July 31, 2013

After Midnight: The Vampira Show and Fog Island

by Allen Irwin

This is the first post in a new series called Midnight Mass. It will be a place to examine different types of “midnight movies” and to experiment with different types of criticism, from information and link dumps to visual essays utilizing screengrabs and other media (and maybe a video essay or two if I get ambitious). The primary goal is to explore what makes a movie a “midnight movie” and how watching movies after midnight can affect our viewing experience. The only rule is that any movies I analyze must be watched... After Midnight.

A Condensed History of the Midnight Movie as Television Phenomenon

While the “Midnight Movie” as a cinematic phenomenon arguably had its heyday in the 1970s, with films like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and Eraserhead (1977) screening alongside offbeat oddities like Freaks (1932) and Reefer Madness (1936) at counterculture hangouts, the original midnight movie mania occurred much earlier in unsuspecting living rooms around the country. Almost any movie can become a midnight movie given the right framing or state of mind, and that crucial framing device was just what Hunt Stromberg, Jr., had in mind when he asked a young woman named Maila Nurmi to dress up like a vampire and introduce old movies on Los Angeles ABC affiliate KABC-TV in 1954. Vampira was born.


In the early years of TV, the movie studios were still feeling threatened by the likes of Milton Berle and Lucille Ball; relinquishing their precious classics to the monstrosity that was stealing their viewership was out of the question. Not so for the output of the so called “Poverty Row” studios: genre pictures of questionable quality, made to fill out the second half of double bills and full of second rate stars and third rate acting1. Looking to fill the seemingly never-ending needs of programming, the TV stations took what they could get. Sticking the movies in a late-night time slot didn’t seem to do the trick, so in a flash of inspiration, Stromberg decided to bring on a host to introduce them and set the mood. 

Charles Addams' New Yorker cartoons inspired Vampira's aesthetic...
...while the Horror Hosts of EC Comics inspired her morbid sense of humor.

A creature entirely of Nurmi’s own conception, Vampira was a descendant of the New Yorker cartoons of Charles Addams and the horror hosts of EC Comics staples Tales from the Crypt, The Haunt of Fear, and The Vault of Horror - a walking (or rather, gliding) contradiction of genuine grotesquerie, campy humor, and unnerving sex appeal. Word soon spread, and she was an instant star: the first of many late-night horror hosts who lured a generation into the night where rubber monsters and cheap effects lay waiting.

Sadly, because early television cameras broadcast live without being recorded on machines called kinescopes, none of the televised Vampira segments survive. However, a kinescope from a commercial outtake re-using the same script from an earlier episode gives us a glimpse into what it was like to have Vampira introduce a film:

Vampira provided a much needed spin to many otherwise unremarkable films. Her antics, and the late night hour, probably conspired to create a ghoulish Pygmalion-like effect, with viewers’ expectations of monsters, murder and the macabre actively enhancing any presence thereof. Regardless of the quality of the films2, the horror-host concept worked. While Vampira’s show only aired locally from May ’54 to April ’55, it was enough to make her an LA celebrity and get a four-page photo spread in Life magazine. Television audiences were ready for more midnight movies.

If “The Vampira Show” was the first wave of television programming of midnight movies, the floodgates truly opened in October of 1957 with the release to television networks of “Shock Theater” (aka “Shock!”): a series of 52 classic Universal horror films that included Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933) and The Wolf Man (1941). Picking right up where Vampira left off, a host of colorful characters emerged to introduce the films, each haunting their own local cable station.

Zacherley - "The Cool Ghoul"
 Most famous of this next wave of horror hosts was Zacherley / Roland (pronounced Roland), the “Cool Ghoul”  of Philadelphia and New York City, portrayed by John Zacherle. Not only did Zacherley continue Vampira’s proud tradition, he took it one step further by actually appearing in the films themselves as they were being broadcast, pre-dating the full on interactivity of Mystery Science Theater 3000 by 30 years. This Zacherley compilation show includes some of Zacherley’s participational antics, as well as his introduction segments:

Film historian David J. Skal called “Shock Theater,” “the inaugural event of Monster Culture,”3 and it was quickly followed in 1958 by Forrest J. Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland in 1958. A whole generation had quietly become accustomed to the pleasures of late-night viewing through the lens of horror, and the stage was set for the midnight movie to flourish as a theatrical experience in the coming decades.

