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An “At The Drive-In” Watchlist

Friday, October 2, 2020 | Savage Weekend


As the COVID-19 pandemic persists and audiences remain wary of returning to cinemas, drive-in theatres have made a comeback. Presenting everything from film screenings, to concerts to drag performances, drive-ins are being touted as the safe, socially distant entertainment alternative. But beware: donning a mask, locking your car doors and arming yourself with hand sanitizer might not save you from the horrors of the drive-in!  Here are some of horror’s most memorable drive-in moments and movies. Happy watching, and have a savage weekend!

TARGETS (Peter Bogdanovich, 1968)

Despite being a Roger Corman production, Targets treats the subject matter of gun violence seriously. An elderly actor, Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff), decides to retire because his fright flicks can no longer compete with the real-life horrors of contemporary America. Meanwhile, the young, clean-cut Vietnam veteran, Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly), murders his wife and parents before embarking on a sniper spree. Their separate paths intersect at the climax of Targets, set in the Reseda Drive-In Theatre. As Orlok’s final film is projected, Thompson takes aim through a hole in the screen and begins shooting at the audience. In a meta showdown, Orlok’s image on the screen and the real-life Orlok simultaneously confront Thompson. The aged Orlok improbably slaps the sniper into submission in a silly yet satisfying resolution. It is hard to watch the final drive-in sequence without thinking about recent mass shootings, especially 2012’s Aurora, Colorado cinema shooting. The social commentary of Targets is relevant today.

DRIVE-IN MASSACRE (Stu Segall, 1976)

It is a warm August night in rural California. A frisky heterosexual couple pulls into the local drive-in looking forward to some fun in the backseat. The movie starts, but before the boyfriend finishes adjusting the volume on the exterior speaker, he is decapitated by a sword-wielding serial killer who proceeds to stab his sweetheart in the throat! Talk about cock-blocking. Drive-In Massacre opens promisingly with this double murder and the title self-reflexively appearing on the marquee of the drive-in where the film takes place. But the best thing about this low budget B-movie is its abrupt ending. After 1 hr 13 mins of slow, stagnant scenes featuring inane dialogue, weak performances, and only a few deaths by the swordsman’s blade, Drive-In Massacre limps to a gimmicky grand finale. The killer is cornered in the projection booth but before he is captured, the film freezes, and a warning appears on-screen reading, “…The senseless bloodbath that gripped a California Drive-In has spread to other theatres throughout the country. Authorities say there are no clues to the killers identity and no end to the horror in sight. The killer could strike again. Anywhere–Anytime…Who will be next—?” while an audio announcement states, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the manger, do not panic. There is a murderer on the loose in the theatre…The police are on the way.” Rendered ineffective by at home viewing, this ending might at least have made William Castle smirk.

RUBY (Curtis Harrington, 1977)

A cautionary tale not for drive-in audiences, but for washed-up gangsters with side gigs as drive-in employees. Almost surpassing her over-the-top performance in Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976), Piper Laurie is the titular Ruby, an aging showgirl running Ruby’s Drive-In. Sixteen years ago, her gangster boyfriend was gunned down in front of her, sending her into labour. Her boyfriend’s four cronies were responsible and now work for Ruby at the theatre. Just because he’s dead doesn’t mean Ruby’s boyfriend can’t get even as he possesses their mute daughter to seek revenge. From hanging by film stock, to suffocation by soda machine, to impalement by exterior speaker pole, the payback murders are the most creative drive-in deaths on this list. Ripping off The Exorcist (1973) and blending the drive-in nostalgia of American Graffiti (1973) with elements of gothic romance and the gangster film, Ruby is all over the place. But the swamp-side drive-in showing Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958) is an eerie location worth mentioning.

CHRISTINE (John Carpenter, 1983)

In this Stephen King adaptation, the titular Christine is a supernatural 1950s Plymouth Fury and she’s “bad to the bone.” Nothing can come between her and her man, Arnie (Keith Gordon) – not even his new girlfriend, Leigh (Alexandra Paul). While Arnie and Leigh are on a date at a drive-in screening of Thank God It’s Friday (1978), Leigh complains about Arnie’s unhealthy obsession with his car and tauntingly slaps the upholstery. Christine doesn’t take kindly to this disrespectful behaviour from Arnie’s side chick and seeks revenge by choking her while blasting Robert & Johnny’s “We Belong Together” on the stereo. Be careful when chowing down on those concession hamburgers! Driven by the murderous car’s selection of rock-and-roll songs and Carpenter’s slick direction, Christine is a fun ride.

CHILLERAMA (Adam Green, Joe Lynch, Bear McCreary, Adam Rifkin, Tim Sullivan, 2011)

While the tagline for Chillerama misleadingly proclaims this anthology film to be “the ultimate midnight movie,” its main segment at least brings gore and zombies to the drive-in. Before the Kaufman Drive-In closes due to gentrification, its owner, Uncle Cecile (Richard Riehle) has programmed one final “Splatter Fest” of rare prints. Joe Lynch’s connecting segment, Zom-BMovie, opens the anthology with a man digging up the corpse of his wife for some “dead head,” only to discover she has turned into a zombie. She bites his testicles off, but he dutifully goes to work his shift at the drive-in anyway, leaking neon blue goo from his crotch. Over the course of the Chillerama marathon, the blue ooze gets into the popcorn butter, infecting the audience and turning them into sex-crazed zombies. While Fats Domino’s “My Blue Heaven” plays on the soundtrack, we are treated to eviscerations, castrations, and berry slushie coloured ejaculations in an undead orgy. As ridiculous as this sounds, the creators somehow manage to inject into the mix a monologue mourning the lack of movie-magic and the loss of drive-in culture in the age of on-demand video that is surprisingly poignant.

