Monday, October 16, 2017

Springmill Drive-In: Classic Horror Films from the 1970s

Cody went to a drive-in for a quadruple feature of 1970s horror movies.

As I said the other week when I went to the "Classic Horror Filmes from the 1940s" marathon at the Springmill Drive-In, that place is celebrating the Halloween season so hard this year that I probably wouldn't even be able to make it to all of their marathons. That has proven true - I missed the '50s marathon weekend and the '60s marathon weekend. But when the 1970s marathon weekend rolled around, I was there again... Even though, for the first time ever, I arrived at the drive-in late and a movie was already showing by the time I chose my parking spot. Luckily, I pretty much only missed the opening credits of the marathon's first film -

7:20pm - HORROR EXPRESS (1972) 

This was far from the first time I had watched Horror Express, and a look at its opening credits might lead you to believe that I had sought it out for my first viewing of it simply because it's a classic horror film starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing (with bonus Telly Savalas!). That wasn't actually the case. My first viewing of Horror Express came about because someone had said that the basic plot of the Friday the 13th sequel Jason X - which finds slasher Jason Voorhees getting cryogenically frozen in the 21st century and then thawing out to continue his killing spree on board a space ship in the year 2455 - reminded them of this movie. So while I waited for Jason X to reach theatres in 2002, I gave Horror Express a viewing.

To compare it to films that came out after, the story director Gene Martin and writers Arnaud d'Usseau and Julian Halevy told here is like Jason X mixed with John Carpenter's The Thing - so it may well have been inspired by 1951's The Thing from Another World and the source material it shares with The Thing, John W. Campbell Jr.'s story Who Goes There?

Lee stars as Professor Sir Alexander Saxton, who has found an early human "missing link" creature frozen in ice while on an expedition in China. He has his find crated up and loaded onto a train to Moscow... and during the trans-Siberian journey that follows, the creature thaws out, escapes from its crate, and starts killing passengers and crew. But this isn't about a feral caveman rampaging through a train. This creature is inhabited by an ancient life form that came to Earth during prehistoric times and had been surviving by moving from one being to another, before it was frozen in the humanoid body. Now that it has awakened on board the train, its essence can move into someone else's body if the one it's in becomes too damaged. (Also like Jason Goes to Hell.)

So not only do the people on the train have to deal with the fact that there's a monster on board that can kill them with just a look of its red-glowing eyes - a look that will boil their eyeballs and wipe their brains clean as the creature absorbs their knowledge - but they also have to try to figure out who among them is the thing.

An interesting cast of characters are dropped into this ordeal. There's Cushing as a doctor named Wells, a police inspector (Julio Pena), a count and countess (George Rigaud and Silvia Tortosa), and an off-kilter monk (Alberto de Mendoza), who starts as a man of God but quickly switches alliances when he thinks Satan himself is on the train and becomes an eager servant of the creature. That monk, Father Pujardov, is the creepiest thing about this movie. With people turning up dead on the train, it's stopped in the midst of Siberia so authorities led by Captain Kazan (Savalas) can board and try to solve the case. I was enjoying the movie up to that point when I first watched it, but when Savalas arrived in the picture to chew the scenery and belittle the passengers, my enjoyment reached a whole new level. Savalas is a blast to watch in his role.

I find that Horror Express can be a bit tough to get into at times, it has sort of an off-puttingly stuffy atmosphere and can feel slow, but once I click into it I have fun with it. It's a good movie with an interesting set-up, a strong cast, and a dangerous monster.

It has some goofball scenes here and there, too. Especially when Lee and Cushing are able to look through the creature's history by examining fluid extracted from its eyeballs - somehow the images of what it has seen are saved within the fluid. It's laughable, but I can go with it.

8:50pm - THE DRILLER KILLER (1979)

Since I had arrived late for Horror Express, I had to dive right in to watching the movie, I couldn't go to the concession stand yet. As soon as the movie ended, I let my dogs Zeppelin and Mr. Jeeves out of the car so they could pee, then I went and got a snack - a large bucket of popcorn - and a drink.

I'm glad I had popcorn keeping me busy during the second movie, because if I didn't have something else to entertain me during The Driller Killer it would have been very unpleasant. The movie drags along at a snail's pace, not even getting to a good amount of drilling until it's almost two-thirds over. As the story meandered across the screen, I could feel my life ticking away a minute at a time.

Written by Nicholas St. John and directed by Abel Ferrara, who also stars as the lead character, The Driller Killer is about artist Reno Miller, who shares an apartment with his recently divorced girlfriend Carol (Carolyn Marz) and Carol's girlfriend Pamela (Baybi Day). Struggling to complete his new painting, Reno is slowly... oh, so very slowly... driven insane by financial troubles, the state of society, and his new neighbors, a band that plays all through the night and day. Eventually he hooks a drill up to a portable battery pack and goes on a killing spree, with random homeless people getting it the worst.

