It’s Saturday night and you know you’re up well past your bedtime. But if you don’t tell your parents, then neither will I. For tonight, it’s just you and I and all the greats who gave us scares. I’m Count Spookenstein and this is Chiller Television. Don’t adjust your set, this is not a test. You’re now receiving signals from my lair and together we’re going to have a smorgas-morgue of fun. At midnight local time, we’ll be watching the 1942 Bela Lugosi classic The Corpse Vanishes. At two a.m. local time we move forward to the 1963 movie that launched one Jack Nicholson’s career as he co-starred with monster legend Boris Karloff in The Terror. But first, make sure your doors are locked and your windows are boarded up. We kick off tonight’s fun with the movie that started it all. The film that defined what a zombie was for generations to come. Judith O’Dea stars in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. Don’t touch that dial, if TVs are even made with dials anymore . . . Don’t change the channel because Chiller Television has only just begun and we haven’t finished until goose-bumps run across your skin and your blood runs cold.
Gillian sat close enough to the TV in the living room to climb in and stand next to all the horror icons she watched every Saturday night. With a bowl of fresh popcorn neatly tucked between her knees, a tall glass of soda on the coffee table behind her and a pillow and sleeping bag ready for when she’s inevitably going to fall asleep before The Terror starts, her Saturday night was set and she was ready for whatever chills and scares that Count Spookenstein had ready for her.
Count Spookenstein and Chiller Television was Gillian’s favourite part of the weekend. In fact, outside from staying up to watch scary movies on Saturday nights, Gillian didn’t do much with her weekend. All the other girls at school spend their weekends at the mall, spending their allowance money on small cups of soda that they sip while sitting in the food courts talking about who wore what to school that week and what boys they think are cute.
Gillian knew she was the butt of a lot of their gossip and jokes. She didn’t dress like all those other girls did. She let her dark hair grow straight that she let hang in front of her face when she went to school. She wore loose sweaters with logos and artwork from her favourite scary movies. Her mom wished that she would start making friends with the girls at school and spend more time trying to look as pretty as they all were. Her dad, though, got it. Gillian’s dad loved all the same scary movies that she loved and bought her the sweaters that she wore to school every day. Her dad had only one rule: the sweaters couldn’t have anything too gruesome . . . well, at least not until she was in high school.
Gillian could hear her mother come in from the other room. Her high heel shoes clicked with each step she took. She had another date tonight but didn’t bother with a babysitter. Gillian was getting old enough to look after herself. And besides, she was going to spend the whole night in front of the TV anyways. What would be the worst that could happen?
“Gillian, I hope you’re not going to be watching zombies all night,” her mother said. “There are some great family comedies on channel seven. Why don’t you watch a few of those?”
The family comedies that Gillian’s mother was referring to made Gillian want to start throwing up. Every family on those shows were too perfect: mom and dad were still together, brother and sister got along like best friends, and Rover always brought back the ball he chased to play fetch. Gillian already figured out that life wasn’t like that: parents got divorced, some kids were only children who never got a dog, and sometimes thing don’t always wrap themselves up in a neat package at the end.
“That’s ok, mom,” Gillian replied, trying to be as polite as possible. “Count Spookenstien is playing some really good movies tonight. I’ll be fine. Have fun on your date. Hope this one is a real winner and the proverbial Mr. Right.”
“Why do you always have to be so condescending while you’re here?” her mom snapped back. “I bet you’re never like this at your father’s house.”
Gillian never tries to be condescending. Her monotone voice and diction already a few grades ahead of where she should be just gives her that tone anytime she talks. She really was hoping the best for her mom. Though her mom will always think Gillian has some vendetta against her.
“Anyways, I got to get going,” her mom said as she adjusted her dress. “How do I look?”
Gillian looked her up and down and said, “Like you would make a suitable mate for a potential suitor.”
Obviously flustered and giving a heavy sigh, Gillian’s mom reached into her purse shaking her head, “I don’t even know why I ask you sometimes. I just wanted a daughter to share these nice things with. I feel like I have nothing in common with you.”
