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03 April, 2010

Grindhouse-- Good ol' Boy Style

ARTICLE TITLE: Grindhouse—Good ol’ Boy Style

While the term Grindhouse is usually associated with New York City’s Times Square, with seedy, inner-city storefront theaters showing cheaply-made sleaze, it wasn’t completely a New York tradition. The Deep South had the equivalent of Grindhouse films in the person of the Drive-In Movie.

Drive-In Movies came into being in the middle of the 1950’s. Obtaining first-run features had always been tremendously difficult for Drive-Ins, as the distributors refused to provide any film until it had completely exhausted it’s potential at conventional theaters. Owner/operators were desperate for better films to screen, and James Nicholson and Sam Arkoff formed the American Releasing Corporation in 1954 to meet that need. They would soon change the company’s name to American International Pictures, becoming in short order the dominant force in the production and distribution of Drive-In Movies.

The term Drive-In Movie may be confusing to those who have never had the pleasure of watching a movie, as Drive-In critic Joe Bob Briggs so eloquently puts it, “… outdoors, in the privacy of your own automobile the way God intended.” Even those fortunate enough to have patronized one of the remaining Drive-In theaters in all probability saw the same first-run blockbuster that was playing at the Cineplex at the mall. To those who may be unaware, the Drive-In Movie is not a type of film, or a genre of film, or even a measure of the quality of a film. It is a state of mind.

The original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE is a prime example of the Drive-In Movie. Yes, you could see it in conventional theaters when it premiered in 1974, or watch it today on disc, two-stroke engine roaring in full-throated glory through surroundsound, as Leatherface chases Marilyn Burns across a 60” plasma screen. But nothing can compare to the thrill I felt sitting out on a blanket on a hot Florida summer night when I was eleven or twelve, back against the bumper of a Chevrolet Bel-Air, watching the wheelchair-bound Franklin (the single most-annoying character in any Horror film—ever) catch hot chainsaw death full in the face. It’s a movie that almost demands to be seen that way, out in the elements, your imagination filling the black shadows of the treeline beyond the screen tower with hordes of hygienically impaired cannibalistic psychopaths. I’ve seen the movie at least a dozen times since then—but never have I enjoyed it more.

That’s the essence of a Drive-In Movie. It’s the experience of watching a movie, as much as it’s the movie itself. Aficionados of Grindhouse speak fondly of the experience of watching movies in theaters that quite frankly I wouldn’t have wanted to enter unarmed. Though the Drive-Ins I frequented were much friendlier establishments, they had drawbacks and pitfalls of their own. Many of these were problems endemic to the industry, such as poor picture and sound quality as compared to conventionals. Some were due to the vagaries of being outdoors, in the subtropical climate of north Florida, the insect capital of North America. Others were idiosyncratic, unique to a specific theater. Those idiosyncrasies are what made the experiences memorable, whatever the movie may have been.

And as for the movies themselves—while these weren’t great movies, they do stand out in the mind’s eye, even 35 years on. The best Drive-In Movies, at least, in my opinion, were the ones that the critics gave the worst reviews. Movies such as THE EXORCIST or STAR WARS weren’t really Drive-In Movies. You might see them at a Drive-In, but that didn’t make them Drive-In Movies.

GATOR BAIT, EATEN ALIVE, A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, THE BIG BIRD CAGE, ENTER THE DRAGON—these were the true Drive-In Movie classics. They might or might not have impressed the critics, but they impressed the hell out of the crowds lined up waiting to get into the old University Blvd. Drive-In in Jacksonville. As I’ve mentioned before in this column, [Growing a MonsterKid—See Above] I was blessed with an older sister who had somewhat unorthodox ideas on just what type of movies were appropriate for my younger brother and myself. As long as we didn’t mind entering the premises curled up around the spare tire in the trunk, and immediately vacated the car, leaving her and her boyfriend alone for the duration, she’d take us to see anything—a situation we never failed to exploit.

We didn’t mind those inconveniences, of course. We would’ve been out of the car at the first opportunity anyway, running up to the swing set just to the front of the screen tower, or heading to the concession stand to spend what cash we could wheedle out of Mom or Dad. Obviously, there were children just as lucky in the supervision department as we were, as there were always other kids doing the same.

But the movies were why we were there—at least, why I was there. The first time I saw Herschell G. Lewis’ BLOOD FEAST was at the Drive-In; the same goes for such ‘classics’ as THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK, IT’S ALIVE, and THEATER OF BLOOD. The first time I heard the words, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara,” as well as “Take your hands off me, you damn dirty apes,” was at the Atlantic Drive-In. My love of movies is ingrained in my DNA, but the types of movies I love are due to the formative years I spent feeding mosquitoes on a weekly basis every summer.

Technology has given us a way to preserve those movies, and watch them as often as we wish in the comfort of our homes. But it can’t duplicate the sensation, the experience, of spreading an old blanket out on the ground under the stars, cranking the pole-mounted speakers up as high as possible, and watching the latest gorefest play out on-screen. That can’t be duplicated and preserved technologically, and sadly, the opportunities for experiencing it in actuality are dwindling away.

However, there are those who still keep the faith, tending like devoted acolytes the aging projectors and weather-beaten screens of surviving Drive-Ins. If you’re fortunate to live within an easy drive of such a shrine, be sure to make a pilgrimage to it soon. Recapture, if only for a brief time, the joys of a bygone day. Better yet, introduce someone who’s never known that experience to the fun of the Drive-In Movie.

Cineplexes and Home Theater systems may be more comfortable and convenient, there’s no doubt of that. That doesn’t make it better—that doesn’t make a memory.

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