Aug 14, 2020

MUTANT FAMILY VALUES: JOE BOB BRIGGS AND KEEPING ‘THE LAST DRIVE-IN’ ALIVE


My love for horror was forged in my childhood. In many of the horror reviews I’ve written over the years, whether for home video reissues of cult classics or retrospectives to honor a specific anniversary, a good portion of them had a habit of going back in time to loop in a specific childhood memory or anecdote about the title and why it meant as much to me then as it does now. Adoring the horror genre was always written in the stars for me, but my father was a major influence in getting me to look at those stars in the first place. It wasn’t that he consciously took me aside as a child to impart any kind of cinematic history whenever a specific horror flick was playing on television; it’s more that he enjoyed the genre across the spectrum, from the terrific to the terrible, and also because, even at the scant nine or ten or eleven years of age I was during that era, he wasn’t one of those parents hovering over the remote and ready to switch off anything inappropriate should their child walk into the room. He allowed it to happen because, by that time, I was already gobbling up R.L. Stine and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and playing with Creepy Crawlers and Monsterface in the other room. He knew it was somewhere in my blood. That’s not to say the horror genre encompassed most of his chosen entertainment, but there was something about monsters, zombies, ghosts, and masked killers that struck a chord in me, and I always took notice when those particular faces were on the screen. Either sitting next to him on the couch, or peeking around the corner just behind his seat, I caught an eyeful. It was my first experience with an education that felt worth a damn because it wasn’t being forced down my throat. It was already out there, in the world, far from any school book, and I could choose it if I wanted to. 

And I did. 


I could keep you here for days and share memories of all the different flicks I caught during those years. There was the night I made acquaintance with Halloween 4: The Return Of Michael Myers, which I think was my first exposure to the Halloween series. (Either this sequel or John Carpenter’s original always fight for that honor in my hazy memory.) I could talk at length about JAWS, Phantasm II, The Blob (1986), Darkman, Pet Sematary, along with fringe psycho-thrillers like The Boys from Brazil and Marathon Man. But one title that got repeat play in my house was 1985’s Return of the Living Dead. My father never turned down a zombie flick, no matter how bad it got (he’s still powering through The Walking Dead, so you know he’s willing to watch some bullshit), but Return of the Living Dead in particular was a favorite, due to the outrageous and vaudevillian humor that he responded to, being someone who grew up in the heyday of Laurel & Hardy. (The zombie picking up the police radio and telling command post to “send more cops” still elicits the same amount of laughter.) He is someone who'd watched so many films, horror and otherwise, that their titles alone weren’t enough to trigger association, and additional identification was needed. Return of the Living Dead often got misfiled in his brain alongside Night of the Living Dead (“the one with the basement”) and Dawn of the Dead (“the one in the mall”), and a nickname of sorts was eventually coined. Even years later, I’ll throw a mention to him of watching Return of the Living Dead, and he’s always quick to respond, “the one with the music?” It was a shorthand we developed over time, and one that still goes on to this day.

Soon after, once this foundation had been established, I set out on my own journey of discovery to see what else was out there in the world waiting for me. Sunday mornings, with the arrival of the newspaper, saw me leafing through that week’s television listings to see what horror flicks would be playing, on what channels, and at what time. The meatiest slots to check were late-night weekend lineups on the USA Network (Up All Night with Rhonda Shear was fertile ground for b-horror fun), the Sci-Fi channel, and TNT, who had a penchant for running the occasional Friday the 13th marathon for no reason whatsoever. I absorbed more movie knowledge from this mundane task than you might expect. I couldn’t have named you the first ten presidents of the United States, nor picked a prime number out of a math book lineup, but I easily could have told you that John Carpenter’s Christine was released in 1983, starred Keith Gordon, and had been awarded three stars by whoever it was that decided those things. I was a sponge, eager to absorb everything about this weird, gooey, icky genre that, for whatever reason, was calling to me.

