With the first Nightmare Weekend Before Christmas commencing (and you might want to read the details if you haven’t already), it’s time for a tribute to post-Thanksgiving television, for one very specific reason. Back in the 1970s, when cable television was a rarity for those living in valleys inaccessible to standard television broadcasts, the FCC could blank out programming on any independent cable channel in order to encourage viewing of news programming on the Big Three (which somehow always managed to black out Star Trek and The Outer Limits in syndication but guaranteed at least five showings of The Dick Van Dyke Show per day), and most of the watchable content came from TV stations hundreds or thousands of miles away, one of the stalwarts that made suburban living tolerable was the monster movie. We GenXers went completely MAD for monsters back then, both contemporary and classic, because of the promise of the Late Night Movie.
Some background. Since television transmitters of the time were fragile, tetchy beasts that had a tendency not to come back on after being turned off, station managers had an incentive to keep them on as long as possible, and the best way to do that was to run something, anything, into the wee hours when most people were asleep. Running old movies all night long offered more profit in advertising than simply running a station ID notice, and running horror movies from the 1930s through the 1950s was cheaper than trying to run contemporary movies. Since the studios and distributors of those horror and science fiction movies looked at their product as ephemeral material for kids, they could be rented for television at ridiculously low prices, which meant they were concentrated on Friday and Saturday nights, when most adults would be out and around and very unlikely to be watching late-night television. Since this coincided with the use of the television as the Great Babysitter, suddenly a whole generation of American kids, of all demographics, were exposed to good, bad, and surreal horror films while their parents were out doing whatever parents did. Whatever it was, it couldn’t have been as fun as getting caught up on cultural neuroses and anxieties turned into kids’ entertainment. It’s no surprise that the film The Nightmare Before Christmas became such a classic: the entire post-Boomer generation had been taught for decades before that the monsters were more interesting and honest than the “normal” people around them. (I regularly get tongue-clicking from “respectable” people about how inappropriate it is for me to tell kids I still get teary-eyed at the end of Alien, when the most interesting and well-developed character in the whole movie gets blown out the airlock. It’s no surprise: I got plenty of practice for mourning the monster after a childhood of bawling at the end of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, and Valley of Gwangi. You should see the friends who grew up immunized to a life of MBAs and IRAs thanks to years and years of late-night Hammer vampire movies.)
And the El Dorado of all of this very selective counter programming? Godzilla. Kaiju films were the special treat, usually reserved for special events or weekly series, and the biggest event was what was then only referred to as “the day after Thanksgiving.” Parents took off and dealt with the Christmas shopping crowds: the unlucky kids dragged along are the reason why George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead became one of the greatest holiday movies of them all. Those of us lucky enough to stay home while the grownups shivved each other over ornaments and sweaters? We turned on the 19-inch babysitter and fed on hour after hour of badly-dubbed Japanese angst. Godzilla, Gamera, Gigan, Rodan, Mothra…it all tapped into a deep craving we didn’t know we had, so we obsessively collated it and made it our own. Then, when school started again the next week, we all had a common language, except for the kids who didn’t watch because “that’s for kids.” Those kids were the ones who grew up to successful careers as mid-level managers, who still can’t figure out why their own children don’t call and why their co-workers all feign bouts of explosive diarrhea as an excuse for avoiding the company Christmas party.
So this season, while everyone else is drowning each other in false holiday cheer, remember the strange and the wonderful. Most importantly, if Christmas music were judged solely by the emotions engendered by its playing, this collection would be very near the top of the list, for reasons the listeners can’t quite explain. Meanwhile, the Triffid Ranch will be open on both Friday and Saturday, noon until 6:00 and later hours by appointment, and you can imagine the playlist