Halloween's rolled around again and yeah, yeah, it's a dark and stormy night. The road's washed out, phone's gone dead, the mystic's reading her ouija board, and zombies are popping through doorways left open by a demented kewpie doll.
Been there. Seen that. Got the t-shirt.
In fact, I very nearly designed a t-shirt for this sort of stuff back in the 1970s, before I was a movie critic. My first gig out of college was doing publicity for Roth Theaters, a mid-size, DC-based theater chain that got gobbled up in the '80s by a bigger circuit. My boss was Paul Roth, an old-school movie guy who by the time I met him had probably forgotten more about showmanship than I'll ever know.
We staged weddings in the aisle for a movie called The Bride (patrons threw popcorn instead of rice). We dressed a verrrry short usher one December as E.T., and then added a beard and tasseled red hat so he could be Santa's Helper. And for the opening of Airplane!, an usher and I climbed up on a marquee to attach the back half of a plane fuselage I'd found at a junkyard so it looked like it had crashed into the theater. We knew we were getting the look right when a passing motorist screeched to a halt, leapt from his car, and yelled "is everyone okay?"
But the most fun we had was promoting Roth's drive-in theaters, especially when audiences dwindled as the weather turned cold. Halloween was both a challenge and an opportunity for drive-ins: Obviously the right place for scares, but hard to find new films for when there was a chill in the air. So Paul dug deep in the B-movie horror vaults, and showed me how to sell the sizzle, not the steak.
Here's the kind of ad copy he favored (writing it was the first radio writing I ever did). Imagine a booming voice with lots of echo effects, thunder crashes and screams between phrases.
"Friday Night at the Ranch Drive In: Our Dusk-to-Dawn Halloween Horrorthon! An all-night fright-fest with Five — count-'em FIVE(!) — full-length features. Shuddering spectres guaranteed to scare you shout-less! Films so terrifying we can't reveal the titles. But we can say this: No one with a heart condition will be admitted. We'll have nurses in attendance ... and a hearse standing by."
Man, I used to love writing copy like that. Years later, when John Goodman played a '60s horror guy in the movie Matinee, wiring theater seats to deliver electric shocks at scary moments, I felt like I was watching my boss.
These days, when you go to a scary movie, you see a scary movie. And no question, the scares are scarier now. It's all up there on screen. But the old horror-thons (and terror-ramas, which were horror-thons, but sexy) had their charms, too.
I still remember Paul showing me how a little red food coloring in the popcorn oil could turn a bucket of popcorn into a BUCKET OF BLOOD.
Kinda gross, right? But the point was to scare the "yell" out of you, and for the most part, we did.