Lovefest: The Creeping Terror

This article was written for Lovefest, a group project of the Dissolve Facebook community, in which individual writers step up to defend or promote films that flopped, were critically maligned, or are generally forgotten. My previous Lovefest entries can be read here and here; a list of all of the movies covered in past Lovefests can be found here.

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For me, it started with Gilda Radner: in one sketch in It Came From Hollywood, the 1982 homage/clip show celebrating old genre flicks (and an early inspiration for my love of monster movies), Radner plays a little girl excitedly describing and reacting to the latest monster shows she had seen, throwing stuffed animals around the room while pretending they’re the Fly, the Horror of Party Beach, and so on. “I call this one the carpet monster,” she says over a clip of a creature that does indeed look much like an ambulatory pile of carpet samples, or perhaps an oversized bedspread, invading a dance party. “He eats up ladies . . . except for their shoes,” she continues as a pair of shapely nylon-clad legs is slurped into the monster’s gaping mouth. After rediscovering It Came From Hollywood a few years ago, I set out to watch the complete “carpet monster” movie, whatever it was: ICFH ends with a list of the movies excerpted in the film, but doesn’t credit them in individual scenes. With the help of Google and IMDB I was able to narrow it down and found that I already owned a copy of The Creeping Terror (A. J. Nelson, 1963) that I hadn’t watched yet on a public-domain monster movie collection. (Only afterwards did I find out that The Creeping Terror had been featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000; I could have saved myself a lot of trouble but I had stopped watching the show by the time that episode aired.)

It would be a stretch to say that I “love” The Creeping Terror, and even more of one to defend it on the basis of its quality, which veers from workmanlike to surreally inept. Like Edward D. Wood, Jr.’s infamous Plan 9 From Outer Space, The Creeping Terror was included in Michael Medved’s The Golden Turkey Awards; we’re long past believing that Plan 9 is actually the worst movie ever made, but The Creeping Terror . . . well, let’s just say it’s still awaiting its critical reevaluation. Made on a shoestring in 1963, the film features hopelessly crude special effects, amateurish acting, and a plot that’s beyond formulaic: it’s schematic. Yet I would argue that it is an interesting film in its own right, with some effective moments that are overshadowed by its reputation (and yes, there are some jaw-droppers as well).

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As the story goes in its 76-minute run time, Deputy Martin Gordon (Vic Savage), returned from his honeymoon with his new bride (Shannon O’Neil), sees a UFO land (an effect accomplished with some blurry moving lights and footage of a rocket liftoff shown in reverse). Joining his uncle, the Sheriff, to investigate the landing site, they find a spaceship with a monstrous creature locked inside; the Sheriff is the first to be eaten while exploring the ship’s interior. After that, the investigation is taken over by the military; a top space scientist, Dr. Bradford (William Thourlby), arrives to study the ship and, if possible, communicate with its passenger. Unbeknownst to them, a second creature had already escaped into the nearby woods, and it cuts a swath through the area population, (slowly) eating necking picnickers, a young mother, a boy and his grandpa, the participants at a “hootenanny,” and finally an entire community center’s worth of dancers. Once the monster hits the nearby lover’s lane, the authorities catch up to it and confront the creature; it gets shot up by a platoon of soldiers, and then eats them. The Colonel finally blows it up with a grenade.

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“Anyone who experienced that catastrophe and lived would never go there again.”

After finding electrical components in the creature’s carcass, Dr. Bradford returns to the ship and is nearly killed by an explosion that releases the second creature. Deputy Gordon rams his police car in to the monster and kills it. Bradford tells Gordon that he has solved the mystery: he believes that the monsters were sent by a distant civilization as test animals, “living laboratories” engineered to eat and evaluate whatever life forms they found. He guesses that, now that the creatures are dead (and humanity’s weaknesses known), the ship’s computer will transmit their findings back to their home planet. Gordon tries to smash the ship’s computer but fails. Before he dies, Dr. Bradford says there may yet be reason to hope: perhaps by the time the creatures’ alien masters can act on the information they collected, mankind will be more advanced and ready for the challenge. “Only God knows for sure.” The End.

