Drive-In Discs Volume Three
review by Gregory Avery, 22 August 2003

Right now, let's all go out to the drive-in.

The first motion picture I can recall going out to see was a double-bill at a Norfolk, Virginia drive-in. The main feature was A Hard Day's Night. My sister was one of the original Beatlemaniacs -- she had all the L.P.'s, 45's, and a pair of go-go boots, and we watched the band's first television appearance on the "Ed Sullivan Show" -- so we simply HAD to go. They showed the Beatles' film last; the second feature, which was shown first, was what I thought for years to have been The Fall of the Roman Empire. My parents kept joking that the movie should have been called My Son, the Emperor, which could, in a stretch, pretty much fit as a description of the plot for the Samuel Bronston epic. All that I could remember was that it was in color, had Romanesque columns in it, and the people who looked like they could be ancient Romans. It wasn't until the 1990s that I found out what I thought had been The Fall of the Roman Empire was actually My Son, the Hero, a French and Italian-made sword-and-sandal drama which had been somewhat comically -- and possibly deliberately so -- dubbed into English.

Since we moved around a lot when I was a kid (my father being an active Naval officer), being inside a car was a very familiar experience. Why not watch a movie there? You drive up to the ticket booth, pay your price, and then made a contained dash to park in a good spot where you can see the screen. You also hope to get a good speaker, if the drive-in is not broadcasting the sound on an airwave band that you can pick up on your car radio. Then, especially if it's summer, you wait for that precipitous moment when the sun will have gone down just enough so that it's dark enough to start watching the show....

Gedunks in hand, you launch into the first feature. If the kids get to be too much, you can send them on down to play on the swing-sets in front of the screen, where they hopefully won't get eaten-up by bugs. When the first feature ends, you need to reload on supplies. Ah, watery Coke, or how 'bout a pizza? Tim Hansen slept through a showing of Humanoids from the Deep, but, before the second feature, Rabid, began, we decided to be adventurous and bought a pizza at the concession stand. I have never tasted anything like it, before or since. Some of the oddest intermission trailers I've seen were at a drive-in in Idaho Falls -- they had been made a good twenty years prior, but looked just like new, including the one where a couple of parents with two offspring appeared, with their heads punched through white, canvas-like paper, to exhort us to  buy some ice cream on a stick: four disembodied heads, with a disembodied hand holding ice cream. It was like something you'd see on L.S.D. But, good grief, who's complaining? Especially if you're seeing the movie in a two-seat import convertible with the top down. By the time the second feature has started, you're having a true and unique experience in moviegoing under a canopy of stars....

The new "Drive-In Disc" is the third in a series, put together by the National Film Museum and Elite Entertainment, that uses DVD technology to recreate the experience of seeing a drive-in double feature. (And there are two audio tracks to choose from, the first with regular sound, the second done in "Distorto", which enables you to hear the movie just as it would sound coming out of an old-style drive-in speaker which you hung on your car window.) The two feature films on the DVD are accompanied by vintage advertisements, trailers announcing everything from holiday fireworks displays to special movie passes, and short subjects. That the two feature films on the disc are scare pictures is not unusual. Scare films seem to be particularly conducive to the drive-in experience, whether it's Baron Blood or the sublime The Abominable Dr. Phibes, or The Giant Spider Invasion, where, in one scene, a group of people are chased down a street by a Volkswagen done over to look like a giant spider. The fondness of seeing these films at southern Oregon drive-ins stands in contrast to when I was attending school in Utah, where drive-ins were places where you snuck off to see pictures like Maniac, William Lustig and Joe Spinell's sensitive art film, on a double-bill with The Toolbox Murders.

Pulling down the blinds and turning off the lights (what? you're going to see a drive-in program, even if it's on DVD, with the lights ON?), one settles in and, after a few advertisements, including one for Toddy, a canned chocolate malted drink good hot or cold (?!), and a wicky-wacky preview trailer for Blood Creature (a panther-man movie made in the Philippines and originally titled "Terror is a Man"), we see the first of two wonderful "Gumby" cartoons (another will precede the second feature). I haven't seen these for years -- and years and years -- and I'd forgotten the simple charm and appeal that Art Clokey's clay and stop-motion animation work had. (Also, the deep sense of benevolence behind the work.) The first feature, I Bury the Living (1958), I'm already familiar with, but it is still one of the most unusually creepy films I've ever seen. Richard Boone, in a very good performance, plays a man who reluctantly agrees to act as volunteer chairman of the committee that oversees the local cemetery. A map in the cemetery caretaker's office displays white pins, for those plots not yet occupied, and black pins, for those that are. Boone's character accidentally puts in a pair of black pins instead of white ones, and the persons for whom the cemetery plots were intended suddenly drop dead. He then becomes increasingly rattled as he tries to determine whether he has some sort of heretofore unknown power over life and death. Plus, what would happen if you took some of the black pins already in the map out and replaced them with white pins.... Along with Boone's performance, the picture benefits greatly from having visuals created by the great montage artist Slavko Vorkapich, who devised subtly sinister imagery to accompany the sometimes terrifying music score by Gerald Fried.