The Driller Killer is a cult favorite, but I am definitely not in its cult. The movie does nothing for me, although it does show that a filmmaker can get a career started even if they don't have access to anything other than a camera, an apartment, and a drill, and happen to know a band that creates insufferable music that would drive anyone insane. Ferrara proceeded to feature way too much of that band's music in a movie that is very poorly structured.

It worked out for him, though.

10:30pm - SCREAM BLOODY MURDER (1973)

The poster for Scream Bloody Murder proudly boasts that it's the "first movie to be called gore-nography", but it's really not that gory - H.G. Lewis had been making much gorier movies than this, like Blood Feast, for ten years by the time this movie came out. It doesn't live up to the "gore-nography" label, but it's definitely trying very hard to be shocking.

Directed by Marc B. Ray from a screenplay he wrote with Larry Alexander, the movie starts with a bizarre scene in which a young boy named Matthew runs over his dad with a tractor, then hops off the moving vehicle and gets his left arm crushed under the treads. Matthew's hand has to be replaced with a hook, and the boy grows up in a mental institution. Released as an adult, he's appalled to find out that his mother has remarried - he has the most severe mommy issues this side of Norman Bates, so he has to get his new stepfather out of his life as well. Unfortunately, mom is upset when she finds that Matthew has killed another one of her husbands, and she doesn't survive her confrontation with Matthew, either.

So Matthew wanders off through the countryside, killing people when they remind him of his mother and the men in her life. Soon enough he meets a young woman named Vera (Leigh Mitchell) and decides that he needs her for his own. To get Vera to fall for him, he decides he needs to seem impressive, so he kills all of the inhabitants of a large mansion so he can pass the place off as his own home.

Remember when I said this movie is trying hard to be shocking? It doesn't just do so with its bloody kills or with Matthew's hang-ups. The most obvious instance of the film trying to have an effect on the audience comes when he kills the dog that lives in the mansion. This dog is the most compliant canine you'd ever want to see. It doesn't bark at Matthew, it walks along with him when he wants it to, it even climbs up on the kitchen counter and lays down when he tells it to. There's no reason he couldn't keep this dog around. Except Marc B. Ray wanted to get a reaction out of viewers, so Matthew chops the dog's head off with a cleaver. (No, this isn't a Cannibal Holocaust sort of movie, the beheading happens off screen and I'm sure the dog, credited as Winnifred, went home just fine that day.)

The mansion still isn't enough to get Vera to fall for Matthew, so he has to just capture her and keep her tied up in hopes that she'll eventually accept that she now belongs to him and is named Daisy.

Matthew didn't exactly plan his mansion takeover out all that well, though, at the situation there starts to fall apart. The owner of the mansion was an elderly woman, and after a few days her doctor shows up at the door. That doctor is played by Angus Scrimm, who would go on to star as the iconic horror character The Tall Man in the Phantasm franchise, so of course Scrimm's scene was my favorite part of the whole show.

Scream Bloody Murder was a great movie to see at a drive-in, because this thing is the definition of a "drive-in movie". Cheap, sleazy, designed to thrill and shock, this is the sort of film that was made specifically to be shown at this sort of venue, for drive-in crowds in the 1970s. Last year, Springmill Drive-In showed 1976's Drive-In Massacre as part of their horror marathons. Taking place at a drive-in, that is the #1 "made to be watched at a drive-in" movie, but this one was right up there with it.

As far as I can recall, this was the first time I had ever seen Scream Bloody Murder, which made it all the better. I had the intended viewing experience, just forty-four years later than Ray expected.

12:05am - DON'T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT (1973)

Director S.F. Brownrigg's Don't Look in the Basement was one of the first movies ever covered here on Life Between Frames. The blog started on January 1st, 2011, and on April 8th Jay Burleson wrote about the film for a Worth Mentioning article.

The story concerns a mental asylum where the head doctor has given the patients free rein to do pretty much whatever they want. The staff lives among the patients, and there are no locks on any of the doors. Unfortunately, this set-up doesn't work out too well for the people at Stephens Sanitarium and residents start dying in bloody, violent ways.

Don't Look in the Basement is a pretty crazy movie with lots of twists and turns and violent acts, but I'm not quite as fond of it as Jay is. It's a little slow for my taste, and I was feeling that slowness as I sat in the drive-in after midnight. I was getting too tired to handle the pace of this film, so I had to leave a little early. I have seen Don't Look in the Basement several times before, so I know what I was missing. It's a decent '70s cheapie, but not one I can handle late at night.

Interestingly, back in the '70s Don't Look in the Basement played at a lot of drive-ins in a double bill with Wes Craven's classic The Last House on the Left, a movie I like a lot and which I got to see at the drive-in last year.

The marathon's '70s lineup had its ups and downs for me, but overall I enjoyed the event and was glad to have the night out with my dogs, watching movies and munching popcorn.

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