A Requiem for TCM Underground

“All of us on this Earth know that there is a time to live, and that there is a time to die. Yet death is always a shock to those left behind.”

When TCM Underground’s Twitter account announced on February 22 that it would be showing its final movie just two days later, it was most unwelcome news to longtime devotees of the late-night programming block. While they were accustomed to its semi-annual breaks for TCM’s “31 Days of Oscar” and “Summer Under the Stars,” the Underground always came back, ready and able to share a sampling of the strangest movies ever made with those hardy and adventurous enough to stay up for it (or set their DVRs).

Appropriately enough, TCM Underground’s final film – Edward D. Wood Jr.’s dizzying sci-fi yarn Plan 9 from Outer Space – was also the one that kicked it off 16 and a half years ago. It was mid-October of 2006, and those wondering why the venerable Turner Classic Movies was showing Ed Wood movies were greeted by host Rob Zombie, a decidedly grungy alternative to Robert Osborne. Fittingly, Zombie’s first introduction was for a cult film about aliens who use their advanced technology to raise the dead from the grave. (For its backup feature, programmer Eric Weber went with Wood’s Bride of the Monster, which had been used as MST3K fodder one decade earlier.)

In the weeks that followed, Zombie presented double features by Russ Meyer (Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Mudhoney) and George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead and The Crazies) that would be a hard sell in prime time, plus a pair of starring vehicles for Arch Hall Jr. (The Sadist and Wild Guitar) and two nights highlighting the work of Tod Browning (first Freaks and Mark of the Vampire, then the Lon Chaney silents West of Zanzibar and The Unholy Three). Zombie jumped ship before the new year, though, leaving TCM Underground to steer itself under the guidance of programmer Millie De Chirico, who took over from Weber in 2007 and was responsible for its eclectic slate of cult curiosities until she was laid off last December. (Yet another casualty of Warner Bros. Discovery’s “restructuring.”)

“Why do I always get hooked up with these spook details? Monsters, graves, bodies!”

As much as TCM Underground staked out its own identity, it had a pair of antecedents in Ted Turner’s media empire. For most of the ’90s, TNT had the horror-centric MonsterVision (which, for the last four years of its existence, was hosted by drive-in movie authority Joe Bob Briggs), while the more off-beat fare in Turner’s library was relegated to the aptly named 100% Weird. The latter shored up its cult bona fides by running interstitials featuring outré imagery from the Peter Lorre vehicle Mad Love, the Dr. Seuss-penned live-action musical The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, and yes, Plan 9 from Outer Space. The roster of films ported over from 100% Weird to TCM Underground was highly selective, though.

At the top of the list, naturally, is Freaks, which is referenced in the Ramones song “Pinhead,” as featured in Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, the only New World Picture to make the cut. Contrast is provided by the anti-television oddity The Twonky and David Lynch’s TV spinoff Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. The same goes for Jacques Tourneur’s masterful Night of the Demon and the schlocky Night of the Lepus, both of which feature silly-looking oversized monsters, but only the latter is completely undone by them. (See also: the star-studded killer bee flick The Swarm.)

William Castle got his fair share of attention from both programs, tallying up The Tingler, 13 Ghosts, and Strait-Jacket (and four more besides those), matched by the Hammer Films trio of The Mummy, The Mummy’s Shroud, and Prehistoric Women. Meanwhile, William “One-Shot” Beaudine is represented by the one-two horror/western punch of Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter and Billy the Kid Versus Dracula. That leaves early-’80s offerings The Fog, The Hand, and Poltergeist, which see Oliver Stone bracketed by genre heavyweights John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper. As there were some places basic cable dared not go, however (e.g. to Hooper’s Lifeforce and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 or Lynch’s Blue Velvet), TCM Underground picked up where 100% Weird left off.

“You are interested in the unknown, the mysterious, the unexplainable. That is why you are here.”

The roll call of cult filmmakers who received their due from the Underground is too long to list, but it’s significant that the block gave multiple showcases to Paul Bartel (five), Larry Cohen (six), Roger Corman (four), David Cronenberg (four), Robert Downey Sr. (four), Jack Hill (four), Penelope Spheeris (five), and John Waters (three). That’s not counting the shorts programs devoted to Curtis Harrington and David Lynch, both of whom are similarly well-represented on the features front. The singularly strange cinematic efforts and weird one-offs are what best exemplified the Underground ethos, though. Where else would one expect to see The World’s Greatest Sinner, the sole directing credit and starring vehicle for character actor Timothy Carey (with music by a then-unknown Frank Zappa)? Or the Esperanto-language William Shatner horror film Incubus? Or Something Weird mainstay Blood Freak, in which a drifter eats tainted turkey meat and turns into a bloodthirsty turkey-headed monster? Or whacked-out musical extravaganzas like Stunt Rock or The Apple?

TCM Underground was also a clearinghouse for Drafthouse Films discoveries like The Visitor, Roar, and Miami Connection, a trend that paved the way for New York Ninja, a film shot in 1984, but left unedited until Vinegar Syndrome footed the bill for its completion 37 years later. With its emphasis on cult, horror, and exploitation films – including a steady diet of Blaxploitation – it’s no surprise that the majority of TCM Underground’s selections hailed from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, but its reach encompassed a century of cinema from 1922’s Häxan to Scream, Queen!, the 2019 documentary that follows the star of A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge as he comes to accept his place in horror history.

“You know, I’ll bet my badge right now, we haven’t seen the last of these weirdies.”

Sad as it may be, the loss of TCM Underground isn’t as crippling as it might have been in the pre-streaming era. Fully one-third of the films it showed can be found on Tubi, and a decent number are on the Criterion Channel and Shudder. The latter also has Joe Bob Briggs’s latest horror-hosting venture, The Last Drive-In, which kicks off its fifth season later this month. For its part, Criterion has shown its willingness to delve into exploitation fare with series dedicated to Herschell Gordon Lewis (whose infamous Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs! were featured on TCM Underground early in its run) and Doris Wishman, in addition to its well-curated ’70s and ’80s horror collections and this month’s “Erotic Thrillers” set.

Scrolling through streaming services may not offer the same thrill of discovery as stumbling onto something while channel-surfing in the dead of night, but the weird and wonderful movies that made TCM Underground will always be out there. Not everything that aired on TCM Underground in its 16-year run was a classic, but everything TCM Underground aired had a shot at becoming someone’s new cinematic obsession.

Craig J. Clark watches a lot of movies. He started watching them in New Jersey, where he was born and raised, and has continued to watch them in Bloomington, Indiana, where he moved in 2007. In addition to his writing for Crooked Marquee, Craig also contributes the monthly Full Moon Features column to Werewolf News. He is not a werewolf himself (or so he says).

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