EXPLORING: Nightmare Theater

EDITOR’S NOTE: This originally ran in Drive-In Asylum #23. Buy it now.

One of my obsessions is the memory of not knowing. Now, so many of my movie-watching choices are planned in advance. Yet as I grew up in the 70s, we had the opportunity to be surprised by movies on a daily basis. Sure, you could go through the latest issue of TV Guide and highlight every science fiction and horror movie, planning your viewing habits. Yet just as often, the movies listed would not air and you’d have no idea what was coming next. 

It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized that horror hosts were playing movies that came in packages. There’s a reason why all those old Universal Monsters got big again at the dawn of the UHF era; those films were in Screen Gems Shock And Son of Shock syndicated packages. 

Perhaps the most interesting syndicated package is AVCO Embassy’s Nightmare Theater. Years before they got into the John Carpenter business, this collection of films may have made money for its distributor, but it’s rather astounding that these movies played TV before theaters, although there are some theories* that some played Spanish-speaking grindhouses on the West Coast before being sold to low power UHF stations and horror hosts played them to what had to be somewhat baffled kids.

Nearly every movie that is contained in this collection is delightfully off in the very best of ways. And I have the sneaking suspicion that not much was cut from these films, as some listings – particularly KCOP-13 in Los Angeles — went out of their way to inform younger viewers that these films had some mature content. 

The Witch (1966, directed by Damiano Damiani)

Also known as The Witch In Love and Strange Obsession, this movie was based on Carlos Fuentes’ novel Aura. It has two standouts of Italian genre cinema, Richard Johnson and Ivan Rassimov, in the cast and concerns a historian being asked to translate some ancient erotic texts within a haunted library. It had a release in the U.S. by G.G. Productions in August of 1969. 

A Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970, directed by Mario Bava)

Rarely mentioned amongst the normally cited Bava classics, yet it’s one of my favorites, a film in which Bava even metatexturally references his past work, as the cops are thrown off the case when a scream is explained as a TV playing Black Sunday. Somehow combining elements of the giallo, a nascent slasher, a fashion film and even a mannequin movie, it deserves to be talked about way more often by way more people.

Marta (1971, directed by José Antonio Nieves Conde)

I can’t even imagine how exciting it would have been to catch this film and not be ready for it. Marisa Mell — who was so possessed by the mystical and sexual desire she felt for her co-star and lover Stephen Boyd that they had a real-life exorcism — plays a woman who enters a home dominated by a potentially dead mother and a definitely murdered last wife who looks just like her. Also known as …After That, It Kills the Male and Devours It, which may be the best title ever.

Dear Dead Delilah (1971, directed by John Farris)

The only domestic film in the package, this was produced by AVCO and concerns a murderer running loose within a mansion, lopping off the heads of those seeking the half-million dollars worth of money hidden within the house. And oh yeah — Agnes Moorehead and a shockingly gory shotgun murder.

The Witches Mountain (1971, directed by Raúl Artigot)

This movie opens with Cathy’s Curse level insanity: our lead walks around her house and finds a knife stuck in a wig, a voodoo doll and finally, a bloody cat in her bed. That’s when a little girl appears out of nowhere to inform her that she took care of the stupid cat before running away. Carla follows her to the garage, throws gasoline all over the place and sets everything — including the little girl — on fire. Somehow, the movie tries to follow that, as that woman’s boyfriend dumps her and heads off to a castle!

The Fury of the Wolfman (1972, directed by José María Zabalza)

Sure, it’s nice that you can call up any movie at any time via the internet, but just imagine being a pre-teen at two in the morning in 1977 and being confronted by Paul Naschy becoming El Hombre Lobo after being bit by a yeti, killing himself, being revived by the evil Dr. Ilona Ellmann who also brings back our hero’s ex-wife from the dead and turns her into a werewolf.

Doomwatch (1972, directed by Peter Sadsy)

This Tigon offering was a remake of a recently ended TV series that was created by several Dr. Who alums. A chemical spill leads to people eating contaminated fish and treating any outsider with the type of British contempt that gets city folk trapped inside burning effigies.

Murder Mansion (1972, directed by Francisco Lara Polop)

Originally released as La Mansion de la Niebla (The Mansion in the Fog), that title makes plenty of sense, as this is about a group of people all drawn to, well, a foggy mansion. It’s a pretty interesting mix of the gothic Eurohorror of the 60s with 70s giallo.

Horror Rises from the Tomb (1973, directed by Carlos Aured)

Sometimes, I get lost in thought and wonder, “Did people seek out Naschy films in the 70s?” I’d like to think they did and were excited that they could potentially see two of them on their local monster shows. This one introduces Alaric de Marnac, a beheaded warlock who returns to life centuries later to get revenge (and star in a sequel, Panic Beats).

Death Smiles on a Murderer (1973, directed by Joe D’Amato)

Somehow, this aired uncut on Pittsburgh’s beloved Chiller Theater (July 7, 1979 and December 26, 1981), giving everyone in the City of Bridges the opportunity to watch Klaus Kinski push a needle into a girl’s eyeball. Throw in some Ewa Aulin and a trippy vibe and the fact that D’Amato was so happy with the film — his hopes were dashed, sending him on a lifelong quest to just make money instead of art — that he used his real name in the credits: Aristide Massaccesi.

The Bell from Hell (1973, directed by Claudio Guerí)

Director Guerín fell — or jumped — from the tower housing the titular bell on the last day of shooting and died. The film was completed by Juan Antonio Bardem. One assumes that Bardem did the best job he could to combine all the many parts that Guerín into some whole. What remains is a movie that is at times brutal and alternatively feels like a dream.Viveca Lindfors name was used often in the ads for this movie, as she was at one time pushed as the new Garbo.

The Night of the Sorcerers (1974, directed by Amando de Ossorio)

At some point in the mid 70s, some kid in his pajamas had to confront the slow-motion magic of de Ossorio as the director let flow leopard bikini-wearing women with fangs running wild through day for night jungle drinking the blood of their victims when they aren’t being whipped until their clothes fall off. 

The Mummy’s Revenge (1975, directed by Carlos Aured)

Paul Naschy plays the mummy and the priest who brings him back to life in Victorian London, teaming with Helga Liné to kidnap, murder and harvest virgin blood. Look — if Naschy wasn’t around for Universal and couldn’t get in a Hammer movie, he was just going to make his own.

There was even a pressbook for this package and three issues of Monster World (March, May and July of 1975) featured extensive coverage of the movies. 

My young years were spent watching hours upon hours of movies, not unlike today. The difference then was I had no responsibility outside of making sure I was on time for Superhost on WUAB-43 then ready for Chilly Billy later that night, staying up watching movies until my eyes shut, then waking up for an Abbott and Costello movie. The syndicated movies would give way by the late 80s, due to infomercials actually paying for air time. And by then, just like free TV would ruin movies, video rental stores were decried by Joe Bob because drive-ins were closing. And just a few years later, Blockbuster pushed out the mom and pop stores, then they were gone too.

Today’s high tech world is great. Don’t get me wrong. But the Nightmare Theater package is an amazing moment in genre history, a time when many got to see their first lurid glimpses at Eurohorror.

*Hatchet for the Honeymoon definitely played U.S. drive-ins as a double bill with Suspiria

Information and images in this article were sourced from Mike Mariano, a poster to The Latarnia Forums. The information and images from Monster World come from Zombo’s Closet (www.zomboscloset.com).

One thought on “EXPLORING: Nightmare Theater

  1. Pingback: What’s Up in the Neighborhood, July 30 2022 – Chuck The Writer

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