Friday, August 19, 2016

THE SLIFR GUIDE TO DRIVE-IN MOVIES PART 3: OZONERS ON THE BIG SCREEN




(This piece originally appeared as part of a larger primer on drive-in movies that was originally published online at Green Cine Daily on June 23, 2008 and is reprinted here, with updates and revisions, with the permission of the site administrators.)

Finally, in part 3 of the SLIFR Guide to Drive-in Movies, here are 11 moments, in alphabetical order, when the drive-in movie theater appeared memorably on screen in movies that, either momentarily or entirely, took place within the great lots of American (and in one case Australian) outdoor cinemas

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Blue Thunder (1983) One key sequence in this thriller about a high-tech urban surveillance helicopter is staged (during the daylight hours) at the Pickwick Drive-in in Burbank, California, which was razed in 1990. The Pickwick, due to its proximity to the local movie studios, hosted many movie premieres, most famously that of Blazing Saddles in 1974, for which everyone in attendance was on horseback.


Brokeback Mountain (2005) In one scene after his return from Brokeback Mountain, Ennis (Heath Ledger) takes his wife Alma (Michelle Williams) on a date to a drive-in movie theater, which is lovingly (if briefly) recreated in the film. And it’s a very effective moment of movie magic too—the scene wasn’t filmed at a drive-in at all, but instead a converted softball field in Alberta, Canada.


Cars (2006) During the end credits, the cars are shown at the drive-in cinema enjoying parodies of earlier Pixar productions recast with cars in the main roles: Toy Car Story, Monster Trucks, Inc. and A (VW) Bug's Life.


Dead-end Drive-in (1986) A post-Mad Max Australian thriller in which a young man takes his girlfriend to a date at a drive-in movie only to discover it's been converted into a prison camp for murderous gangs. A cautionary bit of social satire that will make your own drive-in having been appropriated as a daytime flea market seem a whole lot less annoying.


Drive-in (1976) Director Rod Amateau's American Graffiti-inspired comedy isn't a particularly great movie, but it does takes place entirely at a Texas drive-in movie theater and as such serves as a nifty piece of small-town ozoner anthropology. You can read my review of the picture right here.


Explorers (1985) My all-time favorite drive-in movie-within-a-movie takes place in this sharp Joe Dante picture. Our young heroes, flying around their town in a makeshift spaceship crafted from an old Tilt-a-Whirl car, buzz the local drive-in on a Saturday night. The recreation of the drive-in movie ambience is brilliant, and we're treated to a hilarious dubbed-English Star Crash-type sci-fi parody playing on the screen as the homemade spacecraft wreaks havoc on the tower and in the snack bar.


Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-in (2014) Director April Wright’s energetic, thoughtful passion project defies simple nostalgia in its scope and is, precisely as advertised, the one movie to see that encompasses the history and unique experience of the drive-in movie. Wright interviewed me for the movie during the summer of 2006, and the changing fortune of drive-ins between the summer of that interview and the year the movie was released prompted the director to shift her emphasis from the demise of an institution to its unexpected resurgence. Stick around— during the movie I get to tell my favorite story about attending a drive-in triple feature during a January snowstorm!


Grease (1978) One musical sequence in the uber-popular Robert Stigwood adaptation of the musical stage comedy features T-Bird Danny Zuko (John Travolta) stranded at the drive-in after getting a mite too fresh with Sandy (Olivia Newton-John). He sings a heartfelt ballad to her while cheery hot dogs and refreshment cups dance and prance on the giant screen behind him. When mainstream audiences of a certain age get nostalgic for the experience of their drive-in movie past, this is usually their go-to fix.


Hollywood Boulevard (1976) Candice Rialson's, Dick Miller, and her screenwriter boyfriend, Jeffrey Kramer,  get liquored up for the drive-in premiere of her first low-budget movie, with very mixed results, in this authentically grungy drive-in sequence directed by Joe Dante and Allan Arkush. This is what going to the drive-in in the ‘70s felt like, except maybe for the part about getting assaulted in the projection booth.


Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1986) The long-gone Studio Drive-in in Culver City, California plays host to the world premiere of the only slightly altered big-screen version of Pee-wee's adventures on his beloved bike in this hilarious sequence from Tim Burton's classic comedy.


Targets (1968) Peter Bogdanovich's first movie, a disturbing thriller inspired by the Texas Tower sniper Charles Whitman, features Boris Karloff as aging horror star Byron Orlok preparing to make an appearance at a drive-in movie theater where the Whitmanesque assassin will soon begin picking off innocent targets. The theater featured in the movie was the Reseda Drive-in. Once located on Reseda Boulevard at Vanowen Street, it closed in 1985 and has since been demolished.

FOR FURTHER RESEARCH AND READING:

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PART 1 of this series can be accessed here.

PART 2 of this series can be accessed here.

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THE SLIFR GUIDE TO DRIVE-IN MOVIES PART 2: AIP AND 13 NOTABLE DRIVE-IN MAESTROS



(This piece originally appeared as part of a larger primer on drive-in movies that was originally published online at Green Cine Daily on June 23, 2008 and is reprinted here, with updates and revisions, with the permission of the site administrators.)

Of all the companies that produced pictures primarily for the drive-in market, none did so with as much brio or thrived because of that market with quite the tenacity and bravado of American International Pictures. Founded by former film salesman James H. Nicholson and an entertainment lawyer by the name of Samuel Z. Arkoff, AIP dedicated itself to providing inexpensive exploitation fare of interest primarily to the teenagers who populated drive-ins in the '50s, '60s and the early part of the '70s.