With absolutely nothing to say, Gillian just stared at her mom for a minute, then refocused her attention back to the graveyard scene on the TV. Gillian’s mom walked in to the room and started stroking her daughter’s hair. “I’m sorry honey, I’m just a little nervous about this date. You know, he could actually be the proverbial Mr. Right. If this goes well, he might even be your step-dad.”
The zombie chasing the brother and sister through the graveyard on TV was easier for Gillian to deal with than what her mother was saying. She talked to her father a few times about her mother’s dates and how she didn’t know how to feel about them. Her father always said that she should just be happy that her mother has been able to move on. And even if she couldn’t be happy, it was her duty to pretend to be happy and supportive so that her mother could be happy. Things were so much easier with Gillian’s dad. He never dated, he never expected her to comment on what he was wearing, he never got frustrated when Gillian didn’t understand what the big deal was. They had monster movies and that’s all they needed. Gillian didn’t understand what anyone needed anything else.
“Well, there’s leftover pizza in the fridge if you get hungry,” her mom started walking towards the front door. “Don’t stay up too late, and please don’t watch TV all night. Too much TV will make your eyes fall out.”
As Gillian’s mom went out the door the commercial break started and then, the whole reason Gillian stays up this late on the weekends, Count Spookenstein came back onto the screen:
Oh my, Barbara’s in trouble now. That ghoul in the graveyard cracked her brother’s skull on that tombstone and now Barbara’s hiding with a few other survivors in that abandoned house. I wonder which of the first survivors will be the first to snap. But first, how about a few facts about this terrifying thriller? Even though colour film was the norm by the time Night of the Living Dead was filmed, director George A. Romero still decided to film the picture in black and white anyways. And that’s the topic of tonight’s first quiz question:
Why did George A. Romero film Night of the Living Dead in black and white? Was it, A, because filming in black and white would be cheaper, B, because he wanted a classic horror ambience, or C, because the black and white camera was the only one he had access to?
We’ll have the answer to this question later on in our program. But for now, but to the guts, gore and glory that is Night of the Living Dead.
A wolf howls in the background as Count Spookenstein faded off of the screen. Gillian popped a couple of kernels of popcorn into her mouth while the movie came back on, opening with a shot of a wandering zombie eating a slimy piece of meat.
Gillian looked at the piece of meat hanging from the zombie’s mouth and looked down at her own legs, wondering what part of the body that was supposed to be. It was probably a turkey leg, Gillian figured out. She knew how low budget of a film this was and figured the director wouldn’t have the money for decent special effects, so he probably just took the turkey leg off of the lunch tray for the actors.
Gillian knew all of these movies well: Count Spookenstein knew them better of course, but the Count always shared all of his knowledge every Saturday night. Every weekend, Gillian learned something new about the movies she loved. She figured, after watching enough of Count Spookenstein’s shows, she could one day be the painted up ghoul on the television screen every Saturday night. She would dress similar enough to Count Spookenstein: she would wear his trademark top hat, paint her face like a skeleton face all white with black outlines around her cheekbones and eyes, she would wear the same black cape and white shirt and she would live in the haunted castle and have her own laboratory. Just like Count Spookenstein.
There was another commercial break then Gillian’s hero came back on the screen:
We’re back and things are only turning for the worse. The young lovebirds went up in flames and a cloud of smoke, the family is read to tear each other apart and Barbara is practically comatose. Can Ben told them all together and make it until morning when hopefully some help will arrive?
But now, back to tonight’s question. Why did director George A. Romero decide to film his 1968 zombie-defining film in black and white?
Gillian looked up at the screen and blurted out, “It was the budget! It was an independent film and they had to keep the filming costs down!”
Sorry boils and ghouls, I couldn’t quite hear you, you’ll have to speak up. Why was it again?
Gillian felt a little stupid yelling at the TV still, but she couldn’t resist Spookenstein’s charm, she had to answer. “It was to keep filming costs down!”
That’s right Gillian. It was the filming costs. This was Romero’s first picture and because it was an independent film, Romero had to cut costs wherever he could. Good job my dear.
The popcorn that Gillian had thrown into her mouth dropped out and back into the bowl as she hung her mouth open listening to Spookenstein talk back to her through the television screen. She couldn’t figure out how this was possible. Was she just hearing things? Was Spookenstein really talking to her?
