Behind the curtain of Drive-In Movie Maniacs’ rise from local horror to nationally syndicated nightmare

After five years on local channel TV25, the late-night horror show Drive-In Movie Maniacs is poised to make the jump from public access to national syndication. Starting tomorrow, October 5, the show will be broadcast on RetroTV, ActionTV, and The Family Channel.

In honor of this massive achievement, we went into the catacombs of history to hear the story of Drive-In Movie Maniacs’ rise to fame, straight from the mouths of those who made it happen. That story starts with host Terrible Tim (Tim Sweeten, above).  

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Tim Sweeten, creator/host/writer/executive producer: It was April 2013 when we started. Technically, we probably started before then, because we had pre-production meetings and things. It kind of started when I was doing some events at a drive-in that will remain nameless. Horror events, things like that.

After doing those for a while, I realized I had the makings of a television show, because I had been a fan of horror hosting in Kansas City since I was a little kid — ’70s/’80s, watching horror hosting with my dad. So, all of this is really kind of a tribute to my father and me staying up late with him and watching the old Friday Fright Night or Crematia Mortem’s Creature Feature. I was inspired by all of that, and doing my events, I realized: I’ve got this band, I’ve got these guys — I just need a couple people that know film to help me make a show.

I had some contacts with Johnson County Community College and knew that if I could put something together, I could definitely get something on television. It was a no-brainer. But then I had to figure out what we were going to do, and everything since then has been kind of test footage after test footage until we created this thing.

Rod Zirkle, makeup: I’m told there was an initial dinner meeting with Tim, Josh [Reinhard, cameraman/editing], and a couple other mutual friends. When it was apparent that scheduling was an issue with another makeup artist, somehow my name was brought up. It’s a small community. I went to school for special effects makeup, and had several years’ haunted house experience. 

I think the first time I actually painted Tim was at the snack bar of the Boulevard Drive-In. It was an initial makeup test, and it’s evolved a little since then. I’m not 100 percent sure we even filmed that day — more just playing around to see what worked. If I recall, his direction was “skeleton-like, but not a skull.” It was intended to evoke a simpler, cheesier time, something that was believable to have been on broadcast TV in the 1950s. 

Sweeten: I was friends at the time with a guy named Kenneth Harrison, who was going to film school at the Art Institutes InternationalKansas City, out in Overland Park. He was like, “I got some friends who might be able to help us out,” and that’s when Josh came along. Kenneth introduced me to Josh, and then Kenneth kind of parted ways with us within a year or so. Josh and I were just more passionate about it and stuck with it. We thought it was going to be something, and there were some times where things were getting down for us, and things weren’t necessarily [great]. We’d get on a couple of stations, and then suddenly, [JCCC] stopped showing the late-night horror shows.

Luckily, we got picked up by couple other local stations right around the same time, and then this guy comes along at the same time and offers us to be on TV25 — over the air in Kansas City, Topeka, and Lawrence — and that’s really opened our footprint out a lot more. I feel like we really found our home.

Brian Short, COO and co-owner of TV25: I got introduced to these guys about four years ago, when we were doing our own horror show. It was called Macabre Cinema, and it was basically a two-hour commercial for the haunted houses in the West Bottoms. My idea was that you would tell the story of the West Bottoms haunted houses behind the scenes, and tell the story behind the scenes of the movie that you were watching, and then you would tie them together and talk about how they were interrelated. Which is a great idea, but is boring as shit, for the most part. [laughs] It’s a little artistic, but it’s not re-watchable.

We decided in September we wanted to have it on by October 1, and run it all the way through October, so we went and shot five episodes in five weeks and I said, “Never ever, ever, ever again will I do anything like that.” And that’s when I got introduced to these guys. It was like, “They’ve already got a whole library of stuff that they’ve been doing — good! Let’s go to them.”

It’s a big time commitment, as you can imagine, to put this thing together, and it’s a grind when you’re doing it. It’s fun to look back: “Oh, I remember that episode: that was an awesome shot!” But when you’re in the middle of it, it can be a real pain. There are a lot of folks who have come on and not had the same level of passion or energy, and if you don’t have that, you’re going to fall by the wayside. So, we have a nice core group that does that every season.

Sweeten: Like Blade Braxton. He plays a character called the Midnight Rose, which is a local wrestler. He’s actually a real wrestler and has done all that, and he kind of became my cohort on the show — kind of my straight man, in a way.

Braxton was appearing as the Midnight Rose masked villain character on Kansas City’s Metro Pro Wrestling cable television show in 2011. Due to his pro wrestling and horror-movie acting background, Sweeten brought Braxton in as a local celebrity for a horror convention/movie event that year.

Blade Braxton, “Midnight Rose”: Tim brought me on as the Midnight Rose for an episode. I was playing his tough-guy wrestler friend, who was going to help get rid of the [show’s house band] Haunted Creepys, who had been invading the drive-in and causing all kinds of problems for Terrible Tim. After my first appearance beating up the Haunted Creepys, I thought that would probably be it. Yet, the dynamic between a skeleton-faced horror host and his wacky wrestling-masked buddy worked somehow.