Some of the key early personnel at American International Pictures responsible for helping to develop the company's signatures of lurid content and creative thrift were producer and director Roger Corman and writers Charles B. Griffith, Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont. Cinematographer Floyd Crosby, who shot High Noon, added the vivid, sometimes garish and exciting look of many of American International Pictures hits, often working in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio that lent an extra patina of style to the stories of bikers, beach parties and monsters on the loose that made up the AIP menu. And more often than not the movies were graced by the scores of jazz composer Les Baxter.

In an attempt to keep their finger on the pulse of that teenage market, Arkoff and AIP were at the forefront of some pioneering seat-of-the pants marketing strategies. They would frequently poll exhibitors (some of whom were among those who provided the financing for AIP's low-budget slate of pictures) as to the appeal of certain titles of pictures that had yet to be made. If the reaction was lukewarm, the title would be scrapped. But if exhibitors liked the sound of a particular title, Arkoff would then commission a script from a writer, having no idea what the actual story would be.



In this same vein, AIP was the first film company to use focus groups to determine what their teenage audience was interested in, what stories, stars and titles they would pay to see. A typical production schedule on an AIP film might start with the origin of the title, followed by a typically lurid and exciting poster designed by resident art director Albert Kallis, who supervised the AIP art department from 1955 to 1973. The poster was used to raise the cash to make the movie, which only then would be written and finally cast.

Based on this philosophy derived from insistently polling their teen audiences, Arkoff developed a fairly keen showman's sense of what his audience wanted and expected from an American International Picture. After producing a prodigious slate of low-budget thrillers and horror movies in the late '50s, the company hit its stride in three genres that virtually defined the teen movie of the '60s - the "Beach Party" films starring Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon;; the Roger Corman "Poe Cycle," a series of lavish adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories which often had only the title in common with their literary source; and a wildly popular, and to some extent culture-defining spate of biker pictures, beginning with Corman's The Wild Angels in 1966, an antiheroic genre which then gave rise to a slate of psychedelic head movies like The Trip, Wild in the Streets and Psych-Out.



Without the foundation laid by these pictures, there likely would have been no Easy Rider, a non-AIP biker film starring AIP favorite Peter Fonda which adapted the biker formula to a more open-ended narrative template that incorporated more casual drug use, and even drug trafficking, and in the process became one of the major catalysts for changing the way commercial films were financed and made in America in the early 1970s. American International Pictures also provided the distribution for many of the Toho Godzilla movies of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as numerous other Japanese science fiction films like Frankenstein Conquers the World,  Destroy All Monsters! and Yog! Monster from Space. Throw a rock during the 1960s and 1970s and you would likely hit a drive-in playing one of these AIP releases.


A BAKER'S DOZEN OF NOTABLE DRIVE-IN DIRECTORS

American International Pictures was crucial to the popularity of drive-ins during this time, to be sure, but it was not the only force to be reckoned with. RKO Pictures, Embassy Pictures, Allied Artists and even Universal Pictures cast an eye toward the teenage drive-in market too, as well as countless other companies and independent producers, all financing hundreds of B-movie westerns, sci-fi thrillers, monster movies and cheap crime dramas to be displayed at ozoners under the stars all across the country. And within this wide-ranging drive-in "genre," for those who were watching closely, a few names kept popping up as the words "Directed by" flew by in a drive-in movie's opening credits.

They populated outdoor screens with their singular exploitation grandeur during the heyday of the '50s and '60s all the way through the leaner times of the '70s, and in some cases right up through the near-extinction of the drive-in in the '80s and '90s. Here's a brief baker's dozen list of great-- okay, some not so great. Let's just say, here's a brief list of 13 notable drive-in directors and some of the highlights of their prolific and sometimes disreputable careers.



AL ADAMSON Adamson founded Independent-International Pictures in the early 1960s, a company he used to distribute many of the pictures he directed (cobbled together) himself. He gained a reputation as a go-for-broke, inept filmmaker of little taste, and though he never directed anything close to a classic, the movies Adamson made were staples of the drive-in scene. Some of his most well-known horror titles include Psycho-A-Go-Go (1965), Horror of the Blood Monsters (1970) and the famously awful Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971), though he also dipped into blaxploitation with The Dynamite Brothers (1974), Black Heat (1976) and Black Samurai (1977) starring genre icon Jim Kelly; biker movies with Satan's Sadists (1969); and the female service-worker sub-genres with The Naughty Stewardesses (1975) and The Possession of Nurse Sherri (1975).


JACK ARNOLD Though he was a frequent presence in TV, Arnold's reputation as a drive-in director of major import was cemented by five era-defining sci-fi creature films released by Universal: It Came from Outer Space (1953), one of the seminal sci-fi paranoia thrillers, originally presented in 3-D (though not at drive-ins); the original Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954; also presented in 3-D) and its first sequel, Revenge of the Creature (1955); the spectacular giant-spider-on-the-loose horror of Tarantula; and perhaps his best film, the existentially eerie The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), based on Richard Matheson's screenplay. Other Arnold drive-in classics include the essential High School Confidential (1958) starring Russ Tamblyn, Mamie van Doren and Jerry Lee Lewis,, the forgettable Monster on the Campus (1958), and the moody and terrific Audie Murphy western No Name on the Bullet (1959). Arnold also directed the early Peter Sellers comedy The Mouse That Roared (1959). After a decade and a half of almost exclusive work for TV, Arnold took one more stab at the drive-in market with 1975's Boss Nigger, a blaxploitation western written by Fred Williamson, starring Williamson, D'Urville Martin and William Smith. And today Arnold’s reputation is enjoying yet another upswing, with many cinephiles classifying his work, in a category coined by critic Andrew Sarris in his seminal book The American Cinema, as a “subject for further consideration.”


