The St. Croix Hilltop Drive-In, about thirty minutes from Amery, Wisconsin by car, offered something more transgressive than the genre movies I’d grown up with on Horror Incorporated. In the late 1970's and early 1980's, an audience of drunken, stoned farm boys paid five dollars per car on weekends to see bare breasts and graphic violence. The era of the drive-in as a venue for family entertainment had passed. Programs now alternated between titillating peepshow fare such as Roger Corman’s ‘nurse’ films (or a contemporary variation like Porky's) and the ‘Dusk to Dawn Gore-a-Rama.”
This was the last period of relative prosperity for most drive-ins, before VHS rentals became widely available, but an air of decline already pervaded the Hilltop. A drive-in theater is essentially nothing more than a dirt parking lot with a screen and two cinderblock buildings: a projection booth and a concession stand with restrooms. Augment that banality with the smell of urine, flickering neon bulbs and empty beer bottles scattered in the dirt and you will have conjured the disreputable atmosphere of the place. John Carpenter’s Halloween at the Amery Theater still had mainstream acceptability: a rollercoaster ride in an amusement park. The drive-in, by contrast, was a shadow world of dangerous impulses; the rules of daily life were suspended, inhibitions lowered and forbidden desires drawn forth.
During high school summers, I drove to the Hilltop with my three Dungeons and Dragons/Super 8 filmmaking friends. The drinking age in Wisconsin was eighteen so it was easy to pay a senior student to buy beer for us and low-grade marijuana was everywhere during this Dazed and Confused period. I was a straight kid, a diligent student and a serious tennis player. As ‘Dr. Schroeder’s son’ I also had to maintain an appearance of upright behavior, so I drank little and only remember smoking pot a few times during high school. The subculture of the drive-in, however, invited a relaxing of constraints.
The summer of 1980 I attended the classic three part ‘gore-a-rama’ program of the era: The Hills Have Eyes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Last House on the Left. If I consider these three films together through the lens of otherness in horror films, they all portray ‘normal’ and ‘deviant’ families at odds. A mainstream film would establish that conflict, manipulate the viewer's concern that normalcy will be displaced, create a cathartic wave of tension and then restore order in the end. In the original 1962 Cape Fear, for example, one senses an underlying reassurance that Gregory Peck’s lawyer will prevail over the threat to his family from Max Cady (despite the ambiguity in our sympathies created by Robert Mitchum’s charismatic villain). In the famous 1970’s underground trilogy, the filmmakers subversively blur the distinction between normalcy and deviance and deny us that typical reassurance. The recognizable allegiances that we have been conditioned to expect from commercial films aren’t as clear cut. The deviant families behave like the normal families; they both gather for dinner. In The Hills Have Eyes the bald, rather alien-looking cannibal played by Michael Berryman abducts the tourist family’s baby, which he refers to as the ‘tenderloin.’ Watching this scene with my friends at the Hilltop, the filmmakers had effectively manipulated me into a state of taboo ambiguity. I yelled at one point with true enthusiasm, “Kill the tenderloin! Eat the tenderloin!” My friends all turned to me with shocked expressions and one of them asked, “What’s wrong with you, man?” My socially conditioned reflexes had been short-circuited, creating a state of emotional insecurity and excitement.
Was there something wrong with me? While watching the movies every Saturday on Horror Incorporated as a kid I had always concealed a guilty identification with the monster, developing a genuine desire to see chaos prevail. I wondered why the monster was inevitably defeated and began to resent the leading man/hero. This fluidity of character on my part, my allegiance with the monster, may have derived from a personal feeling of otherness that I grew up with in Amery. I got early cues at school that I was odd and I often felt that I must contrive a more socially normal version of myself to avoid getting bullied. This anxiety expressed itself in a recurring dream inspired by watching Westworld on television. In Michael Crichton’s film, tourists in a near future act out their fantasies in theme parks populated by robots. In my dream, I arrived at school and recognized that everyone had been replaced by robots and that, if the robots became aware I was still a person, they would kill me. I mimicked the mannerisms of the robots while I searched for an exit. The dream was a pointed metaphor for what high school felt like to me and for many people, I imagine, who didn’t have an instinctual grasp of social norms.
