Saturday Horrors on USA Network
Back in the day, the USA Network was the one stop shop for classic and cult horror films. The network was much different in the 1980’s then it is now. Today, the channel is very mainstream and has tons of original programming, but back then it was a station that mostly ran reruns of cartoons and game shows, WWF Wrestling, music videos, martial arts films, and of course horror movies every Saturday. The only thing that has stayed on the network is wrestling and all the cool horror flicks and other horror programming all vanished in the early 90’s, but was never forgotten.
I actually owe USA Network a lot. If it weren’t for the channel broadcasting Night of the Living Dead on Halloween in 1987, I wouldn’t’ve fallen in love with horror films. As I wrote in my previous article, The Night of the Living Dead Experience, one Halloween night I decided to take in a horror movie and as I went around changing the dial, I stumbled across the black and white cult classic. It was being shown on USA’s late night show, Night Flight, which was one of the many programs that I’ll discuss throughout this article that shown a great deal of classic horror.
Soon after becoming a hard horror fan and discovering an awesome go to place on the tube to fulfill my horror cravings, I became addicted to all the horror programming on USA. Around late ’87, every Saturday I watched horror movies starting at three in the afternoon till the wee hours of the night. This was my highlight of the weekend and as the school week came to a close, I wondered what films they were going to show on Saturday. The shows that use to broadcast these great cult horror classics were Commander USA’s Groovie Movies, Saturday Nightmares (which showed horror films and horror TV series), and Night Flight. USA also showed some films on Friday night as well on Sci-Fi Theater and Night Flight also broadcasted on Friday nights as well.
The first show I would like to discuss is the one that got me addicted in the first place, Night Flight. Now, Night Flight wasn’t just all horror, it was mainly a show that showcased the weird in entertainment. Its debuted was in 1981 and was mostly known for showing music videos that no other channels would show at the time. The program would also show cartoons that were mostly for adults, stand up comedy, documentaries, concerts, and B-movies, mostly horror. The show ran on Friday and Saturday nights at eleven and was on for four hours. I believe Saturday was the only night the showed movies. The format of the show would have a female narrator (Pat Prescott) over the cool Night Flight opening graphics and then it would get right into the feature film which was at the top of the program. After the film, they would show a documentary, concert, interview, or short film and then after that would be a bunch of music videos, cartoons, or stand up comedy.
My favorite part of the program was the movies and along with Night of the Living Dead, I’ve got to see some really cool cult films for the first time. Night Flight was the first place where I saw Dementia 13, which became one of my favorite horror films of all time. I saw the bizarre cult favorite Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein and Andy Warhol’s Dracula on there. Even though a lot was cut from these films to be aired on TV, USA kept a lot of the gore scenes like when Udo Kier gets his hand chopped off in Frankenstein as well as when he gets his arm and leg severed in Dracula. Night Flight use to also show some classic Bela Lugosi films like, The Corpse Vanishes and The Phantom Creeps. Other non-horror cult films that were shown on the program were Fantastic Planet and Reefer Madness. I also got to see a Genesis concert on there from 1976. Being a huge Genesis fan that was a real treat. Night Flight left the airwaves in late 1988 and was replaced with USA’s Up All Night with hosts Caroline Schlitt, the Friday night host (she was replaced by Rhonda Shear later on) and Gilbert Gottifried, the Saturday night host. Night Flight returned in syndication in 1990 with only one season of new episodes and then becoming a best of show of the episodes that originally aired on USA, which lasted until 1996.
Commander USA’s Groovie Movies was the closest thing I had to a horror host in my area, even though he was nationwide, but Upstate New York didn’t have any horror host around that time. Commander USA (played by Jim Hendrick) was a blue-collar super hero with tights, a cape, mask, and a beer gut. He would host the show in his secret head quarters under a New Jersey mall. The place was filled with all sorts of junk and tons of b-movie posters all over the wall. Like any horror host, Commander USA would intro the show and plug the film being shown and also would have bits during the commercial breaks.
The show started back in 1985 and originally showed double features. By the time I started watching it in early 1988, it was only showing single features. Commander USA was the start of my horror day on Saturday. I remember sitting on the couch around 2 or 3 in the afternoon during a cold winter day watching another b-movie classic. Commander USA was the first place I was introduced to Spanish and Italian horror, such as Horror of the Zombies, Werewolf vs. The Yeti, and House of Psychotic Women to name a few. So, Commander USA was responsible for introducing me to The Blind Dead and Paul Naschy films. Other films I’ve watched on the program were It’s Alive, Toxic Zombies, Mako: Jaws of Death, Mausoleum, Rabid, and countless others. They also use to show material arts films as well as Japanese Sci-Fi films. Commander USA’s Groovie Movies ended its run in 1989 shortly after Night Flight was canceled, thus started the decline of horror on the USA Network.