PAUL BARTEL As an actor, Paul Bartel racked up nearly 100 different appearances in roles big and small on TV and in movies like Piranha (1978), Hollywood Boulevard (1976) and Rick and Roll High School (1979). The very recognizable Brooklyn-born director made his feature debut as a filmmaker in 1972 with Private Parts, a downright weird horror comedy that would set the tone for much of his career. But if Private Parts set the tone, his next release cemented his status in the drive-in firmament. Death Race 200 (1975), directed for Roger Corman's New World Pictures, was a smash hit in drive-ins and walk-ins and has remained one of the quintessential drive-in B-movies ever made. Bartel made one more picture for Corman and the drive-in crowd, Cannonball, a blatant knock-off of Death Race 2000 (and competitor on the nation's screens that summer with a similarly themed action comedy, The Gumball Rally), before taking a six-year break from directing. He came back in 1982, however, with Eating Raoul, another black comedy that was a sizable hit and put him on the art house map. The movies he subsequently made before his death in 2000, especially Lust in the Dust (1984), starring Divine and Tab Hunter, belied the fact that the drive-in never left his soul.


LARRY COHEN A prolific TV writer throughout the '60s, Cohen made his caustic, hard-edged debut as a director with the satirical Bone (1972) starring Yaphet Kotto. Cohen's gritty grindhouse sensibility flourished in urban centers and drive-ins alike, and it informed his subsequent blaxploitation features, the unusually observant and socially conscious Black Caesar (1973) and its rather less successful sequel Hell Up in Harlem (1973). (Cohen tried reviving the genre with stalwarts Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Pam Grier, Ron O'Neal and Richard Roundtree, with decidedly mixed results, in 1996's Original Gangstas.) But if Cohen's brutal, paranoid trilogy of killer-baby movies, It's Alive (1974), It Lives Again (1978) and the direct-to-video It's Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987) were his highest-profile pictures, they never defined his boundaries within the world of genre filmmaking. Cohen remained true to his exploitation roots with such oddities as the horror comedy Full Moon High (1981), the flying Aztec creature epic Q: The Winged Serpent (1982), which many consider a genre masterpiece, and even the anti-corporate horror satire The Stuff, about the carnage left in the wake of the unleashing of a killer frozen dessert. But perhaps Cohen's most legendary movies are The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977), an irreverent tabloid biopic starring Broderick Crawford in the title role, and most especially 1974's brutal theologically tinged psychological drama God Told Me To (1976), in which Cohen uses the narrative of a series of apparently motiveless murders to contemplate, of all things, the existence of God and the validity of religious belief. Cohen's movies are nothing if not prime examples of how exploitation films can move beyond their own ragged standards and sometimes achieve pulp poetry.


ROGER CORMAN Roger Corman helped to define the drive-in movie at American International Pictures and was one of the most prolific directors of B movies during the drive-in's most popular era. Sci-fi/horror concoctions like The Day the World Ended (1955), It Conquered the World (1956), Not of This Earth (1957) and Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957) are signature examples from the genre that he directed. However, Corman never restricted himself to one genre-- he made westerns (Gunslinger, 1956), teen dramas (Rock All Night, 1956), adventures (The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent, 1957), mobster thrillers (Machine Gun Kelly, 1958) and even movies about the troubled lives of teenage cavemen (Teenage Caveman, 1958). He enjoyed a big hit with his 1959 satire on the pretensions of the bohemian art crowd, Bucket of Blood, starring a young hepcat named Dick Miller as Walter Paisley, a struggling artist who murders women and turns their corpses into critically acclaimed sculptures, and followed soon after with another outrageous horror satire, The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) featuring a then-unknown Jack Nicholson in a cameo appearance.

But it was in that same year of 1960 that Corman unleashed the first in what was to become a series of luridly vivid adaptations of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, or more accurately the adaptation of the titles of works by Edgar Allan Poe. The plots of the films themselves often had very little to do with their literary sources, but they were huge successes nonetheless and showed as often on indoor screens as they did at drive-ins. The Poe films, all shot and released in the span of four years, included The Fall of the House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Premature Burial (1962), Tales of Terror (1962), Tower of London (1963), The Haunted Palace (1963), The Raven (1963), The Masque of the Red Death (1964) (with gorgeous cinematography by Nicolas Roeg) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964). These films were all formally brilliant, sometimes claustrophobic, always stunning tributes to Corman's ability to wring as much atmosphere and emotion as possible out of the miniscule budget of every project. Corman also popularized the biker genre (The Wild Angels, 1966), the psychedelic drama (The Trip, 1967) and the post-Bonnie and Clyde gangster cheapie (Bloody Mama, 1970) before retiring from directing in 1971. He officially returned to the director's chair for 1990's Frankenstein Unbound, but by then his legacy of drive-in cinema, including the movies he produced under the aegis of his New World Pictures in the '70s and '80s, was already secured. Corman, often referred to as the King of the Bs, surely ranks as drive-in royalty as well.