THE BEING (Jackie Kong, 1983)

In this sci-fi creature feature, radioactive waste from a nuclear dump site has created a mutant monster. It is hungry and hell-bent on ruining date night. During the screening of a monster movie at the local drive-in, a couple is getting hot and heavy in the front seat of a car. Toxic green slime seeps through the air vents, rudely interrupting the pair and announcing the arrival of the titular being. When the lumbering creature is mistaken for a bothersome drive-in employee dressed in a monster costume, a customer rolls down his window to complain. He should have minded his manners. The creature snatches him from his car and drags him away. Aside from this fun scene paying homage to the drive-in experience of the 50s, the rest of The Being is hackneyed and hokey.

TWISTER (Jan de Bont, 1996)

If gun-toting, sword-wielding assailants, possessed teens, killer cars, zombies or mutant monsters aren’t enough to scare you away from the drive-in, how about a natural disaster? That’s what strikes the Galaxy Drive-In during a dream “Night of Horrors” double bill of The Shining (1980) and Psycho (1960) in Twister’s best scene. Though Twister is not a horror film itself, horror fans will enjoy glimpsing some of the most iconic and terrifying images from The Shining on the drive-in screen throughout this sequence. The chosen fragments also help intensify the suspense of the impending storm, culminating in a tornado shredding the screen and tearing through the parking area, just as Jack hacks through the washroom door to get Wendy.

THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN (Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, 2014)

More metatextual movie madness at the drive-in! The Town That Dreaded Sundown isn’t a true remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976), itself based on real events, but a sequel of sorts that reinterprets and riffs on the original. In this version, Charles B. Pierce’s film not only exists, but is shown annually on Halloween at – you guessed it – the local drive-in. After a brief recap of the “Moonlight Murders” and the Phantom Killer’s grisly legacy, the film opens with an impressive 2 min 21 sec tracking shot showcasing the Twin Star Drive-In. While the recorded screams of Pierce’s film are audible, the camera moves up from behind the screen, swoops overhead and descends into the parking area below. Exploring the location, the camera smoothly glides between cars and dodges religious zealots protesting the screening. As it roves past the projector and a teenage couple making out, you can almost smell the spilled beer and popcorn. Disappointingly, this drive-in does not prove deadly as the killings occur elsewhere.

DEAD END DRIVE-IN (Brian Trenchard-Smith, 1986)

What if the drive-in wasn’t just an entertainment venue or a place for horny teens to hook up? What if it was an internment camp for delinquent youth? That’s the concept for Brian TrenchardSmith’s Ozploitation film set in a not-so-distant dystopian future. The graffiti covered Star Drive-In is the end of the road for Crabs (Ned Manning) and his girlfriend when cops steal two tires off his Chevy on date night. The full scope of the drive-in’s purpose is only revealed when the sun comes up and the couple realize they are trapped with other undesirable citizens until the government organizes transportation and figures out what to do with them. In the meantime, they are offered blankets, meal tickets that can be used to buy concession junk food or birth control, $30 dollars a week and schlock on the screen every night. More of an action-adventure film lacking both, Dead End Drive-In earns points for its new wave soundtrack, outrageous costumes and art direction. The drive-in denizens make the most of junk lying around the parking area, creating a “Club-Med” for “Trash Only” complete with a pool and lawn chairs, a beauty salon and a bar. Trenchard-Smith also sneaks some political commentary into the film, criticizing the apathy of comfortably numb youth while critiquing racism. When a truckload of Asian refugees arrives at the drive-in, the rest of the predominantly white detainees react unfavourably.

THE PIANO TEACHER (Michael Haneke, 2001)

Though not explicitly horror, The Piano Teacher is at times more frightening than any film on this list and contains a disturbing drive-in scene. Isabelle Huppert is at her tormented best as the frigid, masochistic piano teacher, Erika Kohut and deservedly won the Best Actress award at Cannes for her brave performance. Living with her overbearing mother, Erika has little love or passion in her rigidly controlled life. She engages in ritualistic acts of self-harm and secretly visits the booths at a sex shop to watch pornography, sniffing semen-encrusted tissues discarded by previous users. She also goes to the drive-in alone, but not to see The Skulls (2000) or Frequency (2000) as advertised on the wall of the theatre. Searching for copulating couples to spy on, she prowls in-between parked vehicles. As light from the screen flickers, Erika finds what she is looking for. She crouches beside a car and hikes up her skirt. With tears running down her cheeks, she excitedly expels a stream of urine while the couple reaches climax. Haunting and heartbreaking, The Piano Teacher is a masterpiece.

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