by Steve Habrat
Over the past few years, the horror genre has slowly been clawing its way out of the grave and unleashing a small-but-scrappy string of winners that packed something the genre was seriously lacking—genuine scares. In between disposable Saw sequels, rancid torture porn, painful found footage rip-offs, and countless remakes that can only be labeled as unnecessary, horror fans were rewarded for their patience with above-average genre keepers like Insidious, The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers, The Cabin in the Woods, You’re Next, and The Conjuring, which kept hopes high that there would soon be a film that managed to generate the true, pulse-pounding fear of such classics as Halloween, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Exorcist, and Night of the Living Dead. In the span of just three short months, horror fans have gotten their wish with back-to-back efforts from two fresh cinematic voices. I am referring to Australian director Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows. Emerging from the shadows of the indie film community, Kent’s prickly demonic bedtime story has earned nearly unanimous praise from critics and has been promoted by a true master of terror, Exorcist director William Friedkin. And Mitchell’s teen nightmare has gained momentum over the past weeks through positive word-of-mouth for its shocking ability to create an almost overwhelming sense of paranoia and dread.
First, let us take a look at The Babadook, which tells the tale of Amelia (played by Essie Davis), a grieving widow who has her hands full with her disobedient young son, Sam (played by Noah Wiseman). One evening, Sam comes to Amelia with a mysterious pop-up book called ‘The Babadook,’ eager to hear the tale of a monster that knocks three times and then refuses to leave. Amelia reluctantly reads the eerie bedtime story to her erratic seed, but soon after shutting the book, a horrifying force begins tormenting the duo and manifesting as a ghastly entity hell-bent on driving Amelia and Sam out of their minds.
Buzzing with the spirit of such silent black-and-white classics as Nosferatu, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, this demonic thriller is a surprisingly thoughtful dissection of grief and the toll it can take on one’s psyche. Kent certainly doesn’t go to great lengths to mask the film’s shadowy depth, but it’s difficult to fault her for this because it forces you to get emotionally invested in the film. Those accustomed to horror films that simply make you jump by blasting the music or coaxing a character to leap out of the dark for a fake-out scare may find The Babadook’s slow-burn approach to be tedious, but I assure you that as Kent gains momentum, she delivers scares that cut like one of the Babadook’s jutting claws. This leads me to the monster, which the viewer only glimpses in brief flashes as it scampers in and out of the light, hiding its DIY tailoring and elevating ghoul’s lingering impact to the stuff of legend. When the lights are out, I guarantee you’ll shiver as you think back upon its spiderlike form and it’s raspy growls that ring out from all corners of Amelia’s home.
Performance wise, The Babadook features Oscar worthy turns from it’s small but very capable cast. Davis is a whirlwind of agony and grief as Amelia, the brokenhearted widow who clings to memories of her dead husband. Early on, it’s not hard to empathize with this exasperated mother, who is constantly trying to wrap her fragile mind around Sam’s horrible behavior. The young Wiseman excels at getting underneath the skin of both the audience and Amelia in ways that not many child actors can. At times, he can be even more uncompromising and terrifying than the film’s big, bad monster. Don’t be fooled by the initial character sketches that Kent slips the audience, as their personalities smoothly shift for a divisive finish that will leave some holding their breath and others rolling their eyes.
After you’ve gasped at Kent’s expressionistic night terror, compose yourself for Mitchell’s It Follows, which tells the story of teenage Jay (Maika Monroe), who finds herself smitten with a mysterious older boy. After a bizarre sexual encounter that leaves the beautiful blonde quivering half naked in the front yard of her suburban Detroit home, Jay realizes that this boy has passed on a mysterious force that will follow and attack until it is passed on to another partner. With the help of her colorful friends, Jay has to face down the force—which can manifest as anyone—before its too late.