MICHAEL and ROBERTA FINDLAY This husband-and-wife team of exploitation filmmakers are known mainly for their effectively sleazy and notorious Flesh trilogy-- The Touch of Her Flesh (1967), The Curse of Her Flesh (1968) and The Kiss of Her Flesh (1970). But even more notorious was The Slaughter, a low-budget horror cheapie shot in Argentina inspired by the Manson murders which, at the time of the film's shooting, were only about a year in the past. The Slaughter sat on the shelf for several years until it was purchased by producer Allan Shackelton, who tacked on a controversial new ending which showed one of the actresses allegedly being murdered on screen for real. The "new" movie was called Snuff and inspired a long-lasting debate over the supposed existence of actual snuff films in the pornographic underground. The Findlays have never been mistaken for artists, but their contribution to the drive-in culture of exploitation with these films is undeniable. Michael also directed the memorably trashy Yeti horror flick Shriek of the Mutilated (1974).



BERT I. GORDON Indefatigable, amiable and uninspired in equal measure, Bert I. Gordon is perhaps the quintessential giant-monster filmmaker of the drive-in era. (His initials, which allowed for the nickname Mr. BIG, suggest that he was born to this fate.) Gordon was another frequent contributor to the American International Pictures slate of drive-in classics, and though they do exist there is hardly a film in his oeuvre that does not feature an oversized creature of some sort: King Dinosaur (1955; giant dinosaurs); Beginning of the End (1957; giant grasshoppers); The Cyclops (1957; 25-foot cyclops); The Amazing Colossal Man (1957; 70-foot mutant man); War of the Colossal Beast (1958; return of the 70-foot mutant man); Earth vs. the Spider (1958; giant spider); and Village of the Giants (1965; giant teenaged punks). Giants, featuring one outlandish special effects sequence after another, is inarguably Gordon's best movie, featuring as it does Beau Bridges as one of the teenaged colossal beats, er, beasts. After a break of over 10 years from the giant creature genre, Gordon stormed back with two in-name-only H.G. Wells adaptations, The Food of the Gods (1976; giant rats, chickens and assorted other barnyard mutations) and Empire of the Ants (1977; giant ants). Scholars have yet to adequately explain the thematic aberration of Gordon's career, Attack of the Puppet People (1958), in which the main characters are shrunken to the size of dolls. The only reasonable rationale is that by going the opposite way and minimizing his leads, Gordon could then perversely lavish special-effects attention on the now-giant dogs and household insects that occasionally provide the element of menace in the film. In this regard, Gordon's reputation as the Mr. BIG of drive-in cinema remains untarnished.



H.B. HALICKI It is often said of some of the great innovators and artists and showmen of the movies that if, out of all their great contributions, they'd only just made movie "X" or movie "Y," that would have been enough to ensure their position in the pantheon. This seems certainly literally true for auto salvage magnate-turned-stuntman-filmmaker H.B. Halicki, whose sole contribution to the drive-in cinema of the '70s was his independently financed and distributed car-chase classic Gone in 60 Seconds (1974). The plot of the movie is mere window dressing for its main sequence, a wild, realistic chase around the Long Beach-South Bay area of Southern California that serves now, on top of the genuine thrills to be found in the action choreography, as a virtual time capsule of the city as it was nearly 35 years ago. The movie was successfully marketed as featuring the longest car chase ever filmed, and on that count it does not disappoint; it is action cinema purely unadorned by style, the demolition derby as primitive art. Halicki struggled to finance other pictures but produced only two other features, an action-comedy called The Junkman (1982) and Deadline Auto Theft (1983), featuring another near-hour-long car chase. Tragically, it was on the set of Gone in 60 Seconds 2 that Halicki suffered a fatal accident, crushed by a telephone pole during an elaborate stunt sequence. Gone in 60 Seconds was left in the dust by many superior car chase movies before and since which boasted good stories to go along with their great stunt work, but the exuberance and relentlessness of Halicki's masterful hour-long sequence of mayhem cannot be denied. It is rightfully recognized as a high-water mark of action choreography, the centerpiece of a movie that also pioneered a model of independent production and distribution that would soon become one of the rules of the game.



JACK HILL Drive-in stylist Jack Hill began life in the cinema doing assistant directing work (often uncredited) on Roger Corman films like The Wasp Woman and The Terror, but he soon found his own name on the director's chair. His first film and first notable success was Spider Baby (1964), an oddity about a family of misfit siblings headed by a young woman who believes she is a deadly arachnid. Though shot in 1964, Spider Baby finally saw the dim light of drive-in screens in 1968 as the anchor feature of countless drive-in double features, but was rediscovered on video in the '80s as a minor classic of psychological horror. Hill toiled in undistinguished exploitation fare, shooting American scenes for foreign shockers like Isle of the Living Dead (1971) and The Incredible Invasion (1971). But his breakthrough came again courtesy of Corman, who commissioned and distributed his drive-in prison classics The Big Doll House (1971), starring Pam Grier in one of her earliest roles, and The Big Bird Cage (1972), again starring Grier and '70s drive-in icon Sid Haig. Hill and Grier would be reunited for the director's highest profile hits, the blaxploitation classics Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), which would make Grier a star of drive-in cinema and the fantasy object of young men of a certain age, black as well as white, yellow, red and brown. Hill continued his drive-in roll with The Swinging Cheerleaders (1974), one of the earliest entries in that stalwart drive-in genre, the randy cheerleader movie, and another satiric celebration of the violent tendencies of a band of babes, this particular group known as the Switchblade Sisters (1975). It's hard to imagine that drive-ins in the 1970s would have been anything but far duller places were it not for the exuberant, slightly cracked cinema of Jack Hill.


