Sunday, October 31, 2004

Can you feature that horrible creature?

I just spent a delightful half-hour watching a Second Look documentary special on KTVU, the FOX affiliate in Oakland, about the old Creature Features show. For those of you who were not privileged to spend any portion of your youth in the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1970s, I'll offer a bit of background.

Creature Features was a locally produced horror film anthology program that ran every Friday and Saturday night on KTVU (back when it was a major independent channel, and there was no FOX TV network) following the late news. Host Bob Wilkins screened a fascinating selection of wretched low-budget horror and science fiction flicks (and the occasional decent example) for the audience's perverse enjoyment.

Wilkins's shtick, if shtick it was, was not playing down to the viewer. The films on Creature Features were uniformly dreadful, and Bob wasn't embarrassed to call them as he saw them. He'd flat-out rip the movie he was airing on a given evening — albeit with dry humor and a gentle tone — at times even going so far as to read other stations' program listings from TV Guide in case you wanted to switch channels.

The gimmick worked in large part because Wilkins, unlike other horror-film hosts over the years, didn't adopt a horror-themed persona (in the manner of Elvira, Vampira, Zacherle, the Weird Beard, and dozens of others in TV markets across the country). He was just a skinny, soft-spoken blond fellow with immense black-rimmed spectacles who wore a suit and tie on the show every week, sat in a beat-up yellow rocking chair that looked as though it had been carted away from a nearby swap meet, and smoked (really!) a fat cigar on the show every week.

Even when the movie really tanked (which was more frequently than not), Bob could be counted on to enliven the proceedings with his droll wit and a spirit of harmless fun. Occasionally he'd have in-studio guests on the show. Sometimes these were industry people — members of the original Star Trek cast, for example, or filmmakers such as special effects guru Ray Harryhausen — and sometimes they were the strange, borderline psychotic folks who haunt comic book conventions, midnight movie showings, and inner-city bus depots.

Wilkins tired of the late night gig after a few years, and handed the program over to film critic and author (The Creature Features Movie Guide) John Stanley in 1979. Stanley carried on for another five years, but the magic was gone; unlike Bob, John was a true horror movie buff (he's written several books on the genre) and took the films a little more seriously than Bob (who frankly admitted in interviews that he never much cared for the kind of pictures he showed on Creature Features, which was why mocking them came so naturally to him).

Creature Features was definitely a "you had to be there" sort of experience, but if you're curious, you can savor the flavor at Bob Wilkins's official Web site and this Creature Features tribute site. I can't help but believe that the creators of Mystery Science Theater 3000 owed a huge debt to Creature Features for paving the way for their iconoclastic approach to film. I'll never forget the many weekend nights I spent huddled in front of the tube as Bob and I shared yet another sci-fi trash classic together. Thousands of other middle-aged folks who were Bay Area kids in the '70s won't forget either.

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