The rise and fall of the iconic Saturday night horror movie pairings of classic – and not-so-classic – horror movies.
Depending, of course, on your individual cultural tastes, there are seminal moments of collective consciousness that shaped entire generations. The Beatles and the Sex Pistols might have done it for some teenagers. Star Wars certainly represented that for some people. In a world where everything is available everywhere for everyone, perhaps we no longer have those pop cultural shared experiences – perhaps now it is all angry political protest and identity politics that people will look back on as the points in their lives where everything changed.
For some of us – the kids who were into horror movies – BBC2’s eight-year run of Horror Double Bills that ran through the summers from 1975 to 1983 (missing out 1982) proved to be a moment of cultural revolution. Not that we discovered horror movies through these Saturday night pairings, you understand – I think for most of us, the obsession had been there for years anyway. It’s hard to explain to people now just how ingrained the classic monsters – Frankenstein, Dracula, King Kong – were in the culture of the 1970s, from magazines to Aurora model kits to… well, everything. Then there was the odd film caught through late-night TV broadcasts and the books of Dennis Gifford and Alan Frank feeding that obsession in ways that kids today, with access to all the information instantly, could never understand. Back then, there was the sort of scarcity that comes with three TV channels that closed down before midnight and only rarely showed horror movies in that late-night slot that your parents were reluctant to let you sit up for, and where these films – even the very old ones – were still marked with the censor’s ‘X’, making them the sort of forbidden fruit that all too often would stay forbidden. My own parents had a curious censorship system of their own in the 1970s, which could usually be broken down by consistent nagging – only the works of Roman Polanski were absolutely off-limits, a case of the art being judged by the artist I realise in retrospect.
Oddly, as a horror-obsessed nipper, I nevertheless somehow or other missed the first two series of Horror Double Bills, which went out as Midnight Movie Fantastic in 1975 and Masters of Terror in 1976. This was a time before our family took the Radio Times and probably before I was pouring over the newspaper TV guides with any sense of urgency, so both seasons slipped past unnoticed. It wasn’t necessarily parental neglect in letting me know about the films – I’d seen Dracula, Prince of Darkness a couple of years before its appearance in the 1976 series (paired with The Walking Dead) and had also browbeaten my folks into allowing me to catch the latter half of an ITV series of Universal horrors, starting with Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman. But horror remained a rare treat.
The 1977 series – with the cheesy title Dracula, Frankenstein and Friends – was the point at which I discovered that the Horror Double Bills existed. This was the first of the curated series, working its way through the Universal monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s in the opening slot, with gothic Hammer and AIP movies as the later film. As such, it was a fantastic film education – the Universal Horrors that I’d been reading about, there for the taking. I remember finding Dracula (1931) to be ploddingly slow, and Dracula’s Daughter and The Mummy even more tedious; the second wave of the films that began with Son of Frankenstein was much more fun for a ten-year-old. But as an introduction to regular horror film viewing – and from this point in, you can rest assured that no movie broadcast went undetected – it was a great starting point. You might as well start at the beginning.
Such clearly curated programming did not return until 1981 when there was a series of Val Lewton productions that rather showed up the weakness of such planned schedules – for those of us immersed in the more visceral shocks to be found in the local video store by this point, the pleasures of Curse of the Cat People and The Leopard Man were few and far between, making the first half of the double bill feel more like a punishment than a pleasure – there was, of course, no suggestion of actually skipping the films though. By that point I was watching movies – all movies – relentlessly and even the dullest affairs would be ploughed through with gritted teeth. Oddly, the second film in each of these pairings was usually something rather more modern and lively – Hammer Horror was notable by its absence. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
1978’s Monster Double Bill was notable for its eclectic selection of films, including The Return of Dracula, broadcast under its ludicrous 1958 UK release title The Fantastic Disappearing Man, 1950s shocker Voodoo Island, White Zombie, X – The Man with X-Ray Eyes and oddball Filipino shocker Superbeast, complete with its real-life autopsy footage. Whatever shocks that may have come from seeing that were slight in comparison to the impact of the film shown five weeks earlier, however.
George Romero’s The Crazies had not made it to UK cinemas, and so was something of an unknown quantity when it appeared after The Quatermass Xperiment. Certainly, there was nothing in the previously cosy horror double bill line-ups – indeed, in the sort of horror films that you might see on TV in general – that quite prepared viewers for this. As an eleven-year-old in the days before video nasties were corrupting schoolchildren, I found it quite the experience – this was bleak, apocalyptic, cine-verité style horror that immediately changed everything I knew about the genre. It also caused my mother to go to bed in disgust – scenes of fathers attempting to rape their daughters were not the sort of thing you found in Hammer movies and proved to be the final straw for her. Today, there would be complaints – but there was no OFCOM in 1978 and no rules governing taste and decency. The Crazies would turn up again in 1981, after Isle of the Dead, and I dutifully recorded it on our shiny new VCR. Tapes weren’t cheap back then and to my horror, my mother taped over it to record the Royal Wedding a couple of months later – which she never watched again. This is why I’m going to donate her body for medical experiments.
1979’s series – Masters of Terror – might also have seemed curated, featuring as it did a Hammer film in the second movie slot throughout, though there seemed to be little thought beyond that – it was a fairly random selection that included The Curse of Frankenstein, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, The Devil Rides Out and others. All welcome, and mostly movies that I hadn’t seen before – but by this time it was starting to feel a little disappointing to see these traditional horror movies in the late slot. There was an unwritten rule throughout the horror double bills that the first film should always be in black and white, but as welcome as somewhat obscure (at the time) titles like Dr X, Black Friday and The Strange Door were, you did wonder if the Hammer films were by now the stuff of the earlier slot – especially as it never began before 10pm anyway.
