“Now, I wanna make one thing perfectly clear. The drive-in movie was the first drive-in anything. You can keep your wimpola drive-in Burger Kings, your drive-in Fotomats, your drive-in 7-11s, your drive-in banks. When I say drive-in, I’m talking one thing and one thing only: I’m talking a place where people can go watch flicks in their natural state, like God intended, in the privacy of their own personal automobiles.”
- Joe Bob Briggs, the world’s only drive-in movie columnist
At a time when it seems like every day brings bad news slathered all over us with trowels, one nice thing that happened in COVID 2020 is the resurgence of the drive-in movie theater. Even now, packing up the car and heading out to the picture show in the great outdoors is the best way to enjoy the movie experience while staying responsibly socially distant.
I grew up in Ithaca, and we had drive-in theaters here, screens like the Lakes Car Drive-In on Trumansburg Road. When I was a little kid, we saw family fare like “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” They were showing pornography by the 1980s and closed when the screen was hit by lightning.
Then there was the Dryden Drive-In on Dryden Road. When my mom went out of town for a few days, my dad took me and my brother Anthony to see “Patton” at the Dryden. In my teen years, I remember road-tripping to Dryden to see a double bill of “The Legacy” with Roger Daltrey, and John Carpenter’s pirate ghost yarn “The Fog.” Today, that lot is a mobile home sales business, and you can still see part of the movie screen hiding behind tall pine trees.
I try to get out to either the Elmira Drive-In or the Finger Lakes Drive-In in Auburn at least a few times every summer, but it’s been a while. Heartily sick of watching screeners and Netflix on my phone, I set out on a recent Friday night to the Finger Lakes Drive-In for a $10 double feature of Tim Burton’s “Beetlejuice” (1988) and Joe Dante’s “Gremlins” (1984). (That weekend, the Elmira Drive-In was playing titles like “Wonder Woman,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “Batman.” Check their websites, as the programs change weekly.)
Best laid plans: I was making great time zipping down NY-34 when I blew a tire. By the time AAA showed up to put a donut on my car, I had missed about the first half-hour of “Beetlejuice,” but no matter: this movie holds up just great. I last saw it a few years ago at the State Theatre for Halloween, and it played great there, too. The Finger Lakes was packed, bumper to bumper. I found a spot in the back row, as it were, near the exit lane, tuned my radio to the soundtrack frequency and settled in for 2/3 of “Beetlejuice.”
Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin play a sweet, naïve couple who drown in the first 10 minutes. Their cozy home gets bought by a family of nouveau riche cretins (Catherine O’Hara, Jeffrey Jones and Winona Ryder) and turned into a gothic art show and supernatural museum. Time for Davis and Baldwin to hire “freelance bio-exorcist” Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton) to scare O’Hara’s clan away.
Keaton is such a live-wire living cartoon in the title role that you barely notice he’s really only in the last half of the picture. It’s a fantastic performance, matched in the real world by O’Hara; her possessed rendition of “The Banana Boat Song” is a classic comic sequence. I love the notion of the afterlife as a kind of haunted bureaucratic nightmare: corpses killed in various ways, cheesy waiting rooms, syrupy Muzak and red tape in crimson blood tones. I also really dig the analog special effects that give Burton’s film such a funky, handmade vibe. When Burton got into CGI with “Mars Attacks!” I think he lost a lot of his signature style that makes everything from “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” to “Ed Wood” so visually distinctive.
During intermission, I donned my mask and headed down to the snack bar and bought a Snapple black cherry lemonade.
“Gremlins,” along with “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” were filled with so much mayhem that the two films led to the creation of the PG-13 film rating. At the time of its release, it was described as “E.T. with teeth.” Like “Beetlejuice,” “Gremlins” is set in a sleepy small town where a strange creature named Gizmo ends up birthing lots and lots of creepy-funny gremlin critters because the townsfolk didn’t obey three simple rules: don’t expose them to bright sunlight, don’t get them wet and don’t feed them after midnight.
Joe Dante shot “Gremlins” in soundstages and studio backlots to give the story a timeless fairy-tale quality, which, apart from a pretty dated “Flashdance” gag, still holds true. How you feel about “Gremlins” may depend on how you feel about the scene where Phoebe Cates explains why she doesn’t celebrate Christmas. If you like that, you’ll dig the rest of the picture.
“They can burn us up,” Joe Bob Briggs wrote. “They can knock us down. But they can’t close the drive-in in our heart.”