Monday, April 9, 2018

"I'm Gonna Serve You Popcorn in Bed" - Drive In Massacre (1976)

At Senseless Cinema, we are partial to minimalist horror films (for example, see The Prey, A Day of Judgment, and Night of 1,000 Cats). Few horror films, however, are as committed to minimalism as 1976's Drive In Massacre, a near masterpiece of minimal locations, characters, and situations.

As usual, many of your universe's esteemed critics fail to see the genius of the film. Reviewer  BaronBl00d writes, "Dreadful film....The direction is sub-par as the lighting is barely able to illuminate much of the action at night. The gore is ridiculously inept in execution, and the editing is just as flawed." Coventry writes, "This is a truly abysmal low-budget horror flick, put together by a bunch of amateurs that know nothing about cinema." Thorsten-Krings writes, "This has to be one of the worst films I have ever seen in any genre."

Fortunately, I am here to defend the film from these cinematic taste-makers. Read on to see how Drive In Massacre should be--no, must be--appreciated...

The film begins by panning across an empty drive-in theater, the Simi, at dusk. Titles tell us “On August 10th in a California Drive-In it all began...” After the film’s title appears, drive-in employees guide patrons into the lot. The manager, a bald man in a checkered jacket wearing a phony beard, berates the customers as they drive in.

In one car, a man and woman discuss how fun it will be to have their own house. “I’m gonna serve you popcorn in bed,” says the woman.

“We won’t have to get up and walk 50 miles between cars to get a root beer,” replies the man, perhaps with some exaggeration.

They quickly decide they want to have a baby, so they start the process in the front seat of their car, but the movie starts and distracts the man, who reaches out of the car to get the drive-in speaker. We watch a sword blade descend, cutting off not the man’s hand but his head.

The blade enters the car from somewhere—this is a bit confusing, as the passenger window is closed—and impales the woman’s throat.

The crime is assigned to a detective who resembles Joe Don Baker, and his partner, another detective who resembles Joe Don Baker.

“Must have been King Kong,” says one of the detectives perceptively. “One clean swipe on each victim.” (The detective is clearly a well informed afficianado of the King Kong movies.)

The detectives visit the drive-in to speak with the manager, Austin Johnson. When asked if he has seen anyone suspicious around the theater, Johnson—now dressed in a fashionable purple turtleneck with a large crucifix—says, “Everybody that comes in here is crazy.”

The detectives also talk to a homeless man who sweeps up around the theater, a former circus geek (and self-confessed sword swallower) named The Great Gormy, though his friends call him Germy. (In a fascinating character touch, Germy tells us he lost all his teach biting off snake heads. Chicken heads too.)

“Did you ever see anything strange, anything unusual occurring?” asks the detective.

“No,” Germy replies. “Just the movies. And the kids.”

Germy also informs the detectives that the owner of the theater, Mr. Van Houzen, owns a collection of swords and knives, though the man lives in Hawaii.

The film next presents one of its comic highlights as we view, in a static camera shot, parked cars in the drive-in at night for approximately 15 minutes.  (It seems business at the theater has not been affected by news of the gory double murder the previous night.) A car slowly pulls down a row, then even more slowly slowly turns into a parking spot. There is a crash as the car scrapes the speaker stand. Then, after a hilarious moment of stillness, the car backs up to adjust its position.

The driver, Orville Ingleson, seems to be a voyeur. He watches a middle aged couple in another car arguing about the affair they’re having, and the fact that the woman is pregnant. “Two people got killed here last night,” says the woman as the couple begins to kiss.

“Nothing will ever happen,” says the man. “Come on, don’t be silly. That was last night, tonight’s tonight.”

The voyeur gets out of his car and sneaks closer to the couple’s car, looking in the window intently. Twice.

Suddenly, shockingly, a sword comes out of nowhere to impale both members of the couple.

The next day, the detectives are lectured by the police consulting psychiatrist. “The toughest thing about this kind of case is that there is no overall pattern for a psychotic killer. If there is any pattern at all,” he adds profoundly, “it becomes an individual thing.” (The attentive viewer might take issue with the assertion there is no pattern, as both murders so far have been nearly identical.)

Somehow, the detectives have acquired the murder weapon, though there are no prints. They bring Germy to the station to ask him about the sword, but he has no information about this particular sword. Germy, however, does provide another lead: Austin Johnson, the theater manager, was trained as a sword swallower and knife thrower but was never successful at it.

“Doesn’t it seem strange,” asks one detective, perhaps voicing the perceptions of the audience, “that there are two former sword handlers, knife throwers working at a place where four murders have been committed with swords and knives?”