 

I wish I knew how I first stumbled upon TNT’s Monstervision with Joe Bob Briggs. It may have been my father’s influence (he definitely knew who Joe Bob was, as he was quick to point out his cameo in Martin Scorsese’s Casino and ask, “Isn’t that the guy who watches all the goofy movies on TV?”), it may have been a happy accident, or it may have been a byproduct of Joe Bob’s hosting a particular flick that had been on my radar for a while, and which led me to his trailer, his silver bolo, and his amusing but charming southern drawl. Where things left off with my father’s influence, they continued with Joe Bob Briggs. For years after that discovery, every Saturday night was set aside for catching Joe Bob and hanging out with him during whatever double feature he had in store. Not every title that got the Monstervision treatment was a winner, but it was impossible to walk away from watching Joe Bob’s segments without learning something about the genre, or the production history of the movie, or the filmmakers and actors involved, all of which enhanced your appreciation of this title for which you may not have otherwise cared. Keep in mind that this was the mid-to-late ‘90s, and consumer internet hadn’t yet swept across the land. For every house that had a gigantic boxy computer and a dial-up subscription to Prodigy or AOL, ten houses in between did not, so the idea of “meeting” like-minded Monstervision fans in chat rooms and message boards had yet to become a mainstream, everyday reality. (And yet I still remember the URL for the old Monstervision website – “TNT dot Turner dot com forward slash Monstervision” – since it played during every commercial break.) Even the show’s set suggested Joe Bob was this strange, elusive figure living in isolation in the middle of the desert, far from the constraints of normality and good taste, and I’ll be damned if you didn’t wish you could park a trailer right next to him and hang out for the rest of eternity. The set was less of a gimmick – that of the typical redneck who lives in a trailer and watches television outside – but more of an indication of what Joe Bob Briggs and Monstervision were all about: appealing to the mutants and freaks on the outskirts of polite society. 

Monstervision was an anomaly on television. It didn’t feel like part of anyone’s plan, and certainly not the intended product of such a conservative network, thanks to Joe Bob’s at-times politically incorrect humor and the offscreen laughter of his crew, which violated the rule in the production handbook: never break the fourth wall. But there was a method to his madness: the whole point of Joe Bob’s schtick was to make his viewers feel as if they were sitting on the other side of that set as he talked to us, friend to friend, about the merits of Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing or Larry Cohen’s The Stuff. During this time, on another channel, you had Siskel & Ebert At the Movies where the persnickety critics were giving the thumbs down to stuff like Friday the 13th and My Bloody Valentine, but on TNT, you had Joe Bob rejoicing in the antithesis of that philosophy and exploring the kinds of films that were often left abandoned by the snoots who believed they were above it all. From his outlook, all films contained something to celebrate, and all films were worth seeing at least once. This was a wild and risky approach to a weekly television show, along with the fact that it didn’t air at the same time every Saturday night, sometimes getting pushed back almost an hour thanks to some basketball nonsense. It wasn’t a show that waited for you at the same time every week – you almost had to luck out and catch it, like an animal in the wild – but even when the show ended during its typical time, it was usually around one or two in the morning. In my mind, who in the blue fuck was watching this goofy show that didn’t appear to have a script or follow the rules and which highlighted cinematic bilge like Children of the Corn 2 and Project Metalbeast? Who was staying up this late to catch some weirdo movies hosted by some weirdo guy cracking wise in between commercial breaks? It all seemed so odd and accidental, like someone had hacked their way into TNT’s broadcast signal Max Headroom-style to feed some horror flicks to a hungry audience only to disappear before the sun rose and TNT’s board of directors had climbed out of their mansion beds.

 

I don’t remember every episode of Monstervision I ever saw, but I do remember the ones that featured a particular flick that would go on to sustain my love of the genre: 1990’s Night of the Living Dead, 1988’s Phantasm II (watched in full this time), Wes Craven’s Deadly Friend, the legendary three-hour cut of Needful Things that’s never been released on video, even 1982’s Halloween III: Season Of The Witch – a movie I hated, hated, hated as a kid, but which I now love as an old-ass man. What was it about this show that stuck with me all these years? Why is it that, twenty-five years later, I can remember certain things Joe Bob said about the movies being shown that night, like Halloween III being the black sheep in the franchise for not having Michael Myers “with the white stuff on his face,” or Phantasm II being “the sequel that took Don Coscarelli nine years to make”? Joe Bob Briggs not only solidified and legitimized my love for horror, he inflated that love by adding new titles to my library or enhancing my knowledge of the ones I already knew, every week, without fail (unless goddamn basketball was on). Joe Bob Briggs was just fuckin’ cool, and he liked horror, so if I liked horror, then hell, I was cool, too, and what a nice feeling for a kid who didn’t have a lot of friends and who was fifty football fields away from being cool.

