Drive-In Massacre 2014

Could there possibly be a finer place to watch a horror film than at a drive-in? Probably, but that doesn’t mean I still don’t pine to watch a fright flick or two under the stars, in the privacy and comfort of my automobile, listening to the tinny audio through those ancient speakers, and eagerly awaiting the sight of an anthropomorphic sausage bun training a hot dog to jump on command. It seems that Rusty Nails and the folks at Movieside have a similar affection for the drive-in theater, which is why last year’s Drive-In Massacre got a sequel this year.

As with last year, the venue was the McHenry Outdoor Theater on Chapel Hill Road in–wait for it–McHenry, Illinois. It’s a bit of a drive (50+ miles, over an hour’s worth of driving time as the route mostly consists of rural four-lane highway), but it’s worth it. The new digital projection system, provided last year by Honda’s Project Drive-In initiative, is aces, the snack shop well-stocked, and the restrooms clean and functional (not always a given with drive-ins, sadly).

This year’s program was a triple feature (as opposed to last year’s four), nothing I hadn’t seen before, yet nothing I could really complain about. First, Dan O’Bannon’s cult classic The Return of the Living Dead, whose star Linnea Quigley was the event’s special guest. Second, Tobe Hooper’s original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, in its new fortieth-anniversary restored edition. Third, the venerable George Romero/Stephen King collaboration Creepshow. I can’t imagine three films more suited to drive-in viewing.

The weather was a bit muggy, so I kept my car running with the air conditioning on the entire time, but the first of two predicted showers passed a mile or two away (we got to watch the lightning progress through the sky behind the movie screen, which was awesome!) and the second didn’t last very long or dampen us much.

The Drive-In Massacre 2014

The Return of the Living Dead (Dan O’Bannon, 1985)

I last saw Return a little under two years ago, at another Movieside event, the 2012 Massacre. Here’s what I had to say about it then:

“…My memory tells me that the first time I saw this, I would have seen it with my parents when it was [originally] released on VHS. But that memory has to be faulty somehow, because I don’t think I would have watched something with this much nudity with my parents at that age.

“I like it fine, but I’m not able to shake the feeling that I should like it a lot more than I actually do. I think my issue with it is the humor. I understand that the point of it is that it’s supposed to be a comedy, and there are some satirical moments that work very well (anything to do with the military, for example). But I think I would enjoy it a lot more if it were played a bit straighter, if the comedy weren’t quite so broad. One memory I have from seeing this as a kid was that, dumb as Frank and Freddy were, I actually felt sorry for them…and I think that should have been played up a bit. But I guess it works just fine as it is.”

Don’t have much more to add to that, although I didn’t find the humor as grating as I did in ’12.

Gunnar Hansen stars in THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)

These days, whenever people ask me what I think the best horror movie is, I end up giving an answer that’s longer than they probably want me to give. My favorite horror movie is either Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead, depending on my mood, but I don’t think either of them are the greatest ever made (although Dawn comes close). The finest horror film ever made is, without a doubt, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I will brook no dissent on this.

In the United States, the late ’60s and early-to-mid-’70s were a time of intense cultural turbulence. Having been born in 1973, I have no memories of the era, but in watching Chain Saw I think I get a feeling for what it must have been like to live through the scariest of those times…to watch the evening news, reports on Watergate, Vietnam, Altamont, Tate-LaBianca and so on, and think to yourself What the fuck is wrong with people and what the hell is this world coming to? It’s not an allegory for one specific thing, but rather it’s the distilled insanity of those seven or eight years compressed into an ultra-concentrated form and printed onto celluloid to be consumed as entertainment.

When the sliding metal door opens, and Leatherface bursts out, cracks that one guy on the head with his sledgehammer, and drags him away…I can’t think of any better metaphor for entering the mind of a madman.

A scene from CREEPSHOW

Creepshow (George Romero, 1982)

I love George Romero, I love Steve King, and I love the idea of the old EC Comics horror titles such as Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror even if I’m not as conversant with their actual content as I’d like to be. That’s why I love Creepshow: it’s as much as an aesthetic as it is an actual movie.

The downside of that is that, now that we’re thirty-plus years on from Romero and King’s glory days, you have to be familiar with that aesthetic for the movie to actually work. ’80s nostalgia (and the ’50s nostalgia that was part and parcel of ’80s pop culture) doesn’t quite do the job anymore. The stories are over-simplified and the characters one-dimensional: Jordy Verrill is a moron and Charlie Gereson is a wuss. Romero’s over-the-top use of tinted light sources (good old red, blue and green, which gives the film a weird Argento-style look) is often distracting.

But those aren’t bugs any more than the bizarre casting that marks “Something to Tide You Over” (Sam Malone as a bodybuilder who can bench-press 300 pounds, and Lt. Frank Drebin as an urbane, witty sociopath) is. They’re features, so the only real flaws on display are some of the schlocky creature effects. The Giant Rat of Sumatra in “The Crate” (okay, I know it’s not even remotely a rat, but shut up) is quite lovely, as are the animated corpses in “Father’s Day” and “Tide.” But the live-action creeper is a major bummer, and the climax of “They’re Creeping Up on You” is guaranteed to make you email Tom Savini asking, “Was that really the best you could do?”

*   *   *

Upcoming events: At the end of September, I’ll attend the Chicago Horror Film festival (this year, held at Carl Schurz High School)–not sure if I’ll be able to make all three days, but I’m hoping for at least two. In mid-October, the Massacre will triumphantly return to the Portage Theater! Films announced so far include The Fog (John Carpenter version), Black Christmas (Bob Clark version), Targets, Chopping Mall, Cemetery Man, Tenebrae, and Eaten Alive. I’m also going to try to make the Music Box of Horrors this year, if it’s not scheduled for the same night as the Massacre.

Seeya later!

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