Posted by Richard Harland Smith on June 28, 2013
One of the first things I ever did for Turner Classic Movies — and it may very well have been the first thing (I wasn’t even a Movie Morlock yet) — back in the spring of 2006 was to write up George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) for a new, late night program TCM was devoting to cult movies. They were going to call it TCM Underground and I was told it would be “as cool as a fairground funhouse.” That’s all I needed to hear — I was in. I was especially heartened to hear “the approach… is one of celebration and appreciation, not the approach of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATRE or The World’s Worst Movies. ” Celebration without condecension? I was double in. I still remember writing up those first films for TCM Underground, among them MADHOUSE (1973) with Vincent Price and Peter Cushing, ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE (1973) with Robert Blake, BILLY THE KID VS. DRACULA (1965) with John Carradine, FOXY BROWN (1975) with Pam Grier, and PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1959) with Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson, and Vampira. Ye gods and little fishes, what fun! I came of age in the early 1970s, ten years before the advent of home video, when you had to hope the TV would show you something good. Fortune smiled upon me and in 1973 a small TV station in Needham, Massachusetts began showing weekend double features of old Universal horror movies. What an education! In the space of a year I’d seen everything (at least from Universal) and the habit of staying up way late became hard-wired. (I’m doing it now to write this!) Getting to work for Turner Classic Movies and being entrusted to write up titles for TCM Underground was like reliving those formative years, albeit through a Psychotronic eye. TCMU seemed to me like a twisted and deeply weird version of PLAYBOY AFTER DARK where the party guests were not Mort Sahl, Noel Harrison, and Bill Cosby but Varla from FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! (1965), Billy Jack from THE BORN LOSERS (1967), and Fuad Ramses from BLOOD FEAST (1963).
As it happens, most of the people who got Turner Classic Movies Underground off the ground are no longer in the picture (including original on air host, Rob Zombie). One happy constant, however, is TCMU programmer Millie de Chirico. I got to know Millie over the years in the trenches at the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival, where she was always turning up to venue host, crash the production room, or just turn out for one of her favorite movies. This year, while waiting for the lights to go down for a midnight showing of PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (shown in its original aspect ratio for the first time in, like, forever), I floated the idea of doing a little interview in support of TCM Underground. This week we made that happen.
RHS: TCM Underground will always be close to my heart. When I started working for you guys in 2006, one of my first things was to write up NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD for the program, which hadn’t even launched yet. Were you working on it then?
MILLIE DE CHIRICO: Yeah, I was there from the beginning. But the idea of it, the name and all that, came from this former TCM employee, Eric Weber. He was in the TCM Marketing department at the time, but left the network shortly after. Then it kind of became my responsibility. But he told me about the idea initially because we were both into cult stuff and I wanted to work on it with him. And I think he even more or less “pitched” at one point, but nothing happened for a while. Then one day the GM of the network pops his head into my office and said, “Oh, by the way, we’re doing Underground” and then walked off. I was so happy!
RHS: TCM recently showed BELOW THE BELT (1971), which had been on my radar for decades, ever since I saw the entry for it in John Willis’ Screen World annual. I had about given up on television ever again delivering me a movie I have long wanted to see. And then, BAM!
RHS: Have you ever encountered any resistance to including a title? Or hems and haws, at least?
MDC: Yeah, although Standards and Practices has become more and more forgiving of us over the years. A good example: I tried to program MOTEL HELL (1980) our second year or something and they initially said no. Then I reprogrammed it a few years later and it aired. But sometimes it’s just like, no way. I got a quick no for BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1971) and DERANGED (1974) and a couple other ones. Some titles went to the very top of the chain but eventually got approved. I’m very fortunate to work for Charlie Tabesh who gives me complete freedom to program, and will go to bat for me with certain titles. But I feel like once we played THE BEYOND (1981), we were able to get away with a lot more. It might have been all downhill from there.
MDC: I started in 2004.I was a film major in college and studied film history and criticism, and had programming experience working at the radio station at the college I went to — shout out to WRAS-Atlanta! So TCM was a dream destination for me.
RHS: You’re always part of the TCM Film Festival team… any chance of a stronger TCMU profile in the years ahead?
