Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Terror in the Aisles - My Gateway to Modern Horror Movies

I remember it well. It was a sunny day in October 1985. It was a few weeks before Halloween and the leaves had begun to fall. Jacket weather was in full effect. The walks to school in the morning were crisp and refreshing. But on this day I wasn't walking to school. Prone to sinus infections, I caught a cold that quickly turned into a dreaded infection. A visit to the doctor's office the day before had won me a couple of days off from school, a bottle of horse pills and a liquid antibiotic that tasted like pre-chewed bubble gum. So there I was, home in bed on a bright sunny day.

Actually, I wasn't in bed. During the day, I was camped out on the couch watching cartoons and game shows. We had cable on the living room TV so I wasn't going to be stuck all day in my bedroom with a tiny black & white set with poor reception and seven channels. Downstairs there was cable and I was an unsupervised sick kid. What kind of bounties would await me on cable TV? (Author's Note: In the '80s it was okay for working parents to leave their children at home and unattended during daytime hours. They had to work in order to provide for us. They armed us with microwaveable chicken noodle soup and their work numbers in case of emergencies. We were fine and, to be honest, we enjoyed the freedom.) Unfortunately, on this particular day, HBO wasn't showing anything an inquisitive 11-year-old would be interested in. In those days, HBO had a strict "no R-rated movie during the daytime" policy. So unless you loved frequent airings of Irreconcilable Differences or Oh God! You Devil, daytime HBO was usually a crapfest. On the other hand, there was PRSIM.

If you're not from the Philadelphia area (or where born in the late '90s), let me explain. PRISM, which stood for Philadelphia Regional In-Home Sports and Movies, was a cable channel launched by SPECTACOR, the company that, at that time, owned the Philadelphia Flyers and the recently demolished Philadelphia Spectrum. Until it went dark in 1997, PRISM broadcast live Flyers, Phillies and 76ers home games as well as Spectrum-based WWF events, and in-house specials spotlighting local musicians and nightlife. When there were no sports or specials PRISM ran an odd assortment of movies.

Since sports programming was their bread and butter and because they didn't have the budget or national exposure of an HBO or Showtime, PRISM cobbled together a collection of eclectic movies that no one else seemed interested in. While HBO was touting the upcoming debut of the recent Academy Award winner Amadeus, PRISM was quietly offering the Philly area Nunzio and Americathon. HBO gave children Jim Henson's Fraggle Rock, while PRISM aired The Animalympics. One thing PRISM did have over its giant competitors was the fact that they didn't care about airing adult content during the day. That suited kids just fine. Oh sure, we could have watched Brain Games after we got home from school and learned something from TV. But we just spent all day in a classroom. My friends and I would rather watch Scatman Crothers get eaten by dachshunds dressed as rats in Robert Clouse's Deadly Eyes. After School Specials? Unless they featured a drunken Scott Baio pissing his pants, you could keep 'em. We were too busy cracking up at Kentucky Fried Movie and watching chicks get naked in The Last American Virgin. One of the movies that PRISM aired changed me forever.

On this particular sick day, after watching an episode of Press Your Luck, I got up, pushed the cable box button for PRISM and was greeted with a "The following film is rated R" bumper. Sweet! The Universal logo appeared on the screen and was followed by short scenes from When a Stranger Calls and John Carpenter's Halloween. Then Donald Pleasence appeared as himself, sitting in a darkened, crowded movie theatre. With his super-spooky voice, Pleasence expelled, in great detail, why moviegoers were fascinated with horror movies. Over the course of the next 90 minutes, Pleasence and Nancy Allen led me on a journey through classic and modern horror movies. The journey was called Terror in the Aisles.

When Terror in the Aisles was about to open the year before, local UHF stations bombarded viewers with its TV spots. Those ads scared the crap out of me and my friends. The ad campaign proclaimed that it was the scariest movie ever made featuring clips from all of the best horror movies, most of them too shocking to show on TV! We had never seen most of the movies mentioned in the ads, but we had heard about them from older siblings and friends. The newspaper ad that ran the week before its opening stated that Terror in the Aisles would be playing at the theatre that was a five minute drive from my house (the long-gone Eric Brookhaven Twin, now a beer distributor). My friends and I planned to ride our bikes up to the theatre and sneak in. Before our perfect plan could be executed, the movie was gone. It played one week and then disappeared. As the months passed, our excitement for Terror in the Aisles was replaced by our excitement for upcoming movies like Back to the Future and Pee Wee's Big Adventure.

A year later came that fateful sick day. As soon as the opening credits of Terror in the Aisles rolled, all of the previous year's excitement came back. Wow! I was finally getting to see Terror in the Aisles! And my mom wasn't around! This was awesome! Now I was about to see clips from movies that only played at the Budco theatres in the city like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Scanners and Ms. 45, as well as scenes from classics like Jaws, Psycho, Carrie, The Exorcist and the aforementioned Halloween. But there were also clips from a bunch of movies that I had never heard of before. Terror in the Aisles was my introduction to Wait Until Dark, The Fury, The Brood, The Silent Partner and Suspiria. Scene-after-scene I was delightfully terrified. My family didn't own a VCR at the time, but we got one that Christmas. Not long after that I soon began searching the local mom & pop video stores with a list of movies culled from Terror in the Aisles.

I hadn't seen Terror in the Aisles since October 1985, but during that month I watched it every chance I got. Although it was available on VHS, I never rented it. Then it went out of print and was only available as a bootleg. It seemed like Universal would never offer a DVD release due to the nightmare of multiple rights clearances. Earlier this year, when the news hit that the Halloween II blu-ray was going to feature Terror in the Aisles as an extra, I quickly preordered a copy. I figured if it did actually get released, there was a strong chance that it would be quickly pulled from distribution due to some clearance oversight. A couple of days after its street date, the Halloween II blu-ray arrived in the mail. There on the back, in small print, listed in the extras section was Terror in the Aisles. As much as I wanted to tear off the shrink wrap, open it up and immediately watch it, I didn't. I knew that the time wasn't right. In order to properly enjoy it, I needed to wait for the right day.

A week later, on a sunny fall day, I was feeling a little under the weather. After spending most of the day snoozing on the couch with the cat, I decided to pop Terror in the Aisles in the blu-ray player. As soon as it started, all of my memories from that sixth-grade sick day came back. I owe a great debt to Terror in the Aisles. Not only did it kick my love of horror movies into over-drive, it also made me more aware of film making styles and techniques. In between all of the scary clips, filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock offered advice on how to build suspense. Pleasence and Allen talked about horror movie history while shining a light on the stories and concepts that influenced these movies. It made me want to learn more about movies and film making.

Terror in the Aisles is not just a fun walk down memory lane for those of us who grew up on creature features and video stores, it's also a great primer for those just discovering the world of horror movies.


  1. This is awesome! Well written. You know I can't get enough nostalgia.

  2. Well done! Bought a VHS converted Terror at Blob Fest two years ago. Imagine my surprise when I saw it on the Halloween 2 blu-ray.

  3. Definitely a must for fans of 70s and 80s horror, I recently revisited it to kick off my own October marathon (which is, ironically, also titled "31 Days of Halloween"). Love the extras in that make up the "grindhouse" audience that Pleasance and Allen sit amongst.