Celebrating An Outlaw Experience And The Last Drive In: An Interview With Joe Bob Briggs
For decades, the scope of Joe Bob Briggs' personal insight, heartfelt-appreciation, humour and experience, has carefully situated the dark corner of cinema, encouraging audiences to dig deeper and discover more, making him one of the pre-eminent cult film critics of modern times. He hosts The Last Drive-In as he writes as John Bloom (his government name) - enthused, with absolute mastery of his subject and a genuine subversion for alternative cinema. We talked to the world's foremost "drive-in film critic" ahead of the latest season of The Last Drive-In, to discuss his beginnings and celebrate outlaw cinema. Here is our conversation.
You started reviewing films at a time when the term 'genre film' wasn't used as often as the term 'exploitation film' was. In your viewing, what were the exploitation films that influenced your decision to write about them and share your love for alternative cinema?
Well, I was working for a mainstream newspaper in Dallas, Texas and I became the film critic. I was actually working on a true crime book and I needed a job where I could stay in town whilst I was doing the true crime-book, and so I became the film critic. I noticed as the film critic I was required to review everything that came out and I noticed that there were movies that played only at the drive-in. I realise that you don't have drive-in's in the United Kingdom, but I think everyone knows what a drive-in is. They didn't play at regular theatres and they were never reviewed and so I started reviewing them.
Graveyard Tramps, you know, "They bite they squeeze, they're ready to please", that was the poster for Graveyard Tramps. I think the first movie that I reviewed of that type, an exploitation film, was a movie that is now called Anthropophagous. In the era of the genre film they'd give it its original hard pronounced name. It was called the Grim Reaper in its American release and it was an Italian horror film. Of course, it was disguised so as to not be recognisable as being Italian. It was dubbed, the Italian names were changed into good Anglo Saxon fake names because at that time it was considered death at the box office if Americans at the drive-in thought the movie was foreign, so they went to great lengths to disguise the fact that it was an Italian film, but anyway, that was the first film.
I just continued to review these films and would ask the distributors to screen them for me. They'd say, "Oh, we never screen our films for critics". In fact, most of the films were never reviewed by the mainstream media at all. No one cared about them; they were just disposable trash, in the view of most people. I was really the only guy at the time, this would have been 1981 and respectable newspapers didn't review these films. They were just ignored, either because of the sex or the violence, or the lewd ad campaign, or whatever. They were just considered not respectable, so I was reviewing them.
John Waters wrote a book about some of them. A guy named Bill Landis at a fanzine in New York, he would go to the Grindhouses on Time Square and review the same films. They would be the same titles that I was reviewing at the drive in's in the Deep South. We were really the only people that even talked about these films. The term popular culture had not even really been accepted at that time. It had been invented but not accepted, so the idea of pop culture, genre films, all that - that came later. We were just enjoying these films as artifacts, for what they were. In many cases we didn't know who made them and where they came from, there was just no information available on them.
In what ways did Bill Landis and his column 'Sleazoid Express' speak to you and your earliest beginnings as a critic?
Well, in most ways we were polar opposites. Bill would go to the Grindhouses in Time Square and sort of review the Grindhouse itself, as much as he would review the movies. He would review the whole experience of being at this sleazy place, where you weren't supposed to be and all the things that would go on there, involving sex, drugs and whatever other mysterious things would happen in the bad part of town. I was a more straightforward reviewer of the films, although I would talk about other things that happened at the drive-in, but in both cases, we were both celebrating an outlaw experience, that's what was common at the time.
There was an indie film world of hustlers, you know, low-budget exploitation producers who created these films and they didn't really expect the films to last. They expected to run them around the country and see if they could make a few dollars. That world was fascinating to me and it was fascinating to Bill and we started writing about it. We started celebrating. Today if a so-called exploitation film is released, there are probably 100 reviews of it online the next day, on the internet alone, so it's not strange for people to celebrate naughty material today but at the time these were considered beyond the pale.
I suffered for it, there were protests, there were attempts to get me fired. There were constant battles with my own editors over whether the column would survive or not, so it was not a popular thing to do at the time. I mean, Janet Maslin at the New York Times was writing about these same films as the new pornography, she considered them actually pornographic, so there were calls for certain films, like I Spit on Your Grave for example, to be banned! Although we didn't have the video nasty type of censorship that you had in the UK. What we did have is, you could put enough pressure on a certain title that the distributor would get cold feet and withdraw it. That happened to Silent Night Deadly Night. It happened to I Spit on Your Grave, Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer. It happened to quite a few films, where you really weren't able to see them because they just got withdrawn because it was too much heat, too much heat on the film.
What do you think is the biggest lesson we should take from the video nasty era?
Well, the first thing is, I can't remember the guy's name who was head of the censorship agency at the time but the first thing I would say is never give one guy that much power! That one guy did more damage just on his own authority than entire agencies. I think the lesson is you're always going to look like a fool when you try to decide what's censorable. One of the favourite pastimes of the fans of these films today is to go through the video nasties list and make fun of the choices and compare this film to that film, or this title to that title. It really didn't make sense what they chose to censor and what they chose not to censor. It just shows that censors always end up looking foolish. They have their day in the sun and then a few years pass.
For example The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I don't think the original 1974 film was seen in the UK until the early 2000s. Now of course, everything is seen in bootleg copies and things like that, but certain films you just couldn't find, and that particular film is now considered Hitchcockian in its complexity, a great achievement in film by serious filmmakers. Spielberg loves it, Scorsese has talked about it, so there's a film that the censors just hate. They piled on that film for years and years and years, yet on the other side, it emerges as something that will probably be preserved by the library of congress.
I would say the remake of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre in whatever year that was, 2003? 2004? That was a turning point because they spent so much. That was a major studio, New Line Cinema spending a whole lot of money. If you spend a certain amount of money then the genre becomes mainstream, instead of an outlaw genre and the motion pictures association of America starts to recognise you as a legitimate art form, so I think that was the beginning of it. Then of course, there were many, many high budget horror films in the last 20 years.
And the peak being?
Perhaps the peak of it would have been two or three years ago when The Shape of Water won the academy award. That's a monster picture winning best picture at the academy award. That's something that would have been inconceivable even ten years ago. I think that's evidence that horror has finally emerged into the mainstream, then you have movies like the remake of IT, which made I forget however many hundreds of millions of dollars, but the important thing about that is it is not that Stephen King got richer, but that when a movie makes that much money, then a lot of smaller movies that never would have been made suddenly do get made. Scripts that have been passed around Hollywood for 20 years and everybody loves the script but they don't want to make a horror film. Suddenly they want to make a horror film, once you see those box office numbers and so success of the big horror title, success of the remake of the sequel to Halloween, all of these big budgets successes cause the smaller movies to be accepted and celebrated, so we really are in a different time now, where some of our top filmmakers, either have a horror background or put horror elements in their films.
In the past you've talked about the political subtext of Roger Corman films being left-wing, except when they involve female issues. S Craig Zahler is an interesting director in that here's somebody who featured an evil abortionist in 'A Brawl in Cellblock 99' and people perceive him as a right-wing filmmaker. What's your take on the relationship between film and politics today, particularly in exploitation films?
There are filmmakers who take their politics very seriously and there are also filmmakers who are trying to be entertainers. Any action film is likely to be perceived as right-wing. There are probably five action films in history that are left-wing, maybe Billy Jack if you call that an action film, where Billy Jack kicks ass for the Indian reservation. That might be a left-wing action film but most films come from the tradition of Dirty Harry or Death Wish, which are law and order films. They are brutal law and order films, even though they have protagonists who are breaking the law. The fact that Zahler wants to make action films with strong male protagonists puts him sort of out of the current fashionable world of filmmakers, but he's definitely in the tradition of that's what you do if you make an action film.
Do you worry about the politics of cancel culture being so prominent today affecting yourself because of controversies in your past?
I've dealt with controversy for so many years that it really doesn't surprise me that it happens. It always surprises me as to which article or which TV show strikes people as horrible. That's been going on in my career since the early 80s, so I'm really not ever surprised by it. I think that people are smarter than we give them credit for, in that cancel culture has a limit and that limit is you kind of have to make sense, what you're saying has to make sense. A lot of these cancel cultures peter out after a few days because there is no substance behind them, there is no reason behind them. One thing I've discovered is that the people who instantly apologise for their mistakes are the most frequently cancelled, ha, ha. They most frequently lose the battle. We lost a person who I think was a really fine senator Al Franken, simply because he gave in on a fairly absurd charge that was made against him. I don't think he really didn't do anything wrong.
