Tag Archives: Horror Host

009. The Cramps – Stay Sick!

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Six years ago today, Lux Interior, the legendary lead singer of The Cramps, cast off this mortal coil.  In commemoration, Retro in the 90s will review a different Cramps album from the 1990s for each of the next four years.

But, first a little background.

In the spring of 1976, The Cramps began to fester in an NYC apartment.  Without fresh air or natural light, the group developed its uniquely mutant strain of rock n’ roll aided only by the sickly, blue rays of late night TV.  While the jackhammer rhythms of punk were proliferating in NYC, The Cramps dove into the deepest recesses of the rock n’ roll psyche for the most primal of all rhythmic impulses – Rockabilly – the sound of southern culture falling apart in a blaze of shudders and hiccups.

As late night sci-fi reruns coloured the room, The Cramps also picked and chose amongst the psychotic debris of previous rock eras – instrumental rock, surf, psychedelia and sixties punk.  And then they added the junkiest element of all – themselves.  Nick Knox, stoic drummer with the history of the big beat written in his left hand.  Ivy Rorschach, voodoo guitarist with the rhythm method down as pat as her blonde beauty.  Bryan Gregory, flipping cigs and fractured with Vincent Price and decent folks ask, “What hath God wrought?”

The Cramps don’t pummel and you won’t pogo.  They ooze and you’ll throb.

Dr. J. H. Sasfy, Professor of Rockology
American Rock n’ Roll Institute, Washington D.C., USA

One of the more interesting facets of the 1990s retro boom was the presence of so many different potential gateways leading Gen X youths to discover the recent past.  However, for individuals immersed in the punk rock, hardcore or skateboard subcultures of the late 1980s and early 1990s, The Cramps were a very common portal.  A recurring theme of all things retro in the 90s was “initiation through ironic distance”.  Although we loved their music dearly and took it seriously, the antiquated slang and B-movie aesthetic often produced reactions ranging from strange intrigue to debilitating laughter.  Of course, that was all part of their unique charm, and The Cramps never came across as ironic or corny.  Of questionable sanity?  Quite possibly.  Demented?  Sure.  Perverted?  Most definitely.  Yet, generally they projected a calculatedly menacing aura.  They looked, talked and moved like a hot rod gang who would have served as the antagonists to Steve McQueen or James Dean in numerous golden age exploitation films.  Sure they were smart, funny and charismatic, but you just knew they were all carrying switchblades and lots and lots of pills.

While chart topping mainstream success on the level of Whitney Houston may have eluded them, The Cramps were a very important part of 1990s retro.  Maybe they didn’t spend as much time on MTV or the cover of SPIN as Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, but they did wind up on a very special Halloween episode of the most conspicuously 90s of all television shows, Beverly Hills, 90210 (unfortunately, I could only find a clip with French over dubs).  That was certainly more than one could say for Pearl Jam.  Those Chuck Taylor-wearin’ low- self-esteemers couldn’t even stop moping long enough to bother with dating Shannen Doherty.  Chalk another one up for The Cramps.

Let it be known, that in 1990 The Cramps sired a psychobilly magnum opus titled Stay Sick!  This title is a tribute to the legendary, undead, beatnik, horror host Ghoulardi, who would routinely sign off from Cleveland’s Shock Theatre in the early 1960s by imploring his audience to, “Stay sick.”  Lux Interior was a native son of Akron, Ohio and well within the broadcast range of WJW-TV, Channel 8.  Thus, Ghoulardi’s shtick, as well as the B-movies regularly featured on Shock Theatre, had a profound impact on not only The Cramps choice of subject matter, but also their stage personae.  This, right here, is one of the many things I absolutely love about The Cramps.  We’re not even past the title and I’ve already explained Ghoulardi.

As for the musical style of Stay Sick!, the song structures, rhythms and melodies  used classic rock and roll and rockabilly as a foundation, yet the execution gave an obvious nod to the ethos, attitude and general bombast of punk rock.  Poison Ivy’s twangy guitar riffs and leads were reminiscent of Duane Eddy, Hasil Adkins and Link Wray.  Drummer Nick Knox laid down steady and simple beats that would have sounded perfectly at home in the catalog of Buddy Holly or the Big Bopper.  Unlike the vast majority of psychobilly bass players, Candy Del Mar eschewed the upright bass for an electric Höfner Artist model.  Though purists may have blanched, the crystal clear tone allowed her crawling bass-lines to effortlessly carry each song.  Of course, Lux Interior’s hilariously clever lyrics and larger-than-life delivery were the icing on the cake.  Instead of opting for lo-fi engineering, the album was recorded with the standard technology available at the time, which made for a clean and modern sounding record without sacrificing any savage vitality.  The twelve tracks of raucous retro revival were as follows;

  1. “Bop Pills”
  2. “God Damn Rock & Roll”
  3. “Bikini Girls with Machine Guns”
  4. “All Women Are Bad”
  5. “The Creature from the Black Leather Lagoon”
  6. “Shortnin’ Bread”
  7. “Daisys Up Your Butterfly”
  8. “Everything Goes”
  9. “Journey to the Center of a Girl”
  10. “Mama Oo Pow Pow”
  11. “Saddle Up a Buzz Buzz”
  12. “Muleskinner Blues”

Stay Sick! opened with “Bop Pills”, a rambunctious rock n’ roll number originally written and recorded by Macy Skipper, an obscure rockabilly singer, whose claim to fame was recording some demos in the mid 1950’s for Memphis, Tennessee’s legendary Sun Studio.  Allegedly, “Bop Pills” referenced the widespread amphetamine consumption amongst early fans of rockabilly, rock and roll and long haul truckers.  I’m not sure whether rockabilly’s institutionalized tradition of covering older and very obscure blues/country/rock and roll artists originated with The Cramps, or if they simply perfected the art.  Regardless, after hearing a new Cramps album, the listener would be exposed to a handful of great old music to which they otherwise never would have heard.  An argument could easily be made that as a band, this was The Cramps’ greatest achievement.

“God Damn Rock & Roll” gave Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band’s 1978 hit “Old Time Rock & Roll” the metaphorical and philosophical beat down it so richly deserved.  While not quite parody, The Cramps used Seger’s hit as a reference point, stripped it down to its frame, completely rebuilt it, and carried it through to the logical point of absurdity.  “God Damn Rock & Roll” sounded simultaneously more old-timey, primal and threatening.  Obviously, The Cramps loved old time rock and roll as passionately and deeply as anyone.  They just took a much more intense and badass approach to it.  God bless, ‘em.

The most well-known track from Stay Sick!, if not the entire Cramps’ discography, was “Bikini Girls with Machine Guns”, which hit #35 on the UK Top 40 chart.  This wasn’t so much a song as it was a mid-century B-movie gone sonic.  The Cramps laid down some righteous rockabilly riffage while channeling liquor and drug fueled drag races, beach movies, and the films of Russ Meyer.  The video featured the band performing the song, interspersed with shots of gorgeous guitarist Poison Ivy go-go dancing dressed in her trademark pin-up girl finery amid a sea of vintage neon signage.  Nick Knox stoically laid down the beat and Candy Del Mar played her swingin’ bass-lines while simultaneously chomping bubble gum like a juvenile delinquent straight out of an Ed Wood movie.  Lux Interior sang the track with a joyous sincerity that channeled some bizarre hybrid of Elvis Presley and Frankenstein’s monster.  Needless to say, when compared to the cheesy, overproduced R&B of Boyz II Men or the pretentious socially-conscious status-whoring of R.E.M. that was popular at the time, “Bikini Girls with Machine Guns” stood in stark contrast both aurally and visually.  The retro-pulp shock and awe invited the listener back to a time when rock and roll was a lot more dangerous and a hell of a lot more fun.

“All Women Are Bad” was a tongue-in-cheek misogynistic ode to original sin, beginning with Adam and Eve, continuing on to Sampson and Delilah, and ending in a fit of shudders and hiccups.  “They’ve got groovy wiggly tails and horns on their heads, all women are bad.”  Indeed.  In a sane and just world “The Creature From the Black Leather Lagoon” would be the official go-to Halloween FM radio staple instead of Michael Jackon’s “Thriller”.  Lux Interior name checks the eponymous Universal Studios Gill-Man, It Came from Outer Space (1953), James Dean’s infamous chicken run from “Rebel Without a Cause”, and even …..Satan.   As fate would have it, the video was banned from MTV, I suspect by whomever it is that lobbies on behalf of playground equipment manufacturers.

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Somehow, The Cramps managed to transition seamlessly into a stompin’and barnburnin’ rendition of “Shortnin’ Bread”, a folk song dating back to 1900.  Now THAT’S retro.  While treated with all due respect, the vocals were performed with such over-the-top monstrous bravado that one just couldn’t help but smile.  “Daisys Up Your Butterfly” was a mid-tempo, blues-derived tune brandishing some of Lux Interior’s finest poetic grandiloquence.  “Now you might believe the world is sweet and fine and sugar candy.  But, I, myself, believe in whatever comes in handy.  Now you’re whistling past the graveyard, hoping for the best.  But a humjob at the K-Mart just might wreck that party dress.”  The Bard himself would be envious of such silver-tongued humor.  “Everything Goes” moved the album into an even more blues-laden direction, while clearly staying within the confines of rockabilly proper.  In the aforementioned sane and just world, “Everything Goes” would be a staple in every strip club juke box.  “No holes barred, watch your toes.  Look out, baby… everything goes.  You got your g-strings and gin and nylon hose, chicken pot pie… everything goes!”

