During the 1950s and 60s, the "spook show" thrived in local theatres, spanning the United States and Canada. Often combining magic performances and appearances by gorillas, vampires, werewolves and other assorted monsters, these stage shows also combined short films and featurettes to create 30-60 minute shows which played after the theatre's main program had run, often past midnight. As veteran 'spookster' Jim "The Mad Doctor" Ridenour explains in the DVD's lengthy booklet, these shows were quite profitable for the theatres, though as the VCR and the demise of the drive-in theatre reduced audience interest, the vaudevillian show gradually disappeared. Hokey, tacky, goofy and completely tongue-in-cheek, these shows were nevertheless practiced by a dedicated group of performers and theatrical innovators who managed to combine fear and fun in a concise timeframe, and these men and women survived plenty of heckling and far-flung tomatoes from tough crowds.
The legacy of the spooksters has been exceptionally preserved in Something Weird's thorough DVD release of "Monsters Crash the Pajama Party," a William Castle-like featurette which also featured, like Castle's "The Tingler," a moment where the screen went black and performers dressed as the villainous characters searched the audience for a suitable victim for the onscreen experimentation. Produced in 1966, the crude little film has seen better days, though some colour boosting has helped mask some of the more obvious fading that plagues the print. The visual flaws and rough technical aspects however don't detract from an otherwise fun little gem, in which a group of pajama-clad cuties are scared and snatched into the basement by a large gorilla (who also serves as emcee during the film's hysterical title sequence).
The DVD's B-feature is Bert I. Gordon's classic 1960 "adult" ghost story, "Tormented," in which mediocre pianist Richard Carlson is haunted by the ghost of his stalking lover, ruining his wedding plans with true love Susan Gordon. An Allied Artist production, Gordon's film was once available on television as part of a huge Lorimar package during the late 1980s, and many of the classic Allied Artist films were beautifully remastered from excellent prints. Something Weird seems to have been stuck with some long-forgotten copy, full of scratches, splices, pinched audio, a clipped final credit, and the loss of a partial sequence, (37:52) minutes into the film, creating a major continuity gap. (The missing footage follows a blind woman as she's led to the tip of a lighthouse by the evil ghost.) Though it's nice to have this little gem on DVD, the print source means it'll be a while before we can enjoy a properly remastered (and uncut) "Tormented" again.
The DVD's vast contents are accessible through various links, so here's a detailed guide on how to get to everything. The first item is the "Hypnoscope" short - a spiraling circle that's accompanied by an engaging narration to get you into the right submissive state.
A large graveyard layout appears, and you have several goodies to find: a Cloud leads you to "Monster's Crash the Pajama Party;" the Blank Headstone links you to a still gallery on "How To Put On Your Own Spook Show;" the RIP Headstone zips to a 300 spook show still gallery, with "Spooky Radio Spot Rarities;" the rear collection of Headstones goes straight into 47 minutes of black & white and tinted spook show trailers, featuring classic overstated graphics and narration; a Hovering Ghost zips to a (1:10) segment of eerie skulls with organ music; a hidden Bat leads to an inviting gorilla, with burlesque music snippet; a Large Headstone allows you to play the "Monsters" featurette with 2 commentary tracks, each showcasing 2 veteran spooksters: Philip "Dr. Evil" Morris, and Harry "Dr. Jekyll" Wise (Both southern gentlemen recall their halcyon days, and it's a fascinating oral history of their trade.)
An arrow leads you to a haunted hose layout, where the Lightening plays an ad to save free television from the monstrous evil known as… Pay TV! Clicking on the door gets you inside the house: the Skull leads to "Don't Be Afraid," a 1962 Britannica educational short, where Billy learns that "fear is nothing to be ashamed of;" the Bat leads to "Asylum of the Insane," a hokey 3-D short featuring such exciting backyard attractions like a child on a swing, a game of toss-the-ball, and a yo-yo champion; the Hanging Man leads to "Horror Home Productions" of pretty elaborate amateur home movies involving mummies and other ghouls from the 20s, 40s and 60s, with recent music by "The Dead Elvi;" the Black Cat flips to 4 chapter-indexed soundies featuring a dancing skeleton, Andrew Sisters clones in "The Boogie Woogieman," a comedic version of "Dem Bones," and a visually elaborate and politically incorrect jazz song involving a couple in a haunted house; the Hand leads to a snippet from "Tormented;" and a Candle leads to a skull barking "Cool It, Boy!"
The arrow returns you outside, and another arrow near the bottom leads you to a smaller house. As the door opens, you're led into the basement, where the remaining goodies lie: a Spider zips to the DVD's production credits; a Skeleton and Pumpkin Man feature snippets from a bizarre dream sequence snatched from an unknown movie (labeled as "Chased by Monsters" on the DVD case), with a pudgy William Shatner lookalike; the Body zips to a short, "Spook House Ride" (likely footage from David Friedman's "She Beast") ; a Rope (or noose-like icon) heads to "Drive-In Werewolf" - a weird 60s segment where a date goes for some pop, and comes back in wolf-mode to his sweatered sweetheart; a Candle plays a snippet from one of the included trailers; and the Bat icon starts the B-feature, "Tormented."
Though the box indicates the program content runs 214 minutes, it's clear you'll be spending more time playing with the remote, and replaying a few of these gems to prove to friends and family the cool stuff that lies inside the deliberately loud case art was worth the purchase. One caveat; do read the entire booklet, as it sets the tone and expectations of the spook show material, adding some genuine affection to what's clearly a tribute to a bygone era of true showmanship.
© 2001 Mark R. Hasan