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Remembering All-Night Fright Fests And Halloween Horrorthons

Terrifying terrorramas so scary you'll need a nurse on standby! Bob Mondello says the 1993 film Matinee brought back memories of his days writing Halloween horror ad copy for a movie theater chain. (Courtesy of Universal/The Kobal CollectionTION)

Halloween's rolled around again and yeah, yeah, it's a dark and stormy night. The road's washed out, phone's gone dead, the mystic's reading her Ouija board, and zombies are popping through doorways left open by a demented kewpie doll.

Been there. Seen that. Got the T-shirt.

In fact, I very nearly designed a T-shirt for this sort of stuff back in the 1970s, before I was a movie critic. My first gig out of college was doing publicity for Roth Theaters, a midsize, D.C.-based theater chain that got gobbled up in the '80s by a bigger circuit. My boss was Paul Roth, an old-school movie guy who by the time I met him had probably forgotten more about showmanship than I'll ever know.

We staged weddings in the aisle for a movie called The Bride (patrons threw popcorn instead of rice). We dressed a verrrry short usher one December as E.T., and then added a beard and tasseled red hat so he could be Santa's Helper. And for the opening of Airplane! an usher and I climbed up on a marquee to attach the back half of a plane fuselage I'd found at a junkyard so it looked like it had crashed into the theater. We knew we were getting the look right when a passing motorist screeched to a halt, leapt from his car, and yelled, "Is everyone OK?"

But the most fun we had was promoting Roth's drive-in theaters, especially when audiences dwindled as the weather turned cold. Halloween was both a challenge and an opportunity for drive-ins: obviously the right place for scares, but hard to find new films for when there was a chill in the air. So Paul dug deep in the B-movie horror vaults and showed me how to sell the sizzle, not the steak.

Here's the kind of ad copy he favored (writing it was the first radio writing I ever did). Imagine a booming voice with lots of echo effects, thunder crashes and screams between phrases.

"Friday Night at the Ranch Drive In: Our Dusk-to-Dawn Halloween Horrorthon! An all-night fright-fest with Five — count-'em FIVE(!) — full-length features. Shuddering specters guaranteed to scare you shout-less! Films so terrifying we can't reveal the titles. But we can say this: No one with a heart condition will be admitted. We'll have nurses in attendance ... and a hearse standing by."

Man, I used to love writing copy like that. Years later, when John Goodman played a '60s horror guy in the movie Matinee, wiring theater seats to deliver electric shocks at scary moments, I felt like I was watching my boss.

These days, when you go to a scary movie, you see a scary movie. And no question, the scares are scarier now. It's all up there on-screen. But the old horrorthons (and terrorramas, which were horrorthons, but sexy) had their charms, too.

I still remember Paul showing me how a little red food coloring in the popcorn oil could turn a bucket of popcorn into a BUCKET OF BLOOD.

Kinda gross, right? But the point was to scare the "yell" out of you, and for the most part, we did.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Jake Gyllenhaal's new movie "Nightcrawler" is coming out on Halloween and that's no accident. It's a psychological thriller, calculated to scare adults too old for haunted houses. Our movie critic Bob Mondello says it got him thinking about the simpler frights he helped scare up in his first job.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Yeah, yeah, it's a dark and stormy night. Roads washed out, phone's gone dead. The mystic's read her Ouija board and zombies are popping through doorways left open by a demented kewpie doll. Been there, seen that, got the T-shirt. In fact, I practically designed the T-shirt for this stuff back in the 1970s before I was a movie critic. My first gig out of college was doing publicity for a theater chain called Roth Theaters, working for Paul Roth, an old-school movie guy who'd probably forgotten more about showmanship by that time than I'll ever know. He had a couple of drive-in theaters and for them, Halloween was both a challenge and an opportunity. The right place for scares, obviously but hard to find new movies for when the weather got cold so Paul dug deep in the B-movie horror vaults and showed me how to sell the sizzle, not the steak. Something like this...

(SOUNDBITE OF DRIVE-IN AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Friday night at the Ranch Drive-in, our dusk-to-dawn Halloween Horrorthon. All night Fright Fest with five - count 'em - five full-length features. Shuddering specters guaranteed to scare you shout-less. Films so terrifying we can't even reveal the titles.

MONDELLO: Yeah, couldn't reveal the titles because they were more terrible than terrifying.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRIVE-IN AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We can say this - no one with a heart condition will be admitted. We'll nurses in attendance and a hearse standing by.

MONDELLO: Man, I used to love writing copy like that. Years later when John Goodman played a '60s horror guy in the movie "Matinee," wiring theater seats to deliver electric shocks at scary moments.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MATINEE")

JOHN GOODMAN: (As Lawrence Woolsey) The big studios, none of them have anything like it.

MONDELLO: I felt like I was watching my boss.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MATINEE")

GOODMAN: (As Lawrence Woolsey) I love this business.

MONDELLO: These days, you go to a scary movie, you see a scary movie - and no question, the scares are scarier now. It's all up there on screen. But the old horrorthons and terroramas, which were horrorthons but sexy, had their charms too. I still remember Paul showing me how a little red food coloring in the popcorn oil could turn a bucket of popcorn into a...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Bucket of blood.

MONDELLO: Kind of gross, right? But the point was to scare the yell out of you and we mostly did. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MATINEE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: A little question of taste?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: No, no, but to younger patrons you could have some seat wetness.

(SOUNDBITE OF OMINOUS MUSIC)

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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