Saturday, December 31, 2011

ALL NIGHT TELEVISION: THE PICTURES IN MY HEAD



I can't sleep--I got my eyes wide open

I can feel the radiation
Vertical lines on video
It's three a.m., there's no distractions
Can't sleep 'cause all the stars are on now
Should I move to change the station
Having fun watching my tv
It's the center of attraction


When I was a lad, I was obsessed with attempting to stay up all night long. This act of adolescent willpower entailed watching plenty of after hours television, an action that scarcely distinguished me from other young knuckleheads. I spent Friday evenings with my grandmother, who gave my hardworking parents a well-earned respite from my usual mischief and prepared for me delicious tv dinners that took a now-almost-inconceivable thirty minutes to cook in those pre-microwave wonder years. Grandmother Pagan also allowed me to watch The CBS Late Movie, a memorable series that formed a substantial part of my film education. Sometimes she watched, too, though more often than not she fell asleep. Those weekend viewings included everything from Elvis Presley extravaganzas (a word I use very loosely) to Hammer horrors. Occasionally I fell asleep myself while watching the pictures--I remember being bitterly disappointed, out of all reasonable proportion, after dozing off mere minutes into Jacques Tourneur's The Comedy of Terrors (1964), which I would not encounter again for decades--but, more often than not, I remained wide awake and wanting more, more, more. There was something liberatory, and not a little addictive, about being up while everybody else was in bed.

CBS was the first American network to devote its late-night programming to cinema. For several years, it had aired The Merv Griffin Show after the 11 o'clock news, but on Valentine's Day 1972 it switched to film broadcasts, often running what the series' Wikipedia entry politely describes as "movies not well-suited for prime time due to content." In other words, my type of entertainment. A February 28 screening that year of a heavily-edited version of Luchino Visconti's originally-X-rated The Damned (1969) was vigorously protested by bluenoses from the Christian Life Commission and the Southern Baptist Convention, and actually resulted in CBS' then-president John A. Scheider's appearance before a Senate subcommittee. Alas, I missed that particular broadcast (it was on a school night, curse the luck), but Visconti's Nazi epic was undoubtedly emasculated for the protection of delicate viewers. The Late Movie also featured plenty, and I do mean plenty, of public service announcements during its interminable commercial breaks, perhaps most memorably the Ad Council's "Keep America Beautiful" anti-pollution spot in which the bogus Indian Iron Eyes Cody emerges from his canoe just in time for some litterbug to toss trash from a speeding vehicle at his beaded moccasins, which the actor reportedly wore on almost all occasions. Cody was actually Italian-American, and not, as he insisted, Cherokee/Cree; the tear he wept at this ecologically-incorrect indignity was in reality glycerine. To my knowledge, though, he never had to appear before a Senate subcommittee. Grandmother Pagan, bless her heart, called him "Crying Eyes Coyote."


The Friday Late Movie schedule was, for several years at least, especially enticing, and had me drooling in anticipation as I scrutinized the newest number of my family's TV Guide. Here CBS screened such warped wonders as Barry Shears' dystopian Wild in the Streets (1965), Roy Ward Baker's gender bending Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971), and Kinji Fukasaku's surreally schlocky The Green Slime (1968). The show's theme, Morton Stevens' haunting horn-driven "So Old, So Young," combined with the multicolored pentagram graphics (were the Christian Life Commissioners and Southern Baptist Conventioneers still watching?) to promise amazing things to come. Unfortunately, in 1976 the network began broadcasting, in addition to its film library, NBC Mystery Movie reruns (McCloud, McMillan and Wife), as well as repeats of such series as Hawaii Five-O (whose celebrated theme Stevens also composed) and The Rockford Files. Although these were fine programs, I was less than enthusiastic about the change, but, during the summer break, I could always switch over to NBC's Tonight Show and watch Johnny Carson or one of his numerous guest hosts, followed by Tom Snyder's Tomorrow hour. CBS later, as if in atonement for these unwelcome changes, enlivened Friday evenings with rebroadcasts of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, as well as terrific British series (both The Avengers and The New Avengers). Here's a reconstruction of the Late Movie's opening from 1975, when the network ran Edward Ludwig's riveting ecological revenge epic The Black Scorpion (1957). I watched this exact broadcast.


