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 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). (Click here for other titles by Al Adamson.)
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. (Click here for other titles by Jack Arnold.)
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. (Click here for more films directed by and featuring Paul Bartel.)
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 (as well as bad-ass) 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 features a memorably bizarre performance from Michael Moriarty, 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. (Click here for more films from Larry Cohen.)
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