Oddly, the most memorable thing about the 1979 series was not the double bill itself, but rather the four evenings where it was preceded in the schedules by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s epic movie Hitler – A Film From Germany. This film – part documentary, part fiction, all experimental – was as much a revelation as The Crazies had been in showing what cinema was capable of and introducing me to world cinema and the avant-garde. I would not have seen this if I hadn’t been settled in from early evening just waiting for the horror double bill. That I found this film, one that certainly changed my understanding of cinema and life every bit as much as the first time I watched King Kong as a pre-schooler, was a curious side-effect of these movies being shown.
Similarly, in 1981 the Lewton-led series was preceded one night – the same night that Isle of the Dead and The Crazies were shown, so forming quite the evening’s entertainment – by the paranoid and nightmarish Spanish short La Cabina, effectively making that night a horror triple bill. It wasn’t always so enjoyable a wait, though. For a few years, BBC2 would – of course – show cricket or golf ‘highlights’ before, or even between the films, a punishment that ensured that a whole generation of kids would grow up loathing both plodding sports.
1980’s Horror Double Bill – the first one to actually use that title! – was another random selection, but was also the one that famously made the front cover of The Radio Times, the return of the series now something of a summer event. The cover – a mock-up double-bill movie poster featuring Night of the Demon and The Ghoul – is the sort of artwork that would be unthinkable now, almost as unthinkable as a BBC2 season of horror movie pairings in fact – but it’s an iconic piece of art that was immediately saved for posterity and remains part of my collection to this day.
The actual 1980 series was a pleasingly random – some might say chaotic – mix of classics and trash. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Night of the Lepus – that’s the film about giant rabbits for those who don’t know – was certainly memorable, and a few real oddities – The Mad Ghoul, Chamber of Horrors, Daughters of Satan – livened it up. It also saw the first TV showings of Tyburn’s The Ghoul (which might have been paired with The Mad Ghoul had anyone had more foresight) and Legend of the Werewolf alongside Hammer’s Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter – dying gasps of the exhausted British gothic (though Kronos actually pointed a way forward that Hammer failed to grasp) – as well as From Beyond the Grave and – shown as a stand-alone film at the end of the series – The Beast Must Die, the final Amicus horrors. Perhaps there was a theme to this series, after all, displaying the final moments of the British horror boom.
Alongside the Lewtons and The Crazies in 1981 came more steps into a more modern horror, even if some of the films still dated back to the 1960s – The Shuttered Room and Eye of the Cat at least had a more contemporary feel, and movies like Bug, Zoltan Hound of Dracula and Race with the Devil were all solid exploitation movies that were only a few years old. The series ended with the magnificent Theatre of Blood, and it seemed to point the way for future series. But there was no series at all in 1982, and when it returned in 1983, it was a massive step backwards, consisting entirely of the Universal Horrors of the Thirties and Forties. These were not only movies that had all been shown already over preceding seasons, there was not even any attempt at variety. It had the feel of a last gasp affair, going through the motions, and that was exactly what it was. In an age where horror films were being demonised like never before, the BBC was not about to show anything that didn’t have bona fide classic – and PG-rated – status.
The Horror Double Bill slipped quietly away into the night, mourned by those who had grown up on it, but perhaps seeming irrelevant in the days of splatter movies and home video to anyone else. But this wasn’t quite the end.
Channel 4 attempted its own Horror Double Bill series in 1986 with Monster Horrors, in which Leslie Halliwell – no fan of either horror films or modern cinema, though willing to write opportunistic books on both if a publisher contract was dangled before him – put together double and sometimes triple bills of features and shorts, almost all from the Thirties and Forties and so rather similar to the last BBC series. There were some interesting inclusions that were rarely shown at the time – Nosferatu, Vampyr, Mark of the Vampire, The Vampire Bat – and some oddities like the Orson Welles short Return to Glennascaul and the Route 66 episode Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing. It wasn’t a bad effort all round, but there would be no further series.
In 1992, BBC2 showed a Halloween all-nighter of horror films and documentaries, hosted by ‘Dr Walpurgis’, a monstrous horror host of the American variety who was an acquired taste. The event’s thunder was rather stolen by the infamous Ghostwatch broadcast earlier that evening, but Dr Walpurgis seemed popular enough to return for a 1993 double bill series Dr Terror’s Vault of Horror. This was another mixed bag, with the older black and white movies now shunted to the arse end of the double bill, and highlights included Mario Bava’s The Mask of Satan, low-rent classics like Terror from the Year 5000, Teenage Frankenstein and Teenage Werewolf and From Hell It Came. Dr Terror was back in 1994 and 1996, but this time had just one film a night to introduce – the days of the double bill were finally dead and gone.
More recently, there was a rather pointless campaign for the BBC to revive the Horror Double Bills, but really… why? With so many outlets offering movies on demand, on disc and on broadcast TV, the Event Television status of the original double bills would be lost, and which mainstream broadcaster, fixated on demographics and the youth market would give air time to these old movies anyway? The very idea of a movie double bill is now so alien to most people that it seems like a pointless exercise for most broadcasters. Perhaps it’s an opportunity for Talking Pictures TV to further cash in on nostalgia, though*.
* Since this article first appeared, Talking Pictures have indeed produced their own version of the Horror Double Bill in the form of The Cellar Club, where Caroline Munro awkwardly introduces a triple-bill of vintage horror, film noir and the odd exploitation oddity every Friday night.
Help support The Reprobate: