Creature Double Feature: An Appreciation

March 02, 2018
A thought by James Berardinelli

When did my love affair with monster movies begin? If I was going to date it, it started in 1973 as a fitful, inconstant infatuation. I can’t say for sure whether I ever watched a whole movie during this time period. At the tender age of 5, my attention span was limited, but I vividly remember images of Godzilla rampaging, going toe-to-tail with (the fake Japanese) King Kong, and fighting space creatures. Over the next few years, my flirtation with such things retreated and I became captivated by sports – baseball, in particular (which was still considered the Great American Pastime). For two years, I lived and died with the New York Mets. My interest in them was ignited by their first-place finish in 1973 and perished at the end of a disappointing 1975 campaign.

Monster movie fandom filled the breach left by the end of the 1975 baseball season. It became my great passion for the next three years until, sometime around 1978 or 1979, it was replaced by science fiction. Still, it’s hard to forget a first love and every time I see one of the classic Universal horror movies or one of the incredibly cheesy Japanese Godzilla films, I flash back to those years of my youth when all things seemed possible, summers lasted forever, and Creature Double Feature ruled Saturday afternoons.

What was Creature Double Feature? Undoubtedly, a few of those who are reading this remember it but it’s likely alien to many more. To begin with, the first time I encountered it, there was no “Double” in the name. It was just Creature Features. That was 1973 and it aired on Saturday afternoons, in a wasteland when no one watched TV unless there was a baseball game. Creature Features took an old movie – often a cheesy one – and edited so that, with commercials included, it could be fit into a 90-minute slot. Technically, the Creature Features library included all the old Universal classics but during the period when I watched it, there always seemed to be a Godzilla movie on. I think I saw every Godzilla produced up to 1972 before I saw my first Dracula or Frankenstein film.

The airing of Creature Features became erratic during 1973 but, not being the most faithful of watchers, I can’t say when it officially went off the air. By 1975, it wasn’t back on a regular basis but, every once in a while, it would turn up on a Saturday afternoon. I remember seeing The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Blob, and a few other notable ‘50s features. More Godzillas. The Hammer versions of Dracula and Frankenstein. But the Universal versions – the ones I really wanted to see – remained elusive.

Then I discovered “A Pictorial History of Horror Movies” by Denis Gifford and my life changed. (Well, not really, but it sounds good to write it that way.) I first saw it in a bookstore window when I was wandering the streets of Morristown, NJ with a friend. That would have been the summer of 1976 between third and fourth grades. I wanted it but it was exceedingly expensive for an eight-year old. $4.95 in 1976 money. (Note: it hasn’t appreciated much. You can get a used copy for about twice that.) Eventually, however, I scraped together enough money to buy it. It became my map for must-see monster movies.

By that time, I hadn’t seen any of the classics. As read through Gifford’s book, I made notes in the margins. Page 53: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Page 54: Nosferatu. Page 61: The Phantom of the Opera. Page 79: Dracula (Lugosi). Page 90-91: Frankenstein. Page 104-05: The Bride of Frankenstein. Page 108: King Kong. Page 123: The Wolf Man. Page 127: The Son of Frankenstein. Page 130: The Ghost of Frankenstein. Page 134: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Page 140: House of Frankenstein/House of Dracula. Page 142: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Now, having decided what I wanted to see, it was a matter of seeing them.

Today, that wouldn’t be a challenge. If my son wanted to watch those movies, he could find most of them on DVDs in my basement. Those that aren’t there, like some of the cheesier later Universal films and The Creature from the Black Lagoon, I could buy, rent, or borrow from the library. Back in the ‘70s, though, there was no home video and older monster movies didn’t show on TV…except, of course, on Creature Features.

We moved from the New York television market to the Philadelphia television market in May 1977 and that’s when I discovered a wonderful thing. Not only did Channel 48 out of Philadelphia have monster movies but they had two every Saturday afternoon. Creature Double Feature, as it was called, was shown in two markets: Boston and Philly. It shared the same movie library as Creature Features, which aired on as many as two dozen stations nationally.

