Count Zappula, Horror Host Par Excellence



Gaylord, Michigan, 1979, population 3000. It was 11:30pm, I was 15, in bed watching television with the house dark, parents asleep, a small B&W portable set perched on the blanket, the antennas perched just so to catch the signal from faraway Traverse City. Count Zappula—a.k.a. Deputy Don, a.k.a. Don Melvoin, the north’s joint answer to Detroit’s Bill Kennedy and Sir Graves Ghastly—was on the air!

We follow as his coffin is slid out the back of a converted station wagon into the hands of leisure-suit wearing pall bearers and carried into a dark studio where it was laid lovingly on a saw horse. A loud creak, the coffin opens and Count Zappula struggles to perch himself on his elbows, the effort exhausting him. Igor—a.k.a. Lovie (or was it Lover?) a.k.a. Bullet (from the Deputy Don show)—his trusted companion in evil is there. Igor/Lovie was some kind of fluffy dog who would lick the Count whenever he was spoken to.

Count Zappula was introducing this week’s movie, giving it a good build up. He had been looking for this movie for months. It was to be shown for the first time in Northern Michigan. There were rumors of its banning in some countries. It was said to be horrible. It might have been based on a true story.

It was, as it turned out, Gargoyles, a 1972 made-for-TV movie starring an extraordinarily earnest Cornel Wilde, far from his prime. The budget for the film was low. Special effects were approximated by having rubber-suited men run in slow motion; half the film was slow motion. So strong was Count Zappula’s influence that several years ago I tracked down a copy of this movie and bought it. It is over-ripe cheese, but back in 1978—a time when Bigfoot and UFO rumors were rife—and shown in the middle of the night, it was scary.

Putting on his best Transylvanian accent, the good Count was telling how he knew this and that actor from the movie. He hinted of the presence of real gargoyles. The camera closed on his face. He began to speak again. He flicked his tongue. His teeth fell out mid-speech.

I laughed until I thought I’d suffocate. My dad came charging into the room. “What’s all the noise!” “His teeth fell out!” “I’ll knock your teeth out! Turn that TV off!”

This proves that the only surviving internet footage opening this post was not a quirk. The site Throwawayblog remembers another incident:

Once [the Count] appeared in a parade, on a float. Of course he was in the coffin. The parade route went down a hill and made a sharp turn. Well, the float made the sharp turn, but the coffin slid off the float, hit the street, and kept on going downhill, with the Count still inside, holding on for dear afterlife.

The Count was in a select company of horror hosts, creatures which in our era of television conglomerates and prerecorded programming are now quite defunct. I came across this documentary movie, American Scary which takes a look back at all the great horror hosts. Vampira, Svengoolie, Elvira of course, Baron Daemon, Roland/Zacherlie, many others.

Any look into the passions of the few is always interesting—think of Trekkies—as is this. The movie is painful, though, as it has a running, never-ceasing bad-music soundtrack that grates. A main theme is that the horror host was a reliever of tension. They never let the movies become too scary; they were there to say that everything was all right.

I suppose some of that is true. But hosted entertainment of any kind is always more compelling. Think of DJs on radio stations, the folks on TCM introducing the movies. Hosts make what would otherwise be isolated lonely viewing or listening into a communal experience. Yet another reason to feel sorry for all those people with earbuds hooked to an MP3 player.

Anybody else remember any horror hosts?



Note: I am more awake. Regular programming to resume tomorrow.

10 Comments

  1. “The parade route went down a hill and made a sharp turn.”

    Most parades move at a grueling 3-4 mph pace. The centrifugal forces involved in turns at this breakneck speed must be unbelievable.

  2. I remember The Ghoul on WKBD in Detroit (“scratch glass and turn blue”).

    The robots on Mystery Science Theater on Comedy Central were pretty good too.

  3. I remember Bob Wilkins reincarnation as “Captain Cosmic” who would introduce Japanese sci-fi. Great stuff when I was 8 years old.

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