Colin Timothy Gagnon (sacredspud) wrote,
Colin Timothy Gagnon

31 Days of Halloween: Drive-In Massacre

As far as I'm concerned, there's only one important movie that came out in 1977: Drive-In Massacre.

Well, I guess there's also Star Wars, Annie Hall, Close Encounters, The Kentucky Fried Movie, A Bridge Too Far, Eraserhead, The Duelists, "Oh, God!", Susperia, Winnie the Pooh, High Anxiety, The Rescuers, The Hills Have Eyes, and maybe a few thousand others, but the main one, as we all know, is Drive-In Massacre which has been hailed by critics as... um...

Look, I'm sure that some professional critic somewhere has addressed Drive-In Massacre, but I'm imagining it was preceded by an argument that ended with "tell you what, if you don't want to review the movie, you can pack up your desk and get started on writing the Great American Novel."

I've been planning to watch Drive-In Massacre for years, but I'd been putting it off because the group with whom I attend B-Fest has been talking about sponsoring its exhibition at the festival. Something reminded me of it recently, though, and that's kept it in the back of my mind, so tonight I decided to take the plunge. It's in the public domain, so you'll be able to find it on YouTube, The Internet Archive, etc., but if you're seriously interested, you might be happier streaming it for $1.99 from Amazon--not that you're seriously interested.

I mention all of this upfront because the versions available on YouTube are of unwatchably poor quality. I picked one and suffered through it anyway because I'm lazy and stubborn, and because it took me awhile before I realized that the quality was so bad as to interfere with my comprehension of the film. There are scenes that are so dark that it's literally impossible to determine what's going on, even if you watch the scenes more than once. My friends who recommend this film had seen it on one of Mill Creek Entertainment's 50 Movie Packs, and I can only assume that they have a higher-quality print.

The film opens on a warm summer night. We watch the drive-in prepares for another night of operation. Cars stream in and are directed into parking spaces and the sun slowly goes down as the manager of the theater looks on appreciatively, all to the soundtrack that sounds about ten years older than the actual film. A young couple are making out in their car, but the guy wants to hear the movie so he leans out the window. She argues that he should focus on her, and he insists that he just wants to turn up the volume on their speaker. This playful argument takes entire minutes (or it feels like it, anyway), before an unseen assailant chops off the mans head in a single blow of his sword, and stabs the girl in the neck. Yes, the weapon of choice in this movie is a sword. No, it does not improve the movie.

From here, the movie becomes a police procedural. Two detectives who look like Joe Don Baker as Mitchell identify the slow-witted janitor, Germy as a possible suspect. Germy (actually Jeremy, but the pronunciation of his name is discussed in the movie) is a former sideshow geek, and when it becomes pretty plain that he's not dangerous, he suggests another possibility: the peeping tom who's been creeping around the parking lot and looking into car windows. The peeping tom turns out to be a red herring; he may be a pervert, but he's not a murderer. More bodies pile up, and the officers pose as a couple (involving the most unconvincing drag I've ever seen) in an unsuccessful attempt to attract the killer. Eventually they turn their sights on the short-tempered, bigoted theater manager who has been rude, profane, and completely unwilling to cooperate.

I'm just going to go ahead and spoil the ending, and I'm bolding this sentence for anyone who wants to avoid spoilers, but let's face it, no one reading this cares that much. The manager isn't the killer either. In one of the movie's better surprises, his murder is silhouetted on the drive-in's screen just as the detectives are on their way up to the projection booth to arrest him. The film ends abruptly with the detectives scratching their heads. None of their leads have borne any useful fruit. The killer is still at large, and a voiceover informs us that the killer is loose!--in this theater!--and that the police are on their way. I've heard people naively wonder if this sort of ending frightened people when the movie was new. The answer is no, not even a little bit. I do like the way these movies sometimes try to blur the line between narrative and real life, although it's more charming than it is convincing.

I have often argued in favor of anticlimax. I like when movies diffuse a situation unexpectedly, and I'd like to see the film where the characters acknowledge at the end that they never had to fire Chekhov's gun. On the other hand, Drive-In Massacre spends most of its duration on a police investigation which goes nowhere, and I can't shake the feeling that the film is a massive waste of time for that reason. Other horror movies do this all the time--Freddy Krueger, for example, is never completely defeated, but at least he was a clear and present threat for the last 90 minutes. Faults like this one are so integral to Drive-In Massacre that it could not have been improved by a bigger budget. It's a better movie, I guess, than Manos: The Hands of Fate, but like Manos it suffers when you watch it alone. It would be a good fit for B-Fest.

The film was directed by Stu Segall, who isn't well-known enough to warrant a Wikipedia entry, but his IMDB page suggests that spent the '70s making pornography, and then got work as a TV director. His career is similar to those of screenwriters John F. Goff and George "Buck" Flower. Goff chews up the scenery as the angry theater manager, and I didn't recognize him, but IMDB says he's been all over B-movies since the '70s. Flower died in 2004, and you've seen him in various movies (notably the films of John Carpenter), usually as a drunk or a homeless person or a drunk homeless person. The guy had a very specific look.

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