Where The Babadook slithered out from horror’s lavish, black-and-white beginnings, It Follows draws its inspiration from the slasher films of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. You’d swear that the film is a long lost John Carpenter effort that sat overlooked on the shelf for nearly thirty years. As Mitchell’s camera hoovers around the decaying streets of Detroit, Michigan (another recent horror film that makes great use of the rundown Motor City is Only Lovers Left Alive), you’re left paralyzed from constant paranoia as the shape shifting monster can come lumbering towards our gang of protagonists at any given moment. When you’re not chewing down your fingernails and developing an ulcer from the expert tension wrung from each frame, you’ll be marveling at Mitchell’s retro visual and audio style, from the hazy, early ‘80s fashion that the gang sports, to the rusted cars (one kid rolls around in a Cutlass), classic public-access horror films the seem like they should be introduced by Vampira or Zacherle, and winking Halloween synths that compose the soundtrack. These broad strokes and well-placed touches manage to set It Follows apart from the mainstream horror bunch and mold it into a true work of fine art. Yet they also give the film a timeless feel, which compliments the film’s enduring subject matter (the fears that promiscuity can bring). There is no doubt in my mind that many exiting the theater will be furiously attempting to peel back the film’s onion-like layers.
As if you needed any more reasons to fall all over It Follows, Mitchell’s film is populated with a cast of kids who have some major chemistry. Each and every one injects a quirky spin that sets them apart from the countless other boring teens that shriek and sob as the monster closes in. Furthermore, none of them seem written in simply to up the body count and increase the film’s amount of splatter. Much like The Babadook, It Follows isn’t overly concerned with blood and guts. There are a few gross-out moments, and Mitchell doesn’t shy away from graphic nudity, but this sick puppy ends up being a beast at sending your anxiety through the roof. The only flaw I can find is the film’s wobbly climax, which finds our gang attempting to lure the force to one of the freakiest rec centers I’ve ever seen. Here it seems that Mitchell shifts into cheese territory, and in the process, he leaves bits and pieces of the action unexplained. Still, he redeems himself with a final shot that will leave many peering over their shoulders on the way home.
With both The Babadook and It Follows, horror sees two films that look back to the classics of past decades. Both Kent and Mitchell pay their respects, as they should since they have drawn their inspirations from the films that continues to haunt our dreams. Yet both directors pull off the impossible—they create unique offerings that are suspended in time. They are both fresh, exciting, buzz-worthy, and, most-importantly, sincere visions that will have us checking under the bed and peering out the blinds just before settling in for a night’s sleep. What makes these two masterpieces even more special is the way they will continue to win over generations of horror fans to come. I feel confident enough to say that I think these films will climb the ranks and sit proudly next to such classics that gave birth to them. So, to Kent and Mitchell, I say bravo. I will cherish these works for years to come. Grade: A
Today, a little over three hundred drive-in movie theaters remain sprinkled throughout the United States. This means that many Americans are not lucky enough to have a drive-in movie theater close by their home. In the drive-in’s heyday, small production companies would release B-movies tailor-made for the drive-in audience. There was everything from angry extraterrestrials to hip-shaking teenage beach parties, all of which are now enjoyed for their campy special effects and corny performances. Today, many of these films are available on DVD, Blu-ray, or Netflix, and can be enjoyed from the comfort of your couch. If you’re someone without the luxury of a drive-in theater nearby, you can create your own drive-in movie night right at home. Just grab any one of these out-of-this-world flicks, pop some pop corn, cook up a few hot dogs on the grill, grab a date or the kids, throw open the living room windows, and enjoy some light-hearted entertainment from yesteryear. For those looking for some more adult-oriented entertainment, there are also a few horror flicks that made the drive-in rounds. Just make sure to put little Johnny or Susie to bed before showtime.
- The Blob (1958)
Director Irvin Yeaworth’s The Blob was released late in the summer of 1958, but this cosmic freak-out still thrilled fresh-faced moviegoers with its
shapeless monster that consumed everything in its path. Starring a young Steve McQueen, this teenage monster movie will delight adults and children alike with its catchy theme song, playful action, and exciting climax that finds the alien menace oozing out of an indoor movie theater. Maybe Yeaworth was letting audiences know that the blob wasn’t meant for indoor viewing?
