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October 21, 1999
By Franklin Harris
Although they have been a staple of late-night and Saturday-afternoon television for decades, they are a dying breed.
I'm referring, of course, to TV horror movie hosts.
The most famous horror host is probably Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, given undead life by the buxom Cassandra Peterson for just shy of 20 years.
Elvira was everywhere during her heyday in the mid '80s. Her TV show thrived in syndication, she hawked Coors Light in commercials and on store displays and she even had her own movie, titled, originally enough, "Elvira, Mistress of the Dark."
Elvira recently abandoned Coors for her own micro-brewed beer, and she still has her own comic book, published by Claypool Comics, but Elvira's glory years are behind her.
Peterson still appears in her low-cut, Morticia Addams-style costume, but only around Halloween. For example, Elvira is hosting "Attack of the 50 Foot Monstermania" this month on American Movie Classics.
Once, however, people like Elvira were everywhere -- brave men and women willing to wear bad makeup, silly wigs and outlandish costumes, all for the cause of bringing cheesy horror movies to the masses.
They went by names like Vampira, The Undertaker, Dr. Acula and Dr. Shock.
In fact, thanks to a truly wonderful Web site, Egor's Chamber of TV Horror Hosts, located at myweb.wvnet.edu/e-gor/tvhorrorhosts, I've managed to locate no less than four horror hosts by the name of Dr. Shock.
If anyone besides Elvira was making money in the horror host business, I'm sure there would have been a lawsuit.
Anyway, one of the Dr. Shocks, No. 3 by Egor's count, is the Tennessee Valley's very own Tom Reynolds.
Dr. Shock was conceived in Chattanooga in 1968, when WTVC-TV's then-program director, Reynolds, got the idea of adding a host to a package of horror films the station had purchased to put up against the blockbuster films competing stations were showing on Saturday nights.
Photo Courtesy of WTVC-TV Channel 9|
Dr. Shock (Tom Reynolds), left, and his sidekick, Dingbat (Dan East), mixed political satire with bad horror movies in the early 1970s in Chattanooga.
The idea was simple enough. The host would introduce the night's horror movie and then pop in during the commercial breaks for a little tongue-in-cheek humor.
As the concept evolved, the show became "Shock Theatre" and the host became -- who else? -- Dr. Shock.
Two sidekicks joined Dr. Shock, Dingbat (a puppet operated by station artist Dan East) and Nurse Badbody (a local high school student).
As such things do, "Shock Theatre" developed a cult following that kept the show, with its mix of horror movies and political satire, on the air until 1975. And, in the end, it wasn't bad ratings that brought down Dr. Shock, but the fact that the TV station eliminated Reynolds' day job.
So, Reynolds moved back to his home town of Huntsville, where he still works for WHNT-TV 19.
In the early '80s, Channel 19 briefly revived "Shock Theater," sans Dingbat and Nurse Badbody.
The revival, which was my first exposure to the grand and glorious horror-film collaborations of Roger Corman and Vincent Price, was short-lived, however. It lasted a mere six months.
Then Dr. Shock retired for good.
There have been other horror hosts since, of course.
In the mid '80s, the USA cable network featured "Commander USA's Groovy Movies" on Saturday afternoons.
Commander USA (Jim Hendricks) was a retired superhero, who screened really bad horror flicks from his "Video Vault" deep below a suburban shopping mall.
His sidekick was his "hand puppet," Lefty, literally Hendricks' right (not left) hand with a face drawn on it.
In fact, not only did Commander USA show bad horror movies, he showed some of the absolutely worst films of all time: Mexican wrestling movies.
Just imagine the sight of masked Mexican wrestlers running around as if they were Batman and Robin, fighting evil and vanquishing undead zombies.
But the Commander's show lasted a scant four years.
Even my hero, Joe Bob Briggs, has fallen on hard times.
Joe Bob, the good 'ol boy alter-ego of journalist-turned-film-critic John Bloom, isn't a horror host in the traditional sense. He doesn't, for instance, wear a loopy costume, unless you count his bolo ties. But he knows his schlock cinema like no one else.
Unfortunately, those dreaded Powers That Be at the TNT cable channel keep saddling Joe Bob with teen sex comedies instead of horror films. As a result, Joe Bob's show, "Monstervision," has become anything but.
So, this Halloween, when you light your jack o' lantern, remember also to light a candle for all those by-gone horror hosts who made watching bad movies fun.
They probably won't pass this way again.