(Of Late Night Horror)

BILL WOOD | JULY 24, 2020

If you've frequented this site a time or two, you may have noticed a slant toward the darker material.  So why all the spooky stuff? Well, horror culture has always been a massive influence. As many artists will attest, there's just something about the supernatural that kicks the imagination into high gear. Movies, comic books, novels, fairy tales, they all manage to inspire. And then there are the more subtle influences, such as Bob Wilkins, who at one time was the greatest purveyor of the creepiest schlock out there.


As far back as I can remember, Bob Wilkins’ Creature Feature on KCRA Channel 3 and KTXL Channel 40 in Sacramento was a fright-filled Saturday night ritual. Those Saturday nights were always the best of the week. Traveling through an electrostatic wave of UHF signal noise, Bob would offer up a variety of horror flicks, usually top-notch British chillers such as Tigon's The Blood On Satan’s Claw or any number of vintage Hammer films featuring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. These movies were pretty powerful stuff for a five-year-old, I can tell you that. But they can't all be winners, and every now and then we'd end up with low-rate trash such as Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter or Attack of the Mushroom People. Either way, staying up late for Bob was always something to look forward to, and seeing the host finally arrive on-screen accompanied by his brilliant theme song was often the best part of the entire show. Titled "Gotham City Municipal Swing Band" and performed by Neal Hefti, this up-tempo big band ditty—which was actually borrowed from the Batman TV series soundtrack—was anything but spooky. Then again, Bob Wilkins was anything but your average late-night horror movie host.


You see, Bob didn’t dress up like Mr. Hyde or adopt a corny Bela Lugosi accent. He didn't camp and cavort around the screen like some long-in-the-tooth vampire actor who never got the part. He was more like your local TV weatherman, if that weatherman was a chain-smoking Dracula fanatic. Nattily attired with the hip 1970’s pageboy comb-over and ever-present cigar in hand, Bob would tell it exactly like it was with a calm, monotone delivery. If a movie sucked, he’d pretty much tell you it sucked, in his own witty manner of course. Somehow this made the good movies even better, or the scarier movies even scarier, as it were. And though it was lost on this kindergarten kid, Bob's way of delivering the message to the younger generation really connected. This was the era of Vietnam, the hippie movement.  Younger viewers weren't looking for some campy geezer with a cloak and a fog machine to sell them on the awful movie they were about to partake in, they wanted someone who could speak on their level, someone they could trust. Bob Wilkins was that man.


Eventually, the popularity of Bob's Creature Feature show lured him away from the relatively small market of Sacramento and onto the bigger markets of San Francisco and Oakland. There he went on to achieve even greater success, hosting the world television premiere of Night of the Living Dead. His show was anything but underground, it even managed to beat Saturday Night Live in the local ratings. Even today, Northern Californian residents from that distant generation remember Bob fondly as a great late-night horror show host whose responsibility it was to deliver some not-so-great entertainment.


Bob Wilkins passed away from Alzheimer's disease in 2009, and it’s a shame that I never got to meet him. If I did, I’d certainly ramble on about how he totally screwed up my childhood years, and possibly even deliver him an invoice for burned out light bulbs due to my refusing to sleep with the lights off.


But most importantly, I’d quote the sign that hung in his TV studio: “Watch Horror Films... Keep America Strong.” - BW


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Twilight Zone poster art by Bill Wood.