The show films a lot more on location out and about in Kansas City now, so if Terrible Tim has his buddy the Midnight Rose around with him, it adds to the hijinks in public. From a production standpoint, I’ve gone from thinking it was just another one-off guest appearance gig as the Rose to being involved with the actual production of the show, and having the show and all the cast and crew feel like one big and very weird family.

Another unique aspect of the show is that the soundtrack is entirely original productions by the Haunted Creepys, a mysterious band that only comes out to perform on Friday the 13th and Halloween.

King Creepy, Haunted Creepys frontman: Everyone involved in the show has a lifelong passion for the kind of stuff we draw from, and although there are headaches involved in logistics and such, it’s always fun. More than that is Tim and Josh refusing to die. They always keep finding ways to get this thing aired, and when they haven’t, they’ve continued to crank out episodes with nowhere to air them. They just don’t quit.

Short: The president of Retro TV and Rev’n, [Joel Wertman], he’s an old record guy. I show him the one-minute sizzle reel to see what he thinks, and being an old record guy [snaps], the music immediately appealed to him. So, that was what really got the hook, because most times, when you’re trying to show people a video on the laptop, they’re like, “Eh. OK,” but he was actually really intrigued.

Sweeten: They’re [the Creepys] a huge part of our success — that punk rock just hits you right in the face. Somebody wrote an article about us, and that was one of the first things they noticed: that right off the bat, the music just draws you in, and you sit up in your chair, like, “What is this?”

While Drive-In Movie Maniacs began as a show set strictly in a haunted drive-in, once the show’s producers parted ways with their original home, they found themselves branching out in all kinds of ways to shoot more on-location material.

Zirkle: We’ve done a ton of fun stuff! True guerrilla film-making. I do recall donning a Haunted Creepy robe and walking in the Lenexa Independence Day parade — had to be 2016 — and my face hurt from smiling so much. (My face was obscured by the black hood, so no one could see.) Just being there, seeing the crowd react to us positively, was heartwarming.

Braxton: One of my favorite memories was when we filmed our big Super Bowl parody football game, entitled the Super Boo. It was set to air at the same time as the 2017 Super Bowl. Terrible Tim, the Rose, our team of wrestlers, and Stubby the ventriloquist dummy faced off against the Haunted Creepys football team. I’m not sure if legendary Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson would’ve been impressed by our football skills, but our Super Boo television special did win the American Television Broadcast Alliance’s award for “Best Promotional Campaign” at the annual Las Vegas awards ceremony in 2017.

Sweeten: We’re starting to get fans. I’m starting to get recognized — which is a strange thing to get used to. But, yeah — we’ll go to a Comicon and people will go, “Oh, my god! Terrible Tim, I didn’t know you were gonna be here,” and I’ll go, “Oh, cool! I’m in!”

Josh Reinhard, cameraman/editor/visual effects/whatever Tim doesn’t do: We make the public a part of what we do. That’s where getting kicked out of the drive-in helped us: it made us not stuck to one spot. That was one of the original ideas for the show — instead of people coming to the horror world, the horror world is coming to you. Don’t come to our world — our world is going to overtake your world.

As the Drive-In Movie Maniacs begin to overtake over the world via syndication, the new season will feature creations from Justin Howe and Just Puppets. The Frankenstein’s Monster and Bride of Frankenstein puppets — aka the Newlydeads, from Just Puppets’ monthly Radio Free Puppets show at the Buffalo Room — will lend commentary to the action unfolding onscreen during interstitial segments

Sweeten: I saw this guy with a Frankenstein puppet at Planet Comicon this year, and I was like, “Check out this shit. This is cool.” I could see this being on the show, because we’d used puppets in the past, but never really had true puppeteers. This season, we’re going to cut away to this Frankenstein-and-his-wife couple who will be commenting on our show. The Frank character’s going to be really in love with our show, and she’s going to be kind of like, “Eeehhhh …” She could kind of go without it.

In a much-publicized passing of the torch back in 2014, Roberta Solomon — aka Crematia Mortem — declared that Terrible Tim was now the official horror host of Kansas City, and as the show prepares for syndication, she’s doubled down on that statement.

Sweeten: Those local people are the ones who influenced me the most, because they were the ones who were making it here, doing it here, and that’s what I grew up loving. Yeah, Elvira’s great, and you had people like her and Joe Bob Briggs who were doing their stuff on cable, and obviously we’re influenced by that, too, but the local thing was really where it’s at for us. Everybody on the show was influenced by Crematia’s Creature Feature. Everybody watched Friday Fright Night.

Roberta Solomon, “Crematia Mortem”: Terrible Tim is an original, and he puts so much work into his show. I think it’s the reason [the show] is expanding now to a national audience, and I predict that the show will be around for a long, long time. I’m so excited about Drive-In Movie Maniacs’ expansion, and thrilled that Terrible Tim and his band of lunatics are about to be unleashed on a national audience! Aside from the fact that the show is just so fun, it’s a great way to showcase Kansas City in a strange new way. Just as Svengoolie’s show is a spotlight on Chicago, Terrible Tim will be a ghoulish cheerleader for Kansas City. I love that!

You can learn more about Drive-In Movie Maniacs and its schedule at the show’s website.

Categories: A&E