Deep inside a creepy laboratory, a deranged doctor conducts bizarre experiments on a disembodied head, as a werewolf and his ghoulish companion look on, cackling in the shadows. What's really odd is that this weird science isn't happening in some spooky Transylvanian castle. Nah, it's right here on an industrial stretch of Van Dyke, just up the street from the former Detroit Arsenal Tank Plant.
These days, the only bombs in the hood are of a cinematic nature, as decades' worth of movie offal gets reprocessed into a shiny new product called Wolfman Mac's Nightmare Sinema. The cheesy effects, the plastic monsters, cardboard sets and the stilted acting of yesteryear are getting new life in this brand-new cable TV series, homemade with all the tender loving care of Mom's pumpkin pie.
A self-described "no budget production," the show is a handcrafted, no-frills affair, created, written by and starring Mac Kelly, the friendliest fortysomething werewolf you'll likely ever meet; kind of like Bob Newhart, but with a taste for blood under a full moon. His co-host is "Boney Bob," a wisecracking, 2-foot-tall skeleton with a bow tie, straw hat and a Bugs Bunny-thick Brooklyn caw. Kelly provides the voice and sometimes operates Bob, a makeshift puppet who started out as a store-bought Halloween decoration.
"This whole show is pure schlock," Kelly says. He's right; it's intentionally designed to look cheap, a low-rent style that evokes the "good old days" of fly-by-night local television.
Kelly, a Warren native, is like many Detroiters of his generation — he grew up a fan of zany horror movie hosts like the Ghoul, Son of Svengoolie and the late, great Sir Graves Ghastly. Back in the golden days — from the '50s through the early '80s — local stations looking to use their large libraries of old movies would enlist anybody who wanted the job to slap on some fangs and host fright flicks. Sometimes it'd be the weatherman or the intern looking for camera time. (Remember Joe Flaherty as Count Floyd on SCTV's Monster Horror Chiller Theater?) These shows were spontaneous, often unscripted, and the hosts ad-libbed gags and corny puns. It was a freewheeling time before TV was run through the corporate filter.
For Kelly, hosting a horror show was a dream job and he had the idea in his head for years. To earn a living, Kelly found DJ work, bouncing around the dial in various formats and towns. (One saw him spinning polka records; another found him at a California country station dubbed KFrog using the silly on-air name "Tad Pole"). Eventually he started his own DJ business and worked private events. His love for spooky things lived. ("I play 'Thriller' at every wedding I do," he says, smiling.)
Eventually Kelly got his shot, when a friend tipped him off to a Bay City TV station looking for someone to host monster movies. Though that gig soon faded, Kelly made a key connection with editor G.C. Kirkland of Darkhaus Sound and Film in Bay City, which produces horror-themed music videos, documentaries and cable-access programs. It was Kirkland who helped create a distinct look for Kelly's new show. Kirkland splices together collages of vintage commercials, sprinkles them through the breaks, and adds cool background effects, grainy film textures and sight gags to the Wolfman's sketches.
Kirkland's work helps fashion a hip but accessible aesthetic for Nightmare Sinema that has attracted fans and a small army of horror-buff volunteers. One such supporter is Warren's Bryan Larsen, who's an active member of an association called the Motor City Haunt Club. He discovered Mac through MySpace, and reached out. "I told him how dare he steal my pipe dream of being a horror show host!" Soon, Larsen was in the act, appearing as an on-camera foil, playing victims, zombies and other utility ghouls.
Another big fan is musician Dave Taylor, aka "The Rev. Rat Bastard" of the Casket Bastards — he's also in the Amino Acids. Taylor offered the Nightmare Sinema some of his music and a video for the Caskets song "The Zombie Twist." More importantly, Taylor runs a horror-scene shop in Mt. Clemens called Detroit Props, as part of his all-in-one love of rock 'n' roll, classic cars and haunted houses. "I've been collecting stuff for years, and along with my late brother, we started building Halloween props about 20 years ago," Taylor says.
Now he supplies Mac with various gravestones, body parts and any other creepy accoutrements that they can cram into a shot.
None of this would happen without the time and space, which is donated by Stage 3, a 42,000-square-foot studio that by day serves as a major hub for Big Three auto photography. This outside passion and commitment to schlock has helped Mac build a network of TV-show carriers (nearly 30 affiliates statewide), creating a much larger audience than any normal public access show has a right to have.
Understandably, Mac is a major league horror movie fanatic, with a real affinity for the classics, including such original black-and-white Universal masterpieces as Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Dracula and, natch, The Wolfman. His affection for old-school scares, that which left the frights to the imagination, made him want to share that, um, "intellectual" spine-tingle feeling with a new generation. He wants to remind people of the lost art of the unseen scare. "Nowadays the kids are watching people's heads get cut off on camera," Kelly says. "They just get right to it and chop the head off, and people are getting hacked up and disemboweled everywhere."
The purity of the older works also appeals to Larsen: "They have no sex, no swearing and the gore is minimum, especially in black-and-white; but they have a lot of creativity."
So far Nightmare Sinema's lineup has included such near-classics as White Zombie and Day of the Triffids, and the absolutely great-awful like Plan 9 From Outer Space, and The Brain That Wouldn't Die. And Kelly's hardly made a dent in the cinematic garbage heap. "There are so many good public domain movies out there, that I could easily go five years without repeating myself. There are hundreds and hundreds to work with."
Kelly tries to keep it all light and kid-friendly, though he sometimes gets caught up in, as Alice Cooper says, the character. "It's very easy to go to that other side, you put on the makeup, and the darkness seeps out," Kelly says.
And Kelly's work appears to be paying off. One way to tell is through the kids. And kids have been steadily sending in their crayon drawings of Wolfman and Boney Bob since the show went on the air this summer.
The town that gave rise to both Alice Cooper and the Insane Clown Posse has an inexhaustible craving for macabre. Kelly thinks his show is a natural extension of the romance.
"I think Michigan has a very unique fall season, the weather, the cider mills, everything, it all just breeds that atmosphere, it's like a Halloween wonderland," he says.
While he might already feel like he's living out some fantasy, Mac has ambitions to take this ride as far as it will go, and maybe even cash in for the right offer; "Working for free is only cute for so long."
To find the Nightmare Sinema airtimes on your cable server, go to nightmaresinema.com.Corey Hall is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]