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The first thing one notices is the intermittent sound: sometimes the characters’ voices are dubbed so they are speaking lines normally, but most of the time an omniscient voiceover narrates the film, paraphrasing the conversation the characters are having onscreen, their mouths still moving out of sync. There are reasons for this, having to do with the film’s fly-by-night production (see below), but the result is alienating; it would be death for a romantic comedy, but for a horror film it sort of works, and it lends a documentary gravity to the otherwise absurd plot: its very flatness is ironically a mark of verisimilitude. In one scene in which Martin’s friend, fellow officer Barney, deals with the emotional fallout of his buddy getting married and not wanting to hang out as much, the narration takes on the fatherly tone of a contemporary mental hygiene film, as if this were merely a case study for class discussion: “Life has its way of making boys grow up, and with marriage Martin’s time had come,” the announcer intones while Barney stews on the couch, Mr. and Mrs. Gordon making out in the kitchen. In other scenes, the effect is downright surreal as the sound engineers add layers of ambient sound and music after the fact to cover up the characters’ uncomfortable silence.

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The film’s isolated settings (filmed at the shabby Spahn Movie Ranch, a comedown from the intended Lake Tahoe setting) also contribute to its sense of menace: most of the victims are outdoors or near the woods, making them seem small and easy to pick off. One might think that almost anyone could outrun the slow-moving monster, but in one of the film’s more laughable conceits, the creature is so terrifying that most of its victims stay rooted on the spot, screaming in fear until it can catch up to them. The film’s money shot (repeated often) consists of a woman’s legs or feet dangling from the creature’s maw as it swallows them slowly enough that the actors could be crawling inside (which, of course, is how it was actually filmed).

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Other kills are more cinematically effective, either shown from the monster’s POV with the cowering victim in the center of the frame (the death of the young mother hanging laundry while her baby fusses inside is probably the most effective in the film; in addition to the weird effect of the creature wriggling into the otherwise mundane shot, at the moment of the woman’s death her scream cuts to the sound of her baby crying) or simply left for the audience’s inference (Bobby, the young boy fishing with his grandpa, leaves behind only a bit of torn cloth from his shirt). Scenes in which the monster kills with brute force are less successful: when sucking a pair of teenagers out of their convertible at lover’s lane, it appears to be humping the car; later, it eats all of the soldiers at once by dropping on top of them. Even at the dance, it’s impossible to imagine the creature killing everyone without them obligingly lining up to get in its belly.

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The film’s most elaborate set piece, the creature’s attack on the dance hall, shows The Creeping Terror at its best and worst. An uncharacteristically long buildup shows the dance in progress, the crowd made up of a range of ages; while the band plays a repetitive twist tune, dancers fill the floor while others sit at tables and the bar. It’s all very normal; the only element that might raise an eyebrow is the amount of time spent on close-ups of the legs and feet of several dancers in tight pants. On the sidelines, a few human dramas play out: a woman leaves in a huff, and a drunk swipes the drink she left behind; a fight breaks out. It’s possible that these characters were more fully fleshed out in the original script, but with only a few audible lines here and there all we get are snippets. It’s like going to a party where you don’t know anyone, observing people at random and only seeing disconnected glimpses of their behavior.

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Abruptly, we see a shot of the approaching monster outside, the music twisting away at a lower volume, as if heard from a distance, so we know it’s nearby. The narrator has already informed us that the community dance hall would be the next target, but the sequence, cutting between the oblivious dancers and the creature outside, getting closer, is almost suspenseful. A shot of a dancer’s jiggling bottom cuts to the writhing tendrils that crown the monster’s “head.” Subtle, it is not.

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Suddenly, without any transition or shot of the monster coming through a doorway, it is there, in the corner of the room! It is in this moment that the film’s weak grasp on continuity comes to resemble the anti-logic of the nightmare, and the scrambled soundtrack reinforces the confusion. A woman shouts, “My God, what is it!?”, her voice dubbed, but another woman screams without any sound added, her terror expressed only by the musical soundtrack, the relentless twist finally giving way to more typical horror music.