“I don’t know,” says Germy in a possibly self-incriminating manner. “I mean, Mr. Johnson was never any good.”

The detectives visit Orville Ingleson, whose license plate Germy has supplied. Mr. Ingleson is clearly a voyeur, as all the walls of his nice home are pasted with nude pinups. This interrogation scene is one of the most fascinating in the film, as we watch one of the detectives flub his line, and then start over again, revealing his process as an actor.

The interrogation goes nowhere until the detectives investigate Mr. Ingleson’s car, only to find what appears to be a big white rag, but which we are later told is a dead dog. The detectives chase Ingleson through the neighborhood, finally catching up with him. “It was only a dog! Dog’s don’t...On my way home, I ran over a dog! I took it to a vet, the all night vet down on Ventura!”

Later, we find out Ingleson was released because the object in his car was just a dead dog. He is back at the drive-in the next night, but this time the detectives stake the place out in their own car. In a well-timed comic reveal, we see that one of the detectives is wearing a hat and wig, presumably to fool Ingleson into thinking the two are a couple ready to make out in their car.

“You look just gorgeous, sweetie,” says one detective.

“You sound just like a horny husband,” says the other.

While the detectives attempt to avail themselves of the rest rooms, one of the drive-in patrons returns to his car to find that his wife has been decapitated offscreen. He finds this out when he enters the car, turns on the engine, and reverses out of the parking spot, an action which causes his wife’s teetering head to fall forward.

Shockingly, the voyeur Ingleson has also been murdered, all unnoticed by the detectives and the other patrons.

With the prime suspect murdered, the detectives haul in the manager, the belligerent Austin Johnson. When Germy hands a ham sandwich to one of the detectives, Mr. Johnson wittily remarks, “Be careful, you might be eating your father,” a reference to the colloquialism that policemen—and perhaps policemen’s fathers—are “pigs.”

We are next treated to an extended sequence in which Germy walks around a carnival while dialogue from the earlier parts of the film fill the soundtrack.

The film takes an exciting turn when the detectives find out a murderer who killed two people with a machete is holed up in a warehouse with a hostage. The murderer is played by a bloody-shirted George Buck Flower, who wrote the screenplay under the pseudonym Buck Flowers. Mr. Flower drags his hostage through the warehouse and threatens to kill her before she loses her childish innocence.

Mr. Flower’s rampage is cut short when we hear police sirens. We see the detectives’ car, apparently emitting a siren, though there appears to be no speaker apparatus whatsoever either outside or inside the car.

The two Joe Don Bakers enter the warehouse and surround Mr. Flower, who is now armed with both a pistol and a machete. They shoot Mr. Flower, and then find out that he couldn’t be the drive-in killer because he escaped from a hospital only today. (This is not to mention that he was the father of his hostage, though instead of using her name he called her “little girl” endlessly while in the warehouse.) (This is also not to mention that the girl is played by Mr. Flower's real life daughter Verkina, who also appeared along with her father in Bill Rebane's The Capture of Bigfoot, and also in Herb Freed's Beyond Evil.)

In the end, Germy returns to the drive-in to confront Austin Johnson inside the projection building. We see a shadow projected onto the screen of a man impaled by a sword, which plays over the Western the theater is showing.

In the conclusion that is only slightly confusing, the detectives apparently find Austin Johnson dead near the projector, though we never see the body or hear any confirmation that Mr. Johnson is dead. The detectives, understandably believing that Germy is the sword-wielding killer, search the building, only to find that Germy has been murdered as well.

I will not spoil the final shot, which includes a superimposed narrative as well as a voice-over, but suffice it to say the finale is quite spectacular, even apocalyptic, in its commitment to breaking the proverbial fourth wall.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, the most notable quality of director Stu Segall's Drive In Massacre is its commitment to minimalism. Indeed, the film is so minimalist that even its title does not even have a dash between the words "Drive" and "In." Further, the minimalism is taken to almost extreme lengths by the casting of the two detectives, who look and act virtually identical.

Cleverly, the minimalism extends outward from the screen as well, in the sense that it was designed to be watched by patrons of drive-in move theaters. The environment within the film is identical to the environment outside the film! One can only imagine the reactions of the drive-in theatergoers when the film originally played in 1976. Perhaps for some more sensitive viewers the distinction between reality and fantasy broke down, and they imagined the murders from the film occurring in the real world. (Such an experience would be encouraged by the finale of the film, which, again, I will not reveal here.)