Our local CBS affiliate, WFMY, was already airing Friday double features when the Late Movie premiered, and for a year or so afterwards, the station continued to schedule a 1 or 1:30 a.m. film. This was WFMY's Late Late Movie, which recycled Stevens' theme. Although it was sometimes difficult for me to stay awake until the very end, I vividly remember three of the pictures I saw during that time slot: William Castle's The Night Walker (1964), which scared the bejeezus out of me (I was actually afraid to turn off the television, lest Hayden Rorke's disfigured specter molest me in the dark), and two Hammer chillers: John Gilling's Shadow of the Cat (1961), which as a young ailurophile I greatly appreciated, and Terence Fisher's 1962 remake of The Phantom of the Opera--the first version of Gaston Leroux's classic novel I ever saw; it starred my favorite Phantom, Herbert Lom, whose soulful torment and subterranean style enchanted me. This cinematic double shot lasted until between 2:30 and 3 a.m. It wasn't all night, but by Jove it was close enough. WFMY would then sign off with the national anthem and switch not to a test pattern, but to static.


It was into the arms of Morpheus that I reluctantly went, fantasizing about what secret messages might be hidden in that static, what mysterious images were being beamed into the homes of those souls stalwart enough to watch. This must have been a relatively common curiosity for those of us nursing at the glass teat, as witness the haunted television set in Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist (1982), or the snuff film channel materializing on wee hours cable in David Cronenberg's same-year Videodrome. Sometimes--this was several years later--when one station went off the air, I could dial in another channel from far away, painstakingly manipulating my parents' antenna clicker as if it were a magic wand. During the summer of 1978, I distinctly remember viewing a snowy-but-watchable broadcast of Jean Negulesco's The Rains of Ranchipur (1955) one Sunday overnight; the station, if I recall correctly, was based somewhere in Virginia, and may well have been Charlottesville's NBC affilliate WVIR. I imagined I was receiving an occult transmission from the gods of late night.

Inevitably, The CBS Late Movie's Friday programming became less adventurous over time. The network did, however, screen Michelangelo Antonioni's fascinating metapolitical misfire, Zabriskie Point (1970), which, like, blew my adolescent mind, man. The Late Movie was also where I originally encountered, on other evenings, Mario Bava's Baron Blood (1972), Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945), and Brian G. Hutton's Where Eagles Dare (1968). As the Eighties era of cable and satellite encroached, the program offered thanks-but-no-thanks reruns of Lou Grant and The Jeffersons, as well as feature films edited with a chainsaw to fit into an eighty-minute time slot. (I shudder to recall a severely-abbreviated version of Boris Sagal's The Omega Man [1972]; now, there was literally "no phone ringing, damnit!" for machine-gun-wielding star Charlton Heston.) The series had become an utter joke, and was regularly mocked by David Letterman during his tenure at NBC. In 1985 the program's title was changed to CBS Late Night, but I had tuned out by then. Here, astonishingly enough, is a complete episode guide. And I thought I was obsessive....



ABC's Wide World of Entertainment premiered in the same time period on January 8, 1973, offering a rotating selection of made-for-television mystery movies, talk shows, concerts, and comedy specials. The movies were shot on videotape and, if my memory serves me correctly, seemed like oddball soap operas; it's doubtful that many of these photoplays have been preserved. The program was retooled three years later as ABC Late Night, offering reruns of such wrist-slitters as Starsky and Hutch and The Love Boat, as well as The Tuesday Movie of the Week. The only programming that really stands out in my mind are a 1975 Monty Python's Flying Circus compilation that resulted in litigation from member Terry Gilliam, and the 1978 broadcasting, over several evenings, of a five-part 1975 English-Italian Mafia miniseries called The Legend of the Black Hand. But, thank the stars, there was always local programming to fire, quite generously, my imagination.



