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.

The-Last-Drive-In.jpg

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.

Briggs2.jpg

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.

 

It Follows and Suburban Fears of the Other

I’m straying a little bit from the usual poet-oriented posts to offer some criticism on the horror film It Follows, one of the best horror films I’ve seen in a few years. If you’ve seen the film, I hope that you enjoy this read.

John Carpenter, director of the original Halloween, The Thing, and other iconic horror movies, states in the documentary American Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue that American horror movies are very much about our fear of “the other,” something or someone different that will threaten our tribe. His own movies very much deal with this theme. In his remake of the The Thing, the monster is a shape shifter/parasite/alien that infects a group of scientists working in Alaska. In Halloween, Michael Myers terrorizes a quiet, sleepy suburban Illinois town and picks off teenagers one by one.

It Follows is very much a movie that plays with the trope that Carpenter mentioned, fears of “the other,” and like Halloween, it raises questions about where the other comes from. The opening shot establishes the setting and resembles some of the early shots in Halloween in that we see big houses and tree-lined streets, thus establishing the setting of what should be a safe suburban town. However, in both films that sense of security that suburbia should provide, specifically keeping bad things out, is shattered. In the opening scene of Halloween, the initial camera sequence is from Michael Myers’s point of view, as he roams through the rooms of his house, picks up a butcher knife and kills his sister as she’s having sex. In those first few moments of the film, however, the viewer has no idea that the killer is a child, a young Michael Myers, until a few shots later, when the camera angle shifts to third person, and we see him standing on the lawn, dressed in a clown costume, holding a bloody knife. Terror doesn’t come from the outside, but rather, it comes from the inside. About 20-30 minutes into the film, once Michael Myers is grown up and escapes from a mental hospital, he returns to his hometown to kill off teenagers.

After the opening shot of tree-lined streets and nice houses in It Follows, the viewer then sees a teenager, Annie, run out of her house, screaming, before she drives to a beach,where she leaves a panicked message for her father.  As the film progresses and moves towards the opening shot, we learn the source of her terror.

Early in the film, the protagonist, Jay, has sex in  a car with a boy older than her. He goes by the name of Hugh, but viewers later learn that his real name is Jeff. At first, little is known about him, but it can be assumes that he’s from the rougher side of the tracks, since he tells Jay that he doesn’t want to go back to his place because he doesn’t want to show her where he lives. After they have sex, he tells her that he passed on something to her, which he inherited from his last sexual partner. He then tells her that this thing can come in any form and can be someone she knows or someone she doesn’t know, but if it touches her, she’ll die.

During the rest of the film, Jay spends her time fleeing this creature in various forms, a creature that only she can see. She and her friends also visit Detroit, and in one scene, the friends chat about how their parents always told them to stay away from the city and stay in the suburbs. During their attempts to locate Jeff in the city, the viewer sees shots of bombed out buildings, which reinforces the idea of “the other,” that everything bad came from the city, including the man that Jay encountered and the sexual partner who passed down the evil to him.

However, the friends eventually learn that Jeff was not from the city, but rather, he attended high school in the suburbs, and they find him hiding out at his parents’s safe suburban home. He faked his name, though, and rented a house in the city to lure in a young woman and pass down the evil. His true identity is important, however, because it shows that the real terror lurks in the suburbs, not in the inner-city. It didn’t come from outside, but rather from within.

In this regard, the nameless, shape-shifting villain in It Follows is similar to other iconic horror movie villains, including Michael Myers, a boy from the suburbs, who, for seemingly no reason, kills his sister as a boy and returns to his hometown to commit additional murders. The evil is similar to Freddy Kreuger, a child molester who was burned to death by the townspeople and then returns as a supernatural entity to kill, in dreams, the children of the suburban parents who burned him alive. Even in Poltergeist, the evil does not come from outside, but from within. A family moves into a home in a development, and are terrorized by poltergeists. About mid-way through the film, the father learns that the development was built on an Indian burial ground, thus the cause of the haunting.

It Follows also gives a nod to another horror trope: sex and consequence. In the Friday the 13th movies, any teenagers who have sex are murdered by Jason. In American Dreams in Red, White, and Blue, Jason is even compared to a vicious, Old Testament kind of figure, eager to butcher anyone who strays from the straight and moral path. It is indeed significant that the creature in It Follows is passed down through sex. However, It Follows is a little more liberal in its treatment of teenage sex, or perhaps it lies somewhere in the middle of Friday the 13th and David Cronenberg’s 1970s film Shivers, which is about blood parasites that make their hosts hyper-sexual. There are some scenes of It Follows that resemble Shivers. In one of the final scenes, Jay and her friends hide out at a public, indoor pool. They hope to trap the creature in water and electrocute it, using lamps, TVs, and other appliances they lugged from their suburban homes. The pool itself and the colors in the shot, especially all of the yellow, resemble the closing scene in Shivers, when the creature/parasite infects the last person who doesn’t have it, and essentially, the film ends in an orgy, thus making a statement that sexual desires are impossible to avoid.

That scene in It Follows is different, however. Jay doesn’t succumb to the shape-shifting creature. Instead, she resists it, fights it, and flees from it yet again. Furthermore, throughout the film, Jay’s childhood friend, Paul, pleads with her to have sex with him to pass it on. She refuses, however, especially after she has sex with another character and the creature kills him. Ultimately, though, Jay does have sex with Paul, and the closing shot shows them walking down their suburban street, holding hands, while someone walks feet behind them. It’s not clear, however, if the person following them is the creature in yet another form, or someone normal. The viewer is left to guess.

It Follows makes a middle-ground statement regarding sex. Jay and Paul have sex and aren’t killed off Jason-style. Even Jeff doesn’t die, despite his confession that he contracted the evil after a one-night stand with a woman he met in the bar. However, it can be interpreted that only once Jay has sex that is meaningful, with someone who cares about her, is she safe. She survives and is no longer running by the closing shot.

In many ways, It Follows is about the old classic horror trope of the other. In the film, the other takes the shape of the inner-city creeping into the suburbs, an American fear that stems back to the great white flight of the 1950s and 1960s and has returned in the age of Occupy, a bankrupt Detroit, and class inequality/racial tensions. But the other also takes the shape of teenage sex. The creature literally stalks characters because it is passed down through sex. Yet, in the end, Jay has sex, and survives. So sex becomes less threatening.

There are other aspects of the film to note. Its music and even some of its set design/displays, such as the lamps, station wagons, and even a typewriter, resemble 1960s/1970s America, a time period that was iconic for American horror film. Yet, the film is supposed to be set in present day Detroit ‘burbs. There is a wonderful scene too, when Jay is sitting in a college classroom, listening to a professor read Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a poem all about “the cry of the occasion,” sex, the consequences of sex, and death. Prufrock ponders sex, women, and fears that he is getting old. Like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” It Follows is a film that analyzes the consequences of sex and how our past partners shape us and carry us to the present. We can’t run from it or avoid it. It follows.