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The partygoers gather in one corner of the room while the monster, shot from overhead, awkwardly pushes past tables and chairs; they would obviously have time to reach the exits, but this is the kind of nightmare where your feet won’t budge, and they have no choice but to await their fate (in one overhead shot of the monster, a couple clearly approach the monster and the man even gives the woman a little push forward as if to say, “you first”). Insanely, the fistfight that broke out earlier still continues in the other corner of the room. We get plenty of close-up shots of pretty legs sticking out of the creature’s slit-like mouth, and if we haven’t figured out by now what the director’s main interest in the material is, then I don’t think we can say he’s the one who doesn’t get it.

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After years of contradictory information about the making of this low-budget oddity (so obscure at first that there’s no evidence it was even screened until it was sold as part of a TV package in the 1970s, leading to late-night broadcasts and sparking its notoriety among horror hounds), several facts came to light thanks to the research of fan Pete Schuermann (the story as I now relay it comes from Schuermann’s docudrama The Creep Behind the Camera and an article in Screem magazine no. 30 by Brian Albright). For one thing, leading man “Vic Savage” and director “A. J. Nelson” were one and the same person, a petty criminal and con artist named Arthur White. White had always wanted to be a star, and this obsession seems to have sprung from the same sociopathic narcissism that led him to abuse and exploit everyone around him, including his long-suffering wife Lois.

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It is unclear whether he intended The Creeping Terror to be a real movie or if it was a hustle all along, but in addition to making the movie as cheaply as possible, he funneled much of the funding he got from backers (including Thourlby, a former Marlboro Man) into his personal drug habit, and he spun the opportunity to make his film further by selling shares in it to cast and crew, effectively turning it into a pay-for-play scheme. (He had previously absconded with the profits from his first film, Street-Fighter.) According to some members of the film crew at the time, he would film the same scenes with different people multiple times because he had made so many promises, often without actually putting film in the camera. In any case, White disappeared before the movie was completed, possibly fleeing law enforcement (in addition to drugs, White had connections to a prostitution ring and Schuermann’s film implies he may have been involved in child pornography) and leaving Thourlby to piece together the existing footage and replace the missing (or possibly never-recorded) audio. By this time, writer Allan Silliphant had cut ties with White in disgust, so there was probably no longer a script to refer to and the actors had all gone their separate ways: thus, the voiceover was written to patch the scenes together.

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From these behind-the-scenes details, it is clear that The Creeping Terror works largely by accident and thanks to the hard work of professionals trying to salvage something out of disaster. It’s hard enough to make a movie on purpose: the fact that The Creeping Terror is as watchable as it is, flaws and all, is nearly miraculous. (Even as a patch-up, it compares favorably to the similar work of White’s contemporary, Jerry Warren, for example.) But what are we to make of Arthur White and his contribution? Aren’t there enough actual good movies in the world that we don’t have to feel obligated to give time to work made by scumbags? For what it’s worth, I had seen The Creeping Terror and found it interesting before I heard about its origins; I don’t think White’s scamming and abuse make his movie “cool” or “edgy,” and there were plenty of earnest, would-be professional filmmakers involved with the production. They were White’s victims, too, and they could have cut their losses, but they didn’t. (If it makes you feel any better about watching, White never made any more money from it after dropping out of the production, leaving it in a legal limbo; he died in 1975 and the film is now in the public domain.)

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But knowing the context does explain some of the more bizarre choices the film makes, and especially shines a spotlight on the sexual imagery that lies so close to the surface, on the obsession with legs and feet, with the blunt symbolism of a monster that combines both phallic and vaginal imagery, and especially with the film’s odd detours into the domestic sphere. Shannon O’Neil (her real name Shannon Boltres), the lead actress, was White’s girlfriend at the time, even while he was still married to Lois, who had returned to him with the promise of better behavior after one of their splits; were the scenes of newlywed bliss meant to rub his infidelity in Lois’ face, or was he imagining the married life–he upstanding and virile, she nubile and obedient–that he would have preferred? Or was it simply the writer’s take on a well-worn formula? Perhaps because she has an actual character to play, neither one of the screaming victims nor a stoic hero, O’Neil/Boltres comes off as the best actor in the film, with a few small moments that suggest she knew exactly what kind of movie she was in. She doesn’t have any later screen credits, so it’s hard to say what she might have done in a better film.

