Posted on September 23, 2018
In the pre-Blockbuster days we had to take our horror movies as we found them. They really weren’t putting horror films into wide release so our options were limited to TV, usually on that fourth channel, the UHF one that you could never get a clear picture on, and second run/drive-in theaters. And since there was no selection process on our part, we just watched everything and sorted it into four categories:
Classic B&W A-Grade (Frankenstein, Dracula)
Classic B&W B-Grade (The Invisible Ray)
Garish Color B-Grade (Dr. Phibes, Anything from Hammer)
Cheap Color C-Grade (Don’t Look In The Basement, Anything from AMI)
Without a filter for quality, the single demand we had of these movies was that they be entertaining. Now, that could mean different things at different ages, but mostly they were either gross, scary, funny good, or funny bad. The only sin a horror movie could commit was to be boring.
When I was in high school, my favorite thing to do was to go to the drive-in, get high and watch a horror double feature. Generally, the first movie was pretty good, probably bloody gross, and by the second movie I just didn’t care anymore. The movies were generally low budget, mostly in a kind of faded color because the prints were in bad shape by the time they got to the drive-in (see the excellent Tarantino/Rodriguez mashup Grindhouse for an exciting simulacrum, including missing reels and holes in the film) and acted at the regional theater level of hysterics. Think Last House on the Left, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Don’t Look in the Basement, Black Christmas, etc.
These were fun, weird, disturbing movies with no overarching narrative, a complete lack of subtlety, and camera work that relied heavily on the zoom lens. As a counterpoint, think of The Exorcist or The Omen. Those movies were not fun, they were terrifying, and you felt like you had just gotten off a thrill ride when you left the theater.
For a modern equivalent (besides Grindhouse) there’s no better example than Bubba Ho Tep. From a story by Joe Jr. Lansdale, one of the most prolific high quality writers of the genre, and directed by Don Coscarelli of Phantasm fame, the movie is more comedy than horror, and yet manages to be quite terrifying in parts and the characters are so well defined and crazy that you get more of a film going experience than with any of the B movies listed above.
The whole point of a drive-in horror movie is that it has a low emotional lip to clear before the action breaks out (which is why so many of them rely on age old tropes), just enough to get you slightly invested before teenagers start getting killed. Bubba flouts this convention by giving us characters we can really bond with in a process that happens so quickly you don’t even realize it’s happening.
If you want to see Coscarelli and Lansdale team up again, this time far deeper into the horror end of the pool, check out one of the best episodes of the excellent Masters of Horror series, Incident on and off a Mountain Road. You won’t be sorry.