The next two songs were even more overtly sexual and pleasantly sleazy, while staying within the bounds of (semi) good taste and early 1960s movie rating codes.  “Journey to the Center of a Girl” combines references to science fiction gems such as Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) and She Beast (1966) with Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats’ “Rocket 88”.  There were even a few subliminal backwards messages thrown in for good measure.  “Mama oo Pow Pow” inverted the second half of The Trashmen’s 1963 classic “Surfin’ Bird”, and created an epic tribute to the Bettie Page style of “cheesecake” and bondage girly magazines which had a substantial underground following in the latter half of the 1950s.  Once again, Lux Interior is in rare form, “I don’t wanna be your dear sweet friend.  I just wanna beat your little pink rear end.”

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“Saddle Up a Buzz Buzz” was the last original track on “Stay Sick!”, and it was a beautiful conglomeration of everything that made the entire album great.  Obscure historical references, deviant sex, B-movies, Tarzan, Corvette Stingrays, Rat Fink and surfing were all combined into an ultra-potent cocktail of awesome.  In the opinion of your humble narrator, some of Poison Ivy’s best guitar work is found on this track.  The album ended with a positively ass-kickin’ cover of Jimmie Rodgers’s bluegrass classic “Mule Skinner Blues”.  It was almost too loud, too harsh and too chock full of hillbilly swagger to be contained by the fragile vinyl grooves of a mere record album, yet verily it was.

One of the best things about The Cramps was their de facto historical approach to rock and roll.  Instead of being concerned with the “Next Big Thing”, The Cramps’ time-preference was almost on a “geologic” scale.  When the average Gen-Xer got to the end of Stay Sick!, he was suddenly aware that he had missed an incredible and very substantial portion of the history of rock and roll.  There were amazing things to seek out and forgotten secrets just waiting to be rediscovered.  Every quest for such knowledge begins with the sudden realization of what one does not know.  To paraphrase the venerable philosopher SO-crates, “To know, is to know that you know nothing.  That is the meaning of true knowledge.”

On that distinctly profound note, we’ll let the cosmic wisdom of Lux Interior speak for itself.

Remember this!  Everything that you have ever experienced in your entire life has brought you to this instant.  All things now are possible in the limitless void of counter-actuality!  All things, too, that are knowable will be realized in this new dimension of BIKINI GIRLS WITH MACHINE GUNS!

Rest in peace, Lux Interior.  You are missed.

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TV CASUALTY – 5/1/2014

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Spring has sprung, and here at Retro in the 90s that means even more vintage sci-fi, retro horror, exploitation, and film noir!  Enjoy the shows.

SATURDAY, MAY 3, 2014

  • 10:00 PM It Came From Outer Space (1953) – MeTV
    Svengoolie vs. Ray Bradbury in a no holds barred death match!

SATURDAY, MAY 10, 2014

  • 4:00 PM Our Man Flint (1966) – Turner Classic Movies (TCM)
    I’ve heard this influenced Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997).
  • 2:00 AM Blue Sunshine (1979) – TCM
    “Sweeten the ride, YEAH!”  White Zombie references a plenty, I reckon.
  • 10:00 PM Island of Terror (1966) – MeTV
    Svengoolie and Peter Cushing!

THURSDAY, MAY 15, 2014

SATURDAY, MAY 17, 2014

Retro Horror night on TCM

  • 8:00 PM The Haunting (1963)
    An excellent ghost story remade in 1999.
  • 10:00 PM The Legend of Hell House (1973)
  • 3:30 AM Burn, Witch, Burn (1962)

Svengoolie

  • 10:00 PM The Deadly Mantis (1957) – MeTV
    If Godzilla (2014) is sold out at your local multiplex, here’s your consolation prize!

MONDAY, MAY 19, 2014 – Bonus Retro Horror night on TCM

  • 1:45 AM The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
    A classic from Hammer Films.
  • 3:15 AM Mr. Sardonicus (1961)
  • 4:45 AM The Haunted Palace (1963)
    Roger Corman and Vincent Price!