Can you talk about your evolution in television, all experiences have given you a rare creative space to do the same show three times and extend your passion
What's that conversation like between yourself and Shudder? Was there initially any hesitation going from TV to a streaming service?
They came to me and said "Do you want to do a show?" and I said, "Yes I do", but many people have come to me over the years and said do you want to do a show, then we would have one meeting and I'd never hear from them again. But these guys persisted and so they came back and they said, "Well, what can we do?" and I said, "Well, if I'm going to do the same show we better do something big and so I said, "Let's do an all-weekend marathon". I think originally it was going to be fifty-four hours, we were going to do a fifty-four hour marathon on labour day weekend and we planned that, then they didn't have as much money as they thought they had and it was going to be impossible to do that. They had a very, very, very, small amount of money and I said to the producers, "How much of our fifty-four marathon can we do with this amount of money?" and they said, "I don't know three or four movies. I said, "Well, if we do three or four movies, it's just like me walking on as a guest and nobody is going to remember that, so I said, "We better just wait until there's a better opportunity". They called me the next day and they said, "the crew wants this to happen so bad that they'll work for free". I said, "Oh, my god. Really? Well, then I have to write it now".
We didn't do the fifty four-hours, we did twenty-four; I said, "This has to be something big or we can't do it", so we took the little pittance of money we had, we did twenty-four hours, thirteen movies and we positioned it as the last drive-in. It was me coming back for one last hurrah and that's what we thought it was going to be, sort of a farewell to television. Then within the five minutes of the first series everything crashed. The servers crashed and everything! Everyone was telling me that this was a good thing and I'm saying, "This is not a good thing, we worked truly hard on this show and nobody can see it", they were like, "No, no, this is amazing!". Fortunately, they put it up for streaming the next day, so people could see it, but that was the start of it. There was a huge appetite for a hosted film show and so even though we were using this old format from the 90s, there was a great appetite for it and so we continued to do marathons. Now we're in our second full season of double features and it's taken on a life of its own. I don't know how much longer I'll be doing it but that's sort of how it happened.
Has the process changed for curating a marathon with season two of 'The Last Drive-In?
We try to do to a mix of cult films, classic horror and recent horror. We always have to have a lot of 80's because people just love the 80s, for reasons that I don't entirely follow but the 80's are big right now. There's some foreign titles, although we have had a bit of push back with subtitles. People in the horror audience don't react well to subtitles; however, we do show films with subtitles. We try to pair them up in ways that, you know, if one movie is zany then we put that with the very dense Intellectual William Peter Blatty film, or whatever we're showing that week, then when guests are appropriate we try to pair it with guests. We don't have a big budget but we like to have guests.
I have to do a lot more homework these days than I did back in the 80's and 90s because there's so much information on these films. Sometimes there are entire academic thesis's written about exploitation films. You can't even read everything that's been written about Dario Argento. There are too many professors who specialise in Dario Argento, which is strange to me actually because they love Dario Argento, they don't so much love Lucio Fulci and some of the others who appear to be more prolific, however be that as it may, I have to be up to speed on. When I first showed some of these films we didn't know who the director was. We would have to call people and say, "Do you know who this guy is? He's Iranian. Where did he go? Is he still in the United States? Do you have any background on these actors?", which of course was pre-re internet, so you weren't able to look it up on IMDB. Today there's almost too much information, there's hundreds and thousands of pages of information, that it becomes the opposite problem and you have to make sure you know everything that you're talking about.
Do you feel that your philosophy about film has changed or evolved over time?
Not really because I was always a popular film critic. I don't like films that are too intellectual. I don't like films that are for example, a lot of young filmmakers, they want to make a homage film to the 80s, I would much rather they find some new source of fear and make an original horror film then these sort of retro backward-looking films. I also think horror comedies are kind of cop out, they'll frequently make a horror-comedy, so that they don't have to actually create horror. It’s very hard to scare people, it's not so hard to make fun of yourself pretending to scare people, ha, ha.
Season Two of The Last Drive-in is available on Shudder now
Interview by Luke "Menace" Bailey