Every horror fan comes to the genre in different ways. As a kid, most of the movies I saw were controlled by my parents. Anything I rented or watched usually had to go through them first. Not that I had much interest in horror flicks back then, since I was a timid, wimpy kid. So, even if I was interested in monster movies as a child, I probably couldn’t have gotten them through my usual video store haunts. Television, instead, was the easiest way to watch genre cinema. Which brings me to the network formally known as American Movie Classics and their annual MonsterFest marathon.
In 2016, AMC is another one of those cable channels whose initials stand for nothing. The network has long since abandoned its original goal, of showing classic films. These days, the channel’s biggest hits have nothing to do with movies. Programs like “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” and “The Walking Dead” have made AMC the home for prestige television. When they show movies at all, they’re usually no older then twenty years and are edited for content and commercials.
But it didn’t use to be that way. Around the end of the nineties, AMC – back when those letters still stood for American Movie Classics – was added to our cable package. Turner Classic Movies, still the gold standard for classic cinema based networks, was only available in the “premium” set-up at the time. Which meant my household didn’t get it. So when AMC appeared, it was a great alternative. The channel, true to its name, very rarely showed anything made after the 1980s. Instead, the focus was on black and white cinema from Hollywood’s golden years. The films were presented unedited and commercial free. For movie fans who couldn’t afford the upgrade to Turner Classic Movies, it was a quality replacement.
As a twelve year old boy, I’ll admit, the films of John Wayne, Cary Grant, Greta Garbo, and Jimmy Stewart didn’t interest me very much. I had no aversion to black and white films but usually associated monochromatic movies with the boring Fred Astaire flicks my mom loved. In other words, AMC didn’t appeal to me very much at first. However, while channel surfing one night, I stumbled upon a classic Godzilla movie. “Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster,” to be precise. Then and now, I loved the Japanese King of the Monsters. I had only seen a few of the original series but was determined to complete my Godzilla education. Upon discovering that I was watching AMC, I began to religiously scan through the TV Guides and on-line schedules, making sure I wouldn’t miss any future screenings of scaly kaiju flicks.
Through these avenues, I discovered that AMC had a weekly programming block devoted to special effects films. Airing Friday evenings, it was called “AMC’s efx” and was hosted by effects mastermind Stan Winston. In hopes of seeing more Godzilla movies, I started tuning in every week. I’ve mentioned the program numerous times over the years, which shows the huge influence it had on me. By the year 2000, Joe Bob Brigg’s “MonsterVision” was over and even Elvira couldn’t hold onto a show. Stan Winston and his room full of famous creations was the closest thing I had to a weekly horror host show. It’s true that Winston had only recorded a few unique host segments, most films being introduced with the same canned opening. It’s also true that "efx" wasn’t solely devoted to sci-fi and horror films. Earth-bound effects features like “The Enemy Below” sometimes slipped through. Yet I was exposed to many films I love through “AMC’s efx.”
The first MonsterFest I can recall watching was the 2000 edition. Through this programming block, I first saw many of the films I now love. Most of the Universal Monsters movies aired during MonsterFest. I can recall seeing Roger Corman’s “Pit and the Pendulum” and “Mothra vs. Godzilla” during that year’s marathon. While the movies were the main attraction, Monster Fest’s surrounding elements were often just as entertaining. In 2000, MonsterFest had a morgue theme. A dead body on a slab would introduce the movies and promote the network’s ventures. (That year included a sweepstakes tying in with “The Mummy Returns.”) The coming-up promos were surrounded by medical devices and glowing green lights. In an amusingly odd move, Whoopi Goldberg also hosted several of the big premieres. This is, by far, the MonsterFest I think about the most.
By the next year, I was eagerly anticipating MonsterFest. The prior year had hooked me. 2001 featured many of the same black and white monster movies. I can vividly recall recording an all-night marathon of Universal’s Frankenstein sequels, the tape beginning with the static-filled opening credits of “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.” 2001’s marathon had a gimmick that specifically linked it with the time and place. Each weekday night was devoted to a series of films. Each block was hosted by the voice behind You Don’t Know Jack. For those that don’t remember, “You Don’t Know Jack” was a series of trivia themed computer games, each one hosted by a sarcastic comedian. The series was so popular that it even briefly supported a television version. Why AMC partnered with a now obscure game series, I don’t know, but it probably made sense at the time.
I can’t remember everything I saw during 2001’s MonsterFest. I know one of the themed nights featured “The Mummy” series. In a break from the focus on older cinema, another one of the nights revolved around “The Omen” films. (I was able to excuse this at the time, since the original was old enough to arguably classify as a “classic.”) Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolfman were present and accounted for. As memorable as this was, two other aspect stick out about 2001’s season. The first of which was the number of related games AMC featured on their website. That year’s MonsterFest had a college theme, for some reason. One of the games was hosted by a Peter Lorre sound alike and, after a series of questions, placed you in a monster themed fraternity. Another game was a bowling simulation with skulls and decapitated heads in place of balls. Ah, the days when Flash games were enough to amuse me for hours…
2001 was also the year Short Screamers debuted. Fans would submit short horror films, none running longer then a minute. AMC would select the best ones and Clive Barker would present them on air, usually as filler in-between movies. A lot of these shorts stick in my brain to this day. One was a switcharoo about a small alien life form attached to an astronaut. Another involved a severed hand being delivered to a woman’s doorstep. The woman screamed before calling her mother and informing her that the boyfriend got the wrong ring. Yet another featured a woman nearly discovering her date is a serial killer. Many of the Short Screamers impressed me at how professional they were and how much story the filmmakers could fit into such a short time frame. The program was popular enough that AMC would revisit it for future MonsterFests. Sadly, very few of these shorts have surfaced on the internet.
By 2002, the network was already changing. John Carpenter was brought in as the big name host for that year’s MonsterFest. The Short Screamers would return, though I can’t remember any entry from that year. What I most remember about 2002’s MonsterFest was how much sickly, slime-like neon green that channel would use in its advertisement. AMC kept a lot of classic monster movies on the schedule. Yet that year also saw the introduction of the later “Halloween” sequels. The film selection would also less varied. It seemed like “Halloween 4” and 5 got played several times a week. Naturally, the grislier content in these newer films meant AMC could no longer comply with its “uncut, commercial free” motto.
This trend towards pushing the classics off the schedule would continue as the years went on. I barely remember 2003’s MonsterFest. I know some movie called “Piñata: Survival Island,” about a cheap CGI monster hunting Nicholas Brendon during panty raids, was repeatedly shown for some reason. Soon afterwards, AMC would allow commercials on their network, constantly interrupting films with advertisements. In time, the black and white movies would be pushed into the early morning hours, “Bride of Frankenstein” and other classic being relegated to four A.M. show times.
I stopped watching the network soon afterwards. I know MonsterFest would eventually mutate into the more generic FearFest. I once glanced at the late October schedule and found it full of “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th” sequels, all cut for content and to cram in as many commercials as possible. Eventually, AMC would drop the American Movie Classics labeling all together. I don’t even know what kind of films the network shows now. Their TV series are all they advertise. It’s a sad state of affairs, the basic cable version of Turner Classic Movies essentially becoming another generic network.
Maybe MonsterFest as originally envisioned would seem antiquated in 2016. Personally speaking, I almost never watch movies on television anymore. I’ve got a large DVD/Blu-Ray collection and the internet to fulfill almost any movie watching itch I get. Yet when you’re in control it makes discovery less likely. I know I wouldn’t be the horror fan I am today without the MonsterFest of old. The memories of the kooky, spooky AMC continue to resonate with me, reminding me of a less connected but perhaps more innocent time.