My favorite part of Saturday was USA Saturday Nightmares, which was a three-hour block that showed a movie from eight to ten and at ten o’clock they would show two half-hour horror TV series. The show would open with a very cool intro of going through the house and they would be paintings on the wall that would start off as classic movie monsters such as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, and others. Then it would go to more modern horror in the likes of Jason, Freddy, and Michael Myers. The program didn’t have a host and would just have a narrator introducing what was on tap for that night.
Many of the films that were shown on Saturday Nightmares were often shown on Commander USA’s Groovie Movies, but at times Saturday Nightmares seem to have more mainstream horror movies at the time like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street mostly because the show was in prime time. They were still tons of great rare cult horror films I got to see on Saturday nights such as, The Devil’s Nightmare, Q: The Winged Serpent, Bloodbath at the House of Death, It Lives Again, Demonoid, and so much more. Saturday Nightmares was also the first place I saw Day of the Dead almost a year after I saw Night of the Living Dead on Night Flight. Often if a film ran short and they had ten minutes to kill, they would show a really creepy horror short film, which, in my opinion, are some of the scariest films I’ve seen at that time. Films like The Dummy and Living Dolls scared the hell out of me when I watched them and are still creepy today. Most of these short films are available on YouTube.
After the feature, USA would show either an episode of The Hitchhiker, The New Alfred Hitchcock Presents, or The Ray Bradbury Theater. All three of these series were anthologies and appeared on other networks at first and USA would show reruns, but then in the late 80’s, USA would have original episodes from all three series. The New Alfred Hitchcock Presents originally aired on NBC in 1985 and after it was canceled in 1986, USA picked up the series in 1987 and started airing original episodes until 1989. The series was just like the original Hitchcock series of the 1960’s just with a modern twist. The Hitchhiker first aired on HBO in 1983 through 1987 and USA started airing new episodes in 1989 until 1991. Like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Hitchhiker’s tales were mystery/suspense driven. Many of the original episodes from HBO were heavily edited on USA because of violence, nudity, and profanity.
My favorite series from these three was The Ray Bradbury Theater, which also originated from HBO in 1985 through 1986 and later on new episodes aired on USA starting in 1988 up until 1992. Bradbury had a more Twilight Zone or Tales from the Darkside vibe to it, with tales dealing with more horror, weird, or supernatural themes. Some of my favorite episodes from the series were The Screaming Woman starring Drew Barrymore, where she believes her next-door neighbor killed his wife and buried her in the backyard. The Town Where No One Got Off staring Jeff Goldblum, where Goldblum gets off a train in a ghost town and is followed by a strange man. Gotcha! starring Saul Rubinek is very creepy where Rubinek and his new girlfriend play this strange and very scary game. My all time favorite is The Playground starring William Shatner. This one has Shatner playing a father who is afraid to let his son play at the neighborhood playground fearing that he would get picked on by bullies just like he was when he was a boy. They were many great episodes from this classic series.
USA also aired a few other horror specials and series like Stephen King’s World Horror, which were specials that aired here and there on the network, sometimes a part of Saturday Nightmares. The show would feature interviews with King and many different horror directors and actors. It also featured clips of different horror movies from past and present. In 1990, USA had a short-lived series that aired on Saturday afternoons called Shadow Theater hosted by Robert Englund. The show featured mostly clips of horror films and sometimes interviews with actors or directors. The half hour show would often have a theme each week and would show clips of movies that went along with that certain theme of the week.
Sadly, USA Saturday Nightmares was the last horror program to go. It left USA sometime in the early 90’s. After that, USA Network started to target a mainstream audience by playing reruns to current prime time TV shows and playing current mainstream movies. USA also started developing more original series like Silk Stalkings and years later La Femme Nikita, Monk, Psych, Burn Notice, and many others. In 1992 USA Network launched the Sci-Fi Channel, which gave me some hope to having a 24/7 sci-fi/horror channel and thinking USA would play all those great horror films that they showcased in the 80’s on this new network. We didn’t get the channel until 1994 in our area and boy was I wrong about them showing those cool horror films. Although they were some cool horror movies and TV shows from time to time, but it was nothing like the good ‘ol days of the 1980’s.
Even though it came to an end, I am thankful for getting to watch many hours of great television on the USA Network. It was indeed a great time for me and was the prefect time being that I was just starting to discover horror and the USA programming was a great starting point. I’m also thankful for YouTube that allows me to relive my memories with tons of intros, bumps, clips, and horror short films that were featured on Night Flight, Commander USA, or Saturday Nightmares. You can find a lot of cool things on there from that time. Some of this I never thought I would see again. Once again, thank you USA Network for broadcasting many hours of great, terrifying, and some times strange horror programming.