JONATHAN KAPLAN A film student with degrees from the University of Chicago and New York University, Jonathan Kaplan has directed two actresses to award nominations-- Michelle Pfeiffer was up for a best actress Oscar for Love Field, and Bonnie Bedelia took her role as race car driver Shirley Muldowney to the Golden Globes where she was nominated for best actress in Heart Like a Wheel. But one actress on Kaplan's watch actually won a statue-- Jodie Foster claimed her first Academy Award starring in Kaplan's 1988 film The Accused. By the time of The Accused, Kaplan had established himself as a go-to director in the Hollywood establishment. But in the '70s he made a mark for himself as the director of some memorable and distinctive hits for the exploitation market. He was recruited by Roger Corman in the early '70s straight out of NYU to helm Night Call Nurses (1972), one of the earliest and zestiest romps of its sort, which led to Kaplan reteaming with Corman for another similar venture, The Student Teachers (1973), in which the stuffy world of academia gets aired out a bit by the lovely likes of Brenda Sutton, Brooke Mills and Susan Damante. Kaplan can also be seen romping with Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov et al in Hollywood Boulevard (1976), which co-director Joe Dante describes as a home movie about what it was like working at New World Pictures and making movies like Night Call Nurses and The Student Teachers. But Kaplan truly made his drive-in bones with Truck Turner (1974), a brutally energized blaxploitation thriller also starring Yaphet Kotto and Nichelle Nichols that takes full advantage of Isaac Hayes' stone-cold cool visage as an actor for the very first time, and most especially White Line Fever (1975). Fever featured Jan-Michael Vincent in a trucker's revenge plot that had the good fortune to land smack dab in the midst of the CB radio craze of the '70s, which helped propel the movie to huge box-office fortune. It was a hit indoors and outdoors, but having seen it at the drive-in, I can attest to its natural appeal as a classic for theaters built around vehicles of all kinds, a very lean and muscular example of the drive-in action template to which many aspired but so few achieved as fully as Kaplan did with this picture.


TED V. MIKELS One of the original drive-in exploitation directors, profiled in a documentary entitled The Wild World of Ted V. Mikels,, Mikels introduced elements of camp and outrageous behavior to movies that were, by the stretch of most imaginations, far less vivid and sensational than the way they were advertised. Thought of in some circles as the William Castle of drive-in and exploitation fare, Mikels rarely showed the imagination of Castle but was just as insistent a promoter of his own films. He is said to have pioneered gimmicks such as having "nurses" and "physicians" on call at the theater should anyone have heart trouble or otherwise come close to being scared to death; signing certificates acknowledging the non-responsibility of theater owners should the patron go into convulsive fits of fear; and the availability of vomit bags for the more sensitive stomachs in the theater. And Mikel's slate of drive-in fare, well familiar from its ubiquity on the movie pages of '70s newspapers, promised plenty of gore, which it sometimes delivered in such titles as The Corpse Grinders (1971; perhaps Mikels' biggest hit), Blood Orgy of the She Devils (1974) and his seminal cheapie The Astro-Zombies (1969) featuring John Carradine and Tura Satana. Mikels produced mostly horror films (and still does - he finished sequels to The Corpse Grinders and The Astro-Zombies in 2000 and 2002, respectively), though he dabbled in women's action films with some success as well; his biker babe epic Girl in Gold Boots and the straightforward actioner The Doll Squad (1973) are probably more generally well-regarded than any of his horror efforts. But it is those movies, and Mikels's own oddball personality, that accounts for his place in the drive-in directors' hall of fame


JACK STARRETT Mention Jack Starrett's name to even a die-hard drive-in or grindhouse movie fan and you're likely to get a blank stare back for your enthusiasm. His is not the most well-known name when it comes to notable directors of the period. But a glance over his credits is all it takes to realize that Jack Starrett truly deserves another look. He took part in the first surge of biker pictures, acting in such titles as Richard Rush's Hells Angels on Wheels (1967), Tom Laughlin's Born Losers (1970; the first Billy Jack movie) and Al Adamson's Hell's Bloody Devils (1970), as well as directing Run, Angel, Run (1969), starring drive-in icons William Smith and Margaret Markov, and the absurd (even for drive-in standards) The Losers (1970), in which Smith and a group of bikers infiltrate Cambodia to rescue a downed CIA operative! But Starrett came into his own with Jim Brown's initial blaxploitation effort, Slaughter (1972) and the wild, Pam Grier-influenced Cleopatra Jones (1973) in which statuesque stunner Tamara Dobson matches wits with a psychopathic Shelley Winters.


But Starrett came up with one for the ages in 1975 when he teamed Warren Oates and Peter Fonda in a mix of car chase action and satanic horror with the all-time drive-in classic Race with the Devil, a huge box-office success at the time and one of the drive-in hits to reveal itself as every bit as punchy and terrific today as it was back in 1975. Starrett also directed the well-mounted suspense piece A Small Town in Texas (1976) starring Susan George and Timothy Bottoms, and ushered out the first wave of Buford Pusser exploitation with the second sequel Final Chapter: Walking Tall (1977). Finally, Starrett was also well known as a character actor in the '70s and '80s, even after he retired from directing in the late '70s. Among his most memorable roles is his turn in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles  (1974), credited as Claude Ennis Starrett, Jr. Starett played Gabby Johnson, the hilariously incoherent parody of Gabby Hayes, whose desperate attempts to warn the citizens of Rock Ridge of the ethnicity of the new sheriff approaching on horseback is continually drowned out by the pealing of the town's welcome bell. Rrrrowrrrrght!


