JOHN STANLEY is the legendary author of numerous articles, novels and books on the subject of fantasy cinema, and perhaps most famously hosted the popular Creature Features program in the Bay Area circa the early ‘80s. He is additionally a filmmaker in his own right, as well as a good a friend and an all-around fantastic human being. The B Movie Nation is very proud to have him among our ranks. Here is John in his own wise and eloquent words:
Will the Thrill: Tell us a bit about your celebrated tenure as host of the Bay Area’s legendary TV program, “Creature Features.”
JS: Creature Features was a six-year period (1979-84) of great creativity and challenge as I had to take over a tremendously popular TV series that had already been on the air for eight years (1971-78) and I had to do it without any prior experience in the field of television. I had worked most of my professional life before this role as an entertainment writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Specifically, I had cover movies, television and night clubs for the Sunday Datebook, for which I was an editor and writer for many years. I came to specialize in celebrity interviews and had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing such show biz icons as Mae West, Jimmy Stewart, Fred MacMurray, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Vincent Price, just to name a mere handful. (my website www.stanleybooks.net carries a list of almost all the people I interviewed for the Chronicle over a 33-year-period.) I also specialized in reviewing movies on occasion, and writing book reviews. I remember being the first to interview Jim Nabors when he appeared at the Purple Onion in San Francisco. There were so many personalities and stories . . . when I reflect back on this period, I am amazed that anyone would have dealt with such a quantity of material.
All of this background came into play handily when I became the host of Creature Features. I had access to contact names at the TV networks and movie studios so I could request various personalities when I needed them. Thus, an array of famous individuals appeared with me on my show. Among them were movie directors, such as Ridley Scott, and writers such as Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch and special effects artists the caliber of Ray Harryhausen and Ken Ralston. Whoopi Goldberg was a visitor just prior to her career taking off in Hollywood.
While my predecessor Bob Wilkins had not known all that much about horror and sci-fi culture, and took a purely tongue in cheek attitude toward the movies and the guests, I had been amassing my own collection of genre material from the time I was 11 years old when I discovered the E.C. comic books of publisher Bill Gaines. Reading Tales From the Crypt, Frontline Combat, and Shock SuspenStories contributed greatly to my love and respect for material from all branches of American pop culture. I also read pulp magazines (Planet Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Amazing Stories) and became a reader of August Derleth’s Arkham books. Although I had begun seeing movies at 6, and became enchanted with Westerns, musicals, action films and mysteries, it wasn’t until 1951, when I was 11, that I became fascinated with horror. It was Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World that opened my eyes to the wonderment of film car rying one away into a fantasy realm. For the rest of the summer I was afraid to walk down a hallway alone, fearful The Thing was going to jump out and grab me. That fall The Day the Earth Stood Still fascinated me in a similar way, and I was hooked for life.
Prior to taking over Creature Features I had made several 16 mm short subject films as well as one full-length feature, Nightmare in Blood (1978), which was a vampire horror film with satiric overtones (or so I had intended during production). This film-making background became important during the Creature Features era of my life because I began producing “minimovies” — short pastiches of feature films. Among them were Return to Casablanca (a takeoff on Bogart’s movie shot at a Middle East restaurant in Daly City), The Mummy Rises, Nightmare in the Chamber of Horrors (both shot at the San Francisco Wax Museum) and Attack of the Incredible Killer Scarecrow (shot at a pumpkin contest event during Halloween). These novelty items proved to be effective in building an audience, and were a key element in my keeping the show alive and living for an additional six years.
During this period I self-published my first book, The Creature Features Movie Guide, which sold all over the world and established the beginning of my first spin-off from the Creature Features show. It would be followed over the years by five other editions, each building off the previous one. I was seeing as many as eight or ten movies a week during the years that I continued writing the series. The last book was in 2000 and I’m not sure there will be others. It is one of those issues that I am constantly debating with myself. In 2007 I self-published I Was A TV Horror Host, which recounts my experiences at KTVU Channel 2 and features interviews with some of the leading sci-fi and horror icons I met during those years, including Roger Corman, William Castle, Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner and even Lucille Ball, the one person responsible for Star Trek reaching the airwaves in 1966.
Creature Features was cancelled in 1984 and I returned to being a full-time journalist, continuing to write celebrity interviews, movie reviews, book reviews and other feature material for the Chronicle through 1993.
The TV experience will always remain a highlight of my career. I truly enjoyed putting together a new show each week. It was a challenge I thrived on, coming up with new guests, new mini-movie ideas, comedy sketches designed to open the program and highlight a guest or a special theme. It was a low-budget adventure so one had to be thoroughly prepared and ready for any surprises. I actually went into a funk during the last few weeks of the series, but I came out of it after the last show and gleefully jumped back into my newspaper work fulltime.
Bob Wilkins, whom I had known several years before I took over his job, was helpful to me in the beginning and really did want me to succeed in my own way. We were different in our styles and yet we each appealed to our audience in a unique way that made the show workable for all those years.
John onstage at the Parkway Theater, Oakland CA with Will the Thrill and Monica Tiki Goddess
Thrill: You are a famous, respected movie journalist with a wide range of interests and focus. How did you get to be a renowned expert on the horror/sci-fi genre specifically?
JS: I have never felt I was a renowned expert on anything. I have only pursued those passions which first afflicted me when I was a late adolescent – early teenager. I saw my first film at 6. It was a Cisco Kid flick at a small theater next door to the old Telenews Theater near Fifth and Market in San Francisco. This love for movies continued in Napa Valley that same year when we resettled there from Oakland. The Uptown Theater, now owned by Francis Ford Coppola, is where I saw movies for the next 13 years. Discovering all the genres — Westerns, romances, musicals, war movies especially. I was well grounded in horror and war comics from the age of 10, I read Planet Stories faithfully each month, and started tracking H. P. Lovecraft and other classic horror authors in my late teens early 20s.
I’ve always considered Creature Features an anomaly in my career, and the fact that I knew much about sci-fi and horror certainly helped me. But it had never been planned that way. I suppose the fact I have authored six Creature Features Movie Guides could have something to do with “renowned expert.” I saw a lot of movies over the years with the first book coming out during my tenure on TV, in 1981. The second book, from Warner Books of New York, was published at the time the show folded, ironically. However, I decided to do a third edition and it came out in 1989 and was a resounding success for a self-published book. The fourth edition in 1994 was to make up for the fact I had left the Chronicle and had nothing better to do for a couple of years. It’s my personal favorite with the best photographs and writing. The fifth and sixth editions were done by a New York publisher and I never considered them as good. They were limited in scope and size, unlike the earlier two editions.
Did I mention I also wrote a popular war fantasy novel in 1976? My title was Napalm Sunday but Avon Books changed it to World War III. Bad title, but the book did well not only here but in England where an edition with a different cover was printed. I also co-authored two other books: Bogart ’48 (1980), a “noirish” thriller set in 1948 with Bogart and Peter Lorre involved in a mystery surrounding the Academy Award show of that year. Kenn Davis, a colleague at the San Francisco Chronicle, and I also wrote The Dark Side, a 1976-published private eye novel set in San Francisco that was nominated for the Edgar award. World War III and Bogart ’48 were heavily steeped in movie lore and hence are a result of all that “learnin'” I did as a kid.
Thrill: What are some of your favorite films, in any genre?
JS: At the Uptown Theater I discovered war films with my dad. He was a shot-up veteran of the Pacific war and wanted to see anything about warfare no matter what. I remember seeing The Sands of Iwo Jima on Sunday night and Twelve O’Clock High on Monday night back to back. One of my personal favorites was Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (1951), which opened my eyes up to the individuals making the movies. I started looking for other Fuller movies and was especially enlightened by his 1957 western Run of the Arrow, still one of my favorites. In fact, during my years at the Chronicle I got to know Sam Fuller and spent three days on the set of his feature film The Naked Kiss, watching production and meeting many of the actors. In 1980 when Sam returned to Hollywood after living in Paris for many years, I tried to get him on my TV show but he was too busy shooting White Dog to get away. My intention was for us to do a mini-movie called Son of the Steel Helmet. One of those lost opportunities.
In addition to The Thing From Another World and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) as favorite sci-fi films, I greatly respect Alien for setting new trends and shaking up audiences when it was first released. I will always remember the opening day of Star Wars, although I don’t feel it has held up as strongly as some of the others I have mentioned. I still try to see at least one movie a day, sometimes an old one I have never seen before, sometimes a favorite. I enjoy Roy Rogers and Gene Autry movies–despite their age they still hold a certain entertainment value. I’m very enamored of film noir and think Brute Force, Criss Cross, The Killers, The Killing and The Naked City are among the great ones. Not to mention The Asphalt Jungle and Pickup on South Street, the latter another classic Fuller delivery. Whatever genre it is, I will sit in front of the TV and watch it.
Thrill: What’s your take on the state of B Movies, and exploitation/genre films in general, in the 21st Century?
JS: I love watching old B movies of the past. Sometimes these lower berth features are now better than the main features. As for modern movies, the B movies of today are those that don’t make it into theatrical distribution but go directly to DVD and hence I see only a few. As for exploitation movies, I have never been a great fan of bloody, gory and overly violent films, although I will still sit through them to absorb everything about them. I feel that Saw and other exploitaitoners carry the viewer into a fantasy region most of us never intended to be taken into. We enjoy movies because they are vicarious. If we slip away into a deep, dark, ugly corridor of life, where there is not a glimmer of hope or a way to escape, then the enjoyment of being in a place we would never otherwise go into is totally lost. We are submerged into the darkest psyche of man, with no cavalry unit coming to our rescue, or jawboned athletic heroes about to save us at the last minute. We sink away into the pit of death and despair and who wants to pay $10 to do that?
John with Mr Lobo at a recent Thrillville tribute to Creature Features in San Jose, CA
Thrill: What’s next for you and your storied career?
JS: I am at a crossroads in my life. I continue to make appearances as an aging long-retired TV horror host selling movie guides, my autobiography and a new set of documentary DVDs, one of which I wrote-produced myself, but I would like to return to more creative projects. So, I am now involved in the writing of two scripts, one a low-budget film noir feature, the other the pilot for a potential TV series (involving, oddly enough, a TV horror host). I have no idea if either one will make the grade as I am collaborating with others and one never knows how it’s going to turn out. I also would like to write other movie-related books based on the many interviews I did over the years. The Gang That Shot Up Hollywood is in outline stage. I continue to work for a San Francisco-based Elderhostel as an entertainment-world expert although that has begun to slow down for the first time in 15 years. I guess you could conclude that at 69 I have no intentions of slowing down. It just seems to be harder to do things that were once much easier. However, what I do or don’t do in the coming years that are left, I can assure you that there will be only one inscription on the tombstone when the time comes: Here lies a former TV horror host. Nothing else I have done tops that and probably never will.