Saturday, October 11, 2008

An homage to the drive-in theater

This essay originally appeared in the Oct. 31, 2007, Standard-Examiner newspaper.

By Doug Gibson

This month Turner Classic Movies has been offering Halloween-appropriate films that used to chill our parents and even our grandparents. From Ed Wood to William Castle to Roger Corman, "Bride of the Monster," "Homicidal," "The Tingler," "A Bucket of Blood," "Pit and the Pendulum," "The Terror" and other fright films flickered on TV screens this month.

I love those old movies, with Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Vincent Price and even a very young Jack Nicholson working to induce frights and chills. If I had a time machine, I would head back to these films' release dates, pay four bits or a dollar, and enjoy a Castle, Corman or a Wood first release.

Chances are I'd have headed to a drive-in theater to see the film. Today, drive-ins are scarce, and moonlight as swap meets. There was a time, though, when drive-in theaters were ubiquitous.

Drive-ins played most film genres, but specialties were the horror or exploitation film. When Ed Wood made his cheapie, "Jail Bait," the negative and prints headed straight to the deep South, distributed by a film company that owned 50 or so cow pastures-turned drive-in theaters.
Of course, the Corman, Castle and Hitchcock films were often shown indoors, but business was always big on the weekend, when harried parents would hustle sleepy kids into the station wagon, park it, stick the speaker into the car and wait for the kids to fall asleep.

Steve Stones, a Weber State University art professor and cult film collector, remembers when the drive-in competed with the multiplex. "It was appealing to me when I did go because there was something out of the ordinary in being able to sit on the bumper or tail gate of your vehicle and see a movie with the stars and night sky above," he recalls.

I read a book, "Cinema Under the Stars: America's Love Affair with the Drive-In Movie Theater." It's a bittersweet read. The 1950s were the heyday of drive-ins. There were more than 4,600 then. There are only several hundred left. Only one remains in the Ogden area.
"Cinema Under the Stars" is full of photographs and drawings of old drive-ins and the screen ads — trailers, local business, public service announcements and concessions — that were part of the drive-in experience. The ads were so much fun you can buy them on DVD now: dancing snacks, Bernz-O-Matic In-Car Heaters or Drizzle Guards to put on your windshield ... all on sale at the snack bar!

What separates the drive-in from today's indoor theater is the drive-in was a community experience. Talk at the multiplex and you get shushed. But at the old drive-in there were playgrounds, bleachers, truck beds and privacy when the car door closed. The film was talked about as much as it was seen.

Stones recalls, "the sound coming out of those bulky grey speakers ... was not so great, but I think most people really didn't care because they were either going to make out in their car with their date that night, or discuss the movie as it was playing on the screen with their friends."
Drive-ins were where the blood 'n' gore craze began. Herschell Gordon Lewis' "Blood Feast" was a huge hit down South in 1963. In the late '60s and early '70s, as drive-ins started their slow decline, exploitation films became steady grossers. Ultra-low budget fare such as "Dracula vs. Frankenstein," "Brides of Blood," "Cain's Cutthroats," "Horrors of the Blood Planet," "A Taste of Blood," "Satan's Sadists," "Blood of Ghastly Horror" and "Don't Go in the Woods ... Alone" (filmed near Ogden) were standard drive-in offerings across America.

Purists still loved these films, cult items today, but, not surprisingly, many couples who parked to see "Blood of Ghastly Horror" found each other more interesting than the film on the screen. Many of today's Gen-Xers were conceived after mom and dad turned the sound off at the drive-in movie.

The drive-in theater turned 74 this year. Those films that made the drive-in so popular are preserved on cable channels and DVDs. A few drive-ins are still around, but evidence of their waning status is seen today, on Halloween, when the films that once shined outdoors are now only viewed within walls.

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