TUESDAY, MAY 20, 2014

  • 12:15 PM The Big Sleep (1946)
    Noir, baby.  Noir.

SATURDAY, MAY 24

Svengoolie

  • 10:00 PM The Land Unknown (1957)
    Man vs. dinosaurs in the Antarctic jungle!

SATURDAY, MAY 31 – Vintage Sci-Fi on TCM

  • 4:30 PM World Without End (1955)
    Kind of like Planet of the Apes, only with mutants instead of apes.
  • 6:00 PM From The Earth To The Moon (1958)

Svengoolie

  • 10:00 PM Munster, Go Home! (1966) – MeTV
    The Munsters’ first Technicolor trip to the big screen.

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006. Tim Burton – Ed Wood (1994)

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After reflecting on the Joe Bob’s Drive-In Theatre post, perhaps the most important function of the horror movie host was telling all the stories behind the story shown on screen.  The horror host’s knowledge added layers of context and depth to what basically amounted to any number of guy-in-a-rubber-monster-suit films.  While listening to Joe Bob Briggs wax poetic about the financing of Night of the Living Dead (1968) was both enjoyable and interesting, it wasn’t better than the film itself.  By that same token, listening to Svengoolie discuss the differences in the underwater scenes in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and Revenge of the Creature (1955) was pretty darned cool, but it still wasn’t better than either of the films.  But what if a movie was so awful that the story of its making was more compelling than the movie itself?  Moreover, I can’t be the only person who ever watched a 1950s B-grade horror flick and wondered how much fun it must have been to be involved with making it?  And I certainly can’t be the only person to wonder how cool would it have been to drink whiskey with Bela Lugosi?

This brings us to Tim Burton’s 1994 comedy/drama/biopic Ed Wood.  The film lovingly chronicled the career highlights of writer/actor/director/producer Edward D. Wood Jr., who in the 1950s made a number of low-budget sci-fi, horror and exploitation films.  Wood continued to write, act, direct and produce up until his untimely death in 1978 at the age of 54.  Although it seemed perfectly logical in 1994, as strange things were clearly afoot with the zeitgeist, future film historians may be puzzled why anyone would have wanted to make, much less watch a movie about the worst director of all time directing the worst film of all time?  There were plenty of bad movies and bad directors in the 1950s, so why Ed Wood and why then?

Let’s recap, in chronological order, the chain of events that led to Ed Wood’s resurgence of relevance;

  • In 1961, the rights to Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) were sold to late night television and the film became a staple of UHF programming for the next two decades.
  • In 1977 Glenn Danzig changed the name of his punk rock label from Blank Records to Plan 9 Records, clearly referencing Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).  For the next ten years, each subsequent recording by horror punk pioneers The Misfits, and later Samhain, was released under this imprint.  This helped to firmly cement the film’s legacy with every punk rock weirdo in the United States of America.
  • In 1980, author and film critic Michael Medved posthumously awarded Edward D. Wood Jr. a Golden Turkey Award for Worst Director of All Time, while declaring Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) the “worst movie ever made.”  As fate would have it, this renewed the public’s interest in Wood’s work.
  • In the early 1990s, three of Wood’s films, Bride of the Monster (1955), The Violent Years (1956), and The Sinister Urge (1960), were featured on Comedy Central’s Mystery Science Theater 3000, which further exposed Wood’s works to a new generation of sarcastic wiseacres.
  • On May 23, 1991, “The Chinese Restaurant” episode of Seinfeld aired.  This was the eleventh episode of the show’s second season, in which Jerry, George and Elaine decided to eat dinner without a reservation at a Chinese restaurant before seeing Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).  Jerry Seinfeld made some notable squibs.

    “Just a movie? You don’t understand. This isn’t plans 1 through 8 from outer space. This is Plan 9! This is the one that worked, the worst movie ever made!”  Seinfeld further intoned, “I can’t go to a bad movie by myself. What, am I gonna make sarcastic remarks to strangers?”

It should go without saying that Seinfeld was one of the most watched and most frequently awarded programs of the 1990s.  However, Jerry was very astute in his observation that viewing an Ed Wood movie was a social event.

  • In 1992, Rudolph Grey’s biography Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. was released, and initiated the process of Wood’s life and work being publically reevaluated.
  • Also in 1992, Flying Saucers Over Hollywood: The Plan 9 Companion was released.  This exhaustive two-hour documentary by Mark Carducci chronicled the making of Plan 9 from Outer Space and featured interviews with Maila Nurmi (Vampira), Paul Marco and Conrad Brooks.
  • And finally in 1992, Konami developed a Plan 9 from Outer Space video game for the Amiga and Atari ST, as well as a DOS version.

