Drive-in Horror part II: After Midnight

A Drive-In Screening of The Shining (1980)
A Drive-In Screening of The Shining (1980)

Drive-In Horror After Midnight

It was hard enough to fool our parents; making them believe we were going to the mall to see an ‘approved” movie. Even harder was figuring out how to go to the drive-in horror after midnight. How to sneak back into the house undetected around 3:00 am. Going to see as many bloody bizarre oddities as possible. Over breakfast trying not to slip, and having to admit we were at the drive-in watching a double-feature of My Bloody Valentine (1981) and Brain Damage (1988). But what a thrill of deception worth taking!

Alien (1979) roared into theaters. Previews saw audience members running from the theater screaming. On opening day it set 51 individual box office records and had a queue of people lined up around city blocks for 6 hours. The perfect setup for a film that has become iconic. Even better, Carrie (1976) offered horror fans a movie poster and a tagline: If you’ve got a taste for terror, take Carrie to the prom.

Brain Damage (1988) screenshot
Brain Damage (1988)

Knock-off Horror films – Drive-in Theater Gold!

Theaters big and small take a lot into consideration when deciding which horror films to feature. First, the studio licenses the film to a distribution company. Next, copies of the film are made based on the studio’s marketing campaign. The horror film is screened to buyers who represent movie theaters.

Next, the buyers negotiate which movies they want to lease, and for how long. Big, major studios have the ability to dominate and get their films into many theaters simultaneously. And that power pushes the weird, low-budget films to the back of the line.

Basket Case (1982) screenshot
Basket Case (1982)

Weird, Odd Little Horror Films Worth Watching

A “weird” drive-in horror after midnight, on the other hand, like low-budget classic revenge flick Basket Case (1982) or Chopping Mall (1986), opened in limited release with no marketing. Because of its odd storyline, special effects, and $35,000 budget it remains a midnight movie classic.

Bottom line, it’s about three things: Brotherhood – the relationship between the theater owner, the distributor, and the studio. The highest bidder – corporate theaters have a bigger piggy bank than independent owners. And public taste. Inflated and flashy marketing budgets premiered The Amityville Horror (1979) at the Museum of Modern Art NYC and advertised on as many billboards, phone booths, and soda cups as possible. Conversely, Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (1981), only featured in preview trailers and the theater’s marquee.

Curtains (1983) screenshot
Curtains (1983)

Drive-in Theaters – Oddities Worth Watching

Most of the teenagers in the town I grew up in back in the 80s, were keen on seeing the latest action and disaster movies at the multiplexes. Getting home by curfew and staying in their parents’ good graces. Me and my crew, however, were all about the late showings of our favorite genre: horror. Not the mainstream horror films, but the bloody bizarre oddities most multiplex theater managers hold at arm’s length.

Watch the Canadian horror treat, Curtains (1983), and you’ll see why. A famous actress “doing research” at an asylum, finds herself committed indefinitely. Meanwhile, six young hopeful actresses arrive at a mansion to audition for a new film called Audra. A murderous ice-skating hag with a sickle shows up. And there’s a disgruntled toy baby doll. Curtains is everything drive-in horror after midnight fans hope for, and it mesmerizes on the drive-in theater screen.

A critic’s non-darling, this masterpiece, “shoos away any substance and plows ahead with violence. It’s a mess, but an entertaining one thanks to director Richard Ciupka’s visual ambition and ensemble work from the oddball cast, who deliver just the proper level of hysteria![1]

Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (1981) screenshot
Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (1981)

Horror film distribution & the Power of the Drive-in Theater

Drive-in theater owners are placed in a separate category. Typically, single-screen theaters with fewer seats than a multiplex, and drive-in theater owners rarely get first dibs on big-name horror films, let alone get invited to the distribution screenings. Massive box office horror films hit the drive-in screens weeks after the multiplex runs. Until they can get their hands on the popular and big-budget slasher films starring the famous Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees. Of course, Pinhead, from the supernatural horror masterpiece Hellraiser (1987) and its equally brilliant and alarming sequels.

So, while the big-budget horror films filled the queues with bodies, the wisest of the drive-in theater owners had another plan. Bid on the lesser-known, “B horror movies.” Attract droves of an entirely different kind of horror audience. Fill the parking lot to its outer edges. Corner the market on drive-in horror after midnight.

