Monday, October 01, 2007

Movies: Drive-by suckers.

Despite the abysmal performance of the cinematic multi-warhead bomb that was Grindhouse, the sadly misconceived and unsurprisingly mediocre mash-note of modern film's two chief apostles of b-grade genre fare from the exploitative side of the tracks, there's still a tendency to look at the z-grade fare that flitted across the screens of America's grindhouses and drive-ins through rose-colored glasses. Admittedly, there are enough gems from the era to make one think that we must have been in some savage and raw period of untamed cinematic brilliance. But this ignores the sadder, simpler truth of this low-budget sub-genre: a vast majority of the flicks justly considered "grindhouse" films sucked. They were not so much savage as pointless, not so much raw as they were inept. They were, in short, a lot like 1976's painfully bad Drive-In Massacre.

Drive-In Massacre, directed by porn auteur turned television producer Stu Segall (the man who produced both The Spirit of Seventy Sex - a porno about the erotic adventures of Martha Washington – and the USA Channel's sleaze-lite detective show "Silk Stalkings"), is a frightless, slow, and unsatisfying slasher flick about the ultimately fruitless efforts of California's least competent and physically fit detectives to track down a sword-wielding serial killer before he claims another victim at the local drive-in.

Our story begins with the slaying of the first couple. Curiously, unlike many slasher flicks, the couples in this film tend to get it the moment they decide not to engage in the sort of naughty hanky-panky that, in your typical slasher flick, attracts edged weapons the way poop attracts flies. In this case, the male half of the victim-couple breaks off foreplay so he can lean out of the car to adjust the speaker system and get better sound for the flick the drive-in is showing. For this, he gets beheaded – in a scene worthy of the comedic splatter effects Roth used in his short "trailer" Thanksgiving - and his girlie gets her throat slit. Later couples will be discussing having a child, informing their spouses that they want divorces, and generally acting in about as un-sexy a manner as you please. Some slasher fans might applaud this as a sort of corrective to the seemingly conservative politics inherent in the have-sex-and-die structure common to many slashers. However, it does mean that instead of being distracted by T&A, we're nearly bored to death by crappy dialog. I'm not sure that whatever small gains that might represent in legitimizing the killing habits of fictional mass murderers among the PC crowd is worth the tedium.

Rolling into pasty action are Detectives Leadbutt and Tubby. The detectives question the manager of the Drive-In, an abrasive jackass who looks like Anton LaVey and dresses like Ron Burgundy's poor cousin, and the theater's retarded handyman, a former sideshow Geek and circus swordswallower. This questioning leads nowhere and, over the next few nights, the sword-wielding killer racks up a few more bodies. At no time does it occur to the detectives to close the theater. In fact, a one point, these two detectives release a suspect to see if he'll go to the drive-in and kill somebody. This, the detectives decide, would prove definitively that the suspect is the murderer. How this would later be explained to the courts and the families of the victims is unclear; but, hell, just as you can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs, you can't catch a killer without letting him kill some folks.

So that we don't get to close to anything resembling forward movement of the plot, Leadbutt and Tubby interview the handyman several times. That simple description does not do justice to just how painful each and every one of these pointless interviews is. Though the filmmakers never specify exactly what is wrong with the handyman, it seems that he suffers from some sort of mental impairment that causes him to drift off-topic for extended riffs of nonsense in all conversations. To give you an example, here's a review of this movie as the handyman might write it:

This movie is about a drive-in. Hey. I work at a drive-in. People take their cars there. Sometimes in they come in twos. Not two cars. Two people in a car. Then they kiss. I mean, they kiss each other. Not the cars. I don't watch them when they kiss. I look at my shoes. They cover my toes. I have at least three toes on each foot. I used to have more but there was an accident with Slurpee machine. That was when they had watermelon favor and I bought a hot dog. You know, I think those hot dogs are made out of same leather that some people have in their cars. The kind of cars people drive to drive-ins.

If there is any tension in the film, it is a product of the viewer's fear that the two clueless detectives will find themselves trapped in yet another painful conversation with the handyman.

Eventually, after a series of unconvincing red herrings and a pointless montage of the handyman walking among carnival rides, the film simply runs out of suspects – having them all either dispatched by the slasher or, in a moment that threatens to become exciting, getting shot by one of the detectives. Lacking any more folks to hang plot advancement on, the film serves up a title card that tells viewers that the drive-in killings were never solved and even started to spread to other drive-ins.

Then comes the only neat-o bit of the flick: a curious little fourth-wall breaking moment. The film cuts off and an indifferent sounding voice-over announces that it is the voice of the manager of the drive-in you – presumably – are parked in as you watch the flick (the joke makes less sense as you watch the DVD from your couch, but you get the idea). The manager requests you stay in your car and lock your doors. There is a murderer loose in the drive-in! The end.