Spookenstein smiled down through the screen and if Gillian didn’t know any better, she’d swear he was staring right into her eyes.
You know a lot about horror movies, my dear. Possibly more than me. Why don’t you join me here and we can find out who knows the most.
The Count extended his hand forward, and then through the television screen and it approached Gillian with an eerie glow around it, outlining every vein in his decrepit hand following the shape of his long, cracked fingernails. His fingers spread and his palm opened up, inviting Gillian to take his hand and follow him. She reached out and felt the dry leathery skin on Spookenstein’s hands as he pulled her into the TV, then through, then into Spookenstein’s haunted laboratory.
She stood up close and looked into the cobwebbed beakers, ran her fingers over the smoke pumping out of the cauldron and flicked a small switch that made an electric sound off in the distance. Most people acting the way she was would have been in Santa’s toyshop; but, Gillian was somewhere better: Count Spookenstein’s haunted lab.
“Well my dear,” Spookenstein called out from behind her. “It’s time we found out who knows the most about classic horror films, shall we? For every question you get right you get one step closer to being my new assistant in my lab!”
Gillian’s smile shined brighter than an entire neighbourhood of jack-o-lanterns. She clapped a bit and spun in excitement, trying to take in all that there was to Spookenstein’s lab as quickly as she could.
“But,” Spookenstein’s tone quickly dropped. “For every question you get wrong, you will be one step closer to a worse kind of doom than Karloff, Lugosi or Chaney ever met. Three wrong answers, and you will be finished, for good. Are you ready to start?”
Gillian looked around the lab and thought about how much better everything will be once she’s here to stay. There was no way Gillian could possibly lose this game. She knew all the monsters, all the scream queens, all the writers and all the directors. She had this in the bag and in no time at all she would be Spookenstein’s assistant.
“The first question,” Spookenstein blurted out. “Who was the first actor on film to play Frankenstein?”
A trick question right off the start, Gillian thought to herself. She figured Spookenstein would think that she thought he was talking about Boris Karloff, who was the first to play Frankenstein’s monster. A common misconception. Frankenstein was the doctor who created the monster, and she knew exactly who played him.
“Colin Clive,” Gillian answered. “Colin Clive was the first to play the good doctor Frankenstein.”
Spookenstein nodded happily. “Very good, you caught the first part of my trick,” he said. “But, not all of it.”
Suddenly, a round wooden plank shot up from behind Gillian. The plank had four sets of braces, two on the top and two on the bottom. Gillian had seen this kind of torture device before on many different movies where the victim spins attached to the piece of wood while the monster throws knives at them.
“You see my dear,” Spookenstein explained. “You forgot about the original Frankenstein, the 1910 version, what’s commonly referred to as Edison’s Frankenstein, named after the manufacturing company that filmed the picture. And the doctor was played by none other than Augustus Phillips.”
Spookenstein pointed to a screen at the other end of the lab, the very screen that Gillian went through to find her way into the lab. The image of her living room suddenly faded and clips from the 1910 version of Frankenstein started playing. Spookenstein was right and Gillian was getting worried.
“Second question my dear,” Spookenstein began. “And I’ll make this one an easy one. Name three actors who have played the monster Dracula.”
I know this one for sure, Gillian thought to herself. She didn’t love any other monster more than she loved Dracula. The Prince of Darkness himself. There wasn’t a single Dracula movie she hadn’t seen, even the new terrible ones. She thought about naming Max Schreck, the mysterious man who played Nosferatu in 1922, but that wasn’t technically Dracula. He’s never called Dracula in that movie. Gillian was on to Spookenstein’s games.
“Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee,” Gillian hesitated for a moment. “And Gary Oldman.”
Spookenstein’s face dropped and his eyes widened. “I’m impressed,” he said. “You avoided my trick with Nosferatu, well done. You may make a perfect assistant yet.”
Folding her arms and nodding confidently, Gillian was proud of herself in that moment and she hoped she could keep up her winning streak.
“Third question now,” Spookenstein began. “Name three monsters played by Lon Chaney.”
Gillian thought for a moment about what could Spookenstein’s trick be this time. It didn’t take long to find the key she was looking for.
