I grew up in the ‘70s, and as a burgeoning horror fan, there was no better time to be alive. I cherished every outlet and every aspect – I had The Witching Hour comics and Creepy magazines, a mom who took me to the movies to see Burnt Offerings at the age of six, and a cavalcade of small screen terrors. Being a kid, my domain was Saturday morning, naturally. Scooby-Doo and the gang fighting the (usually) fake monsters, The Monster Squad, Far Out Space Nuts, and Land of the Lost were but some of the shows that tackled not necessarily horror, but at the very least the fantastic.
Because I was a kid, seeing previews for The Night Stalker TV series almost made me weep – it came on way after my bedtime as part of CBS’ late night programming (CBS being one of the three networks back in the day, way before you all ditched TV for Netflix – savages!). So imagine my delight one Saturday morning as I arose an hour earlier than my normal time (7 am was my usual up time on Saturdays – that’s when the three networks rolled out their lineups) and came across an hour long show called The Hilarious House of Frightenstein.
If you’ve never heard of it, don’t feel left out. It’s a Canadian made show filled with vampires, witches, ghouls, werewolf DJs, bad puns (and good jokes), groovy tunes, a definite hippie hangover feel, and enough dry ice to choke a mummy. In other words, horror heaven for a terror savvy tyke. All this, and Vincent Price, too! Okay, maybe you should feel left out. It’s a wonderfully weird show for the young, old, and deceased.
The show is essentially a series of skits involving different characters at the castle of Count Frightenstein. The Count has been banished from Transylvania because he can’t bring his Frankenstein-like monster, Brucie, to life. If and when he finally does get Brucie up and running, he can hold his head high and return to his native land. Surrounding the exploits of The Count and his sidekick Igor are various recurring sketches involving Grizelda the Ghastly Gourmet, a witchy take on cooking shows, The Maharishi, who spouts mysticisms before being pelted by flowers from above, and The Librarian, who tells scary stories that turn out to be anything but. Add to this list other characters such as Dr. Pet Vet, The Oracle, Bwana Clyde Batty, The Wolfman (a DJ very closely modeled on famous DJ Wolfman Jack), and real life physicist Julius Sumner Miller as The Professor, who demonstrated physics experiments that went (and still go) completely over my head, but are entertaining nevertheless.
Looking back, the show definitely has an educational element, but nowhere near as pervasive as say, Sesame Street or The Electric Company. Frightenstein’s emphasis is on fun, sprinkled with knowledge, which was a necessary component to obtain financial backing. Oh well. A little bit of learning never hurt anyone, right?
So here’s some more: The list of characters described above, with the exception of The Professor and Igor, are all portrayed by amazing character actor and comedian, Billy Van. Coming up through the Canadian comedy ranks he worked with Wayne & Shuster (ask your grandparents) and ended up on The Ray Stevens Show (1970), which led to Frightenstein. With a very talented makeup crew and a real gift for voices, Van brought every fall, pun, clever aside, and harmlessly creepy moment to life. The other actor to add considerably was Fishka Rais (Cannibal Girls) as Igor, The Count’s lovable, huggable giant of a sidekick. Both have long since passed, but their work here is undeniable, and, surprising since the show was made for children, not the least bit condescending.
Now dig this, kiddies. Even though the show ran from 1971 until the late ‘90s in syndication, the whole thing was actually made over a nine month to one year span. A total of 131 hour long episodes were produced, and then unleashed upon the world like a rabies crazed bat from a cave. In the States, the episodes were cut down to 30 minutes and a laugh track added. The way it worked was this: Van would shoot one character’s segment at a time – everything with The Count would take a few weeks, then on to the next character, etc. – until they had enough footage to put together each episode. That’s why it really doesn’t matter if the shows are edited down or not, as there is no ongoing storyline, just a series of sketches. Vincent Price was approached, loved the idea, and helped write a lot of his own material. His mellifluous tones open and close every episode, and in between he introduces each different segment. He loved poetry, and the show is peppered with very clever and gently macabre pieces taking you from one bit to the next. Undoubtedly, his involvement (all filmed in a few days!) was the key for the show to gain widespread distribution, and sure enough, it did end up being broadcast in various markets throughout the States.
Horror is such a trip for kids because it tends to focus on the visual, something that the makers of Frightenstein surely had in mind when creating this world. The sets, especially for a low budget production – The Count’s lab, Grizelda’s kitchen, Wolfman’s DJ set up and psychedelic back drop when he and Igor dance to the latest tune he would drop – are pure unfiltered eye candy, bursting with pulsating primary colors, that, combined with an ongoing sugar rush, would send kids on a kaleidoscopic trip through their developing minds. It’s truly a blast for the peepers, really, at any age.
The Hilarious House of Frightenstein ranks as one of the (mostly) unsung greats of TV horror. At a time when horror was flourishing, it provided a clever, harmless outlet for the little monsters (and monsterettes) who were too young for the late show, or whose parents limited their intake of cob webbed delights. Getting up an hour earlier, having a couple bowls of sugar crusted cereal, and spending time with The Count and his friends wasn’t a sacrifice at all. It was this terror tyke’s pleasure.Next: It Came From The Tube: THE POSSESSED (1977)