When Shudder announced in 2018 that they would be returning Joe Bob Briggs to the small screen for one last Monstervision-inspired Dusk-to-Dawn movie marathon, as well as giving him the sendoff he deserved but didn’t receive after being unceremoniously let go by TNT, it was kismet. It didn’t just feel like something I wanted to happen, but something the entire horror community needed to happen. The genre had been riding the nostalgia bandwagon for years at that point, getting lots of mileage from resurrecting old franchises and creating new ‘80s-inspired entertainment like the massively popular Stranger Things, which started out with good intentions and soon gave way to shameless fan-wanking with characters dressing as the Ghostbusters and singing the fucking theme song to The Neverending Story. You can pump all the ‘80s synthwave and John Carpenter fonts you want into your movie’s trailer, but it’s no easy feat to recapture the mood, the feel, the spirit, and the essence of a specific time period of the genre. 

But if anyone was going to do it, it was Joe Bob Briggs.

 

By now, we all know the rest is history. Shudder, Joe Bob, and his new sidekick Darcy the Mail Girl, who features much more prominently and significantly than the mail girls of Monstervision old (she’s the show’s preeminent superfan, social media guru, and street team all in one), broke the internet the night of the Dust-To-Dawn Marathon. Joe Bob’s return/“retirement” was so successful that Shudder brought him and Darcy back again and again and again. Monstervision had been reborn, this time known as The Last Drive-In. The fans demanded it, and not just because we wanted it, but we needed it. Briggs’ return to the format was a return to a simpler time – when event television was still experienced at the same time for every viewer, when there still existed the concept of live programming, when it was okay to be politically incorrect every so often, and when it was encouraged to celebrate weird, gooey, and icky cinema. But it was also a return to a time when life outside our front doors didn’t seem so alien and dangerous and downright sad. We needed entertainment, yes, but we needed a familiar and comforting presence to bring us that entertainment, too. And with his first on-screen appearance, it was beyond satisfying to see that Joe Bob and co. hadn’t missed a beat. Joe Bob’s trailer, both inside and out, had been faithfully recreated, littered with beer bottles and cans bearing Texas stars. The southern duds were back, along with the boots, the bolo, and that amusing but charming southern drawl; Joe Bob was still opening shows with unrelated rants and closing them with a double dose of jokes so bad you couldn’t believe you were laughing at them. To paraphrase Freddy Krueger, Joe Bob was back and better than ever.

Yet, there was and is something else about The Last Drive-In that feels new, different, but not altogether foreign. An awareness – exuded not just by Joe Bob himself, but by Darcy, and the crew, and Shudder themselves – that this was special and not to be taken for granted. That even though, in the grand scheme of things, this is a niche show for people with tastes in niche movies, it’s still important, and even therapeutic. Yes, of course the ultimate goal is to have fun, and watch flicks both terrific and terrible, and engage each other on social media through our shared love of the genre, but there’s something else we all need to do, and it’s this: to enjoy this now, for as long as we can, while we still can. Guys, it’s been fucking tough these past five years. The planet is dying. A highly divisive and some would say dangerous president is in the White House. Racial disharmony is at the highest it’s been since the 1960s. As I write this, we are approaching the fifth straight month of lockdown thanks to the raging COVID-19, which has taken the lives of so many people that I can’t give you the current number because I just don’t have the heart to look anymore. The party could end at any time, and for many of us it already has. I’m not saying that Joe Bob carries the burden of trying to counteract all this madness within the confines of his ultimately powerless show, because only a bleeding-hearted martyr thinks like that, but I do think Joe Bob genuinely wishes he had that kind of power. Though The Last Drive-In is nearly a carbon copy of Monstervision, yet massively improved by the presence of uncut HD movies and segment breaks much longer than the lousy forty-five seconds TNT allowed way back when, there’s a poignancy to his return, bolstered by an unexpected melancholy that appears during every final episode of the season. Whether it’s Joe Bob opining about the whole point of his various shows over the years – the 1980s' Joe Bob’s Drive-In Theater, or the 1990s' Monstervision, or the 2010s' The Last Drive-In – which was to bring us mutants together to relish in our favorite genre, or it’s the production turning the set into a high school dance to give Darcy the prom she never had, or Joe Bob singing a soft, somewhat broken, and pensive iteration of The Last Drive-In’s normally rockabilly theme song, it’s the acknowledgment that every season could be the last season. Every show could be the last show. Every recitation of the drive-in oath could be the last promise we ever make. We are lucky we still have him as our host, and, if I can be bold, he is lucky we still look to him for that sense of need. We are lucky we still have each other – me, the person writing this, and you, the person hopefully reading it – even if we’ll never know each other in real life, even if Joe Bob will never be more than a face on a television screen. We are here right now, sharing space, acknowledging each other’s existence, because Joe Bob brought us together.