This brings us to writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski who developed a ten page treatment for an Ed Wood biopic based on Rudolph Grey’s Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr.  This script eventually found its way to oddball director Tim Burton, and the rest, as they say, is history.  Obviously, there was a great deal of retro inbreeding going on in the early 1990s, as one could literally turn on Friday night basic cable and watch Bride of the Monster (1955) on MST3K, wake up Saturday morning, drive to one’s local book store and pick up a new book about Edward D. Wood Jr., get back in the car, pop in the latest White Zombie cassette to hear songs with samples from Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), and then hit the multiplex for a screening of Ed Wood (1994), which featured the making of Bride of the Monster (1955), and depicts Edward D. Wood Jr. and Bela Lugosi watching the film White Zombie (1932) on television hosted by Vampira, to whom The Misfits wrote an ode on a record released through their Plan 9 label, and…..  You guys see where I’m going with this?

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As for Ed Wood (1994), the film itself, it was unlike any other movie of its time.  First and foremost, Burton insisted on filming the movie in black and white, which set the tone perfectly.  Seeing a black and white movie about the making of black and white movies was a stroke of genius on Burton’s part, as it reiterated to the viewer with all surgical precision of an atom bomb that this was the 1950s.  Sure, many independent films were shot sans color, but it was virtually unheard of for the studio-industrial-complex to release a major motion pictureTMin black and white.  The only predecessor that comes to mind was the Steve Martin film noir parody Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982).  Regardless, after Ed Wood (1994), Hollywood was less hesitant to screen new black and white movies at the multiplex, as evidenced by the success of Clerks (1994), Dead Man (1995), and roughly half of Pleasantville (1998).  Unfortunately this trend did not continue into the new millennium, and I, your humble narrator, am still irritated that I’m forced to watch Mad Men in color.  Yet, I digress.

The film was a constant blur or Mid-Century homes, cars, appliances, buildings, bars, clothes and music.  Speaking of which, Howard Shore’s film score was absolutely fantastic, and established the mood perfectly.  Shore combined the exotic percussion of Martin Denny and Les Baxter with the Theremin-laden sounds of 1950s sci-fi and B-movies.  The film score was performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and even featured Russian Theremin player Lydia Kavina (the grandniece of Leon Theremin).  The resulting sonic retro-hybrid provided the perfect soundtrack for either making movies with Edward D. Wood Jr. or drinking a Mai Tai on Mars.

The entire cast was wonderful.  Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Edward D. Wood Jr. was outstanding, and he evoked the mannerisms, cadence and optimism of post-war America like a champ.  Allegedly, he studied the acting of Jack Haley, Mickey Rooney and Ronald Reagan to prepare for the role.  Bill Murray was absolutely hilarious as Bunny Breckinridge, and stole every seen in which he appeared.  Sarah Jessica Parker turned in a fine performance, portraying Dolores Fuller, the actress and Elvis Presley songwriter, who was Ed’s love interest for the first half of the film.  Even though the meme of comparing Sarah Jessica Parker to a horse has been a comedy goldmine for years throughout the more unkind corners of the internet, she actually looks sort of….. pretty in this movie.  It took me a while to put my finger on why, and it hearkens back to various skirmishes in the war of the sexes that I’ve observed over the past five years.  To wit, men want wives not coworkers, men value femininity in women, and the visceral repulsion to the manjaw-ificaiton of American women.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but she acted overtly feminine, channeling June Cleaver instead of Carrie Bradshaw, and as a result she seemed much more attractive than in any of her roles before or since.  Well, up until she tried to kill Johnny Depp with a frying pan, but he totally had it coming.

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The one part of Ed Wood (1994) most resonated with viewers was Martin Landau’s flawless depiction of Bela Lugosi.  This performance didn’t go unnoticed by the powers that be, as it won Landau an Academy Award for best supporting actor.  Regardless, the idea of befriending one’s heroes has always held appeal for..… pretty much everyone..… ever.  Tim Burton had experienced this first hand while working with Vincent Price on Edward Scissorhands (1990), and was therefore able to tackle the subject with expertise, plausibility and perspective.  Perhaps Burton’s greatest accomplishment with this film was that he made the audience care about the characters, especially Bela.  From the moment he showed up in the coffin store, to his profanity laced tirades about Boris Karloff, through addiction, rehab, and until his death, one just couldn’t help but root for the old man.  In hindsight, Burton’s treatment of Edward D. Wood Jr. shouldn’t come as a surprise, as much brighter people than I have previously pointed out that Burton is clearly an enthusiast, not a satirist.

Regardless, there were numerous scenes that depicted the social and workplace interactions of Ed, Bela and the gang, and allowed the viewers to feel as though they were standing in the same room or seated at the same table as the characters.  Most importantly, this allowed the viewer to feel as though they were sharing the camaraderie of a bygone past.  Not only did Ed Wood (1994) make the audience feel like they were there, it also made the audience wish they were there.  In the opinion of your humble narrator, several of these scenes stand out above the rest;

  • The scene where Ed, The Amazing Criswell and his entourage have drinks with Bela and try to goad him into delivering some of his most famous lines from Dracula (1931)
  • The night time filming of the infamous octopus wrestling scene from Bride of The Monster (1955)
  • Ed and Bela (in full Dracula garb) watching White Zombie (1932) on The Vampira Show on Halloween night, then scaring the bejeezus out of some trick-or-treaters

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I’ll leave it to The Amazing Criswell to summarize the effect of watching Ed Wood (1994).

All of us on this earth know that there is a time to live, and that there is a time to die. Yet death is always a shock to those left behind.

Even though that narration comes from the worst film of all time, I certainly can’t argue with the sentiment.  And for those of us born at the beginning of our civilization’s demise, looking back to the recent past often makes us realize, in no uncertain terms, that we’ve also been left behind.

After The Fact

  • Although I find the topic tedious, at best, I suppose I’m obligated to mention that Edward D. Wood Jr. was a transvestite (a heterosexual man who liked to wear women’s clothing), and then pontificate on some Kumbayah bullshit.  I’ll agree to the former, but I have absolutely no interest in the latter.  That said, the film addresses the issue with humor, realism and sympathy without coming across as overly “preachy”, or whatever it is that currently passes for “preachy” in our secular, politically-correct post-nation.  Upon re-watching Ed Wood (1994), it was refreshing to be reminded that no so long ago in America, people actually struggled with their sexual deviancy rather than making it the cornerstone to define their very identity.  Indeed, those were different times.
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005. Joe Bob Briggs – Joe Bob’s Drive-In Theatre

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Of all the movie hosts who have come and gone over the years, one can easily make an argument that Joe Bob Briggs was the most prolific.  As the king of all lowbrow media, John Bloom’s alter-ego authored a multitude of film reviews, newspaper columns, editorials, and books, while he starred in a one-man show, hosted horror movies on two networks, made cameos in several major motion picturesTM, founded the Drive-In Academy Awards, released his own brand of hand-picked DVDs, and was twice nominated for the Cable ACE award.  Zacherle may have been the godfather, Svengoolie may have been the most likable, and Elvria was certainly the prettiest, but no one even came close to out-working or out-thinking Joe Bob Briggs.

For those of us outside the circulation zone of The Dallas Times Herald, our first exposure to the cosmic wisdom of Joe Bob Briggs came via The Movie Channel’s Joe Bob’s Drive-In Theatre (pronounced “theeate-ur”) which ran after 10:00 p.m. on Saturday nights from 1986 to 1996.  Continuing in the 1950s tradition of midnight movies, the programming on Drive-In Theatre was entirely consistent with Joe Bob’s philosophy of what made for a great drive-in movie, namely “The Three B’s”; blood, breasts and beasts. The films shown were always of the drive-in/grindhouse/b-movie variety, running the gamut from cult horror, to the myriad exploitation sub-genres, and sex farce falling just shy of soft-core pornography.  As a premium cable network, The Movie Channel was able to furnish more current films and show them in a completely unedited format, which gave Joe Bob a leg up on his horror host competitors.  However, Drive-In Theatre also hosted some great retro fare such as;

The opening sequence to Joe Bob’s Drive-In Theatre was a flawless execution of retro-awesomosity.  It depicted a man receiving a package wrapped in brown paper, which he promptly opened revealing a Joe Bob’s Drive-in Theater kit.  Then he proceeded to assemble the kit complete with a fake dashboard, car door, window speaker, steering wheel, rows of classic automobiles, a miniature snack bar and a dusky sky outline which surrounded the TV screen.  The end result transformed the man’s living room into a perfectly replicated facsimile of a Mid-Century drive-in theatre.  This was an extremely effective introduction which perfectly set the tone in approximately 20 seconds.