- Jaws (1975)
Released in the summer of 1975, when drive-ins were embracing harder-edged entertainment, director Steven Spielberg petrified audiences with Jaws, the ultimate summer movie. (Sorry Star Wars) Ripe with quotable one-liners and perfect viewing while peepers belt out their summer songs into the night air, Jaws is an essential experience for the young and the old. This movie just screams drive-in! You can just picture a young couple gripping onto each other as Brody tells Quint, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat…”
- Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957)
Originally intended as a serious slice of sci-fi entertainment, director Edward Cahn’s cosmic comedy boasts some of the cutest extraterrestrials to ever scamper across the big screen. Released by American International Pictures (AIP) in a double bill with I Was a Teenage Werewolf, Invasion of the Saucer Men runs just over an hour, making it a light and brief ride for younger viewers with short attention spans. Don’t worry about things getting too spooky, as kids are sure to adore the pint-sized aliens with their oversized heads. It also features a beer-drinking bull intruding on a make-out session. You just have to love ‘50s science fiction!
- The Beach Girls and the Monster (1965)
Beach party movies quickly became a favorite among drive-in audiences, as they blared hip surf rock from tiny transistor speakers and featured beautiful bods doing the twist in the California sun. While many of these films focused on young lovers dashing around on sandy beaches, a few dared to venture into spookier territory. Directed by Jon Hall, The Beach Girls and the Monster tries its darndest to pass itself off as a legitimate monster movie, but it delivers more unintentional comedy and is a bit more concerned with partying than it is with telling a gripping story. A sure hit with older teens who are sure to get a kick out of the campy monster who preys on bikini clad babes.
- I Drink Your Blood/I Eat Your Skin (1970)
As the drive-in theater rusted away and audiences got seedier, the entertainment got harder and nastier. One of the most famous double bills from the drive-in’s darker days is I Drink Your Blood/I Eat Your Skin, which was released by drive-in kingpin Jerry Gross. Horror and exploitation fans are guaranteed to love I Drink Your Blood’s copious amounts of gore and bad taste as tainted meat pies turn satanic hippies into wild-eyed zombies, and there is plenty of hilarious charisma dripping off of I Eat Your Skin’s black-and-white jungle-voodoo mayhem. I Eat Your Skin isn’t nearly as disgusting as its title suggests, but one thing is for sure, make sure you put this double feature on after the kiddies hit the hay.
- Them! (1954)
Released in the summer of 1954, this giant bug movie was released by Warner Bros. and packs some respectable tension. Telling the tale of a group of military personnel and scientists racing to stop a colony of giant ants, Them! is a hypnotic chiller from the Atomic Age that is more suitable for teenage viewers who will be surprised to discover just how eerie giant ants can be. Made with more money than some drive-in fare, Them!’s ants hold up incredibly well and the performances—specifically from James Arness and Edmund Gwenn—are A-list quality. A masterpiece genre film that ranks as a must-see classic.
- Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958)
Just hearing the title Attack of the 50 Foot Woman is enough to sell anyone on this drive-in romp. Barely clocking in at an hour and designed for those more interested in making out, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman is a Frankenstein monster of a film. It’s part giant monster movie and part alien B-movie. It’s also brimming with hilarious special effects, massive papier mache hands, and some of wildest performances you might ever see in a B-movie. View it as a comedy, pair it up with The Beach Girls and the Monster, and you are sure to have a great time with it.
- Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1956)
In 1954, Japan’s Toho Films released the pitch-black Gojira, a bleak reflection on the horrors of the atomic bombs that ended WWII. Gojira was a massive hit, and America took notice of the enthusiasm this monster movie received. Picked up by an American distributor who added actor Raymond Burr to the chaos, Godzilla was projected under the stars for American teens more interested in city smashing than underlying meaning. While Gojira may be too dark for children, Godzilla: King of the Monsters will have younger viewers glued to the screen with its non-stop action.
- Beach Blanket Bingo (1965)
Absolutely nothing says “drive-in” like American International Pictures and Beach Blanket Bingo. One that is sure to please your mother, director William Asher’s toe-tapping Technicolor musical is brimming with surfing, skydiving, and summer romance. Colorful and accessible, Beach Blanket Bingo is a sunny little number that will offer a welcome escape from the long list of monster movies that dominated drive-in double bills. As if it needs any more drive-in credibility, the film can be glimpsed showing during the drive-in scene in 1981’s The Outsiders.
- Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
Film fans may remember Roger Corman as the king of the B-movie, but nobody did schlock better than Edward D. Wood, Jr. Remembered more by cult movie fans than by mainstream filmgoers, Ed Wood is celebrated for making what many consider to be the worst film ever made—Plan 9 from Outer Space. Part gothic horror movie, part alien invasion thriller, Plan 9 from Outer Space is so bad, it’s hilariously awesome for those who love camp. Made on the cheap and chock full of goofs, Wood’s enthusiasm is contagious and his mistake are easily forgiven, even while one actor reads from a script hidden in his lap! Featuring a final performance from Bela Lugosi, who died shortly before production officially began, Plan 9 from Outer Space is one the whole family can laugh at.
What are some of your favorite drive-in movies? Sound off in the comments section!
by Steve Habrat
The same year that Toho Co.’s Godzilla stomped all over Japanese cinemas, American drive-ins were attacked by the giant irradiated ants of Them! Released in the summer of 1954, Them! sounds like an absolutely absurd sci-fi chiller that would have been right at home on the pages of an EC Comic book . Who would be scared by a bunch of giant ants mutated by invisible clouds of drifting atomic radiation? It turns out that many drive-in audience members were shaken up by Them!, and many critics and genre aficionados have taken notice of the affection audiences have for this creature feature. Regarded as the first “giant bug” movie, Them! is another product of the Atomic Age—a well-spoken B-movie that shivers and shakes at atomic bombs, mushroom clouds, and drifting radiation that was quietly wrecking havoc on nature. Directed by Gordon Douglas, Them! takes its subject very seriously, and the film slowly gains intensity through a disciplined pace, chilling set pieces that never fail to impress, rock-solid performances from a hugely talented cast, and a slew of beasts that are sure to scare the pants off of first time viewers.
Them! begins in the New Mexico desert, with two police officers, Ben (played by James Whitmore) and Ed (played by Chris Drake), stumbling upon a little girl wandering around in a state of shock. As Ben and Ed try to find the little girl’s home, they discover a wrecked trailer and a destroyed general store. While exploring the general store, Ed is suddenly attacked and killed by a towering unknown assailant. Ed’s death proves even more suspicious after the coroner discovers large amounts of formic acid in his system. With more disappearances being reported and a strange animal print found in the sand, the FBI dispatches agent Robert Graham (played by James Arness), renowned scientist Dr. Harold Medford (played by Edmund Gwenn), and his lovely daughter, Dr. Pat Medford (played by Joan Weldon), to investigate. While the trio explores the windy plains of the desert, they begin hearing eerie high-pitched calls from an unknown location. Their investigation really takes a turn when they come face-to-face with a giant ant that proceeds to attack Pat. The military soon tracks down the ants’ nest and launches an attack to wipe out whatever is inside, but Harold discovers evidence that suggests two queen ants have escaped the attack. Desperate to keep the giant ants a secret and away from heavily populated areas, the military races to track down and destroy what is left of the ants. However, the military’s worst fears are slowly confirmed as reports of ant sightings start popping up around San Francisco.
Like all great creature features, Them! isn’t in any particular hurry to show off its mutated monsters. It starts off slow, allowing the unsettling isolation of the New Mexico desert to set in before Douglas starts exploring the mysterious ruins of a trailer and a general store. As winds howl and the police scratch their scalps in confusion, that high-pitched screeching noise kicks in and pushes the suspense to the brink. About a half-hour in, Douglas sends his team in to get to the bottom of what occurred out in the desert, and it is here that he allows us our first glimpse of one those mutated ants. Of course this first glimpse is only a tease, the beast slowly and silently working it’s way over a hill before emitting its grim song and charging at its lunch. It’s a fantastic sequence that offers a jolt of terror that takes the viewer by storm. While our first glimpse of the ants reveals a severely dated monster, the way that Douglas reveals the creature and the ominous build-up that preceded the encounter maximizes the monster’s impact. If you were left unimpressed by this first encounter, wait until our protagonists find the nest, which offers another startling look at these mutated monstrosities. As helicopters circle above, an ant emerges from a massive hole still gnawing on one victim’s rib cage. After sucking the meat clean, the bones drop into a heaping pile of skulls, tattered clothing, and more. As the ant wanders away from the festering pile of death, Pat gravely observes that they have found all the individuals that have been reported missing over the past weeks. Now THAT is creepy.
