Posts Tagged ‘drive in movies’

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I’ve written before on this site about the new drive-in theater that has opened near where I live; the Coyote just north of downtown Fort Worth. They opened in 2013 with three screens and business has been so successful for them they have erected a fourth screen in the last year. Since they cater to families anxious to share the nostalgia with their kids, the Coyote pretty much only shows “family films”.

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They are the one, the only, the sole drive-in theater within an hour’s drive of my home. There are three more in North Texas that I am aware of but they are all a considerable driving distance from my house. The Coyote caters hard to families, running mostly PG family movies. Off-duty police officers provide security and they reserve the right to search your vehicle. They have the only drive-in game in town and market themselves as a novelty form of family entertainment.

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We had our nine-year-old grandson staying with us again this summer and two of my wife’s older children spent a couple of weeks with us during the latter half of August. Of course we dragged them to the drive-in theater a couple of times while they were here since drive-ins are even scarcer in Canada than they are here. And boy have I been getting caught up on my “family films”: this summer alone I have sat through MINIONS, INSIDE OUT and most recently we took the kids to see SHAUN THE SHEEP.

Now mind you I actually LIKED Shaun the Sheep in spite of it being a “family film” but as we sat in our lawn chairs broiling in the Texas summer heat (it’s still hot here even after the sun goes down) my mind couldn’t help but drift back to the early 80s when Joe Bob Briggs still had his column in the Dallas Times Herald and the few remaining drive-ins left in the Dallas/Fort Worth area DIDN’T cater to families.

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In the early 80s I had a friend named Tom who purchased a used1976 VW camper van from an attorney. It had a fridge, a 4-burner stove and the top popped open so that six people could watch a movie at the drive in in perfect comfort. We began to scout out the remaining drive-ins in the DFW area.

The drive-ins by this point had endured the advent of cable TV and the mass realization of millions of former film goers that they could run the “audio out” cables on their VCRs into their stereo receivers and turn their living rooms into state-of-the-art theaters. And then there was the video stores which in the early 80s began popping up everywhere; people could rent movies for as little as a dollar. Why drag the whole family to the drive in and pay $4 a head to see THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE or MAD MAX when they could rent the movie for the whole family for a dollar? The drive-ins by the mid 80s were all pretty much in their death throes and they knew it. Eventually they just quit trying; sometimes they would get a pair of movies that became stock features, change the B-features they were paired with from week to week and switch screens every week as if the regulars like us wouldn’t notice. (“Rambo AGAIN?”)

It was about this time we noticed there was a sub-genre of films that would occasionally pop up on the drive-in screen; movies with an extra dose of sex and violence. Some would call them exploitation films; we called them “drive-in movies” though because they were meant to be shown in drive-ins or other such theaters that were desperate to sell admission tickets.

Unless they were showing something everyone wanted to see (a first run of a FRIDAY THE 13th sequel or cult favorites like THE ROAD WARRIOR) it wasn’t unusual for Tom and I to pull into the drive in theater and see the place nearly empty. It was shocking to pull in and see the theater packed in fact on the rare nights that happened.

And security was lax to put it lightly. The only time I ever saw police officers at the drive-in was at the entrance to the four-screen Century in Grand Prairie where officers stationed at the box office made everyone open their trunks and ice chests; weapons and drinks in glass containers were forbidden. A case of beer in aluminum cans? Enjoy the show, boys.

Unlike the Coyote who have a strict policy on outside food and drinks we would load up on our own liquid refreshments before entering and we also would take frozen dinners in those boiling bags and heat them up in a pot of boiling water on Toms stove. Sometimes we fixed our own hot dogs as well but we always made our way to the snack bar for a large tub of popcorn at some point of the evening. No one ever searched our vehicles; they didn’t want to scare off the ever-shrinking number of paying customers with such Gestapo tactics.

One night we pulled into the drive-in and were flabbergasted to see the place packed to capacity for THE RIGHT STUFF. Another night we pulled into a double feature of the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD billed with the infamous BLOODSUCKING FREAKS  only to find it hard to get a parking spot; the place was packed.  As Night ended and Bloodsucking Freaks  began ( BF is basically 90 minutes of nude women being systematically tortured; the management obviously had NO idea just how offensive it really was when they booked it) ; five minutes into the film and the car engines started and the brake lights came on in near-unison as carloads of horrified families sped for the exit. (“ I think the kids done seen enough of THIS one!”) Within mere minutes the drive-in was almost empty we were the sole members of the audience.

