The second volume of The Hilarious House of Frightenstein from Critical Mass (now distributed through Anchor Bay/Starz) offers 9 complete episodes, plus Ben Kane’s 2005 interview featurette, Return to Transylvania.”
Although Vincent Price often gets the initial attention – the veteran actor was hired for the show’s intro titles, pre-end credit goodbye, and small horror ruminations - it’s the inimitable Billy Van who was the show’s star and chief ad libber, playing a vast collection of roles that included Bwana Clyde Batty (a cheeky British foreign legion officer who played nature films and signed off with the goofy “Oogah-Boogah” slogan), Count Frightenstein (the show’s host, with assistant Igor, played by the jovial Fishka Rais), Grizelda the Ghastly Gourmet (a hideous witch who tasted her ghoulish meals with a divinely epic slurp), the Librarian (an ancient, dust-encrusted bookworm whose poetry readings never scared the kiddies), the Maharishi (a sitar-plucking guru whose words of wisdom where always punctuated by a huge dump of flowers), the Oracle (a quasi-Asian something-or-other who read fortunes from a smoky crystal ball), the Singing Soldier (an effete snot whose merry odes where rendered quiet by a pie in the face), and the Wolfman (the iconic hairball who spun ‘golden oldies,’ and often danced with Igor in front of an unforgettable psychedelic wall).
Those unfamiliar with the series may wonder what all the fuss is about, considering most kids shows tend to attract the very specific viewers who grew up watching series that were sometimes purely regional productions, of which Frightenstein was.
During a 9 month span in 1971, the production team blew through a tense and demanding schedule to videotape enough skits to edit together 130 hour-long episodes, and the show largely aired in southern Ontario as well as parts of the U.S., but Frightenstein is more than a kids show because star Van was a vaudevillian at heart; he was an actor who could create and immerse himself in very distinct characters in skits that played around with words, objects, and broadly rendered visual and audio gags.
Vaudeville players were among the first to have their own comedy and variety shows during TV’s early and subsequent Golden Age, and even in 1971, when comedy shows shifted more towards musical comedy, Billy Van was no small talent with his zippy skits; his wit, his elastic voice with its smooth timbre, and his tendency to include viewers in the jokes (taking to the camera, if not winking a little at the lens) transcends the show above gags aimed straight at the kiddies; kids will find the live action characters and broad physical behaviour amusing, but adults will giggle at the sly jokes that only now, decades later, evoke a solid chuckle.
Examples include the Oracle’s crystal ball (once slapped with a big “On Strike” post-it note), the Count’s Frankenstein monster (Brucie) billed with an “Out of Order” sign, and characters that were timely pokes at hippies and religious gurus. Certainly in the case of the show’s Hindi guru, the flower dumping was funny to kids, but the gibberish was a snappy jab at gurus whose veiled riddles of wisdom were attracting musicians, and arguably rendering them a bit more arty and pretentious prior to their South Asian enlightenment.
There’s also the Dead Letter Office’s chief clerk, Harvey Wallbanger, named after a hard liquor cocktail, and the Grammar Slammer, a big blue giant puppet whose direct desire to smash Igo for syntax violations evokes Jim Henson’s own creations that smacked or ate other characters with serious deadpan.
The oddest character among the show’s panorama is the Professor, played by Julius Sumner Miller, who played Professor Wonderful from the old Mickey Mouse Club. During his MMC days, Miller may have been more coherent, but in Frightenstein, he’s a sometimes baffling crackpot who clearly knows his science, but can’t always explain things coherently, if not in a digestible linear fashion. Things sometimes fall down or bounce away, but Miller keeps going, knowing the show’s on a tight schedule and doesn’t offer room for too many retakes (if any).
The threadbare props and bright neon colours are part of the fun, and Vincent Price’s pseudo-poetic readings (to a skull, a raven, etc.) are part of the show’s odd skit structure, with shorter vignettes that sometimes led to and from ad breaks.
For kids, it’s makes the series ideal because no skit runs long, loud sounds (a honk, a laugh) punctuate each skit, some skits are preceded by animated titles with spooky music (the Librarian, in particular),and the shorter vignettes and ad bumpers are generally bits of verbal silliness (such as Bwana Clyde Batty shouting “Oogah-Boogah” and quivering his handlebar moustache) or physical slapstick (like a gorilla knocked out cold by an errant golf ball). For adults used to Laugh-In or other prime time comedy-variety shows, the structure is very, very familiar, and it’s no surprise Billy Van enjoyed a regular spot on The Sonny and Cher Show (1976), The Bobby Vinton Show (1975), and the kids series The Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show (1974-1975).
Included on the DVD is a needed extra, Ben Keane’s interview featurette Return to Transylvania, made during Kane’s second year at Sheridan College, and updated two years later with additional interviews with the show’s puppeteer, John Torbay, cameraman Dave Cremasco, and X. (Not included in the 2005 edit, probably for licensing reasons, is a clip of Fishka Rais in Ivan Reitman’s Cannibal Girls, wherein Rais appears as a butcher, archived HERE.)
The featurette’s focus is on Billy Van, but we also learn a bit about the show’s production, wherein 30% of each episode was scripted, and the rest was Van improvising on a concept – a ballsy approach, but one quite comfortable for a performer whose father was an actual vaudevillian. There’s details on the characters, the makeup, the show’s fan base, and being recognized on the street for his characters. Van is very humble and easygoing, and it is a tragedy that he died in 2003, just as the series was finally poised to debut on TV again, and then DVD.
Unlike the prior 3-disc set, plopping three roughly 48 min. episodes per disc (instead of four) allows for a bigger bit rate, and the mono sound mixes are nicely balanced. The Wolfman musical numbers are also included, so fans can relive the trippy dances that remain, next to Vincent Price’s opening monologue, the show’s best-remembered element. The slim cases also come with striking custom art by Rue Morgue’s Gary Pullin.
Critical Mass’ steady restoration of The Hilarious House of Frightenstein has ensured the show is back on TV airwaves, but it’s sweet to own the series, and be able to pop in an episode anytime. The tricky part is whether the entire run of 130 episodes will ever make it to DVD, but with 21 already available, that leaves roughly 12 more volumes.
It can be done!
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan