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Former Bay Area TV horror host gets his due.
By Steve Palopoli
I WASN'T a big fan of Rob Zombie's recent Halloween remake, but at least he nailed one thing that goes bizarrely unrecognized in the world of horror film: the power of the mask. And that's what got me thinking about how John Stanley never wore one. Stanley isn't an industrial-strength brand name like Michael Myers or Freddy Kreuger, but around the Bay Area he's a horror icon in his own way. And people in his former line of work gave maniacs a run for their money in the disguise department.
Flip through Elena M. Watson's book Television Horror Movie Hosts and you'll find that nearly all of the biggies wore crazy makeup, wigs, fake teeth and whatever else they needed to build their persona. New York's Zacherley looked undead, D.C.'s Count Gore DeVol was a hip vampire, and you'd be unlikely to recognize Elvira's blond alter-ego Cassandra Peterson on the street.
But when Stanley hosted Creature Features from 1979 to 1984 on Oakland's KTVU, he didn't hide behind anything. Quite a few Silicon Valley natives remember him, and his geek-next-door look seems oddly perfect for the tech generation he entertained every week. You can see it on the cover of his new book, I Was a TV Horror Host—if Bill Gates was to wield a bloody battle axe, that's kind of what it would look like. The book, available from www.stanleybooks.net, recounts his life as the Bay Area's public face of horror film, while writing for the Chronicle and doing interviews with some of science fiction and horror's biggest legends (many of which are included).
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I grew up with Stanley in a different way—as a fledgling fanboy, I was lucky enough to lay my hands on his Creature Features Movie Guide, and I've been collecting each new edition for a couple of decades now. Along with Danny Peary's cult movie books and Michael Weldon's Psychotronic Video Guide, it's one of my favorite horror guides.
I had lunch with Stanley in Pacifica, where he's lived since the '60s, and he told me about how his predecessor on Creature Features, Bob Wilkins, inspired him to go unmasked. Now, TV horror host is one of those jobs you'd think someone would have to be a natural for, but Stanley had never even given it a thought until Wilkins told him he was leaving and suggested he audition for the job. It was then that he hit upon the idea of his "minimovie," a filmed cinematic intro he used to help him land the gig. He would go on to spend countless hours putting these cinematic experiments together for as many shows as he could find time for, with the plots generally having something to do with the movie he was introducing, or the guest. It's another of his touches that seems prescient and weirdly tailor-made for Silicon Valley 20-plus years later, in the age of YouTube.
Mask or no mask, Stanley reminded me that in fact he was playing a character on the show. He developed a persona, his John Stanley "character" who now seems almost like a precursor to The X-Files' Fox Mulder—a connoisseur of the weird who was always probing the paranormal (including taking on the infamous Slaughter House in the Oakland Hills).
Part of the TV-horror-host shtick is making fun of the bad movies they have to present, but for a man who had absolutely no control over the syndication package that he showed, Stanley looks back surprisingly fondly on that era. True, he was hosting at the height of the formulaic early-'80s slasher cycle, but he considers that time a "golden age" for science fiction and horror. And as he started listing off titles, I realized he was right—basically he began hosting around the time of Alien and ended in the time of The Terminator.
Stanley says he thinks people are fond of Creature Features mostly for the nostalgic childhood memories it sparks, but I think he's selling himself short. Not only does his book capture a wild and wooly time in television that has now completely vanished, but Stanley's knowledge of horror and science fiction history is authoritative. For instance, he has probably been writing about the Star Trek phenomenon longer than any other journalist. As the first book to collect his interviews, I Was a TV Horror Host is an important addition to Trek history, and horror history in general. Long may Stanley reign as the king of Bay Area horror geekdom.
JOHN STANLEY will appear at Barnes and Noble in Oakland's Jack London Square—former home of Channel 2's 'Creature Features'—Monday, Oct. 9 from 5–7pm. CULT LEADER is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture.
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