Thursday, 30 October 2014

School Night of the Living Dead

Halloween is here, and some scenes may disturb as we look back at a very Kiwi tradition of late night chills

"we kiss on the sofa, roll on the rug 
we’ve finished the wine by the time that the credits scroll up 
our week begins and ends on Sunday night 
we live for the Sunday Horrors" 
(Sunday Horrors: from Pre​-​Pill Love by Simon Comber)

An apt song which I hope Mr Comber doesn't mind me quoting, although it's not exactly my experience of the glorious seemingly never-ending seasons of late night vintage frights that was TV2s Sunday Horrors. My happiest memories are gathering a stalwart group of male friends at my house throughout our late teens; spanning our final year at school and beyond - to get-togethers while home from University.  By the end of it's run girlfriends and flatmates would form part of the audience  - we'd grown up with The Sunday Horrors.

I've wanted to write about these late night screenings for quite some time, as they went far beyond mere viewings of murky Universal and Hammer classics, (if we were lucky), and came to embody a comforting, end-of-the-weekend bonding ritual which was rarely missed.

(Left: it all began here: Taste the Blood of Dracula in May 1983 was our first-ever 'group viewing' - and a comfort against the end of the May holidays)
In trawling through old diaries to try to pin-point specific film titles and screening dates, the cameraderie of these long-ago gatherings has really hit home, and scanning the ever-changing roster of friends who dutifully trooped through my door on a Sunday night brings a sharp pang of nostalgia.  I say 'dutifully' because I was a genuine horror film fanatic, but my friends, being friends indeed, came along for the ride.  This is not to suggest they did it for me, but that the companionship was the most important part.  Whatever trials were taking place in our academic or embryonic romantic lives, we could put it all aside, enjoy my parents' unfailing hospitality, and immerse ourselves - almost always with fond mockery - in a creaky old chiller.
So much for my self-indulgent reminiscences - now on to my research findings.  Although I recall staying up for a Sunday night horror film (with my dad), as early as 1978 (The House that Dripped Blood: Cushing, Lee AND Jon Pertwee) the seasons of films we're discussing here truly began a few years later.

Without fan-fare, on March 14, 1981, TV2 brought to life a Sunday night institution which lurked menacingly between Radio with Pictures and the Goodnight kiwi.  In fact, this first season of The Sunday Horrors, lasting a mere two months, appears to have pre-dated Radio with Pictures by a couple of weeks, and was composed largely of worthy 1940s noirish, 'uncanny thrillers'.  From this humble beginning the on-going seasons of late-night cult cinema classics which The Sunday Horrors eventually became were to survive almost until the end of the decade, taking a whole generation from film fright to fondness across those years.

It seemed doubly ironic that not only did blood-curdling offerings featuring the diabolical and undead screen on the holiest day of the week, but it was also a school night - leading to much subterfuge across the nation from young horror devotees as they tried to avoid being sent to bed by vigilant parents.  Sometimes just sitting very still and quiet in the living room could make an adult forget you were there until the end of the movie.

(Right: The very first Sunday Horror: RKO's classy Cat People, screened mid June, 1981)
The screening of seasons of vintage horror films on late night television had enjoyed a venerable history elsewhere in the world.  BBC2 hosted summer screenings of late-night horror double bills throughout the late 1970s and early '80s while the US had begun this practice as far back as the late 1950s, with colourful hosts like Morticia Addams-inspired Vampira presenting Shock Theatre. Creature Features, another TV station's series of screenings, essentially gave its name to the entire genre of monster movies.

New Zealand's Sunday Horrors initially threw some classic Science fiction films into the mix, with 1983 screenings of the original The War of the Worlds and The Incredible Shrinking Man. Gradually, however, it settled down to more traditional Horror fare, with the on-going misadventures of Dracula, Frankenstein's monster and the Wolf Man peppering the  schedules.

Karloff and Lugosi together - and brutally mocked...
As I've mentioned,  my own recollections of these screenings usually involved gathering a group of friends in my family's living room late on a Sunday night.  With my long-suffering parents retreating to bed, we would proceed to hoot and cackle our way through the creaky, often monochrome chillers of yester-year.  Fancing myself an earnest devotee of these films, I would sometimes be secretly scandalised by the derision we heaped upon them. I remember once throwing something of a sulk when a screening of Son of Frankenstein was 'ruined' by a barrage of teenage innuendo at an unfortunate line of dialogue. (Bela Lugosi's Hunch-backed Ygor rolls his eyes, rubs the Frankenstein Monster's chest and unforgettably gurns: "He does things for me..."  You could have heard the roar of laughter from space.) But it was always well-intended and with a certain degree of affection, because we all kept coming back for more.

