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Remembering Television Show “Chiller Theater” on WPIX-Channel 11

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Remembering Television Show "Chiller Theater" on WPIX-Channel 11

So how do you spend your Saturday nights? If you’re married like I am—and lead a relatively dull but good life—you probably spend a decent number of Saturday evenings with your family. In my case, those Saturday nights are mostly spent with my wife and daughter, and sometimes with the added company of my wife’s friends. For me, that’s a pretty good weekend night, complete with a home-cooked dinner, and followed by a ballgame on TV. And then once everyone else in the house has gone to bed, it’s time for sneak in a horror film on Netflix, Prime Video, or Roku.

In some ways, that pattern of activity is not much different from the way that I spent Saturday nights back in the early to mid-1970s. (Except for the part about being married, which is usually frowned upon when you’re still on the wrong side of your 10th birthday.) Throughout much of the 1970s, the evening usually began with a televised ballgame, followed by a late-night horror movie. The latter form of entertainment was almost always provided by “Chiller Theater,” a local program out of New York City that featured old horror movies, particularly from the 1950s and sixties.

WPIX-Channel 11, an independent station that specialized in syndicated programming, ran “Chiller Theater” at various times. Sometimes the films started at 11pm and sometimes at midnight, and occasionally even later when the ballgame ran long or was delayed by rain. Those late “Chiller Theater” start times worked out beautifully during the summer months, when there was no homework to do, and my parents were lenient enough to allow me to stay up as late as I wanted (well, as long as it was within reason). I must have watched hundreds of “Chiller Theater” showcases on our bulky color television, whose wood casing was much larger than the actual screen. Each edition of “Chiller Theater” provided me with a good two hours of late-night entertainment. In some cases, it was less than two hours, thanks to my habit of falling asleep on the living room couch.

“Chiller Theater” actually originated long before I became interested. The show debuted way back in 1961, when most people were watching TV on black-and-white sets. At first, “Chiller Theater” employed the legendary John Zacherley as its horror host; he introduced the film and then dropped by during commercials to interject insight and commentary, sometimes very funny and often of the cornball variety.

Zacherley left “Chiller Theater” in 1963. Rather than replace him with a lesser host, WPIX simply chose to rely on its pre-existing, pre-recorded black-and-white intro that featured brief clips from several 1950s horror and sci-fi films. The introductory montage started with a clip of horror hostess “Vampira” coming out of the woods in the delightfully awful Plan 9 From Outer Space, followed by a snippet from another 1957 movie, The Cyclops. Then came shots of a gigantic lizard, an ape attacking a man, and a concluding shot from the campy Attack of the 50-Foot Woman.

John Zacherley

By the time I had become aware of “Chiller Theater”, circa 1972 or ’73, WPIX had switched out the old film black-and-white film montage for what would become a more iconic image for the program: The Six-Fingered Hand. Using the effects of Claymation, the Six-Fingered Hand emerged from a murky swamp that featured one lonely tree. And yes, this abnormal hand was fully equipped with six fingers, which proceeded to pick up the letters “C H I L L E R” from the swamp and then “swallow” each of them.

The Claymation was reportedly done in-house at WPIX, but the folks there may have received some assistance from the folks at the Rankin Bass company, which specialized in Claymation productions. In retrospect, the Claymation effect of the disfigured hand was fairly cheesy, but during the simpler times of 1970s, it was plenty good enough for most horror fans. A number of young viewers like myself trembled nervously when we saw that hand pop up and move on the screen, especially accompanied by the creepy musical theme. It was definitely sufficient to give us young viewers a scare, while also preparing us well for the intensity of that night’s horror movie.

I loved that Six-Fingered Hand, as preposterous as it might have been. I also loved the late-night movies about vampires, werewolves, satanic worshippers, and other assorted monsters. Some of the films were in black-and-white, while others were delivered in color, but I enjoyed both kinds of films. The color of the film really didn’t matter; it was the quality of the monsters and the degree of creepiness that mattered most to a young fan like me.