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Screenwriter Allan Silliphant later claimed that his script was intended to be a spoof, with a brain-dead plot and comically obvious symbolism, and that does line up with a certain kind of gleefully acidic L.A. satire; but the end product doesn’t scan as being funny (aside from the unintentional laughs) or even ironic. It’s too out there, more like the cut-up methods William Burroughs was exploring; the contemporary equivalent to its scrambled production method might be one of those scripts generated by an A.I. after feeding it x number of sample scripts, the results inspiring the nervous laughter of seeing ourselves reflected back at us by something completely alien. As Brian Albright describes it, The Creeping Terror is “almost an un-film.” But honestly, most genre movies involve some mental sorting of this kind, separating what works from what can be enjoyed in a humorous way and what can only be discarded. This may be an extreme example, but it’s short, rarely boring, and includes several memorable sequences.

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In the lover’s lane scene, there’s a guy sitting in his car by himself, smoking a pipe, apparently spying on the young couples parking and necking, or maybe just checking up on them. When the monster shows up and starts attacking teenagers, the pipe smoker just sits and watches in disbelief before driving off. He’s the only completely passive observer in the movie. I guess he’s a little like the audience for this film: he came to see one thing, possibly with a prurient interest, but he got a lot more than he bargained for.

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Guy Guests, Gabs Gamera

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A while back I sat down (virtually, that is) with Zack Clopton of the Bangers n’ Mash podcast to talk about everyone’s second-favorite giant Japanese movie monster and friend to all children, Gamera. That discussion is now posted, so please give it a listen. Zack and I share our opinions and trivia about the twelve entries of the series, from the goofy installments of the 1960s to the very serious trilogy of the 1990s (and beyond). Zack has also edited in some cool audio interstitials from trailers, soundtracks, and Mystery Science Theater 3000 (I swear those weren’t there when we were talking!) Even more amazingly, Zack has made it sound as if I know what I am talking about! (Sort of–even digital wizardry has its limits!) Enjoy!

When Stock Footage Roamed the Earth

“Why, if I had half the chance, I could make an entire movie using this stock footage!” exclaims Johnny Depp as the title character in the 1994 film Ed Wood as he examines film clips of explosions, military maneuvers, and stampeding buffalo.  Although Wood never went quite that far, later filmmakers would take up that challenge, and the scene illustrates just how much movies in the black-and-white era depended on footage of stunts, special effects, and locations culled from other sources in the studios’ extensive libraries to cut costs.  (Even into the 1970s and ‘80s it wasn’t uncommon for low-budget directors to build films and TV episodes around footage of car crashes and stunts, matching the actors’ clothes to the pre-existing clips.) As a kid in the 1980s, I was indirectly exposed to a great deal of older movies and television by the flood of repurposed stock footage on TV at that time.

Certainly it was more common to find old movies, shorts, and black-and-white shows on television as part of cheap daytime syndication packages (I watched Leave it to Beaver, I Love Lucy, and The Little Rascals after school—can you imagine that today?) and the “late late show.”  Sunday afternoon was reserved for the “Creature Feature,” a phrase that in my naiveté I thought the local station managers had come up with themselves.  Creative editing into new formats such as music videos, commercials, and interstitials was just the next step for this material, much of which, before the explosion of cable channels and the revival of TV shows on DVD, was considered nearly worthless.

An appetite for old film clips excerpted from their context began to develop in the 1970s with the emergence of full-length “docutainment.”  The pioneer of the nostalgic clip movie was That’s Entertainment!, a celebratory look at movie musicals made in 1974 to commemorate Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s fiftieth anniversary.  In addition to editing together highlights from both classic and obscure MGM musicals, That’s Entertainment! brought together a large number of the stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age to talk about their experiences filming such classics as Singin’ in the Rain and reminisce about the good old days.  (A recurring theme of both the film and its marketing was that this would be the last time so many stars would be gathered in one place—although there would be two sequels—and even the trailer emphasizes its escapist quality in the Watergate era, ending its ballyhoo with a hilariously downbeat “That’s Entertainment! Boy! Do we need it now.” Ah, the 1970s.)

