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Screams and yippee-ki-yays: an elegy for the late weekend movie

Thursday, August 30, 2012

By the time you've had a chance to read this week's column (or, in most cases, accidentally given it a glance while hurrying past, as good and sensible folks such as yourselves oughta), my birthday will have come and gone. Songs will have been sung, cards and gifts will have been opened, candles on the cake lit and snuffed -- and hopefully removed before the cake was eaten.

Some of you know how old I am, some of you don't. Those of you who are among the former category, I'd thank you not to share with those in the latter. (For the record, I don't feel a day over 74. Looks are a whole different story, of course.)

However, in the interest of allowing people to stretch their carnival midway-quality age-guessing muscles (the name of the game is approximation), I'm about to take a short stroll down memory lane, as I do from time to time in my advanced state. If you can't quite determine when I was born, you certainly could figure out the era.

See, I'm old enough to remember when television stations had late movies on the weekend. The ones that stick out most vividly to me were both on NTV, the one station we could count on, reception-wise. After the newscast on Friday nights, the channel was home to "Shock Theater," a parade of low-budget 50s monster flicks that I usually avoided like the plague. (My imagination had a tendency to bring all those shuffling ghouls and creepy-crawlers and hairy, toothsome beasts to crystalline, all-too-real focus in the theater of my most malleable mind in those days.) An unseen, underpaid, stuck-at-the-station-on-a-Friday staffer -- I imagine -- would trot out a deep and creepy voice, then intone spooky one-liners and silly puns ("He should have remembered to keep his head ... heh-heh-heh ..."), underneath a dripping-wax-looking graphic.

I only remember one episode of "Shock Theater" well (or well-ish, to be more precise); it wasn't even a horror movie, more of a murder mystery-thriller, and as low-budget flicks go, it wasn't bad at all. But, like I said, most Friday nights, only my big sister had the guts to park herself in front of the screen.

The night I preferred was Saturday, which was when they showed "Western Theater" after the 10 o'clock news. Now here were some movies. Cowboys. Horses. Gunfights and fistfights and hittin' the trail. Admittedly, most of the movies weren't great ones -- B-pictures were the bread-and-butter of the late movie circuit -- but every once and a while, the announcer for "Western Theater" (which was probably the same one they used for "Shock Theater," I'd be willing to bet) would sound a little excited as he drawled in his best grizzled cowboy: "Tonight, folks, we got a good 'un."

And indeed, the man spoke the truth. "Western Theater" is where a young version of me saw movies that I still admire, like "Angel and the Badman" and "My Darling Clementine," and where I was first exposed to the work of great film directors like John Ford and Anthony Mann. The print quality wasn't always the best, and the sound sometimes drifted in and out, but even then, the greatness shone through.

Thanks to the proliferation of cable and satellite programming, as well as DVD and Blu-ray, the weekend late-night movie is pretty much a thing of the past. Syndicated off-network series and infomercials fill those slots now, and admittedly, I don't miss the bulk of lousy B- (and C- and D-) pictures that were broadcast under the "Shock Theater" or "Western Theater" banner. But, now and then, when I rewatch a movie like "The Tin Star" (another "Western Theater" discovery for me), I can't help but wonder if programs like "Shock Theater" or "Western Theater," which were merely framing devices for the actual movies being shown, might actually be able to find a loyal audience now, even in a Netflix/Redbox/YouTube world.

'Cause while a lot of the movies weren't anywhere close to great, some nights you really did get a good 'un.


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Jeremy Blomstedt
The Entertainment Center