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Interview: John E. Hudgens (American Scary director)

filmingKiller Film today talks with director John E. Hudgens, director of the documentary American Scary, about the film, its subject, and the future of horror hosting.

Jon: How did American Scary originate and what were your research materials in developing the film?

John E. Hudgens: Well, long story short is that you could say it’s Peter Mayew’s (Chewbacca) fault. (laughs) We had done a short film for a Lucas film contest called “Jedi Hunter” and it was playing at a film festival. At that film festival, Dr. Gangrene was hosting and my writer partner on the film, Lowell Cunningham creator of Men in Black, starting geeking out and he never geeks out on anything until he saw a horror host he grew up with. So, a week later, Sandy (Clark) came up with the idea and was at San Francisco during the Alternative Press Expo, pitching a comic book he created and was there with John Stanley, who was horror hosting for like 30 years. “My God! These guys have been off the air for years and still have a line around the door with people waiting to see them,” he said. He didn’t know how to make a movie, so he called me and I had nothing else to do at the time, so I said “sure”. We off and running. Literally he hooked up with Dokter Goulfinger, Michael Monahan, and a couple of weeks later we were at HorrorFind in Pittsburgh getting like eight hours of interviews right off the bat.

Jon: Was it hard getting funds for the film or did you tackle it financially solo?

Hudgens: It was out of our back pocket, we didn’t get any outside funding.

Jon: How hard was it to find the tapes and footage of each horror hosts?

Hudgens: No, most of the hosts saved their footage, they own their own stuff. We got every scrap of Ernie Anderson (Ghoulardi) from friends, and that’s the only reason he’s in the film because that interview was done in 1986, he died 12 years ago. They gave us everything and is invaluable. They just sent us boxes of tapes and said just pick. In some cases, like NBC Universal has lost all of the stuff. They don’t exist anymore, as far as some the owners believe. It’s just gone.

Jon: Why do you think some horror hosts, such as Vampira and Elvira, broke out into mainstream recognition and others did not?

Hudgens: Most of them were local, and with Vampira she didn’t take off nation wide until people discovered her. They were local phenomenons and could be bigger than the Beatles but go 15-20 miles outside of town or the television range, and nobody would know who they were. In the early days, Vampira obviously got Life magazine, and Zacherley got Forry Ackerman who put him in Famous Monsters a lot. They had a little more visibility than others from those magazines. Elvira really took off with all the merchandising. Her show really wasn’t a hit until signing up for Coors, and until then was just a local L.A. thing.

Jon: Was there any horror hosts you wanted to get for the film but did not?

Hudgens: Plenty actually, but a lot of it was scheduling problems or people wouldn’t talk about it. We never got anything going to do Mr. Magnificent down in New Orleans, or Dr. Madblood in Virginia. Obviously Cassandra Petersen (Elvira), and we tried forever to get her. We got several different stories to why she wasn’t responding to us. At one point, when I finally got a chance to talk to her in person, she was like “Oh my God! I never heard of this! You must contact my agent.” But then nothing. As I tell people, who have to make the movie with what you have and not what you want.

Jon: How did the structure of the film come together?

Hudgens: That was really more Sandy. Originally, we had a narrator, we approached a couple of people to do it but in the end, we never got that to work out. At one point, I ripped out some narration and just edited to what it is now. That sort of worked. We didn’t want it to be a straight historical session, but you need a start, a little history. We definitely wanted the stuff with Neil Gaiman at the end, since it was such a build up that it encapsulated everything. I do remember in the interview process he gave me that line, and I knew I wanted to close the movie with. I never found anything just as good! A lot of it, we just tried to drive the questioning that way, you know, we had a bit of structure with history, and influences, and decline with a little bit of hope at the end.

Jon: With TV being so corporate, and public access TV being completely over-shadowed by this, is the web the only remaining place to continue the horror host culture?

Hudgens: No, it’s never going to be the way it was before. I don’t know how old you are, but I’m in my 40s and I’m one of the last generations that grew up on three channels and watching stuff like this. I didn’t have a host growing up but there are people who are doing it in reverse. We didn’t touch upon it in the film, but Doktor Gangrene started off in reverse. And got popular enough to buy a 2-hour block on TV, got a movie, and sold his own ads, and he is getting ratings. Most are doing them on public access, and more might start to go to the Internet. Some are doing podcasts or something like that.

Jon: There’s been various attempts to create an all horror channel, with nothing coming through, it seems like the Internet is the only remaining place.

Hudgens: Well, one was trying to do it, can’t remember who, and contacted us and we hooked them up with Professor Griffin in Texas. Fangoria TV, maybe, it was a couple of years ago. Someone is going to find a way to keep it going, one way or another. I think we caught it at the right time, since there was a big resurgence in it. It’s falling back a bit now, but then people were connecting them with their fans. Maybe this will go back to live shows, like Doktor Gangrene does this thing at Waterfest every year with Bob Burns. Show a movie and goofed off in front of the stage. Heck, some are taking this on road tour, directly aiming at the fans.

Jon: Since the film has been released, we have seen, sadly, the losses of Forrest Ackerman, Vampira, and Bob Wilkins (Creature Features). Can you say a few words on what you think they brought to the horror community and their legacy?

Hudgens: Of course, Forry was one of the greatest cheerleaders for this stuff. Who hasn’t been influenced by Famous Monsters of Filmland? We didn’t touch upon that since we wanted to focus just on horror hosting, we all found out about film making because no one else was writing about the nuts and bolts of it. Vampira, she is more of an icon than anything else. Most people didn’t know about the person, they just saw the character. Elvira was an embodiment of her, and without getting into the lawsuit, they’re basically the same but in different time periods. There’s probably gonna be another Elvira someday, they are just going to recast the part, because the character is bigger than one person.

Like in Cleveland, Ghoulardi and the Son of Ghoulardi are essentially the same characters, who just can’t call them that. We didn’t touch upon all the lawsuits between them, they were suing each other until the judge was like you’re both doing the same character and who weren’t the first either.

Jon: Well, thanks for your time today, sir!

Hudgens: We’re trying to get this out to the general public that don’t know these things. This is their first taste. So, sure thanks!

For more information, check out review of the film by me here on Killer Film, our thoughts on Forry’s passing here,  and click here for the film’s official website. Feel free to leave comments or email me at jon@killerfilm.com

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Jon Peters

I love film. That is all.

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