It may have been manna from heaven for an 11 year horror fan but it didn’t always live up to the hype.
The UK was a ferociously moral country in the late 60s and early 70s, or so it liked to think. Sundays were particularly dreadful occasions where only certain shops opened in the morning to sell Sunday papers and rolls, pubs only opened at lunchtime and parks were no-go areas for kids. It’s become a cliche these days but the swings really were chained up. And I remember very well being chased out of the park on a number of occasions by the fascistic Park Patrol for playing football on a Sunday afternoon.
Weekday television was very much a stop-start affair with Watch With Mother and the news being on at lunchtime then the two-channel TV would close down until Jackanory at 4.45. It would close down again at about 11.30 from Sunday till Thursday. Broadcasters, maybe at the behest of Governments, put the most boring programmes they could think of right at the end of the day. In Scotland the religious Thought For The Day type programme, Late Call took lugubriousness to a new height and sent people to bed a bit sooner than they’d probably have liked to. The programmes just before this last dose of monotony weren’t much better. So, in effect, from Sunday to Thursday TV effectively shut down at 10, or 1030 if you wanted to watch News at Ten. And the festivities didn’t end there. We still had the National Anthem to look forward to! And this brought the days broadcasting, mercifully, to an end.
However, Fridays and Saturdays were deemed appropriate times for the General Public to let their hair down and, for this reason, TV (all three channels of it by this time) did not close down at 11.30 as it did Sunday to Thursday, but was extended sometimes until nearly 1.00am! Because, of course, most people didn’t have work on a Saturday and Sunday morning so it wasn’t necessary to help get them up at the weekend. Jesus, how it didn’t lead to bloody revolution on the streets I’ll never know, but decent people knew their place in those days. ‘Protestant’, ‘work’ and ‘ethic’ were very much part of life then.
With this relaxation of standards, not to mention morals, in mind, STV launched a strand of films for a Friday night around 1969 which they dubbed provocatively Don’t Watch Alone. This took the form of a horror film being broadcast beginning at about 11.00 and which was heavily hyped throughout the evening. ‘Watch if you dare, but don’t watch alone!’ Now this sounded pretty enticing to me, as it did to most of the kids in my class at school. It was the major viewing event of the week and if you got to watch it, it provided a whole week’s playground conversation, not to mention a bit of towering superiority over those with stricter parents. In fact, myself and a few other pals used to regularly have a Monster quiz about the films shown on Don’t Watch Alone and became pretty knowledgable about this particular genre. Luckily for me, as I’ve mentioned before, my parents were pretty liberal about what I watched and they were quite happy to go to bed on a Friday night and leave me to watch Don’t Watch Alone, alone!
For the ITV companies it was no-brainer. They got some extra advertising revenue, pretty decent viewing figures for that time of night (remember pubs closed their doors at a modest 10.30 then!) and the films they showed will not have cost a great deal as they were all low-budget, often ‘B’ movies and some were very old indeed. What also needs to be remembered about this moralistic time, horror films, or what was deemed ‘horror’, still attracted an ‘X’ certificate if they were shown in the cinema, and cinemas did show old and sometimes very old films as part of their weekly programme. Even ancient curiosities like the original James Whale Frankenstein from 1931 was thought by the censors (yes, they were called censors in those days) to be a threat to viewers of a more sensitive disposition. And remember this was a long time before video recording at home, so this type of offering was a real treat! Especially if you were 11 years old…
Like so many things though, the anticipation was often more enjoyable than the film itself. STV obviously ratcheted up the excitement by having a few trailers during the Friday night and they usually used the original cinema trailers for the films featured. I’m not sure what I really expected but it was usually more than what was delivered. Too regularly I wasn’t even frightened to put the lights out before I went up to my bed.
The problem was, of course, the definition of horror. For me horror was Dracula, Frankenstein (although I was never convinced by it), The Mummy and The Wolfman (more like it). But once those fairly obvious examples were shown, then what? And this is where the strand began to lose its appeal slightly. STV’s view was certainly wide and varied, but this meant I watched some very good films with excellent credentials but felt cheated because they weren’t really scary. I know this now, of course, but an 11 year old’s critical faculties are relatively limited to say the least. And I’ll also admit to not seeing all the films all the way through but being woken up by the end credits, which maybe said more about the film on offer than anything else. But after the more predictable fare, a few real oddities were aired, sometimes, I’m convinced, because the STV film buyer just looked at the title of the film and through, ‘That’ll do.’
One example of this was a film called Night Creatures. To be fair it sounds faintly horror genre-esque, and it was made by Hammer and starred the great Peter Cushing and a young Oliver Reed, but it really wasn’t and apart from a relatively creepy opening, it turned out just to be a yarn about smugglers in the 18th century. The Terror of the Tong was, as the title suggests, about the Chinese secret mafia-type organisation. The word ‘Terror’ obviously struck a chord with the scheduler but apart from a few mild torture scenes and Christopher Lee hamming it up in heavy Oriental make-up, it was a disappointment and one I did not see through till the end.
Many of the real horror films broadcast could be slow, including many false shocks and blind alleys, and many just built up to the horror money shot at the end. An abominable creature suddenly seen, a character hideously deformed or a beast manifesting itself for the first (and last) time. In the days before videos and freeze framing, it was vital these climaxes were not dwelt upon by the camera incase the viewer would spot the joins in the cheaply produced rubber mask applied to the creature. An example of this type of film was The Gorgon. It also has to be remembered that in the very early 70s no one had a colour TV and even if they did, few programmes, even films, were broadcast in colour. So a film like The Gorgon which relied on some gloriously colourful scenes lost almost all its impact through being shown in monochrome.