After the attack on the nest and the discovery of the escaped queens, Them! reverts back to being a character-driven picture. Douglas allows the terror to trickle in as reports are made of demolished trains, ravaged freighters, and creepy reports of ant-shaped UFOs swooping in and attacking small planes. Along the way, Douglas elevates some of the tension by executing some wonderful moments of comedy, specifically from Gwenn’s Dr. Harold Medford, who can’t seem to figure out how to properly use a helicopter radio. And there is also the drunk-tank sequence, where a belligerent drunk named Jensen bargains that he will share information about the ants if he is made “a sergeant in charge of the booze.” Of course, Douglas is offering us a breather before his final burst of horror and action. The climax gets rolling as authorities issue martial law throughout the streets of San Francisco, warning citizens to take shelter in the comfort of their homes. With the ants nestled deep under the city, and reports of two small boys having suddenly disappeared, the pressure is on to send troops down into the shadows of the city’s storm drains. It is at this show-stopping climax that Douglas really lets his ants do some damage. As flamethrowers roar, machine-guns snarl, and ants screech, Them! lets loose a searing fury of violence that concludes with a warning that mankind has entered a terrifying new world—an unknown world that may crawl with horrors we never could have predicted.
Further adding to the strength of Them! are the spirited performances, specifically from Whitmore, Arness, Gwenn, and Weldon. Arness is a man of authority as Graham, an FBI agent swiftly trying to track down the ants before they invade the streets of San Francisco. Whitmore gets to play action hero as Ben, a flame-thrower packing, machine-gun toting cop who mows the ants down with teeth gritted. Gwenn steals nearly every scene he is in as the bumbling-but-wise Dr. Harold Medford, the levelheaded scientist who fumbles and sighs at helicopter radios and crooked goggles. Weldon finds a pleasant middle ground as Pat, Harold’s brilliant daughter who proves to be a strong-voiced ally in the race to stop the ants. She is naturally thrust into several scenes that require her to be the damsel-in-distress, but when the chips are down, she bravely treks through those threatening storm drains right along with the male protagonists. Overall, a far throw from some of the other chintzy sci-fi guilty pleasures of the era, Them! remains an ingenious and wildly frightening look at man’s radioactive entrance into the Atomic Age. It creeps and crawls with fidgeting paranoia and crackling action, and it’s guided by assured direction and straight-faced performances. Them! fully deserves its place as a Cold War classic.
by Steve Habrat
In the wake of director Roland Emmerich’s reviled 1998 Godzilla remake, the giant monster movie kept a very low profile for many years. The holiday season of 2005 saw the release of director Peter Jackson’s divisive King Kong remake—a three-hour epic that either thrilled fans of classic monster movies or sent them into a deep slumber. It would be another three years before anyone even remotely thought about another giant monster movie. That all changed in early 2008 with Cloverfield, a ferociously intense “found footage” thriller that preyed upon our post-9/11 paranoia. Directed by Matt Reeves and produced by J.J. Abrams, Cloverfield re-ignited a bit of interest in creature features—specifically Toho Co.’s “Kaiju” films from the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s—and dared to give the subgenre a bit of its bite back. While certainly not perfect, Reeves and Abrams are able to orchestrate quite a bit of urban destruction on a tiny budget of only $25 million. The special effects are absolutely fantastic, and when briefly glimpsed in the glow of gun and cannon fire, the giant extraterrestrial wrecking havoc in the Big Apple will undoubtedly nab a shiver or two. However, the downfall of Cloverfield are the unlikeable characters we are forced to brave this warzone with, and a painfully slow opening sequence made all the more unbearable through some shaky attempts by the actors to seem natural.
