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Archive Television Treasures: The Classic Ghosts: “The Screaming Skull”

Scene from The Classic Ghosts: “The Screaming Skull”
October 22, 2020 - 4:00 pm

Watch the program here

Made possible by the John H. Mitchell Television Programming Endowment

In 1973, with Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show on NBC dominating the late-night television ratings wars, ABC launched a bold experiment in counter-programming, offering a slate of low-budget horror telefilms produced on videotape. Airing under the anthology title, The Classic Ghosts, this ambitious series of five made-for-TV movies was imbued with an eerie, gothic aesthetic perfectly suited to a midnight-hour timeslot. Effectively combining the foreboding atmosphere of the cult-favorite ABC soap opera, Dark Shadows (1966-71) with the frights of classic B-movie horror, The Classic Ghosts distinguished itself as an off-kilter attempt to expand original genre programming beyond prime time. While the series was not a ratings success, the original broadcasts (mostly unseen since their original airings) have achieved a minor cult-status among classic TV horror fans.

In terms of the history of the medium, The Classic Ghosts is noteworthy as an early production featuring a creative and technical team largely led by women, a number of whom were pioneers in television. Produced by Emmy-winner Jacqueline Babbin (Sybil), the series employed highly-accomplished, prolific directors, Lela Swift (Dark Shadows) and Gloria Monty (General Hospital) – both of whom had long worked in numerous capacities in TV, ultimately producing and helming hundreds of hours of network programming in their groundbreaking careers. As a February 10, 1973 article in the New York Times (“Distaff Production Team More Than Tokenism”) notes, the crew of The Classic Ghosts included women working on all facets of the production—as grips, assistant directors, production supervisors and more. Charged with a grueling six-week production schedule to complete each telefilm, producer Babbin summed up her crew hiring choices by stating “I just had to get together the best possible team.”

Join us, if you dare, for a Halloween-inspired screening of the rare episode “The Screaming Skull,” directed by Gloria Monty. The videotaped gothic horror tale stars ‘60s pop culture icon David McCallum (The Man From U.N.C.L.E) as a man under siege, with good cause, by the ghost of his dearly-departed spouse (Carrie Nye of Guiding Light and Creepshow). The drama co-stars Vincent Gardenia (Death Wish). This program will be introduced by Mark Quigley, John H. Mitchell Television Archivist, and Maya Montañez Smukler, Archive Research and Study Center Officer and author of Liberating Hollywood: Women Directors and the Feminist Reform of 1970s American Cinema.

Program notes by Mark Quigley, John H. Mitchell Television Archivist.

The Classic Ghosts: “The Screaming Skull”  (ABC, 2/14/1973)

Eerie, gothic sensibilities abound in this rare videotaped horror production directed by television pioneer Gloria Monty and produced by Emmy winner Jacqueline Babbin. The tale concerns an eccentric doctor (David McCallum) that experiences untold terror following the gruesome demise of his wealthy, dearly-departed wife (Carrie Nye). A chilling hybrid of the cult-favorite soap opera, Dark Shadows and B-movie frights that is certain to inspire foreboding dread and nervous insomnia…. just in time for Halloween.

Color, approx. 66 min  Preserved from 2” videotape master by UCLA Film & Television Archive. Video engineering by DC Video. Director: Gloria Monty. A Specter Production. Executive Producer: Robert Berger; Producer Jacqueline Babbin. Written by Norman Borisoff. Based on a story by F. Marion Crawford. Starring: Vincent Gardenia, Carrie Nye. Special Guest Star: David McCallum.