It may have petrified the screen with horror but that was about all it petrified. But you can see where they were coming from. It was the classic horror film that alluded to the monster and suggested the monster but until the last few minutes, didn’t show the monster. They hoped the brief glimpse, and it really was a brief glimpse, of The Gorgon at the end would satisfy the casual viewer but it was thin gruel. The Gorgon, to be fair, was a very good Hammer production, but we wanted more!
When a film featured certain actors like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, this sometimes gave the scheduler a good idea as to whether the film would be suitable for inclusion in the strand. The always excellent Vincent Price was another favourite and appeared regularly in the late Friday night slot. The Fly, long before the superb David Cronenberg version, was a typical Price vehicle which was a decent film and even the big reveal when the main character walked into the room wearing the plastic head of a fly seemed pretty impressive. Seeing it now, it just looks funny, but these were different times.
Vincent Price was a regular Don’t Watch Alone performer and his collaborations with horror directors Willam Castle and Roger Corman graced many a late Friday night. Castle was the perfect director for this late night strand. His films were flashy, employed all the techniques necessary for effective shockers and his subject matter was always on the money, certainly for a 12 year old viewer.
The Tingler, one of his collaborations with Vincent Price, was an excellent example of his art. Using a range of gimmicks to scare the 50s audience, it tells the story of a pathologist who believes there is a creature inside all of us, The Tingler, which looks like a small lobster, and emerges when we become frightened but is controlled if we scream. Again, it included the money shot of The Tingler’s reveal. But there was more to this film than just that. It was one of the first films to include a colour sequence in a predominantly black and white film, with a bath of red blood shown right in the middle of the film. Not of much use when watching it on a monochrome telly but the intention was there. And it was perfect material for a dark Friday night. Price also starred In Castle’s The House on Haunted Hill, also an effective shocker, which I can’t recall being on DWA but should have been.
Another of Castle’s productions which featured on DWA was Mr Sardonicus. Another of the films which led up to the big reveal. Mr Sardonicus spends the whole film hiding behind an, albeit quite creepy mask, and we learn that his face is too frightening to show after an unfortunate grave-robbing incident years previously. The late money shot when his mask is dramatically removed is impressive but not quite the effort of trying to stay awake for in the wee small hours of a Saturday morning. It was quite impressive though…
But one film I recall very clearly and, for me, was the most effective and, at the time for a 12 year old, genuinely scary was William Castle‘s film Homicidal. An old dark house mystery involving very strange, unfamiliar characters, Castle uses a range of gimmicks to wind up the audience, including a ‘countdown’ where viewers in the cinema can leave before the heroine enters the house near the end of the film. This, of course, ratchets up the tension and viewers were not disappointed when the heroine did go back into the house. Too see the film nowadays as an adult familiar with the tropes and exhibition of a film, the conceit, or twist, would be spotted straight away, but for a 12 year old it worked a treat! One of the few nights I really didn’t want to turn the lights out! Later films such as Sleuth used a similar gimmick which really didn’t work, but, for me, Homicidal was probably the most memorable film ever shown in this Friday night slot. William Castle’s gimmickry could have been invented for young viewers like myself.
Although not in Homicidal, Vincent Price had appeared in other Castle vehicles as well those of Roger Corman. The Corman films were just a little too high quality for the late night film, which says more about the non-Corman films. I remember starting to watch The Masque of the Red Death and not managing much more than half an hour of it before falling asleep. Having seen it again the lush technicolour turns it in to a very different experience from that of the black and white version. However, Edgar Alan Poe is very wordy for children and, of course, nothing particularly scary happens apart from someone being burnt alive, being shot with an arrow in the throat and stabbed with a poisoned dagger. Thin gruel for a 13 year old horror fan. This was also true of The Pit and The Pendulum and The Fall of the House of Usher, both featured on DWA.
Another actor who turned up quite regularly in DWA presentations was Oliver Reed. He plays a werewolf in Hammer’s excellent 1961 film go Curse of the Werewolf. This was the type of horror flick we were desperate for in the Don’t Watch Alone strand. Bloodthirsty, violent, quite narratively intelligent and involving monsters, in this case werewolves of which we were familiar.
Another Ollie Reed film shown in the DWA series was Paranoiac where he played a young spoiled drunk whose supposedly dead brother turns up just as he was about to inherit the family fortune. More of a psychological thriller than a horror film but a story with a twist which not only kept you interested but featured an excellent performance by Reed. I’ve always been a fan of Ollie Reed as an actor as he always brought a certain gravitas and presence to any film he appeared in, irrespective of the quality of the production. In the excellent biography ‘What Fresh Lunacy Is This?‘ by Robert Sellers, the story is told of how a friend of Reed’s bet him that he couldn’t drink 100 pints of beer in a day. Reed not only won the bet but did a handstand in the middle of the pub just to underline the achievement. Although his behaviour rubbed many of his co-stars up the wrong way, not one of them criticised his acting ability or his reliability on set. He always turned up on time and delivered his lines perfectly.
It’s fair to say STV began to struggle to find suitable films for Don’t Watch Alone after a couple of years given the wafer-thin budget available to them and many of the later films were more thriller than horror. But for a brief time in the early 70s late Friday nights was horror central. And although few films lived up to the hype it was a great introduction to a range of films which otherwise would not have been available to very young film fans.
We did dare to watch and we did watch alone. Didn’t do me any harm……