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Joe Bob’s Drive-In Theatre followed the same format each week.  Perpetually clad in a cowboy hat, western shirt and bolo tie, Joe Bob stepped out of his mobile home, sat down in a lawn chair, cracked open a beer and introduced the next film while regaling the audience with his unique Texan blend of scathing wit and down home charm.  As a true raconteur, Briggs always had several hilarious anecdotes about each film, actor/actress, or director, often bordering on the unbelievable.  One of my favorites was his introduction to Carnival of Souls (1962) an offbeat zombie move that preceded Night of the Living Dead (1968) by six years.  Joe Bob simultaneously explained the entire back story of one-hit-wonder director Herk Harvey, cited the film’s influence on George A. Romero and Brian DePalma (of Carrie (1976) fame), lambasted “egghead professors” as well as The New York Times film critic Vincent Canby, and still managed to work in a shout out to the Lawrence, Kansas Convention & Visitors Bureau.  Joe Bob Intoned, thusly.

 “So for all the people who watched Carnival of Souls at the drive-ins of America and didn’t need some gooney professor to tell ‘em it was a great movie, let’s reclaim this one for the good guys.  It’s a zombie movie!  It’s not about existential angst!  It’s not a symbolic parable!  It’s a zombie movie!”

During each introductory segment, Joe Bob tallied up the Drive-In Totals which always included the number of dead bodies and breasts shown in the film.  He would call to the viewer’s attention anything particularly shocking or noteworthy such as decapitations and car chase scenes.  For example the Drive-In Totals for Frankenhooker (1990) were as follows;

  • 27 breasts
  • 14 dead bodies
  • exploding heads
  • brain in a jar
  • brain in a fish tank
  • drill-through-the-head-psychotherapy
  • head-slicing
  • girlfriend-eating lawnmower
  • bunion-filing
  • candlelight dinner with a severed head
  • spewing body parts
  • explodin’ hookers
  • cameo appearance by John Zacherele
  • excellent Morton Downey Jr. impersonation
  • heads, roll, arms roll, legs roll, everything rolls.
  • Drive-In Academy Award nomination for Patty Mullen as Frankenhooker
  • 4 stars, check it out

In my humble opinion, mankind will never create a more efficient and user-friendly system for the review of movies, drive-in or otherwise.

After the movie, Joe Bob reappeared to give the viewing audience his final thoughts on the film, reveal a few more anecdotes, and answer fan mail.  In hindsight, it was Joe Bob’s familiarity with the legends and lore surrounding each film that truly set him apart from any horror host who’s come before or since.  Briggs appeared to have a photographic memory containing an encyclopedic amount of information pertaining movies, actors, directors, producers, crew, sets and ephemera.  Keep in mind this was well before one could just look it up on the internet.  The man did his homework diligently, but I’d wager it was a labor of love.  There were always myriad stories behind the story shown on the screen, and Joe Bob did a better job of telling those than anyone.  Below is a link to a fantastic clip from 1992 where Joe Bob reunited the original cast of Night of the Living Dead (1968) and remembered details that even they seemed to have forgotten.  This goes above and beyond how ridiculously cool it was that he reunited the original cast of Night of the Living Dead!!! 

Toward the end of each show, Joe Bob read news briefs regarding actual drive-in theatres that had recently closed, or were miraculously saved from closing at the zero hour.  These were alternately framed as either a “Communist Alert” or a “Republican Alert” to equally offend the political sensibilities of his audience of sleazy cinemaphiles.  He always concluded the segment with the chilling reminder, “Without eternal vigilance, it could happen here.”  Joe Bob always rounded out the segment with a couple of jokes, often dirty ones.

For example…..

Q: Do you guys know what the Polish guy calls his zebra?
A: Spot

Q: Why did the pervert cross the road?
A: He was stuck to the chicken.

Q: Did y’all hear about the anorexic nymphomaniac?
A: she swallowed an olive and 5 guys left town.

Q: Did y’all know what 10,000 battered wives have in common?
A: They JUST! WON’T! LISTEN!

Finally, Joe Bob ended each night’s broadcast by stating, “I’m Joe Bob Briggs reminding you that the drive-in will never die.”  Thus far, he’s been proven right.  The drive-in was a quintessential part of mid-century culture, and Joe Bob fought to preserve it, for ourselves and our posterity.  Perhaps his most important contribution was that he let so many of us know that there was a whole wide world of exploitation and cult films that we’d never even heard of just waiting to be rediscovered.  And much like the super-cool big brother whom many of us never had, Joe Bob not only told us all about these films, but also made damned sure we got to see them uncut.

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Furthermore, while watching these old clips of Drive-In Theater, I laughed repeatedly at the utter lack of political correctness.  At the time, the 1990s didn’t seem terribly permissive, especially on college campuses.  But I reckon the trite platitude “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone” is a worn out cliché for good reason.  Outside of a Comedy Central roast, I can’t imagine anyone on cable today getting away with the utterly hilarious rants Joe Bob rolled out weekly.  The following clip speaks for itself.  Enjoy.