To be accurate, “Chiller Theater” delivered its fair share of schlock, including the dreadful Dracula Vs. Frankenstein and other similarly awful films like The Giant Gila Monster and The Atomic Brain. (Of course, back then, I couldn’t have differentiated a bottom-of-the-barrel film from a certified classic.) But there were also a smattering of favorites on the schedule in the 1960s and seventies, including a number of the classics from Universal Studios.

Of all the films I remember watching on “Chiller Theater”, three in particular stood out for being especially frightening to this young mind. None are particularly famous, but they are all good movies that still retain their value all these years later.

Here are capsules of each of those films:

Horror Hotel: Initially released under the title, City of the Dead, this is a black-and-white movie that delivers a solid and sinister story about witchcraft and Satanism. Little-known Venetia Stevenson stars as Nan Barlow, an unsuspecting college coed who decides to use winter break as an opportunity to travel and learn more about the subject of witchcraft. Upon the recommendation of her college professor, played wonderfully by Christopher Lee, Nan travels to a remote village and soon begins to notice strange occurrences.

Stevenson performs capably, but is overshadowed by Lee and Patricia Jessel, an actress with an unusual physical appearance. With her hawk-like facial features, Jessel plays her role as the manager of the creepy Raven’s Hotel to near perfection. Thanks to the direction of John Moxey, the film drips with eerie atmosphere, buttressed by a preponderance of fog, a creepy clock, and moments of stark silence. With its heavy layers of tension and suspense, Horror Hotel provided me with plenty of fun and fright during my early years of horror fandom.

Horror Hotel

Curse of the Demon: Another black-and-white film dealing with the subject of satanic worship, this one stars Dana Andrews as John Holden, an American who is visiting London to attend a conference on parapsychology. Holden soon learns about the evil ways of Dr. Julian Karswell, the leader of a local cult. Soon after, Holden finds himself on the wrong end of a deadly curse, one that he will desperately try to shed.

Irish actor Niall MacGinnis is brilliant as the diabolical Karswell, a character that was particularly frightening to a young viewer like myself. Along with MacGinnis, the dialogue and the visual imagery are excellent. The shots of Stonehenge, the British countryside, and the creepy Karswell mansion make this a truly Gothic experience, one that likely fueled a few nightmares.

Curse of the Demon

Burn Witch Burn: This is another movie that managed to scare me with atmosphere and tension, this time centered on the theme of witchcraft. Peter Wyngarde stars as Norman Taylor, a college professor who suddenly realizes that his successful career has been aided by the secret witchcraft practices of his wife, Tansy. Norman confronts her about this development, demanding that Tansy cease all witch-related activity, only to realize later on that he will need her help when strange dark forces appear to conspire against his career and his life.

Wyngarde is excellent in this film, which is filled with suspense and a strong anticipation of dread. It all leads to an excellent finish, one that generated lots of nervousness in the stomach of this naïve viewer.

Burn Witch Burn

These three films made a particularly strong impression on me, but there were many other selections from the “Chiller Theater” library that also had an impact, including The Walking Dead with Boris Karloff, The Creeper with Rondo Hatton, William Castle’s The Tingler, Hammer’s duo of Brides of Dracula and The Phantom of the Opera, and the excellent anthology film, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors. They are all good films, and all worthy of being watched again.

“Chiller Theater” no longer exists on WPIX, its initial run ending in 1982, but its films are still available, some through streaming services and many others on DVD. Thanks to YouTube, that Six-Fingered Hand also remains very much alive. Every time I see it, I start thinking about my living room, that old TV set that looked like a piece of furniture, and the wonderful movies that made those Saturday nights pass all too quickly.

Chiller Theater Family

Check out what Bruce is up to on his Facebook page: Ghostly Gallery.

RELATED: REMEMBERING “THE TWILIGHT ZONE” PROGRAM CREATOR ROD SERLING

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