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Flashbacks to selling the scares for horrorthons

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Halloween is tomorrow, and NPR's movie critic Bob Mondello knows all about creating and critiquing scary make-believe worlds. But reviewing high-budget Hollywood films got him thinking about the simpler frights he helped scare up in his first job.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUNDER BOOMING)

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Yeah, yeah, it's a dark and stormy night. Road's washed out...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Hello?

MONDELLO: ...Phone's gone dead...

(SOUNDBITE OF OFF-HOOK TONE)

MONDELLO: ...The mystic's read her Ouija board...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Can you show the sign?

MONDELLO: ...And zombies are popping through doorways left open by a demented kewpie doll. Been there, seen that, got the T-shirt. In fact, I practically designed a T-shirt for this stuff back in the 1970s before I was a movie critic.

My first gig out of college was doing publicity for a theater chain called Roth Theaters, working for Paul Roth, an old-school movie guy who'd probably forgotten more about showmanship by that time than I'll ever know. He had a couple of drive-in theaters. And for them, Halloween was both a challenge and an opportunity - the right place for scares, obviously, but hard to find new movies for when the weather got cold. So Paul dug deep in the B-movie horror vaults and showed me how to sell the sizzle, not the steak, something like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRIVE-IN ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Friday night at the Ranch Drive-In - our dusk-to-dawn Halloween Horrorthon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: An all-night fright fest with five - count them - five full-length features.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Shuddering specters guaranteed to scare you shoutless, films so terrifying, we can't even reveal the title.

MONDELLO: Yeah, couldn't reveal the titles 'cause they were more terrible than terrifying.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRIVE-IN ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We can say this - no one with a heart condition will be admitted. We'll have nurses in attendance and a hearse standing by.

MONDELLO: Man, I used to love writing copy like that. Years later, when John Goodman played a '60s horror guy in the movie "Matinee," wiring theater seats to deliver electric shocks at scary moments...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MATINEE")

JOHN GOODMAN: (As Lawrence Woolsey) The big studios - none of them have anything like it.

MONDELLO: ...I felt like I was watching my boss.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MATINEE")

GOODMAN: (As Lawrence Woolsey) I love this business.

MONDELLO: These days, you go to a scary movie, you see a scary movie. And no question, the scares are scarier now. It's all up there on-screen. But the old horrorthorns and terroramas, which were horrorthorns but sexy, had their charms, too. I still remember Paul showing me how a little red food coloring in the popcorn oil could turn a bucket of popcorn into a...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Bucket of blood.

MONDELLO: Kind of gross, right? But the point was to scare the yell out of you, and we mostly did.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MATINEE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) A little question of taste?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) No, no. But to younger patrons, you could have some seat wetness.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID JULYAN'S "THE DIARY OF PATIENCE BUCKNER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.