Saturday, March 3, 2018

Movies You Never Knew Existed

This is my entry in the Free For All Blogathon, hosted by Cinemaven's Essays from the Couch

The title of this entry is actually "Movies You Never Knew Existed (And May Wish You STILL Never Knew Existed").  So be forewarned.  Read beyond this point at your own risk...

Drive-in movies were an entity of their own back in the day.  Many of the movies were made on a budget that would barely get an hour's  worth of production time on any of today's multi-special effects extravaganzas.  No big names in these events, although some actors and directors did go on to greater things.  (Jack Nicholson got his start in Roger Corman made drive-in fare.)

For the most part, however, the production values were limited and substandard.  The goal was just to get out a film that might attract an audience, albeit the kind of audience that went in for such cheapjack fare in the first place.  Had I been of age at the time, these would have been the kinds of movies I would have been attending.  It takes a different kind of person to see the entertainment value of  a movie that has an actor wearing a carpet trying to pass himself off as a monster, after all.

Joe Bob Briggs, a movie reviewer who specialized in drive-in fare, was the inspiration for me to attend some movies back in the early 80's.  Briggs, who was a character created by Dallas Times Herald reporter John Bloom, had a regular feature every Friday in the paper in which he reviewed what was currently playing at the local drive-ins.  (An early incarnation of The Midnite Drive-In was an attempt to pay homage to JBB, and the title of this blog was influenced by that.)  I highly recommend seeking out two books that reprinted JBB's reviews; Joe Bob Goes to the Drive-In and Joe Bob Goes Back to the Drive-In.

Unfortunately since the re-inauguration of this blog I have been a little derelict in reviewing drive-in fare, so I am glad for an opportunity to rectify that neglect at least once more.

This Is Not A Test (1962):

In the 50's and into the early 60's, fears of nuclear war abounded.  It seems extremely prescient that this movie came out in 1962, probably about the same time that the Cuban Missile Crisis was occurring.  The movie is essentially a low-budget variation of Hitchcock's Lifeboat, in which a handful of people deal with an extraordinarily tense situation and try to survive.

The movie begins with a police officer, Sheriff Dan Colter (Seamon Glass), given orders to blockade a road.  No reason is initially given, but Colter does his job.  Over the course of the first 15 minutes of the movie he manages to stop about ½ dozen vehicles, making them all pull over, but he has no information to give them.

The group includes a truck driver and his passenger (a hitchhiker he picked up as it turns out),  a husband and his wife, who seem to be having marital problems of their own, an old man an his granddaughter in a pickup carrying chickens, and the ubiquitous hipster and his alcoholic girlfriend, who have just hit the big time on a gambling venture. 

Initially, no one knows why they have been stopped, but eventually the truck driver's passenger turns out to be a guy wanted for murder.   After the revelation, and the escape of the passenger, the rest of the crowd assumes that the roadblock was to try and capture the criminal and they think they should be free to go.  But Colter insists that they all stay until he is given orders to the contrary.

Then the police radio comes alive with the true situation.  Nuclear bombs are on the way, and Colter's mission is  revealed to be to prevent the chaos of a mass exodus.  He comes up with the brilliant idea of converting the truck driver's truck into a bomb shelter.  (Yeah, that'll work, but this is the 50's so people didn't know better, at least the people who were the average citizen who believed what their government told them)

The crowd, under the orders of Colter, begin to unload the truck.  If you are paying attention, the truck bears the name of the company as "Discount World" (along the same lines, I guess as Dollar General, Dollar Tree, and some other discount stores).  But the truck has some entirely incongruous items on it.  It is a mishmash of things, but it has caviar and mink coats in it..."discounted" mink coats???

Several interactions occur between the characters.  The wife ends up hooking up with the truck driver, the granddaughter wanders off and encounters the escaped prisoner, and everyone tries to argue with the single-minded sheriff.  Ultimately they, for the most part, end up locked in the truck.  And the bombs are on their way.

This movie is far better in it's playing than it sounds.  Melodramatic in its own way, you can still enjoy it as a representation of how people viewed nuclear attacks in the 50's and how the average person might react to the impending doom.  Be prepared for a not so happy ending, however.    The radio broadcast on the police scanner is telling the truth.