However the drive-ins couldn’t afford to exist forever just for the sole pleasure of Tom and I; by the mid 80s the handwriting was on the wall. One drive-in after another closed. First our beloved Cherry Lane, then the Southside Twin. The lone hold-out was the Mansfield which struggled against diminishing crowds until 1992, then they too called it quits. The screens were torn down, the snack bars and ticket booths bulldozed and the properties either became flea markets, WalMarts or were leased to gas drilling companies. It saddened me to see them go, but there was nothing I could do about it.

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For years after that if I wanted to see movies it was either rent them from the video store, wait until they played on cable or just flat out buy them. I got my first DVD player in 2000 and my gigantic VHS collection began to be replaced by a growing number of DVDs, which began to seem like a bad crack habit after a while.

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In 2013 the Coyote was erected with three screens and a fourth added in 2015. Most of what they run are family films with a big emphasis on Pixar and Marvel films. All four lots are usually packed to capacity seven nights a week. It’s a joy and a privilege taking the grandson and my stepchildren to experience the thrill of watching movies under the starry Texas sky.

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But once in a while I still imagine I can see the opening scenes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre flickering in all of their 35mm glory on the screen back-lit by the red glowing Texas sunset on the brand-new screen of the Coyote. Or I can close my eyes and imagine hearing the Ennio Morricone soundtrack of The Good The Bad and the Ugly playing on tinny aluminum speakers as a faint whiff of popcorn drifts through the air. I could try to explain these things to the kiddos but it’s probably best not to even try…

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During the course of the last twenty or so years just remembering the drive in theater experience has served little or no purpose other than to make me just feel old. Younger people have NO idea what it was like for a community to come together under the stars, sit on the tailgates of their pickup trucks, SUVs and watch a movie. The combined smell of hot buttered popcorn, burning PIC coils, the sound of tinny country music coming from those aluminum speakers mounted on the car windows in between the movies….all of these things have become shadowy fragmented memories in the dusty cob-webbed part of my mind; kids today have no idea what this was like.

During the 80s and early 90s the multiplex theaters, cable TV, home video, the advent of the home theater system and the ease of picking up a movie at the video store collectively nibbled away at any appeal the drive in theater could have ever had for most families and once the drive ins one by one disappeared they turned on each other until only Netflix and Redbox remained standing. Today picking up a movie to take home and slip into the DVD/BluRay player has become as sterile an act as buying a soft drink from a vending machine and considering the average film Hollywood chooses to offer these days is just a tad bit more entertaining.

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I’ve written about this subject here before on my humble little blog. The general response I get goes along the lines of “ I “watched” most of the movies from the back seat” (hyuk hyuk) I’ve driven all over Texas taking photos of what’s left of old abandoned drive ins for years and felt like an archeologist doing it; taking snapshots of decaying screens and crumbling snack bars, slabs of concrete where ticket booths once stood, tiles where the restrooms once were, sawed-off poles where speakers were once mounted.

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Sometimes I get chased off by homeless people who have moved into the empty projection booths and claimed them as their “turf” or security guards who think I am scavenging for scrap metal to sell. I’ve tried in vain to explain to puzzled police officers what I was doing there; my explanation about taking photos of a vacant lot where a drive in used to be from some time before when the still-wet-behind-the-ears police officer half my age was even born doesn’t always “wash” “Come on, be honest; what are you REALLY doing here?” As the late great Rodney Dangerfield used to say: “It ain’t easy being me.”

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The last functioning drive in here in Fort Worth was the Mansfield; I can even remember the last double feature they had: ALIENS 3 and BATMAN RETURNS (goddam I’m feeling old right now) Somewhere around 1992 the owner called it quits, tore down the screens and the snack bar and only a crumbling pile of roofing tiles sits where the ticket booth was today. And here in the second largest state in the US according to http://www.drive-ins.com/ only a mere seventeen drive-ins remain open today. But fortunately one of them includes The Coyote here in Fort Worth which opened last year. Needless to say I’m sure I wasn’t alone when I was skeptical about its potential to be commercially viable for multiple reasons but if the long slow-moving line of cars, trucks and SUVs at the ticket booth last night was any indicator, it might just make it.

As much as I cherish the drive in experience, I had been waiting for just the right movie before I would pry my ass off the futon and go check out the Coyote. To me a “drive-in movie” has to have one or more of three main elements: sex, violence or monsters and so far the Coyote has catered to a family audience showing films like THE BUTLER which was a good film but not by my definition a drive in movie. However this week I folded when I noticed the GODZILLA re-make on the bill. A good cheesy monster movie on the big screen under the starry Texas sky? I am there! We bought tickets in advance online ($16) tossed chairs and a portable radio into the car and off we went.

