It was Saturday Night in the Bay Area some time ago, 1971 to be exact, that I first came across the buttoned-down, low key television persona of Bob Wilkins, the host of "Creature Features". He worked on a local independent television station (KTVU-2) out of Oakland/San Francisco, hosting a program called "Creature Features". The locally-produced show would present a newer horror film in the 9-11 pm slot, followed by an older, often classic horror film from the Universal or Hammer film catalog around 11. What made Mr. Wilkins memorable was the way he presented these movies.
Those old enough to remember the horror movie craze that was directed at teens and pre-teens at the time probably recall television hosts who dressed up like characters out of "The Munsters" or "The Addams Family". The generally hammed it up mercilessly while selling commercial products and introducing movies they played off as "scary" or "chilling". Their were probably dozens of these local part-time "ghouls" in major markets, trying to scare up some ratings with the younger crowd not yet able to go out on Saturday Night.
Wilkins was decidedly different. For one thing, he presented the films dressed as what one critic called "The Nerd-Hipster": the sort of television host who was a cross between comic intellectual Dick Cavett and the Anglo-American swell, Alister Cooke, of "Letter From America" and "Masterpiece Theater" fame.
Here's some idea what I'm talking about:
Wilkins was famous for beginning his programs with admonishments if the film chosen for that evening by the program director was less than top-notch. "Don't stay up tonight," the host would warn. "It' not worth it". I remember being quite amused one weekend night as a kid when he opened up a copy of the tube-junkie's bible, "TV Guide" and began reading aloud to viewers what was on other channels in the Bay Area and how discerning viewers would be better off checking out other option besides the trashy 'Dracula Vs. Frankenstein' (1971) film that was on for that night.
How did Wilkins get away with this and stay on the air? It was because he was honest about what he presented and, because of that, people who didn't normally watch horror films tuned in just for his ironic sense of wit and humorous asides to the main features. The ratings for his shows were through the roof compared to other independent television offerings, according to a recent article in San Francisco's "Metro" magazine. He also offered some interesting interviews with minor and sometimes major stars and directors and f/x people from the horror and fantasy side of the television and film industry.
The 9:00 showing, as I said, was usually the newest and often the lesser of the double feature. I'll spare you the bad previews and show one I remember that was on one night and was pretty good, 1973's "The Legend of Hell House", starring a good cast with a screenplay by top notch science-fiction writer Richard Matheson. (Warning: the following contains scenes of "bad, bad kitty" behavior and the breaking of nice crockery.)
The later show was the one I usually looked forward to. Not all of them were classics, but they were films made by better and more experienced hands than those who cranked out flicks from the 50's and 60's with titles like "The Horror of Party Beach" and "Attack of the Mushroom People". And the photography was certainly better, as this video tribute to early sound horror films proves:
When Halloween comes around, I remember fondly all the movies I saw as a youngster, some scary and some silly. But, since he passed away this year at age 76, I also fondly recall the sarcasm and good humored fun that Bob Wilkins brought to the presentation of these "creature features."
Pictured below: Northern California's favorite Saturday night horror film host, the inimitable Bob Wilkins, interviewing Christopher Lee on the set of "Creature Features" sometime in the 1970's.