A rural California drive-in is being stalked by a ruthless killer who chooses to slay his victims with a sword. It’s now up to Detectives Koch and Leary to discern the mysterious killer’s identity before the victim count goes up.
Oops! Too late.
I’m going to be honest, from the moment the opening credits of this movie started, I did not have high hopes for this very early American pseudo-slasher. I had already seen a couple ratings on Google, and the scratchy opening visuals and accompanying crackling track did not ease my apprehension. And indeed, now having seen it, I can confidently conclude that, in no way shape or form, is Drive-In Massacre in any way a good movie. One actor obviously flubs his line, you can see the cameraman’s shadow in one shot, it’s far too long for what it is, and the sound and the visuals are all over the place. Yet despite it’s very obvious flaws, there’s still just enough competency and idiosyncrasies here to help it remain mildly entertaining instead of downright awful.
But just barely.
But before we get to the film’s few saving graces, let’s get all the crap out of the way, the first point of contention being the visuals, which are, at best, mediocre, and at worst, downright dreadful. Unfortunately it doesn’t look like this film was taken care of in the slightest, which perhaps isn’t surprising, considering the movie was always meant to be a B-movie schlock-fest and probably never looked that good to begin with, but it’s still rather disappointing. There are several versions of the movie out there, all of varying quality, but the version I watched seemed to have been at least slightly restored and cleaned up, so at the very least the picture quality was clear enough that you were able to discern what was happening, even in particularly dark scenes. But even the version I watched still suffered from noticeable scratches, pops, odd edits, and in one particular scene some serious color issues that made it look like some characters were changing the color of their ties multiple times during the same scene. And that doesn’t even touch on the multiple visual “oopsies”, like the aforementioned cameraman’s shadow being clearly visible, or the inside of the camera lens sneaking into frame because the filmmakers were trying to surreptitiously film at a carnival without a permit. In short, half the film looks fine, and the other half looks well and truly awful, so don’t go in expecting to be impressed with the visuals.
Totally different blue
….and now it’s green for some reason
Another thing not to be impressed by? The audio. I’m not one who usually comments on the music in a film, but in this case I shall make an exception, because the soundtrack for this film is just on the verge of terrible. It sounds like a combination of a horrible keyboard demo and a playing card that a kid taped to their bike wheel. Except the kid’s bike only has four spokes on it, so you’re not even getting the full “card/spokes” experience. You just get a perpetual ‘tunk-tunk-tunk-tunk’, superimposed over the keyboard demo. And the filmmakers seemed to have loved that combo so much that they decided to make it the film’s unofficial theme song, so you end up bombarded with the combination of ‘Keyboard demo/tunk-tunk-tunk-tunk’ on constant repeat, scene after scene, for minutes on end. By the time I heard it the third time, I was about ready to pull my hair out.
Here’s a quick sample for those interested:
Then there’s the quality of the audio itself, which is sadly about on par with the visuals. It does improve a bit in later scenes, but in early scenes the annoying soundtrack tends to drown out all the other audio, making it very difficult to understand any of the dialogue (not that a lot of it’s really worth listening to anyway). But even after they managed to get their volume levels under control, the film is still plagued with instances of reverb, characters mumbling or talking too softly to be heard, or just moments of pure degradation. Fortunately for the viewer, the story is so simple and easy enough to follow that some muddled lines doesn’t mean that you’ll be missing much. But it’s still annoying.
So is the popcorn guy supposed to be Disco Satan?
But the film’s biggest issue is likely the pacing. Being a rather early example of a ‘slasher’, the film doesn’t stick to the more modern, preconceived genre story beats one has come to expect from slashers. So the movie doesn’t end up spending it’s run time following around potential victims, or even spending any time focusing on the killer. Instead, the movie takes a different tact, and follows Detectives Koch and Leary as they try to solve the ever evolving crimes. Which makes the film feel more like a crime thriller, and is a rather pleasant change of pace regarding stories like this. It also leads to some entertaining moments between the two men, including a scene reminiscent of one in The Town That Dreaded Sundown, the original one from 1976, where the two detectives stake out the drive-in, with one of them dressed as a woman. The entire scene is about as ridiculous as it sounds, with the two overweight men trying to surreptitiously stake out the place in disguise and failing rather miserably, but it’s made all the more amusing by Detective Leary’s commitment to his disguise as he pretends to make out with is very uncomfortable partner. And it’s even more amusing when you realize that Detective Leary is played by John Goff, a rather prolific B-movie character actor from the 70s and 80s and one of the film’s writers, meaning he deliberately meant to put himself in that garish outfit. I admire his commitment to his craft.
(As a side note, George ‘Buck’ Flower, the other writer of the movie, also had an acting role in this film. He was cast in the un-credited role as the Warehouse Suspect. I guess that explains why we spent ten-minutes watching the guy, and his daughter, when we didn’t need too.)
He really needed a better hat, though.
But while the movie’s shift in focus leads to some amusing moments, unfortunately the filmmakers weren’t able to adequately balance out the crime and drama portions, and they spend so much time focusing on the police aspect of the movie, that the film’s alternate title could very well have been: Police Procedural: The Movie. I mean I enjoy crime shows as much as the next person, so I actually really liked the shift in focus, but I swear, episodes of Law and Order don’t spend this much time focusing on the cops. And it’s sadly quite obvious that the reason for this is that the movie just didn’t have enough meat on it’s bones, so they had to throw in some padding to stretch it out to feature length. As a result, you end up with interrogations that are awkwardly long, pointless office sequences, and a ten-minute long scene at the end involving a kidnapping at a warehouse that you just KNOW is nothing more than a giant red-herring and has nothing to do with the rest of the plot, but you’re forced to sit through it anyway. At only 74 minutes the movie is already on the short side, but if you cut out the credits, that last scene, and trimmed the other extraneous junk, the movie would barely clock in at 50 minutes. Thankfully there are some amusing bits hidden within all that padding, but that doesn’t keep the movie from feeling like it’s dragging its feet at several points throughout the runtime.
Get on with it!
So what’s the movie’s saving grace? Well, other than the rather enjoyable oddities, like the detective’s failure at doing basic undercover operations, well surprisingly, it’s the acting. Line flubs aside, all the main characters are shockingly solid. Douglas Gudbye’s performance as Germy, was surprisingly endearing, what with his earnestness to help, and his ultimate maltreatment and wounded reaction over being cast aside help give the film some much needed weight. And for once the police in this movie actually look, sound and behave like police. They still end up being incompetent, sure, but at least they look the part and are earnest and don’t come across as useless ass-hats. I’m not saying that there are any performances here that’ll knock your socks off, but for a cheesy movie like this, the acting was loads better than the film deserved. Just don’t go looking up any of the names in the credits. They’re all pseudonyms because the movie was made non-union. I wonder why.
Duke of Disguise indeed…
Drive-In Massacre isn’t anything special to write-home about. It’s about what you would expect from a no-budget B-Movie that was intentionally made for the drive-in market. The visuals are clunky, the sounds are equally so, the effects are bloody, but cheesy, the pacing is awful and the plot is about as bare-boned as you can get. It also gets extra crap points for the lame, abrupt ending that was probably even more embarrassing to see at the drive-in than it was to see at home. But the film does have a few amusing moments and characters that keep it from being downright unwatchable. For fans of early slashers and odd horror films, it’ll be worth it for the hour or so of quick entertainment it provides. But everyone else likely won’t care.
Drive-In Massacre is available on a variety of streaming services, including free on Tubi TV.
It is also available on DVD and Bluray.