The Coyote is a three-screen theater on a large plot of land just north of downtown Fort Worth and appears to be a very well-run operation that employs a lot of people. It’s very glitzy with lots of festive colored lights, a huge snack bar, restrooms designed for crowds ( a big plus) and even has a place for bands to play by the snack bar while the crowds wait for it to get dark enough for the movie to start. I remember walking to the snack bar at the Mansfield drive in with my friend Tom back right before they closed and looking at the roof and thinking how cool it would be to have bands playing on the roof (“Rock and Roll drive-in!”) The drive in was miles from the nearest residence and there was no one else to disturb; well the Coyote has taken my idea and run with it apparently.

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The snack bar has a large variety of semi-reasonably priced snacks and even a wet bar for those so inclined. Several off-duty members of the FWPD direct traffic in and out of the drive-in and there appeared to be numerous staff members everywhere to help direct traffic, answer questions and otherwise make sure the evening went well and as planned for everyone. The place was packed when we got there and we had to drive around for a few minutes to find a decent place to park but found one and we got settled in in no time.

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I sat the folding chairs in front of the car, lit PIC mosquito coils, sprayed the wife and I down with repellent (the Trinity river flows not far from the Coyote) , bought a large popcorn and two large drinks ($16 total), positioned the boombox behind us on the car hood and dialed it into the theaters station. Let the movie begin! All around us families were doing pretty much the same thing; I was overcome with a glowing sense of nostalgia looking at the kids sitting on pickup truck tailgates waiting for sundown so the movie could start. The drive-in was packed with a wide cross-section of people of all races and creeds and everyone seemed to be in a good mood. Despite being packed into a small space, everyone I saw was smiling; I didn’t see anyone pushing, shoving or otherwise behaving in any rude fashion whatsoever. The drive-in was in some strange way restoring my faith in mankind. This is the way our society is supposed to work.

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The sun finally went down and the movie began. Godzilla lumbered across the big screen, fought two other monsters and triumphantly sauntered off into the ocean presumably to return for future sequels two hours later. I didn’t for once mind the special effects being CGI instead of the guy in the big floppy rubber suit; it was nice to sit under the starry Texas sky once again and watch monsters on a drive in screen for the first time in over twenty years. My wife and I sat next to each other in our chairs, held hands and smiled at each other as the monsters roared and battled each other on the giant screen. This is the way movies were intended to be watched.

 

You must realize of course this is a very abbreviated list; but for the sake of brevity this list must be limited to ten. But there are indeed certain films I cannot for whatever reason I can’t seem to stop viewing over and over.
In some cases I will admit these films become excuses not to do something I don’t want to do (like work) For example let’s say I’m walking out the door to go to the store and I notice they are showing DUCK SOUP on cable. That’s it forget it; the store can just wait. Toss the keys down; I’m not going anywhere.
But I watch all of these movies and sit in awe of how well they are crafted. In some cases the director had the budget to do what he wanted; in others there was no budget. Yet in all of them the director had a vision and managed to get it on the screen.

A BUCKET OF BLOOD – Filmed in five days on a micro-budget of $50,000 this film still amazes me. The dialogue is a little clunky; some of the lines in it are truly cringe-worthy but overall it is still an incredible achievement in and of itself. As an avid jazz lover I can’t help but love the sax on the soundtrack. Director Roger Corman also put together an excellent cast which includes the late Burt Convy as an undercover narcotics policeman and it stars one of my favorite character actors, Dick Miller. Wish Corman could have thought of a better title, but the film takes quite the jab at the art world in no small way and despite the fact this film came out the year I was born (1958) it is really quite timeless.
Dick Miller is a busboy at a beatnik coffeehouse populated by a ne’er-do-well crowd of haughty pretentious hipster artists and poets. He longs to be accepted by them and attempts to sculpt with clay but finds sadly he has no real talent. One night he accidentally kills a cat, covers it with clay and takes it to the coffeehouse and displays it where it is adored by the unknowing bohemians. Overnight he becomes the darling of the art world but is faced with the dilemma of having to come up with more “sculptures” …
This has been released in several versions on DVD and in 1995 was a pretty decent re-make with Michael Anthony Hall (of all people) but is also worth looking for if you haven’t seen it.
Here is the opening sequence to the original:

THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY – Hands down my favorite Western and probably my favorite Clint Eastwood movie. It’s about thirty minutes too long; I think Sergio Leone was getting carried away in trying to achieve epic status here. The Civil War battle sequence ( that never actually was fought in Texas by the way ) towards the end is impressive but serves little purpose in advancing the story but overall this is still an astoundingly well-crafted film. Featuring a great soundtrack I never get tired of hearing, a good cast, indelible imagery, and a fairly timeless storyline, it all adds up to a well-spent day when I blow off yard work or housework to watch this.

