Of all the companies that produced pictures primarily for the drive-in market, none did so with as much brio or thrived because of that market with quite the tenacity and bravado of American International Pictures. Founded by former film salesman James H. Nicholson and an entertainment lawyer by the name of Samuel Z. Arkoff, AIP dedicated itself to providing inexpensive exploitation fare of interest primarily to the teenagers who populated drive-ins in the ’50s, ’60s and the early part of the ’70s.
Some of the key early personnel at American International Pictures responsible for helping to develop the company’s signatures of lurid content and creative thrift were producer and director Roger Corman and writers Charles B. Griffith, Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont. Cinematographer Floyd Crosby, who shot High Noon, added the vivid, sometimes garish and exciting look of many of American International Pictures hits, often working in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio that lent an extra patina of style to the stories of bikers, beach parties and monsters on the loose that made up the AIP menu. And more often than not the movies were graced by the scores of jazz composer Les Baxter.
In an attempt to keep their finger on the pulse of that teenage market, Arkoff and AIP were at the forefront of some pioneering seat-of-the pants marketing strategies. They would frequently poll exhibitors (some of whom were among those who provided the financing for AIP’s low-budget slate of pictures) as to the appeal of certain titles of pictures that had yet to be made. If the reaction was lukewarm, the title would be scrapped. But if exhibitors liked the sound of a particular title, Arkoff would then commission a script from a writer, having no idea what the actual story would be.
In this same vein, AIP was the first film company to use focus groups to determine what their teenage audience was interested in, what stories, stars and titles they would pay to see. A typical production schedule on an AIP film might start with the origin of the title, followed by a typically lurid and exciting poster designed by resident art director Albert Kallis, who supervised the AIP art department from 1955 to 1973. The poster was used to raise the cash to make the movie, which only then would be written and finally cast.
Based on this philosophy derived from insistently polling their teen audiences, Arkoff developed a fairly keen showman’s sense of what his audience wanted and expected from an American International Picture. After producing a prodigious slate of low-budget thrillers and horror movies in the late ’50s, the company hit its stride in three genres that virtually defined the teen movie of the ’60s – the “Beach Party” films starring Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon; the Roger Corman “Poe Cycle,” a series of lavish adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories which often had only the title in common with their literary source; and a wildly popular, and to some extent culture-defining spate of biker pictures, beginning with Corman’s The Wild Angels in 1966, an antiheroic genre which then gave rise to a slate of psychedelic head movies like The Trip, Wild in the Streets and Psych-Out.
Without the foundation laid by these pictures, there likely would have been no Easy Rider, a non-AIP biker film starring AIP favorite Peter Fonda which adapted the biker formula to a more open-ended narrative template that incorporated more casual drug use, and even drug trafficking, and in the process became one of the major catalysts for changing the way commercial films were financed and made in America in the early 1970s. American International Pictures also provided the distribution for many of the Toho Godzilla movies of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as numerous other Japanese science fiction films like Frankenstein Conquers the World and Yog! Monster from Space. Throw a rock during the 1960s and 1970s and you would likely hit a drive-in playing one of these AIP releases.
A BAKER’S DOZEN OF NOTABLE DRIVE-IN DIRECTORS
American International Pictures was crucial to the popularity of drive-ins during this time, to be sure, but it was not the only force to be reckoned with. RKO Pictures, Embassy Pictures, Allied Artists and even Universal Pictures cast an eye toward the teenage drive-in market too, as well as countless other companies and independent producers, all financing hundreds of B-movie westerns, sci-fi thrillers, monster movies and cheap crime dramas to be displayed at ozoners under the stars all across the country. And within this wide-ranging drive-in “genre,” for those who were watching closely, a few names kept popping up as the words “Directed by” flew by in a drive-in movie’s opening credits.
They populated outdoor screens with their singular exploitation grandeur during the heyday of the ’50s and ’60s all the way through the leaner times of the ’70s, and in some cases right up through the near-extinction of the drive-in in the ’80s and ’90s. Here’s a brief baker’s dozen list of great– okay, some not so great. Let’s just say, here’s a brief list of 13 notable drive-in directors and some of the highlights of their prolific and sometimes disreputable careers.
AL ADAMSON Adamson founded Independent-International Pictures in the early 1960s, a company he used to distribute many of the pictures he directed (cobbled together) himself. He gained a reputation as a go-for-broke, inept filmmaker of little taste, and though he never directed anything close to a classic, the movies Adamson made were staples of the drive-in scene. Some of his most well-known horror titles include Psycho-A-Go-Go (1965), Horror of the Blood Monsters (1970) and the famously awful Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971), though he also dipped into blaxploitation with The Dynamite Brothers (1974), Black Heat (1976) and Black Samurai (1977) starring genre icon Jim Kelly; biker movies with Satan’s Sadists (1969); and the female service-worker sub-genres with The Naughty Stewardesses (1975) and The Possession of Nurse Sherri (1975).
JACK ARNOLD Though he was a frequent presence in TV, Arnold’s reputation as a drive-in director of major import was cemented by five era-defining sci-fi creature films released by Universal: It Came from Outer Space (1953), one of the seminal sci-fi paranoia thrillers, originally presented in 3-D (though not at drive-ins); the original Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954; also presented in 3-D) and its first sequel, Revenge of the Creature (1955); the spectacular giant-spider-on-the-loose horror of Tarantula; and perhaps his best film, the existentially eerie The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), based on Richard Matheson’s screenplay. Other Arnold drive-in classics include the essential High School Confidential (1958) starring Russ Tamblyn, Mamie van Doren and Jerry Lee Lewis, the forgettable Monster on the Campus (1958), and the moody and terrific Audie Murphy western No Name on the Bullet (1959). Arnold also directed the early Peter Sellers vehicle The Mouse That Roared (1959). After a decade and a half of almost exclusive work for TV, Arnold took one more stab at the drive-in market with 1975’s Boss Nigger, a blaxploitation western written by Fred Williamson, starring Williamson, D’Urville Martin and William Smith. And today Arnold’s reputation is enjoying yet another upswing, with many cinephiles classifying his work, in a category coined by critic Andrew Sarris in his seminal book The American Cinema, as a “subject for further consideration.”
PAUL BARTEL As an actor, Paul Bartel racked up nearly 100 different appearances in roles big and small on TV and in movies like Piranha (1978), Hollywood Boulevard (1976) and Rock and Rock High School (1979). The very recognizable Brooklyn-born director made his feature debut as a filmmaker in 1972 with Private Parts, a downright weird horror comedy that would set the tone for much of his career. But if Private Parts set the tone, his next release cemented his status in the drive-in firmament. Death Race 2000 (1975), directed for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, was a smash hit in drive-ins and walk-ins and has remained one of the quintessential drive-in B-movies ever made. Bartel made one more picture for Corman and the drive-in crowd, Cannonball, a blatant rip-off of Death Race 2000 (and competitor on the nation’s screens that summer with a similarly themed action comedy, The Gumball Rally), before taking a six-year break from directing. He came back in 1982, however, with Eating Raoul, another black comedy that was a sizable hit and put him on the art house map. The movies he subsequently made before his death in 2000, especially Lust in the Dust (1984), starring Divine and Tab Hunter, belied the fact that the drive-in never left his soul.
LARRY COHEN A prolific TV writer throughout the ’60s, Cohen made his caustic, hard-edged debut as a director with the satirical Bone (1972) starring Yaphet Kotto. Cohen’s gritty grindhouse sensibility flourished in urban centers and drive-ins alike, and it informed his subsequent blaxploitation features, the unusually observant and socially conscious Black Caesar (1973) and its rather less successful sequel Hell Up in Harlem (1973). (Cohen tried reviving the genre with stalwarts Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Pam Grier, Ron O’Neal and Richard Roundtree, with decidedly mixed results, in 1996’s Original Gangstas.) But if Cohen’s brutal, paranoid trilogy of killer-baby movies, It’s Alive (1974), It Lives Again (1978) and the direct-to-video It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987) were his highest-profile pictures, they never defined his boundaries within the world of genre filmmaking.
