Remembering Commander USA

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Since the entirety of October is officially Halloween this year (shut up, you!), we at Psycho Drive-In have decided to attempt to fill the month with thirty-one recommendations for horror-related movies, comics, books, TV shows, toys, games, and everything in-between. It’s gonna be a grab-bag of goodies we feel you should be exposed to, whether you like it or not! But don’t expect your standard suggestions for Halloween fun, we’re digging into some stuff that we love in the hopes that you might make this October a little bit weirder than usual.

Weirder in a good way. Not like what’s going on outside in the hellscape of 2020.

When it comes to horror movies, I am a bit delicate. I like the idea of them, but I don’t go in for the really scary stuff[1]. I’ve never seen any of the Friday the 13th, Halloween, or Nightmare on Elm Street series, or if I have, I’ve scrubbed them entirely from my tender brain. I had to watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre in college and was just upset; I didn’t get any of the catharsis or adrenaline. My horror game is so weak, in fact, that I am still terrified by the black finger nailed baby in The Children (1980), a zero budget nuclear child zombie outing.  The only reason I made it through this particular piece of schlock, and many others, was that I caught it as a Saturday afternoon matinee on Commander USA’s Groovie Movies.

The Commander, played by the late Jim Hendricks, was a boon companion for me in the realm of scary movies. The program aired in the middle of the afternoon, when there was nary a shadow in the house, but the Commander also had an irreverent approach, complete with Handy, the hand-drawn sidekick, that allowed me to enjoy Vampire Circus, Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell rather than merely peek at them. As long there was a goofy skit bookending the scares, I was able to endure any awful happenings on the screen[2].

Horror hosts taking the edge from the scares (and often making dreck slightly watchable) had been a staple of local television[3] for many years, but Commander USA was in the right place at the right time for me. My parents had just splurged for cable and I was given a small amount of freedom on Saturday afternoons, which I immediately flushed by watching every terrible thing on television. And while Groovie Movies was not much better than cartoons meant to sell me cereal and toys or wrestling’s reductive world view, it did no active harm. I also still have fond memories of my dad wandering by and watching a few episodes with me. More importantly, the joy that I have had watching three decades worth of weird and sometimes less than stellar movies can be drawn directly back to the Commander.

Though I have enjoyed the work of many other horror hosts[4] and eventually moved on to the perfected form of MST3K, there will always be a special place in my fandom for Commander USA. He might not have had the pedigree of Zacherle or the impact of Elvira, but in life, sometimes you make a choice and others are governed by fate. In rare cases you’re bored on a Saturday, and run across a cable show with a journeyman actor that, truth be told, changes your life for the better and doesn’t try to sell you a darn thing.

[1] The one exception is Rob Zombie movies. As I have written before on PDI, a colleague tricked me into seeing that one. I think the combination of Captain Spaulding at the beginning and recognizing Chris Hardwick helped get me through that one.

[2] It goes without saying that these movies were also edited to within an inch of their lives. Merely in doing research on The Children, I discovered that it had boobs. My twelve year old self is heartbroken.

[3] I just missed out on Chilly Billy, whose Chiller Theatre originating from Pittsburgh ended in 1984.

[4] Unofficial Top 5: 1. Count Gore de Vol   2. Elvira  3. Svengoolie   4. Chilly Billy  5. Zacherle

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