The Hills Have Eyes ended. Intermission films appeared onscreen as the audience left their cars, stretched and compared notes about freaky-looking cannibals and camping. The word ‘tenderloin’ bubbled through these conversations while images of hot dogs rotating on metal spikes played in the background. This was the last period during which these shorts were still produced specifically for the drive-ins by blandly named companies like National Screen Services. A ten-minute program between movies in 1980 represented an arbitrarily curated stylistic history of the, mostly animated, intermission film. It may have included jazzy, mid-century Dr. Pepper cartoons in which big-nosed characters scatted the sales pitch as a beatnik poem, ‘Frosty, Man, Frosty,' or a psychedelic Sprite ad inspired by the stargate sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey. On this particular night, a few years after the release of Star Wars, I’m sure that Star Snacks would also have been in the mix, in which an R2D2 lookalike makes popcorn. While the intermission compilation encouraged us to buy popcorn, candy and hot dogs in the concession building, it also counted down the time until the next movie started. “There are now just four minutes until Showtime.” I appreciate these little films because, I know now as an animator myself, they were low-budget commissioned work by smaller animation studios outside the main centers of New York or Los Angeles; the Dr. Pepper ad mentioned above was produced by Keitz & Herndon in Dallas, Texas. They convey an attitude of eccentric, individual authorship that belies the utilitarian origin of the work.
“It’s Showtime!” the screen announced and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre began. Just before the dinner scene in which Leatherface offers grandpa the honor of killing Sally with a hammer, in a heightened frenzy of pursuit, the screen flashed first white, then went black. The old, damaged prints that circulated between drive-ins often broke in the hands of inexperienced projectionists. The routine during these breaks was to flash car lights and honk horns, so the audience yelled and flashed and honked as expected. After a couple of minutes, however, the film still hadn’t returned to the screen. The noise and light died away and the audience members began to leave their cars and mill about impatiently. These inebriated teenage boys had been whipped into a state of sociopathic identification with Leatherface and their vicarious pursuit of Sally had been interrupted. Someone shouted, “Where’s the fucking movie, man?” Laughter. But the movie still didn’t return. A discontented chatter mounted and the kids opened their trunks or crawled into the back of their pickup trucks. They came out with tire irons, shovels or lengths of two by four wood and organized in a loose circle with the projection booth as their gravitational center. The mob began to slowly close from all directions. Suddenly a beer bottle shattered against the cinderblock wall. A roar went up and the crowd charged the building. My friends and I remained in our car. We expressed any aggressive tendencies we had through our Dungeons and Dragons play and we weren’t ready for this all too real brutality. From my vantage, the crowd of teenage boys attacking the walls of the projection booth resembled the mob of angry villagers at the door of Dr. Frankenstein’s castle.
In my twenties I worked as a film projectionist and I know that the only time you exist for an audience is when the film breaks. As I recall the scene now, I commiserate with this poor projectionist who was probably just out of high school, stoned, earning minimum wage, frantically trying to splice together mangled celluloid fragments of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre because his life literally depended upon it. He was on the verge of being dragged from his cinderblock room and crucified on the screen as a surrogate, sacrificial Sally. “Kill the Tenderloin!”
Then, just in time to prevent genuine flesh and blood horror, the film returned to the screen. The seemingly implacable wave of aggression crashed childishly in the dirt and the farm boys returned to the shadows to witness the further abuse, humiliation and ultimate escape of Sally. The transgressive cocktail of pot, booze, the subversive fantasy of the film, the obscure timelessness of midnight and, finally, an infectious mob mentality, had provoked an anarchic violence in them. They hunched in solitary shame, drinking warm cans of cheap beer, while Leatherface reeled in frustration against the setting sun, gunning his phallic chainsaw in wide arcs.
Ten years ago, I was moving from a rented house in a working-class neighborhood in Minneapolis. The immediate neighbors to that house had been the definition of dysfunctional: parents with addiction issues and three teenage boys with no sense of a future, raging through an unguided present. One of the boys had been drunk in the busy street in front of his house; a car had struck him and his left leg had been amputated. The last image I have of that neighborhood, as I loaded my possessions into a rented truck, was of this boy in a wheelchair with a half empty bottle of vodka in his lap, spinning in circles in traffic in the same spot he’d lost his leg. Leatherface materialized by association in my mind, spinning at the end of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as Sally escapes in the back of a pickup truck: grinding, purposeless, impotent, self-lacerating, inarticulate rage.