 

Along with his now famous, pre-movie Drive-In Totals, which let us know how many breasts and gallons of blood awaited us in that night’s double-bill, Joe Bob has coined many phrases over the years. There’s “aardvarking,” “Joe Bob says check it out,” “if you know what I mean, and I think you do,” and lastly, “the drive-in will never die.” That last one isn’t just a statement, or a wish, or a prayer to the gods of b-moviedom. It’s an acknowledgment – a promise made by him, and a command bequeathed to us all. The drive-in isn’t just a flat cut of vomit-splattered land with rows of crappy speakers and a large stained silver screen. It’s a movement. It’s a collection of genres. It’s a mindset and a community. That’s what Joe Bob’s drive-in oath was all about. He’s been doing his part since the 1980s to keep the drive-in alive, through his newspaper columns, his standup specials, his books, his DVD commentaries, his convention appearances, and his three – count ‘em, three – television shows over the years. The drive-in will never die, and such a trivial collection of words has never been more romantic.

But what is it about horror that’s so romantic? Why does this genre that so often runs gleefully away from sentimentality and good taste act as such a lightning rod for longing, wistfulness, and happy sighs? Why do I get goosebumps when I’m looking at side-by-side photos of John Carpenter and Jamie Lee Curtis on set of 1978’s Halloween and 2018’s sequel of the same name? Why did I get hit with the feels during Phantasm Ravager (even though I kinda hated it) when seeing what the scourge of time had done to Mike Pearson and his best friend, Reggie? Is there something about this weird, gooey, icky genre that drives this notion of romance, or am I the one assigning the romance because the horror genre is the only thing that’s remained consistent throughout my life? Why does it fill me with such joy to see the likes of Kelli Maroney and Ashley Laurence and Tom Savini sitting alongside Joe Bob as their movies play, relishing in the fact that their work is still being celebrated all these years later? How am I supposed to feel that, when I was a kid, Barbara Crampton was among my first onscreen exposures to girls and sex and what that all meant, but that we’ve aged to the degree where I’m now a so-called man while she’s become an almost motherly figure in the horror community? Well, I can tell you how that feels: comforting, and right, and the tiniest bit sad. Is it because I spent a childhood watching their movies and seeing them in DVD supplements and reading their interviews in Fangoria? Is it because they were always there, enthusiastically taking part in this strange genre that none of the other kids at school were into? Is it because I got so used to seeing them that they felt like this odd, alternate family who never came to Christmas dinner, but who were no less important? 

And finally, am I really the only one who feels that way? 

 

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this life, it’s that time is precious, but it’s also sadistic. It can’t be bargained with, it can’t be reasoned with; it doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear; and it absolutely will not stop, ever, until we are dead. The horror community has already suffered tremendous blows over the last decade from the losses of Wes Craven, George Romero, Tobe Hooper, Stuart Gordon, Larry Cohen, Joel Schumacher, and I have to stop because the tears are coming already. It’s impossible to replace a director who has made your favorite movies, who entertained you for twenty or thirty or forty years, who created a ninety-minute slice of escapism that allowed you to feel less lonely, that pulled you back from the precipice of depression and despair – and I’m talking to you, specifically, right now, because you know exactly what I’m talking about – but I am eternally thankful that we have the likes of Mike Flanagan, James Wan, Leigh Whannell, Guillermo Del Toro, Jason Blum, and many others working tirelessly in the horror genre to keep it alive and introduce it to new audiences. They’ll keep the candle burning in the terror tower to guide our entire, ever-expanding mutant family home. And for as long as Joe Bob Briggs has it in him, I hope he’ll continue introducing films made by the new generation to a new generation. 

We are people, which means we’ll die. It sucks, and it’s scary and sad, but that’s what we do. That’s our role. All we can do is fill this world with every positive thing we can while we’re still here – if we’re writers, then with our stories; if we’re directors, then with our films; and if we’re fans, then with our passions, our sense of community, and our want and need and responsibility to care for and about each other. These things will never die because they are eternal, and they’ll live forever on movie screens and in the eyes, ears, and hearts of every new generation that finds them. This is why horror. This is the point. Through this, we’ll all live forever, because this what the drive-in is all about.

And the drive-in will never die.


[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

1 comment:

  1. "And finally, am I really the only one who feels that way?" NO! I'm in this boat with you! You perfectly put to words those pangs of nostalgia I feel almost daily for stuff like this.

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