That’s Entertainment! is a film that I’ve returned to several times over the years, but 1982’s It Came from Hollywood was more my speed at the time: comics Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Gilda Radner, and Cheech and Chong introduced clips from dozens of science fiction, horror, and cult movies, ranging from cheap B movies and serials to the monster classics of the 1950s and focusing on such niche categories as drug panic, juvenile delinquency, and even musicals.  In addition to the skits setting up each category (which also included “Monsters,” “Gorillas,” “The Brain,” and “Aliens,” among others), they offered a running commentary, often razzing the cheapness or tastelessness of the films in a manner that echoed the audience participation of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and the mockery of The Golden Turkey Awards (in fact, Golden Turkey winner Edward D. Wood, Jr. is the subject of his own segment in It Came from Hollywood, the only filmmaker so “honored”) and anticipated the format of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

It Came from Hollywood is doubly nostalgic for me now, hearkening back both to an era of drive-in double features and Saturday matinees I only experienced second-hand, and to the early 1980s heyday of the hip comedians (younger at the time of filming than I am now, and two of them sadly since passed away: seriously, did anyone in 1982 think that of all these comedians, Cheech Marin would have the strongest career in 2014?) I considered the height of cool back then.  Unlike That’s Entertainment!, It Came from Hollywood didn’t bother to name most of the films it excerpted (except in a long list during the end credits), lending a dissociative, dream-like quality to the proceedings (and often leaving me unable to place a particular image for years, until the internet made it easier to find such information, not to mention the films themselves).

Another film that must have had a considerable influence on me was 1977’s Gizmo!, produced and directed by Howard Smith, which, unlike my two previous examples, drew most of its footage from films that purported to be true (or were at least staged for publicity: mostly Depression-era newsreels, from the look of it).  Many of the clips are of gadgets and contraptions made to solve the petty problems of life—a dog-powered washing machine, a self-rocking cradle, and a spaghetti fork mounted on a hand-held drill so as to twirl automatically—in the truest Rube Goldberg spirit.  Gizmo! casts a wide net, however, including many examples of “self-invention” as well, people with strange talents or driven by obsession: human flies and high wire walkers, a “human camel” drinking gallons of water and washing it down with kerosene, feats of strength and endurance.

Obsession and invention come together in the numerous doomed-to-fail flying machines, each presentation inevitably preceded by the delusional inventor’s proclamation that “what we are about to see will change the world.”  The succession of disastrous ornithopters, “triphibians,” rocket planes, and bat-winged flying costumes fizzling, burning out, or simply tumbling off the ends of their take-off ramps was probably the inspiration for a similar passage in Airplane! (1980) in which former pilot Ted Striker suffers the most pathetically hilarious flashback in all of film.

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In fact, the Airplane! sequence is just one of many examples of footage that was insinuated into public consciousness through its reuse: while it may not have been the first film to revive them, Gizmo! contains many images that have become iconic, such as performer Frank “Cannonball” Richards being shot in the belly point blank by a cannon.  If they didn’t see Gizmo!, viewers in the 1980s might have seen this image in numerous other contexts such as commercials or music videos; it was ubiquitous enough that when The Simpsons parodied it in “Homerpalooza” they could assume that the majority of their audience would get the reference.

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As it happens, I did see Gizmo! several times: in addition to appearing on HBO (like both of the other films I’ve mentioned), it was a favorite of my middle school shop teacher, good old Mr. Lundquist (who would often joke that he couldn’t use a typewriter because he had lost his “typing finger” in a bandsaw accident—he was truly a shop teacher of the old school).  Whenever we had an inactive day (for whatever reason), Mr. Lundquist would pop Gizmo! into the VCR for us to watch, on the pretense that we might glean some insight into mechanical engineering from it: I must have seen the damned thing at least half a dozen times in school.

