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Remembering All-Night Fright Fests And Halloween Horrorthons

Terrifying terrorramas so scary you'll need a nurse on standby! Bob Mondello says the 1993 film <em>Matinee</em> brought back memories of his days writing Halloween horror ad copy for a movie theater chain.
Terrifying terrorramas so scary you'll need a nurse on standby! Bob Mondello says the 1993 film <em>Matinee</em> brought back memories of his days writing Halloween horror ad copy for a movie theater chain.

Halloween's rolled around again and yeah, yeah, it's a dark and stormy night. The road's washed out, phone's gone dead, the mystic's reading her Ouija board, and zombies are popping through doorways left open by a demented kewpie doll.

Been there. Seen that. Got the T-shirt.

In fact, I very nearly designed a T-shirt for this sort of stuff back in the 1970s, before I was a movie critic. My first gig out of college was doing publicity for Roth Theaters, a midsize, D.C.-based theater chain that got gobbled up in the '80s by a bigger circuit. My boss was Paul Roth, an old-school movie guy who by the time I met him had probably forgotten more about showmanship than I'll ever know.

We staged weddings in the aisle for a movie called The Bride (patrons threw popcorn instead of rice). We dressed a verrrry short usher one December as E.T., and then added a beard and tasseled red hat so he could be Santa's Helper. And for the opening of Airplane! an usher and I climbed up on a marquee to attach the back half of a plane fuselage I'd found at a junkyard so it looked like it had crashed into the theater. We knew we were getting the look right when a passing motorist screeched to a halt, leapt from his car, and yelled, "Is everyone OK?"

But the most fun we had was promoting Roth's drive-in theaters, especially when audiences dwindled as the weather turned cold. Halloween was both a challenge and an opportunity for drive-ins: obviously the right place for scares, but hard to find new films for when there was a chill in the air. So Paul dug deep in the B-movie horror vaults and showed me how to sell the sizzle, not the steak.

Here's the kind of ad copy he favored (writing it was the first radio writing I ever did). Imagine a booming voice with lots of echo effects, thunder crashes and screams between phrases.

"Friday Night at the Ranch Drive In: Our Dusk-to-Dawn Halloween Horrorthon! An all-night fright-fest with Five — count-'em FIVE(!) — full-length features. Shuddering specters guaranteed to scare you shout-less! Films so terrifying we can't reveal the titles. But we can say this: No one with a heart condition will be admitted. We'll have nurses in attendance ... and a hearse standing by."

Man, I used to love writing copy like that. Years later, when John Goodman played a '60s horror guy in the movie Matinee, wiring theater seats to deliver electric shocks at scary moments, I felt like I was watching my boss.

These days, when you go to a scary movie, you see a scary movie. And no question, the scares are scarier now. It's all up there on-screen. But the old horrorthons (and terrorramas, which were horrorthons, but sexy) had their charms, too.

I still remember Paul showing me how a little red food coloring in the popcorn oil could turn a bucket of popcorn into a BUCKET OF BLOOD.

Kinda gross, right? But the point was to scare the "yell" out of you, and for the most part, we did.

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