Judge Erick Harper waxes prosaic about the halcyon days when we could pull our car into a gravel lot, hook a tinny speaker to our window, and watch cheesy as hell movies if we weren't making out in the back seat. Elite's disc recreates that experience in remarkable detail. Cute cheerleader date and convertible not included.
"I've been poachin' this country for forty years and I ain't never seen nothin' like it!"—Lem Sawyer (George Cisar), Attack of the Giant Leeches
Drive-in theaters have all but disappeared from most parts of North America. However, from the 1950s until their almost total disappearance in the mid-1980s, drive-ins occupied a unique place in popular culture. Elite Entertainment, together with National Film Museum, Inc., has created a series of DVDs that try to replicate the unique experience of a drive-in double feature in the comfort of your own home. Volume One is a horror twin bill, featuring two truly awful examples of drive-in cinema.
Facts of the Case
This evening's first feature is The Giant Leeches, AKA Attack of the Giant Leeches, and takes place deep in redneck country in the Florida Everglades. One night Lem Sawyer is out poaching 'gators in the when he sees a huge creature covered in suckers like the ones on the arms of an octopus. (It actually bears a suspicious resemblance to a guy in a rubber suit, but Lem has been hitting the moonshine pretty hard and can't tell what in the world it might be.) He tells his buddies at Dave Walker's general store about it, but they laugh it off. Soon people are disappearing, including Dave's seductive wife Liz (Yvette Vickers, Playboy's July 1959 Playmate) and her lover, Cal (Michael Emmet). It falls to Steve Benton (Ken Clark), the local game warden, to find out the cause of these disappearances and defeat the giant leeches. Aficionados of Grade-B cinema will be interested to know that shlockmeister Roger Corman was the executive producer of this fine work, and Gene Corman was the producer.
After a brief intermission and a trip to the concession stand, you will be treated to Screaming Skull. As seen on TV! (As an episode of "Mystery Science Theater 3000," to be precise.) The producers of Screaming Skull have guaranteed that they will cover your funeral costs if you are frightened to death during the movie. Not much chance they'll have to pay out on that one, unless something really scary happens in the theater while you are watching it. Eric (John Hudson) and Jenni (Tony Johnson) Whitlock are newlyweds. They are moving back to the home where Eric lived with his previous wife, Marian. Jenni has what is delicately called a nervous condition, and soon starts hearing shrieking noises and seeing random skulls in odd locations. Is she going mad? Does Mickey, the halfwit gardener (Alex Nicol, also the director of Screaming Skull) have something to do with it? Could it really be…a ghost? Watch and find out, if you can withstand the horror that is Screaming Skull.
Let's face it, neither of these movies would be worth the time to watch them in their own right. The plots are nonsensical, the dialogue is horrible, and the acting runs from high melodrama to nonexistent. Attack of the Giant Leeches at least has the benefit of the stunning Yvette Vickers in a role that is surprisingly suggestive for 1960, but after she is captured by the leeches the movie goes downhill considerably. There are a few effectively creepy scenes in The Giant Leeches that show the leeches' dead victims slowly floating back to the surface of the lake, but they are hardly worth sticking around for. Screaming Skull has even less to offer.
The main appeal of this disc is in its novelty. Put it in your DVD player, and you are transported back to a summer evening in the middle of the last century. The program starts with "The Star Spangled Banner," set against an animated patriotic montage of fireworks, flags, and eventually the moon landings. Next up is a warning from a stern, authoritative man who admonishes the viewers to be quiet so that others can enjoy the show. After this comes an ad for mosquito repellent, which we are advised can be purchased at the concession stand. Next comes an ad advising Mom that supper for the whole family may be found at the concession stand, followed by a warning to "young lovers" that excessive public display of affection will not be tolerated. There is a "Coming Attractions" reel for The Wasp Woman, and then a cartoon. The cartoon is Betty in Blunderland, featuring Betty Boop. Only then does the "And Now On With The Show" title come up, and our first feature begins.
