Ghosts-a-poppin’ at the midnight chasm of spasms!
Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, and witness something that few eyes have seen before: a true DVD masterpiece! On this slim disc you will find not only a collection of the craziest little film oddities ever assembled on digital media, but also a veritable ghost show museum, a valuable lesson in show business history, an interactive game, and a bonus feature film – all in one inexpensive little package!
As former “ghostmaster” and spook show historian Jim Ridenour explains in the 12 page booklet tucked inside the snapcase, the ghost show has been with us for quite a long time. In the industrial age, formal séances began to be performed for paying patrons. Séance effects, combined with traditional stage illusions, eventually invaded theaters and night clubs. When the “horror movie” became popular in the 1930s, the magic shows were first combined with a cinema shock experience, and the modern spook show was born. These midnight attractions spread and proliferated throughout post-war North America, much in the manner of the exploitation roadshows.
The spook shows peaked about the time that TV horror hosts became really popular, and today have morphed into Halloween haunted houses and theme park attractions. It would be impossible to replicate the spook show experience on video, but the folks at Something Weird Video have accomplished the next best thing – a Trick or Treat grab bag of scary clips and strange shorts, all built around a filmed spook show attraction.
The disc opens with a clip called “Hypnoscope”, which was used in a late-’50s spook show. Not to be confused with the “Hypno-Vista” opening used for Horrors of the Black Museum, Hypnoscope is merely four minutes of a rotating spiral, accompanied by some soothing instructions by an off-screen mesmerist to get us in the mood for the show to come.
The menus for the Spook Show Spectacular are a big part of the fun. Viewers have to move around the menus looking for unlabeled links on typical spooky scenes – some of which are invisible until you select them. At first I was a little irritated by this, but then got into the spirit of the game. As a kind of cheat sheet, I’ll take you through the highlights.
To start, the graveyard menu highlights an owl. This takes you to the title attraction, Monsters Crash the Pajama Party. This half hour featurette was made by David L. Hewitt (Wizard of Mars) for his spook show partners to create a new type of show. More than anything, it resembles a Z-grade copy of the AIP Beach Party flicks, with a groups of leggy sorority girls spending the night in a haunted house, while a group of boys plot to scare them. What they don’t know is that the basement of the old house holds the mad laboratory of Mad Doctor Vic McGee (a regular in Hewitt’s films) and his chamber of shoddy monsters. Chief among these is an actor in one of cimema’s worst gorilla costumes (who also performs during the 5-minute spoken credit sequence). This costume was so awful that Hewitt had to build another movie around it – the insanely bad The Mighty Gorga.
At the climax of the featurette, the Mad Doctor sends his creatures clear out of the movie to terrorize the audience, at which point several similar-looking performers would race around the theater causing mayhem. They would then abduct a (planted) young girl and carry her off. Then a similarly dressed actress is carried on-screen in the movie, strapped to a table, and… the movie ends.
Jim Ridenour shot his own documentary tape about the spook shows a few years back, and audio from two of the interviews is available on separate audio tracks. Track 2 has spook veteran Harry Wise reminiscing with Ridenour about the old days, and sometimes sounds like a scene from Grumpy Old Ghostmasters. Track 3 has a more organized and very informative visit with Phillip “Dr. Evil” Morris, who recounts a capsule history of spook shows, his own career, and gives a bit of background on the movie.
Dr. Evil was also a TV horror host in the early ’60s, and Morris provides some stills for the image gallery section (click on the R.I.P.). The bulk of the nearly 20 minute gallery is made up of terrific spook show posters and ads, accompanied by great radio spots. Unfortunately, the rewind and advance is disabled for this section – a major annoyance.
Clicking on the graveyard fence takes you to nearly 48 minutes of the best spook show trailers ever assembled – ads that were no doubt impossible to live up to. A tombstone link takes you to a whole other section which contains stuff from vintage “How to run a Spook Show” booklets.
Over by the haunted house, a hidden lightening bolt shows a famous theater spot railing against the evils of pay TV (if we’d only listened). Inside the house, a black cat reveals several soundies and clips from old musicals with a decided Halloween flavor. A bat leads to one highly touted attaction, the Asylum of the Insane 3-D short – over six minutes of the worst 3-D footage since Robot Mopnster. The short shows some grating backyard nonsense, from a guy doing yo-yo tricks to some cheap monsters stabbing knives at the camera. Two pairs of 3-D glasses are included, not that they’ll help! Not to be confused with the later Byron Mabe horror feature, the ghostmaster that shot this 3-D footage later cut it into a retitled print of Dave Friedman’s She Freak for a tour around the country, telling audiences it was too scary to all be in 3-D.
Clicking the hanged man gives you a bunch of unidentified home movies, shot from the 1920s through the 1960s. They’re accompanied by music from spook band the Dead Elvi, and are a lot of fun. Wish I knew more about them – Something Weird’s Mike Vraney says he found them for sale on eBay!
One of the best shorts on the disc is available via the skull – an old Britannica Films educational short called “Don’t Be Afraid”, in which a little coward learns from Mom how to beat the scaries.
Down in the tomb, we have even more clips, two of which are surreal bits from Weird World of LSD. One of the most amusing is a scene from Dracula the Dirty Old Man in which a guy goes werewolf at a drive-in.
Spook shows were always accompanied by at least one horror flick, and the DVD follows that tradition by including the Bert I. Gordon 1960 feature Tormented. Gordon here departed from making things big (The Spider) or little (Attack of the Puppet People) to tell this ghost tale, in which Richard Carlson (It Came from Outer Space) accidentally knocks his girlfriend Vi (Juli Reding) off the top of a lighthouse. Covering up the incriminating evidence, he proceeds with plans to marry his fiancee – until Vi’s tormenting ghost shows up to ruin things. The transfer for Tormented is from a slightly speckled print, but looks better than it has to really. By comparison, Madacy’s earlier DVD release is cropped on all 4 sides and looks like it’s being projected through a storm drain.
Most of the clips and shorts look similarly sharp, with the unfortunate flaw of the SWV bug that accompanies most in the lower right corner. As a whole, this is one of the most creative and entertaining DVDs ever put together, a perfect choice for your Halloween party. Be sure to click on the spider and let the credited folks take a bow – this project was an obvious labor of love.