Over the thousand years I’ve been writing Video Visions, I’ve waxed poetic about my days walking those aisles crammed with garish VHS boxes, the smell of popcorn wafting in the air. This time around, I’m going to do something of an evolution chart, only with a surprise ending and no missing links, so there’s no questioning my impeccable logic.
I’m going to start where my love of cinema began…the drive-in. Growing up in the Bronx, we were within twenty minutes of the Elmsford Drive-In in nearby Westchester County. We went there so much as a family, my grandfather the carpenter built a back seat insert that would basically turn it into a platform so my sister and I could load it up with pillows and blankets and have plenty of space to stretch out. It also deprived our access to seat belts on the drive there, making for a lot of sliding fun when my father hit the turns extra hard to make us laugh. So many of the movies we saw there in the ’70s are lost to time, but I vividly remember the playground beneath the towering screen, the concession stand that would make my stomach grumble, and the static-filled audio blaring out of the silver speaker perched on the edge of dad’s window. I do recall seeing the Canuck horror flick, Humongous, there in the ’80s. I would be sued for not returning that very movie many years later (as recounted in a past column). We saw cartoons, thrillers, comedies, horror, you name it. There was a time when the second feature would be true B movie fare, with biker, monster and grindhouse flicks dominating the screen. That’s when mom would sharply tell us to go to sleep. My little sister readily obliged. I faked it and got one hell of an education with my one open eye, taking in the flickering images of hell on wheels, booze, beasts, blood and boobs.
I looked forward to our trips to the Elmsford Drive-In like most kids wet their pants for Christmas. There was no better place to be, out under the stars, running between the speaker stands, seeing things my friends only wished they could see. Thanks to The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs on Shudder and the pandemic, there’s been a newfound appreciation of the drive-in, which was started way back in 1933 in Camden, New Jersey, at an establishment aptly called The Drive-In Theater. At one point, there were over 4,000 drive-ins in America. Today, there are an estimated 321. Far from flourishing but far from dead, the drive-in is a uniquely American experience. I make it a point to visit my favorite three each year: The Warwick in Warwick, New York; The Mahoning Drive-In in Lehighton, Pennsylvania (watch the doc on how it was transformed and saved, At The Drive-In); and the Bridgton Twin in Bridgton, Maine. The old speakers may be gone, but low cost double features, fresh air and movie magic are still in abundance.
We stopped going to the drive-in right around the time my father bought our first VCR. Why drive to Elmsford and get eaten alive by mosquitos when you could rent five movies for ten bucks and watch them in the comfort of your living room? Now, instead of drive-in B movies, we’d entered the world of direct to video schlock. For a metalhead horror hound, the ’80s were pure nirvana. I expanded my horror education with Night of the Demons, Re-Animator, Sleepaway Camp, Microwave Massacre and on and on. The gore was amped to eleven and the thrill of discovering something new was with me every time I walked in the Video Visions doors. Sure, I had a car and could bring my girlfriend to the Elmsford Drive-In for a double feature and some heavy petting. Oooor, I could skip school, rent a bunch of horror flicks, and recreate the beast with two backs between movie breaks all day long. It was out of my hands. Bye drive-in. Besides, we had been caught, ah, in a delicate situation in my car by the cops once and we didn’t want a repeat performance of that bit of humiliation.
The ’80s and ’90s could best be described for me, in terms of a movie title, as It Came From A Video Store! I was neck deep in video rentals, late fees and exasperated admonitions to be kind and rewind. Instead of waiting for a family trip to the theater or drive-in to catch a horror flick every now and then, I went full-on glutton, consuming horror titles on glorious VHS on a daily basis. It was an addiction. And like all addictions, it became all consuming and expensive. The cost of renting a movie went up, and the late fees, those fucking late fees, were worse. I didn’t care. I needed more, man. When we had kids, those trips to Video Visions got even crazier. Now we had to bring a bag to haul our tapes home. It was packed with horror for the wifey and I, insipid Barney and Teletubbies tapes for the kids, and maybe a movie I found behind those swinging saloon doors in the back of the store. Despite the rising cost, and my inability to return things on time (just ask my local library), I thought this was as good as it got. We had, in the words of Hemingway, a moveable feast. With memberships at Video Visions, Blockbuster, Tower Video, and Sun Coast Video (who seemed to dig deep in the horror and soft core porn genres), we never lacked for something to watch. It was never going to be better than this.
