The 24th episode of Count Gauntly’s Horrors from the Public Domain will be running all this month on Fairfax Public Access. It’s hard to believe that two whole years have passed since we first started broadcasting from “the crypt” in April of 2013. Our second anniversary seemed like a good opportunity to take a look back at some of the phantasmagoric places we’ve traveled and the spooktacular things we’ve seen. Here, in my opinion, are the ten best Count Gauntly episodes to date.
10. Episode 14, “Manos: The Hands of Fate“
Short-handedness breeds ingenuity. Only my brother and I could make it to the taping for this episode, and the result was Count Gauntly‘s first real foray into “movie magic” of the no-budget variety. Manos had been on my list of “musts” for Gauntly inclusion since the beginning (note the show’s opening montage), and at a run-time of just over 70 minutes, it wasn’t hard to winnow down to fit within our hour slot. Since I already had a Torgo costume on hand, created for a Halloween party a few years back, it was the perfect opportunity to indulge my endless vanity and put myself, quite literally, in two places at once.
Favorite moment: In the “stinger” epilogue, a frazzled Torgo staggers off the set, to beg the Master for his old job back. Ben Tuben (aka Ogrot) appears as the Master…and for once gets to be the one giving orders.
9. Episode 19, “Gauntly’s Hauntly Halloween Special“
As far as Gauntly tropes go, “attempting to prove our worth to a higher authority” is by far the most frequently seen. It’s a simple way to provide a simple conflict, and give an episode a basic narrative arc. But dear God, we’ve done it to death. While not the best episode to use this framework, the “Hauntly Halloween Special” shines for two big reasons.
The most obvious strength is Gauntly’s jaunt to Sleepy Hollow, among the most prominent real-life locales in American horror history. I passed through the headless horseman’s stomping grounds at the end of August, on the way to visit my friend in upstate New York. Another friend of mine “met me halfway,” coming down from Connecticut to serve as cameraman. I have a confession: All the footage inside the cemetery is markedly lousier because I shot it on a lower quality, but more covert, flip-cam. The cemetery staff kicked us out when we attempted to film with our big camera and Gauntly garb, so I had to return later in plainclothes, guerilla-style.
The episode’s second biggest strength is a self-evident axiom of horror-hosting: It’s just fun to do a Halloween show. More people turn out to crew and star, stores are stocked with potential props, and the seasonal atmosphere provides the perfect, creepy ambience for filming, inside and out. Plus, I had an excuse to splurge on a $100 pumpkin suit.
Favorite moment: Though the Sleepy Hollow sequence is the episode’s centerpiece, you can’t beat that severed head barbershop quartet. It may very well be the only one ever televised.
8. Episode 23, “The Strange Facts about Outer Space“
This list admittedly demonstrates a bias toward more recent episodes. However, I like to think that’s because we’ve gotten better with time. Over the course of “Season 2,” I’ve tried to steer away from the “proving ourselves” storyline. We’ve journeyed farther afield, and incorporated some ever more unusual visual and aural experiences.
Case in point: Episode 23 takes us to outer space, giving us a chance to stretch our special effects faculties to an unprecedented degree. I had long sought a way to “key out” the floor, allowing actors to be completely surrounded by green-screened backgrounds. Previously, I’d been unable to eliminate the studio’s black floor, a limitation obvious in earlier effects sequences, such as the workout routine in Episode 22. This time around, however, we chanced to find a green throw-rug which perfectly matched the hue of the studio’s walls. Showing great respect for our newfound treasure (it’s why we’re all in socks), we were finally able to break free of gravity. Now, not even the skies were our` limit.
Favorite moment: Gauntly and the crypt-dwellers travel to the moon, in our most ambitious “special effects” shots to date.
7. Episode 20, “Cleave It to Beaver“
Weird edibles are a passion of mine, and they’ve become a Gauntly hallmark. In the two years I’ve done this show, I have developed quite the rapport with area butchers. Asian supermarkets like H-Mart provided a good starting point, but I soon had to branch out. My next stop was the Lebanese Butcher of Fairfax, which hooked me up with hearts, brains, and…some other stuff we’ll discuss in a moment. But it’s Chuck’s Butcher Shop in Bryans Road, Maryland which has made my goriest dreams a reality. I first stumbled upon them while searching for pig heads for our ghastly Halloween sing-along. The Chuck’s website boasts of offering entire pigs for sale, so I figured that, even if they were unaccustomed to selling separated heads, they would at least have attached ones in stock. A quick phone call confirmed that yes, they had heads – not just pig, but also sheep and goats – for just $10 a pop.
