As the erosion of the American Dream continues amidst today’s political climate, so do elements of pop culture that once inspired and entertained. These bits of Americana became lost memories. They are fragments of dreams once born of reality, and if it weren’t for a few passionate individuals holding fast to these dreams, they would be lost forever in the sandstorm of changing times.
Case in point are not one, but two documentaries recently unearthed from somewhere within the bowels of Netflix. It’s amazing what you can find once you cancel your cable provider.
First up is a 2006 doc entitled American Scary. Director John E. Hudgens and writer Sandy Clark tackle the subject of horror hosting, a decidedly American art form that had its heyday from the late 50′s until the mid 80′s. Local stations across the country featured strange characters like Vampira, Ghoulardi, Zacherley, and Stella as they hosted mostly godawful horror films on a weekly basis, often making fun of them during their segments.
Predating MST3K, the horror hosts were often the main attraction over the films themselves. Their creative antics were often unscripted, lending themselves to many ‘questionable’ moments in an effort to entertain (as well as maintain) their local audience. The doc is a fairly comprehensive look at this medium, offering a wealth of talking head interviews from past hosts and numerous clips from their shows.
More importantly, American Scary also showcases several horror hosts who carry on the tradition to this very day! What has been lost to the general American collective still exists by the likes of Dr. Gangrene, Penny Dreadful, Baron Von Wolfstein, and many others. This is where Hudgens and Clark make their doc shine, by bridging the gap between something forgotten and those keeping that something alive. You have to have passion for this art form if you’re willing to conduct your interview in full horror hosting makeup and costume, and every one of these creatures certainly does.
From the basement sets, local TV stations, and internet shows, American Scary illuminates an ‘ah-ha’ moment from our childhood, taking us back to a time when we’d spend a lost Saturday afternoon with a local Creature Feature and its colorful host, then propels us forward to present day to let us know this art form is still very much alive and well in the hearts and souls of those who carry on the tradition.
Our next childhood ‘ah-ha’ moment comes from a 2008 doc called The Rock-afire Explosion. Director Brett Whitcomb chronicles the birth and death of an all animal audio-animatronic rock band that entertained millions of children throughout the 80′s in a place that was the precursor to Chuck E. Cheese’s, known as the Showbiz Pizza Place.
This headache inducing facility was home to many childhood birthday parties as hordes of kids would eat stale pizza and cake, play games, and watch the headlining Rock-afire Explosion (a low budget variation on Disney’s Country Bear Jamboree) play songs and crack jokes. If a keyboard playing gorilla haunts your dreams, you are a) not alone, and b) was NOT a dream.
The doc covers the often fascinating history of the band and Showbiz Pizza Place through promotional video clips and interviews of the band’s inventor Aaron Fetcher, who at one time employed over 300 people at his factory in Orlando, Florida, and is now the sole employee left in a building full of animatronic ghosts.
Like American Scary, this doc also shines by showcasing a few middle American residents who have actually bought the animatronic band show and restored it to its full preforming glory. Most notable is a roller rink DJ named Chris Thrash who has uploaded numerous Youtube videos of the band, some of which feature new programming and even new music! It’s stunning to see this faded memory come alive before your eyes so vividly. The Rock-afire Explosion is a moving tribute to the passion of those who built a dream, and those who refused to let a dream die.
We often question our chosen path as we move through this life, wondering if our meager contributions to the collective will be remembered in this ever changing landscape. Thankfully we have documentaries such as these to remind us that passion for something (anything, everything) is a powerful force that can stave off the indifference of time and make something from history a part of our present, instead of just a relic from the past.
Both Americana docs can be found on the aforementioned Netflix, as well as Amazon Instant Video. American Scary can also be viewed free of charge at either Snagfilms or Youtube. They’re certainly worth a look.
As Belloq once said in Raiders of the Lost Ark: “We are simply passing through history. This, this ‘is’ history.”