The Lair of the White Worm (1988) screenshot
The Lair of the White Worm (1988)

Drive-in Theater Horror’s Diamond in the Rough

For example, see the British classic, The Lair of the White Worm (1988), by director Ken Russell. Opening weekend the film was in 2 theaters. In its widest release, 32 theaters for 11 weeks. Therefore, many horror film buffs missed out on this outlandish “vampire film.”

Journalist Peter Walker from The Guardian’s My Guilty Pleasure column described the film as “Badly shot, clumsily edited and seemingly scored by a teenage boy who has just taken delivery of his first synthesizer and then pressed all the buttons one by one, the film has a peculiarly jarring tone.[2]” The film is so bizarre and so good it’s worth staying for the second showing.

My Bloody Valentine (1981) screenshot
My Bloody Valentine (1981)

Knock-off Horror films – Drive-in Theater Gold!

My crew, confused and bewildered, watched the double-feature of The Visitor (1979) and The Changeling (1980).  Chucky the Good Guy doll was running amok, wielding a knife, screaming, “Give me the boy, and I’ll let you live! [3]” in the runaway horror hit Child’s Play (1988).

I was watching ‘summer-camp-in-the-woods-murder fest’ The Burning (1981) while all of the other kids in high school were queuing to witness “the body count continue” in hotly anticipated Friday the 13th Part II (1981). Clearly knock-off horror at its finest; nothing more than low-to-no budget, schlocky kills, unimpressive special effects, and really bad acting.

Pumpkinhead (1989) screenshot
Pumpkinhead (1989)

Drive-in vs Multiplex 

Multiplexes steered clear of  Pumpkinhead (1988). The film follows the story of a very loving-turned-vengeful and grieving father. He visits a swamp and pleads for a powerful spell. Once granted, a reign of bloody terror unleashes on a group of teenagers responsible for his son’s death. This film is remarkable, very underrated, with most critics agreeing Pumpkinhead is “too good to pass over.” Definitely the type of film made with drive-in horror after midnight in mind.

Another widely-panned film, John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987) is now considered a cult classic. Indeed, a brilliant example of why drive-in horror after midnight is so visceral and affecting. In his upbeat article The critics were horrified!!!! 4 undervalued scary movies on DVD, on RogetEbert.com, Jim Emerson writes but what makes me goose-pimply about the film, is its goofy-but-ingenious central conceit, and its truly surrealistic imagery, some of which could have sprouted out of [director Luis] Buñuel and [Salvador] Dali’s “Un Chien Andalou.[4]

The Howling (1981) screenshot
The Howling (1981)

Ending the 80s with Massive Horror Sequels

The 80s ended with the big studios and movie houses choosing to wrangle in the masses with huge sequels. Friday the 13th, Part V: A New Beginning (1985) and Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Meyers (1988). Not to mention Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988) and Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989). Nothing wrong with these films, but my friends and I waited for the VHS releases. We kept choosing to save our money and spend it only on drive-in horror after midnight!

My friends and I were freaking out over a low-budget and surreal flick called The Howling (1982). A film about a reporter sent to a resort town to hide from a serial killer only to be confronted by the werewolf townspeople. The multiplex audiences were being terrorized watching a hostile shape-shifting extraterrestrial organism in The Thing (1982). It’s apparent that horror films at the drive-in and horror enjoyed at the multiplex vary greatly. Not the jump scares, blood, guts and gore, and outrageous concession prices. Well, kind of. The biggest difference is that the drive-in theater took pride in showing the best knock-off horror films. Now, go watch all of them!


[1] “Curtains – Rotten Tomatoes.” https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/curtains. Accessed 4 Sep. 2021.

[2] “My guilty pleasure: The Lair of the White Worm – The Guardian.” 28 Mar. 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2014/mar/28/the-lair-white-worm-ken-russell-my-guilty-pleasure. Accessed 4 Sep. 2021.

[3] “The 80s – Child’s Play #6 – “Give me the boy and I’ll let you live!”.” 7 Aug. 2016, http://www.fanforum.com/f129/childs-play-6-give-me-boy-ill-let-you-live-63175674/. Accessed 4 Sep. 2021.

[4] “The critics were horrified!!!! 4 undervalued scary movies on DVD.” 14 Oct. 2004, https://www.rogerebert.com/scanners/the-critics-were-horrified-4-undervalued-scary-movies-on-dvd. Accessed 4 Sep. 2021.

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