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Notes on the Decline of Western Culture, Part I
by The Ultimate Dancing Machine

Ever hear people, usually middle-aged or older, talk about that lovely, sepia-toned period in their youth when they discovered the Magic of Cinema? When they basked in the cinematic glow of “real” movie stars? When glamour was glamour? And don’t you feel just a little annoyed because, as much as you like movies, you really don’t know what the hell they’re talking about?

In my case, I came on the scene too late. I did not grow up with Garbo, Gable, Bogart, Monroe, their ilk. There were entirely different cultural forces at work when I was coming along. My introduction to the world of film came not at the local Cineplex but in front of the family TV set. Every Saturday afternoon during the mid ‘80s my not quite teenaged self parked in front of the tube and took in the peculiar wonders of the least glamorous films ever made. Flesh Feast. Blood Waters of Dr. Z. Panic. Squirm. Willard, the killer rat movie. Jennifer, a Willard rip-off, only with snakes. You don’t get glamour out of 16 millimeter film and mono sound. But if I ever worshipped at the altar of cinema, it was during those Saturdays with the Creature Feature show.

Or shows, more accurately, because it seems to me that more than a couple stations each had their own program, and you could spend a good chunk of the day channel-hopping from one to the next. One show featured a corny vampire host who introduced each movie with some awful comedy shtick; he’d appear in boxer shorts and exclaim, “This movie scared the pants off me!” Another had a trippy sounding theme song that I would learn, only years later, was actually Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.”

And the movies were unearthly. We’re not talking about the monster flicks from Japan, or the relatively classy Hammer productions. What they beamed into everyone’s TV sets in Detroit back then—and somebody really ought to be ashamed of themselves—was the roadkill of film, the junkiest horror movies of the ‘70s. Of course, this is the assessment my older, wiser self; back then I was rather less critical, and demanded of horror movies only that they conclude with a twist ending in which the good guys all got killed. Never underestimate adolescent sadism.

I remember the one that lured me in: Warlock Moon. Something about Satanists into human sacrifice, yadda, yadda, yadda. The details elude me, but for some reason the Satanists, led by an old hag of a witch, had to carry out their sacrifice between midnight and dawn.

So our heroine, set to be skewered, escapes the cultists. The credits begin rolling. While they do, our heroine, who had been going hell bent for leather in her car, is pulled over by the cops. She’s thrown in jail. And then—here comes the Twist Ending—she finds that she’s IN THE SAME CELL AS THE WITCH! WHO PULLS OUT A KNIFE!!!! Our heroine screams like hell. Freeze Frame. The bell tolls—it’s midnight. Fade out.

Great stuff. I had to have more. And I did.

I cannot believe the absolute trash I sat through back then. I always hoped for the Twist Ending, and usually I got it. I got it in Shriek of the Mutilated, a Bigfoot movie that—twist!—turns into a Satanic Killers movie; the final scene depicts the lead actress, now dead, about to be carved into pieces with an electric knife and eaten. Blackout. I got it in SSSSSSS, the Mad Scientist/Killer Snake movie. It ends with the female love interest bursting into the lab only to discover that HER BOYFRIEND HAS BEEN TURNED INTO A SNAKE! AND HE’S WRESTLING ON THE FLOOR WITH A MONGOOSE!!!! Screams. Blackout.

I’ve told you all that so I can tell you this:

There are no more Creature Features. Used to be you could turn on the TV at three in the morning and catch a killer tarantula movie. Do that today and you find yourself watching horror of an altogether different kind: informercials. This is a fairly recent phenomenon, which owes its existence to the deregulation of American television during the ‘80s. Nowadays television stations can sell large chunks of airtime to companies who hawk useless goodies to insomniacs.

This is of course only a symptom of a much larger problem, the corporatization of life as we know it, a process that has already flattened the American film industry. Everything bears the mark of the businessman, who lives in gray offices and fears nothing more than imagination, which is why movies are neither as good nor as bad as they used to be. You couldn’t make The Godfather today; executives would whine that Don Corleone isn’t “likable” and send the script back into development hell. And, outside of the calculatedly juvenile stuff produced by Troma, there are no Warlock Moons anymore. Movies nearly always settle into the safe middle ground, even the “independent” films. My Creature Features got smushed under the slow, steady steamroller of corporate mediocrity.

I am convinced we lost something when that happened. Because a certain primitive imagination, appealingly crazy and reckless, was at work in those cruddy movies, even in ones like Flesh Feast, an extraordinary confection that even my 12-year-old self couldn’t quite accept. It was Veronica Lake’s last film appearance. She plays a mad scientist engaged in youth rejuvenation experiments. One day, Adolph Hitler appears in her clinic…

That, my friends, is the sort of mad fantasy that Ron Howard could never invent. Not in a million years. And for some of us it’s the closest thing we have to a Golden Age of cinema.

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originally posted: 03/22/02 19:15:19
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