RAY DENNIS STECKLER Better at self-promotion than he probably ever was at directing, Ray Dennis Steckler nonetheless came up with some of the most memorable drive-in movie titles in history-- Goof on the Loose (1964), The Thrill Killers (1964), The Adventures of Rat Pfink and Boo-Boo(1965) and The Mad Love of a Hot Vampire (1971) all suggest, in varying degrees, the anti-academic sensibility at work in Steckler's pictures. But his most famous motion picture is a true wonder, a genre-busting, undeniably brilliant (on some sick level), well-paced and entertaining one-of-a-kind creation, accurately described as the first monster movie musical-- The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-up Zombies (1964), starring Steckler himself (as Cash Flagg) and partially shot by soon-to-be-celebrated cinematographers Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovacs. Zombies is one of those movies that is best left as meagerly described as possible, the better to preserve its eye-popping, ultra-cheap scenario, from which Steckler wrings genuine energy and laughs even if you're not always entirely convinced he knows how absurd it all is. In fact, Steckler's sincerity, not unlike that of Edward D. Wood, Jr., the patron saint of impoverished cinema, is what ultimately sells Zombies, a quality he would be hard-pressed to duplicate over the course of his career.

(NEXT: In the concluding installment of the SLIFR Guide to the Drive-in Movie, we run down 11 memorable appearances of drive-ins in the movies, plus a short guide to further reading about this great American movie-going institution.)

(PART 1 of this series can be accessed here.)

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THE SLIFR GUIDE TO DRIVE-IN MOVIES PART 1: A BRIEF HISTORY



It might seem that celebrating the drive-in movie season during the dog days of August is a celebration that is coming about two, maybe three months too late. Isn’t summer just about wrapped up? Ha! Only if you’re in still in grade school—my kids went back to their respective halls of education on August 8! For them summer, in a single but significant way, is over. But for everyone else (including students), especially if you’re in the southwestern part of the country, the hot days of summer aren’t giving way to cool temperatures anytime soon, regardless of the insistence of the calendar. In Southern California, climate change has made summer-style heat a staple well into October, and sometimes beyond. Here it’s always drive-in season, even in January, and that’s the silver lining of a sizzling autumn for fans of the specific joys of outdoor cinema.

And each year around this time, a big bunch of my friends and I get together at one of SoCal’s primo ozoner destinations, the Mission Tiki Drive-in, to salute the demise of another calendar summer in high tailgating, starlit movie style. (If you’re in the Los Angeles area and would like to join us, check out our official Facebook event page and come on out! It’s happening tomorrow night, Saturday, August 20!)

In honor of our drive-in party weekend, and in honor of this being the 83rd summer since the first drive-in was opened, I thought it might be fun to revisit the history of the drive-in movie theater and celebrate some of the reasons why, despite a sharp decline in the drive-in theater population in the last couple decades, the drive-in is still with us, even enjoying a most unlikely renaissance.

It was eight years ago that I was commissioned by the now-defunct Green Cine Daily, a wonderful aggregator site dedicated to corralling the Internet’s best writing on film which went dark in 2015, to create what they called “a drive-in primer,” a guide to the progression of drive-ins and drive-in culture throughout the 20th century.  It was a fun article to write, especially since I never thought that I’d be writing anything about drive-ins in 2008 that wasn't dedicated exclusively to their inevitable demise, which by then I would naturally have assumed would be an event long seen only in the rear-view mirror. By the time I published the article for Green Cine Daily, I’d been writing about the resurgence in Southern California drive-ins at my own blog for about three years, ever since I and several like-minded fanatics founded the Southern California Drive-in Movie Society during the summer of 2005. (SoCalDIMS has been dormant for a couple of seasons now, but we still maintain a very active Facebook presence.)

Eight summers have passed since I did my little investigation into this distinctive, but not exclusively American phenomenon, and since the original article is no longer accessible through Green Cine Daily I have obtained their permission to spruce it up a bit and reshare it with you, for this weekend and beyond. (Though it was originally one long piece, it is presented here in three parts—parts two and three to follow on Saturday and Sunday.) Many thanks go out to Jonathan Marlow for securing the permission to reprint the piece here, and especially to David Hudson, who so kindly featured many of my earliest articles at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule on the pages of GCD, thus ensuring me a much larger audience than I would have ever gained on my own, and to OG GCD editor Craig Phillips, who was the fella who asked me to write the piece for them. I hope you enjoy it and that it inspires you to seek out a drive-in near you, especially if you haven’t done so in a while.

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(Photo courtesy of Jen Kipp Sherer)

During the summer of 2000, my newborn daughter went to her first movie. My wife and I took her to the Foothill Drive-in, along fabled Route 66 in Azusa, California, to see that revered children's classic Mission: Impossible 2. All right, she was three months old and she slept through most of it-- so did my wife, truth be told. But regardless of what was actually playing, being there at the drive-in with my first daughter was a moment of bittersweet significance for me. I finally had a child of my own, who I hoped would grow up with an appreciation of the movies, and yet it seemed entirely likely she would never know the kind of fun to be enjoyed at a drive-in movie.