Cohen remained true to his exploitation roots with such oddities as the horror comedy Full Moon High (1981), the flying Aztec creature epic Q: The Winged Serpent (1982), which many consider a genre masterpiece, and even the anti-corporate horror satire The Stuff, about the carnage left in the wake of the unleashing of a killer frozen dessert. But perhaps Cohen’s most legendary movies are The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977), an irreverent tabloid biopic starring Broderick Crawford in the title role, and most especially 1974’s brutal theologically tinged psychological drama God Told Me To (1976), in which Cohen uses the narrative of a series of apparently motiveless murders to contemplate, of all things, the existence of God and the validity of religious belief. Cohen’s movies are nothing if not prime examples of how exploitation films can move beyond their own ragged standards and sometimes achieve pulp poetry.
ROGER CORMAN Roger Corman helped to define the drive-in movie at American International Pictures and was one of the most prolific directors of B movies during the drive-in’s most popular era. Sci-fi/horror concoctions like The Day the World Ended (1955), It Conquered the World (1956), Not of This Earth (1957) and Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957) are signature examples from the genre that he directed. However, Corman never restricted himself to one genre– he made westerns (Gunslinger, 1956), teen dramas (Rock All Night, 1956), adventures (The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent, 1957), mobster thrillers (Machine Gun Kelly, 1958) and even movies about the troubled lives of teenage cavemen (Teenage Caveman, 1958). He enjoyed a big hit with his 1959 satire on the pretensions of the bohemian art crowd, Bucket of Blood, starring a young hepcat named Dick Miller as Walter Paisley, a struggling artist who murders women and turns their corpses into critically acclaimed sculptures, and followed soon after with another outrageous horror satire, The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) featuring a then-unknown Jack Nicholson in a cameo appearance.
But it was in that same year of 1960 that Corman unleashed the first in what was to become a series of luridly vivid adaptations of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, or more accurately the adaptation of the titles of works by Edgar Allan Poe. The plots of the films themselves often had very little to do with their literary sources, but they were huge successes nonetheless and showed as often on indoor screens as they did at drive-ins. The Poe films, all shot and released in the span of four years, included The Fall of the House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Premature Burial (1962), Tales of Terror (1962), Tower of London (1963), The Haunted Palace (1963), The Raven (1963), The Masque of the Red Death (1964) (with gorgeous cinematography by Nicolas Roeg) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964). These films were all formally brilliant, sometimes claustrophobic, always stunning tributes to Corman’s ability to wring as much atmosphere and emotion as possible out of the miniscule budget of every project. Corman also popularized the biker genre (The Wild Angels, 1966), the psychedelic drama (The Trip, 1967) and the post-Bonnie and Clyde gangster cheapie (Bloody Mama, 1970) before retiring from directing in 1971. He officially returned to the director’s chair for 1990’s Frankenstein Unbound, but by then his legacy of drive-in cinema, including the movies he produced under the aegis of his New World Pictures in the ’70s and ’80s, was already secured. Corman, often referred to as the King of the Bs, surely ranks as drive-in royalty as well.
MICHAEL and ROBERTA FINDLAY This husband-and-wife team of exploitation filmmakers are known mainly for their effectively sleazy and notorious Flesh trilogy– The Touch of Her Flesh (1967), The Curse of Her Flesh (1968) and The Kiss of Her Flesh (1970). But even more notorious was The Slaughter, a low-budget horror cheapie shot in Argentina inspired by the Manson murders which, at the time of the film’s shooting, were only about a year in the past. The Slaughter sat on the shelf for several years until it was purchased by producer Allan Shackelton, who tacked on a controversial new ending which showed one of the actresses allegedly being murdered on screen for real. The “new” movie was called Snuff and inspired a long-lasting debate over the supposed existence of actual snuff films in the pornographic underground. The Findlays have never been mistaken for artists, but their contribution to the drive-in culture of exploitation with these films is undeniable. Michael also directed the memorably trashy Yeti horror flick Shriek of the Mutilated (1974).