It's intermission -- phew! time to crawl out from under your seat and return to some state of normalcy -- and, of course, gedunks are low. Should I get some of that drink announced in the advert for Dutch Treete, ANOTHER canned chocolate beverage that's good served hot or cold? (How do you heat it up? Put it in the stove?) Huston's Hallucinations is coming to town, in which, on-stage, after showing us a "girl without a middle" and the "weird and unusual burning of a she-devil" ("Actual MURDER!" screams an on-screen caption), we'll get to see, ooh, la, la,  "the talked about girl in the Topless Swimsuit!" (Presumably, Rudi Gernreich's design creation which, in 1964, used the "body itself" as "an integral part of a suited design".) There's a trailer that warns us about the perils of Pay T.V. -- "Pay T.V. and cable T.V. companies are seeking the right to charge you for the very programs you now get free", at a time when you could still get 99.9% of your television programming using a rooftop antennae; then a preview trailer for Creature from the Haunted Sea -- a picture made, for about $1.98, by Roger Corman at the same time that he made The Little Shop of Horrors. Little Shop..., even with all its budgetary restrictions, was one of those instances where everything clicked and it turned out to be one of the best black comedies ever made. "Creature...", if I recall correctly, was like sitting in cement while it hardened. But the preview trailer looks great.

The second feature, the 1960 film The Hand, I am not previously familiar with. (I did see Oliver Stone's 1981 film The Hand, with Michael Caine, and lived to tell the tale. As someone noted at the time, the disembodied hand in that film crawled all over the place but never did anything "fun", i.e. slither up women's legs or tap sneakily on car windows, but, then again, there was this whole reality-versus-fantasy thing going on in Stone's film, which proved dizzying.) The 1960 The Hand starts out showing three British Army men who are taken prisoner by the Japanese at the end of World War Two, and are tortured by having their hands cut off. However, not content to make a movie about what happens to the three men when the story jumps ahead fourteen years to "present-day" London, the filmmakers throw in a murder, an amputation, a suicide, another murder, a mysterious man who goes by the name of "Roberts", an ambush, a severed hand in a box -- and then doesn't explain any of it. (And take my word for it: I looked at this picture twice.) Not a particularly unpleasant experience in this instance, but it amounts to a bit more than Raymond Chandler failing to explain who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep. And people in this movie, or, rather, the police, smoke: a lot. When they're not fumbling with unlit cigarettes or fingering lit ones, they're lighting each other up. It's so pervasive that, after a while, I was wondering if there was some sort of coded behavior going on, like the business with the walking stick in Gilda. (The law is represented by actors Ronald Leigh-Hunt, who's first line in the movie is, "Blast everybody and everything!", and Ray Cooney, who has the fresh-faced appeal of youth and also co-wrote the screenplay.) And there's an attempted kidnapping near the end of the film: "Mummy? The telly's gone wrong, again!" says a little imp who runs into a room and is then snatched up by a malefactor wielding a gun, and who then goes out a back door with the hostage. Not for long: the tyke comes right back, saying, "Mummy? I got away!" (See? Movie-making is simple.)

At this point, it's time for all good chickens to go home and roost. We are reminded to take the sound speaker out of our car window, or at least to turn the speaker in on the way out if we yank it loose. This has never happened to me -- the only problem I ever encountered was parking next to a speaker that turned out to be useless, but was, worse, at a good spot to park in.

In southern Oregon, the Valley was the first one to go, then the Lithia, the land redeveloped so that it is impossible to determine where either drive-in once stood. The Starlite was to have been reopened, but while the sign still stands, the grounds are untended and gradually being reclaimed by nature. So I was pleased to learn, from the information included with the new "Drive-In Disc", about the community effort to successfully re-open Hull's Drive-In theater, which was on the verge of closing permanently after some fifty years of operation. The drive-in is now community-owned and run on a non-profit basis, and is located outside of Lexington, Virginia, 165 miles northwest of Norfolk.

I Bury the Living



The Hand




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