Saturday nights in particular were full of mystery. Our local ABC affiliate, WGHP, aired Shock Theater from the mid-Sixties until sometime around 1981. This series was originally emceed by horror host Dr. Paul Bearer (impersonated by the legendary Dick Bennick), but he was long gone by the time I watched my first installment in 1974. The station now resorted to an animated opening, which featured the pounding of a human heartbeat, represented onscreen by pulsing blue blobs. As cemetery gates creaked open, an offscreen announcer intoned "Channel Eight presents--SHOCK THEATER!" Cartoon bats flapped their wings while damned souls wailed for all they were worth. Deplorably, I can find no trace of this opening online; for all I know, it's not even in the video vaults of WGHP, which became a Fox affiliate in the mid-Nineties. The first film I saw on this program was Ray Harryhausen's giant octopus classic It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955), which thrilled me to no end even though the creature possessed, as a budgetary constraint, a mere six tentacles. My parents did not normally permit me to stay up past eleven on Saturday nights, so convincing them to let me watch this thriller (stills of which I'd seen in Famous Monsters of Filmland) was--to my small brain--a substantial achievement.


The second movie I saw on the program, perhaps a month later, was Laszlo Kardos' The Man Who Turned to Stone (1957), which centered around a women's prison whose staff stays eternally young by electrically sucking the life out of its inmates. (As I age, that no longer seems like such an appalling idea.) Shock Theater aired double features off and on during the Bad Doctor's tenure, but reverted to a single film when he departed; it would return to its twofer format in 1975, at which point my parents kindly allowed me to stay up late more frequently. My favorite of all those double bills was a May 1976 screening of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's King Kong and Son of Kong (both 1933). The local fishwrap advertised the event in its tv section with a photo of the giant ape atop the Empire State Building, and I and many other children could scarcely wait for 11:30 to roll around. Would those imbecile newscasters ever stop gabbing about weather and sports! The following Monday morning, almost every boy in my fifth grade class was rhapsodizing about this incredible broadcast and ignoring our schoolwork. The Eighth Wonder of the World and his albino offspring were infinitely more important than the multiplication of fractions.

My mother told me how much Howard Hawks' The Thing From Another World (1951) had spooked her when she was a girl, so I proceeded with caution when the film aired several months later, watching this Cold War masterpiece with an icepick I removed from a kitchen drawer. I didn't really expect James Arness' "intellectual carrot" to come out of the screen and kill me, of course, but I thought it wise to have a little, shall we say, insurance. Shock Theater usually ended somewhere between 2:30 and 3 a.m. All the other stations were off the air by that time, but WGHP would follow the fright flicks with a Community Bulletin Board and the obligatory national anthem. Then it was (sigh) bedtime.



Fortunately, the local NBC affiliate, WXII, came to my rescue with Nitelite Theatre. This program, which aired from June 1976 to November 1979, appeared at 2:30 a.m. after The Midnight Special. Johnny Carson was on for ninety minutes in those years, as was Burt Sugarman's weekly musical program. Nitelite originally ran until seven in the morning, but was later cut back to 6 a.m., the hour relinquished to For You, Black Woman and Big Blue Marble. WXII had whetted my appetite the week before with an all-night, four-film festival which began at 1 a.m., preempting the Special. That weekend I watched rapt from the bed in my grandmother's guest room as Joseph Adler's Revenge Is My Destiny (1971), George Montgomery's Ride the Tiger (1970), Robert Day's The Big Game (1972), and Jean Yarbrough's The Devil Bat (1940) unreeled. I'd previously seen the last movie on the station's classic Bob Gordon Theater, which aired on weekend afternoons, but it's a picture I never get tired of. At long last, all-night television had arrived.