Then Netflix came along, that enabler of laziness and killer of the video store. I jumped on the bandwagon early because they had a copy of the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the best of them all. I supplemented my drives to the video store with the DVDs I could easily have delivered by Netflix. My subscription went from two DVD rentals at a time to four in just months. And the best part…no late fees, no rewinding! The magnetic tapes at the video stores were getting a little ragged, but those DVDs were always crystal clear (though a few wouldn’t work at all – no sweat, just drop them in the mail and get a replacement). Sure, I had to wait for my picks to be delivered and a few got lost in the mail, but I never had to leave my couch and there was a set fee that wouldn’t break the bank.
Well, we all know how Netflix changed the way we consumed movies. Mom and pop video stores were the first to wither and die. Tower Video shuttered its doors (as did the mighty Tower Records), Sun Coast sold all of its stuff in a two day sale and became an I-Hop. Even Blockbuster couldn’t survive, though there is still one in existence. I highly urge everyone who reads this to watch The Last Blockbuster. Who doesn’t love an underdog, especially when they were once the top dog?
Despite this abundance of movies at my fingertips, something was missing. Where were all those gritty, often times awful B movies they used to play at the drive-in? Not just fare like Grizzly that I got to see, but ones I’d read about like The Crater Lake Monster, Curse of the Faceless Man or The She-Creature? Horror junkie that I am, I craved more. In comes streaming on-demand. It took a few years into this new, even easier movie consumption machine to start to dig deep into the archives. Or, judging by the quality of these celluloid diversions, they were found in dumpsters or basements. Over the past couple of years, services like Tubi, Amazon and Crackle have unearthed a ton of lost drive-in B movie fare. Movies made for five bucks and a cheeseburger that were meant to kill time while folks fooled around in their cars. There’s a kind of innocent earnestness to these black and white or poorly colored movies, even if their subject matter is lurid or creepy and strange. I may still go to drive-ins, but I can only see the movies that made them so popular at home now.
When I put one on, I’m transported to the Elmsford Drive-In, wondering if Two Thousand Maniacs was one of those forbidden movies that blew my young brain to bits. For an old bastard who grew up with a 10 inch black and white TV with rabbit ears in my room and started working in corporate America without email or cell phones, it’s kind of amazing that I’m able to relive a vital part of the American drive-in movie experience through the tiny Roku hooked up to my television. With the art and quality of modern horror movies leaving me scratching my head (like self-publishing in writing, it’s become almost too easy for someone with zero skill to make a movie on their phone and get it on a streaming service), I’m retreating deeper into these tarnished treasures from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. If the print is a disaster, all the better. Give me washed out film, audio pops and all the scratches. I’ve been enjoying myself so much, I made a commitment to review at least one drive-in B nightmare every week on my Final Guys podcast this year. Sure, most of these movies were made and seen between breathless kissing and groping before I was born. Maybe that’s why they make me feel young. Not to mention, the worst old B-movie is miles better for your soul than even one minute of the news.
So, if you can go to the drive-in this summer, do it! Get out, get some air, and enjoy an experience that grows rarer with each passing year.
And when you want the old time drive-in feels, stream away. Maybe bring that TV into the yard, break out some folding chairs and grab some popcorn. But remember, if you’re in the yard, keep the groping to a minimum. You don’t want to upset the neighbors. Or turn them on.
Hunter Shea is the product of a misspent childhood watching scary movies, reading forbidden books and wishing Bigfoot would walk past his house. He doesn’t just write about the paranormal—he actively seeks out the things that scare the hell out of people and experiences them for himself. You can follow his madness at huntershea.com.
1 thought on “Video Visions: The Drive-In”
At 74 I can share some drive-in stories! In college in 1968 my friend Mike and I went to see a triple feature of 2000 Maniacs, Blood Feast, and Color Me Blood Red. Halfway through the last one I got so queasy I talked Mike into leaving. And the next year I started medical school! Ha!