“Lon Chaney Senior or Junior?” Gillian asked.
Spookenstein smiled. “Senior, my dear.”
“Easy,” Gillian prematurely blurted out. “Quasimodo in the Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera, and…” Suddenly, Gillian couldn’t remember the third monster’s name. She had only seen clips of this lost and fabled film, it’s legend was as large as its start. But, did the monster have a name? “The… The… Monster from London After Midnight.”
Spookenstein laughed heartily as the picture of Gillian’s living room faded once again and clips from London After Midnight began playing on the screen. “Oh my dear, you were so incredibly close. The monster in London After Midnight did have a name. He was Inspector Edward C. Burke. And he dressed as a monster to solve a mystery. The monster was known as The Man in the Beaver Cap. And that’s two wrong answers.”
Suddenly, something pulled Gillian back and she was pressed against the plank, the shackles binding themselves against her wrists and ankles. She could feel the plank start to rotate slowly. She couldn’t get this next question wrong.
“Alright my dear,” Spookenstein walked up to Gillian, placing his hand on the plank and gently rocking it back and forth. “One more question and your doom is sealed. Here’s your question. Name three films where Vincent Price plays a doctor.”
Gillian was terrified but she was able to steady her breathing to think slowly about this. Her father’s favourite actor was Vincent Price. They had watched all of his movies together. She remembered sitting on the couch with her father while Price’s haunting voice carried over them.
“The Bat, The Lat Man on Earth and…” Gillian hesitated. “The… The Abominable Doctor Phibes.”
Spookenstein was silent for a moment, still rocking the plank. Gillian could feel her hair running along the floor. “I underestimated you, my dear,” Spookenstein finally answered. “One more right answer, and you will be free of these shackles and you will become my assistant. One more wrong answer and you will suffer a fate worse than Vincent Price ever did in any of his films. Your last question, and I highly recommend that you take your time thinking about it. Name three classics that were remade in the 1980s.”
Gillian didn’t know much about movies from the 1980s. Spookenstein never played those movies. But she heard about how some of these remakes were even better than the originals. She thought about the movies her father told her he watched in theatres when they first came out.
“The Fly, The Thing, which was originally called The Thing from Another World and…” Gillian tried to think of a third. She remembered the first time her father told her about Donald Sutherland. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
With a heavy sigh, Spookenstein looked down on Gillian. “So, so close,” he began. “And you would have made such a good assistant. Oh well, rules are rules. For you see my dear, Invasion of the Body Snatchers was made in 1978, not in the 1980s. I’m sorry my dear, this is where it all ends now for you.”
With a heavy cackle and flick of his wrist, the plank started to spin and Spookenstein walked over to a briefcase on a table, and pulled out a collection of large knives. “Hope this has been educational my dear!” He yelled out with a laugh.
Gillian felt the plank shift as she spun. With a kachunk the plank dropped and began rolling toward the screen, just missing the first knife Spookenstein threw. The plank rolled and hit the screen, launching Gillian through and back into her living room landing on the bowl of popcorn and sending kernels flying all over the couch.
And then she heard the front door open.
“Gillian I’m…” Gillian’s mother walked into the living room. “Gillian! What are you doing? Look at the mess you made. I’m going to have to get the vacuum and…” And Gillian’s mother hesitated for a second. Gillian looked up to see her mother’s glare glued to the television. “Is that Jack Nicholson?” she asked. “I love Jack Nicholson. What movie is this?”
“The Terror,” Gillian responded. “It was one of his first major roles. He got to star alongside Boris Karloff.”
“I can see that,” Gillian’s mother replied. “This looks really good.” And Gillian’s mother sat herself down on the floor, cross-legged next to Gillian.
The front door opened again and Gillian could hear steps in the front hallway. “Oh, that’s my date,” Gillian’s mother explained. “He’s coming in for a quick cup of coffee and heading home for the night, I think you’ll really like him.”
“My dear, where are you?” a familiar voice called out.
“In the living room!” Gillian’s mother called.
That’s when a man stepped into the living room. His leathery hands removed his top hat as he peered into the living.
“Hello my dear,” he began with a smile. “You must be Gillian. I hear you like scary movies.”