BERT I. GORDON Indefatigable and uninspired in equal measure, Bert I. Gordon is perhaps the quintessential giant-monster filmmaker of the drive-in era. (His initials, which allowed for the nickname Mr. BIG, suggest that he was born to this fate.) Gordon was another frequent contributor to the American International Pictures slate of drive-in classics, and though they do exist there is hardly a film in his oeuvre that does not feature an oversized creature of some sort: King Dinosaur (1955; giant dinosaurs); Beginning of the End (1957; giant grasshoppers); The Cyclops (1957; 25-foot cyclops); The Amazing Colossal Man (1957; 70-foot mutant man); War of the Colossal Beast (1958; return of the 70-foot mutant man); Earth vs. the Spider (1958; giant spider); and Village of the Giants (1965; giant teenaged punks). Giants, featuring one outlandish special effects sequence after another, is inarguably Gordon’s best movie, featuring as it does Beau Bridges as one of the teenaged colossal beats, er, beasts. After a break of over 10 years from the giant creature genre, Gordon stormed back with two in-name-only H.G. Wells adaptations, The Food of the Gods (1976; giant rats, chickens and assorted other barnyard mutations) and Empire of the Ants (1977; giant ants). Scholars have yet to adequately explain the thematic aberration of Gordon’s career, Attack of the Puppet People (1958), in which the main characters are shrunken to the size of dolls. The only reasonable rationale is that by going the opposite way and minimizing his leads, Gordon could then perversely lavish special-effects attention on the now-giant dogs and household insects that occasionally provide the element of menace in the film. In this regard, Gordon’s reputation as the Mr. BIG of drive-in cinema remains untarnished.
H.B. HALICKI It is often said of some of the great innovators and artists and showmen of the movies that if, out of all their great contributions, they’d only just made movie “X” or movie “Y,” that would have been enough to ensure their position in the pantheon. This seems certainly literally true for auto salvage magnate-turned-stuntman-filmmaker H.B. Halicki, whose sole contribution to the drive-in cinema of the ’70s was his independently financed and distributed car-chase classic Gone in 60 Seconds (1974). The plot of the movie is mere window dressing for its main sequence, a wild, realistic chase around the Long Beach-South Bay area of Southern California that serves now, on top of the genuine thrills to be found in the action choreography, as a virtual time capsule of the city as it was nearly 35 years ago. The movie was successfully marketed as featuring the longest car chase ever filmed, and on that count it does not disappoint; it is action cinema purely unadorned by style, the demolition derby as primitive art. Halicki struggled to finance other pictures but produced only two other features, an action-comedy called The Junkman (1982) and Deadline Auto Theft (1983), featuring another near-hour-long car chase. Tragically, it was on the set of Gone in 60 Seconds 2 that Halicki suffered a fatal accident, crushed by a telephone pole during an elaborate stunt sequence. Gone in 60 Seconds was left in the dust by many superior car chase movies before and since which boasted good stories to go along with their great stunt work, but the exuberance and relentlessness of Halicki’s masterful hour-long sequence of mayhem cannot be denied. It is rightfully recognized as a high-water mark of action choreography, the centerpiece of a movie that also pioneered a model of independent production and distribution that would soon become one of the rules of the game.
JACK HILL Drive-in stylist Jack Hill began life in the cinema doing assistant directing work (often uncredited) on Roger Corman films like The Wasp Woman and The Terror, but he soon found his own name on the director’s chair. His first film and first notable success was Spider Baby (1964), an oddity about a family of misfit siblings headed by a young woman who believes she is a deadly arachnid. Though shot in 1964, Spider Baby finally saw the dim light of drive-in screens in 1968 as the anchor feature of countless drive-in double features, but was rediscovered on video in the ’80s as a minor classic of psychological horror. Hill toiled in undistinguished exploitation fare, shooting American scenes for foreign shockers like Isle of the Living Dead (1971) and The Incredible Invasion (1971).