I walked her around the Foothill's near-empty lot and told her stories about the drive-in movie theaters of my past-- how I worked on the snack bar and clean-up staff of my hometown passion pit; how being friends with the son of the theater owner got me on to the crew for the drive-in's annual 4th of July fireworks show; and how movies weren't necessarily better at a drive-in-- in fact, the projection and sound were usually a downgrade from what you could see and hear at an indoor theater-- but they were always special, and often somehow more memorable for having been taken in under the stars.

I carried my daughter around the lot, and we eventually approached one of those old-style speaker posts, which still had the speakers attached even though the Foothill was now sporting FM radio sound originating from a low-wattage transmitter in the projection booth. That speaker pole was now a totem to memories left in the wake of technological advancement. Gone were the days of bouncing from parking spot to parking spot in search of the one speaker whose sound didn't seem like it was originating from 1933, and from inside a rattling cellophane bag. Nevermore would drive-in patrons forget to replace the speaker after the end of the movie and either tear the pot metal device from the post or shatter their driver's-side window as they absent-mindedly pulled out of their spot to head for the exit. As I told my daughter with sincere melancholy, drive-ins would likely soon vanish altogether-- rising property values combined with the cost of maintaining drive-in businesses in the home video age would likely ensure that the few remaining drive-ins which were still flickering in 2000, like the one we were standing in, would remain perched squarely in the crosshairs of cultural irrelevance, marked for a swift and steady disappearance.

Standing there, holding my daughter in the shadow of the Foothill's drive-in screen tower, I honestly believed that by the time she was old enough to put on her pajamas, load up in our car with a bunch of pillows, blankets and bags of home-popped popcorn and head to the drive-in like I did with my family when I was a kid, the drive-in movie theater would be a true dinosaur-- gone, baby, gone.

Fortunately, and against all indications, I was wrong. Although they are far less in number than they were during their peak in the late '50s (in 1958, specifically, there were 4,058 drive-ins in operation across the nation), the drive-in movie theater still exists. The number of drive-ins showing movies has remained at slightly above 400 over the last 18 years - the last precipitous drop occurred from 1998-1999, when 134 drive-ins closed during that single year. (Less than a year after we last visited with my daughter in 2000, the Foothill Drive-in closed. It has been dark for several seasons, its screen torn down, though its lavish marquee, a noted attraction along Route 66, remains standing.) But since 1999 the total number of drive-ins has stabilized; fewer have closed and disappeared. Going to the drive-in in 2016 is a rarified experience, to be sure-- Californians in 1958 had 223 separate drive-ins in this state alone from which to choose. When I wrote the first version of this article in 2008, that number was down to 19. On the occasion of this updating, on the 83rd anniversary of the opening of the first drive-in back in 1933, that number has actually increased—  the Paramount Drive-in in Lakewood, California reopened three years ago after a 22-year dormancy.


The drive-ins which remain, here in California and all over the country, are experiencing a renewed commitment from their owners, and especially a renewed commitment from customers who cherish the outdoor movie vibe as one that is extremely friendly to families, family budgets and family viewing habits. Most drive-ins have admission prices that are five to six dollars per person less expensive than their indoor cousins, and some don't charge admission, or charge only a minimal $1 fee, for children under the ages of 9 to 11. Modern drive-ins cater to budget-conscious families by playing double features of first-run commercial fare, with an emphasis on family-oriented pictures - blockbuster releases and animation from the likes of Pixar and DreamWorks. And many here in California and elsewhere have invested thousands of dollars to maximize the experience of the theater itself, upgrading everything from the snack bar and surrounding grounds (tiki d├ęcor, '50s diners and California orange groves are just three of the themes adorning drive-ins in the Los Angeles area) to the technical presentation, with FM car radio sound and super-bright digital projection which rivals that seen on indoor screens. The heyday of the drive-in may be gone, but then so too are the days of squinting to make out shadowy images on badly illuminated screens and listening to crackly sound heard through antiquated, poorly maintained speakers.

One way that drive-ins really have changed, however, is the kind of movies they feature. If one were to take an informal survey of drive-ins across the country and what they were showing midway through this past summer, the list would probably boil down to some combination of the Ghostbusters reboot, The Legend of Tarzan, Finding Dory, The BFG, X-Men: Apocalypse and Star Trek: Beyond. The men and women who book drive-ins live for a schedule of releases like these, because they know there is endless family appeal there that can be extended and reshuffled well into the summer season. In this regard, the current incarnation of the drive-in is hardly the familiar picture of a passion pit exclusively showing cheaply produced fare targeted at restless youth—no, they’ve got their sights set squarely on the broad appeal of mainstream Hollywood releases. And in that regard, 21st-century drive-ins are no different than drive-ins were in their infancy, into the 1940s and 1950s.


During the years just after Richard Hollingshead opened the very first drive-in theater in New Jersey in 1933, drive-ins showed what every other theater showed - any and all features, big and small, that they could get hold of. And after World War II, when the baby and the drive-in booms really began, drive-ins were still considered family-friendly establishments. Many installed playgrounds and other fun attractions underneath the screens to encourage parents to bring the kids. Even if the fare on screen was more of an adult nature, the kids would play outside until the movie began, indulge in the snack bar cuisine of the evening and then either settle in for an exciting western or crime picture, or fall asleep during a less interesting romantic drama or serious story intended more for the grown-ups. For many kids of this generation, drive-ins were one of the main ways for kids to gain exposure to the kind of movie fare that parents would be otherwise less naturally inclined to offer to their children.

