Mr. Mephisto. If you are at least 30 years old and lived in Madison between 1966 and 1982, this name is familiar to you -- especially if you were a horror-movie buff, insomniac or impressionable boy during those years. Mephisto was the host of Ferdie's Inferno and, later, Lenny's Inferno, during its run late Fridays on WMTV.
The Madison Horror Film Festival at the Orpheum Stage Door presents an opportunity to revisit those thrills and chills. Scheduled for noon-midnight on Saturday, October 25, the extravaganza will include a Q&A session featuring Dick Flanigan, who embodied Mr. Mephisto during the last 12 years of the show's Madison run.
Over coffee Wednesday morning, Flanigan explains that his involvement in the event came about because festival organizer Rich Peterson phoned him. "He grew up watching the Inferno," Flanigan says, "and he said in light of what this is all about, it made sense to have Mephisto there."
Indeed. The festival's focus on frightening independent films synchs well with the inventive low-budget approach taken by the Inferno and the entire phenomenon of late-night horror shows on television. "The whole idea behind doing the Inferno the way we did it was, it was fun," Flanigan explains. "If it wasn't fun I don't think we would have lasted as long as we did."
Born and raised in Rockford, Illinois, Flanigan came to Madison in 1967 when WMTV hired him as its art director. This was, he says, "like dying and going to heaven." Ferdie's Inferno had already been on the air for a couple of years by then, with program manager Jack Crowley as Mephisto. Sponsored by American TV, the show broadcast classic horror movies, vintage episodes of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits and other frightening fare. Mephisto presided over commercial breaks. Flanigan remembers Crowley as "crazy" but also "a good man." When he left the station, promotions manager Carl Ames succeeded him in the role of Mephisto. "One of the best on-air talents I ever saw," Flanigan says of Ames, "and one of the best writers." When Ames left WMTV circa 1969, Flanigan inherited Mephisto duties. It was, he recalls, "the path of least resistance."
By then, Ferd Mattioli's health was in decline, and his brother, Lenny, had come up from Chicago to run American TV. The company sponsored the show through 1982, at which point it went of the air here.
"It was almost all improv," Flanigan says of the format. "We didn't have any budget. Which was OK, fine, I understand the business end of it. So I tried to create the format where we had the most flexibility and I could surround myself with people who were more talented than I was. People who were very good at what they do, and they're crazy."
A glimpse of this can be seen in a montage of still photos from the show.
Among the most significant of these characters was John Sveum, who filled the role of the voice in the box that sat on Mephisto's desk. Sveum was to have appeared with him at the Q&A session at the festival, but Flanigan notes that a scheduling conflict has forced the voice in the box to withdraw.
"I brought John Sveum in from the beginning and created this idea of just a voice in the box," Flanigan recalls. "What that did was there's nothing you can't do with a box that has a voice, and there's always the mystery of just exactly is in there." The interplay between Mephisto and the voice in the box was among the Inferno's most memorable dynamics. The voice in the box also freed Sveum up to fill other roles. "Things just happened," remembers Flanigan, who calls Sveum "really gifted" in his ability to take on different characters who appeared on the show.
Now 72, retired and living in McFarland, Flanigan and his wife have two grown sons. Both are married. One lives in Minnesota, one in Philadelphia. Over the years, Flanigan has learned there are countless people in his sons' generation who grew up with the show, who stayed up past their bedtimes to watch, and are now adults.
It was a great ride, he allows. "When you have to supply content for 12 years, you go through the gamut," he observes. "We had serials, we had half-hour shows, hour shows, we had Twilight Zone, we had Outer Limits. I turned thumbs down on Doctor Who. That was the biggest mistake I ever made."
Maybe so, but this was offset by all the good decisions he made. None were better than lobbying the station and his sponsor for the Universal horror package that included the original Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, Dracula and other vintage classics. These were the movies Flanigan himself had grown up on.
"I remember being in a movie theater and seeing the coming attraction for Frankenstein," he says. "It was being re-run. I was born in '35, and this thing was being brought back. In those days, they used to do that, wait seven, eight years and bring it back. And I'd never heard of it. And I'm sitting in the theater and I'm looking at this and it scared the hell out of me. It really did."
The original King Kong was another classic that scared him. But one of the most effective horror movies of all, he says, was the original Thing from Another World. "I took a stopwatch," he remembers, "and in an 87-minute movie, that Thing was onscreen for less than three minutes, and yet they created this atmosphere and this tense buildup to confrontation using one of the oldest ploys in the world, a small group of people banded together where they can't get help, menaced by an overpowering force.
"I remember the first time I saw The Thing," he continues. "I was a freshman or sophomore in high school, and I went alone in the middle of winter. And I had to walk from a bus stop on an unlit street to get home, and it was edgy, it really was. That movie really got to me. But then you see it again and you like it just as much the second time."
Growing up on the old classics impressed upon him that the best movies start with good writing. A good director and good cast are also essential to a good movie, in his view. All the CGI in the world can't make up for any one of those three factors, he contends.
Describing himself as a cinephile with eclectic tastes, he says he is impatient with most contemporary slasher flicks that substitute gore and other fright-for-fright's-sake conventions instead of a compelling narrative arc. "You can't kill Mike Myers," he observes, "so why try? It's boring. Put the costume on 'em and the story is lousy and there's no direction, the movie isn't gonna go anywhere. It's inept."
He also tends to dismiss spinoffs, sequels and remakes as inadvisable, with little chance of equaling or surpassing the original movie, though he cites the latest Indiana Jones release as an exception to this rule. He is an admirer of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, as well as Hitchcock.
He also admires the inventiveness exhibited by independent filmmakers such as those whose work will be screened at the Madison Horror Film Festival. "Thanks to the technology today being what it is, it is possible for people to create their own films where it might not have been before," he observes. "And if the creative juices are flowing, I'm all for that, and I'll give you a reason why."
He pauses, calling to mind an anecdote from his Inferno days. "Boy, I sure wish I had this Inferno. We did an Inferno with Kentucky Fried Theater when they were just starting out. They came out and they just wanted to be on the show. There were a couple things they did that were hilarious. One of them, he was real thin and he took his shirt off and we had a turntable in the studio big enough for a car, because they used to do car commercials and they'd rotate them on this turntable. Well he went out on that turntable and he did a mime of a piece of bacon frying. And it was hilarious to watch the convolutions he went through, but I said we can add to that, because we had a kitchen set there, so I told our studio manager to start one of the stovetops and put a metal frying pan on that and as he's doing this pour some water on it and hang a mic over it and it sounded just like bacon frying when that water hit that hot pan. And he could hear it and he'd react to that and it was hilarious."
That was one of the shows that went unrecorded for the archives. "Who knew?" Flanigan asks. Every week was like that. You never knew what might happen. "We'd get ahold of something that Lenny would give us to destroy because Lenny loved that stuff and we enjoyed doing it. He loved watching pickaxes go through TV sets." Characters on the show would tear apart various stereo components, set fire to a turntable and cook eggs on them, brandish a big hocking knife, throw things at Mephisto.
Mephisto was an easy target. His face was white. Everything else was black: hair, soul patch, hat, cape. And there was that Mephisto snarl. "The thing about Mephisto that I always thought made people like him was that he treated everybody as if I am god, this is my domain, what I say goes, which was exactly wrong, because he wasn't," Flanigan observes. "There are people who throw pies and people that get hit. Mephisto never threw a pie. But he never once thought he wasn't the boss. And of course he was a doormat. You can't help but kind of like him. He's the biggest idiot you ever met in your life and they just abuse him, but he just kind of swings with it."