Welcome back for part two of Shock-O-Rama's summer time glance into the sub genres which really shined on the drive-in silver screens of yesteryear. Last week in PART ONE I dissected what made giant monsters tick (found out that it's love) and explored the cheeky shenanigans horny high schoolers got up to in teen sex comedies. As we coast comfortably up to the speaker pole, it dawned on me that part of the overall ambiance came from the delicious things to eat (I'm told the popcorn can't be beat).
More often then not, drive-in patrons would pit their intestinal fortitude against an array of gastro grenades; pins pulled, ready to shred their guts on the kind of food that only a kid could dig into without serious reservations. And I loved every minute of it. I still do, though my favorite drive-in ( Becky's Drive-In of Walnutport, Pa) has upped the level of their foodie game. Their newish snack bar building boasts a wide assortment of tasty morsels, while remaining strikingly clean. Of course the biggest draw for the drive-in gourmet had to be affordability. Catering to the sort of family who would cram into the station wagon to make a night of the excursion positively demands reasonably priced meals. For my money though, this week's selection of sub genres require a generous tub of popcorn to engage your arm in a nonstop round trip from source to mouth for the duration of the action (it's like a karate chop of corny goodness!)
Westerns as entertainment for television and film occupied a dominant place among the genre hierarchy for half a century. Despite its popularity, I could never really connect with my father's western. I couldn't put the pieces into place to fully enjoy the manly resolve of John Wayne. My frontier town justice came from across the Atlantic, originating in the romance language countries of Spain and Italy. Spaghetti westerns grew to prominence at the dawn of the sixties and held on until the Reagan years (The 80's, for any youngsters reading). Westerns differed from spaghetti westerns in all of the ways that emotionally resonate the way Wolverine does: good guys and bad guys aren't absolute constants. They're torn from the same faded canvas wagon tarp, arrive with a murky past, and break the rules to get things done. And in a very strange way, watching one of these imported mashups of Americana reconstructed is akin to viewing ourselves through an introspective lens.
Cut Throats Nine
This one couldn't be any more vicious if it tried (believe me, it did). This mean spirited depiction of brutal sedition is perhaps the most graphic western ever committed to film. That isn't to say that it compares with the goriest of the gruesome cannibal films; it's no where near that league. Still this isn't your grandpa's western, where the bad guys clutched at their bloodless wounds and then fell over dead. For all of the special effects, the most notable facet of Cut Throats Nine is that there isn't a likable character in the bunch. Unsurprising since the story centers around nine chained together murderers being transported by a marshal and his daughter. Things go amiss when bandits attack and destroy their wagon, forcing the marshall to improvise in getting them to their destination. Before you throw in on the lawman's side, you should know that one of these prisoners raped and murdered his wife. He doesn't know precisely which one, so he may kill them all to exact revenge. With an amazingly stark score and a breathtaking, snow coated wilderness, Cut Throats Nine is quite unexpected and very cool.
I'm not talking about Quentin Tarantino's Academy Award winning love letter to the genre, or referring to the uncountable number of unofficial usages of the character, but about Franco Nero's iconic origination of the gruff gun fighting drifter, Django. Sergio Corbucci's nearly perfect saga of a town helplessly trapped between two waring factions is peerlessly scored, expertly staged, and excitingly executed. Nero is at once dangerous and yet endearingly charismatic. The title song performed by Rocky Roberts is haunting and timeless. Fans of Django Unchained may not have recognized a much older Franco Nero as the fight promoter who asks Django to spell his name (that was so cool!), but they can't help but have heard the title song. Blue Underground just released a four pack last week which includes Django and one of its many unrelated spin offs. It may just be my favorite spaghetti western and I highly recommend you check it out.
Forty years ago this past March the dam broke allowing cinematic Asian imports to freely flow onto American screens. Five Fingers of Death created the original inroads which would make way for Enter the Dragon to change the way we consumed action. Martial arts films are loved by so many for a wide variety of aspects. Some come to the table for the heaping helping of fearsome fisticuffs; some get their kicks from the campy, out of sync dubbing; some enjoy losing themselves in the period pieces of an unfamiliar culture; and still some find value in the off beat stories (maybe?). Whatever the reason, martial arts films are a staple of 70's drive-ins. Many of those imported may have been of lesser quality (which I'm totally ok with), but there were an amazing number of excellent films which were both popular and enduring.
Return of the Dragon
Enter the Dragon is the far more iconic Bruce Lee film, but 1972's Return of the Dragon sticks out in my mind as more interesting. Return gets off to a slow start but quickly dazzles with an interesting setting (Rome) and the amazing martial prowess of Lee. The setup for this slice of fried gold sees Lee visiting family in the ancient Italian city, and fending off various assaults from organized crime who seek protection money from the restauranteur. A good number of Jackie Chan films appropriate this dynamic, if not the basic plot. The most memorable fight sequence is a showdown between Lee and Chuck Norris' character 'Colt' which takes place in the Colosseum. And while it's tough to stand up to the majesty of such a sequence, there is a fantastic alleyway brawl which is unforgettable.
Five Element Ninja
This Shaw Brothers film is a product of the early 80's, but don't let that fool you into thinking it's a lesser son of greater fathers. The story revolves around a young, brash student of a prominent martial arts school. After a group of themed, color coordinated ninja ambush and kill all of his fellow pupils (using element themed tricks), Shao Tien-hao takes up with a new teacher, one who instructs him in the ways of ninjutsu. He learns to fight in concert with his new brothers and together they take on the entire evil ninja clan using clever tricks of their own. This is a bloody affair and the various showdown sequences are action packed. Five Element Ninja really is a flick for lovers of combat and camp. To truly get your money's worth be sure to watch the dubbed version; the voice over work is spectacularly corny which adds to the overall reinforcement that you are are watching an amazing 80's martial arts film.
As I wave bye-bye to another week of Drive-In delights, what genres could possibly be held in reserve for next week? There are so many direction to follow; you'll have to tune in for the next Shock-O-Rama to find out. In the meantime please tell me all about your favorite martial arts and/or spaghetti western flicks, and your most prominent drive-in memories surrounding them.
See you next Wednesday.
Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Wednesday's Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a co-curator of several repertoire film series at the world famous Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA. You can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek or think him a fool of a Took on Twitter.