Although now mostly forgotten, Gizmo! (along with other docutainments) led to such programs as That’s Incredible! and Real People with their mix of weird talents, record-breaking attempts, and magazine-like pieces on strange subjects, kicking off a brief “reality TV” craze twenty years before Survivor.  In a more serious vein, the obsessed oddballs of Gizmo! are the forefathers of Errol Morris’ subjects in the similarly anthology-like Fast, Cheap & Out of Control.

It was on basic cable that stock footage became almost a medium in itself, continually reshaped and recombined by editors, filling in the cracks in programming and propping up commercial messages like the media equivalent of duct tape.  Rick Prelinger, collector and curator of countless educational and industrial films, was one source, financing his more serious preservation projects by supplying film clips to cable channels and other buyers.  Nickelodeon and the Comedy Channel frequently ran old shorts in the late 1980s when their own programming was thin on the ground. And it’s a cliché by now to complain that MTV no longer runs music videos, but what I really miss are the incredible variety of cult films and the kind of sponsored films that Prelinger specialized in: safety, hygiene, and civil defense films from the 1950s and ‘60s, presented uncut but ironically juxtaposed with the rest of the channel’s programming.

Black-and-white footage was especially felicitous for film collage: just as the low-budget filmmakers of the time had reused stunts to cut costs, counting on the consistency of the film stock to hide discrepancies, modern editors could draw on a vast body of film to assemble an original world from spare parts: in It Came from Hollywood, the invaders of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers could share the screen with the alien masterminds of Mars Needs Women and the ape-like Robot Monster could trade places with the gorilla from The Perils of Nyoka, making the visuals as archetypal and interchangeable as the storylines.  Later filmmakers could, and would, go much farther in assembling collages (the work of Craig Baldwin, for example, deserves a write-up of its own, to follow at a later time); the uniformity of black-and-white film bears comparison to the Victorian engravings that Max Ernst turned into the surreal graphic novel La Femme 100 Têtes, the consistency of the illustration style allowing for a greater suspension of disbelief than more typically disjunct visual collage.*

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In fact, my memory of the 1980s is so colored by the reuse of kaleidoscopic Busby Berkeley routines, death-defying stunts, and proto-steampunk flying machines set to new soundtracks, that they largely run together in my mind.  For example, I had completely forgotten that Gizmo! has a voiceover, yet the announcer talks over the clips almost continuously.  I wonder, too, how much effect this had on other members of my generation: I was beguiled by these hints of an older world, touched by both history and fantasy, and I eventually had the opportunity to dig deeper, to watch complete films.  But the emphasis on dippy inventions and quaint habits of the past might have equally fueled the perception that old movies (and even the world they represented) were uniformly corny, boring, and dumb—an attitude that can be hard to overcome.

Similarly, the use of editing to present only the highlights—a pattern that is already evident in That’s Entertainment!, but which would accelerate with each passing year—both artificially juices the excitement level and misrepresents the more leisurely pacing that was the norm in old films.  (That’s not to say that editors of the 1930s and ‘40s never used quick cutting—they did—but over the length of a feature intense and exciting passages were generally balanced with slower sequences.) From a modern perspective, one of the most interesting sequences in That’s Entertainment! edits together the numerous examples of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in the so-called “Backyard Musicals” series, saying “Let’s put on a show!” (or a dance band, or a rodeo) in rapid succession, a predecessor of the supercuts that now thrive on YouTube.

Perhaps like any fad, the use of stock footage on television began to fade; by 1994, Turner Classic Movies was on the air, providing a more respectable home for both feature films and ephemeral short features that could be presented original and uncut.  Likewise, many of the original sources from which features like Gizmo! drew are available online now and can be easily seen; it isn’t as necessary for them to be edited together for general viewers.  What is needed is context, and curators like TCM or Criterion are able to provide that.  With the availability of this footage has come easy-to-use editing software, so that anyone can create the kind of collage that was once trendy on television.  As for the low-budget producers, they are now more likely to lean on the crutch of CGI for their features, which may not be any more believable than stock car crashes or explosions, but can be quickly produced and can be tailored to their specific needs.  And MTV?  Well, everyone knows they don’t show videos any more, anyway.