But his breakthrough came again courtesy of Corman, who commissioned and distributed his drive-in prison classics The Big Doll House (1971), starring Pam Grier in one of her earliest roles, and The Big Bird Cage (1972), again starring Grier and ’70s drive-in icon Sid Haig. Hill and Grier would be reunited for the director’s highest profile hits, the blaxploitation classics Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), which would make Grier a star of drive-in cinema and the fantasy object of young men of a certain age, black as well as white, yellow, red and brown. Hill continued his drive-in roll with The Swinging Cheerleaders (1974), one of the earliest entries in that stalwart drive-in genre, the randy cheerleader movie, and another satiric celebration of the violent tendencies of a band of babes, this particular group known as the Switchblade Sisters (1975). It’s hard to imagine that drive-ins in the 1970s would have been anything but far duller places were it not for the exuberant, slightly cracked cinema of Jack Hill.
JONATHAN KAPLAN A film student with degrees from the University of Chicago and New York University, Jonathan Kaplan has directed two actresses to award nominations– Michelle Pfeiffer was up for a best actress Oscar for Love Field, and Bonnie Bedelia took her role as race car driver Shirley Muldowney to the Golden Globes where she was nominated for best actress in Heart Like a Wheel. But one actress on Kaplan’s watch actually won a statue– Jodie Foster claimed her first Academy Award starring in Kaplan’s 1988 film The Accused. By the time of The Accused, Kaplan had established himself as a go-to director in the Hollywood establishment. But in the ’70s he made a mark for himself as the director of some memorable and distinctive hits for the exploitation market. He was recruited by Roger Corman in the early ’70s straight out of NYU to helm Night Call Nurses (1972), one of the earliest and zestiest romps of its sort, which led to Kaplan reteaming with Corman for another similar venture, The Student Teachers (1973), in which the stuffy world of academia gets aired out a bit by the lovely likes of Brenda Sutton, Brooke Mills and Susan Damante.
Kaplan can also be seen romping with Paul Bartel, Mary Woronov et al in Hollywood Boulevard (1976), which co-director Joe Dante describes as a home movie about what it was like working at New World Pictures and making movies like Night Call Nurses and The Student Teachers. But Kaplan truly made his drive-in bones with Truck Turner (1974), a brutally energized blaxploitation thriller also starring Yaphet Kotto and Nichelle Nichols that takes full advantage of Isaac Hayes’s stone-cold cool visage as an actor for the very first time, and most especially White Line Fever (1975). Fever featured Jan-Michael Vincent in a trucker’s revenge plot that had the good fortune to land smack dab in the midst of the CB radio craze of the ’70s, which helped propel the movie to huge box-office fortune. It was a hit indoors and outdoors, but having seen it at the drive-in, I can attest to its natural appeal as a classic for theaters built around vehicles of all kinds, a very lean and muscular example of the drive-in action template to which many aspired but so few achieved as fully as Kaplan did with this picture.
TED V. MIKELS One of the original drive-in exploitation directors, profiled in a documentary entitled The Wild World of Ted V. Mikels, Mikels introduced elements of camp and outrageous behavior to movies that were, by the stretch of most imaginations, far less vivid and sensational than the way they were advertised. Thought of in some circles as the William Castle of drive-in and exploitation fare, Mikels rarely showed the imagination of Castle but was just as insistent a promoter of his own films. He is said to have pioneered gimmicks such as having “nurses” and “physicians” on call at the theater should anyone have heart trouble or otherwise come close to being scared to death; signing certificates acknowledging the non-responsibility of theater owners should the patron go into convulsive fits of fear; and the availability of vomit bags for the more sensitive stomachs in the theater.