Fog Island

For this inaugural After Midnight column, I decided to recreate a night staying up to watch “The Vampira Show” (or “Lady of Horrors,” as it was originally called). Thanks to a wonderful blog post listing the films screened on the show, I did a quick search for the earliest airing film that could be streamed online, which turned out to be 1945’s Fog Island (available in appropriately low-quality on YouTube here).

The film, directed by Terry O. Morse4, is the type of generic haunted house style thriller that reached its zenith with House on Haunted Hill (1959). All the elements are here: treacherous characters mysteriously invited to a spooky mansion, the scheming owner of the house, multiple murders and betrayals, and the use of skulls/skeletons as props. However, even in this low budget, stock genre picture there is room for the kinds of little idiosyncratic flourishes, counterintuitive art, and free associations that come with the midnight viewing experience, adding additional layers of personal meaning over the thin haunted house premise.

The somewhat blurry quality of the YouTube presentation (and certainly, the 1950s television image that would have appeared to someone watching “The Vampira Show”) immediately enhances the atmosphere of obscured vision that opens the film. A Böcklin-esque isle briefly floats through a haze and then disappears; the camera follows a man’s feet, walking outside, to a house. Finally, the camera angles up as the man peers through a window, all under heavy fog.


The most significant aspect of the film is, of course, this soup-thick fog that surrounds the titular island, making it difficult for characters to see each other and for us to see them. That no one is who they seem and everyone is trying to spy on each other is par for the course, but Fog Island is particularly deft at conveying the degree to which its characters’ treachery is blinding.

Immediately following the opening sequence of the man in the fog, a quick cut inside the house reveals a young woman. We see the man through the window, but she doesn’t: an unnerving image given how obviously his face sticks out of the window from our perspective. This image of two people caught in close proximity within the same frame with one of them unaware of the other’s presence unexpectedly becomes the defining metaphor of the film. Whether it was directorial intent or merely an efficient way of filming two characters in the minimum number of shots is impossible to know, but it is exactly the kind of detail that free associating during a late night viewing can tease out and turn into something compelling.

The plot of the film is by-the-numbers, involving Leo (George Zucco), a rich recluse with a murdered wife who invites a group of ex-friends to his island mansion with hopes of uncovering her killer. Everyone receives an invitation that hints at a reconciliation (a clever maneuver bolstered by Leo’s announcement that his wife left a fortune hidden somewhere on the island). “Their greed will lure them back,” he tells his adopted daughter.

The stakes firmly established, the guests venture off, on their own or in small groups, to spy on, backstab, and betray each other. Not only has their greed lured them back to the island, but it has also apparently made them incapable of even noticing each other as they stalk through the dark corridors of Leo’s mansion towards their sub-genre-pre-determined fate. It is at once darkly comic and subtly creepy, given how sparsely populated the film’s sets are and how close the characters come to one another.

In the end, every “bad” character not already murdered by the film’s conclusion meets their end in a booby-trapped room that locks them in and fills with water when they open a box that Leo has planted for them to find (which, naturally, contains a final letter spelling out his revenge). The final twist is no surprise, but the complete unawareness with which each character went through the motions of “scheme, spy, die” lingers. Maybe my first free association with Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead makes sense after all.

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1 - The films from “Poverty Row” were not without their fans - Jean-Luc Godard dedicated Breathless (1960) to Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures.

2 - Although there were a lot of stinkers, there were a number of quality films mixed in, including such classics as White Zombie (1932), Detour (1945) and even a mangled version of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) - re-named as Castles of Doom.

3 - This quote, and a healthy chunk of the research for this article, comes from Skal’s indispensable book
The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror, which I highly recommend

4 - Morse was a director and editor most famous for editing the american version of
Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1954), as well as shooting the new scenes featuring Raymond Burr.

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