* In this connection, the most intriguing example of this from the 1980s is Tom Schiller’s 1984 film Nothing Lasts Forever, a black-and-white homage to Golden Age Hollywood that uses stock footage to lend authenticity to the trippy journey of a young would-be artist.  More popular was Carl Reiner’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), a film noir parody in which Steve Martin played the detective, interacting with characters from classic movies through the magic of intercutting.

This is the Story: The Cyclical Nature of the Expository TV Theme Song

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If it seems that the art of television theme music has made a comeback lately, it’s not just you.  As television has taken on more cinematic qualities and attracted viewers with higher production values and artier production (especially on premium cable and through such new outlets as Netflix’s original programming), the opening credits sequence and theme music have returned to prominence.  Just a few years ago, this wasn’t the case at all: networks tried to squeeze as much commercial time out of their programming as possible, as well as trying to avoid any lull—such as a lengthy opening—that might tempt viewers to click away.  Thus, we had a spate of super-brief openings like that of Lost or Better Off Ted, which were just a logo and a chord or two at most.  In 2010, the Emmy Awards nearly eliminated the award for Outstanding Main Title Theme, leading to a lot of hand-wringing about the end of an era.  However, as critic Robert Lloyd pointed out in the Los Angeles Times, memorable themes were continuing to be written, just not for prestigious prime-time genres: tween programming and cartoons carried the torch for the theme song even in those dark days.  Ultimately the award was kept, and there has been a bounce back to more lavish opening sequences since then.

However, one subgenre of television music has mostly remained dormant (with a few exceptions): the expository “story song” that describes the premise and characters of the show in detail in the manner of a Shakespearean prologue (even if the shows themselves were hardly highbrow).  Many of the most iconic TV themes from the 1960s, the “golden age” of the expository TV theme, fit this description: The Beverly Hillbillies (1962), Gilligan’s Island (1964), and The Brady Bunch (1969) all have memorable, catchy songs that bring viewers up to speed, whether watching for the first or the fiftieth time (dates given for these and all series mentioned are premiere dates only).  Admit it: you’re probably hearing one of these songs in your mind right now, aren’t you?

One might expect such elaborate theme songs to be a holdover from the days of radio programming, but that appears not to be the case. In fact, a cursory survey of radio show themes turns up far more introductions consisting of an instrumental theme with a voiceover by an announcer, a format mostly found on late-night talk shows today.  In fact, with a few exceptions, the songs repeated week-to-week on the radio usually sang the praises of the show’s sponsor, placing them squarely in the history of commercial jingles rather than theme songs.

The mania for story-telling TV themes appears to coincide with the popularity of ballads in general in popular music: Fess Parker’s “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” used as the theme song for The Adventures of Davy Crockett in 1954, reached No. 1 on the U. S. pop chart the following year.  While ballads shared the pop charts with dance crazes, standards, and rock ‘n’ roll, there was no shortage of hit songs in the format: Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans” in 1959 and, later, Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad of the Green Berets” (1966).  “The Beverly Hillbillies” fit firmly within this tradition.*  As late as 1981, the short-lived Open All Night featured what is probably the densest summary of a character’s life story to be found in a TV theme:

It’s no surprise that the expository format was most often used for comedies (although not only “situation” comedies, as we shall see) and adventure shows, two genres that lend themselves to “high concept” approaches.  While adventure shows continued to explain their premises into the 1970s and ‘80s (often through voiceover, as in the introductions to The Six Million Dollar Man (1973), Charlie’s Angels (1976), The Incredible Hulk (1978), and Quantum Leap (1989), to name just a few), comedies began to adapt an impressionistic, low-key approach, using songs that described a mood rather than a situation (a long-lasting trend that covered at least three decades’ worth of programs, including the themes to Taxi (1978), Cheers (1982), and Friends (1994)—maybe it has something to do with one-word titles?).  The theme to WKRP in Cincinnati (1978) is almost in this category, although it’s clear enough from its lyrics that it’s set at a radio station; compare it to the themes for later radio-bound sitcoms NewsRadio (a purely instrumental theme, 1995) and Frasier (a show about tossed salad and scrambled eggs, 1993).**