I soon learned that I likely wasn’t going to be able to see The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, or The Phantom of the Opera on Creature Double Feature. Since those were silent films, they were outside the realm of what was deemed broadcast-able on network TV. As luck would have it, the local PBS station (Channel 12) showed The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari so I was able to check that one off my list. It would be 15 years, however, before I would finally be able to expand Nosferatu and The Phantom of the Opera beyond the still photos in my monster book.

With a regular weekly timeslot, Creature Double Feature became the centerpiece of my weekends. My best friend and next-door neighbor would also watch it but, oddly, we didn’t watch it together. He watched in his living room and I in mine. Even the arrival of Star Wars didn’t diminish my hunt for all those movies I had marked in the book. Most of what Creature Double Feature showed were black-and-white B-movies from the 1950s and 1960s. Hammer horror. Cheesy U.S. science fiction stuff. I remember a lot of films that I recognized as being awful even though I was nine years old. Then, one weekend in the fall, it happened.

Dracula and Dracula’s Daughter, paired together. Just like that, I had seen one of the films I had been longing to see. The next weekend: Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein. Weekend after weekend, Creature Double Feature went through the Universal Library. It probably took about eight weeks to clear all the major titles. That Christmas holiday season, I got another present: King Kong (although not on Creature Double Feature). Yes, I saw the 1976 remake a year before I saw the original. By the end of my fifth grade school year, I had wiped clean my list except for the silent films.

So, at age ten, how did I feel about all those classics? Many didn’t live up to my expectations – expectations built based on the photos in Gifford’s book and the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. Dracula in particular underwhelmed but that may have been because I had by then read the novel. I loved Frankenstein but liked The Bride of Frankenstein better. The Wolf Man was another favorite. Most of the rest were silly and forgettable but at least I was able to see them. After the Universal run, Creature Double Feature moved on to Godzilla and I soon lost interest. By the start of the summer of 1978, my mercurial passions had shifted to other things. My TV time would soon be devoted to “Star Trek” and “Doctor Who”. Instead of parking in front of the TV, I played D&D on Saturday afternoons. Creature Double Feature continued for several years before it faded away. I can’t tell you when it went off the air although I recall turning the TV on for some reason when I was a freshman or sophomore in high school and it was still there. Then, a year or two later, it wasn’t.

During the ‘70s, Creature Double Feature wasn’t the only game in town. There was a similar program on Saturday late nights called Horror Theater. If I remember correctly, it aired at 11 pm or thereabouts (at age nine, I wasn’t allowed to stay up that late). Unlike Creature Double Feature, which had an announcer but no host, the two-hour Horror Theater had a host who went by the name of “Dr. Shock.” Think Roddy McDowell in Fright Night for an idea of what Dr. Shock was like. The show ended in 1979 when the actor playing Dr. Shock died. Although Horror Theater didn’t have access to the Universal catalog, it had Plan 9 from Outer Space. I know because that’s one of the few Horror Theater episodes I had the “pleasure” of watching.

Creature Double Feature crammed two movies plus commercials into three hours. The films were shown either unedited or with a minimum number of cuts. The Universal classics weren’t long. Frankenstein runs 72 minutes, Dracula 75 minutes, and The Wolf Man 70 minutes. So it wasn’t difficult to fit in 15-20 minutes of commercials and still have time for the whole movie. This was the ‘70s when commercial breaks were rarely more than 2 minutes long and with the rights to these films coming cheaply, minimal ad revenue was needed to make small profit. (For a non-sports show airing from 1-4 pm on Saturday afternoon, breaking even would have been a victory.)

Obviously, Creature Double Feature is an artifact of the past. It could never air today and, really, there’s no need for it. Sadly, however, the lack of programs like that means that today’s young horror fan is more likely than not to be ignorant of the great classics. In my fourth grade class, there were at least five of us (four boys, one girl) who knew all the famous monsters. Today, how many fourth or fifth graders can claim to have seen one (let alone all) of the Universal classics?

Creature Double Feature did so many things for me beyond keeping me cooped up inside every Saturday afternoon. (I remember my father’s mantra: “What are you doing inside watching TV? You should be outside playing!”) It stoked my imagination. It helped clear my first bucket list. It gave me an appreciation for black-and-white film. Never seen by most and forgotten by many who saw it, it remains alive in my memories and will remain there, playing in a loop deep in my subconscious, until the light goes out.