ITS A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD – Director Stanley Kramer was attempting to lense the comedy to end all comedies and didn’t quite succeed but it remains an admirable effort to this day. Shot in 1962-63 on a then-unheard of budget of 9.4 million Kramer threw in everything but the kitchen sink. The list of comedians who he didn’t use is a short one; almost anyone and everyone who had any degree of box-office drawing power is in here. It’s easy to forget that back then Sid Caesar and Milton Berle were HUGE on TV but many of the stars look way too old to be doing physical comedy. The film was almost universally critically reviled by the violent carnage displayed repeatedly in the film; many innocent bystanders have their property and belonging destroyed. Stanley Kramer was reportedly one of the nicest men in Hollywood but there is an underlying mean-spiritedness to the film and certain bits of dialogue are repeated endlessly.
However I find it a visual treat if for nothing else all the footage of early 1960’s Southern California. I was with two friends driving up the Pacific Coast Highway in the early 90’s when we came up the ramp that is shown at the end leading up to the big “W” ( it actually just goes up to downtown Santa Monica) we all got excited upon recognizing it. The water in the Pacific was still blue then instead of the puke-green it is today and if nothing else Kramer’s film is a delightful time-capsule of another era.
Released as a 155-minute version twice in the 1980s , look for the 180-minute version they are showing on Turner Classics which features some extra footage that was discovered in a warehouse in the 90’s.

KING KONG (original 1933 version) – Think I got about halfway through the new CGI fuck-fest version before I had to stop it. The original version of this film has some really corny dialogue and yeah you can sometimes see fingerprints on Kong’s pelt but I still prefer this version; you can’t generate the same charm this movie holds even today with CGI. This was a great example of how magical movies could truly be.

TIE: MAD MAX/ THE ROAD WARRIOR – When either of these comes on TV I drop everything even if I do own the DVDs. George Millers chilling vision of the future seems more and more plausible today more than ever as the oil reserves dwindle and little is being done to prepare for it. Almost seamlessly made both films hold my attention from beginning to end; there is little footage I would edit out. How many Hollywood films are this efficiently made?

POLYESTER – John Waters refers to this as a landmark in his career; it was indeed the first film he made with the help of a mainstream Hollywood production company (New Line) as well as an actual Hollywood “star” (Tab Hunter)
I like it because it’s the first John Waters film I could show my family ( my Sunday School teacher mother laughed at it; even the parts I thought would offend her) and also because it is also a good safe introduction to John Waters work. And it is indeed a very funny film.
No matter how many times I watch it I laugh at certain characters and lines of dialogue. Like the directors of silent films John Waters has a good eye for people with interesting faces. I love hearing Tab Hunter sing the title song during the opening credits and the song Bill Murray sings when Devine and Tab Hunter meet ( at a fatal auto accident) and go for a ride in his Corvette. I howl every time at porno theater Elmer Fishpaw shoving a protester aside (“You’re a Christian motherfucker!”) and Waters jabs at the media (“the Baltimore Footstomper has struck again…”) are priceless to this day. Pink Flamingos and Hairspray are the two everyone knows Waters for today, but this is my favorite of all his films.

 

THE PRODUCERS ( 1968 version ) – Mel Brooks masterpiece. Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder would never again appear in a superior production. Utterly flawless from beginning to end. I watch this film on my knees genuflecting in worship. Perfect.

REPO MAN – Not a perfect film; there are certain lines that make little sense but they are overshadowed by the seemingly endlessly quotable lines. (“Good night/day; whatever it is….”)
A perfect film for the Reagan Years with a still-great soundtrack. Director Alex Cox would never make a film this good no matter what budget he was given. They still show this on cable a lot and I drop whatever I’m doing and watch it when it comes on.

THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE ( 1973 ) – one of the greatest drive-in movies ever made and a classic exploitation flick as well. Banned in Great Britain and France for years, the title alone makes your mind race before you even see a single frame of film. However there really isn’t a lot of actual blood in this film and very little of it really has to be edited for television audiences. Director Tobe Hooper ran out of money and borrowed cash from the Sopranos-type character who made a fortune off of the porno hit “Deep Throat” and didn’t read the fine print. He lost control of his film and it went on to become dollar-for-dollar one of the most profitable films ever made.
Still riveting from beginning to end; you can feel the Texas humidity in the scenes in the van at the beginning and smell that dead armadillo shown on the highway. A modern day equivalent of a ghost story told around a campfire, this film holds up well despite all of the years since its release.

Okay there you have it; ten of my favorites. There’s more; many more but this will give you a good idea what’s on the TV at my house at any given moment. Now go away; I’ve got movies to watch…