Way back in the primordial ichor, in a year called 1997, I was an 11-year-old boy—one who was unabashedly frightened of horror films. I still remember seeing the 1990 TV adaptation Stephen King’s IT on a grainy VHS tape at a friend’s house in the mid-’90s and fully believing that I had somehow been scarred for life. And yet the seeds had been sowed. I was already well on my way to becoming a massive horror movie geek.
By the time 1997 rolled around, the genre held considerably more appeal to me. This was the year that AMC, that acronym/network that once stood for “American Movie Classics,” made their biggest ever appeal to my imagination with the launch of the greatest October TV promotion ever: Monsterfest.
Oh, Monsterfest. How the thought warms the cockles of my heart. A multi-day marathon of classic horror films and contemporary flicks. No repeats. Value-adding interviews and introductions by stars of stage and screen. For a young kid just discovering the world of genre geekdom, it was glorious, and it continued well through the late 2000s. Just look at these vintage TV bumpers, along with an introduction to Creature From the Black Lagoon by Whoopi Goldberg of all people.
And then something bad began to happen, and Monsterfest began to wither on the vine. I’m not entirely sure when the name change to “Fearfest” happened—somewhere in the 2000s. It’s not particularly important, as a name is just a name, after all. More distressing was the gradual abandonment of classic films in the late 2000s, although even as recently as 2008, they were still showing the likes of The Bride of Frankenstein. But by the 2010s, those days were long gone. Fearfest has become a barren wasteland and a shell of its former self, anchored by a few (extremely repetitive) bright spots. Last year, the promotion hit an all-time low, abandoning any original content or unique promotion for the event. And this year, they seem to be simply recycling that exact same pile of garbage.
For whatever reason, it would seem that Fearfest has undergone some sort of across-the-board demotion in terms of AMC’s interest and investment of time and effort. Aside from the fact that the premiere of new Walking Dead episodes are involved, the level of commitment of resources is laughable. Just look at the official Facebook account, which looks more like something run by a semi-literate fan, and as of this writing (10 days before the marathon starts) hasn’t been updated since February. The “about” section consists of a single sentence, and the “content” is just a bunch of reposted meme images full of misspellings and grammatical errors. Perhaps that’s the subset of the population AMC sees as the primary Fearfest audience? People who spell “through” as “thro” and end every sentence with three exclamation points ?
The lack of effort and passion is spread across every facet of Fearfest. As recently as two or three years ago, the promotion had its own, well-maintained section of the AMC website that contained movie profiles and even a streaming video section where visitors could watch the old B-movies that the network no longer saw fit to air on TV. It wasn’t great, but it was something.
Here’s the same website today. It’s been systematically stripped of any real content—just a splash page with a bare-bones schedule for this year’s marathon, which starts on Oct. 17—four days shorter than last year. All that remains are a few quizzes and games that have either been unchanged for a few years or took a minute or two to slap together. The place is like an Old West ghost town, and AMC presumably figures that nobody will notice or care.
UPDATE: In 2015, this website has been deleted entirely. The only Fearfest content on the AMC site is a single blog post with a link to their schedule.
And it’s not just the online presence that has been axed. Earlier this decade, AMC experimented with hosts who were present for the duration of Fearfest, introducing movies and giving context and opinion. In its first year, film fans got a treat from zombie maestro George Romero. In its second, things took a bit of a step down with a sponsored tie-in from Kevin Smith, promoting his AMC show Comic Book Men. Last year, in 2013, the hosts were done away with entirely.
Likewise, the network has stopped producing or sponsoring original content specifically for the Fearfest block. During the Romero year, they aired a series of short films between movies, made by young and aspiring horror filmmakers, along with a documentary series called American Haunters about haunted house operators. Take a guess as to if they’re doing either of those programs in 2014. Like all the others, they’ve been scrapped—a shame, considering it was a great way to give exposure on national television to horror filmmakers trying to find an appreciative audience.
All of this could be forgiven if the Fearfest content was still good, but in recent years it’s bogged down and become incredibly stale, populated by terrible horror remakes. After all, who wants to see Romero’s landmark Dawn of the Dead when we could be watching the Zack Snyder remake? Who wants to see Vincent Price in House on Haunted Hill when we could show the disgustingly awful 1999 remake? Who needs Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger when you can have Jackie Earle Haley instead? In fact, screw it, let’s just air Tremors 4: The Legend Begins again instead of any of those films, that’ll be easier.
Even when AMC does manage to air a horror classic these days—say, Joe Dante’s original The Howling, for example—they’re putting them on at 6 a.m. Gee, thanks.
UPDATE: In 2015, they’re showing Re-Animator at 3 a.m., kung-fu classic Iron Monkey at 4 a.m. for whatever reason and The Shining a single time at 11:00 a.m. on a Wednesday morning.
The only saving grace are the presence of a few reliable franchises that Fearfest now leans on like a crutch: Namely, the Halloween, Friday the 13th and Child’s Play series, each of which receives a mini-marathon. But this is a two-week programming block, so even if they show each film multiple times (which they do), that still leaves so much dead, uninteresting time.
Moreover, even fans of those series don’t get everything they want. Guess which Child’s Play films AMC shows—Parts 2, 3, 4 and 5. Anything seem like it’s missing there? How can you possibly play four sequels to a movie without showing the original? It’s the same way with The Omen, where they’re showing Parts 2 and 3, but not Part 1. In the Scream series, they’re showing Scream 3 and none of the others. They’re showing the sixth Nightmare on Elm Street film and none of the preceding ones. They’re showing every Friday the 13th besides one of the best entries in the series, Part VII: The New Blood.
UPDATE: In 2015, they’re still showing multiple Scream sequels—but not the original.
What is going on here? Did the rights to all these films simply expire, and no one at AMC figured fans would notice? How expensive can it really be to get broadcast rights to Richard Donner’s The Omen in 2014? The network’s blasé attitude toward its own fanbase is a little hard to believe, especially given that so many other networks such as Syfy have launched their own Halloween marathon programming as direct competition. Perhaps the attitude has simply become “We have The Walking Dead, so who cares about the rest?”
To answer the inevitable rebuttal—Yes, we have entered an age that has progressed beyond network TV. Streaming content has become the ideal delivery system for many Americans, and it’s a great way to watch some of the content a network like AMC will no longer show. But at the same time, there’s a certain charm and nostalgia factor to actually seeing a film aired during a proper marathon, one like the earlier years of Monsterfest, and in that format a viewer is also more likely to watch a film they’ve never heard of before. In its heyday, that programming block became a formative influence to horror geeks like myself who had never been exposed to something like The Ghost of Frankenstein or The Invisible Man. It’s a shame to know that the modern viewer will no longer have that opportunity.
If we’re lucky, perhaps there’s still time to reanimate the corpse of Fearfest. At a time when The Walking Dead has made horror more relevant on TV than it ever has been, one would think putting this kind of programming block together wouldn’t be such a fiendish endeavor.