Cloverfield begins with a surprise going-away party for Rob (played by Michael Stahl-David), who is preparing to move to Japan to start a new job. The party—which has been organized by Rob’s brother, Jason (played by Mike Vogel), Jason’s girlfriend, Lily (played by Jessica Lucas), and Rob’s best friend, Hud (played by T.J. Miller), who is tasked with filming testimonials from party guests—gets off to a pleasant start, but things take a turn when Rob’s friend Beth (played by Odette Yustman), who he recently slept with, brings another date to the party. The drama between Rob and Beth is interrupted when a large tremor shakes New York City and plunges the city into a blackout. The party guests dash to the roof, where they witness a large explosion that sends debris raining down upon their heads. The party spills out onto the streets, where the terrified citizens quickly learn that an unidentified creature is terrorizing the city. The military quickly begins trying to evacuate the confused citizens, but Rob refuses to leave without Beth, who is trapped in her apartment building in Time Warner Center. Desperate to reach the one he loves, Rob, Hud, Lily, and Hud’s crush, Marlena (played by Lizzy Caplan), attempt a rescue mission, but their journey grows even more dangerous as they encounter parasitic creatures shed by the massive monster, and they learn of the military’s shocking plot to destroy the creature.
Despite a brief runtime of only eighty-five minutes, Cloverfield gets off to a relatively slow start. Reeves, Abrams, and screenwriter Drew Goddard force the audience to spend the first twenty minutes of the film with a handful of characters that we never truly grow to like. They are one-dimensional and, frankly, kind of annoying as they bob around their hip soirée and force themselves to act natural. Lucky for us, just when we’ve about had our fill of their high school squabbling, the filmmakers shake the earth, blow up some buildings, and kick the action into high gear. It begins with shaky shots of New York citizens congregating in the street as buildings collapse in the distance and the Statue of Liberty’s head goes crashing down the street. From there, Reeves and Abrams lay waste to familiar sights all around the Big Apple, each one more terrifying than the next. Woven between the scenes of destruction are evocative little moments that call to mind the horrors of September 11th, 2001—a catastrophic event that was still fresh in the mind of many audience members and documented in a similar manner. We get scenes of characters diving into small little shops as rolling clouds of dust creep by the storefront windows, dusty and dazed citizens emerge from twisted piles of wreckage, and people dash away from collapsing skyscrapers, all of which are captured on a tiny little handheld camera.
While the destruction retains a disquieting tone, Reeves and Abrams don’t entirely forget they are making a monster movie. With the “found footage” technique, the filmmakers are able to mask the tight budget, and more importantly, conceal the creature flailing around between the crumbling buildings. For a good portion of the film, the monster is only briefly glimpsed in blurred shots as our protagonists sprint between advancing military men. These moments are wildly intimidating, as deafening gunfire rages from one side and the snapping jaws of the towering beast snarling on the other. Credit should go to the sound department, who crank the noise up so loud that you would swear you left your seat and joined the combat on screen. The creature action gets even creepier when our protagonists flee the war-torn streets and retreat to the abandoned subways underneath the city. It’s here that Reeves and Abrams allow us an up-close glimpse of the parasitic beasts that the main monster has shedding. Through a night-vision filter, the spider-like critters spring around the darkness and chomp at our blind heroes until they are a bloody mess. It’s probably the scariest moment of the entire film, and it sets up a gruesome plot twist that smartly lacks much exposition. Reeves and Abram understand the power behind the less you know and the more you see, but they botch it in the end by providing audiences a clear glimpse of the monster that wipes away any fear you had previously. It’s a grave mistake that leaves Cloverfield falling flat on its face.
Perhaps the worst aspect of Cloverfield is the acting, which is painfully forced and amateurish. Stahl-David is flat-out horrid as Rob, a big baby who is constantly complaining or whining about trying to find Beth. Miller’s oafish cameraman Hud makes clumsy swipes at dimwitted humor and consistently acts like a brain-dead idiot. It’s downright impossible to believe that Rob would consider him a best friend. Yustman’s Beth just whimpers and clings to Rob, while Lucas’s Lily essentially begs Rob to reconsider his hysteric rescue mission. The only actress who really registers is Caplan, who frowns her way through Marlena, a snobby hipster who rolls her eyes as Hud tries desperately to flirt with her. Together, none of them really have any chemistry, and all you can do is roll your eyes as they try to sell the audience tired drunken dramatics. Overall, the characters may get on your last nerve and the finale may spoil a monster that was better left in the shadows, but Cloverfield turns out to be a surprisingly tolerable “found footage” thriller with more than a few flashes of creature-feature brilliance. Much like the classic monster movies that acted as the inspiration, it reflects upon current paranoia, and it does it while respectfully tipping its hat.