Sure, it’s a 45-minute trip either way, but it was more than worth it. Chuck’s wares include such exotica as muskrat, alligator, and elk…and that’s just the stuff in front of the counter. After they lugged out the heads from the back room, I thought I’d make the most of my trip by asking what else they had that was “weird.” Chuck and crew exceeded my wildest dreams when they pulled out a hulking, frozen beaver wrapped in a garbage bag.
And so it was that I returned the next month, just in time for our Thanksgiving show. The worker behind the counter greeted me with a shout of “Mister Halloween!” and, at my request, brought the beaver out of deep freeze once more. I asked the going rate of beaver meat, and he said “around five bucks a pound.” But when the deceptively rotund rodent tipped the scales at more than 20 pounds, he quickly reconsidered.
“Or half that,” he said.
And that’s the story of our most monstrous menu item to date. Add in a double-length runtime, a heartwarming narrative about the ins and outs of being undead at the holidays, and one of the most famous and frightening of all Public Domain features (complete with a brief location tour during the credits), and you’ve got an episode which was one of the most fun to make.
Favorite moment: It’s a toss-up, between Ogrot hurling (and shattering) his giant fork javelin, and the grotesque squelch made by the beaver coming apart at episode’s end.
6. Episode 7, “Spooktacular Seven“
It’s hard to believe, but true: I’m not the first horror-host to call FPA home. That honor goes to Jerry Moore, aka Karlos Borloff, whose show Monster Madhouse has been on the air for more than 8 years. In this episode, Borloff joins us to gauge whether our Halloween preparations are up to snuff. That’s right, it’s another one of those “proving our worth” episodes. But it’s one of the first, and best, examples.
In a sense, this was the show I’d been wanting to make since Day 1. There’s never been a set timeline with regard to when Gauntly will come to an end, but I knew from the beginning that we had to get in at least one Halloween episode. So when October (really September, as we tape a month early) finally rolled around, we swung for the fences. To this day, this remains the only episode to consist entirely of original material, and we strove for variety.* There’s pumpkins, Poe, singing, and cider. There are costumes, haunted bridges, and organs in a blender. The term is bandied about all too often these days, but I believe this episode really lives up to its “spooktacular” moniker.
Favorite moment: Karlos Borloff’s declaration that ends the credits – “This is the weirdest day of my life.” Any day Gauntly prompts that reaction is a good day.
5. Episode 17, “CAMP“
By summer 2014, the crypt was growing stagnant. I had considered bringing Count Gauntly’s to a close with our 13th episode anniversary show, but the months kept coming, and no other numbers seemed as fitting to go out on as the spooky, sinister 13. So I kept cranking out shows. Don’t get me wrong; occasional flashes of greatness crept in, such as Torgo’s powerhouse performance in Episode 14, and the surprisingly emotional bouncy horse funeral in Episode 15. But the show still needed something. It needed energy, rejuvenation…
It needed FreakSlice.
The Gauntly regulars include some truly skilled improvisational actors, much better at thinking on their feet than I am myself. Ogrot, Thelonius, and the Critic summon up inspired lines time and time again, never failing to make me laugh. Paul Kaye, the actor behind FreakSlice, is cut from the same cloth, but brings to his role a unique enthusiasm which is instantly evident in his debut appearance. Thrill as our new nature guide friend guides use through a series of treacherous environs , including “The Rocks of Imminent Death” and “Mount Horror,” the volcano whose “heat I can feel on my face.”
The new blood (and varied backgrounds) injected a boost of much-needed life force into the series. Gauntly found inspiration beneath the wide-open sky, and I found renewed zeal for the show and its possibilities.
Favorite moment: The caterwauling Uncle Neptune croons “Underneath the Stars and Moon,” the first Gauntly credits song appropriated from the Free Music Archive.
4. Episode 18, “A Pirate’s Strife for Me“
Coming hot on the heels of “CAMP,” this episode had to be something special. Luckily, we all brought our A-game. And I mean “all”: This episode has one of our largest casts to date. It also features our most intricate narrative, and arguably our most cinematic use of the studio’s limited space. I know this doesn’t mean much coming from the show’s creator (I guess the same could be said of this entire article), but, watching this episode, you very nearly suspend disbelief. There’s a real sense of traveling, as the characters sail the ocean blue, get lost at sea, band together with friendly marine critters, wash ashore on a remote island, battle roguish pirates and hostile natives, steal a tall ship, and head for home, all in under an hour. The only thing that keeps this episode from making slot #1 is its haphazard selection of films. Truth be told, even I haven’t watched them all the way through. Nevertheless, give this one a watch, if only for the Gauntly scenes.
