As late summer arrives, peak season for drive-in theaters, we invited Minneapolis-based filmmaker Tom Schroeder to document his personal, social, cultural, and psychological experiences over the last forty years in three regional drive-in movie theaters, some now extinct. Launching a three-part series on the social life of drive-ins, he describes the audience as congregation and filmgoing as ritual in a reflection that intertwines his personal memories, evolving cultural insights, and observations from a compulsive life in cinemas. Part one takes us to the Hilltop Drive-In, near Schroeder’s Wisconsin hometown, which he recalls as “a shadow world of dangerous impulses, where the rules of daily life were suspended, inhibitions lowered, and forbidden desires invited forth.”
I was introduced to the St. Croix Hilltop Drive-In Theater as a teenager growing up in Amery, Wisconsin, a small dairy farming town of two thousand people. The drive-in of that era offered us the unfiltered id of 1970s cinema, something rougher and more mean-spirited than the Universal Pictures horror films I’d seen on television as a kid or even than the cycle of mainstream slasher films then playing at the Amery Theater. An audience composed primarily of drunken, stoned farm boys paid five dollars per car on weekends to see bare breasts and graphic violence. Programs alternated between titillating peepshow fare such as Roger Corman’s “nurse” films (a more mainstream version of which would have been Porky’s) and the “Dusk to Dawn Gore-a-Rama.”
The late 1970s represented the last pre-VHS period of relative prosperity for most drive-ins, but an air of decline and decrepitude 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 romance of the place. At the Amery theater, John Carpenter’s Halloween possessed more conventional 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 invited forth.
I generally drove to the Hilltop with my three Dungeons & Dragons, Super 8 filmmaking friends. The drinking age in Wisconsin was only eighteen at the time, so it was easy to recruit a senior high school student to buy beer for us; marijuana was easy to find as well. I was by temperament a straight kid, a diligent student and a serious tennis player. As “Dr. Schroeder’s son,” I also had to maintain a veneer of upright behavior, and so I drank little and only remember smoking pot a few times during high school. The atmosphere of the drive-in, however, induced disorientation, a relaxing of constraints, and I’m sure I allowed myself greater license on these occasions.
During the summer of 1980, I attended the classic three part “gore-a-rama” program of the era: The Hills Have Eyes, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Last House on the Left. All three films portray, in parallel and at odds, “normal” and “deviant” families. A mainstream film would establish that distinction, manipulate the concern that normalcy will be displaced, create a cathartic wave of tension, and then restore order in the end with the subjugation of threat. In the original Cape Fear, for example, one feels a constant underlying reassurance that Gregory Peck’s lawyer will ultimately prevail over the threat to his family from Max Cady, despite the mild ambiguity in our sympathies solicited by Robert Mitchum’s charismatic portrayal of the villain. In the trilogy of sociopathology from the 1970s, by contrast, the filmmakers subversively blur the distinction between normalcy and deviance, and deny us the typical reassurance. The recognizable allegiances and identifications that we have been conditioned to expect from commercial films—good/bad, hero/villain—aren’t as immediately available to us. The deviant families behave like and maintain rituals quite similar to the normal families; they both tend to gather for dinner, for example. 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. While a conditioned concern for the safety of the baby had been established, I also yelled at one point with true enthusiasm, “Kill the tenderloin! Eat the tenderloin!” My friends all turned to me with affronted expressions, one of them asking, “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 movies every Saturday afternoon as a young boy on a television anthology called “Horror Incorporated” I had always concealed a guilty identification with the monster. I had developed a genuine desire to see chaos prevail in the end. 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 had growing up in Amery, Wisconsin. I received early cues on the playground 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 had embodied itself in a recurring dream that was inspired by watching Westworld. In the Michael Crichton 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 was actually a robot and that, if the robots became aware that I was a person, they would kill me. I adopted the mannerisms of the robots in order to mask my true nature while I searched for an exit. The dream now seems a pointed metaphor for what high school felt like to me and to many people, I imagine, who didn’t have an instinctual grasp of social norms.
The Hills Have Eyes ended. The intermission films appeared on screen as the audience left their cars, stretched, and compared notes about freaky-looking cannibals and camping. Conversations were punctuated by the recurring word “tenderloin,” while images of hot dogs rotating on metal spikes played in the background. Drive-in intermission films have the same appeal for me as theater chain logos and movie title design; they represent an un-self-conscious, stylistic time capsule for the cultural moment in which they were produced. In the late 1970s, the last period during which these advertising films were still made specifically for the drive-ins, the ten-minute program between movies would have been an arbitrarily curated history of the, mostly animated, intermission film. There might have been flat, jazzy, mid-century modern Dr. Pepper cartoons in which big-nosed characters accompanied the sales pitch with a beatnik recitation (“Frosty, Man, Frosty”) or a psychedelic Sprite ad inspired by the abstract ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey. On this night in 1980, a few years after the initial impact of Star Wars, I’m sure that “Snack Wars” would also have appeared in the mix, in which an R2-D2 lookalike produces popcorn. While the intermission films invited us to the concession stand to buy popcorn, candy and hot dogs, they also counted down the time until the next movie started. “There are now just four minutes until showtime.” I appreciate these little films because, as I know now, they are commissioned work executed by smaller animation studios outside of 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 Chain Saw Massacre began. Just before the dinner scene in which Leatherface, dressed as a woman, gives 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 established routine during these malfunctions was to flash car lights and honk horns. The audience now cheered and flashed and honked. After a couple of minutes, the film still hadn’t returned to the screen. The noise and light died away and the audience members started 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.
Now a discontented chatter arose and people opened their trunks or crawled into the back of their pickup trucks. They produced tire irons and shovels or lengths of two-by-four wood and organized in a loose circle with the cinderblock projection booth as their gravitational center. The circle began to slowly close from all directions. Suddenly a beer bottle shattered against the side of the projection booth. A roar went up and the crowd charged the building. My friends and I remained in our car. We expressed and sublimated any aggressive tendencies we had through our Dungeons & Dragons play, and we weren’t suited for this all too real brutality. From my vantage, the crowd of teenage boys attacking the walls of the projection booth resembled exactly the mob of angry villagers at the door of Dr. Frankenstein’s castle that I’d seen on “Horror Incorporated.” I’ve since 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 kid who was probably just out of high school, stoned, earning minimum wage, frantically trying to splice together mangled celluloid fragments of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre because their life literally depended upon it. They were on the verge of being dragged from their 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 weed, booze, the subversive fantasy of the film, the obscure timelessness of the middle of the night, and, finally, an infectious mob mentality had provoked an anarchic, atavistic violence in them. They hunched in solitary shame, drinking warm cans of cheap beer, as Leatherface reeled in frustration against the setting sun, gunning his phallic chainsaw in wide arcs.
About ten years ago, my partner Hilde and I were moving from a rented house in a working-class neighborhood in Minneapolis to a house we’d just bought. Our immediate neighbors in the rented 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 he had a leg amputated. The last image I have of that neighborhood, as Hilde and I loaded our possessions into a rented truck, was of this boy in his 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 Chain Saw Massacre as Sally escapes in the back of a pickup truck: grinding, purposeless, impotent, self-lacerating, inarticulate rage.