And Mikel’s slate of drive-in fare, well familiar from its ubiquity on the movie pages of ’70s newspapers, promised plenty of gore, which it sometimes delivered in such titles as The Corpse Grinders (1971; perhaps Mikels’ biggest hit), Blood Orgy of the She-Devils (1974) and his seminal cheapie The Astro-Zombies (1969) featuring John Carradine and Tura Satana. Mikels produced mostly horror films (and still does – he finished sequels to The Corpse Grinders and The Astro-Zombies in 2000 and 2002, respectively), though he dabbled in women’s action films with some success as well; his biker babe epic Girl in Gold Boots and the straightforward actioner The Doll Squad (1973) are probably more generally well-regarded than any of his horror efforts. But it is those movies, and Mikels’s own oddball personality, that accounts for his place in the drive-in directors’ hall of fame
JACK STARRETT Mention Jack Starrett’s name to even a die-hard drive-in or grindhouse movie fan and you’re likely to get a blank stare back for your enthusiasm. His is not the most well-known name when it comes to notable directors of the period. But a glance over his credits is all it takes to realize that Jack Starrett truly deserves another look. He took part in the first surge of biker pictures, acting in such titles as Richard Rush’s Hell’s Angels on Wheels (1967), Tom Laughlin’s Born Losers (1970; the first Billy Jack movie) and Al Adamson’s Hell’s Bloody Devils (1970), as well as directing Run, Angel, Run (1969), starring drive-in icons William Smith and Margaret Markov, and the absurd (even for drive-in standards) The Losers (1970), in which Smith and a group of bikers infiltrate Cambodia to rescue a downed CIA operative! But Starrett came into his own with Jim Brown’s initial blaxploitation effort, Slaughter (1972) and the wild, Pam Grier-influenced Cleopatra Jones (1973) in which statuesque stunner Tamara Dobson matches wits with a psychopathic Shelley Winters.
But Starrett came up with one for the ages in 1975 when he teamed Warren Oates and Peter Fonda in a mix of car chase action and satanic horror with the all-time drive-in classic Race with the Devil, a huge box-office success at the time and one of the drive-in hits to reveal itself as every bit as punchy and terrific today as it was back in 1975. Starrett also directed the well-mounted suspense piece A Small Town In Texas (1976) starring Susan George and Timothy Bottoms, and ushered out the first wave of Buford Pusser exploitation with the second sequel Final Chapter: Walking Tall (1977). Finally, Starrett was also well known as a character actor in the ’70s and ’80s, even after he retired from directing in the late ’70s. Among his most memorable roles is his turn in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974), credited as Claude Ennis Starrett, Jr. Starett played Gabby Johnson, the hilariously incoherent parody of Gabby Hayes, whose desperate attempts to warn the citizens of Rock Ridge of the ethnicity of the new sheriff approaching on horseback is continually drowned out by the pealing of the town’s welcome bell. Rrrrowrrrrght!
RAY DENNIS STECKLER Better at self-promotion than he probably ever was at directing, Ray Dennis Steckler nonetheless came up with some of the most memorable drive-in movie titles in history– Goof on the Loose (1964), The Thrill Killers (1964), The Adventures of Rat Pfink and Boo-Boo (1965) and The Mad Love of a Hot Vampire (1971) all suggest, in varying degrees, the anti-academic sensibility at work in Steckler’s pictures. But his most famous motion picture is a true wonder, a genre-busting, undeniably brilliant (on some sick level), well-paced and entertaining one-of-a-kind creation, accurately described as the first monster movie musical– The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-up Zombies (1964), starring Steckler himself (as Cash Flagg) and partially shot by soon-to-be-celebrated cinematographers Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovacs. Zombies is one of those movies that is best left as meagerly described as possible, the better to preserve its eye-popping, ultra-cheap scenario, from which Steckler wrings genuine energy and laughs even if you’re not always entirely convinced he knows how absurd it all is. In fact, Steckler’s sincerity, not unlike that of Edward D. Wood, Jr., the patron saint of impoverished cinema, is what ultimately sells Zombies, a quality he would be hard-pressed to duplicate over the course of his career.
(NEXT: In the concluding installment of the Fear of the Velvet Curtain Guide to the Drive-in Movie, we run down 11 memorable appearances of drive-ins in the movies, plus a short guide to further reading about this great American movie-going institution.)