MDC: I would love that. I have many ideas!
RHS: What would be your dream TCM Underground double feature?
MDC: Hmm. If the S&P thing weren’t an issue, it would be BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS and something else. LADY TERMINATOR (1989)? DEATH GAME (1977)? BASKET CASE (1982)? SCORPIO RISING (1964)? MS. 45 (1981)? Basically any movie I’ve always wanted to play but couldn’t for whatever reason.
RHS: You know what would be a great double feature? BASKET CASE and DETOUR (1945). Think about it!
MDC: Yeah, you’re right!
RHS: They’re both movies about a symbiotic relationship and they both end with an extension strangulation.
MDC: Hey, you should work here!
RHS: What are your childhood movie memories?
MDC: The first movie I ever saw was A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971) when I was about 8 or 9, at a neighbor’s house with no adults around. It scarred me for life, but also probably explains why I gravitate towards strange movies. The first movie I remember seeing in the theater was E.T. (1982). But my dad was all about video stores. He liked to keep entertainment on the cheap. I have lots of fond memories of old VHS covers for things. The old box for CREEPERS/PHENOMENA (1985) with the outstretched hand and the half-eaten face; APRIL FOOL’S DAY (1986) and HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME (1981); even stuff like ALVIN PURPLE (1973) and CHEECH & CHONG’S THE CORSICAN BROTHERS (1984) — I love that drawing style, by the way. The old POLICE ACADEMY (1984) movie art. But my dad loved really broad comedies, or anything featuring an ex-SNL cast member. Still does to this day. Both my parents are from other countries and I think those kinds of movies with lots of physical humor translates well or something. I also watched a ton of TV as a kid, and HBO and those late night shows like NIGHT FLIGHT and USA UP ALL NIGHT were very influential.
RHS: NIGHT FLIGHT! Yes, the perfect precursor to TCM Underground! I saw a lot of great old serials on NIGHT FLIGHT in the mid-80s, interspersed with rock videos. That’s probably where I first saw REEFER MADNESS (1936).
MDC: Yeah, I remember seeing Alan Parsons Project videos on NIGHT FLIGHT and going, “Wow, this is high tech!”
RHS: “Don’t Answer Me”! NIGHT FLIGHT was part of that great early-to-mid 80s renaissance for cult movies. Those Danny Peary books, The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE FILM SHOW even the Medved books, which everybody reviles now but they turned a lot of us on to Ed Wood and stuff like that.
MDC: I love those Danny Peary books. And Psychotronic magazine.
RHS: When I lived in New York, I shopped at the Psychotronic store. I knew Mia Weldon long before I knew Michael, because she was always behind the counter. I wish now I’d bought one of those great denim jackets she used to make, where she’d recreate the artwork for TWINS OF EVIL (1971) on the back.
MDC: Wow, that’s amazing!
RHS: This all brings back lots of memories, like buying Shock Cinema at Tower Records when it was a construction paper ‘zine in one color.
MDC: Oh yeah, I remember that! I guess at the time I didn’t appreciate it much, but now I miss those media warehouse type places like Tower and Amoeba Records, which still exists, thankfully. I would spend hours at Tower Records and thumbing through movie magazines and books from the Loompanics catalog.
RHS: Has there ever been any unexpected feedback or backlash from other Turner folk about something you’ve shown on TCMU?
MDC: So far I’ve only heard good things from fellow Turner employees. I get a lot of great suggestions from them too. A designer over at TBS was the one that suggested YOR: THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE (1983). And contrary to what I thought would happen, I do have friends in the S&P department. They actually have great taste. The only possible “backlash” I’ve gotten was when one of our producers came to my office after THE BABY (1973) played and was like, “That movie was totally insane,” but I think he was more in awe of it than offended. I hope. I’ve decided to take it as a good sign when someone comes into my office on Monday and says, “What was that?!”
Recently, TCM Underground moved from its original Friday night slot to Saturdays, around the 11pm (PST) mark, though occasionally later. Coming up this week, a brain-twisting pairing of Freddie Francis’ THE PSYCHOPATH (1966) starring the incomparable Patrick Wymark and Doug Sirk’s LURED (1947) featuring Lucille Ball and Boris Karloff – no, really!
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