I have gotten several requests to do a write up on the new “Nightmare Theater” with Sammy Terry. Despite the requests, I have been reticent for several reasons. The new Nightmare Theater is in the grass roots stage, although whether or not it should be is debatable. After all, Sammy Terry has a fifty year legacy, so it should not be a case of having to compete with the Johnny-come-lately horror hosts, of whom there are far too many of dreadful quality. With his long history, Sammy Terry could be venturing into new territory, rather than reconquering the market of local television, especially since local television really no longer exists.
The first and most glaring problem with contemporary horror hosts is the question of whether they’re needed. In the golden age of horror hosts there were a half dozen or so local television stations, and the video/cable/Internet age was something akin to science fiction. If one wanted to watch James Whale‘s Frankenstein (1931), then you might get the chance to see it once a year via the local host, who, in our case in Indianapolis, was Sammy Terry on WTTV 4. Today, the horror host is simply not a necessity, so in order to entice an audience the host should have interesting personalty, story, and characterization. Today’s hosts simply get up and do their shtick. Often, one questions whether or not they have even watched the hosted film. If the host wants the audience to acknowledge his or her entertainment value, then his enthusiasm needs to be contagious. It rarely is. The host hardly has to have a back story and, indeed, some sense of mystery should be retained. Today’s audience is much more sophisticated; the personality of the host, and his or her ability to make us care, is vital. Instead, contemporary horror hosts can often be seen hawking their wares at various horror conventions, seeming more like used car salesmen than mysterious entities.
Mark Carter is the son of Bob Carter, the original Sammy Terry. Bob has retired and has passed the cape onto Mark, who is a dead ringer for his dad. Mark has an answer for the inevitable question “are you the Son of Sammy Terry?”—a classic “only Sammy’s blood has worn this cape.” Unfortunately, Mark’s ready-made response has yet to be put to use in an actual public interview. Instead, when local news programs interviewed the new Sammy Terry, he broke character when the question arose, which was a misstep.
I fondly reviewed the original Nightmare Theater two years ago, but the primary reason I have been reluctant to do this follow-up is because I have numerous associates working on the new Nightmare Theater. I sat in on a few round table discussions with the team. I made and documented a few suggestions, then went back to other endeavors. In the time since, a few associates have broken away from the Nightmare project. There have been conflicts and competitive egos. Several other associates continue to remain with the team. Luckily, I have been at a distance from it, so I feel objectively free, at this point, to go ahead with my observations—and those are unfortunately mixed, because I feel there is considerably rich potential for Sammy Terry and the New Nightmare Theater, but there are also legitimate disappointments.
Sammy Terry’s new set has been built in his home. The craftsmanship is superb and equals the set from thirty years ago. As for the act itself, one would have to scrutinize “Sammy’s blood” in order to distinguish that this is the son donning the cape. Mark Carter has certainly mastered Sammy’s cadences and characterization.
Sammy Terry is now hosting independent horror shorts. These can be seen bi-weekly on the WTTV4 website. The first of the Sammy hosted shorts premiered on Sammy’s new DVD label. In the 1980s, Sammy Terry publicly complained that the quality of movies being given to him by WTTV 4 had lowered considerably, especially in comparison to the films he had been hosting the previous decades. While Sammy took a “the show must go on” approach, his out-of-cape job—owning a classical music store—might help explain his concern for what he was hosting. Yes, Sammy Terry was camp, but he was classy camp. He would retain a sense of humor when hosting something like Universal’s silly assembly-line monster mash, Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman (1943) or Ed Wood‘s infamous Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), but Sammy could also convey a sense of dread when he hosted Rouben Mamoulin’s macabre Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932) or tap into our fear of Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). The films shown undeniably effected Sammy’s act. Sadly, those otherworldly films eventually gave way to Z-grade groaners, like Dracula’s Dog (1978). Sammy responded by discussing the films less, and making his act more locally focused. Eventually, he added colorful guests to exchange grand guignol puns, and (one suspects) to help him get through the night. Luckily, after retirement, Sammy returned to form of sorts when he hosted occasional specials. While his energy could not match that of his heyday, his enthusiasm sparkled again, much more so than in the whole of his last few years on weekly television.
If the quality of those 1980s movies were awful, then the movie on the new premiere Sammy Terry DVD, Bikini Monsters, is so execrable that it makes those 1980s turkeys look like polished diamonds. Bikini Monsters is a mutilated short taken from the feature of the same name. It is directed by Terence Muncy. The movie is an excuse for the director to be around scantily clad women, and to call himself a director. Instead of a well crafted first impression of the new Sammy, we get an unimaginative, dull, and witless waste. If the original Bikini Monsters was bad enough, then the truncated version, produced for the DVD, makes this movie an even more incomprehensible mess. The plot, such as it is, involves a hippie turning buxom babes into “Bikini Monsters” and an investigator who thinks a serial killer may be murdering the local girls! Or something like that.
Ed Wood idolized Orson Welles, yet Wood did not have an iota of Welles’ gifts. Terence Muncy seems to emulate Ed Wood and, remarkably, Muncy makes Wood look like a consummate master craftsman. Watching Muncy’s film reminded me of a bit of dialogue from Gods and Monsters (1998) when Clayton Boone asks James Whale, “Oh, you directed Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, etc?” Whale incisively responds, “Uh, no, just the first two. The others were done by hacks.”
