Out of the Shadow

Longtime Austin access host Joseph Fotinos eyes two new creepy cable channels

(l-r): Dan-Dan, producer and director Shane Scott, Professor Griffin, and Usher
(l-r): Dan-Dan, producer and director Shane Scott, Professor Griffin, and Usher

I remember it as if it were yesterday: midnight, a lonely path twisting up past a knockabout graveyard, through a rusted, busted wrought-iron fence, across a blasted heath, snaking past a filthy tarn oozy with curling, wraithlike smoke, and then inside that damned house, as ancient as sin, boarded up and broken down and dank, dark, dead.

Inside waited a man I visited every Saturday afternoon (or did he visit me? And where the hell was CPS?), a rarely glimpsed shadow-man aided and abetted by a shambling thing in tatty bandages with a profile like a postmortem Ernie Kovacs minus the stogie. He showed me things. Things that warped my 8-year-old mind as surely as anything William M. Gaines and Harvey Kurtzman and Mad Magazine ever could. He sated my insatiable desire for more and yet more horrific shock-a-thons than even Forrest J Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland could provide.

In short, this unknown place, this impossible creature, this weird weekly weekend fever dream (and all of it set to the brassy strains of Universal International's 1955 smash "This Island Earth," courtesy of Henry Mancini et al.) got me hooked on cathode ray horror shows and beyond, an ill-received – through a bent and rabbit-eared console TV on casters – television program arriving via the ether if and when the weather was good from Buffalo, N.Y., to my family home outside of Rochester: the Saturday afternoon Monster Matinee. It was my first foray into the world of weekly horror hosting, part of, I believe, a syndication package now long since revamped and recast, absorbed into my mind and the mainstream over the intervening decades. Like the Road Warrior, it exists now only in my memory.

Thankfully, the long-dormant art of the television horror host is alive and kicking (and gnashing and drooling) despite a seeming paucity of personalities post-Vampira and Zacherley, the recognized progenitors of the form during the heyday of the Fifties. And Austin's own Professor Griffin, aka Joseph Fotinos, host of the weekly Midnight Shadow Show (Fridays at midnight on Time Warner Cable Access Channel 16, with a re-airing Sundays at 11pm on Channel 15) is in the creepy thick of it as never before.

The news, fiends, is big: a pair of rival national horror channels seeking hosts for their start-up programming, the Scream Channel (www.screamchannel.com) and the Horror Channel (www.horrorchannel.com), the former set to debut in January 2005, the latter this past Halloween evening. Think War of the Gargantuas, but in real life, with dueling former partners Hakim Bangash, CEO of the Scream Channel, and Nicholas Psaltos, CEO of the Horror Channel, duking it out for the chance to satisfy Americans' thirst for the macabre. It's too soon to tell just yet who will win out, or for that matter who will end up with Professor Griffin at their beck and call – although Fotinos' pal and fellow Texan John Bloom, aka Joe Bob Briggs, has signed an agreement and nondisclosure statement with the Scream Channel, which, tough luck for us, disallows him from commenting on the situation for this article – but the stakes, as Bela Lugosi would surely say, are high for Griff and his producer, Shane Scott (an alumnus of the prop crews on Office Space and Spy Kids).

"We've been on the air for four years now," says Fotinos, "and it's high time to start seeing what else is out there."

In person, at this South Austin mansion (OK, suburban tract home), which currently features a sly tribute to author Ray Bradbury via a Halloween tree festooned with 31 jack-o'-lanterns, the goateed, raven-haired Fotinos is slightly less the horror host and more the fast-talking, madly enthusiastic improvisational comic who in the past has worked with the Groundlings and Second City as well as Austin improv legends Monks Night Out. In addition to his work on the Shadow Show, there's a new collection of essays on the horror field due out soon – The Midnight Shadow Show: Professor Griffin Journals – and a wealth of yearly appearances for Goodwill Industries (promoting their on-the-fly, off-the-cuff Halloween costume potential). But right now Fotinos' focus is squarely on the possibility of taking this horror gig national.

"All I want at this stage of the game is for people to know Professor Griffin. So, if we get associated with the Scream Channel or the Horror Channel – whichever – then that's good. If it makes it, great; if it fails, well, maybe no one ever saw it anyway.

"Elvira, in the beginning of her career," Fotinos continues, "was a local host in Los Angeles on KTLA and was terrifically popular there for a number of reasons, although I like to think it was because she was very clever, witty, funny, and was a member of the Groundlings. She was approached by a company who wanted to syndicate her Movie Macabre program and offered to take her national with very few changes in her style. That national exposure got her hired to be a beer spokesman and work with thriller video and so on and allow a lot of people to know who she was. That's ideally what I'd like to see happen with the Shadow Show – I want that national exposure."

Here in Austin, although there's no way to tell exactly how many weekly viewers The Midnight Shadow Show actually has, Fotinos' patter-mad blackout sketches, which traditionally bracket a public-domain thriller such as George Romero's original Night of the Living Dead, are like small, dark comic gems that attract a large and loyal following demographically ranging from kids to goths to weekend horror fans. Working with a pair of additional characters he created – the Igor-ish Dan-Dan (Gilbert Austin) and sultry vixen Usher (Kim Shafer) – Professor Griffin comes off as the bastard offspring of the aforementioned Ackerman and some demented carny spieler, natty behind dark-lensed cheaters and the kind of formal attire you'd expect to find at Anton LaVey's funeral. Neither the formula nor the format has deviated much since the Fifties, but that's part of its enduring appeal: Whatever the year, wherever you may be, it seems there's always a spook-show ready and waiting in the wings. If you just know what channel to turn to, that is.

"I actually picture Professor Griffin being as big as Pee-Wee Herman was," says producer/director Shane Scott. "We're going to make something happen whether one of the syndicated horror channels picks us up or not. We may buy our own packages of films and start selling DVDs or whatever. We're going to make it happen one way or the other."

In the meantime, there's been a steady stream of special appearances, ranging from a presentation of The Raven for Ain't It Cool News and the Alamo Drafthouse's Saturday Morning Film Club to a special live (and taped) outing for last year's Alamo-sponsored Freddie Vs. Jason Camp Hack 'n' Slash event ("The most requested thing we've ever done," Fotinos says). And then there was Professor Griffin's much ballyhooed hosting duties for the local premiere of Stephen Sommers' Van Helsing, which helped The Shadow Show secure a deal with Universal Pictures to publicize the cinematic misfire via giveaways of the studio's far superior classic horror character DVDs and film tie-ins. Free publicity for Universal, sure, but even more for The Shadow Show.

"I've always said we'd do this as long as it's fun," Fotinos says, "and the shoots are just great fun. We just have a ball. We still haven't made a dime, but that's OK. I work in industrial and commercial real estate by day and do The Shadow Show in my off time, and I'll keep doing it as long as I possibly can. And if fate deems it time for the Scream Channel or the Horror Channel to put us on the air nationally, that's great, too. Who knows? I'm very blessed. I have a beautiful wife and a wonderful son, and everything else could all go away tomorrow and I'd still be completely happy."

Which, even for a monster of ceremonies like Griffin, is still the biggest thing since the invention of Halloween. end story

For more information on Professor Griffin and The Midnight Shadow Show, go to www.midnightshadowshow.com.

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Professor Griffin, Joseph Fotinos, The Midnight Shadow Show, Scream Channel, Horror Channel, Gilbert Austin, Kim Shafer

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