I was an ‘inside kid’.
Sure, I went to school and rode bikes and journeyed to 7-11 to pick up comic books and Slurpees.
That was my afternoon. But my night?
Movies. Lots and lots of movies.
My parents gave me a TV time limit. I had a few hours a week. It was sort of an allowance. I had to be smart, and budget my presence in front of the tube.
I used all those hours on Saturday. Here’s why:
USA’S SATURDAY NIGHTMARES.
Saturday Nightmares was my youthful gateway into horror films. In an environment where my parents were permissive enough to let me watch some TV, but not permissive enough to let me rent R-rated horror films, Saturday Nightmares provided a mainline fix that my pre-teen (and early teen) self desperately needed.
USA’S Saturday Nightmares was a prime-time (8 PM – East Coast – old school USA network) non-hosted weekly horror movie feature forum that consisted of several elements:
0 – The Intro. As I mentioned, this was an un-hosted venue for horror films but the intros were awesome. In the early days of USA’s Saturday Nightmares, it was a little more commando. They were stark black and white shots of grotesque monster movies. It looked cheap, and felt cheap and that informed the scariness of whatever film the show was threatening to air. After a few years, they amped up the budget and it became an early CGI ‘tour’ through a museum of horror icons. Regardless of which intro or bumper I preferred, they were atmospheric and foreboding. In other words, even if the movie sucked – I was still scared to watch it.
1 – The Horror Movie. This was usually some semi-obscure thriller that was molding in a VHS bin somewhere. I’m not industry adept enough to guess where the USA network programmers got their material, my guess is it was whatever they had access to. I mean, ‘Bloodbath in the House of Death’? ‘Scared to Death’? ‘Devil Times Five’?, ‘Up From the Depths’?, ‘The House Where Evil Dwells’, ‘Spookies’?, ‘The Being’?, – I can go on. And I will. But this show dredged up some of the most lesser-known, cheap thrill horror movies that could ever be IMDB’d. For a kid who was only exposed to ‘Salems Lot’ and ‘Gremlins’, Saturday Nightmares was a goldmine. R-rated horrors edited for television. Therefore, parent-friendly.
2 – The Anthology Shows. It wasn’t just a horror feature showcase. Oh no. It had frosting on the cake. Following the movie, Saturday Nightmares wasn’t done with you. They aired three different syndicated horror anthology shows. Among them: The Ray Bradbury Theater, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and The Hitchhiker.
‘The Ray Bradbury Theater’ was more of a slow-burn horror anthology. The stories were generally fantastical and had a more broad nature. Not all of the stories presented were from the mind of the great Ray Bradbury, but many of them kept the tone of some of his earlier works. I remember one called ‘The Playground’ with a young-ish William Shatner that haunts me to this day.
‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ had a more crime-oriented atmosphere and a typical just-desserts twist ending. I’d compare the stories presented akin to EC Comics’ noir books.
‘The Hitchhiker’ was probably inappropriate for a kid my age. It was a port from an HBO series, and consisted of a lot of sex and murder. A lone, scruffed Hitchiker tells stories of lust and death. It was heavily edited for TV, so the impact was lost on me. I do remember some of the stories were compelling, but they had to cut out all the naughty stuff.
3 – The Short Films. Oftentimes, one of the Saturday Nightmares features would end early, and they would have to stick in a mysterious short film to fill out the run time. Short films are commonplace these days, especially on YouTube – but in 1988, it was rare to see a cool, scary short flick. Somehow, the USA Network was able to find some frightening brief bits to pad out the run-time. I remember one was about a man engineering a gigantic mouse-trap…for himself. It was his method of suicide. Dark, right?
I WAS 10!
The first film I ever saw on USA’s Saturday Nightmares was ‘The Loch Ness Horror’. It involves – you guessed it – a bunch of people running away from a rubberized Loch Ness Monster puppet. It’s…garbage. However, the nostalgia of gunning my BMX bike back from the comic book store to make it home before sundown to watch ‘The Loch Ness Horror’ stays with me.
I think I bought a Hulk comic that day. Memories fade…
My parents had to endure my love of USA’s Saturday Nightmares. We weren’t a rich family. We had a modest house on Long Island with one TV. So, if I watched something – they had to watch that thing. In a strange way, my parents are well-versed in horror movie trivia because of that environment.
-‘Hey Dad, remember ‘Demonwarp’?
-‘Is that the one with the murderous Sasquatch and George Kennedy, and the zombies you made us watch’?
-‘Why couldn’t have you been a doctor’?
I was a weird kid. I lived for Saturday Nightmares. Whenever my parents had a dinner party, they knew I’d be out of their hair watching something like ‘Jaws of Satan’. Just to be clear, that’s a film about a king cobra possessed by the Devil.
My Dad’s buddy, after wandering into the TV room:
‘What are you watching’?
‘Jaws of Satan. Killer king cobra movie’.
‘What the hell is Fritz Weaver doing in this crap’?
As low-grade as many of the movies shown on Saturday Nightmares were, they did expose me to a world beyond the A-list ‘thrillers’ that masquerade as horror movies.
Later on, as USA became more mass-audience oriented, the films became more commercial. ‘Demons of the Dead’ was replaced by ‘Nightmare on Elm Street 3’. ‘Girls Nite Out’ was replaced by ‘Friday The 13th V’. Not that there’s anything wrong with those particular films, but I could see them anywhere. I respected the unavailability of the unknown titles.
Saturday Nightmares was kicked. USA rolled into original programming, and became the home of ‘Psych’ and ‘Burn Notice’. I’m sure those shows are fine, but I miss the ‘go for broke’ programming of the 80’s. What is ‘Burn Notice’ about, by the way?
I got older and discovered eBay and Amazon and YouTube. I was able to find a lot of my favorite niche horror films on that landscape.
My Saturday nights got booked with grown-up things. Girls, life, girls.
I work as a screenwriter now. I’ve written the (self-proclaimed) B-movie classics ‘Fear of the Dark’, ‘Prophecy: Uprising’, ‘Prophecy: Forsaken’. ‘Recoil’ (not a horror film but Steve Austin is kinda scary).
I’ve got a few new thrillers in the pipeline.
I like to think that USA Saturday Nightmares contributed to my silly career.
I leave you with the Wiki link for USA’s Saturday Nightmares.
Every flick is a classic. Sorta.
Now, I’m off to find a VHS copy of ‘The Loch Ness Horror’…
JOHNNY BLACKOUT (John Sullivan)