Muncy’s entire oeuvre is a lesson in banality. His first film,The Shack (2006) was a ten cent slasher in the woods, complete with stranded babes at a gas station. His Hell Walks the Earth (2008) went out of its way to prove the adage that zombies are horror’s standard fall back when the ideas aren’t coming. While you pretty much know what to expect from a title like Bikini Monsters, it still does not go the route of overt plagiarism like Terence Muncy’s second short for Sammy Terry, Bed Bug,which has to be the climax of Muncy’s brand of counterfeit creativity. Bed Bug is an embarrassing and unforgivable rip-off of Drew Daywalt’s vastly superior and more compact Bedfellows (2008), which won several genre awards and was shown on Chiller TV.
When the plagiarism was brought to my attention, I checked it out and, yes, it is shamelessly obvious as can be seen when comparing the two films. I contacted an associate of Muncy’s who gave me the answer of, “No, you only have to change one key point and then it is yours.” Later, after talk of the plagiarism began making local rounds, someone claimed that seven points had to be changed. Shortly after that, the new and improved reply from Muncy’s camp was that, indeed, seven points were changed. I was assured that the changes were enough for them to avoid charges of plagiarism and claim the film as their own. Surprisingly, the answer that I got back from my inquiry was not even a pooh-pooh dismissal response that the similarities were unintentional. Perhaps the similarities are too obvious to pretend otherwise, or perhaps this is a case of a hustler having no scruples.
The justification from the Bed Bug side evades the unsettling issue of unethical business practices trumping any regard for delivering honest, worthwhile entertainment. The point that soars above the Bed Bug team’s head is that it seems Muncy could not come up with an original idea for a mere 9 minute short without stealing from superior talent. Alas, this all-too-common mentality justifiably gives independent filmmaking a bad name; but, from viewing Muncy’s films, it is clear that he desperately needs to steal from better writers. The subtle nuances of Daywalt’s film are replaced in Bed Bug with Muncy’s pedestrian obviousness.
Hosting inept schlock is something a horror host may have to endure occasionally, and it’s not an issue providing one endures it through a sense of humor. Of course, it is also preferable to find films that charmingly fit the “so bad it’s good” category as opposed to the “so bad it’s bad” category. Because Muncy is a large part of Sammy’s team, his seemingly nonchalant, huckster-like attitude about peddling shameless knockoffs for Sammy Terry to host seriously threatens to cheapen the reputation of a worthwhile endeavor: not because of complex legal issues regarding copyright, but because of unethical disregard and outright contempt for originality. All too soon in the new endeavor, the uniqueness of the original show is being sabotaged by inferior product and shyster-like business practices,which could turn the New Nightmare into a Vegas-style caricature. Carter has a fairly large team working for him, and he may not be fully in the know. Regardless, the first impression he sowed has reaped enough negative feedback that several independent filmmakers have expressed trepidation in regards to submitting their work to the New Nightmare Theater team. Additionally, there have been allegations that critical feedback on Sammy’s various sites mysteriously disappears every few days. It is doubtful that macro-management censorship can eradicate negative word of mouth.
Regardless, Sammy’s longtime fans have expressed enthusiasm for the continuation of the act and hope to see Nightmare Theater going in fresh, new directions while retaining the traditional class of the original. The development of the character itself, in quality films, would seem to be an obvious way for this 21st century incarnation of the ghoul to put his personal stamp onto the original role model and make it his own. Good independent and public domain films are, admittedly, not an easy find (although it’s hardly impossible, because they are out there). But, is this the case of a pale apple not falling far enough from the tree? Nostalgia for the original Nightmare may prove to be short-lived. Nostalgia alone will not cut it for long in the contemporary market, which inevitably recognizes amateurish, slipshod imitations.
All this adds up to an overall disappointing first impression, despite Carter’s actual hosting duties, which he continues to polish. Carter’s tunnel vision-like focus and hard work on the act itself seems to have blurred his priorities in scrutinizing the type of films to which he is attaching the Sammy Terry name. Is the quality of what Sammy Terry hosts of any importance? The films impact the act, so the answer is “yes,” but if the attitude from Terence Muncy and some of the New Nightmare Theater Team continues to be a resounding “no,” then the horizon may look like a brief, bleak, unpleasant nightmare.
However, there are optimistic signs that the New Nightmare Theater might rebound. The most recent, post-Terence Muncy shorts are an improvement but then, how could they not be? John Claeys’ Mourningwood Cemetery is atmospheric minimalism, shot in strikingly expressionistic black and white. Aaron Marshall’s The Guardian conveys a disturbingly haunting and almost wistful, organic quality. Sammy Terry’s newest trip to the surreal netherworld takes us back to the dawn of cinema when he surprisingly, and rather strangely, hosted Edison’s silent screamer Frankenstein (1910) (directed by J. Searle Dawley). This is a notable, gutsy step in a vastly improved direction. Even the Sammy of yesteryear never traveled into such a fantastic realm. With the last couple of installments, The New Nightmare Theater took us back to the striking milieu of the original Sammy Terry, circa 1975, and showed the potential to improve on it. Of course, this direction may be a short-lived fluke, and it has yet to erase those initial blunders. But, if the New Nightmare Theater practices discrimination in the films it shows, this could startle and surprise an audience enough to make them return. They might even recruit friends beyond the local scene, which the original Sammy was never able to do. If Sammy Terry utilizes astute judgment in film selection, and in the direction for the character as well, then the possibilities are expansive enough to overcome a damaging first impression. In the dead of night, I sincerely hope he does.
More episodes of the new Sammy Terry can be found on WTTV4’s website.