Last Woman on Earth (1960):

A cheapjack drive-in fare that has virtually nothing going for it, Last Woman on Earth was directed by famed low budget director Roger Corman.  Originally released as a double feature with the more well-known classic Little Shop of Horrors, it is the story of three people, a man, Harold Gern (Anthony Carbone) and his wife, Evelyn (Betsy Jones Moreland) and Gern's attorney Martin (Edward Wain), who through some freak of nature manage to become the only three survivors of an event that sucks the oxygen completely off the face of the Earth for a brief period, thus killing every living creature that breathes.

The scriptwriter for this gem of a movie was Robert Towne.  Yes, the same Robert Towne who also scripted, among others, Chinatown and it's sequel, The Two Jakes, The Last Detail, and was also an uncredited scriptwriter on The Godfather, The Parallax View and a host of others.  This was his first outing as a script doctor, so he may be given a little slack, especially since it was for Corman, whose output never has been all that in quality.  (I'm speaking as a movie critic on that viewpoint, even though I really like much of Corman's stuff as a director and a producer... He did "discover" several big names in Hollywood director's circles after all, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian DePalma, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard and Martin Scorcese to name a few).  Robert Towne was also in the movie as an actor.  He was the one credited as Edward Wain.

The movie begins with Harold and Evelyn in Puerto Rico at a cock fight.  Early on we are given the impression that Harold is a rather low individual who only cares for money.  He treats his wife rather shabbily because he is a self-centered cad, money being his only true love.  Martin shows up trying to get his client to pay attention to the realities of life as Harold is once again being sued by the government for shady business practices.

Harold of course blows it off but invites his attorney to go with him and Evelyn out on his yacht the next day.  They decide to go scuba diving and this is what saves their asses.  Something, it is never really identified, happens on the surface and all the oxygen is completely sucked out of the atmosphere.  When they surface they find they can't breathe.  Their boat crewman is dead.  Having to use the rowboat to row ashore and the remainder of the oxygen in their air tanks to breathe, since there is no oxygen in the air to help them fire the engines of the boat or to allow them to breathe normally, they decide to cut through the jungle.  And here they finally find that they can breathe because, after all, plants live on carbon dioxide and exude oxygen.  But the however brief lack of oxygen has asphyxiated every living thing on land that survived on oxygen, both men and animals.

(A side note at this point:  If plants survive on carbon dioxide and everything above the water is now dead that exhales carbon dioxide, why aren't all the plants dying?  If you asked yourself that question, you may not be drive-in movie fanatic material, because logic is the farthest thing from the minds of drive-in movie writers.)

Harold being Harold immediately attempts to take charge of the situation and both Martin and Evelyn initially concede to his direction.  They move to the far side of the island, coincidentally a friend of Harold's house (who just happens to have been residing on the island...convenient isn't it?).  They have stockpiles of food and, since the fish weren't killed off in the event (although this brings up another question, since fish breathe oxygen maybe it wasn't just the oxygen tanks that saved the trio, maybe it was being underwater?)
 Things develop as would be expected in this situation.  A love triangle with the jealous, possessive Harold trying to hold on to his wife and Martin, just by treating her as she deserves to be treated, rather than as a possession, begins to develop a relationship that is more than just friends.  It ultimately comes down to Martin being exiled by Harold to the other side f the island.  But Martin has an ace up his sleeve, Evelyn having decided to leave Harold to go with Martin.  Of course, Harold isn't going to let this happen without a fight, which is just exactly what happens.  In the end we are left with not three but only two people left on the face of the Earth.   Which two?  The movie is only about an hour long, go watch it for yourself.  :-)

Panic in the Year Zero! (1962):

If the title of this blog entry is not completely true, this is the one of which you will most likely have heard.  It was on TCM not long ago in a spotlight on survival movies segment.  It was directed by and starred Ray Milland as a typical family man with his wife and two children trying to cope with what appears to be the end of the world.  It was a product of it's time, to be sure.  For instance, the idea that one could survive a nuclear blast if they weren't in the immediate vicinity of ground zero is a hinge point for believing the events of the movie could occur as shown.