Note to hardcore Joe Bob Briggs purists: Hold off on the hate mail.  I intend to do follow up posts on Joe Bob Briggs – Monstervision, and Joe Bob Briggs – The Written Works.

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001. Mystery Science Theater 3000 – The Joel Years

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Mystery Science Theater 3000 was quite possibly the lynchpin which united the myriad factions of retro culture during the 1990s.  While every hotrodder, garage punk, surf guitarist, rockabilly chick, swing-dancer, trekkie and monster movie aficionado I ever met loved MST3K, so did pretty much everyone else with a functional sense of humor and a triple-digit IQ.  Case in point, back in 1994 I remember listening to a professor introduce himself on the first day of a 500-level microbiology class at THEE Ohio State University by stating, “I seem to have forgotten the syllabi.  Well, we’re off to a very auspicious beginning.”  After an awkward pause, he finally thought of something interesting to say, “OK, show of hands, who watches Mystery Science Theater 3000?  I steal most of my jokes from that show.”  Remember, this took place in a time when cable was still largely considered second rate programming, and Comedy Central was a relatively obscure upstart network.  MST3K was far more popular than it had any right to be.

So much has been written about MST3K over the years, but for any reader unfamiliar with the premise, here’s a brief synopsis.  In the not too distant future, the malevolent Dr. Clayton Forrester and his lackey, TV’s Frank, launch Joel Robinson, a janitor at the Gizmonic Institute, into space and force him to watch horrible B-movies as some sort of sadistic experiment.  Trapped on board the ship, nicknamed the “Satellite of Love”, Joel builds several sentient robot friends.  Two of these, Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, watched the B-movies with Joel, whilst making jokes, wise-cracks, one-liners, witty zingers and non sequiturs at the expense of the films.  The viewer could see their silhouettes in the lower right hand corner of the screen, as though you were seated right behind them in a movie theatre.  This was the concept of the horror host carried through to its logical point of absurdity.  It was both hilarious and wonderful.

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There were also numerous skits between film segments with Joel and the robots trading barbs with Dr. Forrester and TV’s Frank.  The invention exchange was a recurring gag, in which each side presented some ridiculous contraption they’d hastily assembled before the show.  My all-time favorite was the “Fridge Udder”, which consisted of a cow patterned refrigerator where the ice and water dispensers were altered with milk-dispensing teats.  Hearing Crow T. Robot repeatedly say “teat” on television before being injured whilst “fridge tipping” is the stuff dreams are made of.  At the risk of going off on a tangent, inappropriate language was screened much more vigorously in the 90s than it is today.  Back then, you couldn’t call someone a “dick” on basic cable, but somehow Crow and Tom Servo always got away with calling each other “dick weed”.  It may have been misinterpreted as a benign botanical term akin to “pussy willow”, yet, I digress.

After one season on KTMA in Minneapolis, Minnesota, MST3K ran for seven seasons on Comedy Central from 1989 through 1996.  For many members of Generation X, this was our first exposure to the cinematic genius of Ed Wood, Roger Corman, and the gargantuan terrapin awesomosity that is Gamera.  It’s astounding to think about, but in the era famous for Terminator 2 (1991), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), and Independence Day (1996), millions of youths were tuning in religiously to see the likes of

Any way you slice it, that’s an awful lot of black and white golden age science fiction that most of us never would have seen otherwise.

In addition to the guys-in-rubber-monster-suits genre, MST3K screened a plethora of exploitation films, introducing extinct youth subcultures such as beatniks, greasers, and clean-cut outlaw bikers to a whole new audience.

The outdated attitudes, posturing and slang of the characters in these movies seemed comical enough in and of itself.  Adding Joel and the robots’ commentary to the mix often resulted in laughter to the point of tears and incapacity.

A recurring theme of 1990s retro was initiation through ironic distance, followed by genuine affection.  Moreover, many of those who initially watched MST3K to mock and laugh at old B-movies, and the passé values of the times they reflected, ended up actually liking vintage sci-fi and exploitation films.  Liking them non-ironically, mind you.  Mystery Science Theater 3000 was a gateway drug, which often lead to the enjoyment of Elvis movies, dabbling in obscure Japanese daikaiju, scouring eBay for bootlegged DVDs of Invasion of The Saucermen (1957), and finally metastasizing into a full-blown addiction to Turner Classic Movies.

 Note to hardcore MST3K purists: Hold off on the hate mail.  I intend to do follow up posts on MST3K – The Mike Years, and MST3K: The Movie.

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