After The Giant Leeches, it is time for a short intermission. Here we get to see the famed "Let's All Go to the Lobby" cartoon, as well "Tex Rides Again," another concession stand ad. After a plug for Chilly Dilly Pickles comes another "Coming Attractions" reel, this time for The Giant Gila Monster. Another "Short Subject" is announced, this time a Popeye the Sailor cartoon. Finally, we start the second feature of the evening, Screaming Skull.
It is this "drive-in" format that makes this disc somewhat interesting and kind of fun. Each of the title animations, cartoons, advertisements, and the like are also separately accessible from the DVD menu, so that you don't actually have to sit through all of Attack of the Giant Leeches to see "Lets All Go to the Lobby," for example.
The various items on this disc are presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Picture quality varies widely, but for the most part it is quite poor. This appears to be mostly the fault of the source material. It seems what we have here is a faithful reproduction of very poor-quality prints; one assumes this is part of the drive-in experience that Elite Entertainment is trying to recreate. The Giant Leeches is often dimly lit, grainy, and out of focus. The print is badly scratched, nicked, and marred. Screaming Skull shows a lot of nicks and scratches as well, and appears to be far overexposed in several places. Screaming Skull also shows some problems that I know we can pin on the digital transfer, such as white or brightly lit areas that tend to sparkle and glow, and some evidence of moiré patterns in objects such as window shutters. In other places on the disc the video transfer appears to be quite good; in particular, I was impressed with the picture clarity of the Betty Boop cartoon. Both cartoons are shown in their original aspect ratio of approximately 1.33:1, and are "windowboxed" for anamorphic viewing and to maintain consistency with the rest of the material.
There are two audio options available. The first is Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono. The sound quality is quite bad, with a distinct hiss audible in the background. The track is muffled, and dialogue is often quite difficult to understand. Again, this appears to be an overly faithful reproduction of lousy source material. The second, and slightly more entertaining, audio track is an invention that the good folks at Elite call "Distorto" sound. This registers on my receiver as a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, but it has a neat twist. The actual audio from the movie is carried only on the front left speaker, and is distorted to recreate the sound of the famously crappy drive-in speakers that one would hang on the car window. The rest of the sound system is used to recreate the ambient sounds of a night at the drive-in. As "The Star Spangled Banner" begins, we hear cars pulling in and parking, and we hear a knocking behind us; people are asking to be let out of the trunk. We hear teenage girls giggling, and we hear the soft crunch of the grass as people walk from their cars to the concession stand. We hear lots of male cheers and catcalls for Yvette Vickers, especially in the "lotion scene." Through it all we hear cars and trucks driving by on the highway, and crickets chirping in the background; all the sounds of a summer evening. Granted, this is only amusing for a while, but it is not overdone, and the "people" around the viewer for the most part settle down and are quiet about the time the cartoon starts. The noise level picks up again during the intermission; I almost jumped off my couch when I heard a girl on my right say something about going back to the concession stand.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The collection of theater animations and advertisements is great, but it does seem that they were collected randomly and reflect several different time periods in drive-in history, from the 1950s through the early 1980s. This tended to break the illusion that the viewer was actually at a drive-in theater watching these two movies from 1958 and 1960. Along these same lines, while it is nice to have a fairly good digital transfer of "Let's All Go to the Lobby," I find myself wondering if this promo was actually used at drive-ins, since the ones with which I am familiar tend not to have lobbies.
While Attack of the Giant Leeches and Screaming Skull themselves are of questionable value, the drive-in format on this disc does have some novelty/nostalgia value, as well as some material of historical significance. In particular, "Let's All Go to the Lobby" was recently entered in the National Film Registry. The Distorto sound track is a nice touch as well, even if it does get old fairly quickly. The repeatability factor of this disc is almost non-existent, so I really can't recommend it for purchase; you might consider it as a rental if you have a group of friends with a strange sense of humor who could provide MST3K-style commentary.
The movies and everyone involved in making them are guilty, but that's really not the point here. Elite Entertainment is acquitted, and released with the thanks of the court for a DVD presentation that is interesting and innovative, although a bit cheesy.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Elite Entertainment
• "Distorto" Audio Track
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