Harry Baldwin (Ray Milland), his wife Ann (Jean Hagen), his son Rick (Frankie Avalon) and daughter Karen Mary Mitchel) leave early in the morning for a family outing. The situation turns dire pretty damn quick as the sky lights up and explosions are heard.  It turns out that someone has bombed L.A.  Ann tries to get Harry to drive back to L.A. to check on her mother. and he reluctantly gives in at the moment.  But traffic going the other way becomes a hazard as drtoves of people are trying to escape the dangers of L.A. and drive out of town.

Harry insists that they need to continue on the way to their original destination,. becoming the pragmatic 50's father figure, insisting that the survival of his family comes first.  Initially he tries to do the right thing, paying for a huge supply of groceries with cash, but when he tries to get guns and supplies from the hardware store, he comes up short of cash, (and an owner, Ed Johnson (Richard Garland)  who, knowing of the situation, refuses to sell the guns because of restrictions established by the government of a waiting period before the release of the arms.)  Harry becomes a bit more than pragmatic, punching out the owner (but leaving the remaining cash and his wallet full of credit cards to pay for it, so he's not entirely a looter.)

Another drastic incident occurs when he tries to buy a supply of gas.  By now he doesn't have cash left, definitely not enough to pay the extortionist prices that the gas station attendant tries to charge him ($3.00 a gallon for what was only about 34 cents a gallon at normal times.  Gee, sounds a bit familiar doesn't it?  Remember the price spikes after Hurricane Katrina hit?  Or the oil well explosion off the Gulf of Mexico?)

Harry and his family set up house in a cave, after abandoning their trailer (which is later found and commandeered by the same hardware store owner they "looted" earlier).  Harry and family have to run obstacles to get to their destination, however, which include having to avoid a trio of hipster hoodlums (played by Richard Bakalyan, Rex Holman and Neil Burstyn.  Burstyn, BTW, was married to his more well known wife, Ellen Burstyn, at the time and Bakalyan, whom some people, including myself, could be mistaken for Roger Corman stalwart actor Dick Miller, played similar hoodlums over the years.)

When Harry meets up with Johnson again, he initially brushes him off, but Ann insists on trying to reconnect with society, so Harry ends up trying to go to the Abandoned trailer, but he finds Johnson and his wife dead.  Obviously they had been murdered, and Harry and Rick end up checking an abandoned farmhouse, where it turns out our three hipster hoodlums have holed up.  They have also taken the farmer's daughter, Marilyn (Joan Freeman), hostage as a sex slave.

Harry and Rick exact a little survivalist justice on the hoodlums and take Marilyn back with them to camp.  Of course the ubiquitous love interest between Rick and Marilyn has to be addressed, and eventually Rick and Marilyn are together when the third hoodlum shows up to try to get his revenge on the death of his partners.

What happens during the final reel is typical of the kind of endings such movies had in the 50's and 60's.  Watching this one, I felt alternately sympathetic with Harry and at times a little exasperated with him as his wife is exasperated with him at many times during the film).

Thank your favorite ultimate supreme being that the nuclear war that was feared in the late 50's early 60's never really occurred, and drive home safe, folks.



  1. I'm feeling rather smug because I have seen "Panic in Year Zero", but the other two are new to me.

    Like you said, scriptwriters were really milking the threat of nuclear war, weren't they? I wonder, given our current geopolitical climate, if movies will again start to reflect this fear?

    Great choice for the blogathon!

    1. Unfortunately the death of the drive-in and the low rent movie houses that supplied films for them are a problem for really decent schlock like that of yesteryear. I imagine if I search my vast catalog I could find a couple of "the ice age is coming" types that probably came out to exploit what was the scientific mumbo-jumbo of the day. Definitely can find some that tout a Zero Population Growth (ZPG) theme. Thanks for reading.

  2. I did a similar post and there are so many movies out there and not enough time to see (WHY DO WE WORK SO MUCH??)

    1. I don't know about you but for me, I do it because without it I'd be bored out of my skull. Never got the HD box so I have no TV, I never got married so I have no family and one way conversations with my cat can only go so far. This keeps my mind active.

  3. These films sound intriguing! As I have no cinematic prejudice - or try not to have - I'll ad them to my watchlist, in special This is Not a Test.
    Thanks for the comment!

    1. There are more than a few cheap drive-in movies that have as much merit as any oscar winners, at least in terms of pure entertainment. Hope you like This is Not a Test. Thanks for reading.


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