By the 1950s the drive-in boom was well underway. From less than 1,000 theaters in 1948 to near 5,000 in 1958, the drive-in theater had arrived and was busy making its mark on pop culture. (During this same period, over 5,000 indoor theaters closed.) The All-Weather Drive-in in Copiague, New York, was an early winner of the "my-drive-in's-bigger-than-your-drive-in" competition, boasting a 28-acre lot capable of holding 2,500 cars. (This was before the advent of multiple-screen lots, remember-- the All-Weather had one screen.) It also made room for a 1,200-seat indoor viewing area that was heated and air-conditioned, hence the "all-weather"claim, in addition to its playground facilities, cafeteria and full-service restaurant. The All-Weather Drive-in was so big it even featured a shuttle service to carry customers to the various locations on the 28 acres, presumably even to their cars.


As the sizes and numbers of drive-ins increased during the '50s, so too did the variety of extra attractions drive-ins offered. Many would open up to three hours early to offer families access to such pre-movie excitement as miniature trains, pony rides, boat rides (!), talent shows, animal shows and even miniature golf. It was around this same time, at the beginning of the '50s, that drive-in snack bar menus began to expand, offering everything from fried chicken and barbecue to chili and cheeseburgers, pizza and frozen ice cream treats. To promote these new and exciting offerings, the drive-in intermission film was born.

But the '50s also brought a new home-based medium into the mix, and as the boom of the '50s gave way to the leveling off of the appearance of new drive-ins, television began to force changes to the kinds of movies being made and how they were distributed. Indoor theaters competed with TV by innovating the sheer size and scope of the image, accommodating wider aspect ratios and better sound quality. Drive-ins, on the other hand, were already becoming popular destinations for the teenaged crowd, and they competed fiercely for the attention of motion picture distributors and drive-in theater owners who began to cater much more to their taste in exploitation movies, disposable comedies and low-rent horror and science fiction.


A good drive-in movie was one that ostensibly wouldn't suffer if you missed a portion of it while on a snack bar run, or socializing with buddies on the lot, or because the windshield of your sedan got all steamed up for whatever reason. Independent producers began churning out tons of low-budget fare designed specifically to play on double and triple features at drive-ins. These were usually disreputable pictures that more often than not either skipped engagements at indoor theaters altogether or were relegated to downtown grindhouses.

In any case, even if one or two A-list titles managed to make it onto the drive-in screen during this period, they were often accompanied by a couple of low-budget titles whose specific purpose was the filling out of the B and C slots of a drive-in program, hence the adoption of the term "B movie" to describe them. (For a look at a typical assortment of advertisements touting exactly this sort of eclectic drive-in programming culled from newspapers during this time, and news on upcoming drive-in events all over the country, check out the Nostalgic Drive-in Newspaper Ads page on Facebook.)


By the beginning of the 1970s drive-in attendance had plateaued and the amount of theaters in existence in 1982 was only just over half that of the peak year of drive-ins, 1958, when nearly 5,000 screens dotted the landscape of America's urban jungles and rural backroads. The movies were still there, for the most part-- there was no lack of cheap horror films and lurid sex fare in the early '80s, to be sure, but drive-ins, in an attempt to stay liquid, began to turn into second-run venues for mainstream Hollywood fare, and even hard- and soft-core porn, which led to much community consternation and, eventually, a bunch of chained-up entrance gates and abandoned lots. By the time the home video movement was in full swing in the late '80s, the demise of traditional Hollywood entertainment outlets was not coming about in the way heralded by doomsayers who predicted that the Betamax would undermine entertainment industry profits. Instead, home entertainment options were driving more and more nails into the coffins of established drive-in theaters, who were giving over their ever-more-expensive lots out to swap meets or folding altogether due to lack of patronage.

Yet somehow, through all the battles over expensive tracts of land giving way to urban sprawl and encroaching Wal-Marts and mini-malls that characterized the '90s and the beginning of the 21st century, the drive-in never succumbed to extinction. Stalwart independent owners, small real-estate corporations and even some large exhibitor chains never quite relinquished their hope that the drive-in, though an unlikely candidate for a full-scale comeback, still had life in it yet and could be nurtured by the right management and supported by a new generation of drive-in fans who remembered the experience and wanted to actively pass that love on to their kids.


So here we circle back around to the year 2000 and me standing on that lot in Azusa, California, hoping that my three-month-old daughter would someday see and love drive-ins on her own, yet never realistically thinking it would happen. Well, she's 16 years old now, and she and her 14-year-old sister are 11-year veterans of many summer (and winter) trips to the few Southern California drive-ins that are still going strong, theaters that play to year-round record business and the delight of people like my girls and me. The future of the drive-in seems, for the moment at least, assured by its appeal to economically minded families looking for inexpensive ways to have fun together.

No, the drive-in may never again achieve the particular vibrancy afforded it by the lowbrow pop culture that ran through its veins and its projectors in the '50s, '60s and '70s. But for those who value the experience above all, this is a small price to pay. Many of these theater owners are working hard to ensure that attending a drive-in movie remains an activity that harkens back to the good old days and fashions fresh, happy memories for a new generation at the same time. As long as there are theaters like these, I feel confident that the drive-in will still be around in 30 years, when my daughters want to take their own children and tell them about their own good old days of movies under the stars.

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(NEXT: In tomorrow’s installment of the SLIFR Guide to the Drive-in Movie, we take a look at one company that specialized in creating movies tailored toward the popularity of the drive-in in the ‘50s and ‘60s, as well as a baker’s dozen movie directors who had the drive-in sensibility coursing through their veins and their movies.) 

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