Long Live the Drive-in and the Horror Host

My fiancé and I have stayed home for the last several Friday nights. It’s not because we desperately need to save money or because we don’t still enjoy a drink at a bar. We stay home every Friday because we tune into the horror streaming service Shudder to watch “The Last Drive-in with Joe Bob Briggs.” Every week, Briggs, formerly of TNT’s “Monster Vision,” hosts a double feature laced with commentary that’s a blend of  film criticism, humorous rants on everything from Tesla to beauty pageants, and most importantly, a serious love and knowledge of ALL aspects of the genre, from J-horror to American staples like Hellraiser and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The return of Briggs and the success of “The Last Drive-In” (the first marathon crashed Shudder’s servers back in July), proves that it’s time for the horror host to return and resurrect a sense of community that’s desperately needed in the age of social media and streaming devices.

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Watching Joe Bob every Friday involves more than simply pulling up Shudder. A host of fans, which Briggs long ago dubbed the drive-in mutant family, live tweets during the broadcast. Briggs’ assistant,  Diana “Darcy the Mail Girl” Prince, interacts with fans and retweets their observations, pictures, and art work. She deserves major props for fostering a community and helping with the show’s success. She, too, has an intense love and knowledge of the genre. Because of “The Last Drive-in,” films like Castle Freak and C.H.U.D. trended on Twitter, at least for one night. The show’s popularity also stems from Briggs’ astute commentary, which occurs during breaks,  while he’s seated in a lawn chair next to a trailer, holding a Lone Star beer (he is a native Texan, after all). Even if he doesn’t love every film, such as C.H.U.D., he still respects the art form enough to research the history and production, thus providing countless interesting tidbits, like how a screenplay came together or why the director made certain choices. With the rise of social media and sites like Rotten Tomatoes, it’s become common for us to simply offer a thumbs up or thumbs down to a film or various other art forms, without much nuanced opinion. Briggs is the contrast. His commentary contains layers. He’s able to remind the audience why there’s merit in even a long-forgotten B slasher movie like Madman, which he screened during the fourth episode. Even in the cheesiest film, he can find value and remind audiences that work still went into the screenplay, the set design, and the general production.

As Briggs has said during countless print and online interviews, streaming a film can be a lonely, isolating experience. Films are meant to be a communal experience, especially horror films. We enter a darkened theater to confront our fears and anxieties and probably feel a little better once the lights turn on and the monster has been defeated. Horror, as Stephen King has said, is a safety valve. But streaming services have removed that communal experience. Even video stores, where fans once roamed rows of VHS tapes or asked a clerk for a recommendation, are extinct. Shudder’s decision to revive the horror host back in July, when Briggs hosted 13 films in honor of Friday the 13th, was a bold move, and it was supposed to be a one-off, truly “The Last Drive-in.” However, it was too successful. Briggs then returned to host Thanksgiving and Christmas marathons, until returning permanently at the end of March for the Friday night double feature. What Shudder and “The Last Drive-in” have done is unique in the sense that they’ve taken the latest medium, the streaming service, but injected a much-needed communal aspect. It’s why Briggs’ show really should be seen live. Fans have harnessed social media to interact with each other during the broadcast. This venture has become so popular and successful that now, every Friday at 8 pm, Shudder features a one-hour countdown until the next episode of “The Last Drive-in,” which is just a live shot of the set, including the adorable Iguana Ernie, who typically just chills in his tank every week. On Twitter, fans post screen shots of their flat screens and whatever beer and food they ordered, as they hunker down for the double feature, which often lasts until 2 am or so, due to the commentary.

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Briggs and Darcy the Mail Girl

The age of the drive-in and watching movies on a big screen under a starry summer sky may be a nostalgic image of a bygone American era, but Briggs has proved that in this moment, the age of social media and broken politics, we desperately need that sense of community. The success of “The Last Drive-in” may cause other horror hosts who were once household names, like Elvira, to return to prime-time slots, either on Shudder or other streaming services.

Meanwhile, at least in northeastern, Pennsylvania, there is a chance to frequent local drive-ins, including the Mahoning Drive-in in Lehighton, which shows several horror features throughout the summer and fall months. They even host a Universal Monsters weekend and a slasher marathon in August dubbed Camp Blood, which includes games and costume contents. The Circle Drive-in in Dickson City screens newer films from spring to autumn every weekend, and last year, a Cult Movie Club formed, which focuses solely on horror. Screenings are once a month, starting in April and running through Halloween. Find them on Facebook for more info. Additionally, the NEPA Horror Film Festival is now held at the Circle Drive-in in October. The film fest showcases short independent films from filmmakers around the world. Who knows, one of them could be the next George A. Romero or Tobe Hooper. This year, there will be guests, including Felissa Rose (Angela in Sleepaway Camp), who appeared at the fest a few years ago and has been a frequent guest on Briggs’ show.

Streaming services aren’t going away, but “The Last Drive-in” has used that medium to create a community and bring horror fans together. The show’s wild success makes a definitive argument for other horror hosts to return.

 

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