(Seeing as there's an established pattern in these killings, this reviewer suggests that you and your date should have sex immediately. It's the only way to be sure that killer will pass your car by.)

Though I would normally only say this as a joke: the last few seconds of this film are nice. The whole "he's loose in the theater" bit is charmingly gimmicky, like a slasher nod to William Castle or something. But, still, we're talking about a flick where "the last few seconds of this film are charmingly gimmicky" is the best thing anybody can say about it. A last minute wink at the audience can't redeem this steaming pile. Using the Pulitzer Prize winning Compass Bus Fleet Models Film Rating System, Drive-In Massacre gets a terrible Dennis Lance.


Anonymous said...

Silk stockings.. Didn't that still have a 7 or 8 year run ? And helped USA move from the late-night soft-porn to more mainstream shows ? And didn't USA have the late-night slasher-movie show ? I can't remember who hosted it. I want to say Gilbert Godfried, but I don't think that's right. That was my teen-aged thing to watch (the aforementioned T&A, plus late friday nights at home alone...)

Also, The Nightmare Factory arrived, 75% done. Thx for the package!

CRwM said...

While I don't have any clue how long SS ran, I can confirm your memories that Godfried was the host of "USA Up All Night," which was a staple of my teen years as well.

He was eventually replaced by this woman whose name completely escapes me, but I can remember that she used to pronounce the name of the show so that "Up" was emphasized like she'd just been goosed, leave several beats, and then she's smooth out the rest of the title: "UP . . . alllniiiight."

Anonymous said...

Oh, my thoughts are all over the place here....

First, this flick sounds pretty bad.
Based on the various examples you cite, I think the idea of the couples NOT having sex before being murdered is an intentional joke that is poorly, humorlessly executed.
I wonder how many examples there are of slasher spoofs that were actually funny and entertaining, because this sounds like that genre, except for the funny and entertaining part, and I guess some of these examples would actually be cinematic children of low-budget producers with no name actors and some would be a little upscale with more recognized but not necessarily A-list talent.

One film comes to mind, WACKO with Joe Don Baker, Stella Stevens, George Kennedy and Andrew Dice Clay, directed by Greydon (SATAN'S CHEERLEADERS, BLACK SHAMPOO) Clark.
Okay, I saw this when it came out, but I only remembered the title and Joe Don Baker, but no one else. Had to look it up. But I remember it being funny (there was a Lawnmower Killer in it, that is to say, the killer's weapon of choice was a lawnmower-- he killed people, natch!).
Another one is STUDENT BODIES, which I mostly remember because the writer was Mickey Rose, a former writing partner of Woody Allen (BANANAS, TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, WHAT'S UP, TIGER LILY?).

Meanwhile, since you bring it up as a filmmaker wannabe and fan, I think the whole GRINDHOUSE concept was awesome.
I'm a little disappointed that it may or may not make the DVD shelves in its original theatrical form, seeing DEATH PROOF has come out as a single "Unrated and Unedited" film, with none of the faux trailers on the 2 discs. And I guess PLANET TERROR is scheduled for release Oct. 16.
Author/filmmaker Greg Lamberson (SLIME CITY, JOHNNY GRUESOME) told me at the recent Rotten Jack Creep Show (a local horror and music show)(and yes, I'm name-dropping here like a muther...) that GRINDHOUSE had a (very)limited release in its original form on DVD already, so if you have a copy consider yourself lucky. Boo.
But, I digress... holy retarded handyman!

But I think you make an excellent point about looking back at this exploitation era affectionately.
Some of the moments that are remembered are for their awful filmmaking, either because of no budget or ineptitude or both. The fondness is suffering through these films I think, combined with unbelief at what misery you were actually subjecting yourself to, but would you choose to do so again voluntarily?

But there are also those memorable films that made their mark because they embraced their slummy origins and gave you something mainstream films wouldn't or couldn't touch.

As a hypothetical question, suppose you were to program a GRINDHOUSE double-feature, but with films that you thought stood on their own, films worth seeing, what films would you choose or would at least be worth considering?
I suppose there are different variations to this question, like focusing on specific genres (horror, martial arts, etc.).
Although, didn't some of the original double features schedule whatever, luck of the draw, so you had a mix of sometimes wildly different genres?

Okay, I'm rambling now...

CRwM said...

Screamin' cattle,

I had mixed feelings about Grindhouse. Basically, it seemed sort of pointless to me. First, QT and RR both already made their grindhouse flicks - Kill Bill and Dusk 'Till Dawn. Second, making intentionally bad films doesn't save you from the fact that you've made bad films. It wasn't horrible, but neither flick left me feeling thoroughly rocked. I thought the whole thing was shrug-inducing.

I'd have to think of my selections for the perfect double feature, though there are many films from that era that I'd happily watch back to back.