Interestingly, as storytelling songs declined in pop music, they continued to be prominent in rap and country, both genres that exploded in popularity in the 1990s.  The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, which began airing in 1990, was developed around the likable persona of Will “Fresh Prince” Smith, already known for a family-friendly rap style that spun shaggy-dog stories out of the foibles and ironies of everyday life.  The theme song he and producer Quincy Jones came up with is spun directly out of his act and sets up the fish-out-of-water comedy that was the show’s bread and butter in early seasons. (At almost three minutes, the song is fully as long as a typical pop song, and was edited to be much shorter after the first few episodes; effectively, the opening credits sequence was like an introductory music video.)

There are many, many theme songs for cartoon shows from the 1980s that have expository qualities; a large number of them appear to take Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” as their model.  The theme for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is among the most detailed, describing how the four title characters came to be, naming them individually and describing the qualities they bring to the team (not to mention their love of partying, dude). When the series was resurrected in 2012, the theme song was remade in a more current style, with the lyrics turned into a rap that fits in even more narrative detail.

Indeed, as Robert Lloyd alluded to, the expository theme song is common for children’s programming in general.  Whether this reflects the practical realities of syndication (which makes it even more likely that any episode could be a viewer’s first) or television executives’ dim view of a younger audience’s ability to follow in-context clues I couldn’t say, but anecdotal evidence suggests the latter.

In any case, it is striking to consider how many expository theme songs, both for children and adults, begin with the words “This is the story . . . “ or some variation thereof.  It invites the viewer to settle in and enter the world and mindset of the narrative, and in some cases it’s a literal invitation to “come inside” or “come along,” as if the show were a real place, just on the other side of the television screen.  The introduction to Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (1986) takes that premise about as far as it can go, not only with the opening invitation and the lyrical inclusion of the many, many characters on the show, but with a wordless, “Quiet Village”-style introductory section that further separates the ordinary world outside the Playhouse from the manic sugar-high to be found within.

The extent to which these songs have penetrated the collective memory is evident in the number of parodies and remakes that have been done, and secondary references in movies and other TV shows.  They have the quality of received folklore, which is perhaps part of their cyclical appeal: as kids for whom they are part of their childhood grow up and move into positions of influence in media, a new crop of explanatory story-songs are composed for television shows that reflect their experience.  In the late 1980s, comedy game show Remote Control (1987) and bad-movie powerhouse Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988) both drew on this tradition (interestingly, both centered on the viewer’s relationship to the media, its influence, and the desire to reshape or talk back to it; the stock footage-driven Dream On (1990) fit a similar pattern, although it was introduced with a wordless opening-credits sequence rather than a song).  MST3K’s theme song is quite possibly the ultimate example of the genre, not just for its breakdown of the show’s premise and “robot roll call” but for its trope-defining final couplet: “If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes and other science facts, then repeat to yourself, ‘It’s just a show, I should really just relax.’”

Now, the generation that came of age with those programs is making its mark and bringing back the expository theme song, particularly in animation, with such programs as Phineas and Ferb (2007), Adventure Time (2010), and Sanjay and Craig (2013).  Outside of their theme songs, these shows make frequent use of songs in montage; the humor found in the “literal” narration, baldly describing events that can be seen occurring onscreen, hearkens back to the theme for It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (1986), another late ‘80s touchstone that challenged classic sitcom structure by calling attention to it at every possible turn.

Will the expository theme song return to prime time?  It doesn’t seem likely right now, but who knows?  Perhaps the kids watching Disney, Nick, and Cartoon Network today will become the creators and composers of tomorrow and continue the cycle.

* This leaves aside programs based on popular songs, of which there were several: Harper Valley PTA (1981) was a spinoff from a 1978 movie, based on a hit song from ten years before; a number of holiday specials have been based on narrative songs, most notably “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman,” but also including “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”  Naturally, the songs that inspired these programs were used as themes.

** Not to dismiss those theme songs, of course, but they have a different function, exploring the theme or character of their show rather than the plot.