Drive-in movies constitute a special viewing experience. The technical realities of their ‘60s-‘70s era filmmaking style coupled with exploitative tropes reflecting their market niche almost make the experience transcendent of genre. However, drive-in films are at their peak with horror trappings. There’s something about the sometimes clunky confluence of elements that makes for an unusual subset of films. You really can’t watch a drive-in movie with today’s sophistication and expectations, but if you can adjust your sensibilities, the experience can be fun. With most available on streaming services these days, there’s a new accessibility. Here are a few curiosities that take us back to another simpler if not more innocent time.
Spider Baby (1967)
The full title is Spider Baby or, the Maddest Story Ever Told and it opens to the vocal stylings of…Lon Chaney Jr.! He also stars in this quirky, black-and-white old dark house excursion. Think of an eccentric variation on We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Chaney is chauffer for the Merrye family, a clan cursed by a unique genetic disorder that causes them to regress mentally to childish but not harmless states. One child’s obsessed with spiders and snaring people in webs, or with ropes, actually. Another sibling, Ralph, is played by the late Sid Haig.
Ralph’s regressed to a young mental age, but he’s as massive as, well the 6’4” Sid Haig. Future soap star Quinn K. Redeker, also a co-writer on The Deer Hunter, plays a distant Merrye relative who shows up with others to take charge of the family and its assets. Gothic secrets, including what’s waiting in the basement, begin to emerge and carnage follows. Sometimes dubbed a dark comedy, it’s indeed a dark, twisty ride written and directed by Jack Hill who’d go on to helm other exploitation fare including women-in-prison flicks and Pam Grier in Coffy and Foxy Brown. If you’ve managed to overlook this flick, track it down and give it a watch.
The Witchmaker (1969)
Lush and moss-draped Louisiana locations provide the backdrop for this tale of Luther the Berserk (John Lodge), a backwoods sorcerer behind the bloody, ritualistic deaths of several young women. Because: immortality. Alvy Moore (Hank Kimball from rural sitcom Green Acres) takes a serious turn as Dr. Ralph Hayes. He heads a party of psychic researchers with a skeptical magazine writer Victor Gordon (Anthony Eisley) in tow.
Dropped off in a remote swamp location for five days of uninterrupted parapsychology, the group’s soon on Luther’s radar, especially when the doc’s graduate assistant and a psychic-sensitive (Thordis Brandt) go sunbathing. Luther and his hag sidekick could really use a topless psychic-sensitive it seems. This is a drive-in movie, to be sure.
Following another death, Hayes and company work to stop Luther, but that’s not going to happen before he executes a wonderfully hokey ritual teleporting in a string of coven (they say KO-ven) members from throughout history and from around the globe. It’s all for a bit of debauchery and to clamp down on indiscretions like gossip. (That’s on you, Marta of Amsterdam). It’s flaky fun with witchcraft lore straight outta Hollywood from producing partners Moore and L.Q. Jones who’d later team for the renowned apocalyptic cult classic A Boy and His Dog.
The Velvet Vampire (1971)
Perhaps slow even for its time, The Velvet Vampire isn’t as entertaining as it is an atmospheric look at an erotic vampire film of its moment. It’s not as scary as the trailer suggests nor quite as steamy as its drive-in/grindhouse niche and poster art might tease. It’s almost tasteful to a fault, in fact, though it probably pushed envelopes of its day with sexy scenes, nudity and a Carmilla-worthy lesbian kiss.
An updating of the vampire myth to the American southwest way before Near Dark, it stars Celest Yarnall of Star Trek-guest-appearance fame. She conveys both malevolence and lonely despair as she seduces a hip couple, future novelist Michael Blodgett and Sherry E. DeBoer. Yarnall’s Diane LeFanu (as in Sheridan, author of Carmilla) isn’t sun sensitive until the plot calls for that. That’s perhaps to make the most of Joshua Tree locations. It’s directed by Stephanie Rothman and worth a look, all things considered.
Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973)
Despite the steamy premise and mid-‘70s nudity, Invasion of the Bee Girls has a bit of an older-fashioned sci-fi-horror feel, even though Seven Percent Solution and Star Trek-scribe Nicholas Meyer’s ambitious script effort was reportedly rewritten. Men in a small town with a big research facility are dying from intense intercourse. When a man with ties to the research institute succumbs it doesn’t escape the notice of the U.S. government, which sends, according to the trailer, its “best investigator.” That would be William Smith of motorcycle gang movies, TV westerns and Conan-the-Barbarian’s-father fame.
His character’s named Neil Agar, probably after John Agar of older-fashioned sci-fi-horror flicks. Neil’s no slackass. Not long after hooking up with sexy Victoria Vetri he’s onto Dr. Susan Harris (The Price Is Right model Anitra Ford). Her experiments are turning women into bulbous-eyed and insatiable, well, check the title. Can Big Bill Smith stop the madness in time?
Messiah of Evil (1973)
If I had to devise a sub-genre category for this film, I’d call it breezy beachfront gothic. It reminds me just slightly of H.P. Lovecraft’s East Coast-set “The Weird Shadow Over Innsmouth,” adapted into the far more intense Dagon. Messiah’s a more quiet spiral into eerie, atmospheric madness. Its pace is similar to Velvet Vampire but this is the superior film overall. Arletty (Marianna Hill) travels to an isolated California artist’s community called Point Dune in search of her missing father. He’s played by the great character actor Royal Dano.
Point Dune’s populated by an odd mix of undead who weep blood and are generally higher functioning than George Romero Night of the Living Dead zombies (aka ghouls). A creepy European quality permeates the film that is often devoid of music. Deliberate, macabre set pieces, particularly one in which Anitra Ford is pursued through a super market. In addition, drive-in perennial Joy Bang’s menaced in a movie theater. Watch late, with the lights down for the full experience. Oh, and watch for a brief turn by Elisha Cook Jr. of The Maltese Falcon as well, plus an incredible small role by Bennie Robinson in what seems to be his only film turn.
I Drink Your Blood (1970)
Easily the most powerful entry on this list, I Drink Your Blood, doesn’t rely on atmosphere. It delivers a gritty, unflinching and savage outbreak film that was initially X-rated for violence. The straightforward cinematography contributes to the raw energy in this tale of a Manson Family-esque group invading a small, almost deserted town. The cult’s headed by Horace Bones, played by Bhaskar Roy Chowdhury.
In addition to a professional dance background, Chowdhury had been a welterweight boxer. His presence provides the flick a solid and charismatic core. When the Bones clan moves into a small town mostly vacated due to construction of a nearby dam, they’re soon brutalizing remaining locals. In an act of revenge, the son of a local bakery worker injects meat pies the clan’s been consuming with rabies-tainted blood. Infected, the cultists spread the disease to construction workers, unleashing unrestrained madness and carnage.
There’s probably some Night of the Living Dead-influence here, but director David E. Durston crafted a unique and arresting drive-in novelty. This was served up on a double bill with an earlier, black-and-white and less noteworthy voodoo zombie film re-dubbed I Eat Your Skin.
Sidney Williams is the author of the novels Dark Hours and Disciples of the Serpent plus the short story “The Witch of Washington Park” in the upcoming collection Cat Ladies of the Apocalypse.