WFMY had in fact set things in motion a few months earlier with its own all-night Friday film festival, which preempted The CBS Late Movie. Unforgivably, I passed out during the first picture, Abraham Polonsky's Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969), sleeping straight through the other four features, so Nitelite was a welcome presence, indeed. The series was originally hosted by Art Neal and Zachary Gibson, who performed groan-inducing skits, but they were soon gone, and, like Shock Theater, the program now had no emcees. Its theme music was an instrumental ditty somewhere between Julius Fucik's Entrance of the Gladiators and John Williams' "Cantina Band" tune from George Lucas' Star Wars (1977); however, try as I might, I've not yet been able to track down this piece online. The program always kicked off with a movie, followed by episodes of old tv shows (The Twilight Zone, I Spy, The Invaders), followed by (in its early days, at least) yet another feature. The program officially debuted with Harry Horner's eschatological talkfest Red Planet Mars (1952) and Guiliano Montano's 1967 caper classic Ad Ogni Costo ("At Any Cost," retitled Grand Slam for English-speaking audiences); over the years, it screened such treasures as Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1941), Samuel Fuller's Run of the Arrow (1957), and Theodore J. Flicker's paranoid masterwork The President's Analyst (1967). I particularly remember one 1979 broadcast of Frank Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), in which the feature was presented without commercial interruptions--a rare delight. The series came to a quiet end, possibly because I was the only fool who stayed up to watch it, and even I fell asleep from time to time. That was it for all night television until the fall of 1980, when WFMY became a twenty-four-hour station.



When my family moved across our small town in 1976 into a new home, we were finally able to pick up--usually only at night--WBTV, a CBS affiliate in Charlotte, and WRAL, an ABC affiliate in Raleigh. In lieu of Friday's edition of The CBS Late Movie, which must not have generated much of a local audience, WBTV ran a terrific program at 11:30 called Those Were the Years. This show was hosted by the station's then-weatherman Mike McCay (who later wound up spinning classical discs at WDAV 89.9), and aired episodes of old tv series like The Outer Limits, Love That Bob, and The Cisco Kid. The station also screened Flash Gordon serials, as well as occasional films. Its original theme was Singin' Sam's "Reminiscing," but that song was replaced by Steely Dan's more contemporary, and certainly more ironic, "Reelin' in the Years." WBTV aired a feature after the show, and it was here that I received further introductions, along with occasional Shock Theater selections, to the European Cult Cinema: Claudio Guerin's entrancingly bizarre A Bell from Hell (1973), Carlos Aured's Horror Rises From the Tomb (1973), and so forth. Here's a 1976 news item on the program:



In the Seventies, WRAL scheduled an annual all-night, horror-hosted fright film festival on the Friday before Halloween. The first Spook Spectacular I dialed in was also in 1976; it began with Benjamin Stoloff's Night of Terror (1933), a preposterous old-dark-house thriller with a truly outrageous ending which I won't reveal for fear the Maniac will climb into my bedroom window tonight and tear me limb from limb. The station later aired a program on Friday evenings called Chiller Theatre, which had an impressive opening: a POV shot of someone racing fearfully and breathlessly through a cemetery. (Once I dreamed I finally saw the face of the person running, and--shiver me timbers!--the shock was enough to wake me in the middle of the night.) Screenings that particularly stood out for me were Edward Ludwig's The Man Who Reclaimed His Head (1934) and Edward Dmytryk's Captive Wild Woman (1943). With so much amazing programming, it was sometimes difficult to settle on one particular station--and nobody around those remote parts had VCRs. The best we could come up with were audio cassettes.

I later experienced the same cultural dilemma on Saturdays. As I grew older and became aware of Saturday Night Live, Shock Theater had some serious competition, especially when the program featured such musical magicians as Devo, Blondie, David Bowie, and Gary Numan. WXII ran Don Kirshner's Rock Concert immediately after SNL; Kirshner's robotic introductions to the various acts were always highly amusing, especially given Paul Shaeffer's marvelous impersonation of the impresario. Often I would watch SNL, switching to WGHP during commercial breaks for my weekly dose of horror. When the comedy show wrapped up, I would then catch the second creature feature, but by the decade's end, Shock Theater was reduced to merely one picture, followed by an episode of Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected, a series I adored.

Rock Concert moved to Sunday nights before being cancelled a year later. For too brief a while, WXII aired its own version of Shock Theater after SNL from May to November 1982. The program's opening was a white screen, down which stage blood trickled while Giorgio Moroder's "The Myth" composition, with Bowie humming ominously, played. (Paul Schrader's remake of Cat People had recently been released.) The series' writer and host, Paul Iacono, was a bearded gentleman in a black suit and black wraparounds who would be startled by the screams--and, later, organ music--that sounded whenever he uttered the name of the show. At one point, he went in search of the studio's organist to permanently silence the maestro. The program's director, Tim Whitt, began to appear midway through the series' run, and the two men performed amusing sketches. During a screening of George Mendeluk's Stone Cold Dead (1980)--an admittedly odd selection--they appeared from time to time discussing the picture a la Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert on Sneak Previews. Another sketch involved a stand-up gynecologist. It wasn't Evelyn Waugh by any stretch of the imagination, but I emitted my fair share of teenage chuckles.

Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to mention USA's Night Flight, which aired from 1981 to 1988. (Cable ultimately arrived, better late than never, in my hometown in summer 1982.) This program ran from 11pm to 3am on Friday and Saturday nights, then repeated from 3 to 7am. The series aired episodes of New Wave Theatre (hosted by the late, great Peter Ivers, who was murdered in 1983; the crime remains unsolved), as well as music profiles, concerts, and cult films (some of which were ruinously edited, among them Andy Warhol's Frankenstein [1973] and Dracula [1974]). My all-time favorite presentation was a half-hour British documentary, Posers, on England's New Romantic movement. Like those painted peacocks across the pond, I had nostalgia for the future as well as the past.

Always talking to me
My tv's got personality
Maybe it is watching me
Eye to eye with my tv


*

Allow me, if you will, to return to the subject of commercial interruptions before I conclude this interminable exercise in nostalgiazing. I didn't care for the spots, of course, but there was nothing I could do about them, and they did allow me time to refill my soda and grab another fudge round. But commercial-free public television was off the air by 11:30 p.m. at the latest, so I was stuck with the infernal ads. Plus there were other pains to endure: panning and scanning or just plain old dead centering for widescreen features, cropping half the bleeding image, as well as censored prints for more recent films. Because cable for my rural county was still a few years away, Home Box Office's uncut features did me absolutely no good at all. I never thought I'd be able to see widescreen pictures in their original aspect ratios in the privacy of my family's living room, but these days almost everyone has that option. The landscape has completely changed. As cable found its way into more homes, there was correspondingly less use for overnight film programming; videocassettes, of course, changed the game entirely. Once I earned my driver's license, I was soon substituting the big for the small screen, attending midnight movies at local cinemas, and once I procured a VCR, I found myself settling less and less for what television movie broadcasts (late night or otherwise) had to offer.

Today's all night television, with the exception of Turner Classic Movies, is depressing stuff, indeed, consisting as it does of C.S.I. reruns, inane chat shows, and infomercial scams with convicted felon Kevin Trudeau. (Video Watchdog's Tim Lucas referred in a spot-on recent editorial to "the tyranny of Paid Programming.") Rebroadcasts of Today, of all the confounded things, occupy WXII's old Nitelite Theatre time slot. TCM Underground premiered in 2006 with an admirable selection of cult favorites, but the program's underwhelming host, Rob Zombie, was soon gone. I had high hopes for the hellbilly rocker, but he never seemed entirely comfortable introducing the movies; the series now opens with footage of a grungy, dreadlocked Zombie surrogate running around some nameless city, but mercifully he never opens his mouth.


Mr. Zombie didn't last long on TCM.

There's very little sense of discovery these days, I fear--at least on the small screen. Lucas suggests using YouTube to while away the wee hours on DirectTV. I did exactly that over the holidays, viewing some old Nitelite Theatre selections (William Cameron Menzies' Drums in the Deep South [1952] and Bob Wynn's The Resurrection of Zachary Wheeler [1971]) and a ton of Tomorrow clips on my in-laws' humongous television. Back here at home, some of my recent DVD double bills have included Frank Perry's Rancho Deluxe (1975) and Michael Ritchie's Prime Cut (1972). I don't stay up all evening any more, but late enough to satisfy my after hours fix. These nights I, rather than some local programmer, supply the pictures in my head. Once upon a time our late show revelations were communal--we were, after all, part of the great confraternity of night owls--but today that sense of community has, as with far too many traditions, all but evaporated. The cinematic underworld of my youth was a special one, and I frankly miss that world and all its mysterious gods, whose secret messages to me ran the gamut from black scorpions and devil bats to green slime and men who reclaimed their heads.

Holding horizontal
Static lines in one dimension
Late show revelations
My tv stays on forever
--3-D, "All Night Television" (1980)

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