and Now turns cold and gray... 

Like many of my generation, many of those memories seem to revolve around the television programs we watched at the time. I was far from being your stereotypical “coach potato” (for one thing, Mom and Dad would never have allowed it), but the shows I did watch were as important a part of my life as the comic books I read and the toys I played with and all those times Dad would drive us all the way from Bradley to Chicago just to buy a sackful of White Castle hamburgers. 

When it came to great television in those days, WGN (Channel 9) in Chicago was hands down the gold standard. Today the station is just one more bland and mostly unspectacular affiliate of the CW Network. But in those glorious days of my childhood Channel 9 was the local independently owned station other cities could only wish they had. In addition to playing host to syndicated reruns of then-still recent TV shows that are considered genuine classics today (The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, even Batman and Star Trek for a time), WGN was home to both the best kids’ shows on American TV – The Ray Rayner Show and Garfield Goose And Friends were my favorites, and then of course there was the wildly popular Bozo’s Circus – and the best movie programs: Family Classics, When Movies Were Movies, Saturday Matinee...

And that program that premiered on a late Saturday night in the Autumn of 1970. I don’t know how Dad talked Mom into letting us stay up until 10:30 p.m. that night. I just remember an introduction to a new movie program that began with the sound of a creaking door (or was it a coffin lid?), clips from some of the classic black-and-white Universal monster films Dad had grown up with but I was just discovering, and some of the scariest music I had ever heard.

Then, about 30 seconds into the intro, there was an even creepier off-camera voice who recited the most bone-chilling poem I had ever heard: 

“Gruesome ghouls and grisly ghosts

Wretched souls and cursed hosts

Vampires bite and villains creep

Demons scream and shadows creep

Blood runs cold in every man

Fog rolls in and coffins slam

Mortals quake and full moon rise

Creatures haunt and terrorize.”

At that point the creepy voice – provided that first night by legendary Chicago broadcaster Carl Greyson, and in later years by WGN newscaster Marty McNeely – introduced that night’s double feature: Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, and She-Wolf of London with the lovely June Lockhart. And thus did Creature Features begin its six-year run as one of the most popular movie programs in the area.

It wasn’t until years later that I learned that the creepy intro music to Creature Features – composed by Henry Mancini, no less – was actually the opening theme to a well made but comparitively UNcreepy murder mystery directed by Blake Edwards entitled Experiment In Terror. By then it didn’t matter to me; the tune will forever be associated with the program that introduced me to Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr. and the film that will always be my favorite Halloween treat: Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.

For it is the ultimate Halloween movie - equal parts chills and laughter, not a spoof like Young Frankenstein (that's not intended as a slight; as far as I'm concerned Young Frankenstein is the best movie Mel Brooks ever made) but a legitimate horror movie that just happens to have plenty of laughs (much like, but for me better than, the later Ghostbusters films which I also enjoy... well, the first one anyway). Yet the laughs do not come at the expense of the popular Universal Monsters, who are treated with the respect they deserve and in fact (aside from the one glaring error in which Dracula can be seen biting the neck of Lenore Aubert in a mirror) actually come off much better than several of the supposedly more serious horror films of the day (I'm thinking specifically of House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula here.) 

For all its laughs the film contains some genuinely scary moments, particularly at the end when Bud and Lou are trying to make their escape from Dracula's castle-like laboratory only to encounter Dracula, the Wolf Man and the Monster at every turn. It was the film that made me not only understand but appreciate the importance of nervous laughter in a well-made horror movie. It's also the movie I turn back to time and again to remind myself what a real quality horror movie looks like whenever members of the younger generation start talking about how much they like such modern drek as the Saw or Final Destination movies.

For years it has been a tradition in my home that, some time during Halloween week, I pop my copy of that movie (first on VHS, now on DVD) in the player and revel in the combination of chills and laughs that no other film has ever been able to duplicate. More often than not my sons will watch it with me, and for that 90 minutes or so I find myself going back to a time when it was me and my father sitting on the sofa, sharing a bowl of candy and enjoying Bud and Lou and the monsters together.

Christmas will always be my favorite holiday, but it’s hard to beat the nostalgic pull of a great old black and white monster movie from the good old days...

(Copyright © 2012, by John A. Small)