Favorite moment: Ogrot talks to the sea creatures.
3. Episode 3, “The Wizard of Jaws“
As I’m sure the others who were there can attest, this was the first episode that really got us excited at the prospect of what Gauntly could be. The previous episode had included a football-sized squid from H-Mart, but here we offered a stranger and far broader menu: The Lebanese Butcher facilitated a feast of lamb brain, beef heart, and bull testicles (to any would-be chefs out there, please remember to PEEL your testicles first).
This episode also gave us the chance to bring to the screen one of our homegrown horrors. The monstrosity known as Soup Beer is composed of equal parts warm chicken noodle soup and cold root beer, and is worse than the sum of its parts. I suspect it has something to do with how closely the mixture approximates the color, taste, and consistency of vomit.
It’s instant television gold.
Once again, technical limitations led to innovation. This was our first time filming on the television studio’s kitchen set, and we somehow managed to record only video, without any sound. Our episode was very nearly ruined. By a stroke of divine luck, we happened to have had an extra camcorder running in the corner, separate from the studio’s audio board. Only by amping up this “background” recording was I able to restore sound to the episode. Even then, we only got audio for the first hour the camera was running, after which it ran out of tape. Oddly enough, this happened at exactly the point we started making our soup beer. Maybe God was trying to tell us something. But I pressed on unswayed, and cobbled together an ending by dubbing over the silent footage with my “old time radio voice” in a style similar to the Coronet instructional films showcased in the episode. Looking back now, this sequence may be the best part of the episode.
Speaking of those Coronet films, they stand out for being among our most watchable selections. In addition to introducing so many classic Gauntly elements (it’s even the first to feature credit music), “The Wizard of Jaws” warrants a high spot on this list simply for providing an enjoyable viewing experience from start to finish, something which can’t be said for many of our other episodes.
Favorite moment: In a phenomenal display of courage, our esteemed guests chow down on the monstrous repast.
2. Episode 11, “Ogrot: Casanova of the Crypt“
Since his first appearance in Episode 2, Ogrot has been a – I hesitate only slightly to say “the” – fan favorite among the Gauntly gang. The brusque, shambling butler is a takeoff of The Addams Family‘s Lurch, with influence from other Igor types, including his none-too-subtle namesake (spell it backwards). But Ben Tuben brings the role to guttural, growling life in a way no one else could. And here, in our only love story thus far, he gets to take center stage. I “scripted” the episode, inasmuch as any episode is ever scripted, so that each segment would revolve around Ogrot and his quest for love.
Ben, and our lovely bachelorettes, knocked it out of the park. Their extended scenes of improvised interaction still rank among the show’s funniest moments. Ogrot earnestly asking his date whether she “likes to eat sand” made me crack up on camera harder than just about any other line to date.
Favorite moment: In a seven minute speed-dating onslaught, we learn more about Ogrot and his philosophies than ever before. Sand is a delicacy. Squids have too many digits. Snow is evil. And “rust on dead body” is “Countly’s best thing.”
1. Episode 21, “Have Yourself a Gauntly Little Cryptmas“
So, what have we learned makes a good Gauntly?
-Eating bizarre food.
-Truly “special” special effects.
-Sharing films that are actually watchable.
-Allowing supporting characters to shine.
To those I would add “musical performance,” a prominent aspect of many of this list’s selections that I hadn’t touched on yet.
And “Gauntly Little Cryptmas” has them all. Sure, it’s our most recent example of the “appealing to authority” template, but we did what we could to keep things fresh. For example, we finally see the return of the long-absent Projectionist (Teddy Elkins), who, since last we saw him, has taken on the mantle of Santa Claus. The crypt-dwellers do all they can to make the “nice list”…and fail. But in the end, it turns out we enjoy the company of Krampus, Santa’s evil enforcer, even more.
This episode represents perhaps the most polished Count Gauntly’s has ever been. The scene in which FreakSlice consults with the good and bad sides of his conscience is one of our niftiest special effects bits, and the caroling scene, accompanied by an early 1980s synthesizer I bought for 9 bucks outside the studio immediately before walking in to film, is nothing short of magical.
Favorite moment: Gauntly and Ogrot attempt to impress Santa with a yuletide revue of classic carols. In Kris Kringle’s own words, it’s “most, most jolly.”