Listen. If you’ve got any boils and ghouls in your house under the age of ten, or if you were ever under the age of ten yourself, and you live within a hundred miles of Atlanta, I know exactly what you need to do.
Isolated as we are in Chattanooga, where the only independent theater with an eye toward classic movies didn’t last for long, we were unaware that the Silver Scream Spook Show had roared back to life after a few dormant seasons. About four times a year, the Plaza Theatre, one of the best movie houses in the nation, will open its coffin and let the mysterious and not too malevolent Professor Morté, the Ghost Host with the Most, and his band of chain-rattling friends and foes, show a classic sci-fi or horror movie.
A couple of months ago, after learning this shindig was back in business, we missed out on The Creature From the Black Lagoon because Marie and our son were actually visiting family on Saint Simons Island, where, they say, Professor Morté was once reanimated in the form of a humble human named Shane Morton. Many centuries later – they say he’s five hundred years old – and after having absorbed many, many, many Vincent Price movies – they say he was watching most of the same programming on Ted Turner’s Superstation WTCG/WTBS that I was – Morton transmogrified into a green-skinned spokesmonster for retro movies, terrifying and delighting crowds with bad puns, quick improv, and birthday songs, all delivered in a vaguely central European accent.
When you go to the Spook Show, it’s much more than just a classic movie shown in one of the best theaters around. It starts with twenty-odd minutes of madness, props, crazy characters and – not this time, but sometimes – gorgeous girls from one of Atlanta’s burlesque troupes. They’ll put on two Spook Shows on the big day: a matinee for all the kiddies and their parents, and a late show that may be a trifle more risque. I couldn’t swear to that; I only ever took my older son to a couple of the matinees. And there’s mayhem. There are recurring characters, dastardly villains, ridiculous costumes, obscure Ultraman monsters (the Professor called this one guy Zetton, but I think it was actually a Kemur Man), and cardboard buildings to get destroyed.
This time, one particularly evil villain with an eye for redevelopment – I think her name was Dragonmohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhm, but I couldn’t swear to the spelling – threatened to annihilate all of Atlanta’s landmarks to make way for $10 cups of coffee, mixed-use gentrification, and paid parking. With Godzilla enslaved by her magic bracelet, not even Professor Morté could save the Varsity or the Fox, but threatening the Clermont Lounge was just too evil. A dance-off was held, the fiend was vanquished, and the nasty baddie’s beautiful cohort found love in the arms of an asparagus man from space.
Often, the Spook Show’s live component is a more memorable experience than the movie. But this time, the movie was the original Godzilla from 1954, subtitled and without Raymond Burr. Now, from the original series, Ghidrah the Three-Headed Monster remains my favorite (and Lord, I’d love to see that on a big screen one day), but that first one is a different experience entirely. Before anybody at Toho knew that they’d be churning out annual monster-suit wrestling matches for kids, director and co-writer Ishiro Honda and special effects master Eiji Tsubaraya collaborated on a big-budget spectacle that probably had half the Japanese audiences who watched this thing – just nine years after the war ended, remember – leaving the theater in tears.
Sure, there’s destruction and excitement in abundance. There’s also a focus on suffering and the victims of Godzilla’s attack that the later movies don’t have at all. There’s a genuinely horrifying moment where a young mother huddles her two small children underneath her, assuring them that they’ll be with Daddy again soon, and, in one of several scenes that was excised from the American release, a Geiger counter lets the audience know that one child, surviving for now, got too close to Godzilla’s radiation. The later movies are exclusively for kids and the young at heart. This one is a parable about war and using science to escalate human loss.
But there’s still plenty for kids to enjoy here, don’t get me wrong. To be fair, our son was disappointed that it was subtitled and he had difficulty reading the text. But regular readers know that our kid is the picture in the dictionary next to the entry for “jawdropping,” and his mouth and eyes were wide open during the pivotal scene where Godzilla destroys the city. He can’t stop himself from talking and yammering during movies, but at least he’s very, very quiet. This time I heard him whisper “I love this movie so much!!”
Professor Morté told us during the preshow that the distributors have been charging a whole lot more for Godzilla movies than they used to, and so getting the rights to show this one – the Plaza often sources 35mm or at least 16mm prints, but this was Criterion’s Blu-ray – was neither simple nor cheap. But we really, really appreciate the Silver Scream Spook Show making the effort. I genuinely find it tough to work up the enthusiasm about Godzilla that I used to have, and while my kid’s been curious, I wasn’t really sure when I’d get around to showing him one of the movies. Thanks to Professor Morté, his very first Godzilla film was the very first Godzilla film, shown on a screen big enough to do the production justice.
We didn’t go straight home after the movie. We had gifts to deliver, foods from other countries to buy, and barbecue to eat, but many hours later, back on I-75 and heading home well after our son’s bedtime, he grilled me about Minya, and Spacehunter Nebula M, and the Undersea Kingdoms of Mu and Seatopia, and fell asleep in the back seat, dreaming of monsters.
The next Silver Scream Spook Show will be sometime in early 2019. Like ’em on Facebook and make plans to attend. Maybe we’ll see you there!