And I was doubly delighted when the occasional film, if not actually scaring us then at least riveted our attention. The rare, rapt silence was music to my ears.

As the years progressed the later Sunday night offerings began to fall more into line with current trends.  More recent titles like Halloween, the Howling, Salems Lot and Alien began to replace the esteemed horrors of earlier eras.  The slot was re-named When Worlds Collide in 1988, to focus more on science fiction and fantasy, and the following year was moved from Sunday nights altogether.  But worse was to come.

Only in New Zealand: Count Robula presents The Friday Frights
(Copyright Anna Chin)
In 1989, it was announced that former Prime minister Robert Muldoon would be taking on the role of Count Robula, the ghoulish host of TV2's 're-vamped' season of late night Horror Films  - the Friday Frights. Seemingly inspired by Muldoon's infamous portrayal of the narrator in an earlier production of The Rocky Horror Show, this was to be a short-lived last gasp of regular creepy features . According to my good friend Mr J Simian, Sir Robert was 'so wooden he could have staked himself' and appears to have done just that.  A viewing tradition which had once seemed as much of a fixture as the six o'clock news had passed - the torch-wielding villagers and holy water sprinkling vampire hunters had finally over-run the castle - and the Sunday Horrors crypt was sealed. (At least until our new 'kid on the block' third channel later robbed that grave and resurrected the grisly remains as 'TV3's Sunday Horrors'.  But that is another story)

In fairness, it wasn't all Count Robula's fault.  The advent of home video had increasingly enabled anyone to see the kind of films which were The Sunday Horrors' stock and trade anytime they wanted.  Ghosties and ghoulies and late-night beasties were forced to flee from the dawning light of VHS.

It seems unlikely that The Sunday Horrors ever did anyone any harm.  In fact, perhaps an appreciation of earlier ages of film, of pioneering directors and stars to which more contemporary cinema owed a huge debt, may have been gained during these late school nights.  Some young kiwis might even have been inspired to follow a career in film and television.  But most of all, it was good, spooky fun.

(Left: If you're going to miss a Sunday Horrors session, make it a good one.  Night of The Eagle was voted one of the very best  - and I wasn't there!)

Doing hard research (OK, looking at archive copies of the Listener) has both exceeded and slightly de-romanticised my recollections of The Sunday Horrors.  It now seems clear that I enjoyed the initial 1982 run of films on my own: it wasn't until May in 1983 when the group viewings began. (Perhaps some of us weren't deemed old enough to be out that late on a 6th form school night, and even I possibly wasn't even allowed to see most of the '81 run).  But on the plus side the line-up of films was absolutely superb, in quality, variety and longevity - practically 11 out of 12 months in 1983!

I would pay good money to see some of the wonderful films which I missed, (in fact, that's exactly what I'll have to do).
And now, for anyone interested (maybe just me), here are those Sunday Horrors seasons in full (I'll continue to add to these over the next few weeks).

Schedules (1981 onwards - to be completed)


  1. Hey, I saw a movie on TSNH around 30 years ago and I can't remember the title or much in it. I remember that it was a really scary movie about a killer doll (or dolls). There was a scene where a girl is running through the forest and she may become or be the doll. There is a scene in a mental asylum. (Spoiler Alert) I remember the closing scene is of a woman driving away as the only survivor and the suitcase on the back seat opens and a doll's hand comes out. Then the movie ends. Does anyone have any idea what the film may have been called? Please?

    1. Hello! Many thanks for your query, but I'm afraid it's left me a little stumped. I can think of two possibilities, none of which actually fit the description you've given all that well, but here goes.
      My suggestions are actually both the final segments of two anthology films:
      'Trilogy of Terror'
      where Karen Black is pursued by a terrifying Zuni fetish doll.
      And the second is the Amicus film 'Asylum'
      where inmate Herbert Lom discovers how to transfer human souls into small automaton dolls he's created.
      I hope that helps - but I suspect not? I hope you find out, as I'd quite like to see the film you've described!